Caring for One’s Inner Teenager and Picture #9

The Mush naps atop Lifelongnewyorker back in Staten Island.  RIP, Mush.

The Mush naps atop Lifelongnewyorker back in Staten Island. RIP, Mush.

This photo was taken, without Lifelongnewyorker’s knowledge or consent, about five years ago.  With a few circumstances changed, it could have been today.

What’s different: We no longer have that loveseat. Lifelongnewyorker is five years older. The cat pictured, lovingly nicknamed The Mush (for obvious reasons), died this year.  Our current cats nap by themselves.

What’s the same: After a long week, Lifelongnewyorker likes to take a nap on Saturday.  She pays lip-service to the cover story that she is going to read; a book is nearby.  But the lying down, the strategic placement of the pillow, and the addition of a coverlet all show that she’s fooling no one, including herself.  It rarely takes more than two or three pages before she sinks into unconsciousness.  Today’s lasted for three hours.

How nice, you’re probably thinking, to take such a long nap in the middle of a long weekend day.  Well, sort of.

The “inner teenager” of the title is a short dose of Mr. NYer’s wit and warmth.  You see, Lifelongnewyorker’s nap began only a few hours after she had gotten up from bed.  Yes, Lifelongnewyorker slept until 10:30 am.  More to the point, Lifelongnewyorker CAN still sleep to 10:30.  And then, a couple of hours later, take a nap.

She also falls asleep on airplanes before take-off.

Sadly, most people of Lifelongnewyorker’s vintage can no longer sleep much past 7 am.  They cite too many years of waking up for work, waking for children, waking to get an early start on the day’s worries.  Is it that they failed to nurture their inner teenager? Did they grow up too completely? You decide.

Lifelongnewyorker knows that having one’s inner teenager still hanging around is a gift.  Now if she could only do something about the clothes strewn on the floor.

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The Ties that Bind

I am terrible at remembering birthdays, and sorry about it.  Really. 

Oddly, I am really good at remembering death dates.  Although I never knew my maternal grandmother, I always knew that she died on Dec. 31.  We never celebrated New Year’s Eve in my house.

My father left on Friday, Sept. 13; it would be hard to forget that.  This last anniversary, a month or so ago, was the 20th.  I thought about him, exchanged some emails with my sisters, and noted happily that The Abandoned One had changed his FB profile picture to one of the two of them — one 5 years old and one 80 — squeezed into a recliner and wearing coordinating red plaid shirts.  I wished, as I always do, that I had covered more ground with him.  And then I set to work for the rest of the day.

Today, Oct. 22, is a Saturday.  Because of that, it’s harder to put aside the fact that it is the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death.  It’s a beautiful day, a better one than the day she died.  I’m determined not to drown in work this weekend, as I have for the last several (it turns out that you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take NY out of the girl), so I have a list of stuff to do around the house.  Store my summer shoes and get the boots out.  Organize the bathroom closet and drawers.  Wash the windows.

I finish my coffee while updating my FB status.  I make mom’s picture my profile and I wonder what she would have thought about me living in Alabama.  Silly.  If she had lived, she’d be in her late 90s.  There’s no way I would have moved to Alabama.

I summon Mr. NYer.  He joins me, but I can tell he doesn’t think there’s a pressing need to clean windows.  He doesn’t object, though, because he’s happy to see me doing something other than work.  I know the windows need  to be cleaned — we’ve been in this house over a year and have never touched them.  My mother would die … well, she would disapprove.

I know this with certainty.  When my middle sister’s first son was born — a full year after she had moved into her new house —  my mother went there to help out for a week or so.  Mom took care of household chores so my sister could take care of her new baby.  She laundered and ironed my brother-in-law’s shirts.  She dusted, vacuumed, and cleaned the refrigerator.  She made dinner.  Having taken care of the basics, she decided to wash the windows.  Taking down the curtains, she discovered manufacturer’s labels still affixed to the glass.  I don’t remember whether my mother actually told me this herself (which would have been rare — she didn’t tell tales and almost never complained about one child to another) or whether my sister did, after my mother made it clear that this wasn’t how she had been raised.

These are the kinds of things one thinks about when setting out to do those chores that you learned to do in childhood and that you do infrequently enough that they don’t become routine.  They unleash memories.  We lived in a three-story house in Brooklyn, where my mother’s bi-annual “general cleaning” included a death-defying window routine.  It required her to raise the lower sash as high as she could, poke her head and upper body out of the open window, turn around and ease herself onto the sill. There she sat, her legs inside the room and the  rest of her outside.  As if this wasn’t bad enough to the child inside the room terrified that mommy was  going to fall way way down, she then lowered the sash until it hit her  thighs, and proceeded to wash the outside.  Passersby would scold  her for doing something so dangerous.  This was  before tilt-in windows.

She liked to have the antiseptic sun streaming into the house through sparkling glass.  Her attitude towards clean windows was almost theological — it was what the moral code required, like going to church and taking communion.  Letting them get dirty was akin to avoiding confession. She was a fervent believer in the adage that cleanliness was next to godliness.

I had thought that the window cleaning, like being at work, would keep me busy enough to avoid the thoughts that percolate up every year on this day.  But they are inevitable.  As I assembled the window-cleaning supplies, I looked at the clock and thought, She was probably leaving the library now, on her way to Top Tomato.

A little later, This is around the time I got the phone call. … By now, I was in the town car I’d called and picking up my sister at her office downtown.  … By now, we were talking to the trauma doc. …

So mom was on my mind as I sprayed Windex and scrunched up the paper towels.  Rubbing in circles on a pane, I thought about the fact that I am a thousand miles away and I have not visited her grave since leaving NY.  I feel guilty and I think, “Well, I’m honoring my mother by cleaning windows today.  It’s appropriate. She’d be happy.”

And that’s when I started bawling, surprised by the emotion that hadn’t been there five minutes ago.  I realized that I didn’t want to honor  her by cleaning windows, or think that was what it meant to know her. Is that really what she wanted? 

I remembered the line from her obituary that I had thought was perfect, a bit tongue-in-cheek and yet, oh so true!  I had remarked to the reporter that mom could have written a book about cleaning.  My sister (same one) didn’t like it.  It was okay to joke privately about mom and cleaning; but not in the obit. 

Or maybe she realized that our mother’s cleaning wasn’t really the defining part of her;  maybe my sister had already decided — long ago — that she would honor mom in some way other than by cleaning windows well. (Doing it well was important — “Make sure you get in the corners, and keep turning the paper so that you’re using a clean surface. If the sun is on the window, you’ll have streaks.”)

Was this the choice?  Relive the day in my head or evoke her by doing what she did almost constantly? (I mean cleaning and chores in general, of course.  She didn’t do windows constantly.)  I never like to think about the other path — Asking myself what I would have  said to her if I’d had the chance?  What did I miss saying to her?  What did she miss telling me about herself?  That’s just pointless.

And what was it about the cleaning?  All my mother’s three sisters shared the mania to some extent.  They talked  about how well their mother — the grandmother whose too-early death ruined New Year’s Eve 15 years before I was born — did everything well.  She sewed their clothes, knitted, crocheted, did embroidery, ran the house, cooked dishes from the Old Country that they had no idea how to recreate.  And, I imagine, she had high standards of cleanliness.  They had to have picked it up somewhere.  In their narrative, none of them matched her, but each did one or two things well.  Mom cleaned, crocheted,and managed a household masterfully.  Aunt Alice cleaned well, too, and was also,  according to my mother, the better cook.  Aunt Anna knit better than mom, and cooked well too.  Aunt Phyl sewed, and was a happy soul, the way they said my grandmother had been. 

And then, for the first time in my life — can you imagine? — it occurred to me that, like me, my mother probably thought of her mother when she cleaned, cooked and knitted.  Did she do those things so fervently to connect with her mother?  With the clarity that comes only when you’ve been stupidly blind, I realized that, of course she did. 

I used  to get angry with my mother for never having time for me because she had chores to do.  After dinner, my father would take us for a summer drive while Mom stayed home, cleaned up after dinner and then took up items from her mending pile (and probably got the only peace of the day!)  One of the two vacations we took when I was a child was without Mom — my father took my his three daughters to a cottage colony in Sullivan County.  My grandfather’s failing vision meant that he could not be left alone; Mom stayed home to take care of him.

Today I realized, in a way I hadn’t before, that the care-taking was a way for her to massage her loss and be close to her mother.  It was, as well,  in her mind the best way for her to take care of us as well.  The honor and love were expressed in duty and went both ways, up to her parents and down to us. 

My mother became more human to me today.  Which means I miss her even more.

By this time, we were in her house, making phone calls. 

 In just a few more hours, it will be Oct. 23.

Bingo, Taxes and Title Loans

It’s time to wade into Alabama politics.  Just a little.

I’ve been advised to “try to get to like us first” before starting to follow state politics.  This advice came from a person who would like us to stay in the state.

Knowing that I now live in a state that elected Jeff Sessions to the U.S. Senate, I’ve tried to follow that advice.  I do know that elections — primaries, I suppose — are coming up, because lawns have sprouted signs in addition to weeds.

If Young Boozer wins the Republican primary for the post of state treasure, I have to admit I’m tempted to vote for him, if only because of his name.  If he loses the primary, I will most likely vote for the Democrat, regardless of his name.  Because the name of the other Republican is enough to almost keep me from voting entirely:  George Wallace, Jr.  Yes, the son of that George Wallace.

But electoral politics isn’t what’s leading the news these days.  No, the hot fight is over bingo.  From what I can gather, bingo is the word used in Alabama to describe what is known in every other part of the United States as slot machines.  The governor believes bingo violates state law, and ordered the casinos in which the machines operate to be shut down.  But the attorney general is on the side of the casino operators.

It’s hard to escape the Bingo Wars if you have TV.  Actually, we don’t have TV (see previous post), but we still get to witness some of the warfare by way of billboard attacks.  As near as I can tell, the governor and his allies are in the pockets of evil Mississippi gambling interests who want to maintain their regional monopoly.  The pro-bingo forces are the front of shady looking gangsters who smoke cigars in poorly lighted rooms.  There must be an element of morality somewhere, too — after all, slot machines, even when called bingo, are a form of gambling–but I haven’t seen it emerge as a dominant theme.

In fact, Alabama doesn’t seem to be bothered too much by the moral aspects of state financing.  The highest marginal rate on the state income tax is 5%, and your federal taxes are deductible.  Our property taxes are among the lowest in the nation, and, as our mortgage broker noted, “we have the schools to prove it.”  So, the tax system doesn’t impose a heavy burden on people who make a lot of money or can afford to buy a big expensive house.

But woe be to you if you need to buy stuff like food and clothing.  Here in Montgomery, the combined state and local sales tax is — get ready — 10%.  That’s higher than New York’s sales tax (8.5%).  And, to add regressive insult to regressive injury, the tax is levied on everything, including groceries.

I hear there’s a law under consideration in the legislature to finally repeal the tax on food, but it has been introduced before and failed.  In the Commerce Cafeteria at lunch last week, I overheard two suited men — lawyers, legislators or some kind of high-level state officials, I would guess from their appearance — denouncing the foolishness of this effort. “And it looks like they might get rid of the sales tax this time,” one said in a voice filled with chagrin, “Well, how do they think they’re going to make up that revenoo?”

But it’s OK, because poor folks have ready access to easy money: Title Loans.  There are more Title Loan offices here than there are pawn shops in Las Vegas, I am certain.  I wasn’t exactly sure what a title loan was, although judging from the locations of these places, I was pretty sure it was basically a legal form of loan-sharking.  The storefronts look a lot like those check-cashing places you see in lower-income neighborhoods in New York.  Both business make their fortunes off the “unbanked.”

Today I saw a title loan place advertising — on a huge banner — its interest rate: 9.9%.  Got that?  Nearly ten percent when CDs are paying less than 2%; when you can get a mortgage for less than 5.5% (well, if you can find a bank willing to make the loan).  This drove me to Google, where I found out more about the business model under which these places operate: you borrow against your car.  Apparently, all you need to do is bring in the title to your car, and you too can be paying ten cents on the dollar for a loan.  Can’t pay?  Well, they’re a step up from loan sharks, I guess.  They just take your car.  I’m thinking Repo Men.

So, let’s get this straight:  You’re a member of the working poor — maybe you have a job at a casino.  You live in a city without much public transportation, so you depend on your car.  If you work in a casino, you REALLY need a car, because they’re all in the middle of nowhere.  You live paycheck to paycheck, which means that you spend 100% of your income.  And the sales tax is 10%, so essentially it knocks your purchasing power down by 10%.  (Folks who make more money tend to save some portion, and another chunk of their spending is discretionary, so the 10% sales tax doesn’t hit them proportionately).  And then the governor shuts down the casinos, you’re out of a job at least temporarily, and the day comes when the rent is due.  So you dig out the title to the car and borrow some money …

Unlike members of the Tea Party, I believe in taxes. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “They’re the price we pay for civilized society.” But not these kinds of tax policies.  What ever happened to progressive taxation, based on the ability to pay?  Gone, I guess, with the progressives.

I also believe in banks, and wish they’d work harder to revive the spirit of thrift — can you imagine if banks spent as much money on direct mail promoting savings accounts as they do pushing credit card offers?

You Can Go Home Again

In a few short hours, Lifelongnewyorker leaves for the airport to go … home?   Well, back to Alabama.

During the visit to the real home — defined as any place where Mr. NYer, the two cats, and the Abandoned One live — she has had to hold her tongue a few times and refrain from referring to the apartment in Alabama as “home.”  It’s a bit disorienting.

Thankfully, Staten Island missed the “Snowmageddon 2010” storm that hit Washington, Baltimore and up into New Jersey.  Perhaps two or three inches fell here, while just to the south friends in New Jersey got a good deal more.  It still felt like winter, though, with the temperature a lively 18 degrees this morning.  A peek at Montgomery showed 52.  Ahh.

Being home, even for just two nights, had its rewards.  Cats.  Cats in lap, cats padding chest, cats nosing the hand, wanting to be petted, 16-pound cat sound asleep on back during the night.  Food.  Mr. NYer prepared one of my favorite meals on Friday and whipped up two of his signature eggplant omelets this weekend.  Sleep.  In my own bed, with my husband. 

Lifelongnewyorker felt a rush of pleasure walking through the door to a clean and more spare house than she’d left.  The moving sale didn’t move many of the big items, but it helped the guys to pare down the possessions.  Mr. NYer packed up pictures and small items; the Abandoned One has made significant headway, too. 

We descended to the basement to confirm what was to happen to the stuff hunkered down there.  Much to my relief, much of it was easily decided:  some would go with the Abandoned One to his new apartment, some to the Salvation Army, some to the trash, and precious little with us.  Only two boxes, with old files, had eluded judgement:  we lugged them upstairs for review.

And that’s how I came to spend much of Saturday afternoon reading through every paper I ever wrote, beginning in 7th grade.   Some, from Mr. Roach’s classes in high school, revealed that my worldview and politics haven’t changed much:  in 1971  I wrote about the need to replace fossil fuels and cut down on energy consumption.  In another paper, I examined mass transit policies that would replace cars in cities.  There were two major papers on John Vliet Lindsay, one looking at his candidacy for the Presidency.  (After all, he’d  already been mayor of NY, which as his campaign button proclaimed, was “The 2nd hardest job in America.”)

Then I came upon the college papers and realized just how much I’ve  forgotten.  I came upon a blue book from a philosophy course — I was a philosophy major — and read, with some astonishment, an essay distinguishing synthethic from analytic statements, replete with the phrases “a priori” and “a posteriori” scattered throughout.  I’d once known this stuff?   Other papers discussed Kant, Descartes, Leibnitz, Wittenstein and Vonnegut.  Apparently I once had thoughts on phenomenology.  Not only did I not remember most of this — although I like to believe that I’ve integrated it into my thinking on a very deep level — I couldn’t even remember some of the courses.  Dr. Reuben Abel?  The name sounded familiar, but the face could not be summoned.  Nor could any details of the classroom or any of my fellow students. 

The grad papers, mainly in history but some in education, occupied more familiar ground.  Yes, I did know a lot about 19th century reform movements, the Burned Over District, and the growth of cities.  Most of that stuck, and I still find it fascinating.  Just ask me. 

Fascinating or not, the piles of onion-skin erasable paper went into the trash bin of history.  If I have contributed to human knowledge, it’s been through my teaching more than my scholarship.  Except for Prohibition Park and NDA itself, but those are each another story …

The Abandoned One looked through a trove of art and writings from his prehistory.  On special occasions he would record his thoughts by dictating them to me.  I wrote these down in large printed script.  Thus we read his reports on the  Pink Badge and Green Badge parties from the Great Kills Swim Club, the trip to Sesame Place, and summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.  Mostly he wrote about food.  The art ranged from crayon scribbles to gilded macaroni.  He chose the best and will send it to Alabama with us. 

The Abandoned One found an apartment this weekend, and is happily planning his move.  Together with two Oberlin friends, he’s moving to a parlor floor in a Crown Heights brownstone.  It has a new bathroom, a full-size refrigerator in an actual kitchen, and is, he reports, full of light.  Even his bedroom, which has no windows.  It’s right on Eastern Parkway, a few blocks from where my sisters went to high school 45 years ago.  He’ll have window seats at the Caribbean Day Parade. 

Eager to have somewhere to put our stuff when it gets to Alabama, Mr. NYer and I tried to decide on which house to buy.   We’ve got three strong choices, each with some wonderful features, and all of which we think we’d be comfortable in.  Of course, each also has a major trade-off. 

Should we buy the updated 1925 house with lots of character, a huge veranda, a screened-in room and lots of light?  It’s also the one where the 2nd bedroom’s wall are  upholstered–literally–in French silk,  putting the room off-limits to the cats, and where the 3rd bedroom with bath is outside in a separate building. 

Or  perhaps we’ll take the 1952-era home with the wonderful addition on the back that features an open-plan kitchen/great room, a master suite with its  own study, and a guest wing that can be closed off from the rest of the house when not in use?  The downside here?  The house next door should be condemned and looks  like a meth house.  Oh, and there’s no covered parking, something that you want to have in the South.

Finally, there’s the new construction, a single-family cottage in a new development that’s in the older part of town.  It’s got quality finishes, a separate bath for each bedroom, a two-car garage, and a park-like community with pool, tennis courts and fitness room.  Oh, it also has an elevator.  Down side?  Not much private outdoor space, no separate study/den, and top of our budget. 

We alternate on which we like the best, then we rule one out only to rule it back in again the next time we consider the possibilities.  Right now, we’re back down to two, but it wasn’t the same two we were down to two hours ago.

Stay tuned. 

 PS — Dear Reader, if you like to read this blog but depend on new posts via FB, Lifelongnewyorker would appreciate it if you’d subscribe to the blog.  This means you’ll get an email with new posts, and I won’t have to post them on FB.  Thanks!

Why are they called blankets?

A "contemporary" grave blanket.

It’s January 2.  Mr. NYer and I welcomed 2010 with friends and family.  And it was time for me to start the goodbyes.  It’s been a good holiday season and fun to finish with two good parties.  

My parents never really celebrated New Year’s Eve.  First of all, they weren’t the party-going kind.  Mainly, though, it was because my maternal grandmother died on December 31 — in 1940 — and my mother could never set that loss aside to celebrate the arrival of a new year.  

I think of this because the dead are so much with us during the holidays, not only in their absence, but also in the traditions we carry on.  How we live with the dead, and commemorate their lives, is the subject of this post. 

I’ve got cemeteries on my mind, partly because the holiday season unofficially begins with the discussion about the grave blanket.  A grave blanket, for those who don’t know, is an oblong affair, constructed from evergreen boughs and decorated with pinecones, bows, plastic pointsettias, and, depending on taste, more garish holiday kitsch.  It is laid atop the grave of a loved one during the holiday season.  That much we can agree on.  Why we do it, what it means, and, especially, why it’s called a blanket, are not so clear.

There’s actually no disagreement among my sisters and I about getting the grave blanket for our parents’ plot.  Every year someone raises the issue, one of use volunteers to acquire the greenery, and we all split the cost.  We would not dream of not buying the blanket.  We do it because our mother did.  She and her siblings laid one on their  parents’ grave every year (but was one secured for my paternal grandparents?  I don’t know).  When our father died, mom always had a blanket put on his grave.

One of my sisters objects, vehemently, to the term “grave blanket.”   She feels it’s creepy and manipulative.  I don’t disagree, but I can’t be bothered to make the effort, as she does, to edit the phrase and call it a “cover” instead.  We all  agree that we prefer natural ones sans plastic accoutrements.  And we shudder at the folks who decorate their loved ones’ graves with Santa and snowmen at Christmas and with Jack o’ lanterns and witches at Halloween. 

We do not really discuss the function of the blanket/cover.  We know it  does not keep our parents warm.  We know that they (our parents) aren’t keeping tabs on whether we dutifully lay one down every year.  We  don’t necessarily even visit the cemetery during the holiday season to view the decorated grave (one can arrange with a local florist to handle it all via telephone).   

Yet we do it, and  we try to do it with some dignity.  We have done it the wrong way.  About a year after our mother died, I found myself with my sisters in a line of cars at the same cemetery awaiting our uncle’s funeral.  Someone raised the topic of the yet-to-be-purchased grave blanket when another noticed the adjacent florist.  Flash of inspiration!  Two of us dashed over,  bought the evergreen, borrowed a hammer to secure the spikes, and hustled back to the car, hoping no one was paying attention to what we were loading into the back.  After Uncle Mimi’s burial service was over, we stopped at Mom & Dad’s plot, near the statue of St. Joseph.  Dressed in suits and wearing heels, we did our best to secure  the cover, hammering in the spikes so it wouldn’t blow away.  We stood up, dusted off our hands, and I said, “Mom would  be proud,” recalling her own fierce efficiency.

“Are you kidding?” my sister replied.  “She’d be horrified.” 

She was right, of course.  We returned the hammer to the florist, and headed to the funeral lunch, where we didn’t brag about our deed.  My moment of feeling resourceful had passed, replaced by a certain cheesiness about killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.  It was spontaneous and efficient, but those aren’t the values the grave blanket is supposed to elicit.   

At some point after the season, the cemetery folks will sweep through and remove all the blankets, wreaths and other mementos of Christmas.  Or at least, we think they should.  But I have  visited the grave in early spring to find the blanket  a dried up brown mess, and have had to remove it myself.  This, of course, makes me feel guilty that I have not tended the plot more carefully. 

It doesn’t help, either, that a dear friend’s mother regularly visits her husband’s grave at the same cemetery.  Then, when she’s done, she stops by to visit all the other folks she knows.  She has graciously included my parents on the circuit, and I regularly hear reports that the grass isn’t maintained as well as it should be.  Should I be marching into the cemetery office to complain?  Does my failure to do so signal neglect?  

I admit to mixed feelings about the cemetery.  I like cemeteries, and have included visits to burial grounds on more than one vacation, appreciating the landscaping, the artistry of tombstones and, occasionally, the quirkiness of epitaphs.  I want to be buried when I die.  I think we should, in fact, go back to the earth, and as quickly and efficiently as possible.  So it’s not cemeteries per se that bother me.  It’s the totemic meaning we place on the grave itself.

I know there are folks who really feel closer to their loved ones when they visit.  I imagine this is mostly true for spouses or parents who have  lost children.  I know there are people who visit, and chat with those who are buried; some people leave small  gifts or messages behind.  (Then there are those who take out ads in the local newspaper to wish a “Happy Birthday to Johnny in heaven,” a practice I find disturbing on so many levels.  But I digress.) 

For me, visiting my parents’ grave reminds me of nothing so much as their funerals. I’m enough of a Christian to feel that acting as if they are there is more than a little bit pagan. For me, it’s more mundane activities, like painting a room,  or cooking a holiday meal, that bring my parents vividly to life in memory.  

For most graves, unless the person buried is famous, there’s a relatively narrow window of meaningful visitation that lasts twenty years or so.  A widowed spouse visits devotedly as long as he or she can.  Children visit dutifully.  I know where my grandparents are buried, but I have not seen their graves since my parents passed.  The only reasons for visits after I was married was to chauffeur my parents.  

The neglect didn’t begin with my generation.  About thirty years ago, interested in digging up some family history, I sat with my father and examined the cemetery deeds in his possession.  Holding one for Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn I asked, “Who is buried here?”

“My grandfather,” he  answered.  “But it’s an unmarked grave.” 

My father’s widowed grandfather died, I knew, in 1912, when my father was two years old.  “What about your grandmother?” I asked.  “Isn’t she buried there too?”

My father didn’t think so, but had no idea when she had died or where she was buried.  He only remembered that he had visited this narrow, unmarked grave in the old section of Holy Cross once or twice as a child with his mother.  With a mystery in hand, we drove to Brooklyn on a summer afternoon to investigate.  We walked into the cemetery office, handed the deed to the woman behind the counter, and asked for information on the grave.

First we learned that, should we want to bury someone,  we would have to cough up a couple of hundred dollars in past due upkeep.  This surprised us — not that the grave pre-dated perpetual care, but that anyone would actually think of using the plot.  Next she thumbed through a card file and announced, “There are eleven people in this grave; it will take time to look them up. ”   She told us that she would mail the list, but we left expecting that an overdue balance would trump her  helpfulness. 

The list did come, and revealed that not only was his grandmother buried there, but so were nine of my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom he had ever known and all of whose ages at death revealed the terrible reality of living in the nineteenth century.   

Despite knowing who was in the grave, my father never visited again.  Why would he?  The only people  who care about graves are the ones who shared a space of time on earth with the departed.  Like I said, it’s a narrow window.

My departure to Alabama means I am shortening the window for my parents’ grave.  My sisters will visit, and I imagine I will get there once in a while.  When we are gone, whether to other states, or to another final state, that grave will join the ranks of unvisited graves sighted from the roadside and forming a mere part of the overall cemetery landscape.

It’s better that way.  Imagine if we mourned for generations.  We’d never move, and never move on.

What is that Kid Thinking?

Outdoor refrigerationWith about a month before Lifelongnewyorker heads to Alabama, we decided that it was time to announce the move to the wider world of seldom-seen friends, acquaintances and relatives with whom we have yet to exchange e-mail addresses.  And what better way than via Christmas card?   So this year we ordered up more than usual, and had the following (more or less) printed inside:

We’ve made a few resolutions for 2010:

  1. Accept a new job (Lifelongnewyorker) 
  2. Retire (MrNYer) 
  3. Move to Montgomery, Alabama (both of us) 
  4. Stay in New York (Soon-to-be-Abandoned)

We added a few more details about timing, and gave our email addresses.  Cards in the mail, we congratulated ourselves on having now finally notified just about everyone we could think of who might care, and probably a few who might not.   We thought, too, that the announcement might possibly put some folks in touch and elicit some interesting reactions. 

My uncle, one of only two of my mother’s siblings still living, took the bait.  I’m told that he spoke to my sister first, wanting to know,  “What is that kid thinking!?”   As if I had announced a new hobby of wrestling with alligators or plans to vacation in Myanmar.

My sister helped smooth the conversation he had with me later that day by putting it all in a rational perspective.  It’s a great job, she told him.   They’ve thought about it a lot, she assured him.  Mr. NYer is indeed old enough to retire, she attested.  She even went above and beyond, creating a whole future  for Mr. NYer in which he devoted himself to nurturing his already-green thumb, got a job at a nursery, and became a master gardener.   Uncle Dyed-in-the-Wool NYer, a gardener himself, was slightly mollified.

By the time he called me, his tone was less incredulous and more, well avuncularly cautionary.  Not once did the words “crazy,” “nuts,” “lunatic,” or the phrase “take leave of your senses,” enter the conversation.  He allowed time for me to make my case and then, in a tone that was uncannily like my mother’s voice, said, “Well, if this is what you really want …”  

What could he do?  My mind was  set.  Crazy kids.

I’ve gotten similar reactions from others who have a hard time seeing me in the South.  Or perhaps anywhere but in New York.  Some have urged me to learn to speak more slowly, and less directly.  Several have advised me to rent a place for a year, not to rush to buy, “because , you know, it might not work out.” 

Here’s the question:  Is this reaction more about me, or about the place I’m going?  Maybe my uncle is remembering that I was the kid who suffered from such profound homesickness anytime I went to spend a week with cousins that my mother would have to come rescue me by the third day.  Repeatedly.  But that doesn’t explain the reaction of others.  What’s that about?  Do they think I’m inflexible, brash, intense, loud and too pushy for life outside the New York bubble? 

I got some insight when I posted this picture on Facebook yesterday.  It’s the scene right outside my kitchen door  on Christmas Eve.   Like most people who experience real winter, I’ve always relied on the cold to provide extra refrigeration when needed.  Cooking lots of fish?   What better way to make room in the refrigerator than to stick the beer, wine and crab sauce in the snow.  But yesterday, after doing what I’ve done for years, I looked  down and realized that this was not going to be an option in Alabama.  And then I realized why all the kitchens I’d seen in the Alabama houses I’ve been looking at online have such HUGE refrigerators.  They don’t have the outdoor spill-over space.  So I posted the picture and updated my status:  Sudden realization.  I will need a bigger refrigerator in Alabama.

Along came comments about the recent arrival of “e-lek-tricity” and keeping ice boxes on  the porch. (Oddly, no root cellar jokes.) And then it clicked:  Like me, most of the people I know have  no idea what life is like outside New York and a few other places, like Florida.  What they know about Alabama is drawn from movies, television, country music, redneck jokes, and black & white footage of civil rights scenes from the 1960s.  It’s a stereotype, just like New York is a stereotype for people who have never lived here.  

I don’t know exactly what life will be like in Montgomery.  I imagine it will be different in many ways, and similar in others.  It will be unfamiliar, but I’m looking forward to the cognitive dissonance.  I love the idea of suddenly seeing things from an entirely different perspective.  I liked looking at the stuff sitting in my snow and coming to the realization that that’s not the way it is everywhere.  I’m looking forward to seeing lots of things with new eyes.   And yes, sometimes  that difference will most likely be mystifying, frustrating, and possibly disorienting.  I won’t know all the rules of behavior.  I won’t recognize all the produce in the supermarket.  I may not understand the allure of red velvet cake.   But I don’t labor under the delusion that New York’s ways define the norm, or that everything is measured against  New York’s standards.   

My father used to tell the story of serving in the army during World War II with a fellow New Yorker, a real blowhard, as my father saw it.  This guy, a “working stiff,” never stopped bragging and letting the poor GIs from Kansas or Texas know that nothing they had could compare to life in the big city, with its shows, lights and fancy night clubs.  Dad would listen to this for as long as he could stand, and then ask the guy to tell about the nightclubs he frequented.  The guy never left the Bronx, as Dad knew, and the question usually silenced him for a time.   

I won’t be that guy.  It’s true that New York is amazing; it’s singular, not like any place else in the world.  But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of life.  I’ve long held that every American should try to live in New York for a while, preferably when they’re young.  A corollary to this rule is my belief, too, that lifelong New Yorkers should, at some point in their lives, live someplace else.  Call it a reality check.

The Christmas Tree Routine Perfected. Oh well.

The Northeast winter arrived early this year, with temps well below freezing and a brisk wind that reminded LifelongNewYorker that she really doesn’t like that season.  This morning, at least, the wind was light and the sun shining brightly as we went out to bag a Christmas tree. 

For nearly a quarter-century or so we donned our warmest clothes and ventured out into the wild to get the perfect tree.  No, there are no national forests nearby; we rely on Christmas tree farms.  The tradition was begun by friends who had moved to Pennsylvania and discovered some cut-your-own farms in the rural inland hills near their Delaware River community.  They invited a dozen or so couples to their house on a designated Saturday in December, served hot, stick-to-your ribs food, and led a caravan up and down the country roads to the tree farm that Mr. Pennsylvania had determined had the best selection only after scoping several out the previous week. 

Because the calendar rather than the weather determined these tree-cutting days, our memories include cutting trees in all sorts of weather — sun, snow and ice storm.  One year the weather was so bitterly cold that we  sat in the car looking at the trees until I pointed to one about  twenty feet distant.  “That one,” I instructed Mr. NYer.  He gamely left the car, tree saw in hand, and cut that  tree down in record time.  As each couple selected a tree, or, in some cases, two trees (I remember one friend had  a tree for the great room and one for the living room; another picked one  up for  his mother as well as the one for his apartment), we’d stuff them in or on the cars and head back to the house for more chili, beer and even hot mulled wine. 

The Pennsylvania years drifted into the past, but Mr. NYer and I, with a younger Soon-to-be-Abandoned in tow, found some promising tree farms closer to home, in New Jersey.  These more domesticated, suburbanized farms didn’t  allow you to saw your own trees.  Instead, you found  the one you wanted and stood there yelling “cutter!” until a strapping young man arrived, measuring pole in one hand and tree saw in the other.  

The best thing about going solo to the New Jersey farms was that we could choose the day based on weather and calendar.  The last few years have been mild, and on more than one day we’ve needed only a lightweight jacket or a fleece hoodie as we walked over muddy fields in quest of the perfect tree.  

One thing I learned from the big Pennsylvania outings is that everyone’s perfect tree is different.  We’re not just talking species here, but also size and shape.  The host and hostess have a double-height living room which imposed no limit on the tree’s height.  Her brother got a small tree for his mother, but a tall  one for himself to grace the 12-foot ceilings  in his Park Slope apartment.  Some  folks liked them full  and fluffy, with lights and ornaments clinging to the branch tips like frosting on a cake.  We preferred a fir with dark needles and open branches  to hang the heavier longer ornaments that we’d collected over the years inside.  For me, the idea was to build a tree with depth, where new delights could be discovered by looking further in for just a little bit longer. 

Mainly, though, we needed a thin tree.  At nine-and-one-half feet, our living room could take a tall tree, but its 12-foot width, once filled with guests, precluded  a fat tree.  We have become expert at judging the fit of a prospective tree.  First, Mr. NYer stands next to it as I take its measure:  the top of his head should be — ideally — about 60% up the tree’s trunk.  If he’s at 50%, the tree  is too tall; at 70%,  it’s just too short.  Next, we scrutinize the bottom to ensure the circumference will allow people and cats to move freely without blocking an entrance or knocking ornaments to the floor.  Generally, a radius (measured by the longest low branch) of about 20 inches does the trick.  It’s not easy to find a tall, skinny, dark-needled fir tree.  No pines.  No greens  that tend more toward the yellow than the blue.  No blue spruce where the needles are so blue they’re almost silver.  And, most importantly, the needles must pass an exacting touch test.  The branches must be strong enough not to sag when the heavy ornaments are hung, and the preferred needles are firm but not sharp.  Have you ever had one of those trees where the needles  actually hurt?

We’ve gotten the tree selection down to a science, even in the last six or seven years in which we’ve done it without Soon-to-be-Abandoned.  Sometimes we take a camera to document the choices.  We’ve learned to note the location of a favored tree  by the way it lines up with utility poles, a neighboring structure, and the distant oak.  When the tree is finally selected and the cutter called, I pull the car over to the baler and leave Mr. NYer to oversee the tying of the tree to the roof rack while I choose a wreath.

This year’s  trip was colder than recent ones, and we dressed as if we were headed to Pennsylvania.  I drew the line at long johns, but I had an undershirt, a wool turtleneck, another wool sweater, a fleece and my Mom’s LL Bean down jacket.  I was overdressed.  Even after ditching the fleece, I felt like  Ralphie’s little brother in The Christmas Story, padded so thick that all I could do was wheel my arms about my body.  I comforted myself with the thought that next year ‘s quest wouldn’t require  all these clothes.

But  there it is again.  This well-honed routine will be useless next year.  Instead, we’ll be adapting to the new.  A new home will mean a different limit to the height and width of the tree.  And maybe there  won’t be Christmas tree farms in that part of Alabama.  Maybe there won’t be firs.  I suspect pines are big down south.   Like everything else in our lives, what we’re used to will be useless.  We’ll have to think again, be creative,  and forge new routines, or forego them completely.  And that’s  OK.