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Christmas is for Giving


I was the second to last child, and always begging for attention. “Mommy, watch this”, “Mommy, listen to my song”, “Mommy, listen to my story”. But Mommy was always busy with her work, with her church, and theater, and politics, and all the other children. Mommy never had time to listen to my stories and songs. She never had time to watch. She never had time to answer questions, or didn’t know the answers, so pretended the questions weren’t important.

Daddy was there, but he wasn’t. And I never felt like he cared that much, at least when I was little. Mommy was out a lot at night at rehearsals and church functions and political meetings. When she wasn’t home, I felt so uneasy. I thought that if someone broke in the house, Daddy wouldn’t care enough to protect me. I needed her there. She would save me.

Much later, I finally realized that Daddy’s way of loving was to go to work and buy what we needed, and what we wanted. For a family of twelve, we were very lucky. They were thrifty, for sure. But they made sure each of their children had a childhood.

We went on vacation to a large Victorian in Cape May for the entire month of August. Daddy came the first two weekends, taking public transportation to Atlantic City, where Mommy would pick him up and bring him back on Sunday nights. He stayed at home during the week, but those weekends were nice with our Dad. He couldn’t totally relax. He did a little though, and you could tell he needed it. The last two weeks he vacationed with us. He was so much fun then! He was the Dad I always wanted him to be. The one I dreamed he would be every day! The Vacation Dad! Approachable, impulsive, smiling.  I miss that Vacation Dad.

I got new clothes three times a year; when heading Back to School, on my birthday (which conveniently is in May, so my mother could get me summer clothes and call them my presents), and for Christmas. Christmas brought garbage bags filled with clothes. It was wonderful and we always did a fashion show for each other. We would also get one or two other presents besides that.

When I was nine and the youngest, Karen, was seven, we both got hot curlers that were made for children. They made a lot dangerous children’s toys when we were little, like Chemistry Sets and Power Tools for kids. One year we got a popcorn popper to share. We’d load it up with kernels and oil, wait for the popping to begin, then use the lid to aim scorching hot kernels at each other. It really hurt when they made contact. Then, yeah, yeah, we ate the popcorn that was still in the popper. But the most fun was the act that could have maimed us severely.

In 1967 I was seven, and Christmas was approaching, Kathy from down the street told me that Santa wasn’t real. She had just moved to our block.  She was different from the kids at school; like she was much older than me, but she wasn’t. She was the coolest kid I had ever seen. I had no reason to doubt the validity of her declaration, but needed proof.

On Christmas Eve, our parents went to Midnight Mass as always, and we went to bed and waited for Santa. I got Karen up when I heard their car drive pull in the driveway and we looked outside. “Kathy said that Santa is Mommy and Daddy”, I told Karen, but I wasn’t too sure about it, and my five-year-old sister did not believe it. So, we poked our heads over the windowsill and watched our parents get out of the car. They walked to the trunk, and took out a bunch of garbage bags that were stuffed in there. They both slung them over their shoulders and carried them up the driveway to the front of the house. We watched them walk until we couldn’t see them anymore, then ran for bed and got under the covers, so they wouldn’t know that we knew about the bags, and that the man in the red suit was a fairy tale. Karen was crying; I had devastated her. I was worried that Mommy would hear her and come up, but she and Daddy were too busy setting up our Merry Christmas surprises. I didn’t know why it bothered Karen so much; I wasn’t that phased by the revelation. Were seven-year-olds so much more mature than five-year-olds? Or had I been suspecting for a while, anyway?

I was a very nosy child. I wanted to be a spy like Emma Peel or a detective like Honey West when I grew up, so I tended to snoop in my parent’s things. I was practicing! Having gleaned this information from my spying made me feel a little smug. And I was fine with it. The creepy tiny old guy whose stomach shook like a bowl full of jelly was not sliding down our chimney while we were sleeping. It was just my parents. And presents. The presents were still there, and they were the important thing!

But we didn’t just love the presents we got, we loved the presents we gave, too. We had a present allowance to buy presents at Sears when we were very young. “We got you paints’ was a line that was often used as a joke about not being able to keep a Christmas secret. We all laughed about it as if it was a shared memory, but I didn’t remember it. Apparently, one of my brothers told another what they had bought for him while they were still in the Sear’s store, “We got you paints.”   A few years later, our Mom started taking us younger kids and Kathy from down the street to the Job Lot in New York. Mommy loved the Job Lot. It was one of the first of the deep discount stores. Among so many other gifts, I remember buying a lot of Yardley Soap products there, and Aziza make-up. Make-up for me, because I wanted to be a grown-up forever (until I was one), and Yardley Lavender Soap for Daddy. He always used it. Yardley began making Lavender soap in the 17th century, which was way before Daddy was born, so I assume he had always used it.

When we were ten, Kathy and I decided to buy each other boxes of chocolates while in New York. We got them cheap, and got cheap presents for everyone in our families too, using the money that our Moms had given us, along with babysitting money. When we got home, we wrapped our boxes of candy, put each other’s names on our gifts, and put them under my parent’s tree. Then we went to Kathy’s house and watched the premiere of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. We pretended to each other that we were too old for such baby shows, but secretly I loved it. I bet she did, too.

I got home two hours later, to find our presents were opened and eaten by an Irish Wolfhound. Our Irish Wolfhound. There was slobbery wrapping paper and candy cup liners everywhere. You would think after years of living in the same house that a girl of ten would know her dog had a penchant for Christmas candy. Well, all candy. Well, all food. WELL, everything he thought might be edible.

Some years were better than others in our lives, but no matter how much money we had, every Christmas was lovely. In the early years, my parents had big family parties with about 100 relatives and friends, and the adults would all drink and tell stories and sing carols and laugh and sometimes cry. It seemed like most adults smoked back then, and a barroom fog would fill the first floor while these parties carried on. Our parents didn’t smoke, but in the ‘60s so many did, and second-hand smoke was not a thing.

One such party, we had a piñata right in our hallway. There was a wooden bat that we children were supposed to swing at the piñata with. A wooden bat. In a house with 100 people. That was the ‘60s. We swung and swung that heavy bat, but every child missed every time. The adults took over; they were impaired and had a hard time of it also. Then came Mr. Regan’s turn. Mr. Regan was my hero. What a wonderful man. What a character! What a drunk! He began swinging wildly and everyone had to run out of the way. He gave it a huge whack, and all the candy went flying, but we had to wait a minute for him to stop swinging to run and grab it all up.

When we were older and Mommy had passed away from ALS, my father continued Christmas in in similar fashion. One year when Karen was in college, she filmed a Christmas morning, and inquired what each of us thought Christmas was all about. She came up on Daddy making coffee, and asked, “What is Christmas all about?” He spun around and shouted, “GIVING! Christmas is about giving.” Christmas was when Daddy was his very, very best. I miss my Christmas Daddy most.


I was going through “On This Day” on Facebook, and came across this private note to some friends seven years ago. I am not sure if I ever shared this story with you (this blog is getting to be the online version of spending time with your old Aunt, I think. I tell a story, you roll your eyes and sigh, “Yes Auntie, we know. You’ve told us.” If this is the case with this story, then just ignore me and go get us some drinks. I’ll have a Presbyterian.). If you haven’t heard the story of my Dad’s wake and funeral before, I hope you will stay for a few minutes and indulge me in my memories.

Tom was really down. He was not dealing well with his father’s passing. He felt his friends were giving him too much room, and he wished someone would talk to him, help him get out of his funk. I sent him this e-mail. I thought it was going to help, I hoped it was going to help him to smile a little. He wrote back. It did. Here is what I wrote:

“How can your dad’s wake and funeral make you smile, you say? Well, it makes me smile and sometimes laugh, every time I think about them.

My dad was obstreperous. He loved to use that word to describe the children, but it really fit him. He was the epitome of the cranky old man, and he didn’t like noisy children (except my son Zach, who could do no wrong in my dad’s eyes). Daddy passed away on March 7, 1994 in St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ. I was holding his hand as he went, so I knew he was gone, but I still couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around my dad not being there. I was 34 years old when he died. That was a long time to have his constant presence…how could he be gone now? So, even at his wake, I just couldn’t grasp the reality. Until I realized, with all these people and children in the room, there was no way my dad would be sleeping soundly. When he didn’t get up and say, “You damn kids keep it down!” I finally accepted his passing.

Then we were at his funeral. My oldest brother wrote and read the Eulogy. My parents were very giving people, but they had 10 children to support. They had to be clever in order to share the wealth. So they did things to cut corners. And my brother incorporated this into his Eulogy. He talked about how Daddy could take rotten peaches and make the best ice cream and milkshakes, and rotten tomatoes and make the best stew. But, when he said, “Moldy ham…” in a church full of people, many of whom I didn’t know, well that just broke me up…into giggles! I was struck by the perversity of it! I was trying as hard as I could to suppress them. I didn’t want to appear the insolent child. At the exact same moment, the priest came by sprinkling incense on those congregated, and directly on my oldest sister, who was seated next to me. Unfortunately, she is allergic to the incense, and she started trying to muffle sneezes, so as not to make too much noise.

There we were, seated together, and both making sniffing, choking noises. I was so embarrassed, until people started patting me on the back, and saying, “It will be alright”, and I realized they thought we were crying! This made me laugh more, again at the perversity of it all, and it just sounded like I was crying louder. Of course, the thought of my Dad watching me threw a little fear into me. Daddy would have said, “Dammit, stop that laughing!”, and somehow, that made me laugh, too.

Of course, I miss my Dad more as time goes by, but I also think those incidents were really a gift, a way of laughing with my Dad.

I love you, Tom. I hope you have your precious memories to make you smile through this.

Meggie”

 


I always knew Mommy as working in the Children’s Room at The South Orange Public Library. I don’t think she was working there when I was a baby, but I cannot remember a time when the library didn’t figure greatly in our lives. She was there when I was very little, and she was my Library School teacher in the old library, in the Connett Building.

What I remember from Library school is that we were very good children, and sat quietly and listened to my mother’s animated readings of the incredible stories that were out at that time. As a grandmother, I am sure that 3 and 4-year olds were far from very good, but I do know that at least most of us loved being read to, especially by someone like my mother who could turn a book reading into a one woman show. Some of my favorite children’s books were ones that she read, such as “And Rain Makes Applesauce”. I have the discarded library copy on my bookshelf; very probably the exact one that she read to us.

When the new library opened next door to the Connett Building, Mrs. Mary E. Vorwerk was hired as the Children’s Librarian…my mother’s boss. There was always a Halloween party in the room off of the Children’s Room, where my mother and Mrs. Vorwerk read to us. That is where I heard “Old Black Witch”, another book that I still love. There would be a mini-parade in the room, and prizes, and snacks.

In the summer the library had Reading Challenges. You would keep track of how many books you read on your chart in the library. Kids nowadays have Summer Reading to complete before they return to school. Schools didn’t give Summer assignments when I was a kid, but the library picked up the slack.

I remember the first time I ever won something, it was a jellybean contest at the library…how many jellybeans in the jar? I won a book of riddles. I loved that book, mostly because I won it. I told a lot of bad jokes to my family for a while, until the jokes were all told out.

Mommy worked at the library throughout my childhood and teenage years. When I was about 11, I started going upstairs for some books, and downstairs for some. Mommy and Mrs. Vorwerk continued with Library School and helping children learn to love to read. I still meet people today who tell me that my mother instilled in them the love of reading, and even some who say she nurtured their dreams through learning when they were children. A librarian is another important member of the village that helps your children to grow strong and wise.

The library seems to have always worked with the South Orange Historical Society, as they do with the South Orange Historical and Preservation Society now, and Mommy was there:

“Mary Vorwerk, of our library, volunteered to wear a Revolutionary costume as she watched over the exhibit and memorabilia. Elaine Marlowe volunteered her 10 children to man the postcard booths”

In 1980, I was 20 years old, and my Mom was still working in the Children’s Room. She started having a sore and hoarse throat, but just thought it would go away in a while. She waited for a month, and her throat and the hoarseness didn’t get better. So, she finally went to the doctor’s. After many tests, the answer came back. It was not a sore throat…it was ALS.

She continued to work in the library and the children continued to love her. She lost her voice, and it seemed she would not be able to work in the library anymore. But, children of the library held a benefit to raise money to buy a newly designed computer for my mother to use at the library. She could type into the computer, and it would speak for her! This was quite a miracle in 1981, and it meant she could continue working with the kids, whom she loved so well, and who loved her as much or more. Her computer had the same voice as Steven Hawking, and whenever I hear him use his synthesizer, I can still hear my Mom.

“Elaine Marlowe, who lost her speech because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, continues her work as a children’s librarian, using a computer to tell stories complete with music, sound effects, different voices and even graphics. According to Ms. Marlowe, “If children can relate to ‘Star Wars’ and computers, they certainly can relate to their librarian talking through a speech synthesizer.””

http://tinyurl.com/zva5egd (posted 11/18/84. They were late. She passed 6/25/83.)

Sadly, Mommy lost her battle with ALS on June 25, 1983, and Mary Vorwerk passed in July 1985 (date from familysearch.org). (Karen and I remember that Mrs. Vorwerk passed from ALS also, but cannot find verification on the internet).

Congratulations to the South Orange Library on their 150th Birthday!

Meggie

 


I know the title of this blog post is strange. I wrote this yesterday for Arts Unbound’s Story Slam. I knew I was going to do the story slam for about 2 weeks now, but only prepared for it the day of. It’s been a crazy kind of time around here, and I am flying by the seat of my pants, which was the original name of this story. When the story was finished, I liked it enough to keep it, but had to change the name. This one works. It’s really what we all are doing when we are battling as formidable a foe as ALS.

Sunday is the Walk to Defeat ALS in Saddle Brook. This is my 8th or 9th year walking. The team’s name has gone through a few changes. First it was “Lainey’s Legacy” for my Mom Elaine Kall Marlowe (nicknamed Lainey) who succumbed to this disease in 1983. One year it was Lainey and Lorraine’s Legacy, as we had a Co-Captain who lost her Mom to ALS. This year, we changed the name of our team to SO/MA’s Legacy to reflect all those in our community of South Orange and Maplewood who are suffering with this devastating disease, and those who once lived here, but ALS took them from us.

My friend Arthur Cohen is battling ALS, as was Dave Adox, who very recently lost the fight for his life. I only met Dave once, but have spoken with his husband a few times, and met some of Dave’s family and friends. Here was a young man enjoying life in the finest way possible: with a loving partner and family. He was the type of man who kept in touch with schoolmates, many years after school ended. He was concerned with the well-being of others.

When his elementary school classmates found out that Dave was suffering with ALS, many came to see him and stayed to help. At his Shiva, I saw wonderful pictures of Dave growing up. Many pictures of traveling, many pictures of friends…lots and lots of friends. And all the pictures on Facebook after his passing showed just how many people loved him and felt a tremendous grief at his loss. He was such a wonderful friend to so, so many. Dave lost everything to ALS at a very young age, but he never lost his spirit, or his love. Arts Unbound partnered with Dave’s husband Danni for an Art Bender a few days before Dave died, and a mural was painted on my old apartment building on Irvington Avenue in South Orange. Dave was so happy to be there. I saw the pictures and thought how wonderful that he could see it.

My pal Arthur amazes me and reminds me so much of my Mom, who never gave up, and always believed a cure would come. Arthur lives in a different time than Mommy did though, thank god, although he may not be able to see it in everyday things. People still may stare at him, or not understand that inside his atrophying body is the same man with the same brain that he had the day he was diagnosed.  ALS rarely affects the brain, which remains lucid throughout this cruel ordeal.

I would venture to assume that Arthur is probably a better, more enlightened man now than he was on that dreadful day. He now has firsthand knowledge of the temporalness of life. Not just of being alive, but of what we have, who we are, and what we have come to expect as our normal. And did Arthur find out he was sick and just give up? NO. This man said, “Okay, I have one of the worst diseases known to man. Let me start a business, and give the proceeds to The ALS Association to help others like me, to help find and supply treatments and ultimately, find a cure.”  Did he just tell everyone, “Please do this for me?” NO. He has been actively involved in the creation and operation of PickALS, his pickle company, since Day One.  I always tell him that I think he is a force of nature. But sometimes it is nature, organic or mutated, which forces us to make that choice: Lie down and take it, or take action. Arthur is the epitome of taking action!

In 1980, when my Mom was diagnosed, many had never heard of ALS. The ALS Association and ALS TDI were not in existence. She received her help from the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  When Lou Gehrig gave his famous farewell speech in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, the public may have read about ALS in the papers, but it was considered a very rare disease at the time. I am sure that without reference to Lou, many never gave it another thought.

The disease is still considered rare by the CDC, with approximately 5600 new diagnoses a year, roughly one every 90 minutes. But look at this way: This is one of the worst ways to live and die that I know of, and every 90 minutes someone is told they are going to have to go through this…and every 90 minutes, someone is losing their battle with ALS. So this disease disposes of its victims, and then regenerates itself with new ones. The average life span for those suffering with ALS is 2-5 years. That’s some chilling statistics to me.

Mommy didn’t know all the statistics, because it was a relatively unknown disease at that time. She just knew that she and a few of her neighbors were doomed to spend the rest of their short lives in the prisons that used to be their active bodies. Mommy had Bulbar ALS onset, which first manifests in changes in voice and speech, with a harsh, hoarse or strained voice. She thought she had a sore throat. She was auditioning for Off-Broadway and to join a prestigious theater group which would help her reach her goal of BROADWAY! Finally she would achieve her dreams. Finally, the children (all ten of the damn kids) were grown, and she could really spend time doing the very thing she had planned to do all along.

     Not so fast, Lainey. The sore throat is not going away. She has it for about a month. She keeps saying that it’s not going away. We think nothing of her having a sore throat for a month and not going to the doctor, because she never ran to the doctor. She wouldn’t even take US to the doctor for any of our real ailments that she kept telling us were imagined. She was a Depression Era baby with ten babies of her own, and the thought of giving away money to find out you have a sore throat makes no sense. It’s only when the supposed laryngitis gets so bad that it’s affecting her acting that she does go, and after several tests, is told she has ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. What does that mean to her? What does that mean to us? Not so much, except we are told that it’s fatal and there is no cure. That’s a sucky thing to hear when you are 55 years old and just about to start on the life you always knew was your destiny.

Mommy was not as active as Arthur is when she found out she had ALS. She was never involved in fundraising, or trying to find a cure.  People did stare at her all the time as if she was an invalid. She was not an invalid, dammit. She just couldn’t walk, or talk, or really move. But she could communicate; at least on paper, at first. When she still could use her hands, she wrote in her journal, “It’s so hard to lose your voice when your whole life’s work is based on communication.” Later, she had an alphabet board that she could move her eyes across to pick out letters and spell out words and sentences. But to be an actress, a director, a writer, a lector, or many of the other roles she played without speech…it was a tragically ironic fate that befell her.

Still, she insisted on living as normal a life as possible, and that included going to places and doing things the same way she always had. Except that in the early ‘80s, there were no real accommodations for the disabled, as we were just beginning as a society to ‘learn to be tolerant’ of people who were ‘different’. So, we tried to go to the Outlet stores in Secaucus. Packed up Mommy and her wheelchair and headed out there…only to find there was no wheelchair accessibility, and so we had to turn around and come home. Then we tried to go to Toys ‘R’ Us on Route 10. We got in the store alright, but the aisles were too narrow for the wheelchair, so we had to go get what Mommy wanted to buy for her grandkids while she waited at the front of the store.  People stared at her in her wheelchair, and spoke to her as if to a child. They didn’t know. They weren’t taught that what you see does not always inform what is really going on.

She had always gone to plays; she was not only an actress, but a lover of the arts. We went to a play right in South Orange, with her neighbors. I wheeled her in and sat next to her. She made some noises because she had such a terrible time trying to breathe. People were turning around in their seats and giving her the stink eye. The stink eye! To my sainted mother who just thought maybe that she wasn’t dead yet. She thought that maybe she could still enjoy her life while she was on this side of the grass. She was dejected.

Did she give up? NO. She didn’t give up her cocktails. We pureed her five o’clock cocktail and she drank it with a straw. Did she give up regular food? NO. We pureed her steak and she drank it with a straw. Did she give up going to work, going out, seeing people, caring or communicating? NO. Why? Because she was a fighter. Like Arthur is a fighter. Like Dave was a fighter. Like so many before them were fighters.

This disease claims some tough cookies. And that is why I pulled up my drawers and brushed my hair and came here to tell you:

  1. PLEASE remember that this disease can happen to anyone. That a wheelchair can happen to anyone. LIFE happens and things happen. I had a friend who worked for a rehabilitation center. He told me that the patients there called us, “TABS” – Temporarily-Abled Bodies. I like that. Because it reminds you that you are not special. You have just been lucky so far.
  2. I will fight with Arthur, and with the Daves and Mommys and all those who choose to claim quality of life for themselves, even in the crappiest of times.

And

  1. Possibly the most cliché thing I have said so far, though I would have to go back through my notes to be sure: PLEASE remember to be grateful for what you have, and love your friends, kids, family, LIFE. Tonight. Always.

The Walk to Defeat ALS season is upon us. I can’t believe it, but it’s that time already. They started registration last week, but I was just too depressed and tired and thinking about me to even consider it. Up until yesterday, I was seriously thinking about taking the year off. But, I woke up this morning and realized: If I am so focused on what is wrong in my life, how will I make things right?

If I am so focused on me and my petty problems, how will I help to make things better for others? If I cannot extend myself to help others and our world, how will our world change? I know, I certainly cannot do this by myself. My contribution seems like nothing. Then, the great ‘Analogist’ within me started thinking. It’s like the old litter commercials. If I don’t pick up the trash, and you don’t pick up the trash, then no one will pick up the trash, and our world will just be filled with it. If I don’t help, and you don’t help, then no one will help. So, it can never get better for those less fortunate, those oppressed, those suffering if you and I don’t help.

This is not to say that I really want to do this. I still am having this major pity party that’s been going on for pretty much the whole winter. However, there’s a part of me that remembers that doing for others helps us feel better within ourselves. So, there’s definitely a selfish aspect to this whole ‘charitable obligations’ thing.

It’s a bit weird that when we are motivated from egocentric thoughts, often we are more depressed and less productive. But, when we are allocentric, we find that we are not only working for others, we are working towards a balance in our own health and happiness. Charity therefore becomes not only about others, but indeed about us. It informs us that we are not just one person standing alone, we are a community, a world; equal in our desire to live well and free.

Today, I registered our team once again for the Walk to Defeat ALS. It’s true, I have a personal connection to Walk to Defeat ALS, in that my Mom passed from this dreadful disease in 1983. But, if the money raised this summer through “The Ice Bucket Challenge” were enough to stop this horrifying killer, then I would not continue the battle. Unfortunately, it’s not, and we have to continue the fight. To me, it’s not about dying, because we all die, and none of us know when it will be our time. It’s about the quality of life that’s afforded to ALS patients. It slowly kills you, while you remain lucid and fully aware of what is happening to you. That is terrifying to me.

I also decided today to get off the fence, and sign the sheet for Family Promise, which helps with multi-denominational sheltering of the homeless. I admittedly have been remiss in helping with the homeless. How bad is that? I was homeless, and promised to help. Whom did I make the promise to? Me. But, life moves on, and sometimes we forget that we do owe, really. We do. Even if you have never been sick and never been homeless or oppressed, and think you have always had a decent life. Brother, that may be when you owe the most!

I already feel better knowing that I have made a decision to continue with my human race. I can faintly hear Chariots of Fire music, far off in the distance. What is the sound of two hands helping? It seems pretty inconsequential at first, but if you really listen, it’s pretty sweet.

Wish me…wishing all you…luck!


I have lived in the same apartment in South Orange, New Jersey since April 1, 2008, when I left my brother’s Jim’s basement in Rockaway.  As you know from earlier stories, I had been homeless, then in a rehab, then in Homeless Solutions in Morristown. I was in Homeless Solutions from the day after Thanksgiving 2007 until February 15, 2008, when I moved into Jimmy’s.

It wasn’t really Jimmy’s idea as much as his then wife Robin’s. I was celebrating Christmas with the family, then left to go back to the shelter. That really bugged Robin, and I guess she stewed on it for a while, and it kept bothering her, and finally she told Jim, “Your sister should not be in a homeless shelter. Tell her to come stay with us until she gets back on her feet.”  They told me in the beginning of February, and I moved in two weeks later. How glad I was to leave the homeless shelter! Sad too, though, leaving the family with seven children behind. I worried about them for so long, and tried to find out what happened to them, but I never heard about them again. But, after 2 1/2 months, I was well-prepared to leave. I was mentally revved to begin my new life. Robin let me come live with them, but only for 1 1/2 months. I had to get money together and get out on my own as soon as possible. Great rule! Within a week of moving in with them, I had a job. I saved quickly, and Robin helped me look for an apartment.

My teenage son had lived with me during my darkest hours, but things got really bad, and I asked him, “Do you want to live with Aunt Karen?” Of course, he said yes. He was in desperate need of a normal life. So, he went to live with her in South Orange, and for a while, I continued careening down my path of self-destruction. Then, I finally made it to the rehab, shelter, Jimmy’s home. Now, we were looking for an apartment, and I was praying that my son would want to live with me again. So, we looked in South Orange, and I tried to find an apartment big enough for both of us. One that he would like, one that I could afford. Me affording and him liking had every indication of being conflicting scenarios, but I proceeded with the hope usually reserved for the believers of the world.

We tried several buildings and homes. We were turned away almost immediately from most for credit issues. Some we ran away from (just so gross), and some were way too expensive for my measly savings.  We finally went to a building on a main avenue in South Orange, and met with the Super. He was standing in front of the building, looking disheveled and greasy with a slimy smile on his face, but I looked past it all, because I was running out of options and had to find an apartment in South Orange, dammit.

We went into the dreary brick building and walked into a large apartment with two kitchens and two stoves. It turned out that it was two small apartments, but there was no wall between them. If you wanted both apartments so that you could have two bedrooms, you could rent both. Or just one. It was up to you. Up to me? I said, “No thank you.” This is not at all what I want. I knew I had to get out of my brother’s house, but I couldn’t imagine myself living in that creepy building in that creepy apartment…or apartments, depending.

The Super said, “Wait” because he had something else around the block. It was above stores, a Chinese restaurant and a coffee shop on another busy avenue. There were only four apartments above the stores, and the one he was showing me was the last one down the line. It was a one bedroom apartment, but with very big rooms and the door between the living room and the bedroom had a lock on it. I thought, “it’s not the best apartment I ever saw, but it could work”, so I said I would take it.

I moved in on April 1, 2008. Zach was 15 going on 16 when I moved in. I was so excited…he was going to come back and be my son again. However, when I moved in, he said he wasn’t ready yet. So, I spent a few months alone in the apartment, trying to make what I was earning cover the rent, utilities and travel expenses from South Orange to my job in Dover. They really didn’t, but I received some help from my friends…yeah, like the song.

By July, I was feeling pretty lonely, and I saw on Maplewoodonline that someone had this beautiful rescue Siamese kitty that I kind of fell in love with. I never really was a Cat Person, but this little girl was so pretty. So, I arranged to go meet her, and asked Zach if he would like to come with me. He was excited, because he really loved animals, and was even volunteering at our local shelter. We got to the rescuer’s home, went to the cage, and there was this little sandy muffin sitting next to a jet black Helion. I fell for the little Siamese immediately, but Zach really wanted the Blackie, who was hissing and puffing up and being a tiny scary thing.

I said, “If I get both, will you move in with me? I don’t want the black cat, but I will get her for you. She can be your cat when you ‘come home’.” He said, “Yes”, and these two little puffballs were packed up and put in the car and brought to my apartment, where they proceeded to run under the couch in terror. We named the Siamese “Cherie’ and the Blackie “Wednesday” after Wednesday Adams, who was really scary, too. We nicknamed her “Wendy” after Caspar’s Witch friend.  We bought them all sorts of cat toys. They loved the toys on a stick and string, and we would get them to run after them. But, they wouldn’t come near me or let me touch them. They let Zach touch them though. I guess they sensed how gentle he was.

Zach decided not to move in, however, and I was stuck with these two kittens that really didn’t like me. After a while, the Siamese started coming around, and a few months later, when it was time to have them spayed, she was relatively easy to catch and put in a cage to take to the vets. Wendy, however, was not, and I gave up. She didn’t have to go. At nine months old, Wendy went into heat. It was a horrible, horrible week with that crazy cat losing her mind even more. She caterwauled all day and all night, and for the first time, wanted me to pet her…all the time. Pet, scratch, please scratch, please scratch!

I called the local Cat Whisperers’, and they came the next weekend to help me trap her to take her to be spayed. It took us well over an hour to catch her, and by the time we did, she was traumatized. The woman whom I received her from took her to the vet, then called and said that she would keep her to recover. When I called to see if I could pick her up, she said her vet told her that the cat was not tameable, and she should let her heal, then put her back outside. It’s not like she came up with the idea on her own. I had told her what a difficult cat she was, how she wouldn’t let me touch her, and how she hissed at me when I came near her. So, I tried to resign myself to this cat’s fate. But, I kept thinking about how she had lived inside with me since she was tiny, and how I had her for nine months, and that she wouldn’t survive outside. I still don’t really think of myself as a Cat Lady, but I am not heartless.

So, I called the rescuer, and asked if I could see the cat. She said that wasn’t a good idea, and told me Wendy was a horrible cat who hissed at her and tried to scratch her when she came near. I said I still really needed to see her,  and she finally relented and let me come over.  When I got there, we went into the dimly light basement to find my cat in a cage in the corner, looking as forlorn as a feline possibly could. When she saw me, she started crying plaintively, and I swear she was saying, “Please. Please. Please take me home. I just want to go home.” Ugh. I started crying and said I had to take this cat home. Her rescuer told me that was  a bad idea, and reiterated that the vet said the cat wasn’t tameable. I said, “She’s still my cat, and I want to take her home. If it doesn’t work out, well, at least I tried.” I was pretty adamant, so Wendy was put in her crate, and once again, she came home with me.

Cherie was so happy to see her. Wendy was so happy to see Cherie. And, Wendy was so happy to be home, with me. She learned to chill out, a little, and it seemed that she learned gratitude, which is really weird in a cat, but I don’t know how else to explain the change in her. It was like she thought, “Oh wow. I have it pretty good here!” Whatever accounted for the change, it made her bearable, and sometimes, she was a pleasant, friendly cat. Not that she wasn’t still batshit crazy.  On the contrary, her whole spaying experience made her even more paranoid and distrusting. She still hid and hissed, but not as often.

Cherie was like that child that you have that never gets in trouble and is always a pleasure to have around.  She loved to be brushed, loved human food, loved just hanging around, and you couldn’t sense any angst in her. Wendy had enough for the both of them, I guess. Then, as I wrote about in “Loss”, Cherie got sick and died in January 2013.  That was hard, because she was such a good cat, and now I was stuck with the cat that I didn’t want in the first place, the one Zach said he wanted, and no Cherie and no Zach.  I didn’t get any sleep for a week after Cherie died, because Wendy just walked around the apartment crying all day and night. It was worse than when she was in heat, and I felt so bad for her. My Niece Rachel felt bad for her, also, and sent her a stuffed cat to sleep with to help with the loss. It was so sweet, of course I cried.

Eventually, as always is the case, Wendy and I got on with our new normal, and I kind of became her replacement for Cherie. She stopped hissing at me, unless I was making the bed, looking for my shoes under the bed, or sweeping or vacuuming. Her bed issue is that Wendy is a Bridge Troll, as Zach calls her. She has created herself a little world under my bed, and is pissed when we clean under there or go anywhere near her Underworld. I think she hates brooms because we used one to corral her into the cage when she was spayed. And the vacuum freaks her out, but I don’t have any hypothesis as to why, except that it’s freaking big and noisy.

Life went on for a while, just me and Wendy, until March of this year, when Zach finally moved in, temporarily, as they sold the home he lived in. He wants to go back to college, and needs to save money for another apartment. I know it’s a little late. I still call him ‘Kid’ and he’s 22 years old. But, I am so happy to have even just a fragment of the normal life we should have had years ago, at least for a while. And, I am very thankful for all that has happened to lead me up this point. My crazy cat has ended up having a pretty good life, instead of being thrown back on the streets. My kid had me to turn to, and I was so grateful to be there.

And me? I am happy. There’s no magic elixir to make everything right after so many years of it being wrong. But, it’s okay. Maybe everything isn’t supposed to be right. Maybe, at least for me, okay is freaking fabulous…as long as I keep working towards great!

Things Daddy Taught Me


One hundred years ago today, my Daddy was born. By the time the depression hit in 1929, Daddy was 15 years old, so he was a real Depression-Era man, and we were raised that way. Here are some things that my hard but fair, stern but funny father taught me:

1. Don’t laugh like a hyena outside at night. It’s not fair to the neighbors. Story behind this: Gretchen Beck and I, both 12 years old, were coming home from the boardwalk one August night 1972 in Cape May. We were really cracking ourselves up so much that we stopped at the church across the street from my house to continue, hoping not to disturb my father. We ended up rolling around on the grass, holding our bellies and laughing like the aforementioned hyenas. My father appeared at our door and yelled across the street, “Stop that noise right now and get in here.” Which I took as, “Laughing is bad. Having fun is bad. I’m a big, mean old guy who wants to stop people from having fun.”, but he meant it as, “What is wrong with those kids? Don’t they care about anyone else except themselves? How rude to disturb the neighborhood that way!”

2. Have more discerning taste in men. Story behind this: Every boyfriend I brought home, Daddy would say, “He’s scum!”. Wow, he was right. Except one, and my Dad and he loved each other, but unfortunately, the man didn’t really love me. Oh well.

3. No matter what else happens in life, eat well. The Story: Daddy loved and raised more than Loretta’s eight kids from “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. There were ten of us children, plus the three granddaughter’s (my half-sister’s children) were always around. Lots of kids. We were never poor, but we were never rich, with that many children. I’m sure it was hard, even in the old days of the ’60s to raise that many kids. But, Daddy and Mommy still went out every Saturday and came back with a carload of good food. We had steak once a week, hamburger once a week, chicken once a week. The man liked to eat, and liked to eat well. And now, so do we. No matter what, eat well.

4. The Spirit of Christmas. Daddy loved Christmas and when asked what Christmas meant to him, he said, “Giving”. The spirit of Christmas is giving. I just love that.

5. You can have your beliefs, but love is more important. Story: Daddy was a staunch Catholic and believed what the church believed. So, I was so scared to call Daddy from Reno and tell him that I was pregnant out of wedlock. But, when I did, he sent me money to come home and live with him and have the baby in New Jersey. I had an emergency C-Section. He didn’t come to see me, because by then he was not that mobile. The baby and I were in the hospital for five days. Again I was scared, this time to bring Baby Zachary home, because I wasn’t sure whether my father would accept him. When I walked through the front door of Daddy’s house, he asked for the baby. I put Zachary on Daddy’s lap, and there was an instant and beautiful love, and Zachary was the most accepted and cherished child in the world. My father adored my son. I was blessed. It went against his beliefs, but it didn’t matter. He loved us.

6. It’s more important to show your love than say, “I love you”. Daddy wasn’t one for hugs and kisses, or saying, “I love you.” So, for a long time I didn’t think he loved me. Because as a child, you don’t notice that your father is working his tail off to make sure you have nice clothes, good food, a nice house, and nice vacations. It wasn’t until I was an adult, and it started to sink in that this man really cared that I started allowing myself to care, too. Once, when I was in my twenties, I said to him (as I was leaving for the bar), “I love you”, and he said, “You sure don’t show it!”. Ha! I thought, “That’s mean”, but he was right. And again, it took me some time to understand what he meant. Lots of time. But, I get it now.

7. Don’t waste! It’s so funny that my brother Tom’s eulogy of my father included stories of rotten tomatoes and moldy ham being repurposed (and when he read it in church, I admit I was a little mortified), but it does speak to how Daddy was raised, and we were raised in turn. I didn’t have to learn to repurpose when we started trying as a global community to lessen our waste. It is second nature to feel guilty if I have to throw something out before it is completely depleted or repurposed. And the coolest recipes sometimes spring from trying to use all the items in the fridge!

8. 9. 10. 11. Ad infinitum. How much do our Daddies teach us? And how much do we realize came from them?

This is short and these are just some of the things the Old Man taught me. I recently heard someone say all brothers and sisters have different parents, because they all have a different relationship with their mothers and fathers than their siblings, and I think that’s true. I think my siblings may have some more to add to this (and I am pretty sure they never had to learn the ‘laughing hyena’ lesson), as we each had quality time with Daddy, and that quality time was when he shined. When he showed us that he really was such a beautiful man.

Young Man Daddy