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Friday, December 14, 2018

Empty Nest is Not a Kids-Only Syndrome

I always knew how it would end. My chaotic child-rearing life would build and bubble and boil over, but eventually simmer itself down. The three kids would come and go, leaving me with the Marmaduke-of-a-dog barking his fool head off at potential prowlers in the form of passing Pekinese. 

The Empty Nest is something all parents prepare for and some even pray for, all the days of their lives. When it comes, it is indeed empty and lonely, but oh, so calm and quiet. Amazingly, and rather quickly, the Empty Nest becomes the new normal and you find yourself shaking your head marveling over how you ever got through those endless days of driving the Old Minivan around in circles from dawn to dusk. How you managed to catch a baseball game, a cheerleading competition and a football combine, all in one afternoon. How you were able to surreptitiously monitor the ins-and-outs of the ever-slamming basement door at midnight, 2 am and 3 am. How you were able to remember all of your children’s names, let alone those of their friends, enemies and teachers. 

And when you reflect back on how in the world you survived, the answer sings out loud and clear. You got by with a little help from your friends.

Being the pack animal that I am, after I got married, I was loathe to move to a new state where I knew not a soul, despite loving (past, present and future) my spouse unconditionally. I worked at TV Guide magazine with a slew of friends, lived in a friend’s house whom I had known since I was five years old and hung out with friends I’d known since high school. Though my spouse and I had known each other for five years before we started dating, almost immediately after sealing the deal with a kiss, he went off to graduate school half a country a way. Afterwards, he worked at various newspapers in different cities before settling in New Jersey. Until we got married, we were never in the same place at the same time for more than a days-long visit. 

Throughout our long distance courtship, I kept my friends close and never understood, let alone experienced one of those dreaded clingy, one-on-one, can’t go out, travel, or think without my boyfriend or husband relationships. 

Friends have always been paramount to my very existence.

When I joined my spouse in New Jersey after we got married, I was completely friendless and remained that way for two months until I got a job at CNBC. CNBC was a new cable station at the time and filled with 20 and 30-somethings who worked like dogs because we were young, able and had no choice. It was the prime environment for making friends. I was back in business. 

And then, I had a baby. And another. And yet another. I started working part-time, leaving me two days a week alone with the kids. All alone. All day long. 

So, I signed up for Toddlekins at the town rec center, a so-not-me Mommy and Me class where we sang The Wheels on the Bus while flailing a multi-colored parachute. As I surveyed the circle of adulating mothers, I searched for kindred spirits.

If you look hard enough, you will find them. 

Dianne, Kerri, Anne and Susan, while not half as irreverent as I, took a chance and invited me to join their extracurricular Play Group. We rotated houses, eating bagels and drinking coffee as we alternately bragged about or admonished our thirteen collective kids. 

We didn’t believe in over-the-top birthdays; instead, we celebrated in the park with homemade cupcakes and party hats. We watched each other’s kids so we didn’t have to drag them all to doctor appointments or grocery stores. We trick-or-treated en masse, ending the night at the Landers’ house for pizza and Skittles. And, we spent New Year’s Eve together, making midnight come three hours early so we could get the kids to bed. 

We were a no-holds-barred group of friends, bouncing ideas and opinions back and forth, analyzing everything from off-color poop to off-putting personalities. Long after the youngest started school, we still kidlessly convened.

Those Play Group friends saved my soul.

Then, Anne moved back to the big city. 

Susan moved to the shore. 

And now, Dianne has moved to New Orleans.

Kerri and I are holding up the neighborhood, but Play Group has left the nest. 

This isn’t the first time friend groups have dispersed. When my kids were over-immersed in sports and we mothers were over-consumed with over-parenting, six or seven of us would spend Friday nights drinking copious amounts of wine at my kitchen table. But, one-by-one, they left. One stopped drinking, one started working, one stopped caring, one started dating. 

We’re all still friends and different configurations of the group get together, but as a whole, Friday Night Winers no longer exist.

As I enter my golden years, more and more friends are going. Ginny moved to Connecticut to be near her kids. Olivia’s off to live in a cruise-ship-on-land in Houston. Nancy migrated to Charleston. Peggy’s threatening to go out west. 
Whether it’s with sadness or shame, we spend years upon years gearing up for the Empty Nest. We know approximately when it’s going to happen and exactly what we’re going to do with unoccupied bedrooms. But at the same time, we know that though they’re no longer living under our roof, our kids haven’t forgotten where they can get a good meal, wash-and-fold service or the occasional bicoastal Venmo transaction.

When we say goodbye to our friends, whether literally or emotionally, it's a different kind of Empty Nest Syndrome.

There's the same void. The same nostalgic, remember-whens. The same I wish-so-and-so could see/hear/do this. The same how-did-we-get-so-olds. 

But unlike with the kids, there's no upside to saying goodbye to a friend. They don't clog your toilets. Or eat your leftovers. Or trash your house. 

So, you go to Book Club every month, even when you're reading historical fiction. You keep up with your Writer's Group even when you haven't written a single word. You meet Karen and Theresa for dinner even when it means a $30 Uber ride. You go to yoga even though you hate to hear people breathe. You keep playing Mahjong every single week. 

And you keep your life as full as you can. Because sometimes, no matter how prepared you think you are, Empty Nest Syndrome can get the best of you. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

When did "Because I Said So" become obsolete?

Like every other mother out there, I promised I would never use “Because I said so!” as an answer or justification for anything. Ever. I would instead reason with my children, giving them concrete explanations for why they were required to do whatever it was I deemed requireable.

Requireables throughout the formative years included, but were not limited to, knocking the dirt off cleats before they were put in the gym bag, completing homework before watching TV, going to bed before midnight, keeping the Little Tykes Cozy Coupe out of the living room, turning off The Lion King after three consecutive viewings, obeying the no-driving-after-11 pm-as-a 17-year-old law, even though no other parent in the history of New Jersey ever enforced it, turning lights, air conditioners and running water off when leaving the house, and throwing coats, shoes, bags and scarves on one’s own bedroom floor rather than overflowing the overcrowded and overstuffed first-floor family hall closet. 

But, of course, like every other mother out there, I eventually tired of lengthy discussions on life’s most basic requireables and reneged on my vow. Over the long and arduous course of childrearing, I have indeed bellowed, “Because I said so!” half a million times. 

Miraculously, though they may have fussed and fumed, my kids generally did what was required of them. Simply because I said so. 

I had power. I had presence. I held rank.  

Then they grew up and everything went to pot. 

All of my kids flew the coop for college, going both near and far. Added together and divided by three, their scholastic distance average was 1,100 miles. Unlike many mothers, I had no problem with them being a plane ride or an eight-hour road trip away. That not only meant no unexpected weekend visits with bags (plural) of laundry, but gave me fair warning to clean the cobwebs off the vacant beds. 

The California kid came back after he graduated, worked in Atlanta for a few months, moved home again and has now settled in Los Angeles. I think. The youngest, who finished school last May, is not only living at home, but working from home. And the daughter not only went south for college, but went even deeper south after she got her degree. When I dropped her in Chapel Hill eight years ago, I never dreamed she was gone for good.

But, gone for good never holds true for children.

They always come back. 

The daughter, anticipating a tumultuous homecoming, planned her return for the day after I left for Vermont to work on the food truck for six weeks. By the time I got back in mid-August, she had re-staked her claim, removing the ping pong table, installing a new air conditioner and sprucing up her former roost in the attic with scented candles and decorative pillows from Target. 

The daughter is actually a joy to have around. She’s smart. She’s interesting. She’s fun. And best of all, she leaves the house every morning by 6:30 and doesn’t return until after 7 pm. She retreats to her haven with a book by 9 and demands very little of me. Including conversation. 


The stuff. 

Living in a 90-year-old house, I have been deprived of a master bathroom, the most basic of human needs. When we moved in 13 years ago, we envisioned the kids slipping in the back door from sporting events and late-night parties for a sight unseen shower in the full bath in the refurbished basement. But, that never happened. Instead, my ever-loving spouse took that space over for himself, lessening the load, and the wait, in the upstairs bathroom. 

Before I left for Vermont, I cleared a shelf in the bathroom for the daughter. I bought two plastic bins from The Container Store, sufficient enough, or so I believed, to hold all her items. Any overflow primping necessities could be brought down from her bedroom via plastic bucket, like the one I bought her freshman year. I’d even spring for a new one in the color of her choice.

The first time I entered the bathroom, I thought it was a joke. 

She has 937 beauty products. On every square inch of available space. Leaving me a cup with a single toothbrush on a shelf high above the chaos. 

“Can you at least contain your stuff?” I begged, ordering more plastic bins from The Container Store. 

“What difference does it make?” she asked. “It’s a bathroom. No one comes up here but us.”

“I just can’t stand living with this much junk,” I said. 

“Get over yourself,” she responded.

I retreated. After all, she’s right. We have a downstairs powder room. If anyone over 30 ever actually wants to spend the night, I’ll just blame the mess on the daughter. Or pay for their room at the Marriott. 

On the plus side, at least her beauty products are working. She’s fairly attractive. 

Then, this happened. 

With the onset of plummeting temperatures, came the onslaught of outerwear. 

The daughter has nine coats, jackets and sweaters hanging on the door hooks of the first-floor family hall closet. She has 14.5 pairs of shoes strewn on the floor of the first-floor family hall closet. She has multiple scarves, hats, umbrellas and tote bags tossed on top of the shoes in the first-floor family hall closet. 

“Mom,” says the daughter. “It’s a closet.” 

“Yeah, but…” 

“It’s a closet.”

“Can’t you take maybe half of your things up to your room?” 

“Why, Mom? It’s a closet.”

"Because I said so?" 

Once again, I retreat. She is, of course, right. So, I drape my North Face jacket on the back of my desk chair and instead, push and prod and pull parts of clothing from the door jamb to shut the hall closet, on a daily basis. 

I still have my requireables. Pay your bills on time. Go to the dentist twice a year. Take Ubers to the bar. And to the airport. Don’t call in sick. Don’t throw away day-old chicken. Wipe up your toothpaste spit. Replace toilet paper – correctly. Over, not under. Fill the Brita water pitcher. 

Some days they concede. Some days they don’t. 

I can’t help but wonder just when the tide began to turn. 

And then, I catch a glimpse into my not-so-distant future. 

I’m living in my creaky old house because my spouse refuses to move into the cruise-ship-on-land assisted living facility. I am old and stooped and in constant pain because I refused to ever get my knees replaced. 

“Come on, Mom,” the daughter begs. “Eat your lima beans.”


“Mom. You can’t live on Diet Coke and pretzels..” 

 “For the first time in my life, I’m thin. I’m not eating that crap.”

I purse my lips tight.


“I’ve survived for 103 years. Why I should change my diet now?”


And, I succumb. Completing the circle of life.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Why Everyone Needs a Girls' Weekend

“Ugh. I am such a dog!” I barked when I saw the fireplace photo that Peggy snapped using the trusty timer on her camera, jumping into the picture as the red light blinked, just as she does every year.

“Oh, Betsy,” Leslie said.  “You are NOT a dog. You are beautiful. We are all beautiful.”

“At least our stomachs are hidden by the girls in front," Jeanne added.

Woof,” Ann said, never one to buy into self-deprecation.

On this Annual All Girls’ Weekend, five of us found ourselves in Bethany Beach, Delaware – half-way between the two physically farthest friends; Ann in Nags Head and me in North Jersey.  We marveled at how far we’ve come, settling for nothing less than a five-bedroom, five-bath bayfront house with brand-new appliances and multi-faceted showerheads. We laughed as we remembered college nights sleeping toe-to-toe, fully clothed, on beer-stenched sofas in roach-infested houses, not wanting to leave the party for fear of missing out.

Now, the only thing we are afraid we’ll miss out on is sleep.

We went to the movies on Sunday afternoon to see Beautiful Boy, a story we found heartbreakingly lovely for close-to-the-vest reasons. We proudly accepted our senior citizen discount and were delighted that we were considered elder-worthy at such a young and tender age. We snuck snacks into the theater, took up two seats a piece and giggled about how daring we have become.

And, then we remembered the Ziploc baggies we snuck into the Little Feat concert at Memorial Auditorium and how at least one of us capped off the night drinking beer with the band around a swimming pool. Perhaps a feat not daring for that time and age. But it certainly beats pretzels in a movie theater.

“We should Uber to dinner,” I suggested.

“Yeah. We don’t want to break down in the dark,” Jeanne agreed, referring to the Check Engine and two other warning lights that had inexplicably appeared on the minivan dashboard that afternoon.

“Oh, it has nothing to do with that,” I clarified. “I just hate driving at night because ever since I had cataract surgery and got the multifocal lenses, I  see all these little rings in the car lights coming at me.”

Yes. Cataract surgery.

And, then Ann and I retold the story of our late-night drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains as we traveled to a weekend folk festival. On the dark and windy Skyline Drive, we had not one, but two tires blow out.  And since we only had one spare, we relied on the kindness of strangers – a passing trucker – to transport us to and from the closest service station.

“Definitely Uber,” Peggy said.

As we barreled into the Bluecoast Seafood Grill, we immediately and loudly began battling over where to sit. One of us didn’t want a booth in the corner because it was too intimate. Another didn’t want a table in the middle of the dining room because it wasn't intimate enough. One wanted a high top. Another’s legs would dangle. Quickly sizing up the escalating situation, the greeter ushered us to a round table far from the maddening crowd.

“You want GUYS instead of sweet potatoes?”  Jeanne bellowed over the background din of clanging plates and scurrying waitstaff.  

“No, fries!” I laughed.

“Unless,” I said, turning to our server. “There are any spare guys available?”

She laughed politely and while her hearing was perfect, it was apparent that our exchange left her 25 year-old ears completely baffled.

“She has no idea how much fun we were,” I said as she sashayed away.

“How much fun we ARE,” corrected Ann, never one to buy into ageism.

Leslie was the one who started the yearly event. She threw a soiree at her mother’s house back in 1979 and on that day we clinked solo cups, vowing that we would have an annual All Girls' Weekend every year until the day we die. And though one of us  has indeed died, and another bowed out for reasons no longer completely clear to any of us, we have kept up the tradition for 39 years.

For the first 25 years or so we rotated houses, making any husbands, roommates, boyfriends or children leave the premises. We eventually aged out of that, agreeing that no one wanted to make up all those beds, cook all that food, clean all those rooms, even if it ended up being only once every six years. So, we switched gears, extended it to a three-day weekend and began renting random houses, often off-season in deserted beach towns.

Peggy has never, not once in all those years, missed a single gathering.

We spent some time over the weekend trying to reconstruct our history.

“The first year we started renting was the year Evie was born,” I declared, definitively.

“Who is Evie?” Peggy asked.

“My niece,” Ann said.

“Remember, we were at that penthouse in Ocean City, Maryland. We were texting Phillip all weekend to see if she was born yet?”

“No,” Leslie confessed. “But I do remember I was the one who had to sleep on the couch.”

“So what year was Evie born?”


“Oh,” I said, crestfallen. “I guess that wasn’t our first rental.”

“Was it Annapolis?” Jeanne chimed in.

“No!” three of us roared in unison. “That came way later.”

Or, did it?

“Where was that place that had the pool table in the basement?” Peggy asked.

“That was Dewey Beach. Or maybe Bethany,” I answered. “That was the townhouse where everything was broken. And the year we friended Paul Franze."

“I don’t remember a pool table,” Jeanne said. “That must have been the year I got my hip replaced.”

“You got your hip replaced in October. I know it was February because we celebrated Leslie’s birthday.”

“I was there?” Leslie asked.

“We are in big trouble,” I laughed. “What if we live another 35 years? Will we remember anything at all?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jeanne said. “We’ll just fake it.”

While over the years details have faded, stories have been rewritten and dates have blurred, we all hold on to one indisputable memory.

Forty-three years ago, on a September evening, I bounded like a Labrador Retriever, into Ann and Peggy’s dorm room in Harley Hall at Shippensburg State College. I had been stalking them for a week in Kriner Diner and knew I wanted them to join our pack.

“Will you guys be my friend?” I asked.

Those were really and truly the words that came out of my mouth.

The two blond-haired beauties looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Sure.”

Because of the dog that I was, and the dog that I am, I can't help but wonder if referring to oneself as a dog is necessarily a bad thing?   

After all, don't they say that a dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than she loves herself?


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Coveting the Purple Oven

While admittedly not the holiest soul, I pride myself on being somewhat of a good person. I tip well,  I let cars merge in front of me, I write thank you notes and have little trouble following the laws of the Lord.

But when I review the Ten Commandments, I begin to wonder.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 
Fine with me.

Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.
 Oh, God.

Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.
I try not to exercise or otherwise over-exert on Sundays.

Honor thy father and mother.

Thou shalt not kill.
Unless the recently trapped-on-sticky-paper mouse in my kitchen counts, I’m good.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.
No danger of that.

Thou shalt not steal.
I always, always ask the bartender's permission before pocketing glassware.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I ain’t no liar.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
Two wives is two too many.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.
Therein lies my biggest sin.

Covet is an actual word in my vocabulary.

“I covet your orange wallet,” I said when a wealthy horse-owner whipped out a hundred dollar bill for a two-dollar-and-fifty-cent bagel while I was working on the food truck this summer. And I did mean the wallet, not what was in it. She responded with a, “This old thing?” and a fifty-cent tip.

I coveted my friend Ann’s living room chair so much that she redecorated her house so she could give it to me as a replacement for my sad and saggy throne. 

I covet party invitations, new cars and clean houses. I covet Carrie’s wraparound porch and her father’s artwork. I covet central air conditioning, manicured lawns and long, straight hair. Preferably blond. I covet Margaret’s pool and her master bedroom wing. I covet refrigerators that don’t buzz, dogs that don’t bark and computers that don’t freeze. I covet Jean’s 90-inch television and Tom’s well-stocked bar. I covet large, empty closets, en-suite bathrooms and macadam-covered driveways.

I really, really covet my sister Nancy’s purple oven.

And, I don’t even particularly like purple.

I spent last weekend in Charleston visiting said sister and my niece Olivia. I could have stayed there forever. Despite their two dogs. Who shed. In three different colors.

Nancy’s house is beautiful. She has a decorator's eye, a designer's sense and the creative confidence to pull it all together. There’s a purple wicker chair on her front porch that foreshadows the oven within. There’s also a tad of purple in the upholstered dining room seat cushions, a purple rabbit perched on the bannister and a purple powder room. An over-the-top color so artfully used that you'd never even consider calling it a purple house. It’s just a perfect house.

I am, indeed, a sinner. 

So much so that when I returned to my red-countered kitchen, I sat down at my pock-marked table, listened to the ever-annoying hum of the new refrigerator and waited out the spinning circle on my laptop. I then googled purple ovens.

And, I don’t even particularly like purple.

Seeing the absurdity in my googling, I close up my laptop and look around. What I see is a creaky, old house with crackled walls and uneven floors. But, I also see Max's framed photographs hanging slightly askew on the kitchen wall next to the straw monkey from Leo's Amazon trip. Across the room is a dancing wooden drummer hand-carved “just for me,” that Patty and I haggled over in Nassau's Straw Market. 

I marvel at the many shapes and colors of Jeff Tritt paintings that fill my living room, the still-life Leo painted in fourth grade, Patty's depiction of the Schuylkill Expressway and the rustic red barn my mother-in-law painted in a late-in-life art class. I see the hand-blown glass bowl that Jill gave me for a wedding present, the origami paper boxes Betsy and her daughters made me one Christmas, the stained-glass table top from Ann and the photo of me with my sisters and parents at Skytop. My eyes land on the peace pillow from Claire, the Roman shades and polka dot valances sewn by Nancy, the little red-head knitted by Gail and the brass bicycle given to me by my spouse.

I read the many inspirations dotting my desk which include the Charlotte's Web sentiment handwritten from Madge: 

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. 
Charlotte was both. 

I look at the New Orleans Let the Good Times Roll bride and groom skeletons from Molly, last year's smudge bowl from Holly and hear the wind chimes from Jean singing outside the back door. I laugh that I have Jamal's baby picture as well as his college graduation photo and that I've kept Julie's thank you note and Sophie's Aunt Bee etching. 

I see the 45 year-old softball from my father with the barely readable, "It proves what hard work can do," the red glass pitcher from Uncle Tony, the artsy blue plate from Virginia, the Cockadoodle deviled egg platter from Emily and the etegami Color of Sunshine from Susan propped up on a random shelf on the wall.

On the bookshelves beneath Aunt Mary's fish plates sits a Sarah Palin face mask, courtesy of Nancy Schaeffer, and on the kitchen wall, a tree of life made of black wire purchased with my spouse at a street fair in Asheville. And, epitomizing the whole shebang, hanging beneath a crazy chicken clock is my mother's hand-stitched sampler that reads, "A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.”

As I look around my drafty, old abode, it suddenly occurs to me that perhaps the sin is not in the coveting, after all. But, rather in the failing to remember all that there is to covet within our own hearts and homes. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Throw it away, Mom. No one cares.

Much to the chagrin of many family members, both birth and married-into, I’ve never been big on history. I admittedly care way more about what affects me in the here and now than the how and why we came to be.  

However, as a child, I did enjoy bragging about being related to Daniel Boone, always quick to mention that Dan’s clock still stands, ticking away, some eight-feet grand in my mother’s living room. But, these days I am more often greeted with blank stares than wows when I mention my famous ancestor.

“Is he that guy who opened for Drake?” one under-thirtier asked.

Along with my historical apathy comes my attraction for all things new and modern. I love houses so stark that you’re hard-pressed to find a random telephone bill left lingering on a marble countertop. I love chain hotel rooms with predictable art work, exceptional maid service and high-end soaps, replaced daily. I could live forever in a hotel room. Just as long as the ice machine was on the same floor, the mattress was firm and bug-free, there were no visible stains on the walls and I was able to replace the eco-friendly accent lighting with old-fashioned 75-watt bulbs I stash in my suitcase.

So, while I love everything about every one of my sisters, my 93 year-old mother and my dead for a decade-and-a-half father, the idea of a two-night stay at my great-grandfather’s Cape May cottage, circa 1899, left me wondering if we couldn’t have the same sort of bonding experience in a nearby Marriott.

But, of course, there’s no Marriott within 35 miles of Cape May, New Jersey.

Having a long history (there’s that word again) of acclimation issues, I knew it would behoove as all to allow me solitaire fussing and fretting time so arrived a half-hour before Susan, Emily and my mother.  One family vacation, as the story goes, we took a station wagon (fake wood-sided) trip to the Tides Inn, down on the Chesapeake Bay. When we pulled up at the front door, I threw a massive fit, kicking and screaming because it didn’t look the way I expected. Thank goodness for the internet.

The Dormer House, once my father’s grandfather’s summer cottage was, in real life, exactly as was represented online. Now a bed and breakfast, long removed from Hunsicker ownership, it still represented the times in which it was built. It’s a big and creaky old house with sloping floors and four-posted beds dressed in washer-worn floral sheets. Breakfast was served on the windowed-in side porch and afternoon tea in the parlor was poured from a bone china teapot. We sat on velvet-covered, hard-backed couches and looked at turn-of-the-century, not last century, the century before, photos on the walls of people who may or may not have been our blood relatives.

“It will be fun!” my sister, Emily had proclaimed. “I’ll bring all of the old family letters and photos.”

And she did.

My father was the youngest of seven; six boys and one poor girl, Aunt Mary, stuck in the middle. He lived on a Chermside Farm in Fort Washington, PA, grew up in the depression, fought in World War II, and walked two miles to school every day in the pouring rain. Uncle Tony, the next in line, was five years older than my father and by far the most conservative in thought, word and deed. He ended sharing a business with my father, the two of them selling ALPO dog food across the country, and spent every holiday with us, putting a damper on our raucous behavior. He never married, and so took sister Emily, his favorite (after all she was named after his mother), to dances in Philadelphia, to the Daughters of the American Revolution events and church dinners where she might find an appropriate suitor. When he died in 2004, he left hundreds of family letters documenting life as he knew it.

We poured through those letters, the same letters I thought I had no interest in reading. We learned that college textbooks were very expensive, for a botany course alone, the tab was close to $3.00. We saw how the older brothers protected the younger ones and read Uncle Freed’s litany on how the world doesn’t like quitters when my father gave up football at Dartmouth after his freshman year. We heard my father’s self-deprecating “I’m not as smart as the rest of you,” when he brought home a C and we laughed at what had to be a joke of a letter written to Uncle Tony when he in college that teased him for contracting a venereal disease, which is, of course, what they called STDs back in the day.

My father wrote about his plane getting shot down in the Navy; Uncle Joe wrote from his academic post in Greece; my grandfather wrote about killing the fatted calf when the boys returned from war; and they all seemed to send the same $5.00 back and forth to help with each other’s expenses.

We looked at photos taken from the porch of The Dormer House and of the marble fireplace in the front hallway. We saw my grandmother donned in a big hat, my uncles in knickers, my aunt’s wedding guest list. My mother slept in what was dubbed the George Jacoby (my father’s name) suite, Emily in the Anthony Hunsicker room and I was in cousin Dorothy Thomson’s room. We talked at length with Nancy, the innkeeper, befriending her since our sister Nancy couldn't make the trip, and with Diana, who had grown up in the house in the 90s.

And then we reminisced.

Growing up, we spent a lot of time in Cape May. We’d stay in grand hotels like The Chalfonte, The Windsor Hotel and The Colonial Inn. The kind of places that had formal dining rooms, floor-to-ceiling rattling windows, big, wrap-around porches with wooden rocking chairs and turreted guest rooms with threadbare carpets. We’d stroll the one-block macadam boardwalk from Convention Hall to the Skee Ball Hall and end the night with a double-dip ice cream cone to the tune of my father’s constant harping, “It’s dripping! It’s dripping.”

We would visit the Sunken Ship at Cape May Point where, as my father pointed out year after year, he learned to swim. We bought Cape May diamond rings for $2.49 from the kitschy oceanfront shops along Beach Avenue. And drove through the town, passing the Springer sister’s house, who were good friends of Uncle Tony’s, the church that Uncle Freed and Uncle Charles burned down (perhaps in truth, they were responsible for a small fire in the kitchen, but the church was still standing), and Grandfather’s house on the corner of Columbia and Franklin in the center of town.

When I was 12 and sister Emily on the cusp of 14, we ran into the raging ocean on a day a storm was brewing. For us, there was nothing better than strong seas with waves you could ride forever – until you bashed face-first into the sandy shore. Unless of course, the riptide carried you away. Which is what happened to me. Suddenly aware that Emily was nowhere near me and I was drifting farther and farther out to sea, I began to thrash and yell. But, not for long. The Cape May Beach Patrol was on high alert that day and rowed their way out and towed me in with a rope.

Meanwhile, my father was using the near drowning as a cautionary tale for my youngest sister who was still by his side on the shore.

“That stupid kid. Never, ever go out that far alone!” he warned, having no idea that the stupid kid was his number three daughter.  

“I’m going to throw all this stuff away when I get home,” Emily said after spending two days going through the family history. The rest of us agreed, spawning a conversation about how the next generation doesn’t care about, nor want any of our keepsakes. Can you blame them? I asked in their defense. No one cares less about history than I.

Still, I slipped a few of those yellowed letters into my suitcase.

When I got home, Leo, my youngest, asked me how the trip was. I found myself spilling the stories we uncovered and reading him excerpts from the letters I kept, waiting for the eye roll and the “Gotta go, Mom.”

Instead he was more than intrigued and said, “Your father’s college experience sounds a lot like mine. Where are the rest of the letters?”

A quick text to sister Emily assured us that the letters were still intact and she joyfully relinquished ownership to a member of the next generation.

And, as that member of the next generation has an interest in history, an affinity for the absurd and a flair for screenwriting, we just may find ourselves featured in a future sitcom. 

Which is, perhaps, precisely where the Hunsicker heritage belongs. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Cohabitating with College Graduates

“But, mom!” the living-back-at-home daughter protested. “You have to TELL me these things.”

These things include, but are not limited to, extracting long strands of brown wavy hair from the bathroom drain. Curbing her ten-dollar-a-day grapes habit, or at the very least, replacing said fruit. Completing a cycle of laundry before the mother comes along with the next three loads and angrily folds what has been left in the dryer, because, contrary to popular belief, she’s not mean enough to throw it in a crumpled heap on the daughter’s bedroom floor. Which is exactly where it came from.

As the revolving door on Grove Street opens and closes to my adult offspring, I find myself marveling at how little they know about basic household concepts. Or, in other words, how much I failed to teach them. I take most of the blame. Most. Not all. Because, I always had a valid excuse. When they were growing up and I was schlepping them from field to field, house to house, school to school, I just didn’t have the time. It was so much more efficient to do it myself than to redo what they tried to do.

If I had it to do over, I would teach my children that sheets should be changed more than once a year. That toothpaste droolings in the sink are not attractive. And that toilets don’t get cleaned by themselves.

I would show them how to lower the shades at night and how to open them in the morning. Where the outside trashcan is. And how to take the recycling bins to the curb on alternate Tuesdays.

I’d explain why it’s not a good idea to leave a plastic bag on top of the toaster oven when it’s in use. Why the dishwasher doesn’t remove burnt-on food byproducts. And why baked potatoes blow up in the microwave if not pierced with a fork.

I would teach my children to hand wash the ice cream scooper that says NOT DISHWASHER SAFE and not put the Henckles knives in the dishwasher. Or the cash iron skillets. Or the plastic water bottles on the bottom rack.

I’d show them how to water the plants on the porch. How to empty the overflowing mailbox that they pass every time they come in the door. How to plunge a toilet. How to tell when cold cuts have gone rancid. And how to use a coaster.

I’d explain the reasoning behind bringing deck chair cushions in before it rains. Cutting the grass before the neighbors ask us to. Emptying the (I didn’t even know we had one) dehumidifier before it overflows. Replenishing the milk before it’s all gone.

I would teach my children how to use a hanger. How to replace the toilet paper. How to finish a water bottle. And how to vacuum dog hair.

I’d show them where the cleaning supplies are kept. Where the car keys are hung. And where the closest Ben & Jerry’s is. Just in case they wanted to pick up some Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream for someone they love.

I’d explain the importance of keeping the inside shower curtain in and keeping the outside curtain out. That there’s a direct correlation between round-the-clock air conditioning and over-the-top electric bills. That paid-for car insurance, and cell phones, are not God-given rights.

I would teach my children that texting to say “I’m alive” with aforementioned paid-for-by-parent cell phone (because a family plan is so much cheaper) is kind. That saying “Thanks for all you do, Mumsie,” is sweet. That answering a direct question with a blank stare is not.

If I had it to do over, I’d do it all much differently. I’d be stricter. I’d be stronger. I’d do what my friend Barbara tells me to do every time she sees me. I'd charge rent. From middle school on. 

When I muddle and muse over these many misdoings, misgivings and misparentings, I can’t help but wonder how the great mothers of the world do it. My soon-to-be 93 year-old mama comes immediately to mind.

And that’s when I laugh.

Because, not all that long ago, she could have written this very same story about my sisters and me. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Shamelessness of Miss America

            The plan was to watch the season premiere of Shameless on Sunday night. I had binged the entire series in May, getting seriously sucked in by the Gallaghers and couldn’t wait to see what kind of craziness was in store for Season 9. While some of the scenarios are stretchably relatable, my fascination with the family most certainly has more to do with the fact that the program drastically raises my self-esteem as a parent.

            As I was flipping through the TV Guide, the online version, not the magazine version that I knew, loved and worked for in my formative years, my eye caught the Miss America listing which was on at 9 pm. The same time as Shameless. Hmm, I thought. I wonder if this is the Miss America pageant. The one that was once hyped as hard as the Super Bowl. The one I used to watch as religiously as the Academy Awards.

            Sure enough, after a little googling, I learned that Miss America was due to be crowned that very night in Atlantic City . Thanks to the invention of something called a DVR, I could watch it live and save Shameless for a rainy day.

            Betwixt and between all the Rachel Maddowing I’ve been doing in my determination to pay more attention than I did during Watergate, I know I heard snippets of Miss America news. Someone was being bullied. Someone was dissing swimsuits. Some executive quit. Or maybe two of them. I vaguely recalled our president being affiliated with beauty pageants. But was that someone he bedded, a pageant he ran, or both? Was it Miss America? I googled. Nope, Miss Universe. But, point being, beauty pageants haven’t been in the forefront of my mind in a long, long time.

            I think the whole Jon Benet Ramsey thing did me in. After the six-year-old beauty queen was found murdered in her home in Boulder on Christmas night, pageants became the pariah of extra-curricular activities, eliciting consternation and condescension when defended in dinner party conversation.

            But, the thing is, I was actually in a competition with Jon Benet’s mother, Patsy.

When we were seniors at West Virginia University, we entered an inter-collegiate competition held at Ohio State. Full disclosure. It was not a beauty pageant. It was the National Student Advertising Competition and we, the advertising and marketing majors, were tasked with creating an entire ad campaign for Wella Balsam. Patsy, who was still a decade away from motherhood and a lifetime away from becoming a nationally-known entity, was the spokesperson for the group. After all, she held the coveted title of Miss West Virginia, was the most poised, owned the nicest college clothes and had a world of experience answering pointed questions. My friend, Sue, was the media expert. Mary Ann and Andrea did the marketing. And I was the copywriter.

And what a clever copywriter I was! We chose a sports theme for the campaign and I can still hear Patsy declaring, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!” as she pointed dramatically toward the easels displaying our hand-drawn storyboards that portrayed athletes with long, flowing hair. Women athletes who not only looked good, but played hard, thanks to Wella Balsam shampoo.

 We nailed it.

We, the panel of WVU creative geniuses, gathered gleefully, awaiting our crowning moment. And, just as they do in the Miss America pageant, the MC fueled the anticipation by announcing the losers first.

“And the first runner-up from the great state of ….”

Yup. It was us. We walked away with second place.

That night we stayed in a fancy schmancy hotel in Columbus where we drowned our sorrows in a manner not unexpected of grieving college seniors. When we staggered to bed, forlorn and forsaken, we noted an abundance of shoes in the hallways.

Apparently, back in the day, hotels of a certain ilk offered overnight shoe shines. You simply left your dusty kicks outside your room and they’d be whisked away, polished, buffed and returned by the time you stepped out the door for your coffee and crueler the next morning.

I looked at Patsy. Patsy looked at Sue. Sue looked at Andrea. Andrea looked at Mary Ann. And without saying a word, we did what any other dethroned and dejected advertising types would have done.

We got creative.

Room 312’s clodhoppers were replaced with 508’s Frye boots. Room 410’s clogs went to 432. Room 219 ended up with one penny loafer and one stiletto.

We ran up and down the hallways, in and out of the elevators, tossing shoes, tying mismatched laces, laughing our fool heads off as we wreaked havoc within the hotel hallways. We, hand-in-hand with the prim-and-proper Miss West Virginia.

I couldn’t resist watching Miss America on Sunday night. I watched every minute, from beginning to end. I googled the candidates, as they’re now called. I listened to their impassioned empowerments. I marveled at their omnipresent smiles, prestigious pedigrees and off-the-cuff responses. I found myself making my list of favorites as the top fifteen were cut to ten then cut to five.

And, I felt my stomach surge, just a little, as the fourth runner-up was named, followed by the third runner-up, then the second runner-up, leaving just two beauty queens clutching each other tightly, knowing that one of their lives was about to change forever while the other’s claim to fame would forever be that she was a Miss America runner-up.

I was rooting for New York. She was smart and pretty and when I checked her LinkedIn account, yes, I really did, I saw that she had worked in the same school system where the daughter is currently gainfully employed. She sings like a lark, is an advocate of the arts and is New York Strong. What’s not to love?

So, when she took the crown, I fist-pumped the air, alone in the living room. I smiled. And, I thought of Patsy. 

I didn’t keep in touch with Patsy for very long after college. I was invited to her wedding, but it was far away in Atlanta and I was young and poor, so I graciously declined. I kept up with her for a while, and then later, only through our mutual friend, Sue. I followed every lead, every news account and every rumor of the Jon Benet story but never reached out to her. Too many years had passed. When Patsy died in 2006, it had been over 20 years since our paths had crossed. But I'll never forget the lesson she left behind:

There’s a little bit of beauty queen in all of us.