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!

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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!