Ten Optimistic Ways to Look at Aging…Or How to Find a Nugget of Gold in a Pile of Sh*t

Warning: Momma G is feeling snarky.  If you faint at the sound of cuss words and think that life is a Disney movie, you may want to close the page and pick up Reader’s Digest instead.

My sister Robin is having a landmark birthday soon. I know she’s dreading it, because I went through the same thing a couple of years ago.  I’m not sure why we freak out at ten year intervals, but we do. When we hit 30 we mourn the loss of our youth and the days of being carefree twenty-something.  At 40 we ignore the fact that our careers are firmly anchored and our kids are becoming more self-sufficient, and instead concentrate on the crow’s feet around our eyes and gray that appears at the temples.  50 should be a celebration of living half a century.  Often instead of reveling and toasting, we wistfully look back, and wonder why we squandered our youth on things that really never mattered.  And now, another decade has passed and the reality sinks in.  We are never going to be young again.  Ever.

But those of you who read Momma G’s posts know that I am an eternal optimist who believes that in every situation we must find the golden nugget, even if we have to dig a bit to find it.  Here are ten such nuggets.

  1. When we turn 60 people stop telling us what to do. They either think we are older and wiser than they (we are) or old and set in our ways (we are) or it’s just a waste of time since we are old enough to do what we want anyway (and we will.)
  2. photoshoppedWhen we turn 60 people stop remarking that we look tired, and start saying things like “she looks good for her age.” This means we can spend less time on our hair, or makeup.  We can finally let go of the Wall Street myth that tells us we should look like the photo-shopped model who is really only 17 but is playing the part of a 35-year-old who runs a successful business, raises genius children who don’t get messy and has a husband who washes dishes and put his smelly socks in the hamper.
  3. When we turn 60 and buy alcohol we don’t get carded by the kid at the checkout who is young enough to be our grandchild. And if we get a little tipsy (just a little) our kids think we are “cute.”
  4. When we turn 60 people think we are wise, even though we don’t know shit about Snapchat, Vimeo and Twitter.
  5. When we turn 60 our kids think we are hilarious if we swear. Especially if we use the F-bomb.
  6. When we turn 60 our kids think of us as frail and start doing chores like taking the trash out and making sure they don’t leave our cars on empty. My advice? Ride the wave!  Ride the wave!
  7. When we turn 60 it no longer matters who was popular or cool in high school and college. We are all creaky, pudgy, and gray now. The barriers are down and it’s amazing how much easier it is to like each other.
  8. When we turn 60 it doesn’t matter if we dance well or badly. We all look silly on the dance floor, but we don’t care, because we are 60 and life is for dancing.
  9. ladies on the beachWhen we turn 60 we may look like fat old ladies on the beach but nobody judges us, because we are fat old ladies on the beach.
  10. stock-illustration-17749637-gold-minerWhen we turn 60 we realize that most of what we thought were of value- career, money, fame, notoriety didn’t really bring us the happiness promised. But the people we touched- family, friends, strangers in need- they are the jewels of our lives.  The jewels were always there.  We just forgot to look for them.  But the good news is there’s still time to go mining.

It’s Only Cardboard…

Yesterday at work, I took my soup to the microwave at the end of the hall to heat it.  While I stood waiting for the broth to bubble, I caught sight of several large sheets of cardboard leaning against the wall.  They were marked as trash, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no!  Don’t throw it away.  There’s so much you can do with cardboard!”

When I was growing up at the house at 30 Green Street, cardboard was saved and used for  myriad art projects.  The lightweight sheets of cardboard around which my father’s dress shirts were folded quickly were doled out for art projects.  I loved to draw my own paper dolls, carefully cutting them out, sketching faces with colored pencils and fashioning clothes out of bits of construction paper reserved for school projects and sick-in-bed days.  Some days I used the cardboard to create masks for my younger siblings, cutting holes for eyes and nose, and stretching an old elastic band to hold the masks to their little faces.  Cardboard became a flag to tape to a pencil and wave at the veterans who marched in the Memorial Day parade or a poster to paint with tempera and advertise a sidewalk lemonade stand.  It was the stuff made into swords and shields to play pirates in the back yard, or a lean-to for imaginary hobos.

Cardboard boxes were used to store summer clothes during the winter months, and winter clothes that my mother packed away in spring.  They stored tools in the garage, linens in the attic, and books that no longer fit on the shelves in the living room.

Cardboard boxes also made great summer sleds.  One sibling would sit inside the box, holding a jump rope or baton.  The designated puller would drag the rider all over the back yard, until the puller tired and the roles were reversed.

One hot summer afternoon, my sister Robin and I decided that dragging through the yard was not nearly exciting enough, and decided to try riding our cardboard box sled down the stairs.  My taste for adventure trumped my better judgement, and I volunteered to make the maiden voyage.  The stairs in our old New Englander were steep and covered with a green and brown print runner, worn thin at the edges.  At the top of the stairs, I sat in the box, and bracing my hands against the bannister and wall like a luger, pushed off.

I have never careened down a staircase faster.

I landed with a thud against the heavy front door and lay crumpled on the landing, wondering if there was blood was running from my aching head.  Robin quickly abandoned the idea of a second attempt, and went off in search of a popsicle and a bit of shade under the maple tree.

Perhaps the most common use of cardboard in our home was for patchwork.  Our house was  close to a hundred years old, with wall with holeplaster and horsehair walls that lifted from the lathing and crumbled when curious small fingers poked at them.  Small holes became big ones, and without the funds to do proper repairs, my mother resorted to patching the holes with sheets of cardboard and masking tape.  I saw nothing unusual in this, and actually liked the patches, pretending they were secret portals to unknown worlds.  It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that my parents had the funds to replace plaster and patches with sheet rock.

Looking back, I wonder if visitors thought the cardboard and masking tape patches were strange. They must have noticed- they were in plain sight, among the peeling wallpaper, threadbare rugs and chipped woodwork.  And yet, our house was always full.

What I know now is that people didn’t visit 30 Green Street for the décor of the walls.  It was the love that lived within the walls that lured the steady stream of children and adults who entered through the front door and exited through the back.  The sound of laughter from the kitchen table and the offer of coffee and conversation permeated the crumbling walls and blurred the cardboard patches that held them together.

Now, I live in an apartment with clean white walls.  I keep my out-of-season clothes in plastic bins that keep my garments clean and dry.  There are no patches in my life- at least none that can be seen. My use for cardboard is limited to times I need to donate items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

But still, when I see large sheets like those waiting for the cleaning crew to tidy my work hallway, I think of the possibilities and wonder…

Lunch to Go

Most work days, I carry my lunch to work.  It’s less expensive than eating out, and I am more apt to limit my meal to something more healthful and less calorie laden.  More often than not, I pack a salad and fruit into re-useable plastic containers and carry them to work in a fabric tote bag.  The bag was a gift from a coworker- a little calico sack that is just the right size, and can be washed when something leaks.

This morning while slicing cucumbers into my salad, I thought about how I used to pack lunches when my children were in school.  Much the same as when I was a child, my kids were not fond of the food from the school cafeteria, and it did not make sense to pay for lunches they would not eat.  Besides, one of the thrills of beginning each new school year was the rite of choosing a lunch box.

I recently read an article that lunchboxes are becoming a thing of the past.  This made me sad, since some of my fondest memories of school were examining my classmates’ lunchboxes. My best friend had one that was decorated to look like a barn. I coveted that lunchbox, with its matching thermos that looked like a silo and fit inside the domed lid.  Other children had boxes with Woody Woodpecker, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. One even had a box that looked (be still my heart) like a real T.V. set.  We who had “cold lunches” could begin eating immediately, instead of standing in line for our trays to be filled with the cafeteria fare that smelled the same every day, no matter what it was.

I carried a red plaid lunchbox made of aluminum that had been my older sister’s.  In those days, thermoses were made of glass, housed in aluminum.  The unlucky child who clumsily dropped his lunch box was sure when opening a thermos at lunch time, to find its contents riddled with shards of glass.  The matching thermos for my  lunchbox had broken long before it was handed down to me, but for less than a nickel, I would buy a glass bottle of milk, shake it to make sure the cream and milk were mixed and carefully pull the cardboard stopper.  Older boys in the cafeteria drank from the bottle, but I would insert a straw and sip, watching through the glass as the level of creamy white slowly declined.  I rarely finished before I was full.

My lunch usually consisted of a sandwich, cookie and fruit.  My mother made our bread and cookies from scratch and wrapped them in waxed paper.  I envied those kids who had sandwiches of Wonder Bread, that “built strong bodies 12 ways” and Hostess Twinkies with their lovely cream centers and came in packages of twos.  Now, when I think of how my mother baked every day to keep her growing brood in oatmeal raisin cookies, I wonder how I could have been so keen to trade for something from a store. 

My mother would make a grocery list on the back of a used envelope.  I would watch, hoping to see something like Drakes Cakes or Funny Bones on the list.  They never were.  “Couldn’t you at least buy those little wax paper bags instead of flat sheets of Cut-Rite?” I begged.  It would be years before I understood the economics of feeing a family of ten.  A generation later, my children begged me to buy sandwich size zip-lock bags instead of the less expensive bags that folded to close.  Some things never really change.

When my own children started school, I enthusiastically took them shopping for lunch boxes.  Aluminum had been replaced by plastic, but the decorations were still enticing.  They lingered before the display, carefully choosing what would carry their lunches- sandwiches on wheat bread, fruit, and homemade oatmeal cookies.  One year, her father naively let Abby choose a “90210” lunchbox- practically scandalous, since she was not allowed to watch the program on television.  I let her keep it, sure that she gained several popularity points in the fourth grade because of the coolness of that lunchbox.

At our house, old lunch boxes were used to house small toys, like crayons, doll shoes, and little green army men.  They lined the bottom shelf of the bookcase where we kept toys and the kids identified the contents by the character on the front; Barbie held crayons, Spider Man held Matchbox cars, and so on.  They made the perfect container-easy to identify and easy to carry. 

In my attic is a trunk filled with well-loved dolls, stuffed animals and small toys, and in it there are two old lunchboxes.  One contains a small brush, comb and assorted empty makeup containers, and the other, an empty travel sized shave cream, disposable razor (blade removed) and an empty bottle of after shave. I made these kits for the kids for Christmas gifts when they were little and our wallets were thin. They provided years of entertainment, and I saved them in hopes that someday I will have grandchildren who will enjoy them as well.

Look! They have red plaid!

By the time my kids reached junior high, they had transitioned from lunchboxes to  brown paper bags, and my days of shopping for lunchboxes ended.  If the article I read is correct, my yet-unheard-of grandchildren might never know the joy of walking store aisles the week before school starts in search of that perfect lunchbox.  Of  course, I could start a vintage collection…  

What was your favorite way to carry your lunch to school?

The Silver Maple at 30 Green Street

When I was growing up, my siblings and I frequently perused the pages of the World Book  Encyclopedia, devouring articles that told of far-away places and intriguing science experiments.  One of my favorite sections was one on the five senses.  Time and time again, I would read the chapter, staring at the examples of optical illusions and sampling foods with my eyes closed.

We all know that our senses are strong- a familiar perfume, a sip of a drink, the softness of a favorite pair of jeans- senses can set off myriad memories and transport us to days that have hidden in the archives of our memories since we were young children.

Last Saturday, I had one of those sensory transports as I visited my sister Martha-Jean at her country home in Northwood.  It was a beautiful day and as we sipped iced coffee on her deck, I watched the breeze ruffle the leaves of the silver maple tree in her back yard.  The fluttering leaves sang a familiar song and immediately my mind went back to the house where we grew up- the house at 30 Green Street.

The house at 30 Green Street was an old New Englander, built as housing for foremen who worked at Ellis Mills, a textile factory that produced rich and luxurious wool fabrics.  I was a child during the end of the woolen mills era.  The mill was a mighty giant that sat at the foot of Dye House Hill- big, strong, and to me, a little scary.  At night its windows lit the sky with a pale industrial glow as its walls echoed with electrical hums and rhythmic banging. During the day my siblings and I stood on the bridge across from the mill and watch as the fabric dye cascaded into the Chicopee Brook.  It seemed to me that the sleepless giant would always be there, but when synthetic blends wooed textile consumers away from expensive wools, the mills closed. The whirring and banging were silenced and the darkened night sky snuffed the glow from the windows.

In the back yard of our house was a large silver maple tree, and when the sounds from Ellis Mills ceased, the rustling of its leaves whispered a lullaby that drifted through my bedroom window.   The tree’s shelter created a stage for Martha-Jean to act as Pied Piper in her wonderful imaginations.  Under its branches, we created a pirate ship where we made Robin and Scott walk the plank we had fashioned from wooden boards found in the garage.  We tied Teri to the trunk, declaring her to be our ship’s pet monkey, and served bread and water to the crew- neighbor kids who brought sticks to use as oars.

Under the tree we built a doctor’s office and made poultices from mashed catalpa tree flowers, rubbing them on each other’s mosquito bites, convinced that the sap would stop the itching.  We spread blankets on the ground and played with baby dolls, sprinkling real talc upon their plastic bottoms and pinning cloth diapers that we stole from our baby brother’s bassinette.

When he was eight, my brother Scott climbed the silver maple.  He sat in its swaying branches, higher than the house roof while my mother stood below, yelling that if he did not fall and kill himself, she might just do the job herself.  And it was under the silver maple that Kevin and Eric were caught having sword fights with two-foot long barbecue skewers, and were subsequently grounded for most of the summer.

In the winter I would lie on my bed and stare at the bare branches of the silver maple, looking for the twining tendrils to outline shapes against the frigid sky.  Here was a castle, here an old man’s hat, and there a horse’s head.  The shapes disappeared with the wind, and then reappeared when the branches stopped dancing in the breeze, creating endless distraction from my homework.

In the spring, the helicopter seed pods would flutter from the tree to the ground. We split  the seeds in half, keeping them attached to the blade, and placed them on our noses like the horns on a rhino.  And in the fall, when the October winds turned inky black and smelled of bonfires and pumpkin, the bare branches of the tree moaned warnings of witches and ghosts, urging me to quicken my steps when it was my turn to take the trash to the back yard burn barrel.

“That tree is driving me crazy!” Martha-Jean observed, shaking me from my reminiscence.  “It’s so messy.”

“Oh, I like it.  It takes me back,” I sighed.  I wondered if the silver maple at 30 Green Street was still standing, or if it, like Ellis Mills, had outworn its usefulness.  The whisper of the tree’s branches were suddenly sad to me- a swan song announcing the end of yet another era.

“C’mon, let’s go pick some strawberries,” she urged.

I stole one last glance at the tree, and followed her to the garden.  I carefully tucked the fresh memory of 30 Green Street away.  “I’ll be back,” I silently promised.  “I’ll be back.”

Radio Head

I love the radio.  Most days while I work, I keep mine tuned to a Boston station that plays an eclectic mix of oldies and Indies.  I find that music sets a tone of relaxed enthusiasm in my office and helps my creative juices flow.  The clock radio I have at my desk is one that I received as a Christmas gift the year I was expecting Gabriel.  In 1984 it was cutting edge, with a blue LED display and snooze button.  The sound quality is surprisingly good, and the sight of it makes people laugh because it looks so “old school.”

For as long as I remember, I have listened to the radio.  My parents often had one playing in the kitchen while they juggled coffee, eggs and kids in the mad rush between sleep and school.  Their favorite was Bob Steele, whose chatty relaxed style made WTIC from Hartford the preferred station in our house.  To me, Bob Steele was as familiar as my father, as jovial as Captain Kangaroo and as comforting as Walter Cronkite.  On the mornings when I missed the bus, my father would drive me to school and together we would listen to Bob play the Dad’s favorites- Billy Butterfield, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles.  I remember one particularly difficult conversation with my angry second grade teacher who demanded to know why I was again so late.  “It’s my father’s fault,” I mumbled, cheeks red.  “He made me listen to the Big Bopper sing “Chantilly Lace.”

The spring that I had the measles, my mother made a bed on the couch in the den so I could listen to talk radio between naps.  Too ill to watch television, I laid in bed and listened for the “beep!” that announced that the speaker had changed from the host to the caller. The callers, in an attempt to hear themselves over the air, often kept their radios turned on, despite the host’s urgings to turn them off.  They were always betrayed by the echo of their voices, and the host would again tell them to turn off their radios, his exasperation evident in his tone. I found this far more entertaining than the actual discussion.

The Christmas before I turned fifteen I got my first transistor radio.  It ran by battery and had a single ear plug so I could listen to it from under my covers.  I stayed awake past midnight listening to “Midnight Confessions,”  “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Hey Jude.”  My radio became a constant companion, as the Hi Fi in the living room was usually playing music of my parents’ choice, and besides, I had no money for records.  I listened to my favorite artists while I dressed for school, while I did my homework and while I drifted off to sleep. I lazed on a blanket in the hot beach sand, listening to “Sweet Caroline” and “Marrakesh Express” on AM radio’s Top 40.  

When I went to college, I discovered FM radio- cool stations manned by students with beards and pony tails who had shelves and shelves of albums in the studio.  It was through FM radio that I honed my love for acoustic music instead of the over-produced studio sounds.  I listened to FM radio when I joined VISTA and went to Idaho, but when “Dust in the Wind” was replaced by “Hooked on Classics” my love affair with radio began to fade.  By the time the back of my station wagon was filled with car seats, I had pretty much given up radio all together, choosing to have my toddlers sing along with a tape of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” instead of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

When Elizabeth was four, I returned to work, and once again rekindled my relationship with the radio- mostly to make the half hour commute more palatable.  As the children grew, I found listening to their favorite stations brought us closer together, and although my preference may not have been boy bands and Hootie and the Blowfish, I endured endless repetitions of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” to bridge the gap between parent and teenager, and it worked. 

My office radio has kept me in touch with the changing world.  The OklahomaCity bombing, the verdict of the OJ Simpson murder trial, and the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana were announced through the radio on my desk.  On September 11, I fought back tears as my favorite radio program was interrupted by the falling of the Twin Towers.

This morning, like most mornings, I entered my office, switched on my computer and tuned my radio to a Boston station.  I know what the traffic is like, what weather is predicted and when the pressure from my job starts to build, I can float away- just for a moment. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, Van Morrison is on the radio and I love this song…

Saying Yes to the Dress- A Mother’s Perspective on Wedding Gowns

I have an old video of my daughter Abby dancing in our living room.  She was in kindergarten at the time, and her one dream was to be a ballerina.  We were unable to afford dance lessons, but I was able to save enough money to buy her a pair of delicate pink ballet slippers, and one afternoon while Gabriel and Elizabeth napped, she donned a pink circle skirt and her ballet slippers and performed a solo dance performance in front of a borrowed video recorder.

I taped in silent wonder as she twirled and leapt, limited only by her own imagination.  Her waist-length hair lilted behind her like a blond chiffon scarf and she grinned in unbridled delight.  It was a song of life, choreographed for one- a magical moment that I will cherish long after the video crumbles from old age.

I thought of that day last week while she tried on wedding gowns.  The two of us went to a bridal salon with plush carpets and thick drapery, excited for a day of trying frothy white dresses for her upcoming nuptials.  This was new ground for us. When I married thirty-three years ago, I was a VISTA in Idaho.  We phoned my measurements to my mother who was in Massachusetts, and she bought fabric and a pattern, and sewed my gown while I was away.  I returned home four days before my wedding and she did the final fitting and finished the dress the day before the ceremony.  I fashioned my own veil and splurged on a pair of white shoes that still rest with the gown in the bottom of my cedar trunk.

Although I sew, I have neither the talent or inclination to attempt a wedding gown, so on a Saturday morning, we found ourselves in a small private room while a beaming young sales associate brought gown after gown for Abby to try.  I had expected there to be several that we didn’t like, but each garment looked amazing on her.  There was one in particular that stood out from the rest, and the sales woman suggested that she wear it to a larger room in the salon where large mirrors reflect the future bride from every angle.

Abby made her way to the three-way mirror and stepped up on the pedestal.  Her long hair was held back by a jeweled headband and after I straightened the gown’s train, I stepped back to survey my daughter.  There she was, tall and slender, elegant in ivory lace.  She turned to me, clapped her hands, and joyfully exclaimed, “I’m getting married!”

She had the same expression as that little girl who danced for me.  Her huge green eyes were full of excitement and anticipation.  Her smile was brilliant, and her cheeks were flushed the same delicate pink as her ballet slippers.  She was beautiful then.  She is more beautiful now.

And I did what every good mother does.  I cried.  Then I wiped my tears and laughed.

In the end, she didn’t end up buying that particular dress.  She found another that made her feel even more like the exquisite young bride she will be on Christmas Eve.  But she would look stunning in a paper bag, and although I know that television and bridal magazines would tell us that it is all about the dress, I know it is not.  It is about the heart.  It is about two hearts- Abby’s and Johnny’s, who will face life with free, unbridled delight, full of excitement and anticipation.  I will watch in silent wonder as they twirl and leap, limited only by their imaginations, as they interpret a new song.  It is the song of life, choreographed for two.

When Momma G Got Her Groove On

‘Cause when she sings I hear a symphony
And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me
I’m renewed, oh how I feel like
Though autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing

~ from the song “Stay Young Go Dancing” by Death Cab for Cutie

Last night I watched “So You Think You Can Dance” on television and marveled at the way the young contestants moved their bodies in graceful expression to the strains of popular music.  I could not help but think about my own career as a dancer.

My mind wandered way back to a Halloween evening when I was around seven years old.  My gypsy costume was ready, complete with dangling gold hoops my mother screwed to my ear lobes.  She tied a silk scarf from her top drawer around my head and lined my eyes with a dark Mabelline eyebrow pencil.  As she and my father gathered our brood together to go trick-or-treating on Green Street, my mother asked me to run upstairs and get something she left in one of the bedrooms.  I bounded up the stairs excited beyond containment.  As I stood on the linoleumed bedroom floor, my enthusiasm reached a crescendo, and I spontaneously broke into what I believed to be a magnificent tap dance. 

“Stop that racket and get down here!” my mother yelled.

And at that one short sentence, my career as a dancer was forever ended.

My father loved to dance.  He would put jazz records on the hi-fi and dance first with my mother and then my older sister, Martha-Jean.  I watched them cover the living room floor with intricate steps and turns, patiently awaiting my turn.  Taking me in his arms, Dad would try a few steps.  But I, so eager to please, would jump ahead, or turn in the opposite direction as he. 

“Relax!” he commanded.  “Feel the music!”

It is hard to relax when you are trying too hard.  I disentwined my arms from his and sat down, cheeks burning, while he gathered up Martha-Jean again, and Two-Stepped in the other direction.

Later, when I was in eighth grade, my parents sent me to dance school where every Saturday evening pimply faced boys and girls dressed up and practiced the Waltz and Fox Trot while secretly wishing they were home watching “Man From U.N.C.L.E” on television.  I tried learning the steps, but hated the humiliation of waiting to be chosen as a partner by some sweaty handed teenage boy I didn’t know.  One Saturday, after stumbling through three minutes of Winchester Cathedral with a skinny boy who had Brylcreem dripping down his forehead, I decided that I was done with ballroom dancing. 

Fortunately for me, ballroom dancing was replaced by rock concerts and choreographed dance steps gave way to free-form bobbing in time to the beat of the drums.  I managed to figure out a way to move my body in a way that allowed me to blend in with the scenery, and when I met and married the man of my dreams, I was not unhappy to find that he was content to play in the band instead of dancing to the music.

But then there were children, and I quickly learned that if there is a baby, there is movement.  Babies loved to be rocked and jiggled, and shortly after giving birth to my first sweet child, I realized that dance had to be a part of my life.  So in the living room of our house, with nobody but a pink little newborn, I learned to dance.

Here’s the thing about babies. They think everything you do is great.  All three of my babies loved nothing more than to be scooped in my arms and waltzed around the living room. They chuckled to a Cha-cha-cha.  They were tickled with a Tango. They marveled at a Merengue.  For the next several years, whenever there was music on the stereo, they begged me to boogie.

The kids are all grown now, and the only dancing in my living room takes place on the television screen.  But early in the morning, I listen to my IPod while I put on my makeup, and every once in a while I catch myself swaying across my bedroom floor in silent familiar steps.  Watch out Fred and Ginger- Momma G’s got her groove on.

Beach Rules

It is the end of July and I’ve already spent several weekends languishing in a beach chair on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  For my family, going to the beach is a summer staple, like slamming the screen door and sipping icy lemonade from a sweating glass. 

My earliest memories are of staying at grandparents’ little red cottage on Cable Road in Rye, New Hampshire.  I can still close my eyes and smell the scent of Sea and Ski and salt water that lingered inside its walls.  I remember how the sun reflected off the cut glass in the bay window and how my mother would douse us with Off! before allowing us to venture out to pick blueberries in the nearby woods.  Subsequent summers were spent in a little shanty behind Carberry’s house and then a larger house to accommodate our growing family of growing teenagers.  Each cottage holds its own memories of late night card games, smoothing Noxema on sunburns, and surviving the birth and death of summer romances.  I hold those memories close to my heart, occasionally taking them out for a brief dusting.  I smile at them and put them back where they dwell, not lingering too long, lest I stay locked in the past and forgetting the present. 

I loved the cottages, but it is the beach itself that beckons me.  Although the landscape and the people have changed, the sea still sparkles in the sun as it curls and froths against the glittering gray sands.  Every time I first glimpse the water, my heart leaps as if I have never before seen its splendor.  Every time I find an empty patch of sand and settle in my canvas chair, I feel muscles relax that I hadn’t realized were tense.  Every time I charge into a crashing wave that is so cold that it sucks away my breath, I emerge euphoric, revitalized, and feeling ten years younger.

No doubt, the beach is my happy place.  All are welcome to join me.  But there are rules, so just in case you decide to pack your cooler and join me for a lazy afternoon, I thought we should review.

 Rules for the Beach

  1. Everyone on the beach becomes seventeen again.
  2. Even though everyone is seventeen, participants’ bodies may not look like they did when they actually were seventeen.  Therefore, no participant may look at, mention or think about body size, body shape, or body type.  There is no noticing of varicose veins, cellulose, bulging, graying or hanging.
  3. Preferred activities  are (in no particular order) body surfing, eating, laughing, playing bocce and wistful day dreaming,
  4. Participants who do not wish to participate in swimming activities will not be teased, cajoled or embarrassed. *Please note, this rule does not apply to members of the original eight (circa 1951-1963) Madison beach clan.
  5. All participants must bring “Second Breakfast” and a thermos of coffee to share.
  6. There are no calories on the beach.
  7. All meals served on the beach must contain at least one of the following: something savory, something sweet, something crunchy and something refreshing.
  8. Blankets and swim suits will get sandy.  It is a fact of life. Get over it.
  9. All participants will leave happier and more relaxed than when they arrived.
  10. Only cares, worries and concerns may be left on the beach. The tide washes them away, so there is no use returning  for them.

The Blue Dress

Every once in awhile I have a “bad outfit day.”  It usually begins when I carefully make plans to wear a specific ensemble on a particular day.  I’ll iron the night before, making sure I push everything in my closet to one side so as not to wrinkle the freshly pressed items.  I’ll choose the right shoes, the right hose, the right accessories.  I’ll go to bed in anticipation of how easy the morning will be;  no decisions, no preparations, no last minute searches for the proper garments.

But there are gremlins in my closet.  Despite my planning, the next morning nothing fits right.  I’ll try on the well-planned clothes and the skirt will pull, the blouse won’t stay tucked and, the shoes will pinch.  These are the mornings when I try on combination after combination, leaving puddles of clothing strewn about the floor just as they were when I stepped out of them.  The skirt comes off, and slacks take their place. The pants are fine, but now I need a different sweater. The sweater doesn’t go with the necklace. The shoes clash with the pants.  It goes on and on until the clock on my nightstand screams that I’ll be late for work, should I try yet another combo.

This morning, I was having a particularly tough time with this ritual.  My skirt was too tight at the waist, my sweater gaped in the front.  The gray in my hair was more prominent, and my makeup didn’t hide the shadows under my eyes.  Everything felt backward and uncomfortable.  I felt huge.  And ugly.  And near tears.  And then, I thought of the blue dress.

The blue dress was a hand-me-down maternity dress that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had hand sewn during the seventies.  In its prime it had been stylish, but by the time it fell to me, it was long outdated and rather unattractive.  I wore it during my pregnancy with Abby and again when I was carrying Gabe, but swore when I first became pregnant with Elizabeth that I would not wear it again.  However, our funds were limited and so was my maternity wardrobe, so the day came when there was nothing in my closet that would fit over my swelling belly but the blue dress.

Resigned, I sighed and pulled the blue dress over my head.  Just as I expected, it looked ridiculous- its puffy sleeves rising to my ears, its oversized collar a reminder that it had been designed over a decade earlier.  It was faded and worn, and there was a slight stain right above my belly button.  I felt huge.  And ugly.  And near tears.

Just then, Gabriel burst through my bedroom door.  He had still had not learned the value of knocking before entering, and charged in, totally unaware of my sniffling nose and dripping eyes.  To him, mothers were calm, harmonious beings who soothed and cajoled, and made breakfast before Sesame Street started.    “Mommy, can you get me…”

He stopped short, and staring at his mother in blue, gasped, “Mommy!  You look Bee-YOU-tee-ful!” gabe angelic0001

I looked into his face.  His guileless eyes were the size of dinner plates.  At two years old, he did not yet know how mask his feelings- he wore truth on his sleeve, proudly displaying it like a badge of honor.  I wiped my tears, smiled and wore the dress- that day and several more times.   A couple of months later, when I had a new baby and a waistline, the blue dress went to the thrift store, never to be seen again.

Today, remembering the blue dress put a different perspective on my morning.  I picked up my rumpled clothes from the floor and hung them on hangers.  Then I dressed in the original skirt and sweater I had planned for the day.  I stepped into my shoes, sucked in my belly, grabbed my handbag and headed for work.  After all, who would argue with a two-year old?

* Note- Yes, the blue dress on the pattern is the same dress, but it was much more attractive on the pattern cover than it was in person.

To Ride, Perchance to Fly

 

In a recent email, my friend Gerry mentioned his old bicycle. He wrote: “As I was readying to take a left in my car, a guy who looked a little older than I am was coming up the road on a bicycle. As he passed, it brought me back. “Peugot U08, circa 1970, 25 inch frame,” I thought.  Then, I got sentimental about it. “I used to have that same bike in red.   Long gone now, though.”

What adult doesn’t remember the bicycle he rode in his youth? Gerry’s Peugot was a racing  bike- the kind with handlebars that bent down like rams’ horns. They were all the rage in the seventies.

I actually never got the hang of riding a bike with shifts and handlebars that were bent down so far you felt like your nose was going to rub the front tire. When I was growing up, we had The Bike. It was my mother’s when she was a kid, and one summer my grandmother sent it home with us. For years, my parents could not afford another bicycle, so whoever needed The Bike most was the one who got to ride it. The rest of us walked.

I learned to ride a two-wheeler on The Bike. I remember propping it up against a tree, and pushing off, wobbling over the bumpy sidewalk, until I fell. I tried and fell, over and over, determined to master the skill like my older sister had, for to ride The Bike meant to fly. And I needed to fly.

The Bike was a dark green Columbia with narrow tires and a wire basket just big enough to hold a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Most of my friends had red Raleighs or blue Schwinns with hand brakes, bulky fenders and a thumb shift for their three speeds. The Bike had foot brakes and one speed, but it was swifter than any bike around. 

I lived at the top of Green Street, a long hill lined with Dutch elm and maple trees. When asked to ride The Bike to the store, I pushed off from the front steps, peddling as fast as I could so by the time I was half way down the hill, I was moving so fast that the pedals  disengaged from the gears. Coasting at full speed, I would cautiously remove my grip from the handlebars, knowing that to fall meant that my knees and elbows would require more methiolate and gauze than I could imagine. In a moment of fearless abandon, I’d raise my hands above my head and then quickly grab the handlebars again, just in time to stand on the brakes, announcing my entrance to Main Street with a loud screech similar to the sound of an angry blue jay. No doubt it was dangerous. It was great fun.

By the time I was in my early teens, somebody gave us an old blue Roadmaster with balloon tires, and shortly after that, my younger brothers and sisters received wheelie bikes with banana seats and sissy bars. They were shiny and new, and they got a lot of use, but to me they didn’t compare with The Bike.

As the years passed, bicycle wheels turned to car wheels and nobody rode The Bike any longer. The fenders were gone, the dark green paint chipped and faded and eventually, it went to that secret place to which old and broken toys disappear.

I never owned a bike again. Years later, I watched my own children ride their bicycles down the hill in front of our townhouse.   Abby and Gabe had their own bikes, but Elizabeth had only a Big Wheel, and she was too small to reach the handlebars on the scooter sitting in the front yard.  I watched her big eyes wistfully following the other kids zoom down the hill. She was skinny. And sick. And more than anything else, she wanted to fly.

Buckling a helmet under her chin, I placed her on the scooter, and stood in back of her, pushing us off with all my might. We flew down the hill, cheered on by the astonished neighborhood children who had never seen a mother on a scooter before. It was perhaps, a little dangerous. It was great fun.

Sometimes you just have to fly.

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