Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Has Anyone Noticed?

I have changed my pen name from "Undecided" to "California Girl at Heart", not that anyone would notice this minor change at the bottom of each of my posts. And, I didn't have to erase my name from all my previous posts and re-write it; one click of the button, and the system automatically changed my name on every post. Sometimes I am very thankful for the wonders of modern age.

Yesterday, I took a real "road trip". A short road trip, but a road trip none-the-less; it even used up a full tank of gas. Except for a blustery and biting wind, which was especially noticeable crossing the wide Connecticut rivers, the trip itself was uneventful, unless you count the long line of cars backed up trying to get from I-91 to I-95 during the middle of the afternoon. (What engineer thought it would be a good idea to have ONE lane at the intersection of two major highways, even 50 years ago?)

When we got back in the late afternoon, my twenty year old niece, who is a junior at an upstate New York college, was begging for a ride back to college from her dad and me. Perhaps she thought since we made it through one road trip, we were looking forward to doing another. The trip to her school is a seven hour trip ONE-WAY, a trip neither my brother or I were especially looking forward to. A two hour trip each way, which we did manage quite nicely yesterday, is much less taxing than a seven hour trip each way. We are just not that young anymore; our bodies cannot physically take sitting in a cramped driving position for 14 hours, even with stops to flex our stiff muscles. I was pushing for her to take the bus, which was feasible even if not her first choice, since the bus ride takes a few hours longer than driving takes; and she would have to mail some of her more bulky Xmas gifts back to college or pay for an extra seat on the bus for them. She finally found a ride most of the way back late last night, so my brother and I are off the hook, except for a short 30 minute drive to drop her off at a fellow student's home -a much more reasonable solution for her elders than enduring the havoc that a 14 hour road trip would wreak on two 50-something-year-old bodies.

The day before our road trip, a long time of mine from my own college days called me. He had received the holiday card I sent him and decided to contact me. Although we stay in occaasional touch by phone and with holiday greetings (I send, he receives), we haven't seen each other that often over the ensuing years, even though he lives only a three hour drive from where I am currently staying at my dad's house in Connecticut. A builder of houses, he has had physical problems himself for many years. And I have painful fallen arches, which are aggravated by the pressure one exerts while pressing on the gas or brake pedals, and now most recently, an occasional unbendable swollen finger, perhaps a sign of rheumatoid arthritis.

And so, as the years roll by, our bodies continue to age. Some of us age with grace, some of us not so gracefully. Some of the wear and tear can be repaired these days with new artificial hips or knees. So far, they haven't come up with new arches (feet are complex structures). But, I'm optimistic for the future. I have replaced folk dancing and ballroom dancing with singing in a community chorus, something I would not have even tried had I not needed an activity to replace my dancing days. I suppose I could replace using my fingers to type on a keyboard with using a microphone to translate my spoken words to printed words for my blog aficionados, should the necessity arise. I know the technology is feasible, if not already available at an affordable price. There are challenges in life we all have to overcome and, if you live long enough, aging is one of them. Some author once said (and I paraphrase) "Aging is not for the faint of heart." This California Girl whole-heartedly agrees.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What's In a Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" a famous author once penned. Yes, but would it capture your blogosphere readers attention? That is the question!

Some of your may have wondered where I came up with the title of my blog, or at least wondered "who the heck is Mrs. Brown?" So, in due respect to anyone who reads any of my posts, I shall tell you, I shall reveal my secret to my avid readers. Mrs. Brown was one of my high school English teachers, an eccentric lady with stringy short brown hair and a deep, loud voice and an outrageous laugh. She was exceptionally blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, but she was one very smart lady and she put up with crap from no one. At least, that is how I remember her. And, she encouraged my writing skills, as I wrote critical essays on "Anna Karenina" and other popular novels of the day. But I have to confess that "Mrs. Brown" is a pseudonym, because the day I set up the blog I could not remember her last name, only her face and booming voice. After I found out from my sister what her real name was, I decided to leave the blog name the way it was, for two reasons. One, I didn't know how to change the name of my blog after I had published posts in it. And second, I thought I would feel more comfortable using the pseudonym -- you know, in case she's still alive and has discovered the wonders of the blogosphere in her golden years.

But the nagging question still remains. I sign my posts with the nondescript tag "Undecided", because, when I started writing in the blogosphere, I was "undecided" about a name with which to sign my posts. That tag was supposed to be temporary, until I could come up with a catchy pen name. But here it is, more than ten posts later, and I am still "undecided".

If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Family Tree

Not too long ago, a friend of mine got me excited about creating my own "family tree". He showed me his own family tree, which was created by his grown adult children, on hosted software, software that organizes your tree for you on something other than a scrap of paper, and saves it for you, in a place other than the bottom drawer in the old desk in the back bedroom. As a few of my siblings have been interested in this project at various times over the years, and now that technology has created a product that will not only assist you with organizing and researching your family history, but will also save it indefinitely in a place theorectially accessible to anyone, I feel the time has come to put some serious effort into creating a long lasting testament to my family's existence. Therefore, I suggested creating such a cyber-tree to my siblings in a recent email, which may or may not have been read by any or all of my siblings, as some of them check their email about once every two months. Today, several weeks after I sent out that email, I have heard not a word from any of my siblings regarding my suggestion, which doesn't really surprise me.

But now, this morning, I was surprised. I found out from my youngest sister, my 16-years-younger-than-me half-sister with whom I am currently sharing space at my Dad's house over the year end holidays, that she has already started a family tree on one of those sites in cyberspace -- a year ago! And apparantly she told none of her other siblings in the family about her familial endeavors. And I thought creating family trees was all about sharing information and bringing the family closer together! Silly me! But to be fair and give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she is waiting to "complete" the tree before presenting it to the rest of the family. (Although, it could take years of research if one were to "complete" the family tree, as one tries to trace family members all the way back to, say, Lucy, the common denominator of all humankind.)

Apparantly, to fully participate, one needs to be a "member" of this particular family tree software society, and being a member costs money. In a way, it feels somewhat like a secret society; someone is spying on you and your ancestors and documenting your personal history, possibly for all the world to see eventually, and you are not even aware of it. I asked my sister if she would add me to her site so I could view the tree she has so far created; to merely view the tree would not cost me anything and I wouldn't be able to cut off any branches that my sister has already created. If I wanted to add anything or create my own tree, I would have to ante up $300 annually, a cost currently too steep for my budget.

Since my youngest sister is biologically my half-sister, she has only half of MY family tree in progress, my dad's side of the family. My biological mother's tree is yet to be constructed, unless some long lost cousin has put one together somewhere out there in cyberspace. I sincerely doubt any of my other siblings, or even my first cousins, have put together my mom's side of the family on cyber-software. (A year ago, a friend of mine set up a family website for my immediate family - my dad, my siblings and their spouses, and the grandkids. We siblings only had to maintain it, add photos to it, add comments, etc. Just before the domain name expired after a year for lack of the $4 annual payment, the website looked just the same as the day my friend first set it up. Members of my family are not usually the first on the block to take advantage of latest and greatest technology.)

My biological mother and three of her four siblings are long since dead, except for her youngest sister, who lives in the Chicago area, and with whom none of us have spoken in many years. Maybe its time to contact my mother's sister before her memory has faded into oblivion and before her children, my same-age cousins, remain even more unknown to us. Maybe its time to split the $300 annual fee across the remaining five siblings in my family and take this family tree thing a bit more seriously. Maybe the entry cost of a family project needs to be more than $4 per year; maybe if each of us contribute $60 a year to the project, each of us would have a more vested interest in seeing our family tree "branch out".

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Germ Warfare

I have long been skeptical of people who seem to me to be "germophobic". You know the type - they pick up pencils with a tissue, lest someone else's cooties get on their skin, like a police detective at a murder scene on TV. They wash their hands a hundred times a day. They use hand sanitizer with abandon. They require that you wash your hands every time you touch their baby. I'm sure you know someone like this, or perhaps, you are someone like this. If you are, don't stop reading. I have new found respect for the germophobic.

Once, when we had a work Xmas party with co-workers, spouses and their kids (I worked in a start up; it was a cheap Xmas party in the large conference room), the CFO's wife put her third child, who was about a year old at the time, on the carpeted floor with some Cheerios in a plastic tupperware container. The container tipped, the oatie-Os spilled on the carpet, and the kid ate them off the rug, as small children do. His mother, seated in a chair nearby, simply shrugged and said, "By the third child, you are less concerned about what he is picking up off the floor and putting in his mouth. You realize that kids are built tough - somehow, they survive". That had always been my modis operandi, for the most part, unless my kid ate something with a reasonable potential to be poisonous.

I was one of six children, all close in age back in the 50s. My parents didn't have time to closely watch all of us, all of the time. Their parenting style was more of the "if it didn't kill you, it would make you stronger" philosophy. That was the philosophy I was raised with. With my younger brother, the third child in the family, everything went into his mouth, including a nickel, blue shoe polish, and a bite of soap while he was in the tub. Only the shoe polish ended up in a trip to the emergency room, and he is alive and well to this day.

Bird Flu, H1N1, gastroentestinal maladies picked up in other countries - none of these ever particularly bothered me. I never get an annual flu shot. I have always had a strong constitution, rarely get sick except for colds, and figured if I ever got some serious contagious illness, I would be able to beat it.

Enter the marvelous age of computer graphic animation, parking meters that take credit cards, cell phones that deliver your email, wireless laptops that connect you to the world wide web, and touch screens at your local supermarket checkout counter. Where there are electronic connections, viruses will follow and touchscreens are no exception.

Due to my witnessing a rather horrific incident in a pharmacy a few months ago, of which I will spare my readers the gory details, I discovered religion. Suffice it to say that after this elderly woman left the pharmacy counter, the pharmacy staff assiduously scrubbed the entire countertop, touch screen and writing stylus with copious amounts of Lysol, and I became a believer. Hand sanitizer now nestles in my fannypack. I used to wash my hands fairly often to lessen the probability of colds and sinus infections, but after being a witness, I scrub. Often. I now carry my own personal "stylus" of sorts to sign my name on touchscreens. (Its actually a pack of fancy but hefty wooden toothpicks from some fancy restaurant that my cousin gave to me.) When my "stylus" wouldn't work on one of the very last screens in the Do-It-Yourself grocery checkout line recently, the clerk came over and yelled at me "You need to use your FINGER, ma'am". Well, excuse me -- "I have a nasty cold and am trying to prevent others from catching it." Whereupon she used her own index finger to finish the transaction for me. Lucky her. To top all of this off, as I left the store, I found that the dispenser with disenfectant wipes by the exit door was EMPTY.

I am pretty sure I got this cold from my many visits to Kinko's to copy some recently discovered family photographs for my five siblings for Xmas - using, of course, a touch screen machine. I think I made about six trips to Kinkos. After the first three or four trips, I scrubbed my hands in Kinko's restroom after each visit. Then I became lackadaisical, or maybe I was in a hurry, and I bet that last trip or two, I forgot to wash. Old habits die hard.

Now, as I sit here with a nasty cold that left me miserable during the Xmas festivities, I think it should be a requirement, a LAW, for every establishment that offers touch screens to its customers to have hand sanitizer available right next to EVERY touch screen. And if the business runs out of hand sanitizer, customers should be able to report them, and a fine be levied against them. I say non-compliance should be against the law, with stiff penalities, for not taking this national health issue seriously.

Yellow fever was once a serious problem in this country, especially in the humid southern states. No one knew back then that it was transmitted by misquitoes that hitched a ride on slave ships from West Africa, so no one understood how to reduce the incidence of outbreaks. There were no vaccines for Yellow Fever back then and there still is no cure for the disease. The last major outbreak of Yellow Fever in the United States occurred a mere hundred years ago. Today there is a vaccine for Yellow Fever, if you live in or travel to the many places where Yellow Fever is still prevalent. Today we have misquito abatement programs to reduce misquito breeding grounds and screens on windows to prevent epidemics. Despite its scary name, only 15% (or less; the statistics are confusing) of those who develop Yellow Fever will succumb to the disease. It is an awful illness, which is probably why we pay more attention to Yellow Fever than to the ordinary flu virus, but the regular old influenza virus actually kills more people on an annual basis.

We spent millions of dollars to find a vaccine for Yellow Fever and to develop prevention programs for it. Why can we not spend a few dollars on hand sanitizer at the local checkout counter? Will it take a major epidemic of an H1N1 type flu to make us realize that touch screens are major virus transmitters? Or are we just too individualistic and non-chalant in this country to care? In the meantime, I suggest all of us "germaphobes" invest in plenty of purse-size bottles of hand sanitizer, possibly your own individual writing stylus and maybe some cheap disposable latex gloves for those cantankerous touchscreens.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

It was late December, 1987 and I was at my sister’s basement apartment in New York for the Christmas holiday with my then four year old son. I had come to New York with Sean to stay for a week at my sister’s tiny one bedroom apartment on City Island, which meant that I slept on the couch in the living room and Sean slept on the floor next to the couch. “On the floor” meant he was nestled on top of a thick stack of blankets, which also lay a few feet from my sister’s Christmas tree. But, at nine o’clock on Christmas Eve, Sean was still wide awake, far too excited about Santa’s imminent arrival to close his eyes. As I recall, the living room was darkened, but the tiny colored lights on the table top Christmas tree were lit up. Sean insisted they stay on for Santa.

So, I did what any trip-weary parent with a wound up four year old on Christmas Eve would do – I told Sean that the sooner he went to sleep, the sooner Santa would arrive. In ten minutes, my son was fast asleep, holding on tight to his favorite stuffed animal.

My young son was quite attached to the various animals in his bedroom menagerie, most of which were stuffed, plastic or rubber. Sean had different favorites at different times in his childhood. As a toddler, he became very attached to a small solid hard plastic “cow with his head sticking down” (as opposed to the “cow with his head sticking up”, which, as part of a farm animal set, was also part of his menagerie). For a long time, he absolutely would not go to sleep without this particular black and white plastic cow, which was occasionally a significant problem when the cow somehow could not be found at bedtime. A year later, a black rubber snake was his favorite sleepy-time friend. By age four, he had so many stuffed animals, from bears to lions to snakes that I have lost track of which was his favorite at any given point in time. Suffice it to say, one of them went to bed with him every night.

Christmas came and went with its usual hectic schedule of gift-giving, church-going, and family-oriented festivities. When we were about to leave New York and head back to California, my sister remarked to my young son that she would miss him once he left New York. Sean’s immediate reaction was to offer her his child-fist sized, hollow plastic, white felt-covered polar bear, so that she could remember him by it and so that “she wouldn’t be sad once he was gone”.

When my son was killed in an accident some 13 years later, my City Island sister formally remembered those same words to friends and family in attendance at his California memorial service. The simple words and immediate empathetic reaction of a four year old boy had touched my sister’s heart and stamped an indelible impression on her memory. I’m sure she remembers his words to this day.

Why did I remember this event today, Christmas Day, 2009? It is Christmas Day afterall, but it has been over nine years since my son died. Maybe I thought of it because we all need something to remember our loved ones by, whether that “something” is memories, photographs, or plastic felt-covered polar bears. Maybe the reason is because I still can’t find those hummingbird earrings my freckle-faced ten year old gave me one birthday so long ago. Maybe its because Christmas-time is the season of peace and love and harmony, and of remembering loved ones with phone calls, emails, cards and gifts. Or maybe its because all I have left of my son are a few framed photographs and the precious memories of Christmases past. Perhaps it is all of the above reasons, scooped up together and tied in a big red bow - my lovely son, and memories of special times spent together, the best gifts of all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Road Trip

Today I went on my very own "Road Trip". This may bring to mind a certain image, of several college age men and/or women, setting off in a 1950s Thunderbird for a "road trip" across the country during one of their college breaks, or a rememberance of reading Jack Kerouac's book, "On The Road". But, my road trip was neither of these.

I set off today, under a cold wind but a bright sun, to make the trek from my Dad's house to the town center, a trip of about one mile. Since it was such a nice day, and I hadn't gotten any exercise to speak of all week, I bundled up in my new ragg socks and long underwear from LLBean, the prequisite ski hat and wool knit gloves plus multiple layers of cothing and my hiking books and trudged off down the street.

Now my Dad, even though I'm 56, ALWAYS tells me to be careful anytime I head out for a walk from his front door. This goodbye ritual has not changed since we moved here when I was 14 years old. This is because if you're not paying attention walking down our town's fine roads, you could easily end up as roadkill.

When we moved here when I was 14, things were a bit different. My Dad's street still winds through the woods, up and down hills, and around sharp curves. But when I was 14, my Dad's street was narrower than it is today, and much more bumpy since it was essentially a patchwork of asphalted potholes, a natural speed deterrent. When I walked to town as a teenager, I walked down our little used road, watching for the occasional car, and when I got to the end of the street, took another road even less utilized, past the pond, and then into the woods, which took me the remaining half mile right to door of the town library. Back then, all the town center had was the library, the post office, the lunchonette, the town market and a couple of other small stores. Of course, in 30 years, things change.

A number of years ago, the town council decided to put a road through the very same woods I had hiked through as a teenager to get to the town center. This new paved shortcut meant more traffic, both on my Dad's street and the little utilized street that ran past the pond and into the woods. They repaved my Dad's street, widened it a bit, and smoothed out some of the curves, the recipe for a virtual raceway to the town center right past my Dad's house. The problem is, the road is almost as hilly and curvy as it was before, and not a whole lot wider, except now cars can go much faster because the roadway is smooth, new asphalt. Pedestrians beware.

As a teenager without a drivers license or a car, I did a lot of walking on the old roads. I learned how to navigate them safely, and still use my small town honed skills today. When walking down the streets of my Dad's town, there are a couple of rules to follow. First, one must be ever vigilant, both ahead of you and behind you, like a fox. Second, you need to use your ears as well as your eyes to become aware of oncoming traffic that may be hidden behind a curve or hill. Third, you always need to be aware of your options should you need to jump off the road, ie, if two cars pass you in the opposite directions at the same time. This requires a lot of crossing back and forth across the street, depending on the terrain and time of year.

There are three distinct times of year for road trippers here - fully leafed out (late spring, all summer, and early fall); bare trees (early spring and late fall); and snowy (winter). "Bare trees" gives you the best visibility and best options should you need to move. During the fully leafed out summer months, it is more difficult to see around the curves, not to mention that the foliage you jump into could be poison ivy if you are not paying attention. Winter/snowy weather poses its own challenges - six inches of snow isn't bad, but when the plows turn the six inch snowfall into three or four feet of plowed road-edge snowbank, its more difficult to find a place you can jump to quickly and safely.

The good thing is that these days, once I've traversed the first dangerous third of the trip, the remaining two thirds are relatively safe. I go around the back side of the pond, which has been dead-ended and thus has little traffic except for people who actually live there. The former woods has been turned into condos, senior housing, a shopping mall, and a "Soon to be Open" development of some 230 houses high up on the hill. Where the trail through the woods used to be, there are now sidewalks that run next to the road and alongside all these developments. Its not so bad; the sidewalk also runs along the river, which, thankfully, is still there and has not been diverted or cemented in. And, lest I forget, the town fathers did preserve part of the old woods as a town park, where the river runs through it.

I made it to town and back safely earlier today. I'm sure there were people in cars shaking their heads and wondering who was this odd person, trekking along the town's sidewalk-less winding roads in the bitter cold weather and snow blanketed terrain. Well, I have to say, my road trip was kind of fun, more like an adventure than exercise. I felt like a fox evading its predators, an urbanized-savvy wild animal who survived to live another day.


I can't find my hummingbird earrings that I wear on special occasions, and today is Christmas Eve. Not that I'm all that religious, but in my very large Catholic family, we celebrate Christmas in a big way, religious or not. So, I'm bummed.

You see, these particular earrings hold a special significance for me, in the way that certain objects do that are given to you by someone you love. I will never forget the circumstances surrounding the day I got these earrings. They are bright turquoise blue and bright lime green, and the hummingbird is poised as if ready to take a sip of nectar from a bright tropical flower.

One hot summer day, I took my ten year freckle faced old son, Sean, to Marine World in California, a magical place for kids of all ages, a place that displays animals of all kinds in a setting a bit kinder than a zoo. Some of the more graceful animals, like dolphins and killer whales, perform for the audience during shows where the audience is routinely drenched by splashing animal performers. But the staff also teaches the audience about animal behavior and animal endangerment in our world of shrinking wild places. I remember especially one trainer who had a hawk sitting on his arm, talons curved around the man's leather-gloved forearm. The hawk was tethered by a leather strap so he couldn't fly off, and sat majestically still on his human perch as the man talked about hawks for 20 minutes. I, for one, was fascinated. But I think my son was more intrigued by the larger, potentially lethal animals with sharp claws and fangs.

Towards the end of the day, we visited the bird sanctuary, where you have to enter through thick, hanging floor to ceiling plastic strips so the birds don't fly out. The sanctuary is filled with bright green tropical plants and air that is heavy with humidity and neon colored birds of every hue that fly around from plant to plant above your head. After we left the bird sanctuary, my ten year old son and I visited the special gift shop that carried bird related souvenirs and was next to the bird sanctuary. A visit to the gift shop was a required element of any field trip, something we always did at the end of our outings and certainly my son's favorite part of any trip. This time, my son wanted to buy something with his own money, quite unusual behaviour for a child who would usually sweet talk his mother into buying yet another stuffed animal or plastic dinosaur. But this time, he made me wait outside while he made his purchase and chose not to show it to me when he came out of the shop. I remember waiting for him, sitting on a low stone wall. When he came out of the shop, he sat down next to me on the wall, and out of the blue, said something I will never forget. He said "Mom, when you get old, I'm not going to put you in an old persons home like some people do. I'm going to take care of you forever." How sweet! At ten, he still loved being with me, loved going places with me and could not conceive of ever being without me. He did not yet understand the natural and necesary separation between parent and child that comes with the teenage years.

A week or two later, on my birthday, Sean surprised me with the most wonderful birthday gift, these beautiful, brightly colored hummingbird earrings. I was quite taken aback that my son, a ten year old, had purchased something from the gift shop, not for himself, but for his mother. And now, my beautiful hummingbird earrings, which I have treasured ever since and have worn on just about every special occasion, have been temporarily misplaced.

Sean was killed nine years ago at the age of seventeen, hit by a train as he was crossing the railroad tracks on his way home from high school. Since he died, those earrings have taken on an even more special significance for me. When I wear them, I remember my wonderful son. Even though he cannot physically be here with me, when I put those earrings on, I remember his love for me, his fun loving spirit, his laughter, and that glint of good natured mischief in his sparkling blue eyes.

I have to find those special earrings. They have been packed away in a box someplace, a box that I hope was shipped to my Dad's house along with other precious items I shipped back east when I returned to Connecticut in November. Its Christmas Eve; I don't have much time to find them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No Longer Pink

There is a gathering place in the small town my Dad lives in that is always packed with people and almost never closed. Its the place I go to have a bite to eat with my Dad after the long flight from California to New York, the only place around that is open until 10 pm. Its packed with families on Saturday and Sunday mornings for breakfast, with commuters stopping for breakfast during the week, with locals for lunch and dinner, and teenagers in the evenings. My parents used to meet friends and the local pastor there for breakfast after church. If you are a local, its the place you almost expect to run into someone that you know. "It" is a typical chrome exterior diner on Route 7 in Wilton CT and it was always popular, but not always this busy.

This diner used to be pink, a pastel shade of pink, but definitely pink, with an old fashioned sign on top that reminded me of western saloon towns, that simply said "Orem's". Back then, when I was in high school, to give directions to Orem's was easy; go up Route 7 and look for the bright pink square building on your left. But back then, Orem's was fairly small, and the parking lot, if you can even call it a "lot" (more like a car's length around the front and sides of the building) was small and the building itself sat only a car's length from busy Route 7 with no sidewalk between your car and other cars zooming by at 40 miles an hour.

Fast forward to the end of the 20th century. Plans on the books for twenty or thirty years to widen Route 7 from one lane in either direction to two lanes finally materialize. Orem's, being so close to the road, is taken by emminent domain. But the state gives Orem's a choice piece of property in return - still on Route 7, but a little further south, where there is room for a bigger building and an actual parking LOT.

When my sister called on Sunday morning to ask if I wanted to join her for brunch at Orem's with her 15 year old daughter and the daughter's boyfriend, I immediately said "yes". It was breakfast for the younger generation, but lunch for me and my sis. Six inches of snow had fallen the night before, but this didn't stop Orem's from being open. We could always count on it being open. Rain, shine, snow or sleet, Orem's always seems to be open. They have a 10 page menu, that includes chocolate chip pancakes, tuna sandwiches, Greek salad, clam chowder and fish dinners. I know not to expect fresh veggies, but the tuna sandwich was great. The place was very busy, but somehow they always find you a table or booth.

The same family runs the place that has run it for years. The pink painted place of my high school years is now a grey-painted-wood-with-chrome-around-large-plate-glass-windows building that looks like any other diner on the inside. It is still located on Route 7, the food is still reliable and it is still always open (6 am to midnight per their website). It is still the town gathering spot, the place to run into old friends, the place that always feels like home. I guess it doesn't matter that the outside is no longer painted pink.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sibling Rivalry

There is a reason that the term sibling "rivalry" was coined. From a Darwinian perspective, only the strongest of the litter survive. Nature is just cruel, or maybe just efficient. I come from a family of six kids, me being the oldest, the next four in rapid succession in just seven years (we were a Catholic family in the 50's after all) and then, 16 years from the year I was born, my half-sister arrived. This family planning situation is rife for a schism. And on top of this, we moved to a different town from the neighborhood where I spent most of my childhood years. We moved the year after my dad married his new wife, the year before the youngest child was born.

My youngest sister and I were so far apart in age, that we essentially grew up in different families. I left for college when my she was only two years old. My step-mother used to tell me that it was far easier to raise the five of us older kids than my youngest sister, who spent more than half of her life raised like an only child.

It may be more than coincidence that the oldest and the youngest of the siblings choose to live in other states, both more than a days' drive away from the family home - not exactly easy for once a month weekend visiting with the family. I moved to California, and my sister ended up in North Carolina. We both have lives far different from the siblings who remained in the New England area. I can't speak for North Carolina, but I finally found a place that I really "fit in", as I never had in Connecticut.

Fast forward to holiday time, many years later. Both my youngest sister and I will be "home" for Xmas this year, something that happens rarely, as I usually come home for Thanksgiving and her tradition is to come home at Christmas. All the different personalities, my Dad's six children, his grandkids, and my sibling's spouses, will be here at my Dad's house on Xmas day. There will be food, and gift giving, and conversation. Sparks are likely to fly because this one said that, this one was rude, that one is trying to control the whole family holiday, etc. I know because its started already. I realize that these tensions may be no different than any other family celebrating a major holiday.

But here is the oft-unspoked issue in our family -- the youngest does not feel included as part of the family. She didn't grow up with the older five, who were so close in age that it tightened our natural sibling bonds. She didn't lose her mother to breast cancer as a kid, which made the five of us even tighter in ways that no one who hasn't been through a similar trauma can understand. The youngest didn't grow up in the town which at least the eldest three considered "home" during most of our formative years. And I can't change this; no one can.

We are planning to start a project over this Xmas holiday. At least, I hope we will. I have suggested putting together a family tree. Various members of our sibling clan have started a tree at one time or another, on this scrap of paper or that poster board, now lamenting in a long forgotten drawer. I have often listened to my Dad's stories and to stories from my aunt (his sister), but I never wrote anything down. Now, I think its time. My Dad still remembers the stories very clearly, but he's losing his ability to retrieve specific names. Some of the grandchildren, who are almost not children anymore, are even interested in this project. And now there is software out there that will help you organize your family tree and save it - for free. I hope this project can be a starting point for sharing, a starting point for a common bond between all of us. Yes, my youngest sister is part of a different "tree", but we are all connected at a certain point, and my hope is that contributing to the tree will bring us closer together rather than splitting us further apart. Only time, and an internet-based family tree project, will tell.

Monday, December 21, 2009


My sister is arriving from North Carolina tomorrow, my youngest sister, my half-sister, my 16-years-younger-than-me sister. How do I remember that she is 16 years younger than me when I have difficulty figuring out the ages of my other four siblings? Simple. When she was born, I was already in the same hospital, recovering from an appendectomy. I was 16. Not an event I easily forget (my appendectomy, not the birth of yet another sibling). My step-mom had the kid, stayed two days in the hospital, went home, and I was still stuck in the hospital for another week. I wasn't even allowed to go to the maternity ward to see the newborn. (As far as I know, appendicitis is not contagious. They even had wheelchairs back then.)

So, said sister is arriving, tomorrow, at noon, approximately. Driving up from NC. And, she wants the front bedroom, the large bedroom with the big windows, the best bedroom in the house, the bedroom all four girls used at one time or another growing up here, the bedroom I have come to call home over the last few weeks. And I agreed to move, to the smaller bedroom, the "boys bedroom". Why? Am I a wimp? Should I stand my ground and dig my heels in and say "I was here first"? Shouldn't the older sibling have seniority? Shouldn't the first one to arrive in CT get dibs on the best room? Isn't possession nine tenths of the law? Well, yes, yes and yes. But, I'm not. You see, we have agreed to a compromise, of sorts. She gets the bedroom to sleep in, but I get to keep my stuff in the room and use my laptop, which is hooked up to the DSL line in that bedroom. She, being much younger and smarter and more on top of the latest and greatest technology, has a wireless laptop, which I do not. So, I get to check my email, my Facebook account, and blog away the hours, unless she is sleeping at night or napping (a southern tradition). I decided I could live with this, for the sake of family harmony. And hey, its only for a week, during a holiday dedicated to peace and love and good will. I think the babe who's birth we are celebrating later this week would approve.

Merry Xmas Dad

I just had a great idea for a post, I really did, and somehow, on the walk back from the kitchen to the bedroom where my laptop resides...poof!....its gone. I hate that, I really do. Getting older is such a drag sometimes. And I'm only 50-something. What the heck was that dang idea?

Oh, was about "good ideas". Duhhhhh. That is, it was about ideas that SEEM good at the time. You see, last week sometime, I replaced the totally worn out and seriously ripped door mat my dad had on the doorstep outside the family room door, the door that all my family members use to come in and out. So I just trotted down to Walmart and bought a cheap rubber replacement mat. Tossed the old mat in the garage for my dad to take to the dump/recycling center. A week and about 20 frigid degrees later, I find that replacing the mat is not such a simple matter. The snow on the uninsulated family room roof is very slowly melting and the gutters have a few leaks (I always wondered how icicles formed), one right above that family room door. For two days now, I've dislodged a rather large icicle each morning when I opened the family room door to admire the whiteness blanketing the front lawn. At first, I was like an excited ten year old (an icicle! an icicle! I ALMOST licked it. Hey, that's what you do when you are a ten year old in winter in Connecticut.) Today when I trudged up the drive to get the morning newspaper for my dad (and admire the excellent work I did shoveling the icy mush from the top of the driveway late yesterday afternoon), I noticed as I carefully worked my way down the still-icy-in-places driveway that the downspout next to the door is totally covered in ice, like a miniature frozen waterfall. And that cheap rubber doormat I bought? Totally covered in ice and slick as a skating rink.

I think I will have to pony up the money and go to the LLBean website to buy a SERIOUS winter doormat, one that can take a licking from the merciless east coast weather. Merry Xmas Dad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bend for the Common Good

Its started. I can hear my dad on the phone with one of my siblings in the other room. Why oh why do holidays bring out the worst in families? This one can’t sit next to that one at the dinner table because she monopolizes the conversation. This one is too bossy; that one drinks too much. This one is rude. All “Grandpa” does is sit in front of the TV after dinner (I wonder why). It’s less than a week before Xmas, and my family members are already arguing over who is preparing dinner, who is coming for dinner, or are we having dinner at Grandpa’s house at all. I am not usually at my family Xmas gatherings, for good reason. Its usually more stressful during this particular holiday than enjoyable. Some family members come, then leave early, supposedly to visit other relatives, but we know the reasons they leave early -- they go home to relax. Holidays are supposed to be enjoyable times with family, like in a Norman Rockwell painting. For one day of the year, why can’t we leave the resentment at home, forget about bringing that special dish, offer to help with the dishes, leave the rude comments in our heads, and bend a bit for the common good. My dad is 84 -- let him have a few more fond memories of family gatherings, instead of bitter ones.

Shoveling Snow at Sunset

Why would anyone be shoveling snow at sunset? Wouldn't it be better to be doing your shoveling when the light is better? Of course it would. And I did, early this morning, shovel a path up the steep driveway to the mailbox so I could retrieve the morning newspaper for my dad. I also shoveled a path to and around my car so it wouldn't get blocked in when the hired help came to plow the driveway. (Dad's car is safely parked in the garage.) And then, around midday, the hired help came, with snow plow attached to the front of the pickup truck, and plowed the rest of the drive. I was able to get out of the driveway and join my sister for lunch at the local diner. But, the hired help left a few spots to be touched up. Like the crest of the driveway that had turned to mush and will be very icy in the morning. And the drainspout, which was now covered with about two feet of snow from the six inch snowstorm. And my dad wanted me to create an opening in the snowbank the plow had created so that the runoff from the roof doesn't pool and turn the bottom of the driveway into a skating rink. (Which it will anyway, does every year. That's why God invented salt.) I'm exhausted from at least two hours of shoveling snow. But the shoveling was good exercise. I have that warm-glowing-tired feeling you get from a nice workout outside. And, I saw the best sunset -- tall, leafbare black tree shapes silouetted against an orange sky that rimmed the southwestern horizon. A great reward for a job well done.

The Other End of Life's Spectrum

I am reading “New Mommy Blogs” lately because I have a friend who is one (a new mommy) and has one (a blog). And I have lots of time on my hands these days. But I am at the other end of life’s spectrum. I should write an “Aging Parents” blog. Because I have one (my dad, age 84) and writing is a creative outlet for me and gives my psyche an emotional boost.

My new mommy friend wrote about worrying if her newborn was sleeping too much, not pooping enough, not getting enough milk. Here it is, 7:30 am, and my dad’s not up yet. He’s usually up at 7am. He’s late. I worry that maybe he had a heart attack in the night, and ask myself “how long should I wait before I knock on his door?” (I give myself until 8 am). At 7:35, he passes my door, as I am typing this, to turn the heat on in the house. I am relieved that I won’t have to make that dreaded phone call to my siblings, less than a week before Christmas. And what exactly would I do if I found him lifeless one morning? This morning, I awoke to six inches of snow outside, the roads are not yet plowed, and the short but steep driveway is covered in a blanket of white. I can’t get out; would an ambulance be able to get in? I doubt it. Not without skidding brakeless down the steep driveway and crashing into the garage. My dad pays a guy to plow his driveway for him, but it could be hours, or even days, before he shows up, depending on how much snow gets dumped overnight and when the roads get plowed. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. A week ago, I met the neighbor a few houses down the street, the day I locked myself out of the house and my dad wasn’t home. Last night, my dad mentioned that this neighbor, “Kevin”, has a snow plough attached to the front of his pickup truck. I think its good to know your neighbors, although not everyone here does. Kevin has lived in Wilton for 13 years and the only neighbors he has ever met are the ones across the street, and only once at that. My dad used to know a lot of his neighbors, back when his six children went to school in Wilton. Now, he only knows his next door neighbor, Paul and his wife. (Paul and wife were not home the day I locked myself out.) Well, at least, knowing one neighbor is better than not knowing anyone, especially when you live alone and you’re 84.

I stocked up on baking ingredients yesterday at the grocery store, because what else are you going to do on a snowed-in Sunday in Connecticut, the week before Christmas. And I've been thinking - maybe I'll bring some homemade Christmas cookies (sugar cookies, the kind you cut out with cookie cutters, with red and green sugar sprinkles on top) over to Kevin and his two little girls. It couldn't hurt.