It’s a rainy, gloomy day here in Wilkes Barre. Luckily, my midweek musing from a couple of Wednesdays ago about pen pals and how I love to receive snail mail worked some magic! Since then I’ve received letters from two sons, drawings and letters from three granddaughters and a wonderful card from a friend that made my day.
Today I mailed off notes to my granddaughters and grandsons with some activity sheets. I want to give a big shout out to the New York Public Library. For the second time during quarantine, I received an email with free printouts for kids. There are crosswords, word searches, mazes and a fill in the blank to write your own version of Goodnight Moon. I am including the link so you may also enjoy! My favorite is the Library Logo Lion Mane Maze.
During the Great Depression, Mayor LaGuardia named the beloved lions who guard the 42nd Street library Patience and Fortitude for the qualities he felt New Yorkers needed to get through a difficult time. The lions are still standing strong.
The quarantine continues but the warmer spring weather has allowed Mr. Smith and me to get out walking more often. This past Sunday the skies above were a cornflower blue with giant puffy clouds and a temperature near 80 degrees. Wilkes Barre is the home of Wilkes University and on a late afternoon stroll, we explored much of the campus that normally would be crowded with students. We came across this statue of John Wilkes wearing the appropriate PPE. Wilkes Barre was named in honor of John Wilkes and Col. Isaac Barre, two members of British parliament who heroically defended the American colonies in tumultuous parliamentary debates during the Revolutionary War.
I hope you are all weathering the shelter in place all right. I have my good days and my not so good days. Luckily more good days than not. I am taking great comfort in a routine. I look forward to sharing a morning coffee with Mr. Smith before he braves the outside world. It helps me to have somewhat of a plan for the day. Years ago, I created a chart designating specific chores for each workday. I usually follow it. After a day of cleaning, writing or reading, I look forward to sharing a glass of wine and chatting with Mr. Smith when evening comes. We are lucky people and we know it.
“May, I love you with everything I am. For so long, I just wanted to be like you. But I had to figure out that I am someone too, and now I can carry you, your heart with mine, everywhere I go.”
Substitute Jeanne for May in this quote about her sister written by Ava Dellaira in Love Letters to the Dead, and you may begin to understand the bond between my sister Jeanne and me. An extremely treasured presence in my life, she is also a force to be reckoned with. She is an Amazing Woman. She has written her own life narrative, literally and figuratively. Here are her words…
I ran away to join the circus…..
Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, a favorite author and fellow Hoosier, from a very early age I aspired to get out of Indiana. And I did. First to Ann Arbor and University of Michigan, later to California and then Europe. My only returns were to visit family and friends or weddings and funerals.
I remember being 12 years old sitting on the stairs and listening to my mother’s friends expound on their life regrets, the lost opportunities of their youth. Deep inside my gut I made a promise to myself, that would never be me. My second dream was to someday retire in Europe. Even as a kid I just felt somehow that I belonged there. I followed Andre Malraux project of cleaning all the national buildings in Paris following WWII. I read book after book of European history. My first visit was in 1969.
My second act, the get a serious job part, included returning to University, then law school while single with 4 kids. Luckily, we lived in southern California and the kids blossomed. I loved my practice and most of my alleged criminal clients and continued for years until one day I became ill. And so my third act was prompted by the side effects of the strong medications I was taking. I realized I would have to consider retirement. Luckily my children were educated and grown.
I sold my practice, my house, my cars and a lifetime of accumulated stuff. I packed clothes, books and my kitchen tools, put 100 boxes of household items in storage and booked a flight to Lisbon. Within 2 months I had bought an old stone casa on a hillside in a tiny village in southern Portugal as well as a beat-up old Citroen.
For the next ten years I traveled Europe, entertained friends and family, made lots of new friends, gave historical tours of Paris, read, wrote and taught the villagers English.
It took five years for me to totally destress from my previous life. I would often sit on my shaded patio and just gaze across the long valley as Martine guided his wooly flock down ancient paths still followed by shepherds today. The hillsides are covered in cork, carob, citrus and olive trees with wild grasses and flowering vines climbing the ubiquitous rock walls.
One interesting afternoon my dear neighbor and I headed to a meadow to meet up with our local shepherd. We selected, killed and skinned a fat sheep, then Helena and I wrapped the carcass in plastic and lugged it onto her large kitchen table where with my novice assistance, Helena and I carved it into freezer size pieces for the winter.
My neighbors seemed to know how to do anything our primitive life required. Manuel, the 3rd generation neighborhood blacksmith fashioned the long wrought-iron railing around my lower balcony as well as several beautiful gates. I practiced Portuguese dishes but also love the amazing fare of every Parisian café. Paris is a short plane trip so I took advantage of its proximity to visit often to wander the streets and buildings until I became familiar enough to act as a reasonable historical city guide.
It’s my belief that ten years away from the US saved my body and my mind. I learned; I grew: I relaxed. However, at some point it seemed clear that it was time to cross the ocean again and return home. I sold my casa and my trusty little Citroen. Had several parties with lots of vinho verde, my favorite Portuguese wine. I packed up my 80 boxes and a heart full of memories and headed west.
Now, what is likely my last stand, I have landed in a charming artsy village south of my old stomping grounds of Ann Arbor. The locals have welcomed me into their busy lives but I am especially fortunate to have found a group of bluehairs that I adore. They are brilliant, witty, creative and splendid company.
But my philosophy is if given a choice between the comfy old recliner and a trip to watch the perfect sunset off the north African coast, I chose the sunset. There will always be another recliner but not as many perfect sunsets.
Life is complicated in our third act. We lose loved ones, we lose health and vigor, we lose old memories. We lose choices. Yet we do gain perspective and wisdom and hopefully patience and are often better listeners.
The circus merry-go-round is slowing down but we really don’t want to get off.
While the windows in our apartment were a huge part of its original appeal, I now appreciate them even more. Currently in our sixth week of quarantine, the view of the world all around reminds me that while I may have limited access for now, I am still part of it. I can see flowers blooming and trees turning green. Pennsylvania has extended the shelter in place date to May 8. Though I am eager to be out and about, I will continue to hunker down, wear a mask when I do go out, and listen to Dr. Fauci.
It helps that Mr. Smith and I connect with our sons a couple of times a week via a group call. The grandkids pop in and out, but this is mostly for the adults. Last night we were able to wish Elliot a happy birthday, and since we couldn’t join them for fancy dinner or a slice of his delicious homemade chocolate birthday cake, I bought a slice for Mr. Smith and me to share.
My house is clean and organized, I continue with my morning exercise routine, and still have plenty of time for some at home beauty treatments. If the product information on my twice weekly facial masks is accurate, I will be looking ten years younger when this is all over!
Like many women, I am at the point where my hair is starting to become an issue. I am sorely missing my colorist and stylist. In an effort to not go all Edward Scissorhands on my hair, I am keeping my hands busy working on some Christmas ornaments for my grandchildren.
For many years, Mr. Smith’s mother made Christmas ornaments for her grandchildren and then her great-grandchildren. Last year with her health failing, she was aware she might not survive 2019. She had ornaments all completed and wrapped, ready to be mailed out. She did not survive the year, but her great-grandchildren all received an ornament. I decided I would take up the tradition for my grandkids and am having fun working on these.
It is a stressful time for all of us, wondering what the future holds. Things will never be the same again with regard to crowds, travel, dining out. We may even hesitate when hugging our loved ones. When I am feeling particularly overwhelmed, I think about the women in my life I have loved and respected and how they persevered. During the depression my Aunt Ruby hitchhiked from Illinois to Texas with her husband and toddler son to try and find work. For years as a single mom, my mother often worked two jobs to feed her five kids. And my sister found the courage to make brave choices in her life from crossing the U.S. with four kids in a van to attend law school in her late thirties to later crossing an ocean to experience the challenge of a new culture and language in her sixties. You can learn more about her philosophy on life in the upcoming Sunday blog post where she will be the featured Amazing Woman.
We had to make a call on Camp Grandma 2020 this week and it wasn’t an easy decision. The property owner contacted Mr. Smith and me to remind us we were 60 days out and needed to pay the balance of the rental amount or cancel. The rental property is located in Ohio and along with most of the country, it is under a “stay-at-home” order due to the COVID19 virus. While the Ohio lockdown is currently scheduled to be lifted May 1, there are no guarantees. And our family would be traveling there from three different states. With no wide-spread testing available and no vaccine on the immediate horizon we felt the agonizing need to be responsible and error on the safe side. So, we canceled.
Disappointment is “sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations” and there is currently plenty of sadness in the love nest. I am taking some guidance from Tiny Buddha and experiencing the disappointment and not feeling any sense of obligation to “just get over it.” I know that soon I will start to develop some perspective. I know my own heart and want to act with love and kindness, not negativity. I am disappointed, but it will pass.
So, while there is no joy in Mudville today, I have started thinking about a virtual Camp Grandma. Mr. Smith and my sister both suggested I put together a virtual experience and now the wheels are turning. Thoughts of my computer screen plugged into Zoom and reflecting a Hollywood Squares type screen filled with silly, giggly grandkids does help with the joy factor. And maybe it will be a life lesson for my little darlings. I hope they never have to deal with a pandemic again in their lifetime, but there will always be obstacles, problems and stumbling blocks. Something can always go wrong. We can either take to our beds in a fetal position or we can search for workable solutions to make life and the lives of others better. MacGyvering a virtual Camp Grandma experience out of popsicle sticks, some glitter, and the internet seems not only a fun project but also a worthwhile life lesson for future adults I adore. That is what my Aunt Ruby would have done.
I have not found a handwritten letter in my mailbox yet this week, but I did find a wonderful email in my computer inbox. My sister-in-law Jane wrote to tell me she was taking advantage of some of the free viewing being offered during the COVID 19 quarantine. She watched a series of lectures from The Great Courses. Though I have received many mailings from The Great Courses, I have never taken the time to investigate what they have to offer. After perusing their extensive catalog, Jane chose the series “Black Death” and watched 24 half-hour lectures on the horrific plague that struck down a huge swath of population in the middle ages. At this moment in history, it certainly seems eerily prophetic.
In one of the last lectures, the speaker recommended the book Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. The book was inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England. In 1666, the plague was carried to the isolated village via a bolt of cloth. The villagers quarantined themselves for a year with no one leaving the village and no one entering. Surrounding villages left food and supplies at the border. Two-thirds of the inhabitants died. Though their sacrifice saved the surrounding towns, those who did survive found no reason to celebrate. The story sounded familiar to Jane and she was pretty sure I had recommended the book to her many years ago and her memory was correct. I read Year of Wonders many, many years ago with my old book group, The Book Babes.
Jane researched the author and found Ms. Brooks has written five novels and three non-fiction books including Foreign Correspondence about growing up in Australia, having childhood pen pals all over the globe and her adult quest to find them. So interesting that a lecture course on Black Death led to a book on pen pals, something near and dear to Jane’s heart. I have added it to my reading list.
Mr. Smith and I have been stuck in a rut of watching too much TV. I did branch out to see Stanley Tucci making a Negroni and Ina Garten crafting a massive cosmopolitan. But Jane’s example has convinced me I could take it up a level.
Therefore, this Friday, Mr. Smith and I are going to delve into the creative, generous offerings of The Frick Collection. At 5:00 p.m. we will tune into Cocktails with a Curator. This beautiful museum on East 71st Street in New York City may be closed, but we will bring our own beverage and participate in their virtual event. We are quarantined and making of it what we can.
Now in my fifth week of quarantine, collecting our daily mail has become a main event in my day. While sorting through the supplemental Medicare offers and credit card ads, should I spy an envelope addressed to me in actual human handwriting, my heart does a little dance. Sometimes a sticker covered envelope from a granddaughter, sometimes a note from a relative or friend, they are all priceless! I have always loved receiving snail mail, but these days it can make my whole week.
Author and lifestyle philosopher, Alexandra Stoddard, wrote in her book Gift of a Letter: Giving the Gift of Ourselves, “A letter is a chapter in a relationship.” When my youngest son, Adam, was living nearly 2,000 miles away in Texas for several years, we decided to try an epistolary relationship. In other words, we would be pen pals. We wrote back and forth sharing what was going on in our lives and at the end of the letter we would share a story about ourselves that the other person would not know, revealing something that would help us know the other person better. Adam now lives much closer and our letter exchange is on hiatus, but the collection of letters I have from that time is a chapter in our lives that I cherish.
Throughout history there have been many pairs of famous pen pals. Catherine the Great and Voltaire never met, but were pen pals for fifteen years, only ending with Voltaire’s death in 1778. Edith Wharton and Henry James crossed paths at a couple of dinner parties, but it wasn’t until around the turn of the century when James wrote a letter to Ms. Wharton that a relationship was born. They exchanged letters supporting and critiquing each other’s work until James’s death in 1916. And the famous relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior found even greater notoriety in 1986 when the executor of Beauvior’s estate published her unedited Letters to Sartre. Those letters are full of wonderful passages like “My tenderest kisses, beloved little being-I dreamt about you.”
Thoughts of pen pals always remind me of my sister-in-law, Jane. I have known about her epistolary relationships for years. It was Jane’s long-term exchange with a woman in Switzerland that led to a strong friendship and several trips across the wide Atlantic to visit each other. And it was this friendship that finally got my sedentary older brother, Jane’s husband, to leave the United States for the first time! She has exchanged letters with people from Scotland, Switzerland, England, Russia and more. A desire to learn more about the world through the exchange of letters led her on some great adventures. Flying into the Orkney Islands on the north coast of Scotland with the rustic stone cottages and hillsides of sheep is something she will never forget.
I recently spoke to Jane about her prolific letter writing and was fascinated to learn about the roots of her pen pal habit. Around 1940, Jane’s older brother found a pen pal in England through Wee Wisdom Magazine. That relationship didn’t stick, but Jane’s mother went on to exchange letters with the British boy’s mother for many years. Jane got in on the exchange when she was a teenager, with both she and her mom sharing the same pen pal. That is how she leaned a lot about the Beatles before folks in the US became familiar with the British invasion! When the British mum could no longer write, her niece took over the exchange. A long-term relationship passed on to another generation. It was an emotional moment when Jane finally was able to meet up with this woman and niece in England who had so enriched her life.
Magazines no longer seem to advertise pen pals in their back pages, but pen pals still exist. An internet search reveals several websites that can assist in your search for a letter writing relationship. There are many that offer email pen pals, but there are still some good old fashion pen and paper pals. Some use this exchange to work on their language skills. Some use it to improve their writing skills. But there are still those who are fueled by an interest in learning about other cultures and the world outside.
I have letters Mr. Smith sent me during our first year of marriage over 40 years ago. I have letters from my beloved Aunt Ruby that help me feel her presence. All my saved letters from old friends, relatives and acquaintances are chapters of my life that I prize. I encourage my grandchildren to write by sending them letters with questions and jokes and their responses get tucked away into my box of memories. Should you feel moved to put pen to paper and write me a letter I will add it to my treasure trove. And I promise to write back.
I was flipping through the March, 2020 issue of Food & Wine Magazine and settled in to read the F&W PRO column by Josh Miller. It featured Pardis Stitt, co-owner of Highlands Bar & Grill and three other restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama. The title of the article, The Art of Hospitality, focused on how Ms. Stitt endeavors to create the perfect guest experience for her customers. Since I want guests to my home to have a charming experience, I was eager to see if I could pick up any tips. One of her first steps was to create a team of A-level employees. What really caught my eye was her response to the last question. When asked what she looks for in a potential team member, her response was “Enthusiasm, kindness, curiosity and a good handshake.” My question is, when restaurants eventually reopen, will Ms. Stitt still be shaking hands with potential employees?
The handshake is an ancient, almost instinctive ritual. We have no way of knowing how it first began. A popular theory is that it was a gesture of peace, demonstrating that the hand held no weapon. Another is from anthropologists who have studied primate behavior over generations. They have noticed how primates instinctively reach out to other primates and believe humans are reaching out in the same manner, looking for tactile contact and comfort.
Growing up, the handshake was more a habit of males, saying hello, goodbye or sealing the deal. During my young adult years, I worked hard at being comfortable shaking hands, thinking it made me appear more professional and serious, a skill I may no longer need.
In a segment of Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley on Easter, Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick of the Etiquette School of New York expressed her dismay at the thought of the handshake becoming extinct. She spends hours teaching “knives and forks and handshakes” at her school. But Ms. Napier-Fitzpatrick obviously realizes that etiquette must evolve with the times. Her latest blog post is The Power of Eye Contact. I thought about eye contact during a recent trip to the grocery store. Wearing my mask, other customers couldn’t see my lips smile when we carefully and politely avoided getting too close to each other and I wondered if my eyes were conveying my warmth and appreciation.
In these days of COVID-19 uncertainty and the hour-to-hour coverage, the one voice I do pay attention to is the learned Dr. Anthony Fauci’s. To prevent spreading germs, he advises us to never go back to shaking hands. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be to keen on us borrowing La Bise (double cheek kissing) from our friends in France either. So, no handshake, no kiss, what are we left with? I can’t imagine the awkward elbow bump taking off as a form of greeting. Perhaps an Asian slight bow as a sign of respect or the Plains Indian greeting of showing your hand with the palm out may prove useful alternatives. Or how about the peace sign which began as a simple V sign for victory, used by Winston Churchill during the war.
There are no easy answers. Our day to day contacts have been radically curtailed. We have weeks ahead to conjure up interesting and effective greetings. Although we don’t know exactly how we will greet each other when the time comes, the simple pleasure of being with our friends and family may be enough.
Even though Mr. Smith and I have celebrated Easter and other holidays on our own before, clearly this year is different. The omnipresent concern for our children and grandchildren makes me want to gather them to me even more than I usually do. Once a mom, always a mom and that feeling of wanting to keep my children and my grandchildren safe doesn’t just go away when they reach 21.
This year my memories of our little boys dressed in their Easter finery when visiting their great-grandparents are particularly dear especially since their great grandma is no longer here to share this day.
I am also finding delight in memories of my amazing grandchildren and their past Easters.
And appreciating that while this Easter may be a quite different for all, some traditions remain. There is still the dying and decorating of eggs and Easter baskets to be discovered.
COVID-19 be dammed. Even though there will be no neighborhood Easter egg hunts or Sunday morning gatherings at local churches, my daughter-in-law, Becky, has made colorful new dresses for her happy girls to wear.
Many years ago, I made a special Easter romper for my middle son, Becky’s husband, Elliot. It was soft blue with a bunny and bright carrot appliqued on. Here is the only photo of Elliot in his outfit as he urped all over it moments later and attended Grandma Pat’s Easter brunch in his undershirt.
I realize your Easter or Passover will likely be celebrated differently this year. Necessity is the mother of invention. We open our cupboards and look for the best ingredients. We cobble together a special dinner and join our family and friends on our electronic devices. We lift our glasses and toast to better days to come.
The third woman in the Amazing Women Series is Virginia. Her resilience is inspiring to me.
Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. This little jingle from my girl scout days ran through my head as I sat at a round table in the front window of a little diner in my sister’s new hometown in Michigan. Seated around the table were her au courant friends and there was a whole lot of silver going on. Each woman was at least into her seventies and fully engaged in life and their hometown. They gathered here each week following their Thursday morning volunteer work sorting and shelving books at the local library. They come often enough that the waitress called one of the women “raisin toast extra dark”, her weekly order. That woman is Virginia. She sorts the children’s books.
Virginia grew up in Virginia and in 1956 she entered the same small women’s college that her grandmother attended, eventually making the decision to transfer to University of Virginia. She described the university at that point in time as “a bastion of male superiority”, having only about 60 women on campus. She graduated from the University with a degree in English and History and went in search of her future.
With her new degree in hand and feeling adventurous, Virginia knew she wanted to leave her home state. The 1950s and 60s were the height of prosperity in Flint, Michigan. The school district had partnered with C. S. Mott Foundation and the result was a first-class school system and it was seeking teachers. Virginia applied and was immediately hired. She considered teaching in this energetic environment a privilege, but that did not mean it wasn’t demanding. By Friday night, she and her fellow teachers were ready to meet up at The Civic Park Bar and let their hair down. One fateful Friday night, a favorite teaching friend of Virginia showed up with a boyhood friend. Virginia was drawn to this man’s intelligence and willingness to discuss (argue) politics with her.
They married in 1965 and built a rich and fulfilling life together until he passed away in 2016, two months shy of their 51st anniversary. During their marriage, they had two children and politics continued to be a popular topic in their home. Over the years they traveled extensively, both domestically and internationally. Virginia particularly treasures her memories of their bike trips in Europe, driving trips in England, and visiting their daughter who was living in Mexico. They also traveled to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Sometime around 2004, Virginia began to notice subtle changes in her husband which became more pronounced, finally resulting in a diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 2006. His mother had suffered the same disease, spending seven years in a nursing home, so Virginia was aware of her future challenges. They made one last trip to Europe, but as he declined, they reached the point where it became necessary for him to stay home. No more dinners out, no more beloved concerts, no theater, no trips. Over time, he was able to do less and less for himself. Virginia was fortunate enough to have help come in and assist with bathing and dressing. Two weeks before his birthday in 2016, a bed opened up for him in a local assisted living facility for a two week stay. Virginia would have a bit of respite from the constant care and regroup. Sadly, he never came home, dying on his birthday.
Although rationally every committed couple realizes that one of them will go first, that still doesn’t prepare the heart. Virginia acknowledges that she is a strong southern woman who is fairly self-sufficient, spending hours reading and attending events. Yet there are times she misses having someone to share moments in her life and the person so much a part of her memories.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with Virginia, but I’ve had drinks at her house, been to the diner with her, and seen her working at the library. She is engaging, funny and whip smart. I asked her how after being married for a lifetime, she adjusted to not having the other person there and how she got on with living her life. For Virginia, it was friends. Too much time alone at home can hang heavy, so you just have to reach out and find something to do. Call a friend to have a cup of coffee. No one available? Take your magazine, go to the coffee shop, and look for friendly connections. She admits it is not always easy, but her loyal friends have carried her through. Those friends include many she has had for years plus some newer ones. When married couples no longer asked her to do things with them, she discovered a brand-new pal to attend concerts with.
As I approach the third act of my life, I question whether the girl scout ditty is quite accurate. Virginia’s new friend she attends concerts with is every bit as important to her as those in her book group that she has known for years. The person she sees on a regular basis on her daily walk and gives a smile and a wave to is often a priceless gift in her day. Silver-haired friends, old and new, can be pure gold and enrich our lives beyond measure. As we grow older, we realize happiness lies not in our bank account, but in our confidants, our sidekicks, and companions. They are our treasures.
In the words of Ms. Virginia,
“There is a part of me that lives with the grief but a part that is still able to sit by the fire, listen to winter music, read beautiful poetry and know that in many ways, I’m blessed.”
It is only week two of my quarantine and I already have to think about what day of the week it is.
Since my gym is closed, I am starting each day with some exercise. I go down the elevator to the lobby and then climb the stairs back up to our tenth-floor apartment where I finish up with some pushups, planks and stretches. My first born suggested that I could try running up the ten flights. I reminded him that I am 64 years old and will be kissing 65 on the mouth very soon and will be quite pleased with myself if I can walk up ten flights without having a heart attack. Curiously, there is a chair on the landing of the eighth floor. I wonder if Mr. Smith put it there in case I need a break.
We have been getting a fair amount of TV time in and the always timely New Yorker had just the right cartoon to help us with our program selection.
It seems redundant to blog about life during COVID-19, but it is inevitable. The constant updates on the news, the recipes on Facebook, and the underlying worry make it impossible to forget. My main worry is Mr. Smith who still goes to the office every day. He is feeling fine, but he has a persistent cough due to allergies and some medication he takes. Even though he is following CDC guidelines, he has seen the leery looks of people around him when he coughs. He asked me to make him some masks. Oh Mr. Smith, be careful what you ask for. I can’t go fabric shopping, so I used what I had on hand. My last sewing project was an apron for my granddaughter, Eleanor, so I used the remnants. I’m sure he will look as fabulous in my inaugural mask as I do!
How are you surviving the quarantine? Are you spending all your time in your pajamas or have you started dressing up to take out the trash?