08 December 2009

Venite Adoremus

Starting in fourth grade, I spent a lot of time on the altar of my home church. Not as an altar server--sheesh, that was my Holy Grail back then, to wear that puffy white cotton gown-with-undergown and ring the little golden bell. But in the 1970s, girls were not altar servers. Instead, through a turn of events I can no longer remember, I became a lector.

Fourth grade. The same age as my youngest, who still frequently stammers through a sentence with childlike enthusiasm. Somehow, at age 10, I was instilled with the awesome power of the responsorial psalm and expected to deliver the words calmly and understandably. An entire parish lifted its myriad faces to me, awaiting my instructions as to what they would say in response to the interspersed psalm content I had to read, cold, from a big fat ponderous book. Yes, cold--I was handed the text upon arrival each Sunday.

Did I audition for this role? It's lost to the mists. There must have been some kind of try-outs, although knowing my parochial school, it's just as likely I was drafted because of my grades or my aptitude or the suspicion that I'd had "the calling". (Pause to recall the day that a nun told me that. Pause also to recall that I stammered when I answered Sister Maureen with some bland platitude, dancing around saying what I really meant: "Ohhh, I like boys WAY too much for that.")

Lectoring meant that weekly Mass was a must for me, and I didn't get to choose which Mass I was compelled to attend. I had to dress up, and I often used this as an excuse to borrow my mom's wedge-heeled sandals because "nothing I have matches with this skirt, Ma." How I walked across that massive marble-floored stage without wobbling, I do not know. I was shivery inside, and maybe my voice quavered as I intoned the psalm, but the huge silver mic always covered for me and boomed my words out into the massive church hall. (One of those retro-looking mics, rounded silver square with the horizontal cutouts. Ever cool.)

My nerves calmed as my lectoring career went on. One of the greatest gifts I ever got from my tenure at Most Precious Blood School, in fact, is my ability to speak in front of a crowd without hesitating. And here's an incredible true fact: my mom never came to a single Mass where I lectored. She was completely alienated from her faith at that point, and not inclined to use up Sunday leisure time on accompanying me to a service that would distress her. So, while that might seem cold-hearted and dismissive as you ponder it, what it really meant was this: at a young age, I was handed a major weekly responsibility that was mine alone to fulfill. No mom to comfort me if I made a mistake or got nervous...buck up and do it, young Nessa. Say what you will, my mother molded a fiercely independent spirit. For all I know, I advised her not to bother coming anyway.

Mom did, however, attend Midnight Mass with me and my brother, as my other altar-centered stint was the school choir. Those auditions, I do remember. Being in the choir meant everything to me. I strived for it, and each year I fretted that I might mess up my audition and not get in. The choir's base of operations was the Lower Church of Most Precious Blood, home of the infamous and kid-beloved Folk Mass (acoustic guitars! John Denver songs! feel-good liturgy!) The ceiling was lower down there, indeed; the lighting a fascinating peachy beige that warmed me inside. Sliding into the worn wood of those chestnut pews, feeling their grain under my fingertips...I spent hours upon hours there.

Our leader was a modernistic, charismatic young priest named Fr. Rucando. (So modernistic was he that, on Saturdays, you might see him in the neighborhood wearing beige slacks and a brown collared shirt!) Fr. Rucando was as good a music instructor as anyone I have ever seen. He was exacting yet pleasant, knowledgeable but accessible, and I would have probably leapt off a ledge if he told me that was the way to hit a note accurately. Our choir was about 50 kids strong. We rehearsed after school in the Lower Church, preparing for the big debut (either Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, depending on the season). That debut performance would relocate us, you guessed it, onto the marble floor of the Upper Church's altar. We would line up by height along the length of the altar, so different from the casual weeks we had spent in pews downstairs. Our voices made a blended sound that stunned us: a lofty, soaring, magical hymnfest. Father selected unusual Christmas fare: "We Three Kings," "There's A Star in the East," "O Come O Come Emanuel." The program was always tinged with melancholy, culminating in our much-rehearsed "Silent Night." Fr. Rucando took "Silent Night" very seriously. He derided the way that popular singers dragged out "heavenly peeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEACE," asking us instead to leap carefully between the two segments of the word, according some dignity to the moment and the emotion. Singing to his specifications, I felt as spiritually engaged as could ever be possible. As though I were an instrument to convey important messages. A muse for faith.

Walking to Midnight Mass, my stomach felt jumpy and excitable. Surely the knowledge that presents would soon materialize was part of that; also, dinner was long since digested, so my stomach was a little demanding. But even moreso, I was immersed in the night-ness of it all, and that never ceased to thrill me. The streets of Astoria were dipped in an inky midnight blue, punctuated by the occasional orange streetlight's benevolent glow. As we approached the church, a life-size Nativity was posted at the corner, constructed so that you could walk "into" the manger and feel that much closer to the Christmas miracle. And my mother was walking alongside me, which (independent girl must admit) meant the world to me. When your mother's an accomplished musician, your musical endeavors essentially become offertories.

The choir's repertoire would be sung before the Mass. Then, a great thrill: after the singing, we were herded up the stairs into the choir loft--by far, the coolest place in the whole church. From the bird's-eye vantage point, we watched the Mass so far below. The entire church was luminous from that spot, with vivid poinsettias winking all over the room. Also, every time the presiding priest waved the jangling censer, and its musky sweet incense wafted out, the concentrated scent would wreathe the choir loft with especial intensity. I reveled in its festivity; the censer only appeared for certain services.

Our choir was called upon during the Mass once more, to lead the congregation in "Adeste Fideles". That was fun, because we had not been taught this hymn during the course of our rehearsals--instead, we were expected to pick up the hymnals and deliver it cold. Of course we knew the tune, but the Latin danced on my tongue, a fizzly delight, unfamiliar even as I knew what the lyrics really meant.

On the way home, invariably my family would tease me because I was a little too "into it" as I sang. Moving my head around, keeping time. So sue me; I'm the daughter of musicians, I can't stand still when I perform. I knew they had been watching me, and that's all that mattered. It was my thing, my offering, and they were there.

What awaited us at home was usually not a happy holiday. Christmas brought stark conflicts between the adults in our home. Luckily we had usually freed our presents of their wrappings before then, so at least that part was sacrosanct. And no matter what happened on the 25th and beyond, my Christmas always had its shining, holy introductory eve, festooned in music and hope. And here's a nifty coda about Fr. Rucando: I always went to him for Confession, because he knew me so well. In what was then the new, daring, face-to-face Confessional method, I used to sit with him and seek advice and solace about my turbulent home life. That man never failed to help, a balm to my young spirit. Coupled with the instruction and joy of his musical teachings, I was deeply fortunate to know him when I did.

29 October 2009

What I did for Brotherly Love

(Man, there's like four entendres in that title.)

This week marks 24 years since I became a phan of Philly. Not the currently ballyhooed team, but the city, as embodied by a gangly and lustful young Quaker. Falling in love with Pete was my first real acquaintance with the City of Brotherly Love, and I, ahem, loved it. Philly may sprawl a little more haphazardly than my Queens home turf, but there's neighborhood vibes abounding. Fantastical stone architecture that screams Cradle of Liberty. The afore-mentioned Quakers, whose faith spoke to me wordlessly right from the start. The Hooters, sonic accompaniment to our romance. The late, lamented Third Street Jazz and Rock, where our mutual adoration of dusty vinyl took root. Driving fast along the Schuylkill while blasting the Nazz. The Franklin Institute. And...cheesesteaks.

Inspired by today's http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/on-the-question-of-cheese-steaks, which seems to get a lot of it wrong, and in honor of 24 adventurous years with Peter, I thought I would share my own personal cheesesteak recipe. I crafted this a few years ago without consulting any cookbooks...it's straight from my sense memories of the amazing taste of D'Allesandro's cheesesteaks (NOT Geno's, puh-leeze). Now, it's not like my marriage needed saving and I brought out the big Philly phood guns to save it. In fact, we weren't even bored with our usual home, well, phare. (End of clever "ph"s.) We were just missing the taste of a Philly cheesesteak, and I thought maybe I could nail it.

Multiple Philly-native Reifsnyders have told me I got it right. Who's to say. I just love eating the danged things.

Mt. Airy Cheesesteaks

One 16-steak box of frozen Hannaford Sandwich Steaks (or your store's equivalent...see image below)
One 15-oz can of Tomato Sauce (plain, not preseasoned)
One 16-oz container of Fresh Mushrooms
One Onion
Dried Oregano
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Salt, Pepper, Sugar
One 12-oz package Kraft finely shredded Italian-blend Five Cheese (contains provolone, mozzarella, asiago, parmesan and romano)
About 2 cups more of Shredded Mozzarella
NOTE: I never use reduced fat anything, so I don't know what this would taste like with that option.
Package of 6 sub sandwich rolls (aim for something soft, not crusty)

*Serves 6 ravenous Reifsnyders

STEP 1: The sauce
Pour the Tomato Sauce into a saucepan; place on med-low flame. Add a couple of shakes of Oregano, a pinch each of Garlic and Onion Powders, a little Salt and Pepper, and--VERY key--a couple of teaspoons of Sugar. Stir it up and let it simmer on low while you do the rest of the prep.

STEP 2: The meat
In a large bowl, separate the frozen sheets of Steak and break them into pieces. Your hands will be achy-cold. It's a small price to pay. Note: You will NOT be thawing the meat!! It's meant to be cooked frozen.

STEP 3: The veggies
Slice the Mushrooms into a bowl (or buy presliced). Halve the Onion, then cut it into thin half-moon slices; add to the mushrooms.

STEP 4: The cheeses
Combine all Cheeses in an oversized bowl (you'll need double the space in this bowl, because you'll be adding the cooked steak to it soon).

STEP 5: Cook the meat
Preheat a high-sided skillet on med-high (if it's not non-stick, you might add a smidge of cooking oil). Add the frozen Steak pieces after about a minute of preheating. Sauté the pieces, turning over frequently and chopping up as you go. As the steak finally begins to transition away from pinkness, add the Mushrooms and Onions and sauté them along with the steak.

STEP 6: Prep the rolls
Slice open the Rolls and plate them. You want to keep the subs sealed on the bottom, if you can.

STEP 7: Combine meat and cheeses
Once the Steak and Veggies are done to your liking (usually takes ~8 minutes), use a slotted spatula to transfer the mixture into the Cheese bowl. Try to avoid transferring fatty oil as much as you can. You want to do this while the steak is plenty hot. Mix it all together so that the cheeses start to melt and blend thoroughly with the meat.

STEP 8: Assemble the sandwiches
Put an ample amount of the meat-cheese mixture into the split sub. Then, carefully spoon some of the simmered sauce along the top of the meat. This is a trial-and-error thing...you don't want to make an inedibly messy sub, but you need enough so that you get a burst of sauce with every bite.

Press the sandwich together gently. If the rolls are long, cut in half to make it easier to pick up.


05 October 2009

The viewing

It was a viewing at the funeral home, on a drizzly and chill gray morning. The family walked in nearly on tiptoe, their footfalls further hushed by bland carpeting and sympathetic wallpaper. They were almost comically all-sized, from the eldest sister--equal in height to her mother--to the next in line, whose towering awkwardness mimicked his father's, and then the two youngers, one suddenly a head taller than the other. Semi-formal clothing constrained their movements to jerkiness as they sought to relax in the somber glow of the room.

The room tunneled to an endpoint where their elderly cousin rested, in view, pastel colors all around her. The children did not want to approach the casket, and their parents were not about to insist on it. As they all milled about, a safe distance away, they saw a lone figure approaching by the sprays of flowers. His movements were made tentative by his age and deep sorrow. In front of him, laid out in peace, was his sister, the last direct family member in his line. He had never married; she had never married. For awhile, the children had thought that these two relatives, who welcomed them so fondly with each visit, were another set of grandparents. There had been no need to disavow them of that, back then; the simple mistake brought universal joy.

The family found a semicircle of seats in the room's entryway and sat. A few hushed words were exchanged back and forth, and the younger ones leaned on their parents' jacketed arms. As the weight of minutes passed, and cousin Bill remained near his sister Dottie, the older son suddenly began to weep. Then the older daughter, the younger son, the younger daughter...a chain reaction of raw grief. The mother saw it happen, abashed by the intensity of their mourning. She dispensed hugs to each, stroked their hair, whispered reassurances; their slender shapes were warm in her arms, but disconsolate. A Kleenex box was passed, and the four children's reddened faces were shielded as they tried to stem the tears. How extraordinary, their mother thought, and how foolish that she had not anticipated this emotional surge.

The children cried because they knew, all four of them, what a sibling bond means. How no one will ever know you the way your sibling does. How you will do anything for a sister, a brother. They knew from their parents' conversations all week that Bill had been tasked with making final arrangements for a woman who had once been a girl, whose toys he had shared, whom he'd teased and probably exasperated--he being the youngest. And even from a distance, they could see that the face in the casket was not anything like the person they had known...she was truly gone.

First cousins of Bill and Dottie began to arrive; there were not many of them left. From the entryway, watching her distant relatives greet each other in front of the coffin, the mother saw how much these men and women resembled the previous generation: their parents, her great uncles and aunts. Seeing their faces in profile, eyeglasses glinting in the light, it was uncanny. This branch of the family was slight in stature, and though they wavered and hesitated with age, their pride remained fierce. She was witnessing time, manifested. Her own mother was once one of them.

This was the weekend that her decision to come to Maine, to retrace her mother's path, became right and true and fixed. Her place, her home, her people. How much she had gained...and now, her children, too.

08 June 2009

"You should write a book."

The year that I lived with my grandparents, age 8, I was given my first-ever weekly allowance. There really wouldn't have been any reason for me to get $1 a week back home in Queens, because I couldn't go shopping alone in the big city. But in Millinocket, Maine, I was free to walk from our house to the compact district known as "down street." I can still remember the sweaty feel of the dollar bill (or two, or three) that lay folded inside my pocket. The greeny scent that my hand carried when I brought it back upwards. And the planning, my thoughts of what-to-buy-this-time following the rhythmic pattern of my feet on the sidewalk.

At Newberry's, I'd become attached to series-type books like Trixie Belden, and I was always up for paper dolls or junk jewelry. I loved Barbies and coloring books and even office supplies (so I could pretend to be a secretary, like my mom). As I think back now, I can't recall when the seismic shift in my priorities took place...but there was, indeed, a climactic point in that third-grade year when it dawned on me that my life's ambition was to be an author. And immediately connected to that realization was a new use for my allowance money: now, I'd stride past Newberry's towards a pharmacy/stationer's called The Big L, because they had the best display of school supplies in town. Fingering the bills in my pocket, I'd deliberate in that aisle over binders, looseleaf, and pencils. The tools for this trade had to be just right. I craved the most inspiring blank piece of lined paper I could obtain, and I wanted the binder that encased it to be a heady combo of workmanlike and appealing. It had to feel right in my hands.

Once home, I would snap open the silver rings of the binder with care, slide the looseleaf sheets out of the plastic, and thread those three rings with the white poundage of possibility. And after this meticulous ceremony, I promise you, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I spent hours alone in my playroom writing, while hours flew past like a time-lapse film where the sun arcs over the house...morning, to day, to evening. My pencil penmanship on the lines smoothly conveyed my imagined stories, without much hesitation. Adult Nessa will tell you: that was magic.

Last weekend I was brought back to these third-grade reveries with a jolt. My kids wanted to stop at the B. Dalton bookstore, and I wandered in with them. They fanned out to their favorite spots, and I looked around aimlessly. Spreading before me, coming into collective focus, were piles and piles of remaindered, unwanted books...all colors and shapes, all topics and themes, all meticulously designed and hopeful. Some agent sold them, some editor bought them, and now some publishing house was whapping its forehead over the wastefulness of these paper-hogging tomes (if not dropping to its knees in the worst economy ever for the printed word). Of course, my heart sank for the writers who believed that people would eagerly read their stories, even as I experienced my familiar clanging jealousy that these authors got published. (Cue the moment where I berate myself for failing to achieve what I set out to do as a girl...the self-flagellation that ensues at every bookstore I enter.)

I lingered for a time at the young-adult section, the genre I settled upon decades ago as my writerly quarry. Twilight-inspired novels sprouted all over those shelves like some out-of-control black rosebush. Alongside the vamps and virgins, I spied another genre: books that centered on Internet chats, texting, and other clever communication devices of this age we live in. Not something I can imagine penning, even though I'm as much a net-izen as anyone. And I'm not a supernaturalist, either.

I veered away from YA, past manga abounding (my daughter's realm), and caught up with Willis reading a guidebook about insects. (He had seen a massive one the night before and was intently discerning what it was.) He sat bathed in a bright overhead light, and I sat next to him. I doubt he even recalls what I said--he was pretty engrossed in the insect manual--but I was overwhelmed, and had to voice what I was thinking to someone.

"Willis, I just realized..." My voice weakened, but then I said it. "When I was a little girl, you know, I decided I was going to write books someday. And just now, looking at all these books in this store that no one's gonna buy...you know, I have to accept...that is not going to happen."

He didn't say anything, but I went on. "People are always telling me, 'you should write a book,' and that's really wonderful of them, but there aren't ever going to be enough people who would want to read anything I'd write." There was this weird breathless feeling in my chest: part lifting of burden, and part airlessness left behind because I'd let go of something that had always felt so hopeful and pure and true. Oddly for me, I didn't cry. I just felt transformed, desolated.

I know my friends' intentions are supportive and honest when they say that I should write a book. I love them for it, and I wish I could believe what they believe. But adding to that sea of remainders...even being considered worthy enough to maybe join that sea of remainders...my childhood dream seems like a shedded carapace, and the me that has been inside it is tender, emerged, older and wiser.

I'm not saying I'll never be a writer...that's not my point. (I can't not write. It's breath to me.) It is my original childhood vision that has altered: that clutching of a book in my hands that has my name on the cover and my words arranged in orderly font, line after line, on an enviable thick block of pages. It feels yesterday, and wanting it hurts too much in the face of reality.

16 March 2009

Ask Des and Lyd

Ask your kids. Share! Today!

Desmond, age 9, and Lydia, age 10, say...

1. What is something Mumma always says to you?
D: Ummmm....hmmmmm...I dunno. "Hi."
L: "Do your homework!"

2. What makes Mumma happy?
D: When I do my homework.
L: Listening to old records.

3. What makes Mumma sad?
D: Watching TV. [I think he means, him watching TV, not me sitting there and blubbering. But who's to say.]
L: If someone in her family dies.

4. What does your Mumma do that makes you laugh?
D: I don't think I remember anything.
L: Comment on weird things.

5. What was your Mumma like as a child?
D: I don't know.
L: No glasses, short...that's all I can think of.

6. How old is your Mumma?
D: 44...?
L: 45!

7. How tall is your Mumma?
D: 53 inches. [Yeaah.]
L: 5 foot 2? [Still, no.]

8. What is her favorite thing to do?
D: Make quilts.
L: Lie around and sleep, and watch "General Hospital."

9. What does your Mumma do when you're not around?
D: Talk to adults.
L: Sleep. And work.

10. If your Mumma becomes famous, what will it be for?
D: Making quilts.
L: For being a great genealogist, I think.

11. What is your Mumma really good at?
D: Cooking.
L: Cooking dinner.

12. What is your Mumma not very good at?
D: Chopping down trees.
L: Playing sports.

13. What does your Mumma do for a job?
D: Work at a store.
L: Work at a fabric and scrapbooking store.

14. What is your Mumma's favorite food?
D: Pizza.
L: Yodels and tea.

15.What makes you proud of your Mumma?
D: There's so many things!
L: Proud that she's my mom.

16. If your Mumma were a cartoon character, who would she be?
D: Truffles from "Chowder."
L: Truffles, because she's cranky and old--sorry to say that--and she has glasses.

17. What do you and your Mumma do together?
D: Make scrapbooks.
L: Look up the past of our ancestors.

18. How are you and your Mumma the same?
D: We both watch TV...
L: We're both girls...and I have the same eye color as her.

19. How are you and your Mumma different?
D: She makes dinner.
L: I don't wear glasses, but she does.

20. How do you know your Mumma loves you?
D: Because she hugs me.
L: Because I am her child and she loves me very much.

21. Where is your Mumma's favorite place?
D: Bowdoin.
L: New Jersey or New York because her brother lives there and she used to.

10 March 2009

Getting the Knack

A three-room apartment, the embodiment of claustrophobia. Somehow there was never enough light in that place--it was as though the eternal gray layer of city dust filtered out pure light, as well. Four of us lived there, with one bedroom shared by myself and my older brother, and the living room's pull-out sofa the designated domain of Mom and her boyfriend (we called him a stepfather, for propriety's sake). There was a pervasive unease about that living room, because it was the site of unpredictable outbursts by my stepfather. Usually these were late-night, though not always; typically they were provoked by alcohol; frequently the blasting verbal barrage would be followed up by slaps, punches, or outright hurls of my mother's birdlike form from one side of the small room to another. How she never broke a bone remains a mystery. If there were bruises, she managed to conceal them and retain her 9-to-5 secretarial post without anyone being the wiser.

Incredibly, considering the dearth of space in our home, the single bedroom was rarely entered by my mom, and never by my stepfather. It was lighter in there, and it had a magical escape pod: the back window. No ordinary window, this was a prewar portal about five feet tall. Its width perfectly cradled my sitting form...thus, I would sit at my sixth-floor perch, big Radio Shack headphones clamped on my head, staring out over the patchwork roofs, sparse trees, and sidewalks of Astoria, Queens. Behind me was a scuttled scrap pile of domesticity. Ahead of me was the world of my neighborhood, shimmering in dusk light or glinting in sunshine. My senses were wide-opened by this window vision: breezes nuzzled me; interspersed trees popped a brilliant green into the grays and browns of city life; I smelled other people's food, sweet outdoors air, the occasional hint of exhaust...

...and what did I hear, planted in that window, gazing and escaping? Well, in 1979, among many of my favorite artists, I heard the Knack. And the Knack became the shining sound of my freedom.

My heart lifts even now when I think of Get the Knack. I had long since established myself as a Beatles fan, and suddenly a band of my era was building something new and edgy on that familiar power pop foundation. That made me feel championed and upswept into my own hopeful now. The album's packaging was slick black-and-white, with its black portions gleaming just like the inner circle of vinyl. The band photos and even the rainbow Capitol record label mimicked the Beatles' heyday, at once parody and homage. As such, this LP was easily dismissed upon its (admittedly hyped) release; I recall many jaded critics and even my own brother giving it the one-handed brush-off. That only fueled my ardor. Not for nothing did the band title their second album ...But the Little Girls Understand. The men didn't know, indeed.

Plunked onto the turntable, the Knack's sound was percussion-driven and propulsive right from the get-go. (Bruce Gary was vastly underrated.) Berton Averre's guitar rang clear, banging and clangy. Prescott Niles' bass bottom was thick and supportive. And there was Doug Fieger's indelible voice, by turns bratty and manly. He teased, yearned, scored. The band's lyrics conveyed impatient sexuality and a simmering anger that spoke volumes to my 15-year-old thwarted self. I had a knowing inside me that was--I can say now--deeper than many of my peers'. Forged by my home's strife, perhaps, but also by my voracious reading habit and my writer's sensibility. I gathered shreds of learning and quilted them immediately. And oh, I wanted wanted wanted.

A fatherless girl (my stepfather was a straw man, and my own father long disappeared), I craved touch, warmth, and companionship. I wanted to learn someone else's ways, and thereby, to believe there was a better life to be had than what was behind me in that apartment. I wanted to be understood, surely, but even more so, I wanted to understand someone else completely. Immerse. Leave.

As such, I was governed by crushes that burned hot at the front of my mind. Not unlike the Knack's protagonists, who sang things like:

I don't expect you to understand
The thrill I feel when I hold your hand
But this is something I never planned
You're thinking of me as just a friend
My heart is breaking, I can't pretend...


I don't want much, uh-uh,
I don't wanna be her boyfriend forever...
I just wanna...touch


She's gonna take you by the hand, lead you to the promised land
She'll make you weak and out of breath, feeling like you're done to death
Oh, I wanna hold you
Oh, and then enfold you....
She'll be pulling the string
But she'll tie it in a knot before she'll give you anything!

(Yeah, go ahead, replace the she's with he's. Worked for me.)

I listened and memorized and craved for weeks. And then I experienced a Knack-engineered moment that was transcendent.

The place: my friend D.J.'s garage. D.J. had what most of us Queensites lacked: a full-sized, freestanding house. Its two-car garage had been made over into a 1970s extravaganza of a wood-paneled bar, complete with pool table and a real pinball machine. As I think back, I can't understand why I didn't just buy a sleeping bag and move in. But whenever I could, I would loose the tether of home and hang out in that den of easy laughter and play.

We were a crowd of friends, back then, each with our own demons to wrestle (again, something I can say now...then, I might have wondered, but mostly never considered it). Among us was a boy I desired mightily. He and I were friends on an intellectual level--not to sound overstuffed, but we discoursed about poetry, politics, and religion along with our pop-cultural musings. Yea verily, I had crushes abounding, but he was my strongest focus, the catch I strained to yank into the boat.

D.J. was a man of disco and cheesepop, but somehow one afternoon as we gathered in celebration of Labor Day, Get the Knack was successfully slipped into his boom box cassette player. Wooo! As a pool game lazily unrolled, and the conversation with it, I rocked around the room to the first few cuts on the album (no single among them, yet I knew them each by heart). Cut number five was the first resting moment, a true ballad that I had taken to heart with desperation, always pining for this crush-boy:

I don't know why I never said it before
I dont know why i waited so long to be sure
but I...everything's humming,
Something is coming, maybe tonight....
Funny to think I had to clown and pretend
You never knew I saw you as more than a friend
but I...come hold me tighter, come make it right,
maybe tonight, oh maybe tonight....

Of course I knew every word. And for some reason, I dared myself to sing this track out loud, there among my best friends. It felt liberating...and far more so, as I heard crush-boy's voice singing with equal fervor alongside mine. My heart raced and my mind wobbled, but I stayed cool and sang it out with him.

Did he touch me that night? Well, no...not for a couple of years, at that, and even then only fleetingly. But it didn't matter, and it still doesn't matter. That song has silken threads woven around it to this day. You could say, I started to grow a wing right then, in D.J.'s garage. That would be entirely true.

Freedom. I'm indebted to the Knack for helping foster that. And I escaped, oh yes...largely unscathed, and fully myself.

There's a further Knack-related coda to this story. How many of us have the good fortune to gather new best friends in our full-on adulthood? I know it hasn't happened often for me; after the safe haven of D.J.'s garage and the all-embracing arms of college, I haven't connected with many people. Adulthood's definitely had more of a lonely cast about it, which I guess accompanies responsibilities like dinner and paycheck and nurturing. Not so much freedom to be discovered in those, moreover.

Well, five years ago, I came to know a group of wonderful women on, of all things, John Mayer's fan club message board. (I'm sure my family's memories of that year involve the staccato tapdance of my PC's keyboard as I kept up with messages and tales from all over the U.S., literally from friends I had not met.) One by one, these women had been meeting up at concerts (where, I might add, they managed to score amazing seats right in front of Mayer). Those meet-ups were then retold on the board, and they sounded exhiliratingly fun. I dithered for awhile about whether I should head out on a Mayerventure...and in so doing, crest years of fear about airplane flight. 'Cause to be sure, Johnny boy wasn't hitting up the state of Maine.

In September of 2004, one of our friends tragically lost her husband to a horrible industrial accident. The Mayer friends banded together as we had been doing for other sad situations among us, sharing messages of support on the boards. From our disparate locations, we each began crafting quilt squares to express our feelings and share love with Mary Ann. Later that fall, the quilt was to be delivered in Chicago.

Never been to Chicago. Hmmm. And one of the Mayer friends, Karen, was a southern Mainer who wanted me to fly out with her. We had never met in real life, despite our relative geographical proximity. I knew she had recently lost her mom and was really looking forward to a little escapism after a sad, painful year. I pondered for a few days, and did not manage to persuade Karen that maybe we could drive...? No, she said firmly on the phone, we are NOT driving halfway across the country in December. I guess the train...? NO.

So...I gave in, leaping into quite an unknown. We flew. Got to know each other through revealing conversations, crammed next to each other in commuter jets. On one of the flights we were seated at the rear, and after we landed, there was a lull in the crowded line waiting to disembark.

"Let me out," I sang impatiently under my breath.

Karen was right alongside me. Her deep brown eyes went large, and then she smiled knowingly. She sang back: "Let me out, come and get me out, 'cause I've been stuck in for too long."

Now it was my eyes that bugged. That was the opening lyric of the Get the Knack album, a jaunty ode to, yes, escape. It turned out that Karen had accompanied her own emergent adolescence with the selfsame soundtrack.

We'd been enjoying each other's company, before. Now, we were insta-bonded. Karen is the Lobsta with whom I've since ranged all over the map in search of microbursts of freedom, to decorate our motherhood lives. And because of her, I found the innate bravery to fly south to New York multiple times the following spring, caring for my mother in her final illness. Karen always knew exactly what I was feeling...a gift that still hasn't stopped giving.

I was moved to write this by the generosity and artistry of Doug Fieger and Berton Averre, who've friended me on this amazing planet called Facebook. Thank you, thank you, for also knowing exactly how I was feeling, spanning three decades and going strong.

23 February 2009

Risking my life for the blues

The weather forecast could have gone either way, really. Rain...or snow. (Well, I guess it could have gone three ways, this being Maine...the third option being the dreaded mix.) Lobsta and I perused yesterday's weather websites like trained meteorologists, scrutinized the New England map with swirling green/pink menaces bearing down, looked at the iffy temps, shrugged, and pretty much ignored all of it.

Because it's Buddy Guy and BB King. And Lobsta scored these tickets Friday after weeks of prodding Ticketmaster.com to no avail. You know the drill: tickets not currently available try again closer to the date of show x 100, and then improbably, she snagged floor tickets. GA, scramble for position...our favorite kind. Even better: at the brand-new Boston House of Blues (which used to be the Avalon, scene of one of our great John Mayer Trio escapades).

Let me briefly pause this narrative. The blues did not come to me via my storied musical DNA. I cannot recall any instance where my mother extolled this genre, except when one of her heroes performed blues in a shinier, more glamorous jazz context (cf. "C Jam Blues"). Truth be told, I think the blues were too soaked and earthy for her. Not to mention, the electric guitar was never a clarion call to her musical ears.

I have come to the blues entirely on my own. Clarion call, siren, seducer, compulsion: the myriad tones of a wailing electric guitar are all of these for me, and muse besides. When those tones are slowed, bent, and rhythmically pounded in service to blues music, I am literally physically moved (Lobsta, Marcy, and Gret would correct that to mov-ing. Herewith a quickie public apology for making them endure my dancing, swaying self.)

I feel like I've backed into the blues, though. Accessed them through a nondescript side door that whiteboy rockers opened to me, from Cream to Zep, Hot Tuna to Stevie Ray, and then this whole John Mayer thing. Over the course of 20 shows since 2003, Mayer has spoken to me most clearly in his blues voice of guitar rambles and strokes that lay bare raw emotion. I've come to understand how that voice is something he learned from others, whose output and stories I should know better.

Back in 2005, Lobsta and I were blessed to have attended a John Mayer Trio show in Chicago with an unannounced special guest: Buddy Guy. I knew who Buddy was, but it was in a distant, yes-he's-a-legend way. Seeing Buddy perform snapped me right to attention. "The woman I love, man, you know she's kinda big and fat. And what I like about the woman is kinda...gooood like that." Toss the skilled guitar work in with those lyrics, et voila: sex on a stick! I was galvanized. And grooving in my GA floor space, you bet.

Given the opportunity to see Buddy again--and with BB King added in, a stone legend--I was thrilled. Ergo (back to the narrative), pffffft to the weather, let's get into Daisy (Lobsta's trusty VW Bug) and point her south.

We arrived just 30 minutes before the doors opened. Quite a long line already snaked outside the venue despite the drizzly, freezly rain, and we added ourselves to the end. (This constrasts with various JM Trio outings, when we arrived by noon in order to be as close to first-in-line as possible.) Circumstances hadn't allowed us to get there any earlier, so we were fine with that--just to be in the room and witnessing these players was going to be enough.

Fast-forward to showtime. For reasons I still can't quite get my head around (as they did not involve pushing, elbowing, or even insinuating), Lobsta and I ended up one person away from the stage, immediately to the right of the mic. As close as you can get without touching wood, as I like to say. This was always a good-luck spot for our GA Mayer shows, and Lobsta and I stood there incredulous to have scored it at this more-historic blues moment. Buddy Guy and his band took the stage, and we were looking right in Buddy's eyes, watching his hands work the guitar neck and strings, in his space. Buddy combines leer with lilt, aggression with caress, insouciance with authority. Sometimes he howls, and other times he brings up his fists and oooooweeees with glee. And he's agelessly sexy, something I first witnessed in Chicago, but realized more fully last night.

His set included "Love Her With a Feeling," "Best Damn Fool," "Someone Else is Steppin' In," and "Feels Like Rain" (the latter is a song that Lobsta and I both associate with our mothers' passing, and his emotive performance brought us to to tears). He played "Skin Deep," the thoughtful title track to his newest LP, and there was reverent silence in the capacity-filled House of Blues. But after about an hour of burning up the stage with his tight band, he added one more player: a 9-year-old prodigy named Quinn Sullivan. "Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes" is the duet they play together, but Buddy backed off many times and let an unassuming, fantastically gifted boy own the spotlight and the crowd. This extended what I've already seen with Mayer and Guy together, and I can assure you it's not about master and student. It's about legacy and camaraderie, and hope besides. I was able to look Quinn in the eyes just as easily as I'd been doing with Buddy, and as I grooved along to his playing, I could see an endearing acknowledgement on Quinn's part that he was having an effect on the crowd. He was authentic, not a show pony.

One last tidbit from the Buddy portion of the show: he noticed me and my ceaseless, blues-fueled dancing. I may not be a looker in traditional ways, but it's fair to say I do have fine rhythm. So I'm proud to report that Buddy sang this bit to me: "I'm the one and only...I'm the one man that you won't forget. I can make a bulldog kiss a pussycat, I'm the best damn fool you ever met." Awww yeah.

When Buddy's set was done, the stage crew effected a rapid and surprising transformation to get ready for BB. I didn't have any foreknowledge of BB's concerts, so I didn't realize there'd be a horn section and a formal feel to the unit. Every player to a man was attired in a bespoke suit or a tux. The atmosphere in the club shifted, and I'm not sure I can explain quite why. Buddy commands a roadhouse, to be sure. For BB, something closer to a concert hall takes shape around his stage. What I did know to expect was the folding chair that his crew member placed exactly in front of me. What a thrill just seeing that!

I wondered whether BB might be diminished these days. I had just seen him on the Grammys, and he hung back a tad that night, letting fellow soloists have more axe time. Well, wonder no more. He was an astonishment from the second he took the stage. Among my surprises were the timbre of his voice--rounded, nuanced, not rattled by age at all--and the tastiness and invention of his playing. (Very Count Basie, that.) And again, the eyes had it--I could see them so well from my vantage point. Not dimmed, his eyes flash when he's passionate (and he delivered a few monologues in addition to his singing). And his eyes frequently warm with sentiment. He has a fatherly bearing, and his joy is evident.

BB's band was smoking. His rhythm section was funked up and supple, and the horn players are locked together. His keyboardist was not as audible from my side of the stage, but he looks to be a contemporary of BB's, and he played some sweet solos. My mom's chief complaint against classic blues might involve a statement like, "It doesn't swing" (she unpacked that one a lot). Well, BB's band swings, syncopates, and jumps. I wish Mom could have heard it (but from much farther away--the volume where I stood would have overwhelmed her).

Another thing that surprised me about BB: his sexiness factor is right up there with Buddy. When he sings about how to love a woman, a lifetime of learning-by-doing is in his voice and on his face. The guitar licks that accompany him are knowing indeed. And the fact that he must sit to play means nothing, nothing at all.

At one point, BB enticed the entire crowd into singing along with him, and the choice of song was stunning...a lullaby. He explained that this song is how he feels about the woman he loves.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
please don't take my sunshine away.

Hearing a full house of jaded concertgoers sing so sweetly, and so surely, was amazing. The fact that this was a set piece, as are many of BB's asides and monologues, does not undercut its power.

BB moved me the most with a Blind Lemon cover, "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". His delivery reminded me of other elders I've known whose relationship with mortality was honest and unsparing. BB brought that home by acknowledging that his children do not like to hear him play this song. It is the distilled essence of blues.

At 11:15, more than three hours after the show started, BB stood up with assistance, and slowly bade the crowd farewell. His band filed off the stage, and the room emptied remarkably rapidly. Lobsta and I stood around for about ten minutes, dazed at the expanse of concrete that had moments ago held scores and scores of people. We felt privileged to have experienced this show at such close range. Gradually, we made our way to Daisy, and commenced a death-defying drive north into a full-on blizzard. The roads were chunky with a layer of ice, then coated with blowy, greasy snow. Eighteen-wheelers and 4WD trucks swept past us at ridiculous high speeds, as Lobsta kept the speed at 40 and gripped the wheel. Getting from Boston back to Portland took us four agonizing hours. We saw multiple accidents and did not see many plows or sanders. Hence, the title of this piece is as true as the music I'm honoring. And it was worth the trip...in every sense.

31 January 2009

I Expected

I'm at work on a winter Saturday, which means I'm basically alone and idle. Additionally, this means that I am Web-surfing like a fiend. I just had a sojourn at people.com where I stumbled onto a photo gallery of pregnant stars, starlets, and unknown star-spouses. (The title hook: "Who's Next to Deliver?") Click the mouse: new photo, another sideways-view of a magnificently rounded womb belonging to a beaming celeb (very few of whom seem to have gained the kind of poundage I did at that juncture).

Prior to the People pregnancy parade, I'd been at cnn.com reading up on the famed octuplets lady of California (who now finds herself a single mother of 14, living at her parents' house. My mind boggles.) That article prompted me to check the Duggars' website--in case you haven't heard of them, their 18th was born in December, in a televised special. They rushed that birth show to broadcast, and I'd noticed that Michelle Duggar--the indefatigable mumma, whose spirit and serenity I admire--seemed in physical distress during and after the C-section that brought her and Jim their ninth daughter. I've been wondering if all is well, but their website lacks updates since that time.

Soooo, motherhood's on my brain again. Specifically, the contrast between starlet pregnancies (conceived in households of too much plenty, with mumma's tummy concealed in designer cling, and baby's togs similarly priced out-of-reach) and the regular-Jane pregnancies of the rest of us. People does a disservice, perhaps. Pregnancy is hard work. Sometimes dangerous, and possibly even ill-advised. Don't even start me about the economic repercussions.

Issues of pregnancy still feel immediate and urgent to me for a reason: I got pregnant in September. I know, what are the odds, right? Just launched an all-consuming business, with four kids (one of whom we had just sent off to college), and seriously, I'm 44 years old. Saturated with changes already. Nevertheless, just after Zoë left home, some teasing symptoms arrived, unmistakable and strong. I am pretty much an expert when it comes to the subtle shifts and signs that nudge my brain into counting back and wondering if something might have, um, happened.

When I saw that diagnostic second pink line on the test stick--assertive and sure--I was impressed that my middle-aged physiology could piece together the logic of pregnancy, assembling the hormones and rallying the troops, as it were. Truly, I'd been convinced I was deep into perimenopause, well beyond the fertility gate. But along with the amazement, I was wrapped in a muted bewilderment, a veil of disbelief that did not clear up until mid-November. That was when the OB--a kindly, encouraging man--wielded an ultrasound wand and showed us on a flickering black-and-white screen that my egg--see the sac, there?--was not actually viable. The sac was a tiny, empty space...a vestige. Not a surprising circumstance for a woman of my age and in the early weeks, so my response was, basically, "Mmmm, uh-huh. Yes, I see. Yes. Um, thank you."

In between the pink line and the vestige, I will admit that I had plunged into this experience far more enthusiastically than I'd expected (and, truthfully, more than I knew was prudent). My pregnancy seemed to repudiate the recent losses I've suffered--namely, Mom and my best friend, D.J. I felt triumphant to have unwittingly generated a new life with Pete, exactly nineteen years after we had done so with Zoë. It was like an oh-ho! to (and from) the universe. Moreover, now that my genealogical family tree is completely filled in--with a passel of ancestors who bore children in their forties, I might add--I felt like my lost loved ones were alongside me, awaiting news.

Physically, I recognized the shifts instantly, and basked in them. Craved cereal and oatmeal and milk, saw my figure boosted (ahem), indulged my tiredness as much as possible, and started changing out the tight jeans on my shelf for the ultra-comfort ones. Queasiness and digestive sluggishness plagued me, but I could live with that ::: braaaaap ::: . Been there, done that plenty. I adjusted my sleeping position for heartburn and started silent communications with the fetus inside, willing it to be strong, welcoming it to my inner world.

Before I saw the OB in November, I'd been impatiently 'net-searching on a stream of keywords: midlife, pregnancy, perimenopause, spotting, progesterone, levels, 5 weeks. Let me tell you, the Web is jammed with voices of moms experiencing every possible symptom and the accompanying waves of emotion and fear. They pose vexing, plaintive questions and other moms find their messages somehow, answer them, or share similar experiences in fellowship and comfort. I never posted anywhere or interacted with anyone, but it helped me immeasurably to visit those cyber rooms and eavesdrop on scores of conversations. I learned a lot about what can go wrong with a middle-aged pregnancy, and about the daily hurdles that many women surmount to bring a new life into the world. 

I knew full well that a 44-year-old pregnancy was practically miraculous, so feeling it coming to an end was a little less poignant than it might have been if I wasn't so blindsided in the first place. Of course, I already have four sweet children--with four birth stories to match. And I never had such doubts shadowing me during any of those pregnancies. This time, I couldn't throw off the black cloak of worry--until I miscarried.

It took awhile after the OB's diagnosis for the actual miscarriage to happen. I'd been spotting pretty much the whole time, but our childbearing machinery must be hardwired to hold on for success against all odds...it was blunted to the signals of non-viability for much longer than I would have anticipated. But I was equally fascinated by the unceremonious reversal of those familiar symptoms that caused me to reach for the home pregnancy test in the first place. One day you're subconsciously guarding a bump as you squeeze between a chair and a bookshelf; the next day your jeans fit better than they did before, and so does your bra. Just: over. 

I miscarried without complications. I went into an odd mini-labor at dinnertime, a few days before Thanksgiving. I found myself restless and irritable, and even a shower did not warm my clammy skin. And then I had a few stark contractions, which felt very strange: reminiscent of earlier pregnancies, and yet totally alien. One of the labor pains made me grip a chair as I stood in the kitchen. In hindsight, why was I so surprised? Well, the answer to that is simple: I had no idea what to expect. All the reading, all the worrying...I just didn't know. The OB had no advice for me, because it's different for every woman.

About an hour into the mini-labor, I delivered my non-viable egg intact, as well as the tiny placenta, then provided those to my doc for analysis. (The pathologist deliberated over some possible complications suggested by the samples...finally, a few weeks ago, those issues were ruled out. More Web-cramming, followed by a bigtime whew!)

As December began, I walked around emotionally numb for awhile, and then as the holidays cranked up, pulled myself into now. For awhile, my usual tears about Mom's unfair absence (typically prompted by music, which squeezes me in a vise of nostalgia and regret) mingled with spasms of mourning for a tiny almost-life, and for a cascade of emotions that I never expected to have again.

Today's Web deliberations signaled to me that I haven't lost that insistent inner voice that was really pretty excited about another child, another new experience. All the rounded stomachs I saw online made me keen, a little, with wishing and hoping. (Call it uterus envy.) But the realist in me read each of those celeb captions from a distance, and paused at the mom's ages. Read them, absorbed them. They are each younger than I am. 

I don't envy them their youth; I am happy with the stage I've reached. But I feel a funny tug, knowing that for a little window of time, I stepped back into their realm of fertility. Perimenopause has not overspread me yet. Regardless, as Peter said to me with evident relief as we drove away from the OB's office, "We're not going to do that again."

His cloak of worry had been cast aside, too.

28 January 2009

Grand City

In my college days, when I wanted a dose of real life--separate from the enclosure of Bowdoin's quad and the sometimes stifling atmosphere therein--I headed downtown. I was an inveterate shopper anyway, having grown up in a Queens neighborhood that was hemmed in by shopping thoroughfares on all four sides. And in my grandparents' hometown of Millinocket, Maine, I loved nothing more than an idle stroll through the J.J. Newberry's on Penobscot Avenue, clutching my allowance and deliberating on that week's toy purchase.

Downtown Brunswick, in the 1980s, had two stores that were instantly familiar to me upon my freshman arrival: a J.J. Newberry's, and Grand City. Back then, Grand City was perched at the periphery of a Shop 'n Save parking lot. Years before, it had been a W.T. Grant's--and when that national chain went under, employees preserved the store and renamed it Grand City. I believe they selected this name because it allowed them to continue using the existing store signage--all they did was eliminate the "T'S" from GRANT'S, replacing it with a "D" and then a circle that held the word "City".

Grand City was close enough to my campus home that I could easily walk it, even on a dark subzero February evening. I made that trek innumerable times. Upon arrival, one's nose would be greeted with a smell that I cannot describe. Roasted nuts mingled with merchandise and candy? Hard to say. It was a smell that triggered instantaneous shopping behavior in me, I know that.

Everything I could possibly want was in that department store. A lamp, underwear, earrings, candy, jeans, bean-bag chairs, board games, picture frames, yarn and needles, silverware, stationery, shampoo, mittens. And socks. I love buying socks, and I'm fussy about them. In Maine's climate, you need warm socks, and Grand City never disappointed--they had some kind of arrangement with a factory which meant they had piles of seconds in lots of styles. So my college-student budget could buy socks and socks. Awaiting me at the registers were memeres....French-Canadian nanas. Back then, I had no idea a) how French I really am, and b) that I had numerous distant cousins in Brunswick. No matter--I always felt like I belonged among the ladies who worked the registers, and genealogy ultimately showed me why.

After I graduated from Bowdoin, Grand City remained a go-to for setting up my first apartment in Brunswick. Some years later, the J.J. Newberry's went under, and Grand City pounced on this opportunity to get a more intown slice of real estate. (Then the Shop 'n Save overspread their original footprint.) I'd left town by then, but I return to Brunswick often enough that I was relieved to know I could still rely on Grand City's presence...for, well, socks. And whatever other bargains I might come upon. So I've remained a patron. As did a lot of Brunswick residents, especially the retirees (can't speak for College students, because by the 1990s, Brunswick's ratio of big box stores had started to soar, and Bowdoin had greatly expanded its on-campus store as well).

You know where this is going, don't you? Grand City's lease came up for renewal last fall. The owner decided that between the economic forecast and his own sense of burnout, he would have to close. Thus, yet another store that triggers deep memories for me was fated to disappear. I lament the lack of photographic evidence of places I loved to shop (Freese's and Sears in Bangor, Newberry's in Millinocket and Ellsworth, among many.) So this time I was determined to capture Grand City before its demise.

During an October 2008 visit (Parents Weekend for my daughter, talk about rites of passage!), I ranged all over Grand City and took pictures without anyone even noticing. I wondered if maybe I was not the first. Whatever the case, the longer I snapped away, the more tearful I became. It's not the store, my friends. It's the ghostly presence of my mom and my nana and so many others of a generation that is sliding away. The objects they would be drawn to in a place like this...so many things. The community that existed because this mercantile is what it is.

The photos haunt me. They comfort me with what they captured, but they also sadden me. I won't caption them because geezum, I have blathered enough, and you can go ahead and get whatever you would like out of them. I already have.





As I stood here for the last picture I took, I could almost hear the word: Goodbye.