Midweek musings…

On this chilly, late fall morning, what better subject could there be than books???  Here are the titles I read in October.  Again, I don’t want to give a fulI “book report”, just a brief overview. I hope you find something that piques your interest.  And if you have a title you would like to share, I’d love to hear!

The Jetsetters by Amanda Eyre Ward

I don’t remember where I came across this title. I am going to start keeping yet another list and when I do request a book from my library, I’m going to write it down and note where I found the recommendation.

The premise of the book did catch my attention.  Seventy-year-old Charlotte Perkins submits a sexy essay to the “Become a Jetsetter” contest in hopes of winning and taking her three estranged children on a ten-day cruise traveling from sun-drenched Athens, glorious Rome and onto Barcelona.  Charlotte, of course, wins and everyone packs their bags.

I did find humor, poignant moments and a little twist at the end I didn’t see coming.  But, and it’s a big but, much of the book was written too easy breezy for the underlying heaviness that triggers the family pain.  I did read the entire book, partially because I thought it was building to something that never materialized for me.  I’m giving it 3 grandmas out of 5.

A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkel

Originally published in 1945 under the title No Place to Lay One’s Head, this memoir documents the fulfillment of a dream for Francoise Frenkel and her husband, opening La Maison du Livre, Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921.  They are both Jewish.  Their dream is shattered on Kristallnacht in November 1938.  Though the shop is miraculously sparred, fear of prosecution forces her to flee, first to Paris, then to southern France.  Chronicled in her writings are the countless horrors she witnessed along the way. She survives the war at the courageous hands of strangers who risked their lives, secreting her away in safe houses.

Ms. Frenkel believed it was the duty of those who have survived to bear witness to ensure the dead are not forgotten.  She tells her story in gripping, compelling prose. I will not forget this book.  5 grandmas.

Paris, A Love Story by Kati Morton

I have mixed feelings about this book. Kati Marton is an award-winning journalist and distinguished author. After the sudden death in 2010 of her husband, American diplomat and author, Richard Holbrook, she retreats to Paris where she and Holbrooke had purchased a pied-a-terre in the Latin Quarter in 2005. The book jacket describes the book being “For anyone who has ever fallen in love in Paris, or with Paris.”

Born in Budapest, Hungary, the daughter of to reporters who spent two years in prison on false charges of espionage for the U.S., Kati and her older sister were placed in the care of strangers.  Following the revolution, her parents fled Hungary and settled in Chevy Chase, Maryland with Kati and her sister.  Kati eventually studied at the Sorbonne and the Institut Politiques in Paris where she began her love affair with Paris.  

I thought the book was going to be about the death of her third husband, Richard Holbrooke, and how she recovered from this loss.  What I found was story of her three marriages.  The first short one barely mentioned, her second marriage to Peter Jennings and her third to Ambassador Holbrooke. Perhaps it is because we live in such different worlds, the book felt obsessed with glitterati and name dropping.  While she certainly has led an interesting life, I never felt engaged with her thoughts or emotions.  Maybe I read it at the wrong time.  Sometimes I reread a book and wonder why I didn’t like it the first time through. If someone else has read it and found it engaging, please let me know.  Back in my Kendallville book group, other readers insights often helped me see things differently.  But for me, it gets 3 grandmas.

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Spoiler alert, this book gets 5 grandmas out of 5.  It follows the story of Noriko, a young half African American, Half Japanese girl as she grows up in post-WWII Japan.  Abandoned by her mother, 8-year old Noriko is locked in the attic by her grandparents. Noriko’s isolation and suffering are palpable and I was rooting for her the entire book. It is not until her half-brother, Aira, enters her life that she seems to have any chance of happiness. In her debut novel, Asha Lemmie tells a story I had never heard before and tells it in a compelling and compassionate way.  I didn’t want to put it down, reading it in two days. 

C’est la vie.

The Art of Growing Old…

I’m too old to be young and too young to be old.  This quote from Evelyn in Fried Green Tomatoes sums up what I’m feeling these days.  I’m not ready to start polishing up my obituary, but I recognize I am entering my third act.

When I contemplate the remaining chapter of my life, I know I want to be the author.  When you are a child, your parents write your script.  On my own from 18-23, I had no clear direction. I know there are individuals who in young adulthood take control and endeavor to forge their own paths, but I think they are few and far between. I did make the choice to marry at 23, but in retrospect I think that decision was largely driven by social expectations and limited exposure to our wondrous world. Luckily, I chose a mate well.  Then we had our sons and when you are raising a family, they become your focus and direction. But now, pushing 65, life has grown simpler.  I am lucky to be basically healthy, all our children and grandchildren are healthy, and Mr. Smith still loves me. I’m not naïve enough to think my remaining years will be all champagne and beach sunsets, but I hope to direct them as much as possible.  In looking for guidance, I went to the place I always go.  Books.  

The Art of Growing Old, Aging with Grace by Marie de Hennzel was referenced in several articles I read about aging, so I decided it was time to check it out.  Marie de Hennzel is a French clinical therapist, largely focusing on the art of aging well.  She is also the recipient of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honorary decoration. I found her book to be positive and heartfelt, drawing from many of her life challenges and personal experiences.

There is no doubt that we live is a society obsessed with youth.  If you feel you have an issue with your appearance, there is more than likely a cosmetic surgery procedure you can undergo.  But Dr. Hennzel believes that in order to age gracefully, we need to dwell less on the physical aspects of aging and focus on the positive emotional changes.  Accepting that we may be slowing down and acknowledging that this slower pace will allow you new observations and insights is just one of the positive aspects of aging.  She doesn’t ignore our inevitable physical deterioration and provides practical life plans for dealing with the fears of becoming a burden on our families, illness and isolation.  

I do think my time spent reading this book was time well spent.  I will share that for me, it read a bit like a research paper full of academic references and studies. What I was really seeking in a book about aging, was something with a more conversational tone.   Like sharing a cup of tea with my beloved Aunt Ruby while she shared her best wisdom for growing older and remaining so loving and kind.  I’ll take inspiration from both.

C’est la vie

Who doesn’t love a list?

In July of 2013, I began keeping a written record of the books I read. I no longer remember the catalyst for this list keeping and I’m sure I’ve neglected to record a few along the way, but when I look it over, I see a roadmap of my life.  It reflects my interests, conflicts, and challenges through the years. Where some titles are like running into a familiar old friend, some I barely remember.

Last Saturday I was recording my last read in January when I noticed it had been a banner month.  I normally average three books a month, but in January I had read seven!  Mr. Smith did have a two-week cold in January which resulted in us spending more time than normal at home. I obviously put those hours to good use.

Early in January, I wrote about a couple of the titles I read, Rules for Visiting and How Reading Changed My Life.  Of the remaining five books I read in January, one that I won’t soon forget is The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky.  Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Ms. Nemirovsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. She lived more than half her life in France, but was denied French citizenship.  By the 1930s, Nemirovsky had become a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish laws. Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name.  She was arrested as a Jew during German occupation and died at Auschwitz at the age of 39.   Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested shortly thereafter and also died in Auschwitz.  Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, survived the war due to the kindness of neighbors who hid them from the Vichy Government. The girls did not know the fate of their parents until after the war ended.  Miraculously, a suitcase containing some of Nemirovsky’s writings survived the war.  In the suitcase were family photographs, diaries and other writings, including the manuscript for Suite Francaise, first published in the United States in 2006.  

The Fires of Autumn is considered its prequel.  Set in France, it revolves around a group of friends and neighbors from the beginning of World War I through the early years of World War II.  The main character is Bernard, a naïve young man still in short pants who wants to fight for the honor of France.  Witnessing the realities of war, he quickly loses his idealism and becomes cynical.  He returns home from World War I addicted to obtaining wealth and success. His doting mother feels she no longer knows him.  His lover eventually leaves him. And then comes World War II. The book does start out a little slowly, or that may be just me.  I’m always a little impatient with “setting the scene”, I want to get right to the point.  I stuck with it and my reward was a satisfying read that taught me a lot and made me think.  What more can you ask of a book?

 A difficult read, but one that I didn’t want to put down, was JoAnna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls.  At one level it’s an age-old story.  Young girl gets pregnant, parents reject the boyfriend and force the girl to give the baby up for adoption.  The baby, Elodie, is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system run by the Catholic church. On a deeper level, it tells the story of a dark time in Quebec’s history.  Elodie’s life takes an even more tragic turn when, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, she is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages.  Not only are the orphans declared mentally ill, these young children are forced to be caretakers of the truly mentally ill, feeding and bathing them, all while trying to avoid the wrath of the nuns. There were moments while reading I had to remind myself that this horrendous offense against thousands of orphans truly occurred as it is hard to understand such greed.  But the Duplessis Orphans scandal, orchestrated by Premier Maurice Duplessis, a staunch Catholic, was real and took place in the 1940s and 1950s.  Duplessis’s time as Premier is now referred to as “The Great Darkness”.  This book is going to haunt me for some time.

I am considering making other book lists.  One would be Books That I’m Searching For.  A small notebook kept in my purse that I would have when I happen upon an extraordinary used bookstore would be just the place to record these titles.  I may also start a list of books I’d like to purchase for my grandchildren, sharing some of the books I loved growing up as well as more current fare.  After all, who doesn’t love a  book list?

C’est la vie.

This is the gift of the grandchildren…

As a grandmother of seven and a prolific reader, the title Unconditional Love, A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today by Jane Isay grabbed my attention. Ms. Isay is a former editor of Yale University Press and this is her fourth book. The book is well researched and draws heavily from Ms. Isay’s own experience, as well as from the hundreds of interviews she conducted with grandparents.

The book is written as a guide to help grandparents navigate their new role in a manner which keeps family conflicts to a minimum and strives for harmony. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure it was for me. The beginning focused on “grandparent prep” with suggestions on how to get up-to-date on the mores of today. Since I no longer have any infant grandchildren, I have no reason to check out Websites and blogs discussing the pros and cons of babies sleeping with parents. Then I got to the section where the reader was asked to close their eyes and take themselves back in time to the months when their child was first born. The frustration of not knowing how to calm your baby, the panic when a feeding didn’t go right, no shower, no sleep and no end in sight. Even though it’s been decades, I could still feel the fatigue and isolation. And even though the baby days are long behind my daughters-in-law, I wanted to go hug them all and take them out for a cocktail. And while they are hopefully all getting to sleep through the night at this point, the challenges of parenting continue. No matter how many books or internet articles you read, parenting is still on the job training.

Ms. Isay acknowledges that when our children take on the responsibilities of parenthood, they also take on new power. They get to set the rules! With a grandparent’s years of experience and perspective of time, some of these rules may seem silly, but they are to be respected. And who doesn’t want respect?

Just as much of parenting is learn as you go, so is grandparenting. Isay doesn’t provide you with a definitive list of things to do to be the perfect grandparent. But she does provide oodles of real life experiences. I was inspired by stories from the different grandparents who were interviewed for the book. Many found grandparenting to be a second chance, an opportunity to provide grandchildren with the time and attention they couldn’t afford their own children. My grandchildren consist of a single child, a set a three brothers and a set of three sisters. It is normally quite hectic when we are visiting one of the sets of three. This book reminded me of the importance of carving out some time alone with each child, even if it’s simply a walk around the block. The benefits of a grandparents individual attention are priceless.

The book also addresses the issues of grandparents who become caregivers when their children are incapable of parenting, long-distance grandparenting and fairness with time, money and resources in a straight forward manner. Unconditional Love was worth my time. I picked up a few thoughts on how to maintain close relationships with my grandchildren as they grow older. What I most appreciated was the reassurance that grandparents can be a powerful influence on how grandchildren show up in the world and that our time and conversations with them will exist as “tiny shards of color in the great mosaic of understanding.”

I want my grandchildren to feel unconditionally loved. I grew up without grandparents, but I was extremely lucky to have my beloved Aunt Ruby who exemplified unconditional love. I can only remember one occasion when she even came close to being short with me. I was nine years old and my younger brother and I had been spending a week with her and my uncle during our summer vacation from school. We had cousins who lived in the same town and we spent hours playing together, running in and out of Aunt Ruby’s house. On the day my parents were coming to pick us up, she was busy cleaning house and preparing food for their arrival. We must have run into the house once too often. She told us to go outside and stay outside and not come back in unless the house was on fire. We did as we were told and were well rewarded. A neighbor started a fire in a burn barrel, an ember blew over into the yard and started a grass fire. We were full of smug self-righteousness as we marched back into the house to announce the yard was on fire! But being Aunt Ruby, she simply came out into the yard, put out the minor grass fire and went back to work. I am lucky she is a part of the mosaic of my life.

C’est la vie.

Sundays with Stormy…

The calendar says it’s the first Sunday in November and as Mr. Smith and I drive I-80 across Pennsylvania and Ohio, the fall foliage agrees.  We’re on a mini-vacation which includes visits with all our grandchildren.  Mr. Smith is doing the vast majority of driving, so I am free to admire the fading fall colors and let my mind wander.  As well as thinking about some plans for the approaching holiday season, I reflected on the past couple of months and decided I wanted to provide a recap of my life in the not so fast lane!

Books

I just finished reading The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman.  It takes place in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944. Following the lives of three young women and their struggle to survive, the main theme for me was the strength of a mother’s love.  The book weaves history and myth. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it since myth and folklore aren’t genres I normally gravitate towards.  Hoffman’s writing is so beautiful I was able to suspend my belief system and accept the premise of the story.  I believe it is well worth your time to read.

Next up for me is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.   I read it many years ago with my book group back in Indiana and now I’ll be reading is with My Three Son’s Book Group.   It will be a fine read from my perch up in my nest, while watching for the first snowflakes to fall.

Movies

Recently on a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon, Mr. Smith and I decided we needed to blow the stink off and get out of the apartment.  We grabbed our umbrellas and headed out to the movie theater to see Downton Abbey.  We had enjoyed the series and decided an afternoon our old friends Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and all the others would be as comforting as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  While it had its moments, I agree with Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times, “Lacking the nutritious story lines of the past, the movie is mainly empty calories.”  My favorite scene is near the end and involves the Dowager Countess played by the marvelous Maggie Smith.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll leave it at that.

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Smith and I were faced with another rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon.  But this time we were happy to stay in, pop some popcorn and watch On the Basis of Sex.  We’re a little behind on our movie watching as this movie came out last year but I’m so glad we’re catching up!  If you haven’t seen this yet, I highly recommend it.  The movie is based on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early legal career and her fight against sex discrimination.  Her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, wrote the script.  Some reviewers thought the movie didn’t do justice to Justice Ginsburg, but I thought it was fascinating to see her start her journey towards being the notorious RBG! By the way, RBG has seen the movie three times.  I might do that also.

My Best Friend

I thought you might enjoy a little update on my best friend!  Rest easy that we are still as close as ever.  Mr. Smith and I needed to deliver a tub of building blocks to our granddaughter Eleanor on our road trip.  With rain forecasted for the day we were going to leave, I wanted to get them loaded into the car the night before.  With Mr. Smith at work, I again called on my friend and she came through for me.  The tub was too heavy for me to lift, so I simply loaded the majority of blocks into a bag in the cart and then we were off to the elevator.  I think it’s time that I take my loyal friend out for a pedicure.

If you check back on Wednesday, I’ll tell you about my favorite November 2019 issue magazine!

C’est la vie.

My Phantom Daughter…

In the spring of 1986, I was the stay-at-home mom of three little boys, all under six.  It was an active, noisy household to say the least! My daily routine consisted of picking up, laundry, cooking, cleaning and MORE picking up all while negotiating peace in the valley. My sister-in-law, Patrice (also a member of the mother of three boys club), provided some welcome distraction from the everyday minutia of family life one day that spring when she sent me the best kind of card – a card for no reason.  Tucked inside my card was a newspaper article she had clipped from The New York Times, My Phantom Daughter.  The author of the article had named her first child a somewhat androgynous first name.  The wife of one of her husband’s law partners concluded from that name that the baby must be a girl and sent a gift of a pretty little pink dress.  The new mother whose new baby was a boy, ended up keeping the dress which was eventually joined by a pink cardigan and other “girly” items.  She kept these items tucked away in a bottom drawer for reasons of her own.  For reasons of my own, the article truly resonated with me.  Even though I was perfectly happy being the mother of my three sons, I had my own “pink box” tucked away.  I read and reread the column a few times and then tucked it away with some other keepsakes.

Over a decade later I pulled that column back out.  I wanted to use it and other writings I had saved through the years as party favors for my book group.  Back in 1986 the author’s name hadn’t meant anything to me.  In 1999, I was astonished to see it was written by one of my favorite authors, Anna Quindlen! In the intervening years, I had devoured her novels Object LessonsOne True Thing and Black and Blue. When she wrote the column I had squirreled away so many years ago, she was spending several weeks writing the Hers column for The New York Times.  This was a forum for writing by women featuring a different author every few weeks. I no longer have the column my sister-in-law had so kindly snipped for me, but thanks to the digital age we currently live in, I was able to find it in a New York minute on the internet. My Phantom Daughter.

Ms. Quindlen went on to have three children – two boys and a girl.  In 2016, she joined me in the grandmother club which led her to write her delightful book, Nanaville.  As always, she writes from her heart, with a combination of humor and intelligence.  

Nanaville is filled with the author’s wit and wisdom about grandparenting, along with vignettes of moments with her grandson Arthur. Most grandmothers will relate to many of the moments she shares and identify with the extraordinary relationship.  I knew exactly what she was feeling when she wrote “Sometimes Arthur sees me and yells “Nana!” in the way some people might say “ice cream” or “shoe sale!”  No one has been that happy to see me in many, many years.”  Those words are very similar to some I have shared with Mr. Smith in the past when talking about my own grandchildren and how it feels when they call your name and greet you with a full body hug.

A pesky challenge in grandparenting – one that challenges the best intentioned of us – is how and when to give our progeny the benefit of all our hard-earned parental knowledge. Ms. Quindlen was relating to her good friend what had transpired between her and her son when she ventured to give her opinion on sending her new grandson to preschool.  Her son pushed back hard, politely, but hard.  The friend just looked at Anna and said, “Did they ask you?”  And therein lies the lesson of this book.  “Where once I led, I have to learn to follow.”

It is obvious from the book that Ms. Quindlen treasures her new role as Nana, even as she endeavors to find her exact role and where the boundaries are.  But isn’t that pretty much every relationship in life?

I no longer have my pink box, nor do I have any need for it.  Life has gifted me with three beautiful daughters-in-law who have welcomed me into their lives, starting even before Emily married Emmet when she invited me to go wedding dress shopping with her and her mother.  

And I am now grandmother of four fabulous granddaughters.  Four little firecrackers who bring a whole new dimension to Mr. Smith and my lives.  They are more likely to choose “rainbow” as their favorite color than pink and believe me, they all think outside the (pink) box.  

C’est la vie.