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.

 

“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]

Back from “The Real World”

Central New York has the same joke as Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We have two seasons: winter and bad sledding.”

It’s not true. Spring and summer are magical where I went to college, and that’s good because it helps you overlook the jolt you feel when the sleet arrives full force after Labor Day. I arrived back on campus in late June, relieved to be finished with the complexities of life in the city, and ready to tackle summer school. My roommate, Julie, wouldn’t be at our apartment until September, so for the first time in my life, I was living alone.

If you’d known me as a freshman or sophomore, and we happened to meet on campus that summer, you would have been able to see I was no longer the shallow coed who flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend. Mostly because I would have told you so. And for anyone who remembered my short-lived Power-to-the-People phase, I would not have screamed in your ear about Nixon’s war machine either.

I may, however, have been a little too full of unsolicited advice when it came to what I’d learned over the last year in New York City, or — as I called it — The Real World. Walking to class or in the grocery store, I found lots of people who knew me, and I never seemed to be at a loss for words. I noticed no one ever said, “Wow! Fascinating! Why don’t we go for coffee later and you can tell me more about how you’ve conquered the universe?”

Eventually, I came to recognize the bored looks on people’s faces and figured I had summer session to get my feet wet in a new style of shutting the hell up.

My apartment was a fraction of what had been an enormous house at the turn of the twentieth century, probably full of children and the small staff needed to run a proper home. It stood at the top of a hill on Prospect Terrace, a name just full of all the gilded-age optimism rich people had. This neighborhood was once full of business owners or the town’s best doctors and lawyers. The slate roof had long ago been replaced with something cheap, and now the paint was peeling, and the evergreens hugging the front porch were rangy and overgrown.

By the time I moved in the summer of 1971, the house was a conglomeration of apartments and single rooms for rent, with suspect wiring and kitchen cabinets bought at auction. I didn’t care if the corners were dingy. I didn’t care that it seemed I was the only one living in this three-story mansion, except in the middle of the night when the wind blew and the house groaned.

The first week went off without a hitch. How many times in my life have I said that? I went to my new classes, bought the books, and settled in. Nothing to it. I spent early mornings sitting on the steps off the back porch, drinking instant coffee in a handmade mug with a broken-off handle. I kept the music — usually Laura Nyro — turned up as loud as I wanted. I looked forward to afternoons hunched over my typewriter, making sense of convergent validity for my Child Psych paper, and I wondered why I hadn’t done it this way from the beginning.

After my first tests, I called my parents with the news. “I got an A on both of them!”

I’m pretty sure they misheard me and thought I’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature because their reaction was way over the top. The year I’d spent as a college dropout was tough on them. They would be overly thrilled at every increment until the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out two years later and I marched into the field house in my cap and gown.

I started to wilt in Week 3 of this new life. How many times have I said that in my life? It was late afternoon, and I was reading the paper on the back porch. I’d gotten used to the silence from being the only tenant in a house with 20 rooms. But then I started thinking how nice it would be to share these summer nights with someone. And by “someone,” of course, I meant a man.

An hour later, I heard something come up the winding gravel driveway. A pickup truck rumbled into view and cautiously made the right turn behind the house, toward the bank of garages that had once been a carriage house. Evan Callahan turned off the engine and jumped out.

“Greetings!” He said the word as he moved his entire forearm in a semi-circle.

He would be living here, too, in an apartment on the other side of the house from mine. His was a small studio he was going to share with a roommate, who wouldn’t be in town until September either. So now there were two of us, and I liked the idea. With creaking walls on windy nights, it would be nice to know I wasn’t alone. And now if I found mice in my kitchen, I’d have someone to kill them for me. The Real World hadn’t taught me anything about rodents.

I said, “I made some stew. Are you hungry?”

Love in the Revolution

What the student strike had in worthy causes — the escalation of the war and the killings at Kent State — it sometimes lacked in organization. With no cell phones and no social media, trying to mobilize people to their respective corners was a challenge. Each speech or every time 50 people walked in one direction on campus took on guerrilla importance.

I reported to my parents that I was learning more from teach-ins and caucuses than I’d ever learned in classrooms. This no doubt pleased them abundantly. They humored me, thinking it was a phase. I dug in harder, adding a new –ism to my vocabulary every few hours. Imperialism, paternalism, asceticism. You get the idea. I don’t think I yet knew the word “dilettante,” which might have slowed my roll a bit.

On the second day of the strike, tensions were high. More speeches. Much more chanting. Fewer peace signs, more angry fists in the air. I was taking a shortcut through the Old Main building and passed by the auditorium just as a loud eruption of applause came through the doors. I should probably know about this, I thought, not having any idea what this was.

Behind the podium was one of the strike leaders. I recognized him by his long curly hair, which I’d admired the day before. Whoever he was, he was igniting this crowd. His wire-rimmed glasses rested on his prominent nose as he spoke without notes. I thought he was brilliant, and — looking back — he may have been. One thing was clear. I’d never passed him in the hallway of a fraternity party.

During one of the audience’s loud chants and extended cheers, I asked the person next to me if she knew his name.

She said “Paul Goldberg” as if maybe I’d spent the semester in a cave.

A couple of days later, Cortland — knowing it had lost control of all the students now yelling, “Strike! Strike! Strike!”  — announced it would close early for the semester. And, in triumph, everyone began making arrangements to leave campus and travel to other places and be radical and revolutionary in locales that mattered more.

I set out to meet Paul Goldberg before he left town.

I was walking downtown when I spotted him a block away. If that sounds one single bit coincidental, it was not. I believe the latter-day word for what I did is classified as stalking, about which there are now laws in place.

He was alone. I began to follow him. I was rehearsing opening lines when he turned onto a residential street. It looked like the part of town Paul Goldberg would live in. A little seedy, but he might call it “being with the people,” or any number of phrases I thought he might say. Then suddenly he took another turn. I realized he was walking to the door of his apartment.

He was five steps away from being gone forever.

“Excuse me.”

He turned, and there I was. All at once I could tell this was new territory for Paul Goldberg. My guess is that never in his life had the pretty blonde girl who dated lacrosse players moved in on him quite so aggressively. Or moderately aggressively. Or at all.

“I just wanted to tell you that I was in Old Main when you were giving your speech the other day. And it was the greatest speech I’ve ever heard.”

It wasn’t much but it was all I had. Specifics or critique would have just gotten me in trouble. I went with the broad stroke.

He was wide-eyed.

“Thanks.”

“Well, that’s it really.” I paused a bit but his mouth was still slightly open, and he didn’t look like he was going to say anything more.

“So, uh, have a good day,” I said as I turned and started back toward Main Street.

With every step I was silently saying, Please Please Please Please. Please, Paul Goldberg, this is our last chance to be together until the end of time. Say something.

“Wait a minute!”

Ah.

[Up next Thursday: The Phone Call That Didn’t Go Well]

General Hospital, Baking Pies, and Why I Never Made Dean’s List

My list of college accomplishments was short. I was guilty of falling in and out of love hard and spending too much time in front of my mirror. I didn’t have a clue how to balance a check book or to begin writing a term paper any sooner than the night before it was due. All true.

But thanks to my cousin, Kathy, I learned to bake a pie while I was in college. I’m putting that down as my #1 achievement, sad as that may sound to those of you who made Dean’s List. I’ll own it.

As kids, Kathy and I grew up a few miles from each other on Long Island. We shared family meals and holidays. We spent shimmery afternoons playing hide-and-seek in the apple orchard across from her house. Now, by coincidence, we had both relocated to Cortland. I was a student (at least some of the time), and she was a young wife and mother.

I’ll blame this on her, but it surely could have been my fault: Somehow, we got hooked on General Hospital.  Since I didn’t own a TV, I would stop by her apartment a few afternoons a week to see what was happening in Port Charles. She would put her son down for his nap. After the scintillating dialogue and plot twists had consumed an hour, we’d tiptoe past her sleeping toddler’s room and go to the kitchen.

She would make a pie. I was her helper, doing the easy jobs, like whisking the flour and sugar together or coaxing ice water from cubes. Kathy would use her pastry blender to cut in the shortening. Then her fingers — quick and deliberate — to form tiny pebbles of dough before she would begin drizzling in the water.

Kathy came from a home where my aunt made everything from scratch, even brioche French toast. My mother was most comfortable reaching for an easy fix in the freezer and had a whole comedy routine about it. She called herself “The Swanson family’s best friend.”

Kathy was also the cute one — blonde and perky, and a cheerleader. I was the spindly one who took forever to grow into her stork legs. Then, in our late teens, it all changed. She married young and had a baby. I went off to college. As I was making fraternity parties and football games my full-time endeavor, Kathy was planning casseroles on a budget and researching preschools.

“I think I’m going to break up with Paul,” I might say as we baked on those lazy afternoons. She would already be crimping the dough into the pie pan as I was still going through the merits (or shortcomings) of Paul, or Tim, or Peter. She kept them all straight, a credit to her cousin love.

She talked about toilet training, and I tried to add comments where I could. We told stories about our mothers. We worried General Hospital was turning our brains to mush, but admitted we couldn’t give it up. We’d chat up until the last minute, until her son began calling, “Mama!” from his crib or her husband came through the door after a day of classes.

A few weeks before graduation, I wrote out the recipe. I thought I’d need the exact amounts if I wanted to recreate Kathy’s pies.

IMG_1934

I can see the card has been used often in the years since I left Kathy and left Cortland even though pies aren’t hard to make. Only five ingredients, six if you count the ice water.

But even talented cooks might read the recipe for Kathy’s crust and fall short. Because it’s all in the wrist and the fingers. Best made when you’re laughing, or sharing a childhood secret. And letting a slow, delicious afternoon wash over you. And never forgetting  it.

Why I Prefer the Word “Fib”

In my first semester at college — what I laughingly referred to as the real world — communication with my parents was sparse, as the times demanded. There was only one Sunday afternoon phone call because Long Distance struck fear into my parents’ thrifty hearts. My mother and I wrote letters the rest of the time. Hers have not survived, but because she saved any piece of paper that might possibly shame and embarrass me in future decades, mine have.

And here I’d like to call into service the word fib for what went on in my letters. It’s a fine word. By relocating to a state college 250 miles away from home, somehow I felt I’d moved to a different planet. I was living a life I knew my parents could never understand. So a little fiction was called into action so they wouldn’t worry. It was for their own good.

* * *

By October I was stretching the word fib to its limits. This letter preceded a weekend trip home, fall of freshman year.

My Letter:
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to leave for home on Friday night or if I’ll have to wait until early Saturday. Dr. Tomlinson is telling us tomorrow whether we’ll have class that afternoon.

The Truth:
I hadn’t been to Dr. Tomlinson’s class since the first week of the semester. I had no idea if we had class on Friday. I couldn’t have identified Dr. Tomlinson in a lineup.

* * *

Apparently, in the middle of all my other tall tales, I told them that lots of boys were asking me on dates, but I was putting schoolwork first. They chided me a little, saying that I should go out more and have more fun.

My Letter:

I really think studying is more important than boys right now. Sorry I’m not dating or dancing on tables as much as you think I should. That probably sounds snotty but it wasn’t meant to be.

The Truth:

I’d known a lot of dancing. I’d conquered a few tabletops.

And it was definitely meant to sound snotty.

* * *

Early on, I fell in love with a lacrosse player. He was sort of a legend.

My Letter:
I don’t think it’s fair that you’ve judged Nick without meeting him yet. Lots of boys in college have nicknames. He’s not wild! He’s a good person.

The Truth:
His nickname rhymed with Nick. If you’re doing it in your head, any one of the possibilities will work.

* * *

Finals went on first semester in spite of my prayer for a tornado to touch down on the Old Main building the night before. I didn’t want anyone to get killed, of course. Just enough of a funnel cloud that my professors’ grade books would be destroyed for all time.

My Letter:
I can’t believe how hard I’m working! I studied all day Saturday and most of Sunday. I’ve really turned a corner. If all goes well, I’ll have an A in at least one course!

The Truth:
Dear Parent:
Enclosed you will find a copy of the Low Grade Summary Report sent to your son/daughter. He/She is already aware of his/her standing in these courses and will be instructed to meet with his/her advisor. You may be assured that we are concerned, and we hope that the quality of your student’s work will improve.
Sincerely,
Maxwell O’Donnell
Assistant Dean

[Dear Reader: I’ll be back next Thursday, July 16th. Thanks for being here. Really.]

Freshman Year in College. What could go wrong?

After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?

Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.

Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.

Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom.  I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.

One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.

Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.

Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.

My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.

After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.

“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”

This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.

“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”

And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers.  And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”

Yes, There Were Panty Raids

“I love being in charge of my own life!” I said these words aloud my first week as a college freshman. I’m so grateful the Internet didn’t exist, so I wasn’t able to carve that sentence into the memory of the Universe for all time.

The details of my newfound freedom? My parents paid all my bills and gave me spending money. The Residence Hall Director made sure I was in my room before curfew. The dining hall staff cooked my food and washed my dishes. Old women, who worked at $1.60 an hour, laundered my sheets and towels. But I was in charge of everything else.

It was fall of 1968, and on other campuses the unrest of that tumultuous year had captured students’ attention. The assassinations, the war, Nixon’s election. At Cortland, not yet.

At Cortland, social traditions that had been in place for 50 years were still holding on. You could count on those customs. Somehow, they promised life wasn’t about to take the severe bump you feared it might.

My favorite was the ritual of getting pinned. He brought his entire fraternity to her dorm, and they assembled as close to her window as they could. They chanted the girl’s name until someone in charge said it was okay for her to go outside. The boys dressed in jackets and ties for this, and serenaded the girl with songs like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and other tunes left over from the Herbert Hoover administration. Wearing your boyfriend’s fraternity pin meant that everyone knew you belonged to him.

On Wednesday night of my first week at school, a loud group of boys congregated outside our dorm. I opened the window, and heard, “We want Sue! We want Sue!” I ran to the lounge to tell my roommate, Randi.

“Quick!” I yelled, “Some girl named Sue is getting pinned!” Randi was studying, but she obliged me. One week in, and she was on her way to Dean’s List. I had become an expert on a bygone ritual in its last gasp of life.

We looked down at the growing crowd. I noticed the boys were all in shorts and t-shirts, some in bare feet, not the jackets and ties I loved. And they weren’t singing in harmony.

Randi listened. “They’re not shouting ‘We want Sue.’ They’re shouting, ‘We want silk.’ It’s a panty raid.”

 

panty-raid

 

Soon dorm windows on every floor opened, and bras and panties of all sizes (all white) began floating down, like a weird nylon snowstorm. For the second time in days I was overwhelmed at how exciting college could be. First pinnings, now panties thrown out windows. I wondered what miracle Thursday would uncover.

I wanted to be part of the fun, but I suspected my mother had labeled all my underwear discretely somewhere with permanent marker. I couldn’t chance it.

When it was over, boys walked back to their dorms, some wearing bras on their heads as their rewards. They slapped each other on the back and twirled panties in the air.

I wondered what they did with all the underwear.

I had so much to learn. But I’d get there.