Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing The Cottage, Beach Road, Amagansett

Every once in a while
a place becomes a part of you
and you take it with you
wherever you go.
You remember the rooms
and the color of the walls
and the smell of the sea.
You can feel
that feeling you get
from not wearing shoes
most of the time.
And isn't it funny
that when we take off our shoes
and feel the sand on our feet
that the whole world goes away
and all that's important is
how the ocean looks -
and is it cold?
So you try to remember
the colors in the sunset
because you need to take them with you.
You know this is it:
a chapter is closed
a dream interrupted.
And you know
that from now on
that "Residents Only" sign
at the top of the street
means you, too.
So let the weeds grow up through the gravel driveway
let the garden seed itself
let the quail and pheasants
have the run of the place
it always belonged to them anyway.
I can remember it for the right reasons
and keep my bottle of sand on the windowsill
and sometimes
when I open it
I can smell the ocean.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Calamity Susan and How I Murdered My Best Friend's Parakeet

I've gotten a BIT more focused as I've matured, but when I was younger I could really get myself (and those around me) into, well, quite honestly, a mess. I once caused an entire European soccer team to take the wrong train; they couldn't have been very happy about that.  Another time I was late and literally running to my then boyfriend's college graduation, and fell and broke a heel off my high heeled sandals, so I just took them off. I was flying from Georgia to New York to visit my parents another time, and the day before my trip I could not find my plane ticket. Anywhere. I never did find it. I had to go through all kinds of hoopla to get a new one reissued on such short notice (and no computers, this was the late 1980's) 

I lost my passport once days before a flight from Germany to the states and wound up at the American Consulate, and I swear the only reason I was on that plane was the fact that the guy behind the counter happened to have gone to the same high school as I did. I forget how it came up, but god bless Suffern High School.

I also once, trying to be helpful at a red light, leaped out of my car to hand the driver of the car in front of me the license plate that I thought had fallen off and someone put up on his trunk for him. It was a car dealer with a temporary plate. He thought I was insane. I know, blonde. It explains a lot I guess.

Maybe my lowest moment came when I was living in Germany in the early 80's. I was alone a lot with my husband being in the field frequently, and I was unofficially adopted by Janet and Charlie. Charlie was my husband's Company Commander, and therefore my husband's boss. We had a great battalion of Army Officers and their wives. (I was going to say and husbands, so as not to be sexist, but I don't think we HAD any army husbands in our group back then.) 

Anyway, this was a very tight group of people, from the Battalion Commander, Colonel Frank Henderson and his wife, Penny Lee, to lowly Lieutenant's wives, like me. We traveled en masse frequently, Berlin, Paris.... the whole gang went. I was the baby of the group, and was well taken care of and looked after, particularly by Janet, and Charlie, too, when he wasn't in the field. They'd have me over for dinner frequently, or just to hang out. My husband and I also spent a lot of time with Janet and Charlie, just us two couples frequently, when the guys were on base. 

Janet was the organizer and the boss for the four of us. She made the travel arrangements for trips and told us what we needed to do and where to be. We were happy to have her direction. Janet was always responsible, unlike some other people she associated with (ahem). Only one time do I remember Janet not being totally responsible, and I'm sure I was AT LEAST partly to blame for that. Janet was teaching and her group of teachers at her school were going to some beer garden or festival, and they had a bus taking the group and bringing them back home. Our husbands weren't around, so Janet asked me if I wanted to go with her. You don't have to ask me to go on an adventure twice, so I said sure! 

There was a lot of beer. Strong German beer. There were plastic squeaky hammers which just seemed to appear, and people were bopping other people on the head (or wherever with them). I believe we lost track of time and wound up sprinting for the bus, but we did get on it. This is when Janet started to not feel very well. Never a big drinker, she had had one too many. We got to her apartment and I asked her if she wanted me to stay with her. Yes, please. She gets into bed, and I go in to check on her and see how she's doing. I was happy to be able to help someone who was so good to me.

Do you want anything? I ask her. "Water." So I head on out to the kitchen, but the boss is not so under the weather that she can't shout out a specific instruction. "In my Seattle Seahawks glass," comes the request. I locate what is clearly the only glass suitable for the occasion, and take her ice water. She drinks, she sleeps, I go to bed, all is well in the morning.

One time Janet and I decided we should highlight our hair. Now I have highlighted my hair since I was in high school, but Janet had not, and she had beautiful, shiny healthy medium brown hair. So we did each other's hair, and I got too enthusiastic with her highlights, I kept adding them and seeing what I thought, one more here, more there. Perfect. I was quite proud of myself. 

Until she washed everything out and her hair was, and I am not kidding, the color of a bright yellow Easter Egg. It was too late or something to go to the store for brown hair color, to try to restore it, and I think the next day was Sunday or a holiday and all the stores were closed, so poor Janet went around with a bandana on her head for a day or two. That's not the worst of what I did though, oh no. I'm getting to it.

Janet and Charlie and Tom and I decided we should get new BMW's to bring back to the states with us. So one Saturday, we go into the dealership and a sales guy is at his desk, and we tell him we'd like two BMWs, please. They got a navy one, ours was black. Charlie and Tom, when it was time, drove them to the place they were going to be shipped to the US from, and I believe my husband narrowly escaped death when a truck jackknifed on the autobahn near them.

The autobahn, incidentally, has no speed limit.  I didn't know how to drive a standard (which our BMW was, and therefore I needed to learn), and Charlie had this bright yellow Mazda that was a standard, and he said he'd teach me. So we left my husband and his wife somewhere along the road in our car (the Mazda was a two seater) and we start driving. I'm doing ok, and Charlie is very patient with me. I'm getting the hang of it, and Charlie says, in all seriousness, "When you go a hundred we'll turn around and go back."

I said, "I don't want to go a hundred, I'm scared." "Oh come on, look, everyone else is going fast, you need to get experience shifting at high speeds. Hit a hundred and we'll turn around. We're not getting out of the car until you go 100."

So I did, it took me a long time and a lot of convincing from Charlie, but I knew he was somehow adamant about it, so 100 miles an hour it was. I took so long that Tom and Janet thought we might have gone to visit a neighboring country. Good lord. 100 miles an hour!

Being married to an Army officer involves a fair amount of socializing, and a formal ball or three a year. Janet and I went shopping for dresses in a German department store one time, and I think my gown needed some kind of minor alteration, hemming or something, and Janet offered to do it for me, as she knew how to sew. So I'm over at her apartment, just the two of us there, and we decide we want a beer, or a glass of wine, I forget which now. Doesn't matter. She's busy sewing and she said, "Go put the wine in the freezer, it's not cold, and by the time we're done with this it will be cold." 

So I go back to her kitchen, put the wine in the freezer, close it up tight, and go back to join her. Janet loves birds, and she had, honestly, the most adorable parakeet at the time, Frank. Frank was very social and loved people and attention. He was named Frank after Colonel Henderson. Frank would frequently perch on the head of people visiting Janet and Charlie, and I remember more than one time Colonel Henderson rocking in Janet and Charlie's rocking chair, Frank on his head, bobbing away in time. I loved Frank as well.

A short time after I return from the kitchen, Janet realizes, Frank, who had been in the living room with us, is missing. We look around, call him. Nothing. Where could he be? Janet asks me, "When or where is the last time you remember seeing him?"  Hmmmmm....I'm thinking. Um, yes. The last time I remember where he was WAS ON MY HEAD, before I went to the kitchen. We run. Not only are the drinks cold, but so is Frank. 

He is alive though, and we take him into the bathroom and turn the hot water in the shower on to warm the room up as quickly as possible. Janet is naturally fussing over him, and I'm as worried as she. The next day, in a twist of irony, Janet made chicken with orange sauce for dinner. Frank had made it through the night, but clearly was not right, because he took a dive in the hot orange sauce and that was it for poor Frank. I felt terrible. I wouldn't hurt anything. Janet got a new bird after that, but he (or she, who knows) just wasn't Frank. 

So Frank is long gone. The BMWs are long gone. Janet's Easter egg hair is (thankfully) gone. Me going 100 miles an hour is gone. But the memories of such a wonderful time with people we are still great friends with will always be with me. And Janet and Charlie, luckily, took all my mishaps in stride. I'm their oldest daughter's God Mother.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Flying Lessons

When I was growing up, my parents were pretty strict about what I could do, where I could go, and more particularly, with whom. They did, however, have the good sense to be indulgent with me where strays were concerned - first with animals - later with people. Some of the lessons I learned from these experiences will stay with me forever. Some were warm and nurturing; others broke my heart.

Mostly I brought home cats. There was the tabby that followed me home from the bus stop, the tiny yellow kitten from the litter my best friend's cat had, and a half grown black and white cat I found in a field. We also had a dog that I got for my fifth birthday. She was a menace for a couple of years, digging holes in walls, ripping curtains from windows and basically chewing everything in sight. I loved her madly. I dressed her up, taught her tricks, talked to her and otherwise delighted in her company. She had to be put to sleep when I was seventeen. I had to stay home from school because of my ache at her loss, and my parents allowed me that, too.

My brother brought home strays too, although not with the frequency that I did. I remember him striding up our front lawn carrying a snake her had caught. The next thing I heard was my mother shrieking from an upstairs window, "That snake is NOT coming in my house!"

Every mother has her limits, I suppose.

Every now and then my parents themselves were rescuers. On a Sunday drive (probably to get away from my brother and me) they found a scared tiny kitten right on the white line at the roadside out in the middle of nowhere. My mother scooped her up and brought her home. She slept snuggled in my arms all night, purring blissfully. The next day when my mother took her to the vet for her first shots we learned that all four of her legs were broken. The vet suspected she had been thrown from a moving car and thought it best to put her to sleep. It still makes me happy, decades later, that the last night of her weeks old life was spent in a warm bed, a teenaged girl softly stroking under the nameless kitten's chin as she dozed peacefully.

Although the first time I brought a guy home for dinner was when I was five (favorite family story) by the time high school rolled around so did boyfriends. Some were around a short time, others longer. Most were welcome at our house.

After a couple of weeks of dating my then boyfriend, he offered to drive me home from my first year of college for the summer. He spent a lot of time in my parents guest room, having just graduated from college and in a training course in Virginia. He drove up every weekend to see me for months. We got married the following year.

Which brings me to the real subject of this story: Birdie.

Immediately after our honeymoon my husband had to report to Germany for a three year assignment. Knowing he would be in the field for six weeks on a training mission with his battalion, I decided to stay put in New York until he was back on base.  I spent that summer lifeguarding as I had the four summers before. One day at the pool where I worked, I saw a boy carrying a box. I peeked inside and there was a little ball of fuzz - a baby sparrow. The boy was about thirteen, and had found the bird on his way to the pool. Thinking about her baking in the box while he swam for the day was too much for me.

"Can I have it?" I asked.

He handed me the box. I kept her going through the day by giving her water and some worms I had coerced some of my swimming students to dig up for me. That evening, once again, I came home with a stray.

I fixed up a cardboard box with a window screen for a top for her, and by evening she settled in and slept. My Dad went to the local fishing equipment store and bought some worms. I can still remember that summer - a white take out box full of worms in the fridge along with the milk, eggs, and other things normally found there.

Not knowing what we were in for, we soon found out. She wanted to be fed starting at dawn.  Mother birds, if you've ever stopped to watch them, spend the entire day hunting up food for their brood. ALL day. This meant one of us always had to be home to feed her. She ate every half an hour, maybe every hour. Like human babies, as she got bigger the time between feedings stretched out a bit. 

We had to chop the worms up; this was my Dad and brother's job. I could touch the worms and feed them to her, I just couldn't bring myself to slice and dice a live one. I fed her with an eyedropper full of chopped up liquified worms at first, then a bit later, tweezers. She also became fond of canned dog food.

"Birdie," as she became known, quickly charmed all of us. She was a good diversion for me, newly married and anxious to explore Europe and start my new life.  She immediately learned that someone standing over her box was a likely candidate to give her her next meal.  All you had to do was look in the box, and she would be sitting there flapping her tiny wings, mouth wide open expectantly.

Although we all thought she was adorable, Birdie could definitely complicate life. One time I was home alone with her and had no worms chopped up.  She was letting me know in no uncertain terms that she was hungry.  I called a lifeguard friend, begging him to help me, and he agreed.  I drove the worms over to him and he chopped them up for me - on his mother's cutting board.

I remember my brother, out of school for the summer, on more than one occasion saying, "I'm NOT staying home with that bird!"

Since she was my baby, so to speak, I knew she had to learn to fly. I spent a lot of time with her perched on my finger, raising my arm up and down gently as she instinctively caught the draft and flapped happily away.  After several weeks of this, her baby down making way for full fledged feathers, she left my finger and sailed across the living room.

Birdie was well on her way in life and so was I.  It was time for me to join my husband.  My parents took me to the airport and stayed with me until my flight was called.  They were delighted when I spotted Herbie, my college cafeteria manager, and his family waiting to board the same plane.  (I couldn't help but wonder if they would have felt the same if they had known that Herbie, at an end of the year campus party, reached down, took my loafer off my foot, poured his beer in it and used it as a mug. And that I had keys to the cafeteria so if my crew wanted a late night snack, we didn't have to hit the vending machines. Lots of giant tubs of ice cream with about 25 people with spoons were hit up in the middle of the night)  My flight was called and I said goodbye to my parents.  They remember watching until I disappeared into the plane.  They mostly remember, that at the age of 20, I didn't look back.  My father said my mother wept the whole car ride back home. Not having been away from them for more than a couple of weeks, I was going to live in a different country for three years.  I was young and fearless then, I don't know if I could do that now.

Once on the plane, I introduced myself to my seatmates, a middle aged gentleman traveling on business, and an older woman going to visit relatives. I always figure if you're going to be elbow to elbow with somebody for seven hours, you might as well be friends.  I chattered away excitedly, telling them all about my recent wedding, and that I was in fact, on that very  plane to join my new husband. Just then a flight attendant approached me with a glass of champagne, handed it to me and said, "This is from a gentleman in the front of the plane."

Herbie sending me a congratulatory drink.  My seatmates weren't so charmed with me after that, and it sort of amused me not to explain.

Birdie was now in my parents care.  She flew more and more, and one day my mom took her out on the back deck and let her go.  As evening came, while Mom was out watering plants, Birdie came back chirping and fluttering.  Mom went inside and got Birdie's box, lifted the screen and Birdie immediately flew into it and hopped into her makeshift nest.  Mom took her inside for the night and released her outside in the morning.  And so it went for several weeks. When Birdie had had enough for the day, she would patiently wait on the deck perched in the spider plant, or not so patiently, she'd hang on the screen door until she was taken in for the night.

One day my mom was in the front yard and saw my brother walking down the street, talking, but alone. As he neared, my mom asked, "Who are you talking to?"

"Birdie," he said, pointing to her, as she accompanied him back home, flitting from tree to tree as he walked.

As fall approached it became clear Birdie was restless, yet still attached to my family.  Afraid she might approach a stranger or make another mistake that might befall a tame but technically  wild bird in suburbia, my parents decided to release her far from home in a forest.  She was now feeding entirely on her own.  One last time they put her in her box.  This time she got a car ride.  They drove until they felt they found a good spot for her, then got out and let her fly.  My parents told me that Birdie didn't look back, either.

The lessons I've learned from bringing home strays? Don't bring them home if you can't give them what they need.  That sometimes the things you think you are helping wind up helping you.  That it pays to be generous and fearless with your heart, and if you are not you will miss much - and yes, hurt less.  If someone or something works its way into your heart, embrace it and be thankful.  I've learned that love is the most special and valuable gift you have to give.  Be sure the things you bestow it on are worthy and deserving of it.  If they are, love with enthusiasm and passion.  Expect and accept the same in return.  When you love someone, tell them. Simple? Yes. Say it out loud.  Tickle their ear softly with it. Sing it to them. Write it down, fold it up and put it in a pocket, a briefcase or a lunch box for them to find.  And lastly, no matter how much you love something or someone, or they you, if one of you needs something the other one can't give, sometimes it's kinder for both of you, to fly.

post script:  Last summer my daughter was taking our dogs out for last call. 11 pm or so. She came in yelling "MOM! There's a baby bird in the grass! We have to help it!" And so it goes.

Can They Spare It?

My good friend Janet is a master gardener. I am not, but I do love my flowers and herbs. I was thinking recently, however, that some things in life are just  plain disappointing. Take Montauk Daisies. Now, I have an emotional connection to them, as my family had a house in Amagansett, in the Hamptons for about 50 years, and Montauk Daisies are all over the place. So I have some here, and every spring I get excited to see them come up, with their abundant dark green foliage, and every late summer, I get annoyed that I have them. All the caretaking all summer, watering, etc., and a little daisy on the end of each stalk is all they can give me? Puhleeeze. Lillies of the Valley as well. Oh I know, people love the smell, but honestly, that's the best they can do? A bunch of little bells and all that greenery? It's not right, I'm telling you.

How about when you go to a bridal shower, or a baby shower? You bring a gift, all wrapped beautifully, a card, and on the way out you get some crappy butter mints wrapped in tulle. Plus, usually you have to play some ridiculous game at showers - and who started the tradition of the bride wearing the bows from all the gifts on her head? Some angry mother in law to be, would be my best guess. You go to the dentist, and you get a new toothbrush and some floss, at least that's pretty useful. You're going to need that equipment to get the butter mints out of your molars.