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.

 

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“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.”

 

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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.

 

The Neighborhood Bully, 50 Years Later

The first time I heard “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12, and I knew he was talking to me. With a small crowd around him, Walter  began flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends were already laughing and didn’t need an explanation, but they got one anyway: “I call her that because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big,” he told them as they moved down the street.

My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one big adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short adults). I kept forgetting about my feet. I tripped a lot.

Puberty had not come gunning for Walter the way it had for me. He was athletic and blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs. My humiliation — always close to the surface — didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.

I found no “safe spaces” during those summers. Unless it rained, kids played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids.

At dinner, my parents might say, “So, what did you do today?” but they never wanted to hear the details. There was an unwritten manifesto of all the Massapequa parents I knew: They’d had the foresight to buy a home on bucolic Long Island, a far cry from the mean streets of Manhattan or Queens where they’d come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was up to you. You were supposed to have fun in the summer. It was your only job.

As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression. She was replete with stories about oatmeal. When my grandmother could afford to make some extra in the big pot on top of the stove, she would have my mother take it to the family who lived above them, a trip my mother dreaded. When the woman opened the door, her face would fall and she would sigh. She took it because her kids were hungry, but she couldn’t bring herself to say “Thank you.” Oatmeal was charity and people who worked so hard didn’t take charity.

My mother fought dark feelings most of her life that all our security would be whisked away. Walter meant nothing to her when  — at any moment now — oatmeal might return as a staple.

My father spent most of his childhood in Maine. When his mother died after his third birthday, his father moved away to find work. My father was shuffled among kindly relatives who fed him as long as they could. Theirs was a small enclave of French mill workers who did not speak English. And then when my father was 11, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew and a man who refused to speak to my father in French. New father, new city, new language all in one moment. Walter? Don’t be ridiculous.

My parents listened to me, but their usual response — changing the subject — told me that they couldn’t relate. Their message was loving and practical and always the same, but it infuriated me in its simplicity: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”

A few years ago I was at a funeral back in Massapequa when I saw Walter walk in. He was easy to spot in the crowded room — still handsome, his blonde hair now gray. I’d been privy to what he’d been doing all these years. He has struggled — in a bunch of arenas — maybe the reason he was such a mean kid. He is still not known for kindness in any form. (Sometimes life is hard.)

Watching him, I felt a little vindicated as if someone had been keeping score all this time, and it had just been announced in this room at the funeral home that my totals soared over Walter’s. I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be the winner. And what I was feeling at that moment was a bit of compassion I didn’t see coming. (Be a good person.)

I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. If I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were. But it was clear he just wanted to tell me about his business, his kids who play lacrosse, his new car, and his new wife. And maybe it was during that conversation — as my mind wandered — that I finally completed my parents’ advice from so long ago (Figure it out.) Because I remembered that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people the way Walter did. I didn’t want to end up like him.

And I didn’t.

“I Didn’t Know You Were a Writer.”

At 61, I was unemployed. Sooner or later, my severance package would stop arriving in my checking account, and although I’ve never worried much about money, I began thinking of ways to cut back, something I’ve never been known for. I tried not to surrender to my bent for the dramatic, but once in a while — usually awake in the middle of the night —  I’d see a vision of me in the future, popping open a little can of gourmet cat food, spreading it on some crackers, and calling it a day.

Then I had an idea. Traditionally (for me) this can be a terrifying way of opening a paragraph. I tried out my idea on my neighbor, who kindly wondered why he’d seen me home so much. I told him I’d lost my job and had been applying for new ones, but nothing was happening. Of course I didn’t say it exactly that way. I think I used words like “transitioning” and “turning point.” The phrase “letting you go,” my actual launching pad, was still coming to me regularly in my dreams, the ones where I’d show up at my office and everyone there would have to remind me that they’d already “let me go,” and — ashamed (and, yes, naked of course) — I’d slump back to my car and drive home.

I’d just met this neighbor, so he was a natural tabula rasa candidate. “I’ve decided I’m going to write,” I said, listening to how self-important that sentence sounded wafting through the air.

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know you were a writer.”

If he meant had I ever made a comfortable living as a writer — or even an uncomfortable one — the answer was “no.” If he meant had anyone ever heard of me, nope. I didn’t mention that I’d won third place in my 6th grade short story contest back on Long Island, but it was one of the consequential events I was building my next career on. It’s amazing how reality hardly ever has anything to do with being a writer.

I bought some office supplies I thought writers needed. A stapler. A pencil sharpener, even though I barely ever wrote with a pencil. I was good on Post-It Notes. I kept writing. Nothing much. Nothing good. But I kept writing. And waited for a sign.

My next official act of reinvention was to move the desk in my study to the window. Before, I’d always thought I’d find it distracting, but I’d become such an early riser, I figured I might enjoy seeing the sun come up. Or that watching people in the little park below would give me some material once I’d stopped thinking about my big win in the short story contest in 6th grade.

The park is taken over with dog owners once the sun arrives. By about 6:45, the grounds resemble a golden retriever convention. People in their Under Armor gear talk and nod and smile as the dogs sniff at each other. (This is an unscientific sample, but I’ve learned 90% of the golden retrievers in America are named Bailey.) Mothers, nannies, and toddlers take up the next shift. At dusk, from the same window, I see parents and their children getting in a few minutes on the playground equipment before dinner.

Sometimes when nothing is coming to me, I walk out my back door and sit at the playground. I jot down what I hear or see in the notebook I carry everywhere. One day a boy, about ten, sat down next to me on the bench. His dad was off to the side, watching expectantly. I’d seen him nod in my direction and say quietly to his son, “Go ahead.” The boy cleared his throat a little and held out a stack of copy paper, mercilessly stapled down one side. The cover read ROBOTS in bold lettering, with an ambitious illustration.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m a writer. I have this book for sale. It costs $1 if you want to buy it. But just to warn you, it might be scary in some parts for your kids.” I loved that he didn’t have a clue that my kids are now in their thirties. I loved his confidence, even when his voice faltered a little.

I took the book in my hands and thumbed through. I complimented him on his wording and his drawing. I said, “Stay right here,” and I went back to my house and got a dollar. He showed me where the scary parts were so I’d be prepared.

“Is it hard to be a writer?” I asked.

“Not one bit,” he said. And he took off for the swings.

 

“We’re letting you go.”

I knew my days were numbered as soon as the new org chart came out. It was complicated and confusing, with squiggles and two-sided arrows. It was like a corporate Escher print, and I couldn’t — for the life of me — figure out where I belonged anymore in the company that had been my employer for six years.

“We’re letting you go.”

I love this phrase, don’t you? It made me seem like some sad, caged bird, who was now free to explore the world, thanks to the kindness of the Board of Directors. At least that’s how I tried to hear it.

My laptop was gone by the time my boss and I walked back to my desk. According to company policy, he was supposed to watch me pack up and escort me from the building.

“Really, you don’t have to stand here,” I said, trying to get him off the hook. I felt sorry for him having to bounce me out. “I’ll come by your office when I’m done,” I told him. Then as he walked up the hall, I reached for an economy 12-pack of Post-it Notes and threw it in my purse. It’s been five years since I was fired, and I’m mentioning it here since I’m sure the Statute of Limitations has kicked in. Apparently my new life hasn’t called for Post-it Notes the way I thought it would. I still have 11¾ packs.

By 7:45 I’d signed a letter giving me a generous severance and making me promise not to sue them for firing a person so old she had actually watched the Moon Landing on live TV and remembered Thin Elvis.

By 7:55 my boss and I were standing awkwardly in the parking lot, as he sweetly lifted cartons into my car: all of my framed photos, potted English ivy, my extra pair of winter boots in case it snowed while I was at work, and a pencil holder my son made in 3rd grade.

He said, “You’ll be just fine.” He looked sad. I thought about confessing about the Post-it Notes.

By noon I was almost buoyant. “It was for the best!” “Thank God!” “No more pressure!” “A blessing in disguise!” All me.

I did the usual things a person does after getting fired: I called everyone else who’d also been fired so we could bad mouth the company that didn’t realize how phenomenal we were. I considered careers that seemed like they’d be much more fun than the one I’d been tethered to —Personal chef? Yoga instructor? Restaurant critic? Then I drank a lot of wine and took a nap.

When it was time to get out there and find my next job, I sent out cover letters only to find the silence they received unsettling. So I did what I do in times of uncertainty. I took to the Internet to find 16 diametrically opposed opinions about what I should do next. I found some job counseling companies, loaded with experts who were dying to help.

I gave my credit card number to one of the companies with the words “PLUS” or “PRO” in its title, and three days later, my new résumé was delivered. Was I was concerned I didn’t recognize myself on paper anymore? Yes and no. It was unsettling to read all the things I had expertise in that I really didn’t. But I still thought as long as I could get an interview, I’d shine. Thanks to the fiction team now selling my wares, it would take the CIA to uncover how old I was until I arrived at their doorstep. Then my charm would take over.

I landed three interviews within the next week.

It takes a lot of time to get sparkling for an interview when you’re 61 — this much I learned. You have to project a certain maturity and know-how without letting them find out you’re wearing Easy Spirit pumps. You have to invest in Spanx. You can’t eat a poppy seed bagel for breakfast. It’s a long list.

For my first interview in the marketing department of a local hospital, I had to enter by walking right past the cubicles of the people I’d be working with. As I opened the door, everyone in the room popped their heads up, like those adorable little prairie dogs you see at the zoo. Immediately I watched their shoulders all slump in one communal exhale (sort of a silent “Oh, pulease”).

No, really, I wanted to say, I’m lots of fun! I know who Taylor Swift is! You’ll like me! I smiled and entered their boss’s office where his 15-minute interview was just over the line of perfunctory. It wasn’t worth the ten minutes it took me to get myself wedged into my Spanx.

The next two interviews weren’t any better. At the second one, the person in charge was — just a guess here — nineteen. At the third, I was interviewed by a panel of women my age, which might have held more promise if they hadn’t been Nuns at a women’s Catholic college and the only thing our lives had in common was that we were all wearing black.

I got three responses all in polite, templated email. All three ended with, “Best of luck in your job search.”

I sat at my computer, reading, and realized something I had glossed over before.

The part about being 61.

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.

 

Older, Wiser, Hipper

In my family it is known as the “Jongebloed Hip.” Amazingly, it is even less glamorous than its name. The Jongebloed Hip caused my grandfather and his twin brother to lilt to the left for their last thirty years. It caused my mother to concede that a hip replacement was on her horizon (but only after her exasperated doctor convinced her he was pretty sure her bones were well on their way to becoming dust).

I’m not sure what it means for me. Only that sometimes my hip speaks to me as I’m getting up from a seated position.

I’ve always been a person who didn’t give in to every ache and pain. These good intentions sometimes get waylaid in your 60s. That’s just the way it is. I’ve also been a person who took pride in aging gracefully. That’s not to say I don’t spend a small fortune on highlights for my hair or the best make-up I can find. We live in an age when you can still be pretty at 65, even if you need extra time getting up from a seated position.

I have aging-gracefully role models in this endeavor. Lots of women who got on with the work of getting older without wringing their hands or flying to a plastic surgeon for answers. I was only 21 when I met the first of these. She was 93. I was in college, and Mrs. Clark lived in one of the town’s last magnificent mansions still owned by its original family.

She hired me for one afternoon a week so she could “go to town” and have lunch with friends. Her husband’s nurse drove her to and from the restaurant, so she needed extra help with Mr. Clark, who was 97. He was bedridden by then but had been known to try to get out of bed to sneak a cigarette.

The first time I met Mrs. Clark, I arrived nervous and a little early. I was ushered into the vestibule (the only word for it) by her uniformed maid. We made small talk, our voices echoing.

Mrs. Clark began her slow descent down the curved mahogany staircase. Radiant, she smiled at me as I waited below.

“I’ll be with you in a bit, my dear,” she called down. “As you can see, I move with all the grace of a lame camel.”

Although she moved slowly, none of the rest of it was true. Mrs. Clark was still shining, still beautiful in her 90s. I picture our meeting now, the year when I was just getting to that full bloom of womanhood, when somehow I just figured I’d never get old.

I wonder when her hip gave her the first twinge. I wonder if she was surprised — like me — that she wasn’t going to stay young forever.

For now, I’ll keep her in mind every time I feel my hip say, “Not so fast.” I’ll keep leading with my better foot, taking my time. I’ll remember to smile from the inside, to be as pretty as I can be. And believe that if I take extra care in those first few steps, everything will even out. Just like Mrs. Clark did.

 

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.”