Sunday, July 10, 2011

Color Me Orange

“Who told you that one paints with colors? One makes use of colors, but one paints with emotions.” —Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 18th century French painter

I grew up with a variety of colors—a pink room, a red front door, a grey carpet in the living room, a yellow kitchen, a green buffet—or so I thought. There was never any brown (“I hate brown,” said my mother.); never any blue (“Blue is so sad,” she said.); and most definitely never any orange (“I don’t like orange!”).

Yet, in addition to being a teacher, my mother was an artist. An artist who doesn’t like colors?

Dale Chihuly would disapprove. “I never met a color I didn't like,” he is quoted as saying.

I’m sure she never would have labeled herself as an “artist.” That term was reserved for the elite who made their living from their art. Yet, for as far back as I can remember, she was either sketching, painting, doing pottery, or making jewelry. After she retired, she took a silver jewelry-making class through her local community school; she audited painting classes at Hofstra; she took pottery classes in Florida. Doug and I have several of her works of art framed on the walls of our home.

But throughout it all, she continued to “hate” orange. That was all to change, thanks to her granddaughter. When Perri was small, we spent a week visiting my mother at her place in Florida. Preparing for our visit, my mother went shopping for gifts—naturally. She picked out turquoise leggings and a matching t-shirt for Perri. Alas, the outfit did not fit, so mom took us to the store to exchange it.

“You can just get a larger size or pick out anything from this display you like better,” my mom said to Perri.

Wrong words. Even then, Perri was an independent thinker, especially when it came to clothes, color, and art. She picked out bright orange leggings and a matching orange and hot pink t-shirt.

“I don’t like orange,” said my mother.

“I do, Grandma,” replied the cutest five-year-old you’ve ever seen.

Guess who won? “Orange is the happiest color.”—Frank Sinatra

That began a 12-year exchange of orange presents, which continues to this day. Orange vases, clocks, sponges, candy, rubber gloves, necklace for mom. Orange crayons, containers, sweatshirt, hangers, hat, jewelry for Perri. My mother even painted Perri a picture—of oranges! It greets us as we walk in the door each day.

“Orange is red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.”—Wassily Kandinsky

Color makes me happy. As I age, I want to remember to not only paint with the colors, but feel them—all of them, even orange.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Day Without Shopping

I think the thing mom misses most is being able to get in her car and go shopping. Shopping was her joy, her entertainment, her therapy. Unfortunately, she has now delegated that task to me. It is not something I relish.

Shopping wasn't really about spending money because she could be just as happy in the Dollar Store as she was in Lord & Taylor. I think it was the thrill of the buy, the acquisition. I mean, why would someone need more than 30 pairs of white pants in addition to at least 5 pairs of white culottes (and what bright mind designed that fashion statement?).

As a youngster, I loved going shopping with her. It was always an adventure, not to mention she usually bought me something as well. Who could resist a gift, even if it was a package of underwear. If she had a tough day at school, she’d hop in the car and run to the store. Most Saturdays we spent strolling the stores at Green Acres. There were antique stores, and flea markets, and garage sales. You never know where you might find a bargain.

She was easily swayed in her purchases. I remember walking through Abraham & Straus one day, when we passed a new department—wigs. She was intrigued and started trying some on.

"You look great," I said. "Why don't you buy one?"

"I don't need a wig. What would I do with a wig?" she asked.

"Well, it'd be a lot of fun," I replied. (What did I know? I was a kid.)

"Why not?" she retorted, and promptly bought the wig.

My brother is probably reading this and saying, "Wig? What wig? I never knew she bought a wig." I can't blame him for being dubious. My mother has short hair; the wig had short hair. In fact, it was exactly the same beehive style, with bangs, that she sported then. She wore it once and relegated it to the basement closet. I’m hoping it made its way into a garage sale because I’d hate to think of what has been nesting in it these past 40 years.

My mother was, and still is, very generous with her purchases, and each new addition to the family, was another opportunity to shop. First Lorrie, then Doug, then grandchildren, cousins and their spouses and children, in-laws, neighbors, friends. Shopping for other people is her way of expressing her love. It lets other people know she’s thinking of them. Even in her sometimes befuddled state, she still thinking of others. “Did I remember Maya’s graduation?” “When is Noemi’s birthday?” “What can I buy Marilyn to thank her?” “Who did I miss?”

Now, she has lost interest in most of her things, though she loves to be surrounded by them as they bring back memories of trips to the store with her children; vacations with the family; sweet tokens from my father; and gifts from her friends Sylvia, Edith, and Alva. Her house is now riddled with stuff—purchases and acquisitions made over a lifetime…a lifetime of memories (Though writing this, I couldn’t help but think of George Carlin’s routine on “stuff.” We do need a little levity here.)

In between the comfort, however, she is filled with worry. “I’m leaving you and Bruce with a mess to clean up and deal with.” She’s concerned that we’ll argue over jewelry; that fights will break out over china. I’ve tried to assure her that won’t happen. I try to joke with her: “We each have our own china; we have no interest in yours.” But she’s still agitated.

So as I age, I want to remember that when I shop with abandon, do it for others. Things should be triggers of joy and good memories, not of worries for my myself or my children. I want to remember that it is, indeed, only stuff. Acquisitions add to a life, but they do not make it a rich one.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Remembering Dad

Yesterday's celebration of Father's Day was bittersweet. It was wonderful to be with the family to salute my husband and brother. Both have been active fathers in their children's lives and incredible nurturers, role models, mentors, and supporters of their families. I love them both.

But it was sad as I thought about my own father, dead these past 14 years, and my father-in-law, who I knew way too briefly, dead for nearly 23 years. They, too, were both incredible nurturers, role models, mentors, and supporters of their families.

My father, a junior high school principal, was a teacher throughout his life—not just to his students and faculty, but to my brother and to me. He certainly was the first one to teach me to write things down. As I mentioned in an earlier post, he was known for his lists, all written in his scratchy handwriting on index cards that were in every pocket of every suit he owned. His lists guided him in his daily and weekly chores and helped organize his thinking. I know that my own lists—written daily on the nearest scrap of paper—help keep focused as well.

My father taught me to be punctual. He valued people's time and wanted to make sure it was spent wisely. I don't know if he was always that way or if it was something he learned as a captain in the army, but it was certainly a trait that stayed with him until he died. A 3:30 staff meeting meant you started precisely at 3:30, not a second later. He was known for locking the door to his office to bar latecomers from entering and disrupting the session. He rewarded the people who were on time, not the people who were tardy. At a memorial service for him, many of his faculty came up to me and repeated the same words: "I didn't want to disappoint him. After I was locked out the first time, I was never late again." Family occasions, too, called for promptness. He left early to allow for any unforeseen traffic or an accident, so if an invitation called for noon, we would leave the house after breakfast, generally arriving at 11:00 (or earlier!). That either meant sitting in the car for an hour waiting or ringing the bell and startling the not-yet-ready host. There were many times that Doug and I were caught dripping wet from the shower as my parents walked in the door, early for yet another family gathering.

My father taught me to make my own decisions. Unlike my mother (sorry mom), who always gave direction and told me what to do (not that I always listened and obeyed), my father let me choose what action to take. He would outline the options and knowing that he had taught me right from wrong expected I would make the correct choice. Like his faculty, I didn't want to disappoint him. When I erred, he never retorted with an "I told you so" or "Why didn't you." Instead, he let me face the consequences of my actions and then gently guided me to the better choice. (I wish I were more like my father and less like my mother; unfortunately, I, too, like to be in control. I'm sure my children wish it too!)

My father taught me to apologize, even if I was not wrong. What kind of lesson was that, you ask? It taught me that life is about teamwork; you don't go through it alone. Whether the other member of your team is your parent, your spouse, your children, your co-workers, sometimes to move past an impasse, you say you're sorry; you admit to a mistake you did not make; you let others shine and take credit for your idea; you learn to compromise; you give and take.

My father taught me when to let go. This was the hardest lesson, because it was taught on his deathbed. He had been in and out of the hospital with complications since his quadruple bypass surgery. During his last stay, the nurses kept putting in a breathing tube, which he kept pulling out. He had made his decision; enough was enough. He waited until my brother, mother, and I were all in the room with him. He appeared to be in and out of consciousness. We talked about his options; he appeared agitated. We started to reminisce about better times together; we laughed; we joked; he let go.

So, note to my older self: Be proud of the family I've built and nurtured, of the friendships I've made, of the things I've accomplished and created, but when it's time, have the courage to let go.

I love you and miss you Daddy. Happy Father's Day, forever.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hear the Music

I was surrounded by music growing up. My parent's collection of old 78s, both opera and classical albums, are still in the den. There were holidays, with my mother and her sister's belting out one Yiddush tune (Bim Bam...Bim Bam...Bim Bam) after another. Somehow, the singing got louder after the first glass of Manischewitz....hmmm. I once tried recording them, but learned you had to put the cassette in the tape recorder in order for it to work...duh.

My Uncle Bob had a deep voice and led Passover seders like the chazans of old, and I'm told there was an opera singer in the family, but don't know if that's myth or reality. I had a pink plastic radio in my room; my friends and I played jacks to the Beatles and Lovin' Spoonfuls. And who could forget the transistors we all brought to the beach, each blasting songs picked out by Cousin Brucie, Cousin Brucie, Cousin Bruuuuucie.

But my strongest memories of music have to be of my mother singing. She had a beautiful soprano voice and loved to sing. Hers was the voice that stood out in temple, even when the choir soloist was singing. Hers was the voice that interrupted my father as he began leading the seders. "Is it time for a song?" she asked. He voiced annoyance, but after a while he just gave in. It was who she was; it is who she is. It's something my brother and husband are now adjusting to as they lead the seder, and she interrupts: "Is it time for a song?"

She still loves to sing, even if no longer in tune. I remember that on an eight-hour car ride to Maine, she managed to sing for three of them. You said a word, she had a song with that word in it, and promptly began to sing. If there is music in the air, she is singing along. If there is no music, she makes her own. And while the words to the songs are not all there, the music is still in her heart.

This past Valentine's Day she had a wonderful treat arranged by the president of her temple. Some volunteers from Sweet Adelines (they're the ones dressed in red; mom's in blue), came to the house, red rose in hand to serenade her with love songs. They sang two songs, which brought tears to her eyes, which brought tears to my eyes. She asked them to repeat them so she could join in; my brother arrived, and she asked them to sing again, so he could hear. It was very touching, but also very typical of my mother. Hear the music; embrace the music; be the music.

When I was a child, her bursting into song would make me run for cover; I've seen the underside of many a table. And I have to admit that there are times that I still cringe. But now that I am older and sing and dance to the music in the department stores (to the extreme embarrassment of my own daughter...Moooommm...), I get it. I understand the joy, the pleasure, the happiness when one is singing.

As I age, I want to remember to keep the songs in my head and in my heart. I want to keep singing, even though I'm off key and sound the best in the shower (TMI, Perri would say). I want my favorite songs playing, even if I know longer remember the words. I want to hear the music.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Make A List; Do It; Cross It Off

It's good to know that those of us who make lists are in such elite company. Beginning June 3, an exhibition (To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art) at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City celebrates this most common form of documentation by presenting an array of lists made by a range of artists, from Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder to H. L. Mencken, Eero Saarinen, Elaine de Kooning, and Lee Krasner.

The tip-off to my mother's brain tumor should have been the lists we started to find all over the house—on backs of envelopes, on junk mail, on the windowsill in the kitchen (I don't be "on" the top of the sill, I mean written on the furniture!). After the operation, while trying to make order of her house, we found them tucked into pocketbooks, in boxes in the den, in the piles of papers that littered her home. The lists apparently went back a number of years. It was her attempt to compensate for a memory that was being impinged by the growing tumor; we thought it was just a sign of aging.

My memory of my father is intertwined with lists. I see his scratchy handwriting on index cards, where he kept lists of chores to be done on the weekend; things he wanted to remember to do at school (he was a junior high school principal); what to pack when going on vacation; all of our names and birthdays; his investments; etc. Every suit he owned had a blank index card or two in it, always at the ready to start a list. After he died, we found those index cards, now yellowed since he'd been retired for many years, still in his jacket pockets.

My mother's list-making should have been a warning, however, because she never made lists. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries of her children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends. She had stacks of greeting cards ready to go. If she needed something at the store, she ran out immediately to buy it (more on her shopping habits in another post). When she wanted something in the house done, she relegated it to my he would put it on his list. But never did I see her write something down for later use. Until recently.

But now her list-making has become a frenetic habit. It's as scattered as her thinking. My brother bought her a daybook, hoping she'd organize her thoughts in a logical way, recording the lists by day/date, then crossing items off so they'd be out of her mind. But brain trauma doesn't work in an orderly fashion. It has a life of its own, and so do her lists. Now, when it's on her mind, it goes on the list.

Last fall, she added "apple juice" to her shopping list. Why? She had seen a newscast on tv that said apple juice was a good source of antioxidants. Cleaning out her cabinets this spring, she saw the apple juice. "Why is this here?" she asked me. "It was on your list," I told her. "Take it home; I don't like apple juice," she replied. So much for lists.

I have always been a list-maker and take joy in crossing things off. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something, though sometimes as I add yet another task to be done, it makes me feel overwhelmed. So I wonder, what will be the tip-off to my own children that something is amiss? A list-less home?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Remember To Laugh

I think what has impressed me most about my mother's ordeal is that she has maintained her sense of humor throughout. There were endless forms to fill out before the surgery. Check the box: married, single, divorced, widow. After checking "widow," she was asked: Since when? She wrote: "Since my husband died." Well, it was funny at the time; the two of us had a fit of the giggles that lasted into the examination.

Even now (after another operation this past year for a melanoma), she tries to find the bright side. She called me recently after eating one of the meals—grilled tuna—Doug had prepared for her to heat up. We put put labels on all the food containers we leave in the refrigerator. Usually they are specific—talapia with grilled vegetables, turkey meatballs with spaghetti and sauce. This one I had labeled "fish." Why? Because the only kind of tuna she likes comes out of a can.

"This fish was good," she said. "It wasn't labeled. What did I eat?" she asked.

"Tuna," I replied.

"Do I like tuna?" she asked.

"No," I told her.

"Well, then it's a good thing that I lost my memory," she quipped.

My mother was always the first one on the dance floor at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah. She was the first to volunteer, the first to sing, the first to laugh. She clipped cartoons that made her smile and put them in a binder in the bathroom. (As I said, she could find the humor almost anywhere.) As a child, I didn't appreciate those qualities. I was too busy being embarrassed, as kids are wont to do. Now I recognize what an amazing gift she was trying to give me.

I want to remember to grow old with humor. I want to share funny times with my children, my family, my friends. I want to keep laughing until I shut my eyes for the final time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why little scraps of paper?

The last two years has involved an incredible personal and family journey, as my 91-year-old mother (and we) have adjusted to the results of her being operated on (at age 89) for a brain tumor. The good news is that she is still with us, humor in tact. The bad news is that she has lost her short-term memory. She is surrounded by little scraps of paper, reminders of what to do, when, who phoned, what she ate—all things she is trying to remember. In addition to the scraps of paper, I have become her institutional memory. She has asked me about things that happened to her before I was born, as well as the daily date, month, and year, as she tries to organize thoughts in her mind, only to be lost again.

A retired middle school science teacher, my mother has taught me my whole life—even now. She has taught me about aging. She has taught me to be graceful and grateful. She has taught me to maintain one's sense of humor, even in the grimmest of times. She has taught me to appreciate the love of friends and family. She has taught me that when you grow old, you still want your dignity. You still want to be valued. You still want to be loved and appreciated for who you are, for the essence of you.

When my grandmother was in her nineties, I remember my mother saying to me, "If I ever become like Nana...." I now find myself repeating the phrase to my own children: "If I ever become like Grandma...."

But there are some moments, when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the daily phone calls and weekly visits to maintain my mother's home (including handling her mail, her finances, her food shopping, her cooking, etc.) and be her memory that I realize this might be an unfair burden to ask my be my memory, that is, to remind me of how I want to grow old.

So, as my brother, sister-in-law, husband, and our children, have tried to help my mother adjust to her new normal, I have started jotting down things I want to remember as I age. Technology has allowed my little scraps of paper to be digital. Nevertheless, this blog will serve as those notes to my older self.