Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Visitng with Helen

We were connected from our very first meeting.

There are those kinds of people in our worlds... the ones with whom we feel an instant kinship, a soul-mating that tells us we've been connected forever.

Helen fit that description perfectly. She was principal at Marlton Middle School when I was hired as Public Information Officer for the Evesham Twp. School District and I, having heard of her no-nonsense approach to administration, felt more than a little trepidation the first time I stuck my head in her office doorway and asked for a minute of her time.

We've been sharing those "minutes" ever since, and when weeks or months go by without a chance to visit, I feel an emptiness that is like a part of me is missing.

Luckily, I caught her on Facebook last week and immediately snagged the chance to chat for a few exchanges. We set up a date for lunch at her house and I hoped nothing would get in the way of keeping the appointment.

When she was healthier, we met often, she and I and another soulmate, Carol. We solved the problems of the world, discussed politics heatedly (all three of us are committed, proud liberals), talked about religion and its place in our lives today (Helen was a nun for 13 years and her viewpoint on spirituality is unique and simply beautiful) and anything and everything that came to mind. Carol and I liked to regale her with funny stories about our grandchildren and she countered with tales of her many nieces, nephews and cousins. There was never a topic that could not be thoroughly aired.

Our lunch today was no different. Because Carol couldn't make it, I had the high privilege of being the only guest at her table. We started talking, taking a break for me to pick up lunch, from about 12:30 to 3:30, three hours that passed in the blink of an eye. There was much more to be said but Helen was tiring and I had a long drive home before dark.

Friends like Helen are precious. She has always been in my life even if I might not have known it at the time. In a previous existence, maybe, but surely always there. I love her compassion, her kindness, the way she relates to the world and people in it. I'm grateful she's still around and willing to share time with me whenever possible. I'm already looking forward to our next "lunch."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The King's Speech

The summer of my sixteenth year was very bad in many ways.

My stepfather's friend offered me a job as a desk clerk in an old family hotel in Atlantic City, on Florida Avenue where now an empty lot stands. I jumped at the chance to work so close to the beach until my first day on the job, when the boss's wife explained my duties, one of which consisted of answering the switchboard and directing calls.

Sounds simple enough, no? It should be, except I had to say, "Good morning, Roma Hotel," and I stuttered too badly to get out the "R." After several "Ruh, ruh, ruhs," I usually managed to force it out, but was humiliated and angry at myself every time.

Then, I employed a trick many stammerers use. I found that, if I switched the name of the hotel around, I could push out both words without stumbling on the "R." Even though the management wasn't thrilled with my solution, no one seriously rebuked me for answering the switchboard with "Good morning, Hotel Roma."

Preparing to see the Colin Firth movie, The King's Speech, I read a lot about King George VI and his speech problems. I learned how different stammers can be, and how each afflicted individual finds ways to cope, but never really "kicks" the stammer. Now, as a adult, I find myself struggling occasionally when I'm trying to speak too fast, so I simply force myself to slow down and do just fine.

Sitting in the theater on Saturday night, I felt such sadness for the king. Not just because he stuttered so badly but because, in him I recognized myself... the frightened child who bore insults and ridicule from relatives who knew very well what they were doing but chose to follow their penchants for being mean-spirited.

In many interviews, Firth points out the heroism displayed by this king, who doggedly pushed on, taking on the unwanted burden of monarchy, fearing every word he had to utter. George VI was saved by a speech coach who was far less a clinician than he was a friend. In the end, it was simply friendship that gave George VI the extra courage he needed to face his demons and give his empire the wartime leadership for which it turned to him.

I will see this film again and again. To look at Colin Firth for two hours, certainly. But more importantly, with this Firth film at least, to relish the victory George VI achieves. I felt such pride for the way Firth portrayed this lovely man, since he brought to life the tender, kind and caring person "Bertie" really was. Friendship, dogged persistence and the love of a friend are the three main themes of this movie. Sure hope you get to see it!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An unusual tradition

I'm getting an early start with Christmas cards this year. They are bought, labels are printed and the boxes neatly stacked, ready to be addressed.

Every other Christmas, however, there is one very special card that must be prepared. A very simple message, usually only one sentence, is pondered for days and then carefully written in the tiny space left on the 8 3/4x3 3/4 card. It's in remarkably good condition, considering its history, but its time is finite, since available white space is shrinking with each year.

Back in 1982, when my partner at the newspaper and I first sent the card, we got a laugh out of it because it suggested the recipient save it and then send it back to us the following year. Who could have known that 2010 will mark the 29th year this bright red card with a silly cartoon on the front has been sent back to my dear friend, Mike DeNardo. Mike will store it somewhere and next year, it will make its 30th journey to help brighten my Christmas holiday.

Mike was just a kid in 1982. He'd graduated from high school in 1979 and gone on to Temple University where he studied broadcasting and put in some free hours helping us at The Journal, doing some writing about local high school sports. I still have a photo of our staff from that year, taken at Christmas when we gathered for a party in the beautiful old office on the White Horse Pike in Berlin.

I stayed with the paper until 1994 and Mike had long been gone to bigger and better things... a stellar career with KYW Newsradio, where he reports to this day. I still smile when I hear his "broadcasting" voice on my car radio.

But no matter where each of us went through the years, that little Christmas card made its faithful journey from me to Mike and then Mike to me, carrying a little message just to keep the connection open, to keep us mindful of our friendship.

In 1985, Mike wrote "Is this a tradition yet?" I responded in 1986, "Sure is." "It's cheap, too!" came from Mike in 1987 and in 1990, I wrote "Long live tradition!" In 1991, Mike asked, "Remember when cards used to cost 75 cents?" And the following year, I wrote "Remember when life was simple and fun?" As if only hours had passed since he received my query, he responded in 1993, "Sure do... it was just last Thursday, as I recall. Merry Christmas!" In 1995, noting the passage of time in his own inimitable way, Mike remarked "Hey... where'd all this gray hair come from?! Have a blessed Christmas!" In 1999, noting the timely story of the day, he remarked, "This card is so old that it HAS to be fully Y2K compliant! Merry Christmas!" In 2004, we began to keep track of the number of years the card had changed hands. I wrote, "This card has survived 23 Christmases and so have we!" To which Mike replied, "Christmas wouldn't be the same without it!" I replied, in 2006, "It's the 25th anniversary of this card, my dear. Funny how we're not any older!" "You can't get old if you continue to think young! Happy year 26!" responded Mike, to which, in 2008, I said, "The mind is willing but the body isn't. Hope you are well." Undaunted, Mike responded just last Christmas, "Let the mind and heart lead... the body will follow."

There are only about two and a half inches left of white space on this precious message-carrier, so we'll have to get creative in a few years and find a way to continue the tradition. Certainly it will continue... something as unique as this tradition must find a way to go on.

For now, I have to sit and ponder my message for 2010. This is much more fun than affixing labels to envelopes!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thoughts from a funeral

My wonderful friend, Lesley Gross Fuchs, lost her mother, Sophie, this week. Mrs. Gross was 90 years of age.

I drove to Cherry Hill for the funeral today, in dreary, wet, chilly weather, thinking of Les and her family dealing with what is always a heartbreaking blow.

Both Les and Andy, her brother, gave stirring, lovely, humorous tributes to their mother, as only children of devoted mothers can. Les's husband, Mordecai, known more commonly as Moti, a well-known New York cantor, conducted the service. His sweet tenor voice intoned the psalms in Hebrew, then he read them in English. But it was what happened next that stayed in my mind as I drove home and is still rolling around in there somewhere, niggling away for no seeming reason.

Moti could have been a very successful actor. He knows how to deliver lines in stentorian tones or in the crooning way of soft-spoken orators. Best of all, he knew his wife's mother well and loved her dearly, so the words of his eulogy were personal, moving, sentimental and compassionate.

I listened to the praise of Sophie and all that she meant to her family... her exemplary mothering skills and, then, her son-in-law spoke about tachlit, the Hebrew word that means a sense of purpose, the purpose for which each of us was created. Motherhood, he said, was Mrs. Gross's tachlit, and Lesley and Andy were living testaments to how faithfully their mother had fulfilled her purpose.

I sat in the silent room, half of my mind on Moti's words and half of it searching my own life, asking if I had found my tachlit and either fulfilled it or was on my way to doing so. My answers were unsettling.

Yes, I was a mother, but not of the stripe attributed to Sophie Gross. Yes, I'd worked at a variety of tasks but none of which stamped my indelible mark for future note. Yes, I had made and cherished countless friends whose love I valued, but making friends hardly qualifies as a purpose fulfilled. Where, then, does that leave me? What do I have that stands out as a tachlit achieved?

Obviously, I don't have an answer. Perhaps my "purpose" is still waiting to be discovered and fulfilled. Perhaps something along the way, something unconscious or appearing to be trivial, was a purpose for which I could claim fulfillment.

Regardless, the life of Sophie Gross held up to me the value of doing everything I attempt with a zeal, a dedication or an attempt at making it part of my tachlit. I'd never looked at life that way.

Now, in the shadow of one remarkable woman, I do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Slaying the packrat

I have a terrible time discarding "things" that matter.

There are shoeboxes filled with birthday, anniversary and holiday cards piled high on the top shelf of my closet. The file cabinet in our office contains one whole drawer filled with memorabilia from thirteen years of working in school districts.

I have a terrible time discarding any of these important things.

Oops! Let's be correct... I had a terrible time etc. etc. As of today, I am well on my way toward being cured of this affliction.

Credit Daughter #1. Terri casually mentioned not long ago that she and her sister would not hesitate to unceremoniously chuck the piles of papers and letters, greeting cards and employment records when they were in the throes of unloading my "stuff," either upon my entrance to an assisted living facility or the crematorium of a local funeral home. Why, I thought, should I leave the task to them? They will, after all, have their hands full with the houseful of knick-knacks, family hand-me-downs and other treasures which hold no value or sentimentality for them. Certainly not fair, then, to add reams of paper to that job.

So, today it began. First went the greeting cards. Boxes of them (read, of course, before discarding) were emptied into paper bags destined for the recycling dumpster. I'll admit to holding onto a few bearing little girl signatures, dating back to the babyhood of my girls, which I simply could not assign to the trash. I'll find another place for them and hope my daughters will consider keeping them.

Tonight, I attacked one file cabinet drawer. Throughout my career in school public information, I kept an annual file labeled "Personal." Into it, I placed employment contracts, notes from colleagues, annual evaluations and an occasional citation for one job or another having been done well. That makes thirteen files containing items meaning absolutely nothing to anyone but me. So, I callously visited each folder, removed its contents and began a new recycling basket, saving only a few photos and newspaper clippings the girls might decide have enough family value to preserve when...

I'm proud of myself. I'm sure my girls will share that pride, tempered with gratitude for having saved them the task. Tomorrow, more files to be discarded.

Then, when it gets cold and gray outdoors and I need a good winter project, I intend to tackle the thousands of photographs that are scattered in albums, boxes, drawers and just about anywhere a photo can hide. Hopefully, I will have a few years to complete the task of sorting, cataloging, even scanning and captioning the ones I choose to retain. Wish me luck.

The pack rat has been successfully captured and slain.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Getting hit by a freight train

That's what a birthday is nowadays. At least for people of my age.

Most of my dearest friends in the world are gone. They were all older than I when we grew our friendships, but I never anticipated they would one day just not be there... how bleak life could be without them. One by one, they moved across to the Other Side where I know they will be waiting for me when it's my turn. But now, as I look at the calendar for the month of May, 2010, I see a lot of birthdays for friends who are blessedly still with me. I send greetings and wish them health and happiness. But the older I get, the more I realize I need to do more than that. I need to tell them how much they have enriched my life and given me strength when it's been needed.

Friends like Carol Panella, a kindred spirit if ever there was one. Sometimes, I think the Creators made two identical minds, didn't know what to do with them so they gave one to me and then, a year later, the other to Carol. We laugh at the same things, cry at the drop of a hat over who-knows-what, get goopy sentimental about our kids and love to swap grandchildren stories. I don't "collect" anything like Carol collects bunnies (not the live ones, of course)and Santas and steins and Christmas items. Carol doesn't enjoy the casino and hasn't my penchant for spending hours doing nothing. Carol is a phenomenal cook and a world-class hostess. I serve up the same dishes again and again, minus the panache, and am lucky if I have matching candles on the table, but we both love to eat and appreciate each other's efforts. We love old movies, music and good writing. She is articulate and expressive with a killer sense of humor. We make each other laugh.

We met at work in the Evesham School District and are both passionate about public education. We are both fierce Progressives and could discuss politics for hours without pausing for a breath. We like the same kinds of television shows and are fans of NPR, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz. I love "24," but I'm not sure about Carol and I know we share a fascination for "Flashforward." I like a good mystery like "The Mentalist" and appreciate the humor of "Castle." Don't know about Carol because we rarely get to discussions about television preferences when we're cramming our conversations into two-hour lunches (okay, three). After all, solving the problems of the world takes time.

One of the my favorite things about Carol is that we can really talk to each other. Not prattle, gossip or chatter. Talk. Time always goes too fast when we are together and there doesn't seem to be enough excuses to plan another lunch.

Carol has a birthday on Saturday, May 22. That's tomorrow. She's been under the weather a bit and so have I, so I haven't gone shopping and there's no birthday card or gift (for now). But she will be on my mind all day as I flit from one task to another and I'll be certain to call with a rousing version of a song that's supposed to sound like "Happy Birthday to You!" She, being the wonderful friend she is, will not suggest I stop singing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A rose is a rose

Bev's funeral is over and she is resting in a place where there is no pain and so many people who loved her were waiting to greet her.

I was feeling down this morning. Instead of giving in to the mood, though, I stripped the beds, started laundry, cleaned my bathroom and dusted a couple of rooms. As I was walking through the living room on the way to the kitchen, I glanced out the window and stopped in my tracks. Those knockout roses, the ones we planted last May, have just erupted into gorgeous blooms of various hues... best of all, the bushes grew so much over the winter we can see the flowers from inside the house! And from our screened porch, there is an unobstructed view of the bushes laden with colorful blossoms. How beautiful they are!

Since I was a child, the rose has been my favorite flower. My favorite teacher, and later friend, was named Rose Theresa Abbott. At confirmation time, when I was 13, I took "Rose" for my confirmation name. There is something steady and beautiful about the word... rose.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tribute to a cousin

Most of us have a lot of cousins. Often, we know them all because our families have stayed knit and there are frequent occasions on which to see them. Sometimes, though, families scatter and the time comes when we know only the ones with whom we grew up, not the subsequent generations beneath.

I was blessed to be Beverly Breder’s cousin. She and I had the common experience of spending our formative years in the care of our grandmother, although for different reasons, and we often reminisced about life in the small Pennsylvania town in which we lived.

Thanks to her love for my mother, her aunt Catherine, Bev was around a lot as I was growing up. She was the teenager I wanted to be like, with her beautiful smile and strawberry blonde, naturally curly hair. She was my sponsor at confirmation when I was 13 and she and her family were often in my parents’ house, filling it with the kind of love and laughter for which they were known. I remember always being envious of what Bev had… a husband who adored her and made her laugh and children who made her eyes light up when she looked at them.

But, we drifted apart, too, like family members do. Still, in the last several years, I was fortunate to reconnect with Bev, to travel with her to visit her husband Bart during his final illness, to drive out to Sweetwater to visit Aunt Bert and to just sit in a diner or restaurant or her apartment talking for hours, never seeming to find enough time to get everything said.

If there is one word that describes the Bev I will always remember, it is “love.” She loved her husband with singular devotion; she cherished her children, then their children and their children’s children. She loved her faith and the hours she gave to St. Nick’s. She loved her friends, old and new, and she loved to laugh and have fun. Her eyes crinkled with amusement when she smiled and her laugh was infectious. We joked that we felt more like teenagers than the old ladies the calendar told us we actually were.

The last time we were together, sitting in Mario’s enjoying Bev’s 80th birthday lunch on March 31st, we talked about our lives, how blessed we were to be surrounded by people who inspired us, valued us and made us feel loved. I don’t think I told Bev then that she was one of those people for me. After all, there would be plenty of time for that later, wouldn't there? There would be more lunches, more times to say “I love you.” We agreed, though, that, given our ages, it would be smart not to put things off any longer… to spend as much time as we could with the people who mattered.

Bev mattered very much to me and everyone who knew and loved her. Her passing leaves our world colder and less bright. I will miss her very much.

Friday, February 26, 2010

On retirement

A friend and previous boss is retiring today after over 30 years in service to children. I've been thinking about her a lot in the past week or so, recalling the days leading up to my own farewell to a job I loved (and hated at the same time!). Don't know what made me do it, but I checked my files and found the following that I apparently wrote the day before my own last days. Thought I'd share it with you.

On Retirement

I’m officially retiring today. In less than an hour, the Board of Education will have a brief, unscheduled meeting to consider another district matter and, thrown on the agenda at the last minute, they will find the item that asks that they approve my retirement. My retirement.
I wonder if other potential retirees have such internal conflicts about the end of their careers. I wonder how long it took them to get to this point, where the letter is submitted to their boss and word gradually begins to filter through the building that, in less than 90 days, a new person will be sitting at the desk where once they worked.
It took me months. I vacillated between wanting not to do this job anymore and never wanting to quit, knowing I owed it to my husband, my children, my grandchildren and, most of all, myself to stop working, to be available, to pursue other interests. In the end, after a lot of internal discussions (that’s what I call talking to myself), I decided life is too short to spend it working, answering an alarm clock every morning, slogging through rain, snow or ice to get to the office, balancing a plethora of projects, completing them and moving on to the next. In short, the few negatives of this job won the argument and overrode the positives that kept me coming back, year after year.
That I’m tired of some parts of the routine is a given. I find the 6 a.m. wakeup harder each day. In spite of the beautiful farmland and livestock I pass on my way to and from the office, I’m tired of the commute. I’m tired of keeping up a professional wardrobe that spans four seasons. I’m tired of night meetings and being awake for hours afterward reliving every stressful moment.
Most of all, I’m weary of the disappointment that comes every year with the apathy and indifference of the people whose children get private school educations at public school prices from a staff that is top notch and an administration that cares more about kids than about getting enough sleep or taking care of their own health.
I dread another budget cycle with its countless meetings, graphs, charts, press releases and PowerPoint presentations, all geared toward trying to justify the cost of educating tomorrow’s leaders. It wouldn’t be so frightful if parents and school district staff thought it important enough to come out and voice and opinion. But for most of the years I’ve worked in public education, I’ve watched the numbers of people … real stakeholders … get lazy and surrender to the folks with an ax to grind or an agenda to promote and the budget is defeated once again. I’m frankly sick of the people, who benefit from their schools, refusing to pick up the tab for the cost and then watching as the municipal officials, with no idea of what it takes to fund a school district, slash huge amounts from the budget, forcing cuts in programs and services that, one way or another, impact their own kids. It is exhausting, infuriating and sad.
So this year, before that scenario plays itself out again, I’m leaving. I will read about the budget battles online in the comfort of my home office. I will learn who the new Board members are from profiles in the newspaper and I will hold my breath to see how both issues will affect such a wonderful school district. Not positively, I’m afraid. How do I know this? Reading handwriting on walls has become a secondary benefit of this job and all the signs point to big trouble ahead.
What I will miss are my colleagues, the people in my office building who have huge smiles and caring hearts. I will miss the bagels and cream cheese, the hot soft pretzels and mustard, the home-baked goodies that appear every day and the mountains of cookies at holidays. I will not miss the weight gain and the constant temptation for sugar overload just outside my office door.
I will miss the people, the teachers, the kids and the staff. I’ll miss talking politics with some and skirting the issue with others. I’ll miss feeling like what I do matters for something, makes a difference in the lives of those I write about. I’ll miss having stories to tell when I get home each evening. I’ll miss the interesting interaction and the challenges of the job.
But it’s really time to go. I’ve worked for 50 years, since my teenage years, and I’m ready now to do something just for me. No guarantees I won’t look back, maybe even drop in to say hello and catch up on what’s happening, but for the most part, I will be gone. I hope that doesn’t mean I’ll be forgotten.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A friend I've never met

Can't be, can it? A friend I've never met?

I might agree, except for the many friends with whom I correspond online I've yet to meet and probably never will. In addition, there are those about whom I devour any piece of written information, long to meet but again probably never will.

Still... there's Carole Imes, one of the sweetest women I have the pleasure of knowing and how did I meet her, you ask? After about eight years of online correspondence with no hope of ever actually seeing one another! We finally met when Howard's business took him to Florida last year and I went along. Carole lives not far from Orlando, where Howard's trade show was held so I drove to her home and found this lovely lady who was everything I knew she'd be. We visited for a full day non-stop and then she and Walt joined Howard and me for dinner. It can happen.

Meg Tilly's most recent blog entry reminds me again how much I would love to get to know this delightfully talented woman. She writes about one of my favorite topics... the brilliant actor Colin Firth (Meg's ex and the dad of her son, Will). Actually, she stole the topic of what would have been my next blog post ... Colin's Best Actor win at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for his portrayal of George Falconer in "A Single Man." He's another person I would love to meet.

Sometimes I think we reveal ourselves more to online correspondents than to people we meet casually face-to-face. Our guards are down while we're chatting away at the keyboard and we don't filter our thoughts and feelings as thoroughly as we do in person.

So, thanks, Meg, for putting my admiration of Colin's work and my congratulations on his achievement in your blog. It's saved me a lot of typing and added to my strong belief that you would be a truly kindred spirit should our paths ever cross.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Those eyes!

As a movie fan since childhood, I've had one so-called matinee hero after another... Father Ralph Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) in "The Thorn Birds," Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind," Cary Grant in "An Affair to Remember" and now, Colin Firth in just about anything.

I first met Mr. Firth (may I call him 'Colin?')a few years ago when A&E aired its series "Pride and Prejudice" and I, like millions of women everywhere, gave their hearts to Fitzwilliam Darcy. After that, it was one film after another, each different in its own way, each owing its appeal to the brilliance of the actor. He's been Mark Darcy to Bridget Jones, Jan Vermeer to the girl with the pearl earring and a poet who is faced with the imminent demise of his father. He's wielded a sword to rescue a Roman emperor, played a cad who despoils a schoolgirl and then leaves her carrying his child and charmed a daughter he never knew he had in "What a Girl Wants." I've seen them and now own them, bought one at a time, until I've amassed a reasonably decent Colin Firth film library. What's the attraction?

Those eyes. The face that he downplays as something less than beautiful, something on which characters can be painted. I say nay, nay! I think I know beautiful. And, be honest, Colin... magazines like "Manhattan" don't give pages of gorgeous head shots to people who aren't beautiful. Still, beauty isn't everything. In the case of Colin Firth, talent trumps everything.

His movie, "A Single Man," for which he's received an Oscar nomination, simply proves my point. A 52-year-old English professor teaching in 1960s L.A., Colin's George Falconer is a textbook neurotic who covers his homosexuality (hardly acceptable in that era) with fastidiousness and reserve. He has just lost his lover of 16 years to a car accident and is struggling to get through what just might be his last day on earth. We see his suffering, his loneliness, his despair. In one scene, he and Jim are curled at opposite ends of the sofa reading with one of their fox terriers resting between them. They are good-naturedly arguing about who will get up to change the record and their ease and comfort with one another speaks volumes about their relationship. After the death of Jim and one of their dogs, George goes to the bank to empty his safe deposit box and comes upon a fox terrier in a car parked outside. He goes to the window and, ever so gently, nuzzles the dog's head, remarking to the dog's owner that "he smells like buttered toast." That little gesture tells the viewer volumes about the depth of his loss. I was the only one in the theater who was crying out loud. In fact, there were only four of us occupying the auditorium, so difficult has it been to find this lovely film playing anywhere.

This Firth performance is brilliant and moving. It is sad and devastating, even as George begins to see the beauty of things around him and perhaps think of an optimistic future. I've seen the movie twice and am about to make it a trio. I am sad that, nominations aside, Colin was passed over for the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild awards in favor of Jeff Bridges' portrayal of a has-been falling-down-drunk country singer in "Crazy Heart."

Any actor worth his salt can play that. Not many could infuse the face of George Falconer with pure grief and grip the hearts of those who come to care about his character. I'm afraid Hollywood will reward family heritage and run-of-the-mill acting while a superb performance like Colin Firth's will lose out. See the film, if you can find it. It's as beautiful as the man who stars in it.