STANDING UP

I was reminded of Mom, who continued to stand for older people on the bus or in the doctor’s office; she was over seventy years old herself, and we would remind her that she no longer had to give up her seat; in fact, she’d earned it and could safely enjoy staying seated.  She didn’t really acquiesce until her ankles began to weaken and she became unsteady.

Such was the déjà vu moment that spoke to me as I watched the group of older men come forward, each in turn, as their names were called.  This was a moment for decorum…

I watched as the once young soldiers resumed their youthful, military stance; one could almost imagine each reporting for duty as they were called in alphabetical order.   Despite their fragile gaits, each had once again straightened up just enough to return to uniformed days when they had been warmly greeted by their loved ones.

This was a simple but touching ceremony.  Those who walked without a cane or walker stepped forward and stood at attention while the caring woman pinned the red carnation on their lapels and thanked them for their service.  Slightly exuberant but still possessing the shyness of their youth’s generation, each ambled to a nearby seat so as to allow the next Vet his very own moment of recognition.

A couple of them were strong enough to raise themselves up from the wheel chair seats that brought them to their place in line outside the room’s entrance, where they managed to stand ever so briefly but long enough to receive their carnations eye to eye.  They fell carefully back into their wheeled seats and worked their way back to the end of the line so that the next Vet could move forward.

I tried to imagine the individual yesterdays these men had known; some of us who watched the brief proceedings during our lunch were younger by at least thirty to forty years… from my brief encounter with WWII and Korean War history, I could only surmise the reels of memories still rolling inside each of these old soldiers.  I had had older cousins who had served at the same time as these gentlemen. But as in most families, ages tended to stay within ages, and reunions were more difficult to get to these days; I had to admit: I knew very little of my own cousins’ stories.

My membership in a service club had brought me to this senior living residence dining room this week, wherein tradition extolled these precious individuals at least one day each year.  Some of these men had once celebrated Armistice Day; and like my older cousins, they were at least a generation younger than my mother would have been, had she been sitting here at lunch with me.

Like Mom, they understood the simple courtesy of giving up a desired seat so that another older member could take in the brief but respectful place accorded him by the rest of his senior living comrades in arms

The Shark in the Driveway

I had loved him from the beginning; the Shark was a handsome, loving, big brother type guy who always had a hug and smile for me.  I would forever be the little flower girl who lived next door.  I can still remember studying in my room and hearing the squeaking brakes come to a stop in the driveway.

He knew how long it took him to get back to the store, and used his lunch breaks to the fullest.  His mother-in-law often made him a special sandwich or something particularly delicious; of course, these lunches were not without cost.  He often had to endure another round of on-going reminders and messages; didn’t matter that he’d already heard them earlier that day.  The lunchtime reminders were just an insurance program so, once on the road and through the tunnel toward home, he’d have remembered to pick up and or bring everything home.  Like clockwork, I’d hear him leave; he was the only one I ever knew that could backup a car before the engine was fully started!

On occasion, he’d stop by after a day’s work and, finding my retired father at home, goad him into walking down the street for a game of pool.  Truth be told, Daddy enjoyed the Shark’s company; as Daddy would remark, “He’s just a big kid– what the hell – I can still beat the pants off him!”  And each time they returned, the young Shark would comment, “Man, your dad is really good. Tough to beat, Man…I almost broke my back beating him on that last game.”

Daddy understood the younger Shark better than most, because he understood what it was like to be underestimated at a young age.  Daddy had an uncanny sense when it came to summing up a person’s character; the Shark had at once passed Daddy’s litmus test with flying colors.  So, though the Shark liked to toot his own horn, Daddy would simply explain, “Hell, the kid gets no credit; I remember what that was like…”

Despite the talk and exaggerated highlights, each enjoyed the other’s company; indeed, sometimes it was difficult to tell who enjoyed it more! Those of us watching the antics and listening to the B.S. that accompanied this spar fest very soon understood all was harmless if not actually therapeutic for them both.

A common foe didn’t hurt, either.  Each had a bone to pick with the neighbor; truth be told, one could afford to be harsher than the other… The Shark had to mind his Ps and Qs as he had married the neighbor’s daughter.  Daddy didn’t have to mind anything or anybody, so he kept up his playful harassment at the neighbor’s expense and Shark the Son-in-Law’s delight.

In the entirety of Rubberneck Avenue dynamics, this was normally a non-eventful exchange; it was, however, great fun and entertainment for those of us on either side of the driveway.

 

Promises, Promises…

Author’s note: I’m reprinting this for the benefit of readers young and old; and in honor of a lost loved one who wore a uniform…aj

 

How often have we witnessed advertising or political campaigns that profess to have fulfilled a previous promise between the speaker and the electorate?

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

Until the campaign 2012 is a memory, we are going to be bombarded with pseudo-summaries in either political announcements or blurb formats from our news stations that any particular politician has once again denounced, corrected, deferred, adhered, obliged, acquiesced, whatever verb you want to put into this sentence… DON’T BE FOOLED.  DO YOUR HOMEWORK.

Our country’s main media succumbed to editorializing years ago. Tass did not have the market on dog and pony showbiz.  Khrushchev promised he would destroy us from within.  Study the Sixties: the names, the movements, the pledges, the campaign rhetoric; apart from technology’s having inserted itself into our present day lingo, the message is the same.  And it is normally FALSE, anti-free market, anti-capitalistic in its roots.  Do you really know the meanings of Marxism, Fascism, Socialism, Communism, Totalitarianism…oh yes, and our America is a REPUBLIC, not a democracy….look that one up.

Read. Read. And Read again.  Pick up that historical artifact, the newspaper; it is ALMOST a thing of the past…CHALLENGE what you read.  The writers are no longer local; many of them are now syndicated, which means that one man’s voice now overcomes or trumps the local, grass root message.  YOU are being courted by radio, TV, cable, magazines, newsprint…NONE of them are necessarily whole or accurate in their coverage on any one subject.  Challenge all that you read. Fine print no longer means ANYTHING in this printer cartridge world.

Choose to gather AT LEAST three references on the same topic before erroneously adapting or adopting the group think.  Remember what a dictionary is?  Webster comes to mind; this was before Wikipedia for you under forty generations.

YOU are an American, born in one of the greater experiments of liberty and freedom in the world, or YOU are a naturalized citizen.  Speak out, accent and all; we native born need to be reminded once in awhile that the world does NOT operate as we do; and that we are the leaders in liberty. UGLY AMERICANS EXIST; in countenance, in arrogance, in refusal to obey the rule of law.  Point them out and shun them; more importantly, vote them OUT OF OFFICE.

RACISM IS ALIVE AND WELL; just listen to our Attorney General and his arguments regarding our border’s security issues.  Fifty plus years after the Civil Rights movement and Herman Cain was attacked.  Did any of the Washington Elite really want to see a Black American with experience and education who achieved the American Dream challenge our present, Black American Community Organizer in Office?  Get real.  I don’t have to be Condi Rice to understand that losing friends in a Sunday school class targeted by bigots was pure hate.  NOT THE AMERICA OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY FIGHT FOR.

Americans insisting on enforcing our sovereignty and its rules are methodically being attacked and defamed.  Joe Arpaio comes to mind.  Would the media and its political contingents really achieve their success if our electorate were better informed or educated?  NOT ON YOUR LIFE.

The ballot box is our last vestige of hope.  This means that all of us at the grass roots level must take an active involvement and support our county clerks in their promise and oath of office to make sure that our votes are collected and counted according to the due process of our American ballot system.

SPEAK UP! VOLUNTEER! TALK WITH AMERICANS WITH ACCENTS!!! They will know and recognize American systems and rules that are being torn asunder under political correctness and present day practices considered “routine”.

CALL.  WRITE.  BOMBARD them with letters.  DON’T LET YOUR LOCAL REPRESENTATIVES TELL YOU THERE IS NOTHING THEY CAN DO.  PRESSURE THEM AND MAKE THEM SQUIRM until they understand they WORK FOR YOU, THE AMERICAN PUBLIC; and no public office is higher than its citizenry.  When was the last time you heard a statesman? Why must we go to historic tapes to hear a voice that is focused on what is best for the country as opposed to what is best for the elected official?

Lastly, follow the money.  Monitor present and past congressional leaders who now lobby for special interests…think they don’t know where the loopholes and power centers exist?  And if you believe it is too late, then you don’t deserve any other kind of government than what you have supported; and you are committing your children and grandchildren to a future of serfdom.

Listen. Study. Act. Get involved.  The country you save may be our own.

The Green Easter Egg

The year was 1979.  Thank God for my dear aunt by marriage; she invited me to make sugar eggs with her.  My childlike delight escaped from my normal responsible confines imposed upon myself; I agreed to join her in that Easter’s endeavor.

We were elbow deep in sugar and decorator frosting for several weeks, commandeering the dining room table, her cookie sheets and oven, and the back sun room for most of the Lenten season.  It was messy but absolutely wonderful!  She was as delighted to show me the hidden magic “tricks” as I was delighted to discover the mysteries of these small egg panoramas!

I’d be taking some of my sugar art down to the Bay Area for the family, so I began thinking of one for my mother. For Mom, I would have to keep it strictly traditional in its splendor.  That was easy enough, as we both appreciated the beauty of tradition and Easter in all its spring freshness.   I mentally ticked off all the eggs I would need to make for my loved ones.

Like Rome’s architects, my aunt and I began with good intentions.  Of course, my aunt’s hand was seasoned enough that she had little “wasted” frosting.  The eggs and the frosting tips I soon managed well enough. However, after weeks of working with the colored sugar molds and frosting tubes, we began to tire of this project; the newness was starting to wear off; we were fast becoming “Eastered-out”.  Our former disciplines gave way to creative, off the cuff, non-traditional panoramic works of sugar art.

We decided to personalize each person’s egg where at all possible. My aunt’s two little grandsons were playmates of My Only’s; we would use the three little plastic skunks and make a special trio of eggs for our “little stinkers”!!!  The possibilities were endless and we soon succumbed to fits of giggles as we playfully continued to craft each egg.  The more we tired during each day’s session, the more my Easter egg masterpieces evolved into original, silly subject centers, with only the leaves and flowers on the outside reminiscent of a traditional Easter palette.

It was time to create an egg for Daddy.  I had one miniature ceramic horse figurine set aside just for him.  With the addition of some small straw flowers, I placed a horseshoe shape of little red blossoms around the neck in a true winner’s circle fashion.  A bit of frosting glue and VOILA!  A Winner’s Circle Quarter Horse for all seasons!  I could hardly wait for the car trip down for Easter dinner.

We arrived home for Easter weekend and discovered my father had been placed into the French Hospital in San Francisco for observation.  I don’t even remember the actual medical concern. I was too upset to reasonably deal with the moment, and I sat in the kitchen on the Cosco Stool, crying and explaining to Mom that Easter just wasn’t going to seem like Easter without Daddy at the table.  True to form, Mom was the strong one.  She believed deeply that Daddy was receiving the best of care and that he would return home soon.  She reminded me that we could go visit him at any time.  As a young married mother of a three year old, I attempted to shape up somewhat so as not to alarm My Only.  We soon left for the hospital with magazines and his green Easter egg carefully wrapped in hand.

To my relief, Daddy looked good, was in high spirits, and content with his treatment thus far.  The French Hospital still had a good reputation at that time for keeping the older Frenchmen “happy”.  Times were changing, but the dietician still allowed a small glass of red wine as part of a dinner tray if the patient’s health permitted it.

I presented my sugar green egg to Daddy.  He donned his eyeglasses and peered inside…the little racehorse was obviously a pleasant surprise!

Boy, do you have my number!  Think you’re pretty smart, huh Annette?

Extremely pleased with his response, I sat it on the side table with the get well cards for him to enjoy.  While Daddy was filling Mom in on the details of his stay thus far, including his having “gone to confession” compliments of the resident French-speaking priest, the same priest appeared through the door, introducing himself to all of us, then began speaking to my mother who greeted him en francais.  Mom was enjoying the opportunity to converse in her native French (Mom’s command of the language was that of the old country, despite her having been born in Livermore) so she didn’t notice my father beckoning me to the side table, nor did she hear his frantic directions in Pig Latin:  Ix-nay the egg-ay! Ix-nay the egg-ay!

It took me a minute to understand…the egg was too fragile to nix per se, so I quickly turned the green egg around to face the wall.  Only the frosted leaves and iced trim of its backside were still in clear view.  The visit was no more than a few minutes at the most before the priest excused himself to continue making his rounds.  Once the priest left, Daddy explained what this was all about.  During confession, he’d told the priest

You can throw the book at me, Father

Daddy had taken communion for the first time in many years.  He wasn’t so sure if his thrown book confession completely covered all his human flaws, especially his love for horseracing and gambling.  The last thing he needed was for the priest to see that Easter egg.  Obediently, I wrapped it back up and carried it back to Rubberneck Avenue for safe keeping.  Daddy was going to be just fine…

Innocent Bystander

For the most part, my father was a very unassuming man in attitude and countenance.  It didn’t help him at the age of ten to have been compared to his older, more handsome siblings.  All nine were lined up in front of some old French woman who had decided it was her position in the small community to rate the physical attractiveness of each child.  She began with the girls, remarking how tres jolie each one was, and similarly with the young beaus of the family, when she came to my father.  This was the English translation:

“This one’s homely, but he’ll improve”.

To hear Daddy tell this story many years later, he said he immediately hung his head down in shame.  A remark like that stuck.  He could laugh about it now, and for the better part of his life he adapted a self-deprecating nature.  He could be competitive, however! He excelled in sports and was a great ball room dancer, so he made his own mark in the pool of available young men in West Oakland.

Daddy was still a rather bashful young man, often turning down a drink with the requisite Non, Merci (en francais), rarely accepting anything unless he was completely comfortable in the situation.  Years later,  he shared how he had learned his lesson the hard way, having passed up lots of good port and sherry over the years at Mom’s aunt’s house, wherein a guest would only hear an offer once per visit (and visits could be as long as two or three hours).  Daddy smartened up after a few times and quickly accepted whatever cocktail was first offered! My guess is that his desperate Yes, please was more than likely uttered in English; his French was very poor (as Mom reminded him and constantly corrected his pronunciation).

Clothes figured in there somewhere, but the young man who had once cut a slender form in the required barbershop jacket and straw hat had succumbed to the more comfortable striped overalls and gunmetal work pants that so expressed his tradesman persona.  This was the man I knew; the one who was lovingly cared for by Mom.

Overalls saved the knees from linoleum laying wear and tear. Daddy in overalls saved Mom a lot of fussing; for one thing, she didn’t have to constantly remind him to Pull up your pants! Also, as Mom continually emphasized to him, the stripes made him look thinner. Seriously, for a man standing at five foot four and one hundred eighty, this was somewhat of a stretch in my view.

But dear Mom wasn’t through with my father yet!  She already scolded him when he didn’t part his hair just perfectly.   As Daddy once retorted:

I could be lying in the box and you’d still be complaining my hair wasn’t combed just right!

For Daddy, Mom’s corrections became a game.  Regarding his French accent; he’d repeat her corrected sentence and dramatically extend the last syllable, emphasizing the rolling r’s and the lingering a’s just to irk Mom… This worked; Mom might be shaking her head in dismay, but she was laughing as we, at his irreverent, playful responses!

Daddy had never been a scholar, but his wood working and cabinetry were among the best of his class. He was not exactly a Jesus the Carpenter type as depicted by European artisans, but he was a man whose skilled hands, work ethic, and compassionate demeanor were evident in his countenance. My father was without pretense and very unassuming, even when he had reason to be extremely proud of his accomplishments as a son, a husband, a father, and not the least of these, a first generation born American.

Thus, I always found it comical that, no matter the occasion or the opportunity,  most of our family pictures with Daddy included his sitting or standing among us, looking as though he ‘d accidentally walked into the wrong group photo… as though he were an innocent bystander who just happened to get caught in that particular Kodak moment…

LEFTOVERS

LEFTOVERS

How many frogs does it take to cook a turkey?

Only one; it’s genetic and she’s damn good at it!

Our kitchen was always fragrant with onions, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme… one of the neighbors from around the block would walk up the driveway and comment,

Whatever you are cooking smells wonderful! Even the flies are gathered at your kitchen window screen…

Mom took this remark as it was meant to be; a compliment. She was normally preparing a holiday or family dinner.  Often, the flies had gathered on the days she was preparing the farce, a traditional meat stuffing combination of beef and pork, cooked with the seasonings, then ground very fine with her hand grinder clamped to the side of the chopping board.  Stale French bread soaked in milk and squeezed almost dry, an egg, and some salt and pepper – Voila! Farce; smelled absolutely divine and scented the entire driveway and two doors down in both directions.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas, turkey would be one of two main entrees.  Ham was normally the second, unless Daddy decided to barbeque a leg of lamb. All Daddy had to do was normally clean and ready the old round charcoal barbeque; then wait for Mom to tell him the lamb was prepped.  Daddy’s station was the backyard.  The rest of the meal was in Mom’s kitchen.

Preparing a dinner was always an exhausting effort; no matter the year, the turkey dinner had to be perfect and complete. Thanksgiving might be an American Holiday, but the cuisine had definite French overtones. Nearly every dish took two to three days to complete.  There were no shortcuts in Mom’s kitchen.

At one time, a first course soup with a small amount of pasta was served. Mom made the bouillon from scratch.  End of the first day, she’d place the pot on the dryer to cool down overnight.  Next morning, she’d skim any beef fat that might have congealed so to clarify the broth for serving.  On the holiday, she’d boil the entire pot once again, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and then add the very tiny pieces of vermicelli.  The plates of soup began the meal.

Somewhere between the bouillon and crab salad a bread basket arrived, a bottle each of red and white wines, and the antipasto plates; one plate included salami with prosciutto, and the other was a sectioned glass dish of pickles, black olives, and pepperoncini.

Time to prepare the individual, molded crab salads.  The crab mixture had been made the day before. It included canned crab, finely chopped hardboiled egg, minced celery and parsley, held together with Best Foods Mayonnaise, a bit of lemon and dash of salt and pepper.  Mixture was moist and stored covered the day before. Plates were readied with endive and escarole, and then light vinaigrette was spooned over each.  We watched our aunt don her cobbler apron and team up with Mom; they each knew the others’ actions because they had assisted my grandfather in his kitchen “down the house”.  Our aunt and Mom always enjoyed working together; it was just like old times for them. One was as much a perfectionist as the other, so they got along just fine.

As we grew older, Mom would let us mold the crab mixture in a small demitasse cup, just the right size for a dinner menu this grand.  PLOP! The small little hill would sit in the middle (if all went well) and then one would sprinkle a bit of paprika on the mound for color.  A black olive on top, a lemon wedge on the side. Perfect! The salads were stacked inside the fridge, on tops of jars and other glass containers to remain chilled for serving.

Years later, we convinced Mom to skip the soup; none of us younger generation missed the clarified broth very much; personally, I thought the final dish was not worth the effort. The individual crab salads were so colorful that Mom finally omitted the first course soup and we placed the salads directly on the dinner plates.  They looked so pretty and became one of the last finishing touches before calling everyone to sit down.

Petit Pois (peas) seasoned with green onion, garlic and bacon were prepared; as were Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, yams simply glazed with some brown sugar, and cranberry sauce – both whole berry and jelly (these were the most American recipes on our table; American was defined as anything non-French looking, possibly from a can, sweetened, easily served and didn’t take much fuss.

Cheese, bread, coffee with brandy and a store-bought dessert ended the meal; homemade pies came much later once Bro married a gal who could really bake!

No course or detail was omitted when the aunts and uncles came over.  The entire dinner was served on a linen table cloth, with matching linen napkins that Mom had “done up” herself, another expectation that she fulfilled having inherited the French Curtain Laundry gene too.

What is the ONLY reason to cook a turkey?

Leftovers… of course!

I remember the one Thanksgiving that Mom was rather relaxed in the kitchen.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed this.  She even decided that we girls could help with the hors d’oeuvre plate and whatever we did to make the items look pretty would be okay.

Okay? This from the same mother who told me that the way I chopped carrots made her laugh?

I was starting to be concerned… Mom was smiling,  laughing with us in HER kitchen,  and whatever we did was OKAY???

Then it hit; no aunts or uncles were coming; we’d be just the immediate family this year.

Brat and I told Mom we liked her much better when the relatives weren’t going to have dinner with us; that she was much easier to be around.  She took this all in, and didn’t even get angry.  I think she realized just how much she had worked all those years and wasn’t even sure herself if she needed all the fuss to enjoy the day…that was a nice moment of awakening in Mom’s kitchen for us all.

Must be genetic; in true Rubberneck Avenue fashion, I have exhausted myself cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner.  Mine is updated; no soup,  a crab salad appetizer, some tweaks here and there.  Oh yes; bread dressing a la Americaine.

So, I must console myself this Friday After with only leftovers … it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to keep up the family traditions…

Postponing the Inevitable

Mom, do you want me to call them?

No, that’s okay.  Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving.  Call them tomorrow if you want to.

That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning.  I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died.  I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline.  There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.

I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did.   Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted.  Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule.  Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:

Life is for the living, Annette.

This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us.  He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill.  Many years before, I had run next door crying,  telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away!  Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time.  Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.

Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son.  Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year.  Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals.  Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications.  Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom;  he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time.  Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings.  Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.

I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet.  I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins.  We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people.  I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.

Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday.  She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone.  Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.

Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy.  This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.

As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later.  Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.