Bobbie Wayne's Blog

Short writings by Bobbie Wayne, writer, musician and visual artist. Her stories have appeared in The Ravens Perch, Intrinsick, SLAB, Blueline Magazine, and Colere literary journal.

A STICKY SITUATION

(This is a letter I sent to author, teacher and storyteller extraordinaire, Matt Dicks, after he said he could not blow bubbles. We have a bet: he thinks he can’t learn. I think I can teach him.)

Dear Matt,

So I can’t imagine being a kid and NOT blowing bubbles. I was a grand champ of East Meadow, being able to chew FIVE packs of Bazooka Bubble Gum at once and blow bubbles the size of beachballs. My mean little friend, Mary O’Leary (whose family was lace-curtain Irish) once popped a bubble I was blowing. It covered not just my face, but my bangs and the top of my head. Mary’s mother, who had the most Brooklynese accent you could imagine, thought of me as a bad influence for her daughter. This was probably because whenever I stayed for dinner, I would do something to cause Mary and her little brother Sean, to spit their milk out their noses. Once, it was by jiggling Jello on my spoon and then accidentally flipping it airborne and having it land on my nose. So when Mary burst my bubble all over my face, we dared not tell her mother. Instead, Mary tried to rub it off with a Kleenex. (Have you ever seen a “Wooly Bear” caterpillar?) The gum was so thick that when I breathed TWO bubbles came out where my nostrils should have been. Finally, her mother came in, screamed and grabbed me in a head-hold. She got the scratchiest wash cloth ever and proceeded to try to rub the gum off. I lost my eyebrows, most of my eyelashes and all of my dignity.

I tried rectifying this kind of problem by inventing bubble gum-remover on a hot plate in my “play house.” My dad, who was not meant to be a carpenter, had built me this playhouse out of 4’x8’ sheets of plywood. Why he didn’t cut the sheets down to make it kid-size, I don’t know. The play-house was more like a toll booth or an out-house, as it was 8’ tall and 4’ wide. He installed, (for whatever reason I can’t imagine) an electrical outlet in the wall. So I used to use a hot plate and an old pot in which I would concoct “medicine” and bubble-gum remover. I remember finding all kinds of interesting drugs in my folk’s medicine cabinet; things like iodine, peroxide, cough medicine, rubbing alcohol, hemmhroid cream and mineral oil, which I would “liberate” in the interest of science when my parents were out of the house. I often caught the pot on fire, but, luckily, never managed to immolate myself. The bubble-gum remover I invented seemed to work somewhat, but in the interest of aesthetics, I decided to add blue food coloring to make it more appealing to customers. After trying it on myself, I walked around the neighborhood like a miniature Pictish warrior missing my eyebrows and eyelashes but having a marvelously blue face.

What do you mean you can’t blow bubbles, Matt? You just chew up a wad of bubble gum and, in the words of Lauren Bacall, “Put your lips together and blow.”

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Slipping Away

I read last week in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2024/02/13/climate/flooding-sea-levels-groundwater.html) that the East Coast of the US is actually sinking. I try to stay away from negative news these days. I read enough to keep well-informed, but I try not to be the news junkie I used to be. And yet, there it was in the paper; a map showing the areas that are sinking fastest colored in deep red-orange. I’m a visual person, so it was too late to turn the page once I saw this.

Apparently, we have pumped too much ground water out of low-lying areas and, as a result, the ground is sinking. If you’ve ever dug holes in the sand near the water’s edge, you have seen this happen, not just to the hole, but the surrounding sand. This removing of water under soil and rocks is the same process that causes sinkholes. Growing up on the South Shore of Long Island, which is mostly at sea level, we kids were warned not to run over the cesspools buried in our yards (this was before we got sewer lines) because, every now and then, they would cave in.

Areas that were the deepest red-orange ranged from Massachusetts to Miami. Most major coastal cities, built right against the Atlantic, are in jeopardy. There are simply too many people needing to use groundwater in these areas. My home state of New York, and especially, Long Island are in deep trouble. Even inland areas, like the land west of the Chesapeake Bay are rapidly sinking. The barrier beaches and islands are all at risk.

When I was a child, I had an irrational fear of tidal waves. I still do, even though we live on rocky shelf in Massachusetts. Naturally, reading about the coast sinking, I tried to see what could be done to halt its progress. Will it only become worse as the population increases? According to Worldometer, the current population of the United States of America is 341,143,986 as of Saturday, February 17, 2024, based on elaboration of the latest United Nations data. That seems like a lot of people, but I read that the population rate of the US is historically low right now. So why the problem?

Part of it is that so many of us want to be in the same areas; often cities. The world’s current population is around 8 billion; eight times higher than it was in 1800…and it’s growing. Physics teaches us that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. (Waves are another matter.) We can only deduct from this that if humans go on breeding at the current rate, all these people will need their own space. Many of our coastal cities have addressed this problem by building upwards, stacking family upon family. If everyone is in their apartment or condo things work pretty well…not so much at rush hour, though, when the population isn’t stacked vertically. Most of my doctors are in Boston, which has some of the highest congestion, smallest, wiggliest streets, least amount of public parking and worst public transportation of many US Cities. We have a decreasing window of only a few hours where we can get in or out of the city in the 45 minutes it’s supposed to take us rather than spending hours in traffic jams. Boston is one of the cities on the map that shows it to be sinking.

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THE BLUE BLUR

Liberty was born on Valentine’s Day seven years ago. She is a blue merle (black, white and grey markings) and has a distinct black heart on her left hip. She was the smallest of her litter and the last to be taken. Our breeder said she would be a “moderately active” Border Collie, which is an oxymoron. For the first year, she was the puppy from Hell; more like a Tasmanian Devil than a dog. She chewed everything she could get to: crate pads, leashes, seatbelts, furniture, the zipper of her crate cover, the linoleum in the kitchen and our 1895 pine floor boards. She demanded constant attention and tore our clothes, nipping us with her razor-sharp baby teeth when we tried to leave her screened in the kitchen.

In puppy classes and with trainers she learned each behavior on the first try, becoming bored while the other puppies struggled to understand what was required of them. When she was old enough to start Beginning Agility classes, we hoped it would settle her down. In these early classes, both puppy and the handler (me) were taught the basic commands and moves. Liberty learned everything immediately and nipped me whenever I messed up. Our trainer, Nick, kept a box of Band-aids just for me. 

In past blogs, I may have mentioned that I have a learning disability which makes it difficult to learn math, understand patterns, read maps, or tell time. When I type, I reverse letters very often and I mix up lefts and rights a lot. Having to race around a gymnasium filled with hurdles, tunnels and elevated walkways in a specific order using signals to cue my dog was a nightmare. At first, not only was I unable to remember what to do, I actually fell backwards over hurdles, forgot which direction to run and confused my front crosses with rear crosses. Both Nick and Liberty were disgusted with my inabilities. Liberty was not only the smartest dog in class; she was the fastest, which earned her the nickname, “The Blue Blur.”

After several years of weekly classes, private lessons, practice in our yard and, finally, competitions, Liberty advanced to the Master’s Level in AKC Agility. I have improve slightly, at least enough for Liberty to quit nipping me. Had she had a younger handler than I who wasn’t constantly getting injured or having surgeries, she would have made it to the top. But we live an hour and a half away from our training center. A day competing often means sitting around for six hours, waiting to do our two runs. 

Liberty is now seven and I am seventy-seven. Both of our remaining lifespans are shorter than I would like. Dan, Liberty and I take long walks every day. Liberty needs about four hours of active play and training every day. We continue going to Agility Class each week (where she is still the fastest dog). Dan and I both adore her. She sleeps in-between us every morning, pressed up against my back or curled against my stomach. Although she may not be competing any more, she is champion enough for us. She has taught Dan and me more than we ever taught her.

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CRIMES HISTORICAL AND ON-GOING

Last week, the Cabot Theater in Beverly was showing a documentary along with a talk by the film’s star, Peggy King Jorde. The film, “A Story of Bones,” tells of the discovery of over 9,000 enslaved Africans’ graves on the island of Saint Helena; cruel evidence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This is the island where Napoleon’s grave lies and is a huge draw for tourists. Annina van Neel, who arrives from Namibia to help construct an airport, is there when the graves are found. The movie relates her struggle to honor the history of these forgotten people. 

This is a subject familiar to me, having lived in Lower Manhattan for years in buildings near or atop the Colonial-era African slave burial grounds. Not only had these people’s lives been stolen from them; 19th century industrialists saw the land they were buried in as too valuable to waste and covered the graveyard with buildings. The bones had lain undisturbed until 1991, when construction behind City Hall began unearthing human remains.

By the time I heard about the discovery and its initial mis-handling, I was living in Nashville. I read with horror in 1992 that 390 burials had been removed with plans to dig up another 200. It was heart-breaking learning about the remains that were exhumed. The bones told tales of hard lives, violence, malnutrition and over-work. Africans, free or enslaved, were not allowed to be buried with their European enslavers. No one knew the graves were intact under streets, park area and buildings; everyone assumed they had been destroyed.

It is speculated that the burial ground covers seven acres and holds over 20,000 graves. Some of the remains were damaged in moving them. Public outcry led by the black community caused President George H. Bush to put a stop to the excavations and the exhumed remains were sent to Howard University, where a team of African-American archeologists took over the research. The bodies were re-buried in 2023 and a permanent memorial was built and dedicated in 2007.

I bought tickets for the documentary online, before realizing that admission was free for Seniors. Dan tried to fix the problem and we ended up with two more tickets. A phone call straightened things out, but our troubles weren’t over. Our dog began limping so we cancelled her agility class and went to the vet. We were told to keep her from running and jumping for a week. Having cancelled class, I worried that I would be “a day off” all week, which proved to be the case. We were inviting friends over for dinner on the weekend. Consulting my calendar, I saw that the documentary was at 7pm on Friday night. We arranged to host our friends on Saturday. 

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Of Life and Little Things

“Ok, here’s a test,” I say to Dan as I pad into the room that houses my recipe books. Wearing a man’s flannel robe and felt slippers I look frumpy and disheveled. “At what temperature do we cook shirred eggs? I’m thinking three twenty-five degrees.” I have been making shirred eggs for the last thirty years, but can never remember the oven temperature.

“Three hundred-seventy five,” Dan yells from the kitchen. Reaching up at the top shelf of cookbooks, I take down the hand-written recipe book that I made for Dan before we lived together. Page twenty-six is entitled, Shirred Eggs, and has a drawing of two eggs nestled in an oval casserole dish. I read, “ Set oven to three hundred-seventy-five degrees. Cook for sixteen to eighteen minutes.”

“You won,” I say as I set the oven temperature. Yawning, I melt two tablespoons of butter in a pan. Then, for good measure, I butter the sides of our small oval dishes, placing two slices of round Canadian bacon side-by-side in both dishes. Carefully, I crack an egg over each slice, pour melted butter on top and slide them carefully into the oven. Dan sets the timer. Not fully awake yet in our pre-coffee state, we lean against the counter and stare stupidly at the little yellow-stained glass window on the oven door as if it were a computer monitor.

When the timer rings, I carry each dish to the table, using potholders, and place each on a pewter plate. Dan carries a platter with toast and oranges. Speckles of browned butter bubble enticingly on the eggs. “Don’t burn yourself; they’re still very hot,” I warn Dan, who is already savoring a forkful of bacon and egg.

“Why can’t I ever remember the cooking temperature after all these years?” I complain in-between bites.

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Artistry and Old Lace

First off, the answers to last week’s conundrums:

1. What word may be pronounced quicker and shorter by adding syllables?” 

     Answer: “quick” and “short”

2. What is that which is seen twice in “every day” and four times in “every week” yet only once 

     a year?”  Answer: the letter “e”

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Conundrums

I purchased a lovely little book copyrighted 1893. It belonged to Myrtle Trogen, the seller’s grandmother, born in 1901. It has a green cloth cover with a silver border. The title, “Conundrums,” is printed in red in an Old English font. The book contains over one-thousand conundrums collected by Dean Rivers, who also added some of his own. The word, “conundrum,” is one of the many words that have fallen out of use; one of those three-syllabled words which will confound any listener under seventy. It will also mark the user as an elitist in today’s culture.

Most on-line dictionaries definite the word as “a difficult problem.” The Cambridge dictionary states, “A conundrum is a problem that is difficult to deal with or a question that is a trick, often involving a humorous use of words that have two meanings.” Leafing through the book, I realized that language has changed so drastically since the publication of the book that most Americans, both elitists and non, would have difficulty understanding the cultural references. Take, for example, this conundrum:

“Why are washerwomen great flirts?…

Because they wring men’s bosoms.”

Having had a grandmother who was a professional seamstress, I am familiar with the word bosom as it refers to shirt fronts. In the late Victorian period, the bosom of the shirt was often four layers of linen, heavily starched to keep the surface flat. These shirts had to be boiled to remove both sweat and starch. Most folks wouldn’t get this…

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A TWELFTH NIGHT THOUGHT

It is the twelfth day of Christmas, (twelve drummers drumming); Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas. But most people don’t know that Christmas was a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25th. I was always shocked to see how many trees were thrown out with the garbage on December 26th. When I still lived in New York City, throughout Soho, the Village, and uptown, magnificent trees, fresh and green, some still bearing tinsel, were tossed outside the day after Christmas.

I was often tempted to celebrate “Old Christmas” on January 6th. If I did that, I could have had my choice of trees from this lush sidewalk forest. Getting it to my loft in Tribeca on the subway would have been a challenge, (although I once saw a musician with a theorbo in its eight-foot tall white hard case on night at about 3:00am.)

“Why,” you may well ask,”Is January 6th called Old Christmas ?” We follow the Gregorian calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory the XIII in 1582. The Julien calendar which preceded it was notoriously inaccurate, having 365 and 1/4 days in a year. The Gregorian calendar was more exact but was not accepted by Protestant Europe, which continued to use the old Julien calendar. England finally adopted it but parts of Europe and the British Isles feared the new system was a way of the Catholic Church exerting control over them. They continued celebrating Christmas on January 6th, the equivalent date on the old Julien calendar.

I was living in New England during the repeated snowstorms of 2018 which buried cars both here and in NYC under huge piles of snow. Christmas had just ended; trees sat atop snowdrifts, as the snow-filled streets were impassible, even for sanitation workers. The New York Times had a photo of a street where someone (most likely an environmental artist), spent some time and effort turning all the trees upright with their trunks stuck in the snowdrifts. The street was, for a short time, a snowy forest of fur trees. When I saw the photo, I decided someone was on to something. What if everyone who throws away their tree on December 26 (the second day of Christmas) set it out in its stand by the curb until Twelfth Night. Then, even those who live in barren, treeless neighborhoods could have eleven magical days in which their street became a pine forest! It might even inspire cities to plant more trees.

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Good Grief!

I know better, yet I still manage to cut my finger with a sharp knife just before I have to play a harp gig. You would think I would avoid chopping things in the weeks leading up to a show…but no. I convince myself that it won’t happen like last time; I will be more careful. This kind of thinking is one of humanity’s greatest flaws. Look at Charlie Brown. Despite evidence to the contrary, he believes that this time, Lucy won’t yank away the football just when he goes to kick it. Likewise, Bart Simpson puts his hand on the stove, burns it and yells, “Ouch” and then does it again, and again. The fact that humans are unlikely to learn from the past has always supplied cartoonists and humorists with material.

We lord it over the other animals because we have big brains, a sense of past, present and future and an opposable thumb. So, if we’re so superior, why do we repeat so many mistakes? Maybe Charlie Brown is simply a person who wants to trust others. How often has he forgiven Lucy for tricking him? The disciple Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive another’s sin against him, Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven,” by which he meant limitless times. Perhaps Charlie reads his Bible.

Of course, there are others who believe they can beat the odds and succeed the next time without changing their behavior, like me using the knife, thinking that I won’t get cut. Casinos bank upon people believing this. Repeat offenders, too, think their luck will change and they won’t get caught. Is this hubris or magical thinking? When Charlie Brown lands on his back or Bart repeatedly burns his hand, we can laugh because these are cartoon characters who can’t be hurt. But in real-life situations, failure to learn from the past prevents us from attaining our goals and causes much pain and suffering. Here are a few examples:

The world has just witnessed another terrorist attack by Hamas against Israel; a massacre of people attending a peaceful music festival. Hostages were taken, survivors testified to seeing young Israeli women gang-raped, mutilated and shot in the head, their faces obliterated to confound identification. Since 1978 Hamas has been attempting to destroy Israel using terrorism. That’s forty-six years of using extreme violence to attain their goal, without succeeding. In the process, generations of Palestinian children have been lost when Israel retaliates.

Likewise, those who support Netanyahu’s response, which impacted civilians much more than it did Hamas, are surprised at the world’s condemnation of Israel. It’s old news that Hamas imbeds itself amongst the most vulnerable Palestinian communities, hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods in order to make Israel’s retaliation cost the greatest number of Palestinian lives. A poll taken by the Arab World for Research and Development just after the October 7th attack showed that 68% of West Bank Palestinians supported the attack, an increase that has tripled since three months ago. From the people’s point of view, after 17 years of being blockaded in Gaza, and enduring a military occupation, Hama’s action was an act of defiance and legitimate resistance. Palestinians told NPR reporters on the West Bank that they didn’t believe stories of Hamas attacking and raping Israeli women. The world has not been shown evidence of those alleged atrocities. What the public has seen and remembers are the photos and videos of innocent dead Palestinian women, children elderly men, women and hospitalized patients. Israel is well-aware that Hamas will use these to garner global sympathy, which it does…repeatedly, to great advantage. 

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CONSIDERING GIFTS

This week, on the shortest day of the year Dan, Liberty and I were making the drive to American K9 Country, the training facility in Amherst, NY, where Liberty and I take Agility classes each week. It’s an hour and a half drive, but with Christmas only days away the traffic on rt. 93N is light. Dan drives, so I have plenty of time to peer at our fellow commuters in their SUVs and trucks and wonder how their lives have been this year. I’m at an age where friends and relatives are coming down with diseases and dying. I think a lot about mortality and I’ve begun to notice the years speeding past at an increasing rate, especially around the holidays.

When I was a little kid, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas seem interminable. The night before Christmas, I would lie in my little bed listening to the wind and admiring the glow of Christmas lights shining through my window. I would try hard not to think of our sparkling tree, the special foods my mother had been preparing, Santa and, most of all, the presents. Instead, I would review the Christmas story as told in the Gospels, trying not to think about all the issues I had with it: Mary and Joseph plodding through a hot, sandy desert towards Bethlehem to pay their taxes, sweating and thirsty. I hated hot weather and bugs; deserts were unappealing places to me. In the 1950’s, no one discussed pregnancy, I decided Mary was too big and heavy to ride on that poor little donkey in the pictures I saw in Sunday School. 

By the time Jesus was born the shepherds were already there, standing around. But who was watching their sheep? In the carols we sang, it got really cold and there was even snow, but when the Wise Men finally showed up, only one of them brought something sort of useful: gold (at least now they could pay their taxes.) The other two brought frankincense and myrrh, both some types of perfume, even though Jesus was a boy! I wasn’t too keen on camels, either, having ridden one at the Bronx Zoo. I knew they often bite you and spit. I did like the star and the angel choirs, but the part about everyone having to go home by a different route to avoid being captured by King Herod terrified me. I had read the part about him killing off all the little kids two and under in spite. So, on those last days before December 25th, although I tried to think about the Christmas story, I inevitably ended up falling asleep dreaming of sugar plumbs and presents rather than God’s gift lying in the manger, wrapped in whatever “swaddling clothes” were. 

I’m mostly grown up now and the winter solstice reminds me that time truly speeds up as the old year (and one’s lifespan) ends. Although over two-thousand years have passed since that birth, the Middle East is still a dangerous place for children. This year, Bethlehem, itself, is closed to tourists due to the on-going war between Hamas and Israel. Herod, himself, would be surprised at all the children under two years of age who continue to be murdered, both Jewish and Palestinian.

These last few nights before Christmas, I will lie in bed and think of the Christmas story, but I will also think about gifts. I will say a prayer of thanks to the two individuals whose deaths and subsequent gifts of their corneas allow me to see the faces in the cars as well as those of the people I love. May everyone’s days, regardless of their length, be merry and bright, and thoughtful and kind.

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A SEASON OF WHITE

As Dan and I drive through the hilly, bumpy streets of Marblehead which shine with the rain pelting down I think of my childhood winters on Long Island and how important the weather was to the holiday season. By mid-December, the grass was long since dead, the ground frozen solid and crunchy underfoot. Our parents sent us out to play, regardless of how hard the frigid winds were blowing. It never rained in December. We slid on every icy patch we could find, hunted for ice-sickles to lick and delighted in shattering any thin sheets of ice we could find with our scuffed brown shoes. 

Every time the mail arrived, we hoped it would contain the Sears catalogue, which was nearly as thick as a phone book and contained endless pages pf toys. We kids wrote our names next to the toys we hoped for, both from parents and Santa Claus. I didn’t bother to ask how Santa would know what we had checked off in the Sears catalogue. I had seen him live in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with his wife and had sat on his lap at Macy’s. If he had a deal going with Macy’s, I figured he probably had a connection with Sears as well. 

Waiting for the bus every morning meant nose-blowing and hopping up and down to keep our toes from freezing. We poked and chased each other until the bus finally arrived. In school, we were jittery with anticipation. The December sky, grey and still, seemed to be holding its breath. Then, the first snow would begin in flurries. Wild with delight, we would spin, arms outstretched, heads tipped back so we could catch snowflakes on our tongues. 

At home, we were reluctant to come inside, even for lunch, when there was snow. Mothers stuffed their kids into snow pants, galoshes, sweaters, hats, earmuffs and mittens before they allowed them to go out. Long Island snows were often deep enough to make the roads impassible. We prayed for the voice on the morning radio to say, “Schools are closed today in Nassau County.” But often, our mothers sent us off on foot to walk the mile to school in swirling gusts that quickly filled the sidewalks and streets with mountains of white. Leaping in and out of drifts, making snow angels and dodging snowballs, we would find that the school had closed by the time we reached it. Once we made it back home, our lips would be blue, our fingers frozen and the clips on our galoshes iced over. But our mothers were ready with hot cocoa and graham crackers. They stripped us of our wet, frozen clothes and tossed them over radiators to dry. An hour later, we’d be begging to go out again.

On weekends, whole families went ice-skating on the model boat pond at Salisbury Park. We kids wore double-bladed strap-on skates that wobbled and caused us to trip. Parents in their long dopey coats hauled their progeny across the ice in-between them. In a photo from 1952, my mother and I both wear wool babushkas. I look knock-kneed and about to fall. My dad wears a fedora. All around us is a sea of people; all of us resembling refugees more than skaters.

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In The Blood

As I lay in bed, I realized that I’ve spent nearly a third of my life living on two separate islands, Manhattan and Long Island, and now I live at the end of a peninsula, blocks from the water. I favor my mother’s side of my family, who came to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia from Essex, England in the 1600’s. Essex lies at the south-western edge of England and is a marshy land where generations of men made their livings as watermen. When they sailed to the colonies, they took up the fishing trade again. The Eastern Shore teems with fish, crabs, clams and oysters on both the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay sides. My southern ancestors sallied forth in their skipjacks, graceful sailing boats with wide decks and beautiful lines that reminiscent of Viking ships.

As it turns out, Essex, England, was very much a Viking settlement, once the Norsemen stopped raiding and began establishing permanent residence there. I wonder if my need to live at land’s end is a thing that was passed down through the blood. I lived in Essex, Massachusetts, for a decade and became aware that many folk living there shared my family names: Mears and Stirling. After a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that these Essex distant relatives came to the colony of Massachusetts from Essex, England as well; a hundred years after my family emigrated to Maryland and Virginia. People still make their livings as fishermen and clammers in Essex, MA. They too built graceful ships called schooners, along with smaller, wide boats for catching lobsters and fish. 

Whenever I’ve lived inland, I’ve felt trapped, no matter how lovely the area. The grasses, soil and even the birds seem foreign to me. I have the need to stand on a shoreline, be it sandy and flat or rocky, smell the sea breeze and watch the gulls coasting gracefully overhead, crying out at each other. Do we all have ancestral memories which compel us? Maybe. Can we be homesick for things we, ourselves, haven’t known? I leave that question to you.

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Black Friday

The first time I became aware of the term, “Black Friday,” I thought it was a new national holiday honoring people of color. Over the years it has, instead, become America’s premium shopping holiday. To prepare us for it, merchants send countless catalogues and emails promising huge discounts on stuff. Everyone, including me, loves a bargain, so it’s hard not to pay attention. If you’ve had your eye on a big-ticket item, like a major appliance, it feels great to save that twenty-five percent Black Friday discount.

It didn’t exactly start off as a holiday, although the phrase appeared in print in 1981 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and referred to the blank ink in merchant sales on that day. But the first use of the term was when the stock market collapsed in 1869, thanks to Jay Gould and James Fisk, financiers and businessmen, trying to corner the gold market. “Black,” on that occasion meant depressing. In the 1950’s, Black Friday was used to describe the day after Thanksgiving when workers developed ‘mysterious’ illnesses and all called in sick to their jobs. Still later on in the 1960’s, cops in Philadelphia adopted the term since there were so many shoppers coming into the city the day after Thanksgiving that they had to work twelve-hour shifts, putting them in black moods. Finally, Philadelphia merchants appropriated Black Friday and turned it into a day of discounts and sales. Other cities soon followed their example.

The thing is, I am a New Yorker and am suspicious of hustles and come-ons. I suspect that stores raise their prices prior to “the shopping season” and those great bargain prices ends up being the same you would have to pay had the merchant not raised prices prior to the sale. We Americans live in a land of plenty. We’ve become greedy, rather than satisfied. That high we experience when we get something new quickly wears off, causing us to seek another high by buying something else. Retailers understand this. Add agencies use psychology to create false needs which encourage our acquisition addiction. Kids are especially vulnerable to advertising campaigns. Witness the holiday shortage each year when stores run out of the latest “hot ticket” item.

I’m just as greedy and temptable as anyone else, so I resent being played by advertisers. We already have Black Friday and Cyber Monday. What’s next: Automobile Tuesday, Real Estate Wednesday and Cruise Friday? I’m thinking we should adopt my first interpretation of Black Friday. Instead of buying more things, we could designate Black Friday as a day to learn the histories of people of color. All Americans might learn something while saving time, space and, of course, lots of money.

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BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND

I read recently that certain right-wing groups refer to the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans from the 1600’s-1800’s as “black immigration.” If this degree of stupidity and insensitivity weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable. These groups are trying to alter the historical record by covering over the brutality and rape that existed. You might say they wish to white-wash black Americans’ history. When we cover over things and try to obfuscate them, the wrapping eventually will fall off and the truth will be revealed.

Back in the Olden Days of the early 1950’s, Chrissy Woodman, aged four, and I, five years old, sat on the Woodman’s front steps on a windy day. My home was just three houses away; and identical ranch house, like all the new homes in East Meadow, Long Island. Each consisted of a tiny kitchen, a small bathroom, a living room and three bedrooms. The largest space was the un-finished basement, which, during hurricane season, flooded in most houses.

The Woodman’s basement was drier than ours; a good thing, too, because a quarter of its space was filled with stacks of newspapers. Mrs. Woodman was from England, having met her American husband when he was stationed there during WWII. She never adjusted to America’s multi-culture, especially having Irish neighbors. Kay, Chrissy’s big sister was a year older than I and attended school. Her mortal enemy, Carol Parry, lived directly across the street from her. The Irish/English animosity expressed by both Carol and Kay’s parents towards each other resulted in spectacular fights between the two girls; fights unfathomable to me at that age, where hair was pulled, clothing was ripped and parents exchanged harsh words.

On this particular day, Chrissy and I seemed to be the only ones on the block. Even our parents were off somewhere. Left on our own, sitting on the cement stoop we squinted our blue eyes against the sand and dirt being stirred up by the gusts of wind. Our blonde hair whipped across our faces while we considered how to occupy ourselves.

“I know,” I announced. “Let’s go down in your basement and get some newspapers.” (I had asked my mother why the Woodmans were storing stacks of old newspapers. “It’s an English thing,” she had replied). Chrissy and I carried as many papers as our small arms could hold to the front steps and sat on them to hold them down. “Watch this,” I said, dramatically, as I pulled a sheet from the paper and held it high above my head by it’s corner, like a flag. The wind seized it; I let go. Chrissy and I watched it soar, kite-like against the scudding clouds of the grey September sky. High across the street it sailed, coming to rest on a neighbor’s rose bush as delicately as any butterfly. Chrissy flew the next two sheets; I followed with two more.

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We Are All Strangers

I have to space out my Fall housecleaning because I can’t do it in one day without neglecting all my other responsibilities. Our rooms are crowded with musical instruments and books. We have three harps, four guitars, a banjo, a mandolin and a violin which live in various rooms and have to be moved each time we vacuum or clean the floors. Our house has fifteen windows, all of which need cleaning, including the ledges which get full of dirt. Each window has one or more curtains, which must be washed and ironed before re-hanging. Our guest room was the last room in which I hung curtains when we moved here; consequently, I was tired and impatient installing the curtain rod hardware. Rather than use screws, I simply used the cheap little nails that come with the hardware. Each time I remove a curtain rod, the hardware pulls off and gets lost somewhere under the bed or the stack of instruments. 

Last week I decided to replace the nails with screws, which wouldn’t have required much effort except for running down two floors to the basement repeatedly for tools. After finally accomplishing my task, I noticed that there were not only cobwebs on the ceiling, but several spiders who had taken up residence. Hurrying downstairs I grabbed a small glass and a piece of cardboard in which to capture the spiders before they figured out what I was up to and sequestered themselves under the bed. I thought of the ten ladybugs I had captured several days prior and how long it took to trap and release them outside.

They had organized themselves into a huddle in a dark corner of our bedroom where the walls meet the ceiling. At first, I just saw a dark, irregular spot about the size of a silver dollar in the shadows. “Oh please God,” I muttered, “Tell me that’s not a huge spider.” Standing on a chair to get a better look, I realized it was a crowd of ladybugs, all piled up on each other like a football team. Getting them out without hurting them took half an hour. I would touch one with the edge of the cardboard to make it move away from the corner so I could trap it in the glass and transport it to the bathroom window where I would release it. Often, they would let go of the wall and drop to the floor where they were hard to see, but, eventually, I relocated all but one.

The first spider proved harder to catch; a real sprinter. Like the ladybugs, it dropped to the floor, fixing to race off. But I proved quicker with my glass and soon the spider was floating downwards from the bathroom window. The second spider had spun a rather haphazard web in a corner. The spider was balled up, peacefully napping until I touched its web. It awoke, only to fall into my waiting glass and was dispatched in the same manner as the other spider. I felt a little bad putting all these creatures outside, knowing the weather was getting colder, but I have enough trouble cleaning around all the instruments and don’t need to worry that I might vacuum up hosts of insects while cleaning. 

Outside, my garden provides winter housing and spring dens for plenty of uninvited rabbits. Each April, I must rake carefully so as not to expose baby rabbits to the ravages of my Border Collie. Thankfully, the turkeys who like to travel through everyone’s yards do not like my dog. They have never flown over  our six-foot fence. Coyotes have passed right beneath our front window, but they too have not breached our fence. The only animals we cannot make peace with are the yellow jackets who bother us in the summer. They land on our food when we eat outside, crawling around the rims of our wine glasses. Our dog is highly allergic to their venom, so I do not tolerate their presence. They are aggressive insects, attacking without provocation. I will trap them and kill them if they come near my family and me.

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AN EPIPHANY

A freshman in college, I sat in the library, a thick textbook open atop my desk. Half dozing, I stared at the dust particles sparkling in the sunbeam illuminating my desk. My hand, resting near the book, drew my attention. As though I were seeing it through a close-up lens, my smooth, eighteen-year-old skin, the medium-length fingers with their bitten cuticles came suddenly and vividly into focus.

In that second, I realized that the entity known as “I” would determine the future of that hand; what it holds or releases, where it will go, whom it will touch and what it will create. I felt at once elated and terrified by that knowledge. Never again would I be a passive traveller, robotically moving through life. From that moment, I knew I would be both pilot and ship, navigating my own reality.

For the first time, I understood the meaning of aware-ness.

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A Helping Hand

My college roommate is retired and on a fixed income. We have remained close since graduation. Recently, she made the mistake most of us have made at one time: overestimated the amount in her checking account. some large medical bills came due and by the time she realized she was bouncing checks, she was already being fined thirty-five dollars per bounce. I sent her some money to tide her over while she straightens things out. She had often helped me out in the past, sharing money and food when things got scarce.

When my roommate and I were in college in the late nineteen sixties, our tuition included bed and board. I found the food inedible and lost twenty pounds my freshman year. It wasn’t that I was a picky eater, although I admit I was. The food was truly appalling. One night, we were served liver soup, a pea-green concoction with pieces of beef liver floating in it. Another time, as I stood on line waiting my turn, the boy ahead of me pointed out that there were little black weevils moving in the noodles he had just been served. After that, the only things I would eat in the cafeteria were fruit, bread and dairy products. 

My roommate’s mom had bought us each a colorful enamel mug which held half a quart of liquid. We would fill them with milk to take back to our room unless the cafeteria staff stopped us. Our wealthy friend, M, (whom we affectionately dubbed the Bank of England), would sometimes loan us money to go to the only soda fountain in town; a grubby little dive we called, “The Hole.” There we would buy what passed for a hamburger on a bulky roll onto which we would spoon every condiment available to make it last longer. We always paid M when we got our allowances from our parents. My mother figured that five dollars per week should be adequate, so I was always in M’s debt or starving.

To remedy my financial problems, I spent a great deal of time walking the railroad tracks in search of cans and bottles which I would turn in for their deposit. I came to think of it as a hobby, kind of like playing golf. After all, I got exercise, fresh air and money for my effort. Sometimes I would take my roommate with me, but since her allowance was larger than mine and her mother sent care packages of snacks, her need was not as great. Besides, my roommate and M both went to meals at the cafeteria and ate what they could. 

While there weren’t restaurants in the depressed coal-mining town surrounding our college, there were plenty of places to drink. These became a valuable resource for me. I would walk into a bar and announce that I could eat more hot mustard on the free blocks of cheese set out to encourage thirst than anyone there. The men liked being challenged by a college girl, and would stand me beers while I happily filled my belly with cheese and hot mustard.

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Hireth

For me, fall is the season of hireth: a Cornish word meaning homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was. I always loved raking leaves each autumn. It was fun because it was an activity my parents and I did together, but it was also an important way of marking the season. Our tiny yard in East Meadow, Long Island, was my wilderness. We planted a willow when house and yard were brand new. Within four years, the tree towered above our roof. “Are you the folks with the big willow?” people would ask. I climbed its branches to a perch where I would eat apples and read, swaying in the wind. Each October, I gloried in the showers of golden leaves and leaped into the piles I had just raked. When the tree was bare, my father would burn all the leaves in a big garbage can. The neighborhood kids would come toast marshmallows. I have an old home movie of one such bonfire at dusk; we kids, high on sugar, sticky-fingered, whirling deliriously in the gathering darkness, each holding a stick with a flaming marshmallow at the end. 

When I turned thirteen, my family moved to the older town of Merrick. My willow blew over on the house after we left. Everyone said, “Shallow roots,” but I knew it fell over in sorrow. That house would never seem the same. Merrick’s trees were old and huge. Maples, oaks and pine trees towered over homes and lined the roads. Smith Street, especially,  was famous for its towering trees whose branches met, arching over the road, forming a tunnel of green all summer and a tapestry of gold, crimson and yellow in the fall.

Our new yard was dotted with oaks which dropped acorns as well as brown leaves in autumn. Merrick, in the mid sixties, had few sidewalks. The yards stopped at the edge of the street. People raked their leaves to the edge of their yards to burn them. The whole town smelled wonderful; a fragrance I still associate with home, crisp air, everyone walking to high school football games, and the glorious anticipation of up-coming holidays.

My father’s job forced us to leave New York in 1962. Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel is entitled, You Can’t Go Home Again. I believe he was correct. While I tried to get back to New York as often as possible, things began changing there. The old, venerable trees of Smith Street were cut down, despite the passionate protests and fury of the residents. The street was widened slightly and new sidewalks were laid. Smith Street is hot in the summer and has lost its individuality.

In Massachusetts, where I now live, we bag our leaves and a truck comes and carts them off. Leaf-burning has been banned, as it adds to pollution. We have a fire-pit out back where, sometimes, we toast marshmallows. I toss a few leaves into the flames, just to remember the smell. I still like raking, which is fortunate, since we have a big yard with many large trees. I wonder if there is greater pollution from leaf-blowers, the extremely loud, smelly machines used to blow every leaf into a pile, ensuring a perfect green lawn, than there was from the smoke of leaves burning. I imagine the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants my willow and the trees of Smith Street used to absorb, sucking them with their stomata and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

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A Musical Wedding

Thirty-one years ago, Dan and I got married on October 18th. It was a garden wedding, at the home of our dear friends, Eugene Martinez and Antonio Alfani.  Antonio, a professional cook, made a risotto and our wedding cake. We were serving smoked salmon, salads, and bagels. Large buckets of ice next to the swimming pool brimmed with bottles of white wine and champagne.

The weather in the Hudson Valley, where we lived, had been unseasonably hot for weeks. The day before the wedding, a cold front moved in, creating a dense fog, and muting the colorful foliage. My father, stepmother, and aunt had arrived from Florida and Ohio several days early. As I drove them on a tour across the Bear Mountain Bridge, we could see the Hudson River, dark and grey-green below, but the tops of the mountains were shrouded in clouds.

On the morning of the 18th, friends were coming from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City, and upstate New York. I drove from our apartment, several miles away in Tappan, to Eugene and Antonio’s house in Blauvelt to get things prepared. Friends had offered to make dishes of food, decorate, and bring flowers, but the fog slowed everyone down; nothing was ready. I raced around with curlers in my hair, decorating, placing food in dishes, and checking the clock. My father, stepmother, and aunt, three normally take-charge people, seemed incapable of making the smallest decisions regarding setting up. I was exasperated! “Oh please,” I prayed silently. “Don’t let it rain until the wedding is finished.”

I had on the diaphanous top of my two-piece wedding gown and my jeans when I realized my makeup was in our apartment. I climbed over a split-rail fence to get to my car faster. My stepmother, Pat, shouted to me, “I wish I had a camera to get a picture of you right now.”

The service was being officiated by a monk and a rabbi. Brother Andrew was a Scottish Anglican Benedictine monk friend of mine. Dan’s mother had her heart set on having a rabbi perform the service, so we asked Rabbi Gelberman to share the service with Brother Andrew. Both, we noted, were the same height with white vestments and white hair; a matched set. A stoop outside the kitchen door would serve as the altar, facing rows of chairs on the grass for the guests. The wedding party would proceed through the garden, being piped in by our friend, Phil, a Highland piper.

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For your eyes

Dan had cataract surgery on his right eye yesterday. Today he had an early-morning check-up at his surgeon’s office in Gloucester. The whole coast was enveloped in a heavy fog, so I drove. We took Liberty, who didn’t get to go to her Agility class today. After Dan’s appointment, I drove us up and down the curvy, hilly roads to Wingaersheek Beach, now open to dogs since the season has ended. Only 0.6 miles long, lying along the Annisquam River facing Ipswich Bay, the beach has smooth pale sand studded with huge half-buried brownish boulders which look like giant potatoes. When the tide is out (which it happened to be) one can walk way out on the sand. The land is flat here, and the depth of the water increases gradually; a perfect beach for families with little kids in summer, as well as for dogs and their human companions off-season. 

Dan takes out the ball flinger, loads it with an orange rubber ball and lets it fly. Legally off-leash here, Liberty looks like a lead bullet streaking across the sand. With her silver, white and black Blue Merle coloring, the little dog fades in and out of the fog like a phantom. Other people appear with dogs. I watch the dogs playing, tails held high, splashing in the water. “It’s a miracle that we can see this,” I think to myself.

Dan’s eye is still bruised from yesterday’s surgery, but his sight is better already. He has worn thick glasses to correct his bad vision since he was a child. “You have no idea!” he would say when I complained of needing glasses in my sixties. But ten years ago I was diagnosed with Fuch’s Dystrophy, a somewhat rare genetic disease that causes one’s corneal cells to burst, eventually causing blindness. I began seeing a Fuchs specialist at Mass Eye & Ear Hospital. 

Each year, my specialist would say, “There’s not much change; let’s see you in a year.” This year, I was shocked when she said, “It’s time to do corneal transplants.” Both surgeries were accomplished over a three-month period. I was astounded at how much my vision improved.

“It really is a miracle, don’t you think,” I whisper as I look into the foamy shallows at the scores of tiny mollusk and crab shells. “And I have you two and your families to thank for it,” I say, out loud to the people whose healthy corneas are enabling me to see. I wrote both donor’s families, thanking them. “Your loved one lives on in me. I’m an artist, a musician and a writer. Each time I draw or tune my harp or write my blog, your beloved person does it with me. Without the gift of their cornea, I would have lost my sight. So every day, I thank them for being part of me and everything I do. I think of us as a team.”

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