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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Breaking Tradition

“Mom!” the daughter says in a phone call from a time zone away. “I’ve got a great idea.”

At which point, I cringe. Then, I do what I refuse to do in yoga class. I breathe. And then, I respond.

“What’s your great idea?” I say trepidatiously. Because experience has taught me that when my offspring have a great idea, it either costs me angst, energy or money. Often all three.

“Why don’t we go to Jamaica for Christmas!”

“Great idea!” I say, thinking I’m keeping all traces of disdain out of my voice.

“Why not?” she counters. “You wouldn’t have to buy us any presents. We’ll just go away instead. It could be a new tradition.”

I’m all for traditions. As a matter of fact, my middle name is tradition. And the older I get, the more traditions I tradition. I traditionally go on a Caribbean cruise every year with my bosom buddy Patty, formerly known as Penny. I traditionally go on an annual off-season beach weekend with my friends from college. And then, to another location with the other college friends. I traditionally go to Chapel Hill for yearly reunions with the daughter and her friends and families. I traditionally play in a Hearts tournament every year that Donald traditionally wins. But that’s OK because the winner has to host the next one the next year. And I’m just as happy when it’s not me. And one of my longest standing traditions is attending the night-before-Thanksgiving party at the Schaeffer’s house.

I grew up on Woods Road, a horse-shoe enclave of a road in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My family moved in when I was four years old and the friends I made then are still my friends today. We grew up at the end of an era – that era once known in storybooks as Childhood. We lived a free and fun and unscheduled life and miraculously lived to tell the tale. We roamed the road in a pack, entertaining ourselves by calling phony numbers, riding bicycles from house to house, walking to Perkels’ Pharmacy, contacting JFK through s√©ances on cold, rainy days, and playing Capture the Flag until dark on hot, summer nights.

And then we all grew up and went our separate ways.

But we always come back on Thanksgiving Eve.

There’s a whole tradition around Thanksgiving back on Woods Road which is fully chronicled in a post called The Toilet Bowl.

But, the short of the long story is that the Thanksgiving Eve party is an intergenerational event that isn’t likely to go away unless, of course, the Schaeffer house is sold in a sheriff’s sale. And the likelihood of that happening keeps my hope alive.

“We’re going to stop at Sandy Scott’s house before going to Schaeffer’s this year,” my sister, Emily, announced.

I blanched.

“It will be fun. You’ll get to see Wayne Marcolina and Brian Nelson. Debby Conly will be there. And Sandy’s sister, Linda. You always loved Linda!”

I laughed.

I spent a lifetime in high school jockeying for an invitation to party with the likes of Sandy Scott. She far outweighed me …in the popularity poll. But somehow, in the 40 some years since we’ve been young, the distinct lines between the cheerleaders and the cheerfearers, the druggies and the drugless, the smart and the smart alecs blur and we find common ground, wondering why in the world we never hung out together, way back when.

My blanching had nothing to do with not wanting to fraternize with the friends of Sandy Scott.  I just was afraid to break tradition. My tradition dictated that I went to Schaeffer's and only Schaeffer's on Thanksgiving Eve. And I arrived by 8 pm.  If we went to Sandy Scott’s, I knew I’d want to stay and we’d be late.

And that’s exactly what happened.

But, when all was said and done and I had talked my tongue off both at Sandy Scott’s and at the Schaeffer’s, I realized that traditions can transition and still be just as traditional.

At this time of year, the world is steeped in tradition. We go to annual holiday parties where we spin dreidels and give gelt. We wear red and green and eat stuffed mushrooms and pigs-in-a-blanket. We buy gifts we can’t afford and get gifts we don’t need. We gather at elaborately decorated dinner tables with relatives we don’t like. And we do it all, year after year. Because, it’s what we do.

Traditions can get old and stale. Bothersome and boring. Dull and dreadworthy Unless, of course, you shake things up every now and then. Do something really radical like open presents on Christmas Eve. Engage the drooling Uncle Drew in conversation. Throw the football around with the high school kids. Turn down that one-more glass of wine or piece of pecan pie. You know the one - the one you wish you hadn't had. Or go for it, if you usually don’t. Invite friends to your all-family festivities. Give an unsuspecting, or even an undeserving person a gift. Stop at Sandy Scott’s Thanksgiving Eve party before the Schaeffer’s. 

And, if the Santostefanos don’t invite you for Christmas dinner this year, then go ahead and book that trip to Jamaica.

Because, after all, there's always a new tradition just waiting in the wings for an old tradition to be broken. 






Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Reconnecting with Friends Gone Foul

Chris Kirk was my roommate freshman year of college. We ended up together after she swooped in and saved me from my randomly-appointed roommate, Sue, who declared Holly Hobbies, horses and shopping among her interests. I don’t remember what I wrote back to her that summer before college, but I’m sure my response included no references to Holly Hobbies, horses or shopping.

Things went south pretty quickly for me and Sue. It was immediately apparent that I was much more interested in socializing than studying and would go to all lengths and hours to achieve my goal.

Apparently, I was as messy then as my kids are now. One day I came home from Consumer Math class to find a note taped to my mirror:

Please clean up your side of the room. I don’t like living in a pig sty.

When I shared the note with my friend Chris Kirk, she was outraged and immediately declared war. She arrived at my room with a roll of masking tape and taped a line from door to window, dividing the room in half.

“You can do whatever you want with your side of the room,” she said.

Shortly afterwards, Sue and I decided to part ways. It was an amicable divorce because, despite my slovenly ways, I was still a good person at heart. Not to mention a fun friend to have.  Chris Kirk moved in and shortly thereafter regretted her charitable “You can do whatever you want with your side of the room,” comment. She also rued the day she ever agreed to live with someone who insisted on sleeping with the windows wide open in 25 degree winters.

That freshman year of college we did a lot of fun things. Once we filled a bucket with water, leaned it precariously against our RA’s door, knocked and ran, flooding the room when she opened the door. We took all the contents of our across-the-hall friends’ room, including furniture, and set it up in the lobby for them to stumble upon as they returned from night class. We were pack animals, the six of us, eating processed chicken patties together in the college dining hall every single night, loudly flirting with the kitchen staff who were fortunate enough to get work study hours and barging into house parties en masse.

One Friday night after coming home from The Fort much later and much louder than my roommate, I donned my blue-flowered Lanz of Salzburg floor-length nightgown and crawled into bed without turning on the lights. After all, as you may have deduced, I was nothing if not a considerate roommate. I lay my head on the pillow, stretched out my legs in that final sigh-releasing breath, eager to pass out into a seamlessly dreamless sleep. And then I screamed. Bloody murder. I jumped up, flinging my sheets off my bed, hopping around the room barefoot in shocked revulsion.

It wasn’t long until the rest of the posse gathered in my room, cackling hysterically over the concoction Chris had created to line my sheets. It was a nice gooey mixture of shaving cream and pencil shavings with a little bit of crushed pretzel crumbs added in for texture. We were still finding remnants of dried shaving cream on the stucco block walls well into the spring.

We were inseparable, the six of us. We partied too much, studied too little and got ourselves in too much trouble for doing inappropriate things with inappropriate substances and inappropriate people. Our parents would have been very disappointed in us, had we not been such good liars. And so good at self-redemption.

By the end of our second year of college, half of us were gone. We transferred, quit or put our educations on hold. But we promised that we would always and forever remain the best of friends.

From that year forward, we established the Annual All Girls’ Christmas Party, a mandatory gathering for an overnight the first Saturday in December. We would rotate houses so we only had to host one-and-a-half times a decade and as we got married and had kids, the families would be required to vacate the premises for 24 hours. Our get-togethers have evolved into three-day weekends held at random times in the year, but we have done some version of the Annual All Girls' Christmas Party every single year since 1975.

And then, about 15 years ago, something happened.

There was some kind of phone call. Some kind of nasty words exchanged. Some kind of hurt feelings. Some kind of “If you can’t accept me for who I am…” With some kind of “Fine, then don’t come!”

We never saw Chris Kirk again.

But, social media has some kind of uncanny power to reconnect the unconnectible. As the years went by, Chris and I friended and followed and watched our families grow. We gave each other thumbs ups and likes and smiley face emojis and made many empty promises that we’d get together soon.

Last month, I found a long message from Chris, filled with toils and tribulations of parenthood and grandparenthood, sitting in my inbox.

“You just never know what the hell is around the bend in life,” she wrote. "Let's not give up on trying to get together."

Something about that sentiment touched my heart and I responded with a resounding, “I’m coming to see you.”

And I did.

We talked and laughed and reminisced, reminding each other why we became friends in the first place. And as we hashed out the foggy details of the demise of our friendship, neither one of us could justify why, since the blow up hadn’t been between her and me, we let life happen instead of mending fences with the first broken rail.

Chris Kirk hasn’t changed a bit. She looks exactly the same as she did the day I met her in Harley Hall. She laughs with the same gusto. Enthuses with the same passion. Cleans with the same vigor. And is the same size she was when she was 18 years-old. 

As I hopped back into the Old Minivan, I got that old familiar lump in my throat that I get when I say goodbye to people I love.

“We’ll get together again, soon!” we promised.

And this time, I know we will.

Because, after all,  you just never know what the hell is around the bend in life.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why Can't We Just Accept a Compliment?



“I love the color of your hair!” the bare-breasted, middle-aged woman in the gym locker room gushed as I was making my wet-headed escape after Aquacize class last week. “It’s beautiful.”

It’s hard for me to go anywhere in life without using it as a launching ground for making new friends. But, I have long prided myself on my self-imposed solitary social confinement at the gym. If I added chatting to my workout routine, I’d be killing half a day rather than half a morning on the obsessive exercise that seems to have absolutely no effect on my ever-growing girth. So, I was a bit taken aback when the long-haired, butt-naked woman confronted me in the locker room.

“Oh, thanks!” I said. “I pay enough for it!”

Thinking to myself, you have no idea what I go through at the beauty parlor.

“It’s beautiful,” she reiterated.

“Well it is pretty much my natural color, but it is definitely dyed.”

“It looks so soft,” she continued.

“Soft?” I said, involuntarily patting down my coarse, spiky locks. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“It’s beautiful,” she said yet again.

“Ha!” I said. “You made my day.”

Before I reached the end of the aisle and before I was able to answer that inner voice that asked, “How can she even tell what color my hair is? It’s soaking wet!” I heard her turn to the woman at the locker next to her.

“Why couldn’t she just accept the compliment and say, thank you?”

Now, equally as important to me as my need to make friends is my need to not be misunderstood. So, so many random things come out of my mouth that I can’t possibly keep track of all of them, and thus, spend a good chunk of my life retracting them. So I almost turned around to address her behind-the-back, under-the-breath comment, but caught myself. Because, no doubt, I would explain my way right into a coffee date with her. And I don’t drink coffee.

But, the thing is, I DID accept the compliment. And, I DID say thank you.

And, that’s why I’ve been obsessing about it ever since.

I’m not the kind of person who can just say thank you and move on. After all, what kind of conversation would that be? In my mind, it’s just way too dismissive. Even if dismissive is the message I’m looking to project in the rare instances when I’m not trying to expand my stable of friends.

If the tables were turned and I said, for instance, “I like the positive body-image you radiate,” and she had simply responded, “Thank you,” I’d be thinking that she had something stuck up an exposed body part.

But, when I brought this up while playing Mahjong the other night, my friend Janice said, “It’s true. Women have a hard time accepting compliments.”

“On another note,” I said, shoving a spoonful of a low-carb cauliflower-rice casserole into my pie hole. “This is delicious.”

“Thanks, but I think it needs to be spicier.”

Ha! Case in point.

Which got us talking, as we turned our tiles, about why we can’t just be like the guys and accept compliments, forgive our foibles and stop apologizing for our shortcomings.

While I don’t come out and say the actual words too often, I say “I’m sorry” in other ways. If I do something apology-worthy, I will attempt to explain my behavior, delving into my past, my present and my future to justify what came out of my mouth, my oven or my womb. I’ll keep hammering the point home until the offendee ends up apologizing to me, feeling so bad that I feel so bad, or more likely just to shut me up.

Janice, says “I’m sorry,” all the time. And she really is. She has a heart bigger than the both of us, and these days, that’s pretty big. She’s sorry when she’s late. She’s sorry when she’s early. She’s sorry when she has a sad tale to tell and she’s sorry when she wins at Mahjong. And that’s really the only apology I’ll accept. I am sorry I’m not more like Janice.

Susan, the other Mahjonger, is not quite as apologetic as the two of us. She is truly sorry when life gives us lemons, and feels love and loss way deeper than I ever will. But she is tougher. She doesn’t beat herself up over her looks or her words or her actions. I’d love to be Susan.

As Janice won another game and I ate another handful of Stacy’s Pita Chips, for which we were both sorry, we continued conversing about why it is that we can’t just be.

We conceded that when someone tells a guy they like his sweater, he either just says ‘thanks,’ or more likely, ‘yeah, I do, too.’ If someone says the same thing to a woman, they tend to respond more on the lines of, ‘I got it on the discount rack,’ or ‘Really? Doesn’t it make me look fat?’

Sure, I know plenty of women who are oozing with confidence. Who can throw a dinner party without worry. Who show their curves with courage. Who can accept a compliment without controverting.

Those women give me something to aspire towards. So, while I’m working on becoming the me I’d like to be, I can try to respond to the body-beautiful women who covet my hair color with a simple “Thank You.”

And keep the rest of the commentary to myself.

I can try. 

But, the bottom line is, it ain’t me, babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

When in Doubt ... Dance



I’m the first to admit, I'm stone-cold tone deaf.

But I try.

Long ago, I discovered a soft-covered piano book filled with old-time songs and show tunes, hidden amongst hundreds of hardback books in the den of my childhood home. Why we had it, I don’t know – we had neither a piano nor a singer in the family. But, I can still picture the eight-year-old me sitting on the couch, with that book open on my lap, teaching myself to read music. I’d follow the notes with my finger and belt out the lyrics with satisfying confidence. But, the first time I heard a real rendition of Camptown Ladies Sing this Song, Doo-dah, Doo-dah, I was utterly destroyed by the disparity between my version of the song and what was real.

Still, I was able to fake my way into the children’s choir at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. I loved the camaraderie, the burgundy-colored robes, the musty-smelling hymnals and watching the congregation squirm and snore from the perches of the choir loft. My tenure as a tenor was nearly thwarted when, at rehearsal one Thursday, the choir director was baffled by a grossly distorted execution of Onward Christian Soldiers. As he had us sing together one row at a time, in hopes of unearthing the off-key culprit, I quickly learned the fine art of lip syncing, thus saving my vantage point behind the altar.

As an adult, I am obsessed with the reality music shows. I’m jumping for joy that American Idol is returning and have watched every single season of The Voice. I text my friends, Laura and Jean throughout the show, asking who is better, Addison or Esera. My spouse, who thinks they’re all screamers, won’t engage me in such folly, still shocked that I can’t tell the difference between pitchy and powerful performances, shaking his head in dismay that even the worst interpretations of Landslide can always win my heart.

I can’t sing. Nor can I dance.

For a short time in my twenties, before Patty became Penny, we frequented a bar in Ambler, Pennsylvania. It was an after-hours dance club for those of us who had the energy to keep on going after the bars closed at 2 am. Late one night, or rather, early one morning, my dream came true and I met a handsome prince who dragged me to the dance floor and subsequently left me there.

“You have absolutely no rhythm, do you?” he said and walked away in disgust.

Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that my flailing and stomping on the dance floor was any different from the moves I saw on American Bandstand. Or, that there was any correlation between having rhythm and finding love. 

“Oh, dear,” said Patty when I revealed to her my distorted perception of my dance moves. She knew it was time for an intervention and spent many hours spinning vinyl, coaching me to feel the bass, clap to the beat, move to the music. It was futile. She moved to Florida. And I gave up dancing.

I shuffled my way through Elton John’s Your Song at my wedding and couldn’t resist joining the neighborhood gang as we rocked out to Love Shack at Bob and Michelle’s marital celebration in Ocean City, but other than that have spent much of my adult life in fear of being dragged to the dance floor.

Which leads me to last Saturday night.

Over the past dozen years, I’ve been to more life or death events of the Apreda family than I can count. This one was easy – a simple dinner in honor of Mike and Kristen’s engagement – a happy occasion made happier by witnessing the head-over-heels love and hope and joy that only a bride-to-be and groom-in-waiting can exude.

I had a ball bantering with the kids who were no longer kids but wage-earning, change-effecting, parent-pleasing conversationalists. I promised one of my all-time favorites a place at the altar with my favorite daughter. I conspired with another one on how to win back an old girlfriend I had known and loved. And I caught up with the abundance of Apreda friends and family members I hadn’t seen since Poppy’s wake.

And then, Theresa, the mother of Mike and future mother-in-law of Kristen, made a speech.

All I heard, because remember, I’ve heard a lot of these speeches, was, “So make sure you dance!”

That’s when I knew the fun and games were over.

“Oh, come on!” my friend Karen chided, later in the night. “This is the kind of music you danced to in West Virginia!”

Sure enough, it wasn’t Drake or Chance the Rapper or Rihanna blaring from the speakers, but The Marshall Tucker Band, The Allman Brothers and a little bit of the timeless tune, Happy, thrown in for good measure.  The kind of music I would consider dancing to, if indeed, I were to dance.

So, when Kool and the Gang commanded me to Celebrate Good Times! I let Karen lead me to the dance floor where I stomped and clapped and waved my arms, watching her every move to know when to make mine.

I have to admit, I had a good time, letting loose and flailing those limbs. I actually thought that I had, at long last, graciously and gracefully mastered the art of dance.

And for awhile, after the wine wore off and the music died, I harbored nothing but warm and fuzzy feelings about the fun-filled frenzy and the love that sustained it. I looked forward to dancing at Mike and Kristen’s wedding and texted, asking them to move the date up a year. I could hardly wait for another Apreda life or death event.

And then came the ultimate buzz kill. Cousin Kimberly tagged me on Facebook, posting proof positive of what I had done. I flipped through the pictures and smiled. And then read the comments.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t dance! quipped Kevin.

I haven’t seen Kevin in 25 years. And so, I can’t help but wonder if this former West Virginia University housemate of mine could really tell from those still life photos that I had no rhythm. Or, if in fact, he was simply remembering with fondness, the me I used to be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What Makes You Happy?


It’s the kind of question that’s easy to answer when you’re two-and-a-half sheets to the wind, sitting around a fire pit at The Carolina Inn on a 70-degree October night with your daughter, her four college roommates and parental representatives from each of the five families. It’s not a tough question to answer when you’ve spent the weekend with these five girls who, now in their fourth year out of school, may prefer to be called young women, but somehow you just can’t believe they, or you, are that old. And when you look around at the future in their faces and know you’re always going to be a part of each and every one of their lives, the question kind of answers itself.

But, Tom asked it anyway because, in the absence of the ultimate thought-provoking question-asker, Dan, he was the most likely to get a good discussion going.

While celebrating at the iconic Sutton’s Drug Store on the night of our daughters’ graduations back in 2014, we vowed that we parents would also keep our friendship going, committing to a yearly reunion in Chapel Hill. I was the first to do the pinky swear, but secretly questioned the likelihood of fifteen of us coming from far-flung places like New Jersey, Cleveland, Denver, DC, Knoxville, Chicago, Asheville, Columbus, Atlanta or New Orleans for the sole purpose of trying to keep a parent-child college fromance alive. I’ve made a lot of empty promises over a bottle of bourbon in my life and though this one sounded good, I highly doubted it would come to pass.

But it did. A lot of factors motivated us back to the University of North Carolina, not least of which were Sandra and Stephen. Tried and true Tar Heels, Sandra and Stephen had returned to Chapel Hill in their retirement and serendipitously cemented our group even before the rest of us had met. Lauren and her parents made small talk in the airport with a nice couple who were returning home after visiting their son in Denver. It was one of those “You’re going to love UNC!” “Here, take our number!” conversations that you can either follow up with or forget. Sandra and Stephen ended up serving as surrogate grandparents for the girls and innkeepers for the parents, housing ten or more of us on any given weekend. They became the heart and soul of our Chapel Hill family.

This was our fourth formal fall reunion. Some years we hang out with lots of the girls’ friends who have since become our friends because really, who wouldn’t want to be friends with us? Some years some parent is playing golf in Naples or covering the Bridgegate trial or hosting a fundraiser or forgot to add the weekend to the Travel Budget. But, regardless of who comes, every year we have a private party at Sutton’s, stroll the brick-pathed campus, savor a BLT from Merritt’s and revel in the realization that there’s really something quite special about what we do.

“So, what makes you happy?” Tom asked as we sat around the fire pit at The Carolina Inn on Saturday night.

Lauren is happy when she’s around her family, which is not surprising considering how happy Joe and Carla are to be around her. She is happy that she found a rewarding career and a job that makes a difference. She’s happy being with her friends. And the King of England.

What makes Molly happy are meaningful relationships. Good conversation. And sunshine.

Jenny, is happy with her wine. She finds joy in doing a job that’s important. A job that will become infinitely more important as she begins delivering babies next year. And true happiness would surely stem from delivering the babies of her very best friends.  

Julianne is happy when she’s good with herself. When she can do what she does just because it’s who she is. And, it makes her happy when the people she loves are down with that. Music and friends are what make her heart sing.

Julie’s happiness comes when she’s doing something helpful. It doesn’t have to be world-changing. It can just be a simple act of kindness. Like holding the door for someone. Or loving her husband. Her family. And her friends.

Wendi, who was not one of the five roommates but was with us for the evening and the source of my yet-to-be proclaimed proclamation finds herself happy when she meets people where they are. Not where the world wants them to be.

Joe is happy. Unassumingly happy. He doesn’t need a lot. He’s got his wife, Carla. He’s got his three kids. He’s got his grandchild. He’s just happy being happy.

Carla is happy with Joe. Really happy. She’s happy with her kids. She’s happy when she travels. So happy, in fact, that she actually has something called a yearly Travel Budget.

Sally gets her happiness from running. Working out. Endorphins. From coffee and wine. First the wine. Then the coffee. Then her friends and family.

Tom, not surprisingly, is happiest when he’s brewing up his next adventure. He loves to think ahead to a fun future. To the next Duke ticket conspiracy, the next Clef Hangers' performance, the next reunion. And when pressed, admits that he is happy spending time with his daughter.

Jackie is also happy when she’s with Julianne. And presumably when she’s with her husband, Tom. She is happy on a front porch. And at a fire pit. With friends. And a glass of wine.

Ruth is happy with good food, good friends and good wine. She is happy getting down with James Brown. With composting. With worms. With Jeff. With being a mom. And with being a Pescatarian.

And I, I am happy that my spouse encourages me to have the kind of fun I like to have. And that Wendi told me that she will never forget feeling a really special kind of energy when she came to our house in New Jersey five years ago. That makes me really happy.

As we put our own spin on our answers, trying to outdo each other’s happiness factor, it became quite clear, sitting around the dual-generational fire pit at The Carolina Inn on Saturday night, that we are, indeed, a pretty happy bunch of people.

And, maybe that’s just because we all know how important it is to make the time to do the things that make us happy. In the places that make us happy. With the people who make us happy.

Or, maybe it’s because while we know that we can't be responsible for anyone else’s happiness, the truth of it is, we are.

And that, in itself, is a very happy thought.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Can't You Just Learn Our Language?


“Why is it,” I asked Diana, my lovely 22 year-old bi-lingual co-worker. “That when I say, Anything else? those guys all nod but then don’t order anything else?”

“Because they don’t understand what you’re saying,” she answered.

“How can they not understand what I’m saying?”

Diana shrugged.

I rolled my eyes and took another order from another Spanish-as-a-first-language customer, assuming from that moment forward that a nod meant, “No, I’m good. That’s all I need.”

I was back on the Food Truck, working a 12-day stint at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland which is somewhere in somewhat close proximity to Washington, DC. We were working long days, sometimes from 6 am to 9 pm and I spent the time bent at the waist, leaning down to take food orders from hungry horse people.

Hungry horse people range from six year-olds showing their ponies to seasoned professionals traveling the circuit more weeks than not throughout the year. There were owners and trainers, stable managers and barn hands, handlers and grooms, riders and spectators, blacksmiths and braiders, announcers and judges, office workers, horse doctors, show owners and a whole slew of handsome guys who worked the grounds.

This slew of handsome guys who worked the grounds made our day. They were fun and happy and never missed a meal. For the most part, they were Spanish-speakers who knew enough English to get by. Those who didn’t were were covered by those who did.

“He wants a steak sandwich, no peppers,” Ricky, one of my favorite boyfriends would pipe up when I was struggling to make sense of one of the four Juan’s orders.

“Gotcha,” I said. “Anything else?”

Ricky nodded. And I knew it was time to ring up the tab.

I grew up in an all-white, English-as-a-first-language Philadelphia suburb where my exposure to other languages was limited to the classroom. I took French in high school and with the help of a dictionary would be able to order a hunk of cheese and a baguette in a pinch in Paris. But Spanish? I can’t get beyond hola. And certainly wouldn’t be able to put the upside-down, right-side up exclamation points in the correct place to save my life.

As the world got smaller and I got older, I found myself raising my family in a town renowned for its diversity located right outside of New York City. My white kids were minorities in the public schools and friends of all cultures passed through my kitchen thanking me for rides and meals and homework help in all different tones, variations and comprehensions of the English language. I have had a zillion first generation American friends, many who were born in other countries and moved here in their youth and have taught ESL conversation classes to Korean and Japanese women whose husbands’ jobs have brought them to the US.

But, I didn’t really get the whole language thing until I met Daniel.

“Hola!” Daniel chirped from the other side of the food truck. Daniel worked for one of the horse farms and was on his fourth coffee of the morning.

“Hola!” I responded, thinking I was pretty savvy.

“Oh, you know Spanish!” he exclaimed, feeling pretty certain that I didn’t.

“Si, senor. Je parle Espanol.”

“That’s French,” Doug called over his shoulder as he threw together a breakfast burrito.

“How do you say I speak Spanish in Spanish?” I whispered to the aforementioned bi-lingual Diana.

“Yo hablo espanol.”

“Yo hablo espanol,” I repeated in my English-accented Spanish and Daniel laughed.

“I’ll teach you,” Daniel said. “Habla espanol al final de la semana.”

“What did he say?” I whispered to Diana.

“He says you’ll be fluent in Spanish by the end of the week.”

“Si!” I said. “Gracious.”

“Nada.”

And off he went.

The next time Daniel showed up at the Food Truck, he ordered his sandwich in Spanish with a “Comprende?”

I nodded my head, though I didn’t comprende nada.

“Ha!” Diana chimed in. “You did exactly what they do. You just nodded your head because you don’t understand what they’re saying! Now do you get it?”

It wasn’t long before I had mastered how Daniel liked his bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel and memorized the Spanish words for five dollars and fifty cents, you’re my favorite boyfriend and how many coffees have you had?

Daniel was relentless. No matter how busy we were, he only spoke in Spanish. It got to the point where I’d see him coming and run to the back of the truck to make coffee whether we needed it or not. I’d hobble to the port-a-potty when it was time for his afternoon snack and I’d accidently on purpose position myself to take the next full-fledged English-speaker in line, leaving Diana to deal with Daniel.

I found myself getting flustered and anxious trying to keep up with Daniel. I felt embarrassed and stupid. And for the first time in my life, I held my tongue. Simply because I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say.

By the end of the horse show, I was far from fluent. But I had learned a few Spanish words and could catch the gist of the truck banter between Diana and the short-order cook, Goomer (which I’m 100 percent sure is not how he spells his name).

But in attempting to learn Spanish, I learned something far more important. I saw first-hand how difficult it must be for people in our country who are trying desperately to assimilate and speak our language. How humiliating it can be. How annoying it can be. And how horribly rude some of us can be.

So, to all of my heavily accented friends and friends-to-be who, in just wanting to be understand and be understood, have been met with eye rolls and heavy sighs and impatient responses, all I can say is:

Shame on us.  And, que bueno por ti.

Que bueno por ti.

Monday, September 25, 2017

What's the Right Age to Have a Baby?

“Thirty,” I said definitively to Hannah. “Thirty is when you should have your first child.”

Hannah is 26 years-old and has been married less than a month. Which made her a perfect target. Give a gaggle of mothers a bottle of wine or three and it’s just a matter of sips before they start imposing their impervious opinions on the procreation process. Despite being forward-thinking, feministly-prone, somewhat-intelligent women, we were first and foremost mothers, and therefore couldn’t keep our mouths shut even if we had wanted to.

But, in our defense, it wasn’t a completely random discussion. We were having our monthly Writer’s Group meeting and were all abuzz about the birth of Ismee’s week-old novel. Water in May joined our group as an embryo; we nursed it and nurtured it and were now basking in the postpartum it-takes-a-village glow.

Though the book is our group’s metaphorical baby, it’s also a story about a baby. A baby growing in the belly of a 15-year-old girl desperate to be loved by someone who won’t leave her. And when the doctors discover a serious heart defect in the fetus, poor young Mari’s life becomes even more of a roller coaster ride than it already was.

So, it was somewhat of a natural segue to talk about Hannah’s unborn children.

There were five of us there the other night. Hannah and four mothers, all representing a different phase of parenthood. I’m the oldest in the group with the oldest kids, two who are out of college, and one who swears he’s graduating this spring. I procreated at 34, 36 and 38-years-old. Lisa is younger than I am, but not as much younger as she looks. She had one kid in her 30s and one kid when she was over 40. Maria, who is our other pride and joy of a published author with her Young Adult novel, The Secret Side of Empty, did the right thing, reproducing at 30 followed by a rapid repeat. And Ismee, whose youngest is still just seven-years-old had the first of her three girls at 32.

And we are all completely different kinds of mothers.

“I bet you can’t wait till your daughter goes to college next year!” I said to Maria.

“Are you kidding?” she said, wide-eyed. “I cried last week when I realized it was the last time my son and daughter would have a first-day-of-school together.”

That was a milestone that had somehow gone completely over my head.

“You know, I could possibly have three adult children living with me this time next year,” I bemoaned.

“Oh, I’d love that!” Lisa exclaimed as my eyes widened in horror.

Hannah’s newly-wedded husband is in the midst of the long and arduous process of becoming a surgeon. There’s a good chance he'll have to relocate for a fellowship and then again as he goes on to find the OR of his dreams. Which means they may not be near family or family-friendly jobs if they have a baby in the next few years.

“Oh, please,” I said. “That’s no excuse. I didn’t have anyone around when I starting banging out babies. That’s why God created daycare.”

“And besides,” another one of us said. “You’ve got a surgeon for a husband. You’ll be able to afford a full-time nanny.”

“No! We'll be broke for at least 15 years!” Hannah protested.

“And by then you’ll be way too old to have a baby.”

“Ahem,” Lisa admonished. “She’s only 26. Do the math…”

We went on to marvel at the diverse paths we all traversed as we dreamed of winning the Pulitzer Prize, or even landing a piddly advance for a first novel. We were a pediatric cardiologist, a flutist extraordinaire, a lawyer, a librarian, a marketing guru, a human rights advocate, a copywriter, a food truck worker.

“Just don’t ever think you’ll be able to sit at home and write when you have a baby,” Ismee warned. “It’s not going to happen.”

“Yeah, at least not until you can plop the kid in front of the TV for days at a time…”

“Oh, I never did that!” Maria cried. “I was actually horrified when my daughter came home from a friend’s house announcing she had discovered the wonders of YouTube! And that was freshman year of high school. Just kidding. But really, I kept them away from the evils of TV for a long time.”

“Not me,” I said, much to no one’s surprise.

But I didn’t write The Great American Novel while I was raising kids either. Instead I penned the best-selling program, How to Volunteer your Earning Potential Away.

“You know what, go ahead and have a baby now,” I said. “Don’t wait till you’re 30.”

“You can bring it to our Writer’s Group meetings!” one member enthused.

“The thing is,” I said. “The sooner you do it; the sooner you’re done.”

I imagined my life if I had had my first child at 26. I would have been one of those young, hip moms who was actually able to get down on my haunches in the pumpkin patch. I’d never have been accused of being someone’s grandmother at back-to-school night. And the photos of me and my daughter on Facebook would receive bounteous comments of “OMG. You look like her sister, not her mother!”

I’d be able to babysit my kids’ kids without the help of a cane (for walking, not whipping), I’d have college way paid off by now and could retire to a 55 and over community while I was still young enough to enjoy it.

Life would be good.

And then I thought about all the things I did between 26 and 34 when I had my first child. I would have missed ringing in the New Year in Moscow, bike riding in France, singing Karaoke in Manila, eating unidentifiable animal parts in Hong Kong, spending summers in Brigantine, launching CNBC and partying my heart out until I had no more desire to do so.

When I finally had my kids, I was done with all that. And ready, willing and able to move on to the next phase of my life.

Some of us don’t have the luxury of planning a family. Some of us have pop-up surprises. Some of us have problems conceiving. Some of us have to wait for a baby to adopt. Some of us swear we’ll never have any and end up with four. Some of us want a brood and end up with an only child. Some of us change our minds a-hundred-and-fifty-thousand times about when, why and where to start a family.

And when the baby comes along, the timing may not be right. The career may not be set. The wallet may not be full. The living conditions may not be ideal. We might be too old or too young, too selfish or too sedentary, too driven or too poor. There’s always something that will cast shadows and raise doubts.

But, as I said to my nephew when he found out he was going to be a father at the tender age of 19, “You will never, ever regret having this child.”

And somehow, we never do.

And somehow, along the way, some of us even find a way to land that job, buy that house, live that dream and write that book. 

No matter how old or young we were when we had our kids.