Remember me? You’d be forgiven if you don’t—it’s been a while. But much has happened in my life since we last met, and with your permission I’d like to catch you up with a quick by-the-numbers review.
Since my last post of December 24, 2014…
Number of months passed:
Number of freelance articles published in print:
Somewhere between fifteen and twenty. I’ve been writing articles for my hometown newspaper, The Chronicle-Telegramof Elyria, Ohio. More on that in a moment.
Number of wedding anniversaries celebrated with the Midlife Second Husband:
Four with one more coming up next month. (August 14, if you’d like to send a card.)
Number of grandchildren born:
Three. My son and his wife presented us with a beautiful grandson in 2015. A lovely granddaughter arrived two years later. And last October, my stepson and his wife had their first child, an adorable boy who looks just like my husband did as a baby.
Number of surgeries:
Two. One challenging and whopping big one and one slightly more pedestrian. I’ll spare you the details on the former (although I will tell you that thoracic surgery is not for the faint of heart). The latter was arthroscopic surgery of the knee. Those you at midlife or beyond can relate, I’m sure.
Number of moves:
One. We downsized from our large 1928 French Norman Revival in a westside, lakeside suburb of Cleveland and returned to Lorain County, where I was born and raised. We bought a sweet home in Avon that’s all on one level and has a gorgeous backyard. See?
Number of trips taken:
Two. We traveled to Sanibel Island in 2016 and in 2018 we drove to South Carolina, visiting Charleston and Kiawah Island.
Number of hurricanes experienced and evacuations survived as a result:
One. We were booted off the island in South Carolina by Hurricane Florence and had to make our way north. We made the best of it and visited friends in our old neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia.
Number of writing awards won:
Two. In 2018 and in 2019, I was honored with third and second place, respectively, in the “Best in Ohio Freelance Writer” category under the auspices of the All Ohio Excellence in Journalism awards, which are administered by the Press Club of Cleveland.
Number of fractures:
Zero. Hooray and knock on wood.
Now there is one more number I should share with you, and it’s pretty significant.
Number of books written:
One. One book, friends, picked up by a bona fide publisher. It’s not the book I originally set out to write, but it seems as though it’s the book I needed to write. Looking Back at Elyria: A Midwest City at Midcentury, is forthcoming from The History Press, an imprint of Arcadia Publishing, this November.
Looking Back combines elements of journalism, historical research, and memoir, and I think it captures a time when a typical American city was poised on the bridge between innocence and experience. Based on many of the articles that I’ve written for The Chronicle-Telegram, including an ongoing feature series called “Look Back, Elyria,” the book is a love letter to my hometown.
brings me to why I’m writing you now, after all this time.
I expect that this blog, as found on this WordPress site, will be going away in the months to come. I am at work archiving my favorite posts on my new site, www.marcirich.com.
If you would like to stay connected with me, please click on the link to that site and send me a note via the Contact tab at the top navigation bar. If you send me your current email address, I will add you to the distribution list for updates concerning my book and other writing news and pursuits. I have two other books in the works, actually. And who knows? Maybe someone will want to publish a book called The Midlife Second Wife. This way you’ll get in on the ground floor.
Thank you for being along for the ride from the beginning, way back in 2011 when I started this blog in Richmond, Virginia, and through all points in between. It’s been an amazing ride. But then life usually is, isn’t it?
Don’t forget: www.marcirich.com. Send me a note with your email address, and you won’t miss a thing.
The Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, Mass. Sarah Hersey photo.
It’s been too long, readers. Far too long. And for that I apologize. I never intended to take such an extended hiatus. But life has a way of telling you that things aren’t as they should be. For the past 10 months, Life-With-a-Capital L has literally shoved me down and sat on top of me in an attempt to get my attention. (And I can say literally with complete impunity, because I fell in November, broke a bone in my foot, and it was the end of March before I was in a full and upright position.)
Turns out there was a reason for the delicacy of my metatarsal. I had primary hyperparathyroid disease, rendering me hypercalcemic. Lots of medical jargon, I know. Let me put it more simply: my excellent endocrine surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic removed two-and-one-half of my parathyroid glands during an operation on July 2 because there were tumors on them. (Thankfully, they were benign.) When bad things happen to good parathyroids, all hell breaks loose. Think of those tiny, rice-shaped glands as the traffic cops for the calcium in your body. When they break bad, they blow their little traffic-cop whistles to tell your system it needs more calcium, resulting in a widespread evacuation from your bones and a flood in your bloodstream, wreaking widespread havoc.
The extraordinary result of my surgery was evident in about a week. I soon had more energy than I knew what to do with. My aches and pains subsided. I could sit at my desk and concentrate, which is a good thing, because a writing deadline loomed. Which brings me to where I’m going.
When Life Hands You Lemons, Write. I began writing in earnest while stuck in bed with my fracture, which seems like an excellent use of my situation. I started what I thought would be a memoir, but at some point during the process my reliable instincts told me that what I was really doing was writing fiction. I was also reading Dani Shapiro’s beautiful and wise memoir about the creative process, Still Writing, at the time. My instincts, like Life, had shoved me down (without breaking anything) and sat on top of me to get my attention. I listened, and then checked to see whether I could find a space in one of her workshops.
Shapiro’s fiction and memoir workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was the one that I wanted—”Transforming Chaos into Art.” The class was full. I was first on the wait-list.
And then, in March, I got the phone call I was hoping for: a spot opened up for me. I was in! I secured my registration and located a place to stay. And then, in May, I discovered how sick I really was.
For weeks I worried about whether I’d be well enough to travel, and whether I’d have the energy to do the writing I needed to do.
And so, the surgery. And hence, during my recovery, the writing.
You can see why I wasn’t blogging.
I still won’t post as frequently as you’ve become accustomed to, but I hope you’ll understand that I’ve taken on a whale of a project, and I need to keep working away at my manuscript. I will check in when I can.
I leave early Saturday morning for Boston. A bus will take me to Hyannis, where a good friend will pick me up and take me to her home in Harwich for a visit. The next morning, she’ll drive me to Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod. That will be my home for a week. And there, at the beautiful Fine Arts Work Center, I’ll be sitting in a classroom for the first time in 23 years.
Given where I’ve been, I’m looking forward to where I’m going.
They date from June 1942 to June 1945—three years of a life interrupted by the Second World War. They’ve held up surprisingly well, given they are more than 70 years old. They’ve survived scorching summers and frigid winters in various attics, as well as several moves, but they did not survive their author, my father. His letters home to his parents, who owned a small grocery store in Elyria, Ohio, begin and end in June, which would also be the month that he died, in 1969, when I was 13. I’m 58 now, and it has taken me 14 years—ever since I found them in my mother’s attic after her death—to get around to reading them. Filled with bravado and fear, boredom and enthusiasm, pride in his country but a keen longing for home, they are, other than photographs, the only tangible artifacts that I have of my father’s voice and personality; very few people who remember him are still alive. I’m finally getting around to reading these letters because I’m writing a memoir inspired by my father’s absence, and by his interrupted influence on my life.
You might say that I’m finally getting to know him.
Private First Class George G. Abookire was stationed in the Middle East with the U.S. Army’s Persian Gulf Command—a stroke of more than good luck. His posting was a deliberate tack by his commanding officers, since my father could speak Arabic fluently. A first-generation American born in Elyria, where his parents eventually settled, his father was born in Beit El Dine, Mount Lebanon, an area of Syria that would, after the First World War, become what is now known as Lebanon. His mother was born in the neighboring village of Deir El Amar. Both villages were located near the cities of Zahle and Beirut, and when I was growing up my grandparents defined themselves as coming from Zahle. (Rather like people from Elyria saying that they’re from Cleveland.) That I have this information at all is the result of much diligent work and research by several of my father’s first cousins, and—surprisingly enough—his Polish nephew-in-law, who has an abiding interest in genealogy.
The letters begin as my father, 21, is en route to his first training camp at Camp Barkeley, Texas, following his induction in Ohio. He graduated from Elyria High School in 1939, but didn’t enroll in college. It’s clear from this letter that he hasn’t traveled all that much:
In the beautiful hills of East Tennessee…
….It’s really beautiful here, Ma. The people and everything is [sic] so simple but yet they seem that they’re not doing enough for you. Ray’s mother-in-law is swell and his sisters are simply be a u t i f u l to look at in fact all the Southern girls are. …
Try and not work too hard Ma as I don’t want you to. I’d like to see you & Pa on a vacation this year & if its up to me you’re going to have it. Life here is simply grand & wonderful to be in. I can’t find words for it Ma. You’ll have to see it yourself. It’s a different world all together here and I just about wished I were born here….
Your loving boy, George
By the time he reaches Texas, the bloom has come off the rose, but his training as a medic clearly has engaged him:
I didn’t intend to write today as I just don’t know what to do with myself lately. The Captain had my explanation on the history of my chest pains, as the other day one of the Corporals here said I was just a slacker & no good to the army. After telling the Capt. I passed navy & air corps he sort of pricked his ears up. Outside of that I’m a 100% buddy around here to all the boys.…
The studying is terrific. You really have to study to keep up with the awful large amounts of work they give you. Anatomy, Physiology, Pharmacy & bacterial media. It’s fun though….
Tuesday night…just got off kitchen duty. I had 11-1/2 hours of it & we just scrubbed every thing after each meal.
I’m in the tent now writing by flashlite [sic] smoking a R.G.Dun that you sent me.
Truthfully Dad the army was tough over where we were at but somehow I managed to overcome it but this out here on the edge of the camp is something else to swallow. We have no toilets. Just a wooden shed & room for 10 or 12 & you can smell it way over on this side of the road as our tent is the last one on the end from Headquarters.
As I told Ma we had a miniature hurricane here Sat. while we moved. Our raincoats saved us but our feet & hands froze & we had to set up new living quarters (tents) kitchens & dig ditches & all in all that rain. One fellow in our Co. caught pneumonia & died yesterday. This life here is so tragic & unbearable I don’t see how I’ll take it. 2 of the boys here went A.W.O.L. Sunday. I went to the show & walked around about 6 miles in camp.…We have no lights … we’re not even to go to the toilet at night. We shower in cold water & then we only have 3 faucets for over 300 men.
I could go on telling you about this but what’s the use of it. My studies are terribly hard Pa but I’ll get it.…Drill study – Drill – classes & then sleep & all over again. I wouldn’t know what to do if I could be home with all of you now. It’s like looking for an actuality but you know your [sic] living on borrowed time. Well I’ll just have to swallow it.…
The experiences at Camp Barkeley, where my father is a member of Company A, 62nd M.R.T.C., underscore not only how challenging all of this soldiering will be, but also how the Army is still building from scratch. His reference to “living on borrowed time” suggests a familiarity with the real horror of the unknown. Reading these letters with the benefit of history and hindsight—we know how the war will end, and I know that my father will survive it—emphasizes their in-the-moment nature. He doesn’t know his fate, nor do his “buddies” in the camp.
I never thought of that before. On past Memorial Days, when I’ve thought of my father as an army veteran—a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”—I thought of him in his uniform, thrilled by the adventure of it all, proud to do his part for what he calls, in a subsequent letter, “the good ol’ U.S. of A,” and visiting family in Lebanon while stationed in Iran. It never occurred to me to consider what had to come before the neatness and the pride and the adventure: hard, back-breaking work in the constant rain, and the fear of an unsettled life.
My father in uniform during the Second World War. The photo in the rear, to the left, shows him as a young boy holding his baby sister. Included in the photo of his letters (above) is a picture of him in football gear with two of his buddies from the medics. He’s in the center.
Award-winning actress Linda Lavin in A Short History of Decay
There’s a remarkable scene in A Short History of Decay, the début film by writer/director Michael Maren, that will be familiar to anyone whose life has ever been touched by illness—which is to say all of us. Sandy Fisher, played with exquisite nuance by award-winning actress Linda Lavin, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and aware that she’s losing her lucidity. Sandy has just had a brave, candid conversation about the reality of her illness with her son, Nathan, a writer played by Bryan Greenberg. She reveals how scared her husband (Harris Yulin)—is by the prospect of losing her—he’s in poor health himself, having suffering a stroke. The ostensible subject of the conversation is Sandy’s need to move into an assisted-living center, but the subtext is mortality, and Lavin’s performance is a master class in acting. It is during their embrace, when her son cannot see her eyes, that she reveals the fear and terror she’s kept at bay.
I’ve kept my eye on this beautiful film throughout its development. My mother had Alzheimer’s. Unlike Lavin’s character, however, my mother was not aware of what was happening to her—her version of the disease announced itself suddenly, with episodes of paranoid delusions. Having lived through her nightmare, I can’t say I would have preferred a gradual declension of the sort embodied by Sandy Fisher—the “short history of decay” that would have allowed for time to accept and adjust and plan. Knowing my mother as I did, I think that living with an awareness of what was happening to her mind would have horrified her.
My focus on this scene, and my interest in the Alzheimer’s arc of the film, should in no way mislead you into thinking that A Short History of Decay is depressing. Far, far from it. The film’s triumph is the hope that plays like a horizon note throughout its patient, careful storytelling. That, and its moments of pure grace and humor. Maren, whose mother has Alzheimer’s, drew from his own life in writing the film, which he has called “a darkish comedy.” Critics such as Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post are praising Maren for managing “the nifty tonal trick of telling a tragic tale and somehow making you feel hopeful about its characters.”
I had the chance to interview Linda Lavin by phone during the run-up to the film’s release; it opens in New York City at the Village East Cinemas on May 16. I asked what she looks for in a script or screenplay, and what, in particular, drew her to Maren’s film.
“I look for a script that makes me laugh and cry while I’m reading it,” she says. “Michael’s screenplay felt comic, tragic, real, funny, and sad.”
How did Lavin prepare for the role of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s?
“I didn’t prepare,” she says. “I just showed up. I used my imagination, and what was in the script—what Michael had written. This is a personal story for him, so we would ask him questions. He was a very gentle guide as a director.”
But enough telling. Let me show you the trailer for the film:
Alice Doesn’t Work Here Anymore Lavin’s portrayal of Sandy Fisher might surprise audiences who know her only as the iconic and beloved waitress Alice Hyatt from the hit CBS series Alice, a role which earned her two back-to-back Golden Globe awards. So, for those who haven’t kept up with her career, here’s a quick primer: Two years after Alice ended its nine-year run in 1985, Lavin won a Tony Award for her performance as Neil Simon’s mother in BroadwayBound, a role for which she also won Drama Desk, Outer Critics’ Circle, and Helen Hayes awards.
All in all, Lavin has earned six Tony nominations—for The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Diary of Anne Frank (where, as Mrs. Van Daan, she was first paired as Harris Yulin’s wife), The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Collected Stories, and The Lyons.
At 77, Lavin is as busy as ever. In addition to the release of A Short History of Decay, she stars in a new play at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan. Nicky Silver, who wrote The Lyons, created the part of Audrey Langham in Too Much Sun for Lavin.
“I’m excited to be playing this character—a successful American actress having one spiritual awakening after another,” she says.
When I asked her what life experience had the most significant effect on her art and on her career, her answer was that of a woman intimately familiar with spiritual awakenings:
“Life is about evolving. I can’t say I would point to one experience. I believe everybody and everything that’s ever happened to me has gotten me this far. I have more to learn, more to do. Each experience leads me to a place of knowledge and surrender and truth, and the ability to accept things as they are and the courage to change the things I can.”
Even if you haven’t seen Philomena, the acclaimed 2013 film directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the media attention surrounding it has possibly made you aware of the fraught issue of closed adoption—especially those adoptions arranged and sanctioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The heart-wrenching tale of an unwed girl’s loss of her child in 1950’s Ireland, when the nuns at the abbey that took her in adopted him out to an American couple, received many critical accolades and awards—four Academy Award nominations among them, including a Best Picture nod and a seventh Best Actress nomination for Dench. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who helped Philomena in her search for her son—50 years after his birth—the film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, VOD, and Pay-Per-View. If you missed it during its theatrical release, I urge you to see it now—especially if you are an adoptive parent, as I am.
My son is now nearly 33 years old. Because his story overlaps with mine (as each of our narratives intersect with those of others), I asked M if he would be comfortable with my telling my part of our shared story. He assured me he would. (He hasn’t yet seen the film, although he’ll be coming over soon to watch it with me.)
Before I get too far ahead of myself, take a look at the trailer, and note the unexpected moments of humor in this beautifully crafted film:
I’m glad that I was alone when I watched Philomena. Although I was aware of the story and how it develops (I’ll not provide spoilers here, so continue reading without concern)* I viewed it privately not to shield my son from my reactions to the film, but rather to give myself space to have those reactions, and to reflect on what this courageous woman’s story meant to me.
That’s Philomena’s Story. Here’s Mine. If you’ve read the serialized medical memoir on my blog, you already know the circumstances that led my first husband and me to adopt a child. We don’t get much from Philomena’s story about the way adoption changed and fulfilled the lives of her son’s adoptive parents. (The adoption of three-year-old Anthony Lee, later known as Michael Hess, was almost an afterthought; he was paired at the last-minute with a younger girl whom the St. Louis couple had traveled to adopt.)
So let me tell you, from my experience and perspective, what it felt like the first time M was placed in my arms:
I was overwhelmed by love. I was ridiculously happy to have him in my arms.
M was four-and-a-half months old and crying when we first met him in the agency office. (We discovered, once we got him home, that he had a terrible case of diaper rash.) The first thing I noticed was his full head of beautiful, dark blond hair. When your ability to bear a child is taken from you as emphatically as was mine, you are unquestioningly grateful when you are fortunate to adopt. As thrilled as we were to have an infant, I would not realize until later how much it would have meant—to M and to me—to be able to hold him in the moments after his birth. Did he have an uncanny infant-awareness that a difference existed in the warmth and scent of the body holding him now, compared to that of the foster parent who cared for him in the months since his birth? This was not a thought I articulated then. Then, all I could think to say to him, instinctively and repeatedly, was this: It’s Mommy. You’re home now. It’s mommy. I love you and you’re home now.
Among the charming items we decorated M’s yellow nursery with was a framed poem that I would sometimes read aloud to him:
Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it.
It would be a while before my delicious feelings of motherhood could allow room for the fact that there had been someone before me. But as my son grew older, it became clear that if ever in his life he felt he wanted to know his origins, I would move mountains to help him in his search. I did not know—I still do not know—anything about the woman who gave birth to my son other than the fact that she had hay fever and (if memory serves), was of Italian and Irish ancestry. We might have been told that she attended college, but I’m not even sure of that. I know I took notes when we got the call, but those are stored in a box in my first husband’s home. I’m relying on pure, faulty memory here. But I can tell you this with certainty: Whatever powerful reason compelled her to make her decision, I thanked her every day. And each year, on M’s birthday, I say a silent prayer for her.
The heartbreaking difference in Philomena’s situation is that she was not given a choice; Anthony was abruptly taken from her after she had three years—such as they were—with him. (The young girls worked long hours in the laundry at the abbey, permitted only one hour each day with their children). I would like to think that the adoptive parents of Michael Hess, who was born Anthony Lee, said a similar prayer for Philomena.
Open Versus Closed Adoption Because my first husband and I were Catholic, and because we had heard that the wait time was not as long as with the non-religious affiliated agency in town, the Catholic Charities organization in our local diocese arranged our adoption, which was legalized through our county’s probate court. As far as I know, closed adoption was the only process through which a couple in Ohio could adopt a child in 1981. That’s since changed, of course; today, open adoption is becoming the norm, with birth and adoptive parents often meeting one another and exchanging helpful information.
Lori Holden is a blogger and writer from Colorado whom I met at a blogging conference a couple of years ago. She is also an adoptive parent. With her daughter’s birth mother, Holden co-authored a book called The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption. I interviewed her via e-mail, and she confirmed that much has changed since our closed adoption in 1981. Holden shared with me statistics from the Donaldson Adoption Institute:
“Prior to 1990,” she wrote, “fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2012, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption.”
According to Holden, “there is no set definition” to what open adoption means; she writes that it is not necessarily the case that birth parents meet the adoptive parents, for example. Open adoption might simply mean an exchange of information; for others, it could entail some agreement about contact or integration between the families. To others it could mean access to original birth records, or some combination of all these factors.
“For years, adoption agencies have been telling adopting parents why to do open adoption,” says Holden. There was, however, often no support or guidance in exactly how to go about doing so. The book she wrote with her daughter’s birth mother is, she says, “the girlfriend’s guide I wished had been available at the start of my journey into adoptive parenting. For all the shame and pain caused by secretive adoptions for women like Philomena and her son, Anthony, openness could have been the antidote. Readers say our book helps heal the split that is created at the moment of placement between a child’s biology—the story he’s born with down to his DNA, and his biography—the life that’s written thereafter.”
The Times They are A-Changin’ In Ohio, where I live and where my son’s adoption took place, Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that will eventually allow adoptees, upon attaining legal age, access to their birth records. According to reporting by Robert Higgs of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, “the law applies to an estimated 400,000 Ohioans adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996.” This would include my son; he was born in June 1981.
According to Holden, many states are beginning “to unseal what was once sealed.” In fact, the day she responded to my e-mail, her own state of Colorado put two bills through the legislature. She shared with me a link to a map, created by the White Oak Foundation, illustrating U.S. adoption statutes.
I’m grateful for this new law in Ohio. If and when my son decides to take the next step and conduct a search, his path will be cleared of many obstructions.
What I realized, watching Philomena, was how excruciatingly painful that separation from Anthony was for her. Even as an adoptive parent, I wanted to reach through the screen and prevent that hopeful St. Louis couple from realizing their dream—I wanted to intervene on Philomena’s behalf, so strongly did I identify with her. In experiencing the joy of raising my son and watching him grow into an accomplished young man, I understand the power of a mother’s love.
I look forward to watching Philomena with him.
Postscript Philomena Lee has become an advocate for adoption rights in Ireland, founding The Philomena Project in conjunction with that country’s Adoption Rights Alliance. The organization calls upon the Irish government to implement adoption information and tracing legislation. Philomena Lee is taking her fight all the way to the Irish Supreme Court.
The shame and pain that Holden referred to earlier was such that in Ireland, at the abbey where Philomena was sent, the nuns insisted that the girls’ identity be kept hidden—a fact not included in the film. Anne Midgette, writing in the Washington Post, reported that “the girls in the convent were forced to use other names—Philomena went by “Marcella”—and never knew each others’ true identities.”
When I read this, I had to stop and read it again, and then a third time, to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Philomena went by ‘Marcella.’
My name is Mari-Marcelle.
* The following articles do contain spoilers, but I provide them for those who would like to explore the story further:
One of my favorite childhood pastimes was playing connect-the-dots. I took great pleasure in guiding my pencil from one numbered dot to the next to find out what would reveal itself to me on the page.
Writing is like that. So is life.
And this is a true story.
About two years ago, I was in Manhattan for a conference. It was Sunday, the last day, my travel day home, but after 72 hours in the airless rooms of the New York Hilton, my friend Nancy and I decided we’d escape and treat ourselves to brunch at Sarabeth’s. Being outside felt wonderful, despite the sticky August humidity. As we walked along Avenue of the Americas to the restaurant on Central Park South, I felt the exhilaration I always feel whenever I’m in the city: the rush of traffic, the clusters of strangers moving with and against me on the broad sidewalks, the glint of granite and marble and glass in the summer sunlight. All of this combines to make me feel as though I’m part of something important and larger than myself. The experience also, strangely, makes me feel grounded and secure; at the same time, I’m aware that at any moment, something unusual might happen that could change my course.
That morning, something did.
Nancy and I reached the restaurant and positioned ourselves to join the short queue that had formed outside the door. Out of the corner of my eye, two people emerged, one of them familiar to me. “Linda Lavin,” I said softly to Nancy. And then, for emphasis, to register my out-of-towner’s surprise at seeing a Famous Person, and to make sure Nancy heard me, I repeated, a bit loudly: “It’s Linda Lavin!” Not only Nancy heard me; so did Ms. Lavin, who looked over at me, probably thinking, tourists!
Thus engaged, I said the only thing I could say to justify my rube-like behavior: “We love you!” Linda Lavin smiled. She was wearing a baseball cap, which looked adorable on her, and she continued on her way.
You might think the story ends there, but it doesn’t.
Nancy and I enjoyed a delicious brunch, walked back to our hotel, picked up our baggage from the concierge and parted amidst the foot traffic of a sweltering day—she to hail a taxi for the airport, me to catch a cab to Penn Station.
Settled in Amtrak’s Quiet Car, heading south to Virginia on the Northeast Regional Line, I picked up my iPhone and sent out a tweet that went something like this:
“Spotted Linda Lavin outside Sarabeth’s in NYC…don’t you just love her?”
A moment passed, possibly two, and then, to my surprise, someone with the handle “mmaren” retweeted my tweet.
“Why would somone retweet this?” I wondered. And “who is “mmaren?” I clicked on his Twitter profile, and then on the hyperlink to his website.
A journalist. A filmmaker—something about a film in production. Husband of writer Dani Shapiro. I filed all this away, and tweeted out my thanks to him for the retweet. (For those who might be reading this hundreds of years into the future, tweeting is how people met one another in the early 21st century, without really meeting each other.)
Back and forth we tweeted, during which Mr. Maren followed me. Here’s a brief exchange:
I have since followed the development of Maren’s film, A Short History of Decay, with great interest, and I’m eager to see it. Throughout the past year, select film festivals have screened it, and Paladin is releasing it in April 2014. If you’d like to know more about it, here’s an interview, from the Hamptons International Film Festival, with Maren and two of the film’s actors:
I wrote at the beginning of this essay that my Linda Lavin sighting on that humid Sunday morning in 2012 set me on a different course; it was, in fact, a course strewn with dots that I connected, one after the other: my tweet about seeing her led to Michael Maren’s retweet, and my awareness of his film about Alzheimer’s—a topic of great interest to me. Our resulting exchanges led me to seek out more information about the writings of his wife, Dani Shapiro, whom at the time I had not read.
Now, after reading two of her novels; one of her memoirs, Slow Motion; and having nearly finished her newest book, the astonishing Still Writing (which I’m recommending to every writer I know), I have made a discovery. In Shapiro’s work I have found a kindred spirit and a literary soul-mate—as I read her I feel as though I’m filling pages of connect-the-dot workbooks, each one studded with epiphanies.
Here’s one of them: I would like to study with her. I’m at work on a manuscript, and in need of a mentor and guide. I find myself at the end of that long cluster of dots that emerged in Manhattan nearly two years ago, to this spot: I am first on the wait-list for Shapiro’s workshop in fiction and memoir at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
I hope and pray I get in. Maybe, if I happen to see Linda Lavin somewhere in the Cleveland area, where I’m living now, I can take that as a good sign.
When my husband and I were falling in love and committing ourselves to coupledom, I said to him, in all seriousness, “I want decades with you.” That was more than four years ago, when he was 55, and I was 53. It felt like a tall order; his mother died at 62, my father at 47. Then there was the fact that I’d had “a mild case of cancer,” undergoing surgery and radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer. At the time of our courtship, however, I was in fine health, and so was John. (As of this writing we still are, knock wood.) This being the case, I am as hopeful for our future now as I was when we were betrothed. (Great word, isn’t it?) I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s great poetic line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” My husband and I have been flying together for half a decade. I want to soar many more miles with him.
John turns 60 on Thursday, February 13. There’s something about crossing the threshold into a new decade that gives one pause; mid-lifers especially, I think, tend toward reflection here, especially if they’re in a second relationship. We have fewer mile markers in front of us, and we know that one of them will be fateful. All John or I can do is live each day with love—as if every day is Valentine’s Day, as, indeed, it will be the morning after his birthday.
Besides hosting Valentine’s Day, the 14th is a significant date for us because we met on the 14th of June. For that reason, when we decided to marry, we chose August 14 as our wedding day. The middle of February is, you might say, a peak time on our calendar, what with his birthday, V-Day, and, this year, our 56-month anniversary. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s black-tie-and-gown party time. Last year, for example, movers in Richmond were loading a truck with our belongings. This year, as I write this, I’m still in a leg cast.
As Connie Schultz says, life happens. John and I might not be able to go out and paint the town Cupid red, but by spreading out the significance of our love over 365 days—that is, by not taking one another for granted—each day feels more valuable, more treasured. Being mindful of our love each day helps us stack the deck. We might have only half a decade on our scorecard, but if we care for each other, are kind to each other, and express our love in ways minuscule as well as magnificent—every single day—it will seem as though we really are getting more decades than the calendar suggests. Some might call this magical thinking. I call it hoping, with feathers.
Happy 60th birthday, my love. And Happy Valentine’s Day, too. I wish you (and me, for you) good health. Decades of it.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
The news alert that came through my smart phone on Sunday shocked me, as it did innumerable others: Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died. And like innumerable others, I scoured the Internet for a news source, posted a link on Facebook, and expressed my disbelief and sadness on social networks. The New York Times published a series of Twitter encomiums by fellow actors. Anna Kendrick’s (@AnnaKendrick47) was particularly poignant: “Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unbearably, shockingly, deeply sad. Words fail to describe his life and our loss.”
My own reaction barely warrants a ripple in this tide. Still, I felt compelled to express my sadness, as I feel moved to write this essay. Why? Did I know the man? No.
Or did I?
Bruce Weber, writing in the Times, called Hoffman “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” a correct assessment, I’d say. He also zeroed in on one of Hoffman’s ineffable gifts as an actor—“his Everyman mien.” In a wildly diverse array of roles, Hoffman embodied each character so completely as to suggest he could be anyone we knew—either in real life, or, in the case of Truman Capote, someone from the pantheon of culture.
As for Hoffman’s complete submersion in the complex soul of that astonishing writer? Who other than he—and this is to take nothing away from Toby Jones’s own splendid performance in the Capote role— could have accomplished that? The voice, the accent, the demeanor, the neurosis.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Take a look at this brief compilation showing some of the characters memorably brought to life by this singular actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment on Sunday, Feb. 2, a syringe in his arm. Reports indicate he died of an apparent drug overdose.
I cannot speak to the destructive force of drug addiction. No one I have ever known has suffered under that particular curse, and minds more learned than mine will have to weigh in on its insidious power to invade a person’s soul, and the tragic role it played in Hoffman’s life and death. All I know is this: extraordinarily gifted and utterly ordinary people—too many in our society—have been lost to the disease. If Hoffman’s death sparks a meaningful, productive, dialog in our country about drug addiction, then perhaps that’s something. But in the meantime, his family, friends, and colleagues grieve.
His family’s loss is something I can relate to; my father died when I was 13. Is this why I’m so deeply saddened by Hoffman’s sudden, untimely death? Did losing a parent at a vulnerable age condition me to feel losses such as Hoffman’s more deeply?
Or is it the nature of celebrity itself? A movie screen—a thin membrane, really—separates an audience from the larger-than-life inhabitants on the other side. But such is the power of a performer as profoundly talented as Hoffman that he can pierce that barrier, touch our souls, and sear an image into our memory.
And then there’s the fact that film lives forever. Hoffman cannot really be gone, can he? Not when we can log into Netflix, select The Talented Mr. Ripley, and see him right there on the screen of a device we hold in our hands? The intimacy of film, and our ready access to it, is such that we literally carry these performances with us. This is such a gift, and possibly a comfort, but it nevertheless renders an actor as vivid as Hoffman with a familiar quality.
How must that false sense of intimacy feel for a celebrated actor? To know that wherever he goes, whatever he does in his off-screen, off-stage life, he is recognized. Known, but not known. How much of a burden was fame for Hoffman? How much of a burden is it for anyone living a public life?
In trying to answer one question—why am I so saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?—I only seem to come up with more questions.
Do we grieve the loss of a man we’ve never met because, like us, he was once anonymous? And, like many of us, he had a dream? And, unlike most of us, he saw that dream realized? Is he our proxy? Those of us who deferred our own dreams, or are waiting to see them come true, feel the icy slap of reality: If we get our heart’s desire, someday it will go away. None of us lives forever. How long, really, might we have to enjoy our dreams made manifest?
The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman—of anyone in the public eye—is a reminder of our own mortality, writ large.
Or maybe it’s not quite as cosmic as all that. Maybe, for those of us who appreciate art and hold artists in high esteem, it means the end of something great. At the time of his death, Hoffman had three films in varying stages of production—the two-part Mockingjay films from the HungerGames franchise, and a documentary about autism. It is unclear what his death will mean for their respective releases, but suffice to say that after any of these films come out, we will never again see a new performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I can’t help but think that when it comes to Thanksgiving, I’m operating under some sort of jinx. Ten years ago, my divorce was finalized the day before Thanksgiving. I wrote about that experience two years ago on this blog in a post that struck a chord with well more than a thousand readers after being featured on WordPress. The following year, the essay was reprinted on Better After 50, a terrific site for midlifers.
The post addressed the vast changes I grappled with in celebrating a major holiday right on the heels of my divorce, and how, newly remarried, my second husband and I would drive up to Ohio from Virginia, where we had recently moved. Having no home base any longer, we celebrated Thanksgiving in a restaurant. We were with all three of our sons, but it still felt alien to me.
Last year, my husband and I very nearly had to spend the holiday apart; he had just taken on a new job back in Ohio, and I was holding down the fort at our Virginia home, beginning, once again, the rituals of packing and preparing a house to go on the market. John could have had his turkey in the dining area of the Residence Inn, where his company was putting him up; I would have had the better end of the deal: celebrating with our good friends in Richmond. But I flew up for a house-hunting trip, and my future daughter-in-law’s parents kindly invited us to join them for their Thanksgiving. Still, it wasn’t quite the same. This now made two years in a row that I wasn’t able to cook for my favorite food holiday.
So imagine my excitement this year when, finally settled in a charming 84-year-old house near the shores of Lake Erie, I began orchestrating plans for a Thanksgiving meal around my grandmother’s old table. I began to pull out my holiday recipes. I ordered an organic, free-range turkey from our local market. I put a fall wreath on the front door.
Because John’s older son and his fiancé couldn’t rearrange their work schedules, we actually celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas on Friday, November 8, with a homemade lasagna dinner at which all of our boys were present, joined by P’s fiancé and my son’s new bride. It was lovely. And it’s a good thing we had that at least, because two days later, I fell.
We were walking our dog Sunday evening. It was dark. This little deadly was on the sidewalk:
Ohio is the buckeye state. This is a buckeye pod. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Long story short, a trip to the emergency room confirmed my worst fear: I had broken my left foot at the fifth metatarsal. The break, known as a Jones fracture, is an unfortunate one in that these types of fractures take an inordinately long time to heal. Something about diminished blood flow in that part of the foot. The orthopedic surgeon I saw the following day ordered a short-leg plaster cast and absolutely no walking on the foot for at least six weeks. At least the fracture doesn’t require surgery.
Now, let me tell you something about charming old homes that were built in 1929. They do not have first-floor master suites. They typically have only one bathroom, always on the second floor. Homes like ours, which have undergone renovation before we got to them, will have a powder room on the main floor. Ours is an anomaly in that the powder room, for which we’re grateful, can only be accessed by walking down two steps off our kitchen. We must also walk up three steps to enter the back door and two to enter the front. Do you see where I’m going with this? The operative word here is “steps.” Crutches are notoriously dangerous…perhaps as dangerous as buckeye pods. The only way for me to get anywhere vertically in our house is by scooching on my bottom. Unless you work out frequently and have impressive upper body strength (which I don’t), this is not as easy as you would think. Consequently, I have spent nearly three weeks marooned on the second floor of our home.
Here’s where I get to the part about being thankful.
My youngest stepson is enjoying a gap year from college. He has been here every day during the week since my fall, bringing me meals on a tray, walking our dog (carefully), and performing all manner of tasks and errands until my husband returns from work in the evening. In an attempt to help further his education (maybe not much of a deal for him), I’ve taken him on as an intern for my company, teaching him a few PR ropes. He is assisting me with an important project for one of my clients, and quite frankly, I don’t know what I’d do without him. Luckily my office is on the second floor. I tool back and forth from bed to bath and beyond (well, to the office) with this nifty knee scooter.
My husband is doing the cooking, marketing, also running errands, and tending to me in the most loving way imaginable—all while commuting to work each day. He has the patience of Job.
Our new church has arranged for us to have several home-cooked meals; one new church-friend even dropped by our home with altar flowers to cheer me. Two neighbors have helped me out with a couple of breakfasts when C. wasn’t able to be here in the morning. Members of the blogging community have reached out to me with love and good wishes. The positive energy from all of this could get a city off the grid.
So this Thanksgiving, when I bow my head before the turkey dinner that my husband will have cooked with the help of his youngest son, I know what my blessings are, and what to be thankful for. They are legion, and I am humbled by the generosity and selflessness of others.
But if it’s all right with you, God, I’m going to add a small request during my prayer of thanks: Please. No more broken bones. As You know, because You know everything, this is my third fracture.
Readers, I suppose I’ll have to tell you about those other bad breaks some time. For now, let’s all give thanks for family and friends.
Wishing you a blessed, healthy, and peaceful Thanksgiving!
Me, circa 1961, during the first year of JFK’s presidency. My father sold dolls in his hardware store (although not the Madame Alexander Caroline doll), and a highlight of the year was attending the Worthington Toy and Gift Show.
Like most American schoolchildren on November 22, 1963, I was sitting at a desk when the news reached us. It was after lunch, and, if I were to guess, my second-grade class was doing phonics exercises when our principal, Sister Mary Vaughan, announced over the P.A. system that President Kennedy had been shot, and would we all please stop our work and pray for him?
After the initial gasps and cries of disbelief, the room became as quiet as the empty church across the alley. I don’t know with certainty that this happened, but I imagine our teacher, Miss Foreman, pulling out her rosary, quietly marking each bead with its designated prayer—the Our Father or the Hail Mary or the Glory Be. There’s no doubt in my memory about this, however; I clenched my hands together as tightly as I could and squeezed my eyes shut: this was the most important praying I had ever done before, and it had to count.
So fierce was my prayerful concentration that I barely heard the P.A. system crackle back to life. Sister Mary Vaughan had returned to announce that the President had died. We were now to pray for his immortal soul. You could tell she had been crying, but she was trying to be brave for us. She was, in fact, the bravest person I knew. She once traded in her black habit for the cooler white one worn by the Sisters of Notre Dame when they served as missionaries in India. She spoke at assemblies in the cafeteria about the experience, asking us to contribute our pennies and dimes to the missions. There were rumors that she might leave St Mary’s at the end of the school year, possibly to return to India. I hoped it wasn’t true. She was the kindest of all the nuns and teachers at St. Mary’s, and I knew I would miss her just as much as I would miss President Kennedy.
President Kennedy. He was dead, and I couldn’t really grasp what that meant. I had never known anyone who died before. Not that I actually knew him, but I did see him once in person, before he became president. This was a memory far more powerful than any television image, and there were certainly many of those to recall. It seemed as though he was on television all the time.
It was three years ago, on Monday, September 27, 1960. I was four-years-old and, like most days spent in my father’s hardware store in Elyria, Ohio, I was coveting the dolls in the toy aisle, or scribbling with crayons on the large pads of paper that had “Supreme Hardware” printed in green letters on the top.
On that particular day, crowds began to gather on either side of Middle Avenue. Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign motorcade route was to proceed right past the store, and my father wanted to make sure we were witness to history. He scooped me up, rushed us outside, and perched me on his shoulders so I’d have a good view.
The man who was running for president waved to us from the convertible limousine—he waved to everyone on the sidelines—all of us cheering “JFK! JFK!” Someone tossed pretend straw hats into the crowd, and my father caught one. “WIN WITH KENNEDY” was stamped on the red, white, and blue headband. Then, just as quickly as the excitement peaked, the limousine drove north on Middle Avenue to take the Senator and his motorcade on to his next stop.
“Motorcade” wasn’t a word I knew then. I only knew that the car in which Senator Kennedy sat, perched on the backseat’s rear ledge, was simply part of the parade, and reminded me of my father’s Cadillac convertible. But three years later, the word “motorcade” was forcibly added to my vocabulary, along with “assassinated” and “assassin,” “rotunda,” and “caisson.”
I suddenly thought of Caroline. I was barely two years older than she; I couldn’t imagine that the pert little girl I thought of as a kindred spirit wouldn’t have a father anymore.
Like most little girls in 1963, Caroline represented for me a combination of fairy-tale princess, sister, and playmate. I was an only child, so it thrilled me to know that someone nearly my age lived in the White House with such glamorous parents and an adorable baby brother. I played with Caroline paper dolls, and I had a child-sized Kennedy rocking chair.
After school let out, Mrs. Schaeffer, whose daughter was in my class, dropped me off at the corner of my street. When I reached our front sidewalk, I could see my mother, standing as she always did, preparing dinner at the dining room table. (Our kitchen was a small galley with hardly any counter space.) She was crying, and even though I knew that what happened that day was horrible, it still surprised me—and frightened me a little—to see my mother crying like that. The television was on; I’m almost positive that it was tuned to CBS and Walter Cronkite, because in my mother’s view, the fourth-most revered man in the world (after Pope Paul VI, President Kennedy, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen), was Walter Cronkite. I don’t, however, remember seeing any of the coverage from that day.
Did my mother think the reporting was too disturbing for me to hear? Was I too young to join her and my father in front of the set? Would she have turned it off and wait to get more news from the afternoon paper? Or wait until I had fallen asleep? I honestly don’t remember.
The next television memory I have was generated a couple of days later. My parents and I had gathered at my Aunt Mary’s house on Pinewood Drive to watch the funeral procession on her new TV.
We cried when we saw Caroline and John-John—especially when he saluted his father. The horse-drawn caisson (that word fascinates me still) making its long way through Washington—such a vastly different procession from the motorcade I had witnessed three years earlier—mesmerized me.
My mother used to tell me that when I was little, if I liked a person, I would say “He (or she) gots a nice face.” I thought President Kennedy had a nice face. I loved his smile, and the way he looked right at us when he spoke to us on television, the way he grinned and waved from that convertible limousine on his swing through Elyria, Ohio. He was so handsome. Now he was gone, hidden inside the flag-draped coffin.
Those images from the funeral cortege (another word I learned that weekend), will always stay with me, but I learned something else during that solemn broadcast that would prove even more powerful.
My mother and I used to light votive candles in church as part of our prayers of intercession. I never gave much thought to the fact that the candle would eventually burn itself out, and a fresh new votive would replace it. It seemed to me that the act of lighting the candle was the important thing. But then the television cameras showed us where President Kennedy would be buried, in Arlington National Cemetery, and Walter Cronkite told us that an eternal flame would mark the President’s grave site. I imagined the largest votive candle in the world, one that would never burn itself out.
So many words and images seared themselves into my consciousness that November.
Only one of them—the eternal flame—offered some measure of comfort.
Eternal Flame Kennedy Memorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)