Thursday, September 18, 2014

The neglected piano

This summer I found out there's a chalk paint cult following. There is a small group of people in your community that is, right now, painting, waxing, distressing, and buffing chairs from flea markets, beds from grandma's garage, forgotten attic mirrors, and other items they once thought they detested.

These people will transform these items, ohh and ahh over the amazing results, top them with flowers and pictures, then quickly search for the next item to tackle. They cannot stop…

I jumped into this creative and crafty community with trepidation because, although I love art, and I love to make things with my hands, I'm also terrible at it.

But a friend of mine, who knew I had a tight decorating budget, pushed me. Because she has exquisite taste, and because she owns a home that ought to be plastered on the front page of a decorating magazine, and because her design aesthetic is a perfect model of gorgeous, affluent, yet comfortable living, I responded.


During the four years I lived with my parents, my mother introduced my son to the piano. A former teacher, she taught him until he was hooked, then found a fabulous teacher to carry on from there. My son loves to play, and he excels in his ability to hear tunes and rhythms. The expression he plays with astounds me. He is definitely a natural, in a way that, to my mother's chagrin, I never was.

Upon moving, my mother announced that we could have her second piano because, really, a 74-year-old and her husband don't need 2 pianos. This piano was mom's original, later replaced by a grand piano. It sat, neglected, in the basement, only occasionally banged on by a bored grandchild in between play with Legos and Lincoln Logs. It had traces of mold traveling along its bottom and wore years of wear and tear on its chipped and scuffed frame. The color of its keys were stained, like an old smoker's yellow teeth.

That piano was going to ruin my living room. I knew I had to take it, for my son's sake, but I abhorred the idea of its sulking in the corner of a room where celebrations and intimate gatherings take place.

So, I decided, despite my lack of skills, I'd join the cult. I simply had nothing to lose: I could not ruin this piano. My friend held my hand as I agonized over colors, waxing, and technique. But, it looks pretty darn good right now, don't you think? I actually like the charm it adds to my living room. And you know what? It was easy.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


This post is an excerpt from my book, based on my experiences in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis

It was mid-January.  The year was 2009.  It was a particularly mild day, and the sun was shining brightly.  My nearly two-year-old daughter, Kayla, and I pulled into the parking lot at the local grocery store, King’s.  We needed baby food and vegetables, and I figured I could purchase the necessities if I moved quickly.  Kayla just spent an hour climbing, crawling, and jumping on the foam gym pieces at Gymboree.  Surely she’d be able to sit in the grocery cart without a fuss for 20 minutes. 
Just as I reached to loosen the straps on her car seat, my cell phone rang.  Annoyed at the interruption with a time crunch on my hands, I dug through my purse in search of my ever-elusive phone.  It was my husband Dave.
            “Hello?”  I answered, about to tell him I’d call him back when I got home.  Didn’t he know I had such a brief window to get things done before Kayla had to be fed and put down for a nap?
            “I just got laid off.”
            “You’re joking, right?”
            Dave had been talking about the risk of lay-offs for at least a year now.  He frequently told me his boss believed an economic collapse was imminent.  “You’d be better off taking your money out of the market and putting it under your mattress,” Dave would exclaim over dinner, in between bites of salmon and couscous.  He’d look me deeply in the eyes as he shifted in his chair, wondering if I understood the enormity of his statements. 
I wasn’t sure how to react to Dave’s prophecies.  We definitely weren’t as comfortable as we’d been before moving to the New York area in 2006, but the mattress seemed a bit extreme when it came to savings accounts.  Isn’t that what they did during the Great Depression?
No.  I did not have any idea what Dave was really talking about.  Instead, I interpreted his dramatic statements as symptoms of dissatisfaction with his current job.  Financial instability was not one of the fears I considered when alone, contemplating the injustices the world might inflict on me, because I’d always had employment and money when I needed it.  
            “No.”  I could feel the tension in Dave’s voice.  It traveled along the waves with swift precision, quickly penetrating the mommy bubble I’d been operating in.  My body stiffened in response, resisting the push out of that safe, beautiful space.
This was no fucking joke.   
            “Where are you?”
            “I’m on the train.  Can you pick me up?  I’m arriving in ten minutes.”
            I began to refasten Kayla’s car seat straps immediately.  It took just ten minutes to drive from the grocery store to the Maplewood train station. 
            “I’ll be right there,” I answered. 
            As I hurried around the car to get into the driver’s seat, my mind began to race.  The wind cut through my jacket and the unusually warm day suddenly felt seasonally chilly.  There were a lot of unknowns to contend with, but I was certain of one thing: we had to get the hell out of Maplewood.
Our move to New Jersey in 2006 had been an ill-fated one.  Though I’d made some friends and begun to feel comfortable, Dave hated every minute of it.  We’d moved so Dave could pursue a position as a trader at a large international bank, but the job never amounted to its promise; he felt his daily commute through Penn Station was dehumanizing, a regular visit to one of the circles of hell; his expected bonus went unrealized year after year, and his two children from his previous marriage made infrequent visits.  For Dave, living in New Jersey was nearly intolerable. 

            I pulled into the station to see Dave’s head bobbing up and down as he walked up the steps from the platform.  His was among the first to roll, but there would be thousands of others.  Hundreds of thousands of others.  His face was hardened by decades of charts, figures, ledgers, management strategies, budgets, relocations, backstabbing colleagues, trading desks oozing of testosterone in overdrive. 
Without a word, he slipped into the passenger seat in the car.  The car wheels sputtered on wet leaves as I put my foot to the gas and the car screeched up the hill to our house, an oasis that would soon become a crippling debt. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The first renovation

I ascribe to the idea of a home participating in the great memories and milestones of life: births, baptisms, communions, graduations, promotions, and engagements. A home is a place to remember and celebrate life's offerings. It's a place to grieve and struggle with what life takes from us. It's a place to play, learn, love, and grow under a protective roof that brings all your precious family members together each night.

And so I've always been drawn to the neglected fixer upper that I can pour my soul into. I always end up buying the home that can somehow change, laugh, cry and improve right along with me and my family. 

My new home falls into that category. It yawned at potential buyers as they toured. Its jammed windows, peeling paint, unsettled porch flooring, and funky layout deterred busy buyers who didn't want to put time and effort into it. Its master bath came with such an outrageous tub/shower that most didn't want to dip a toe into it: 
My shower, built in 1920, has a 2 foot hole in it. Why?

But this old home and its demands for attention did not frighten me.  I knew it had good bones, and though it might not be my forever house, I would live in the moment and love it as I did the others I've lived in. 

This week we completed our first project. It was small: undoing a bad renovation that left three doors opening up in the same 4 square feet of space. We knocked down a partial wall and moved two doors.

Today the house feels more open. The flow feels right. The house is exhaling, and so am I. It's a good start to a new chapter in life, one that I hope will have many pages.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Birthday candles

Source: Baking Arts, Richard Festen, via Pinterest
When I was young I spent my entire birthday month counting down the days until it was my party day. On that special day my mom would organize and run a celebration just for me. On this much anticipated occasion, I'd shimmy my newly bathed body into tights and a party dress. I would tolerate a head of plastic rollers, their insides bristling against my scalp like a wire brush to the skin. I didn't mind these sacrifices, because my birthday was a big day. I would wear my new age like a badge, with pride and shiny new excitement, often wishing there was just one more candle on the cake, one more year of growth to celebrate.

Nowadays, I look forward to birthdays because they issue a well deserved excuse to go to a fancy restaurant, sip a cosmo, and savor a piece of carrot cake. But I don't wish for extra candles on my cake. Instead, I try not to think too much about how they won't all quite fit on it.

A woman in her mid-forties, my awareness of the temporary nature of human life is acute these days. As I watch my parents age and begin to think of long term care for my dad, I've started to wonder not if I'll have to wear Depends undergarments, but when. I wonder not about if I'll lose my independence, but when. I wonder not if my mental capacities will decline, but when. And I wonder how I will get along, who will support me, and if I'll be happy.

Strangely, even though we all age, and we all struggle as we age, most of us have no patience or time for the elderly. For many, older people are a nuisance. They slow us down. Rather than aiding them, we focus on how to get around them. They shuffle along the sidewalks in our neighborhoods mostly unnoticed. They sit at our tables and in our armchairs and often fade into the background.

Today I feel a responsibility to minister to the aged. It's hard to make the effort to slow down for others, but the elderly we encounter at the library and the grocery store are moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts. They've lived full lives, they've accomplished much. Many have made life a little better for us because of their hard work and commitment to schools, towns, governments, medicine, law, technology. 

And one day we will walk in their shoes. They ought not to be too uncomfortable.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Purger and the photo album

Below is, in part, a brief excerpt from my book

Photos are to precious to purge
Few things can evoke as many memories and feelings as a photo

I used to think there was no object that could pull at my heart strings, causing me to box it up and shove it in my basement. When faced with the task of downsizing more than once, I learned that memories were made and kept in the heart and mind, not in pillows, vases, and old dressers.  

But unpacking in my latest home has revealed a weakness: photo albums. Photos are a window into the past, a picture of a point in time, a reminder of who we and are relatives are. The more tattered the album, the more sullied the pictures, the more significance the pictures seem to take on.

So, I cherish my photos, even the drunken college shots no one ought to see.  

Several days ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I thumbed through my mom's photo books, where I peeked into life before I was born. I found a wedding photo of my parents, sitting side by side in their get away car. They were in a red 1963 Chevy Corvair decorated like a float, white streamers hanging from windows, mirrors, and door handles.  Even at the young age of 28 Dad was bald, as I’ve always known him.  He sat beside mom, a gentle hand on her arm as she waved and laughed loudly, dominating the space they shared.  Now and for the rest of their life together, she played the role of the extravert, the social networker, the noticed, he the role of the introvert, the quiet yet strong and steady support. Dad wore a gray suit decorated with a white carnation and a carefully folded pocket square.  His brown eyes and quiet smile exuded happiness.  He was comfortable and in control, a different man than he is today. 

Today dad is alive yet absent.  He walks the halls and rooms of his house without saying a word.  Thirteen years ago Alzheimer’s quietly slinked into his brain, slowly choking the life, the memory, the energy from his now frail and tentative body.  Unable to converse with others easily, Dad retreats into himself, making it increasingly difficult for people to know and understand him.  My heart aches as I watch him, once the CEO of a company.  What I always admired most about him was his intellect.  What I wanted for myself most was to have Dad’s brain, his critical thinking skills, his theoretical reasoning skills, his razor sharp business acumen.  What does his brain look like now?  I imagine a tangled mess of plaque twisted and gnarled like an old knot of wood, making words, ideas and thoughts prisoners within him.  It is a cluttered, confused, and dark place.  

I carefully take the photo out of the album and search for Dad. "Hey Dad," I say loudly. "Look what I found!" I stretch my hand out, giving him the photo.

Dad looks at me, then tentatively reaches his hand toward me, to receive the photo. "Ah…yes." He says as a slow smile spreads across his face.

Yes. Photos are precious.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Chaos, creation, and the home

My living room is slowly coming together
(with lots of help from friends, because I'm a lousy designer)

Chaos leads to creation. I read that somewhere, and when I look around my house, littered with boxes of books, pictures, lamps, CDs, china, and stemware  I don't know where to place, I sure hope it's true.

*      *       *

It's been 3 weeks, and I've finally folded up the last box and passed it on to another intrepid woman in the midst of packing up her home. I've shelved the books, stacked the shoes, and retired the toys to the toy box.

Don't misunderstand. Chaos still reigns, but now that the boxes are gone, I can finally see potential. Now the furniture can be arranged, the rugs laid down, the pictures hung. Now the creative process of transforming a house to a home can begin.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Health foods

I entered a flash fiction contest several months ago, and those silly judges didn't see the genius in my writing. I thought about what to do with my piece, and I decided I'd like to share it with you, my readers. So many of you have reached out to me with your own, heart breaking stories about aging and Alzheimer's. Thank you for sharing. My thoughts are with you.

Source: Pinterest

Elsa pads into the kitchen, her gray hair flying wildly around her head, evidence of a long night’s sleep wedged between several of her favorite pillows.

She busies herself at the coffee maker, then puts a saucepan on the stovetop and begins to cook her favorite breakfast, steel cut oatmeal. As she stirs the oats, Elsa gazes at her husband Marty, who is slumped at the table, his back toward her.

“Eat your blueberries, Marty,” she advises. “It will help your brain.” Elsa’s been reading about nutrition and brain health, and she urges Marty to eat well. Today, after a breakfast of oatmeal and berries, she’ll give him walnuts with his lunch and fish high in Omega 3’s for dinner. She’ll limit his consumption of red meat and alcohol.

But Elsa’s efforts are in vain. Marty’s brain is a twisted knot of cords with mismatched and fading signals: berries, walnuts, and salmon cannot coax it out of its haze. Each month the mailbox becomes pregnant with prescriptions for Marty, who now walks through life in an Alzheimer’s induced fog. These powerful drugs do little to persuade him to reenter this world. He shuffles around the house aimlessly. His blank face registers little. He cannot string words together: communicating with him is a game of charades, guessing at the meaning trapped deep in his frail hands, which he waves madly in the air.

Marty looks at the bowl of freshly washed blueberries next to him. He reaches into it and grabs a handful, which he clumsily raises to his mouth. Two renegade blueberries fall to the floor, and Bart, Marty’s beagle, wags his tail and runs to retrieve them.

Elsa fills a bowl with oatmeal and sets it before Marty. He picks up the butter knife and begins to scoop up the sticky cereal with it. The oatmeal slides off the knife and falls in clumps onto the table.

“Marty!” Elsa shouts, “Your spoon is here.” She picks it up and shows it to him. Marty reaches for it and finds himself double fisted. He looks from one hand to the next.

Elsa grabs Marty’s hand, releases the butter knife from his grip, and carries it to the sink. After inspecting the spoon remaining in his left hand, Marty begins to eat.

Elsa returns from the sink and slips into the seat next to Marty. Since Marty can’t talk much, she begins to ramble about her day. She is planning to meet her friend at the salon for a manicure. “You know, Marty. Gill’s wife. I’m going to meet Gill’s wife. Remember when you used to do business with Gill?” Marty nods his head, a faint glimmer of memory in his eyes.

“Y-y-y-e-e-s-s.” He manages to utter. Marty looks at his wife searchingly, and she wonders if he truly remembers. She drifts into silence.

The quiet noise of movement fills the kitchen. Marty’s spoon clinks on the porcelain bowl. The dog licks his jowls. Marty chews his food hungrily, then pauses from time to time to wipe his mouth or retrieve a morsel of food that falls into his lap.

Elsa looks at Marty, longing to see the man she fell in love with 47 years ago. This man who conquered the financial industry and ran his own company was now unrecognizable. His sharp mind, his witty thoughts, his deep love for her are hidden somewhere deep within him, inaccessible. If only she could see the man she cherished. If only he’d stayed with her to enjoy old age.

Elsa sighs a deep, lonely sigh as Death spreads out, blanketing its heavy arms around her. She pulls her fluffy robe around her waist and tightens the belt. “Marty? Marty?” Marty turns to look at his wife. “I’m going to take a shower, Marty. I put your clothes out on the bed. Don’t wear that dirty sweater from yesterday. It looks terrible."

Marty takes his last spoonful of oatmeal and puts the bowl on the floor for Bart, who hungrily laps up its remains. He stands up and slowly climbs the stairs to his office, Bart now at his heels. They plunk down into his soft, leather office chair for another day of television.

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