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On the Road Again

My beautiful mother “pre” license. Gearing up for future driving adventures…

“On the road, again, just can’t wait to get on that road again.

Going places that I’ve never been.

Seein’ things that I may never see again.

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Willie Nelson

“Your mother,” began Jimmy Dillon, who sat contentedly perched on the bar stool next to mine. It was Christmas Eve and the atmosphere rang of reunion and festivity. Publicans was our beloved hometown bar; a place where many had enjoyed their first legal drink and to where they returned once again on these holiday weekends, to bask in friendship and bygone days. I studied Jimmy, a boy I had known briefly from my neighborhood who had gone on in later years to become a fire fighter. Close to 50 now, his twinkling blue eyes and shock of red hair still mirrored his sixteen year old self. He continued on, his tone a mixture of fondness and fear. “Probably the nicest woman I have ever met, but the day she picked me when I was walking home from school? I saw my life pass before my eyes!” He took a long swig of his beer in an attempt to quell the memory then proceeded to emulate how my mother would ask him a question while driving and then turn full around to where he sat in the back seat, to hear his answer. He weaved and bobbed on the bar stool his hands flailing wildly as he re-lived the moment. The last thing I remember him saying as he made his way into the crowd was “would you give her my best? She was just the nicest lady…”

We had heard it all before you see, my sisters and I, as my mother was somewhat of a legend for her driving. Our father perhaps bore the brunt of these mishaps most deeply while fielding numerous phone calls in regards to the fender benders my mother had incurred over the years.  Our Insurance Agent, Joe Kilhenny, was a fixture at many our family’s Sunday barbeques and in later years attended my wedding.

Growing up on a farm in rural Leitrim my mother’s mode of transportation was her trusty bicycle which she rode around the countryside. She often described a nearby orchard where she would stop and pick apples on her way to school.  I remember how she laughed at the memory of being chased by a farmer after tucking a choice few into her pocket one visit.

 In her mid-twenties she left her cherished Ireland for New York City and became a pediatric nurse at St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village. Meeting my father shortly thereafter, they married had four daughters and settled in a suburb of Long Island. And for a good awhile she survived without the need to drive, walking to the nearby market and relying on the kindness of friends when needed.  But as the years passed the kitchen calendar grew full. Sports, birthday parties, doctor’s appointments, the rhythm of life – all requiring a car and a licensed driver. She could put it off no longer. And so it began.

It is always debated among our family exactly how many times she took her road test.  We settled at nine though the exact number will always be a mystery. The eighth time she failed, her fiercely loyal best friend Eileen Anello, outraged at the injustice of it all claimed she “knew a judge.” And whether by the hand of god, my mother’s ability or that nameless judge, my mother at 50 years of age at last passed her road test.

When I was in Middle School, she drove through the McGuire’s backyard. Claiming the road was slippery from a recent rain, she careened through some hedges, jumped a curb and stopped dead set in the middle of the tidy backyard. Finding no one home she left a note with her name and number, no other explanation needed. The chant of “your mother drove through the McGuire’s backyard!!” echoing through the school bus, haunted me and my three sisters for years.

Our Irish wolfhound caught on early.  We never knew exactly what happened but one day after numerous trips driving with my mother to the dog field, he stubbornly refused to get in the car. Nothing worked. Tugging, pushing or being cajoled with dog treats. He was done.

In our early months of dating my future husband was unaware of my mother’s driving escapades. Visiting our home for the first time through the garage he noticed a refrigerator positioned against the back wall sporting a severely dented door. Entering the house he asked my father, “Bill, what happened to that refrigerator’s door in the garage?” Without looking up from his paper came the weary reply, “Oh, Mary uses the fridge as a measuring device of sorts. When she gives it a good whack, she knows she has pulled in completely.”

Then there was the time my sister was homesick at college and my mother as mother’s often do, came to the rescue. Never mind we lived in New York and my sister’s college was in Pennsylvania or that my mother had never before driven on a major interstate highway. There was no question she would go. So she called on the service of her best friend Lily, an Irish cousin who lived close by and in their youth grew up on an adjoining farm. And off they went that Saturday morning, my mother at the wheel and Lily riding shotgun, to visit my homesick sister.  As night fell, I watched my father pace back and forth. It was before cell phones and I had never before seen him so nervous. He clearly realized the seriousness of the situation. And then a phone call from my sister…Mom and Lily had arrived!  They were a little later than expected having ended up first in the state of Ohio due to a wrong turn but all was well as they prepared to go to dinner. I always wondered if Lily had aged a few years during that ride to Villanova University as I believe we all did.

Though my mother had a series of accidents throughout her life, what saved her I believe was the fact that she always drove far under the speed limit, an unseen angel on her shoulder or the brake pedal. A good deal of the trouble was that her attention was simply elsewhere, like the day she sheared off the side view mirror of a parked car while adjusting the radio to her favorite Irish station. My sister described turning back to see a dangling mirror as they drove onward, my mother blissfully unaware of the damage left behind. They returned to leave a note on the battered car’s windshield. It too a silent victim.

My wonderful mother has since left this world but her memory lives on in all who knew and loved her.  I see her now, in a faraway place and time still charming all with her brogue and angling at any chance possible, to get behind the wheel once again.

”I am happy to drive down to the gate to pick up our new visitors,” my mother offers. God ponders a moment always touched by her helpful nature. But he is a realist. “Well thank you Mary but it is a beautiful day. Perhaps you could ride down to meet them on your bicycle?” My mother smiles. If disappointed it does not show. She always did love riding her bicycle

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Finding Mary

A visit to a cherished next door neighbor, fifty years later, revealed a surprising revelation; you can go home again.

The simple days of summer and backyard swimming pools Jackson Heights, Queens NY 1967

When my father died, the memories that encompassed me, swirling in and out of my consciousness in the futile hope of comfort, were not of the time and place I spent the majority of my life with him. Rather, my mind returned to a tidy, brick row house where we lived my first six years and whose address remains forever etched in my mind. 34-52-73rd Street, Jackson Heights. It was not so much my childhood home in Queens to which I longed to return but instead to my next door neighbor, Mary Balducci, an Italian-born seamstress who made a lifelong impression in my heart.

She would be nearly ninety years old I calculated.  Her husband Alfred had died unexpectedly shortly after we moved and her only son Johnny, had long married and moved away.  We had not kept in touch after leaving Jackson Heights though in the weeks and months shortly after, while driving home from New York City where my father worked, would make impromptu visits.  On those trips I would recall my father suddenly announcing in a jovial voice “Who wants to stop and see Mary?” and as my two sisters and I shrieked in excitement he would turn the car around for the short detour to 73rd street.  While my father sat curbside, we would race to her front door, ring the bell then wait hopefully, but she was always home.  She would embrace us with the same two words, repeated again and again “my babies, my babies.”  Over the years these visits became less frequent and as we settled into the rhythm of life, eventually ceased all together.  And I tucked the memories of 73rd Street and Mary Balducci neatly away.

The search was simple really.  No intense sleuthing, no years of tracking down leads on where she had gone.  No heartbreak in discovering she was no longer alive.  Just a google search revealing her address, followed by a phone number.  A chance to return to a past lifetime suddenly lay before me; Maria Balducci, 34-52-73rd Street, Jackson Heights.  She answered on the eighth ring, in the warm, lilting Italian I accent I recognized immediately.  “Mary?” this is Kathy your old next door neighbor. My father died.  Can I come see you?”

They say you can’t go home again…

She greeted me in a simple faded housecoat and pink slippers, her black hair still thick and luxurious, defying her ninety one years.  “My baby, my baby,” she repeated over and over.  “Come! Walk around! Go upstairs! Look! Remember!”

I tentatively entered her dining room and stood before the breakfront. I recall the bottom drawer always being filled with Juicy Fruit gum which Mary gave to us in abandon.  I approached and as she nodded, grasped the drawer which slid open easily, gratefully, as if all these years awaiting my return. It is said that the sense of smell is probably more closely linked with memory than any of our other senses. The aroma of Juicy Fruit gum filled the air.

They say you can’t go home again.

I walked into the kitchen where I had sat countless days at her table eating bowls of “skinny spaghetti” on top of which she painstakingly grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese bought from a market in Little Italy. Gazing out the window I spotted across the way, the neat line of row houses and then the one I most sought out, my childhood boyfriend James Latieri. Years later after we had we left Jackson Heights, I encountered Jimmy quite by accident, at a Chaminade High School dance in Mineola, Long Island. We sat in an outdoor pavilion, smoking cigarettes swigging Budweiser from a quart bottle and contemplating life. We were all strangers but being teenagers that little mattered. And then the conversation somehow evolved to where everyone was born. The next few moments remain in my memory jumbled but I recall hearing the words “Did you say Jackson Heights?”repeated by a lanky teen seated next to me. “Whoa! My best friend Jimmy was from Jackson Heights and he is on his way here right now!” And then as if in a dream seeing Jimmy Latieri, my six year old crush, materialize before my very eyes. Sauntering up to us, cigarette dangling from his lips he flung back his mop of long black hair and listened silently to the story. Trying to maintain his aura of cool, he lost it for a minute when he excitedly asked: “Kathy, is it really you?” We laughed together that balmy night transported from six to sixteen in an instant. His family like mine had moved to Long Island though he would never return to Queens or to 73rd Street. I imagined because Jimmy never had a Mary Balducci living next door.

Gazing out Mary’s kitchen window, I noted the tall looming high rise apartment building still standing adjacent and in that moment, remembered the terror of “the gray-haired lady.” As we played in the garden below she would appear at the window, ten stories above, fling it open and then toss an empty Vodka bottle out which always seemed to miss us by only inches. It was not being hit by the bottle I feared, but the strange, calm smile that would appear on her face right before she threw it. I dreamed about the gray haired lady for years after we left who unlike Mary represented a dark side of life during my short six years in Jackson Heights.

I asked Mary about the turtles. Could we walk out back to the garden? The row houses each had a tiny, fenced in yard behind each home. Mary’s husband Alfred tended to several Box Turtles which he kept in a beautiful pond he had created in the corner of their garden. As a child, I loved to help him feed them and attribute my lifelong love of turtles to this early introduction. As Mary and I entered the garden and stood before the spot where the pond now dry and overgrown once lay, I felt Alfred with us in spirit and hoped he was once again caring for his turtles in another place and time.

She had remained in her home on 73rd street, at ninety one years of age, a testament to her will and independence. She still left her front door unlocked and insisted she was not going to any “old age home” as her relatives urged. She continued to take the subway to Little Italy to purchase the finest ingredients for her Italian recipes. She told me of old neighbors on the street, the ones who had gone and the few that remained. I told her about the lives of my sisters and how we had remained as close as ever but it was an unspoken understanding that she and I had shared the closest bond. I expressed to her the heartache of losing my father; she told me she never quite got over our leaving. And then it was time for me to leave her once again.

Six years later, my mother died. I had no contact with Mary since our last visit but once again felt the need to see her. She would be ninety seven years old now. What were the odds? I waited for weeks then picked up the phone. After several rings a recording. The number had been disconnected. I was not surprised but nonetheless felt the need to have an end to this story. I pondered my next step. And then I recalled that Mary’s only son Johnny lived in Bayside Queens. As a child living next door I had met him only a handful of times. I searched for his name and found the address. But instead of calling, I wrote him a letter. Maybe because I did not want to hear of Mary’s dying through an impersonal phone call, maybe to buy a little more time to process she might be gone. I wrote him of my visit with his mother six years ago. I described how I sat in his childhood kitchen eating tri color ice cream at 10AM in the morning from a china bowl. I shared the indescribable feeling of walking around his home and how it had felt exactly the same. I told him about the still faint aroma, fifty years later, of the juicy fruit gum. I wrote of my memories of feeding the Box Turtles with his father. I told him how much I had loved his mother and my need to know what happened to her. I ended my letter to Johnny with the simple words “you can go home again.”

Johnny called back two weeks later. I was strangely relieved not to be home that day, as if to be spared the dreaded news. He spoke to my husband and told him how much he enjoyed my letter. He loved the part about his father and the turtles, he had not thought about the Box Turtles in years. He recalled how much his mother and father loved our family and Mary’s heartache when we moved away. She never quite got over it, he said. Yes, she was still alive but they had sold the house on 73rd street and had moved her to a nursing home just last year. It was unsafe for her to live alone and she had experienced recent dementia. He had the address if I would like to visit…

There is a portrait which hangs in the family room of my home. It shows myself and my two sisters as children, alongside my beautiful and then youthful parents. A picture that if I brought to show Mary in the nursing home, would be easily recognizable. Her babies. Three smiling girls, frozen in time. I have taken the picture down off the wall so I can easily place it in my car. It sits waiting in the corner of the living room. Waiting. It has been there for a while now but next week, yes next week for certain I will visit her.

Maria Balducci died in 2016 at the age of 99 years.

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Nature’s Door

“Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.”

Emily Dickinson

We visited the Amalfi Coast on our honeymoon twenty-five years ago.  One distinct memory was the colorful tiles which hung aside the front door of each hillside dwelling displaying the home’s number.  Each different in theme and no doubt chosen to reflect the personality of the resident.  The majority were bright and colorful alike the ubiquitous lemon trees for which the region is known.  This door, with its weathered wood and ivy framework portrayed a cool serenity. Its simple beauty proving nature to be the preferred decorator.

https://nofacilities.com/2022/01/20/old-wethersfield-business/

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Whisked Away

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is whisk.jpgMy mother was a minimalist who disliked clutter of any sort.  Our home was beautiful, warm, open and airy but devoid of any type of knickknack, or paraphernalia she deemed unattractive or cumbersome. A snapshot of our living room: simple sheer white linen curtains, a silky cherry baby grand piano adorned with one family photo and a small Belleek Scotty dog atop its finely polished finish.  Two or three tasteful paintings and a crystal Waterford bowl which sat center on the coffee table.  If there was a word to describe the opposite of hoarder it would characterize my mother.

We all learned quite early on not to leave anything within her reach or it would simply disappear, forever.  We had a theory, my sisters and I, that all those belongings, mostly certain items of clothing, were shipped off to her beloved homeland Ireland.  We imagined our relatives or their friends or friends of their friends were the delighted recipients of the new American fashions which arrived in a package stamped “overseas.”

I don’t know how this idea was formulated among us.  Had we heard my father in anger accusing her of this rather underhanded deed when he could not find his adored sweater? Had we seen a large UPS box tucked away in a hall closet? Had we heard my mother speaking to a distant relative in hushed tones, promising a shipment would soon arrive? No I do not believe we ever had absolute evidence, it was just a truth we knew existed, though one we could never quite prove.

My best friend once left her prized jean jacket at my house. I swallowed hard three days later when she came to my door ready to reclaim it.  Ransacking the house together I finally shook my head in defeat and told her she must have left it elsewhere. But deep down I knew, it was no doubt en route that very moment, via Aer Lingus, to greener pastures.

Another time, my college roommate came home with me for the weekend and left her favorite sweatshirt in my room. She too would never see it again. I imagined another teenage girl, but this one Irish by birth, clad contentedly in the Manhattan College sweatshirt, perhaps strolling the banks of the Liffey on one of those chilled and damp Irish morns or sipping a Guiness in a local pub hugging the sweatshirt close.

My sisters and I were swimmers and divers and over the years accumulated many trophies as a result of our efforts.  Years later as young adults, we noticed their absence and asked my mother where the trophies had gone. Silence.  Our school yearbooks too had a short shelf life as did report cards, photographs and artwork.  And at Christmas, our annual tree trimming, generally a happy and festive time, on more than one occasion ended in angry words and confrontations as ornaments usually of the bulky or unattractive variety, evaporated into thin air.  “Check another box,” my mother would suggest.

I think it was my father who bore the brunt most deeply.  He would sit in his recliner on Sunday mornings, peacefully reading the papers. Leaving for a short time to drive me to a friend’s house, he returned to find the papers he had left at the foot of his chair, not fifteen minutes before, gone.  He would later find them stacked neatly in the garage, whisked away before he even had the chance to get through the sports page.

Was there a method to her madness? I think she simply disliked excess and when she felt we had too many items of clothing we had not worn in a while, decided it was time for them to be on their way.

You might think that this habit of my mother’s caused anger, frustration and hurt within our family. Sometimes true, but it only lasted a day or two being that we could never really prove it was her doing. Though while looking at a Christmas card one year of my four beaming Irish cousins, I could swear the youngest was clad in my old rolling Stones tee-shirt.

As an adult, I too dislike over accumulation and clutter. I am of the school that less is more.  I understand my mother’s obsession with less more clearly now. I don’t agree with donating others belongings without permission though have been tempted on more than one occasion, to “whisk away” a number of my husband’s KU sweatshirts.  I refrain.

And on those days I long to look at an old high school yearbook, I return to my old friend’s house. The one whose jean jacket went missing.

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Ode to a Pheasant

“See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs, And mounts exulting on triumphant wings”

Alexander Pope Quotes , Source: Windsor Forest (l. 111)

pheasant

I cannot say for certain when I first made his acquaintance or tell you the exact day he stole my heart.  We had just moved to a small town in Connecticut from New York City following the 9/11 tragedy.  Our new home’s family room sported an enormous glass window which overlooked the back yard, a spectacular bucolic setting of manicured jade green grass, magnolia trees and a pond, all bordering a 200 acre nature preserve.  I was growing accustomed to the ubiquitous deer and red fox sightings but  had never before encountered a pheasant and was not prepared for the effect his physical appearance bestowed, both in brilliance and beauty.

His presence, generally either early morning or late afternoon, was always announced by a loud and strange-sounding squawk, echoing eerily through the landscape. I grew to love this sound.  Emerging from the tall hedges of the nature preserve he would strut and bob in all his splendor, slowly cruising the yard, pecking and flapping his great wings in a display of cockiness and valor.

I often pondered from where this lovely creature came.  Was he an exotic pet from some grand estate who had fled to explore new pastures? Or perhaps a restless migrant in search of a mate? I researched the presence of pheasants in Fairfield County Connecticut and discovered that these fascinating birds were indeed not native to this area and rarely seen.   My research further allowed that wild pheasants only live approximately five years in the wild unlike raised pheasants which can live up to twelve years in captivity.  Our pheasant was chasing the years.

Sadly, the pheasant never did find a partner but instead took up with a group of wild turkeys who too frequented our property.   I would often see him among the pack, his brilliance a gem among the other gray birds.   The turkeys were a friendly lot and took him in with little fanfare.  I loved them for that.  I was pleased he had found companions though daydreamed about finding him a soul mate of his own, perhaps from some pheasant farm if that sort of thing existed. I imagined visiting, picking out a female pheasant and bringing it home. And like in a fairy tale they would live happily ever after and create for our town a whole new flock of pheasants for all to enjoy.

I longed to see him daily but as if sensing his importance he arrived only once or twice a week.  In an attempt to lure him closer, I bought a bag of wild bird seed and scattered them in a line, starting at the opening of the preserve from which he emerged and ending just inches from my bedroom window.  The very next morning, I heard him, louder than usual and realized with glee that the seed trail had worked.  He stood majestically, so close to my window that I could reach out and touch him and in that brief moment snapped his photograph which still hangs on my refrigerator and atop this story.

There was something about the beauty of the pheasant and his calm demeanor that somehow made everything so right even on those days that were not.  He became a fixture in the neighborhood and neighbors became proprietary. They began referring to him as “our pheasant” if he spent any amount of time on their property.  He became somewhat of a celebrity in our small town.

When he went missing for sometimes weeks at a time, he became a topic of concern. I would see a friend in the local market and ask “Have you seen the pheasant.”?   I imagined putting posters on trees in the area with his photo and the simple word “Missing.”   No explanation necessary.

The pheasant enchanted us with his presence for over seven years, surviving hurricanes, snow storms and numerous predators.  After one particularly fierce winter storm I fancied making up a tee-shirt for him stating “I survived the blizzard of 2010” and sending his photo to our local newspaper to feature in their wildlife section.

Then one day as magically as he had appeared, the pheasant returned no more. It has been over a year now.  We no longer ask each other “Have you seen him?” There is an unsaid understanding among us. Nothing gold can stay.

Yet I still stare hard when I see the wild turkeys trotting by my window, hoping, praying for that glint of brilliant color amid the backdrop of the woods.

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The Days of Wine and Rosie’s

In the summer of 1982 my sister Sheila and I worked as waitresses at Rosie O’Grady’s in midtown Manhattan. Rosie’s was a haven for all those Irish and all those who wished to be. Co-owners Mike Carty and Austin Delaney both Irish born, could always be counted on to find work for a new arrival, fresh off the plane from their homeland sometimes holding nothing more than a few dollars in their pocket and hope in their heart. Everyone, sooner or later found their way to Rosie’s. It was that sort of place. My father Bill Dickinson, was General Manager and suggested that a stint learning the restaurant business would be a summer well spent for my sister and me. So on a hot afternoon clad in white blouse, black skirt and comfortable shoes we left our Long Island home headed to W. 52nd Street, NYC. That summer almost forty years ago, remains one of my fondest and most cherished. I remember those days. When the lights of Broadway still shone brightly and the theme of each and every night at Rosie’s was laughter and merriment. And the band played on…

Glancing at the clock above the waitress station whose hands that night seemed to be moving counter clock-wise, I pondered which song the band would play to wrap up the evening. It was without fail one of two ballads; “Good Night Irene” or “Show me the way to go home.” I made a silent bet with myself on the latter and smiled as the bandleader struck up the tune to prove me right. “Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I want to go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago and it’s gone right to my head…” I knew every word by heart to those Irish songs and on certain days when life seems to be going at a speed I cannot control, return to sweet Rosie O’Grady’s and a time where my father is alive once again. Young and handsome he stands tall at the front door welcoming patrons. We can’t go back again but we can remember.

Dabbing my finger to my lips to reapply my gloss, I tapped my foot merrily to one of my favorite tunes, “Lovey Leitrim,” the county of my mother’s birth and a song especially dear to my heart. Smoothing my apron as I hummed along, I glanced at the kitchen door which at that very moment swung open with a bang. I spotted my sister Sheila with whom I partnered as a waitress.  As her eyes met mine I could have sworn for a moment they narrowed. It had always been a source of friction between us, our roles in the waitress hierarchy.  Waiters and waitresses were comprised of a team of two -one working outside on the floor and the other inside the kitchen. Sheila felt her job, (the inside) which consisted of standing in the kitchen under the hot lamps of the steam table and then bringing the food to the awaiting customer was the more laborious and unglamorous. I, (the outside partner,) took cocktail and dinner orders. How these roles were initially decided upon remains a mystery though I believe it was reasoned that she was the more physically stronger and better suited to toting the often back breaking trays.  I watched her approach a corner table as she balanced two plates of prime rib like a seasoned juggler, a glint of perspiration on her brow.  Maneuvering the steaming platters her arm shaking under the weight, she appeared to lose her grip allowing a stream of gravy to spill evenly onto the stunned diner’s lap. Casting the unpleasant scene from my mind I made my way to the bar. I would no doubt hear all about it on our car ride back to LI that night. After all, she had the harder job.

It was the people I met while working at Rosie’s who remain with me. The charming, charismatic bartender, John Carroll whose twinkling blue eyes could transfer a teetotaler into a seasoned drinker and whose life ended in a tragic auto accident far too soon. In contrast was his fellow bartender Miles, who had a smile and wink for every customer but with his quick wit and razor tongue an insult for the rest of us, all in good fun but scathing none the less. There was Mary “O” the vivacious, carefree, fun loving blonde waitress who was rumored to later become a NYC policewoman and her partner Kathleen, who enchanted customers with her Irish accent and sweet smile. Who could forget the middle aged team of Anne and Paula who bickered constantly yet worked together like a finely oiled machine and on more than one occasion held their own during late nights at the Blarney Stone throwing back shots with the younger crew no worse for the wear the next morning. I remember the beautiful, ethereal Laura who waited tables to earn money for acting school like so many other young dreamers and the gregarious and big hearted chef Mohammad whose brilliant smile radiated over the heat of the steam table and whose quick temper terrified those who had not yet discovered his kindly nature. I recall the retired detective Brendan who as host during the day charmed the ladies with his lilting Irish brogue and at dusk, magically transformed into intimidating bouncer ready to escort the occasional unruly patron to the door.

The night would officially end around 2AM. With tables cleared and tips counted we headed to our home away from home, the Blarney Stone for an after work drink or two. And in those late night hours we spoke of life and the occasional difficult customer while Bob Seeger sang soulfully on the jukebox.

But summer days are short. In what seemed the blink of an eye we bid farewell to Rosie’s, retired our aprons and headed back to Long Island to return to school. With us we took fistfuls of cash, a new trade learned, friends we vowed to meet again and memories to last a lifetime.

I am older now with a family of my own. My parents have dearly departed. Sheila and I remain as close as ever. Each Christmas we gather at her house in gratitude. During our last celebration while sipping a glass of wine in her family room, I glanced into the kitchen. Sheila, clad in a tidy white apron was removing with some difficulty the steaming turkey from the oven. Her arm was shaking under the weight of the tray as she balanced the bird. Looking up suddenly as if sensing my stare, her eyes met mine and in that moment I could have sworn, narrowed. The history they say, has a way of repeating itself. I promised myself I would clear the table for her that very night as both a penance and memento to our days at Rosie O’ Grady’s.

Sheila (left) and me outside Rosie’s almost 40 years later – minus the aprons…
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Love Letter to Ireland – the Gift of My Mother

Dear Ireland, It is not the distinct and lonesome scent of burning peat from distant cottages.  Nor your fields of brilliant green.  It is not the timeless waterfalls that cascade in hidden woodland. Nor your winding rivers whose beauty inspire poets. It is not your majestic cliffs that stand like loyal sentry men over the wild Irish sea. It was not the magical taste of my very first ninety-nine ice cream cone with a flake bar neatly tucked atop. All of these things which you have given me I have loved.  But none compare to my most prized possession.  How do I thank you for the gift of a mother who almost never was?

My beautiful mother, Mary

I would start at the beginning as stories often do and tell you of a girl named Mary Foley from Cloone, Country Leitrim, tomboy by nature, explorer by heart. Who at age nine for reasons unknown, contracted Rheumatic Fever. As the days turned into night and her fever raged on, hope began to fade. A local priest was summoned to give her last rites. But then dear Eire, I would tell you of a miracle. My grandmother Rose heard of an old man who lived alone in the countryside. A man said to have the gift of healing. And on that very day, desperate and determined, a mother walked seven miles to see him and tell him of her daughter’s plight. As they sat together solemnly in his stark thatched cottage the old man spoke, “your daughter will get well, but in her place an animal will die.” As the sun rose the next morning in Drumharkan, Glebe a rooster crowed and a child’s fever broke. And in the stillness of the barnyard a cow lay dead. And that was the day I got my mother back.

She left her home in Cloone to become a maternity nurse at St.Vincent’s hospital in NYC, was married and raised four daughters, though her heart never strayed from Ireland. I can still envision her singing and tapping her feet to a favorite Clancy Brother’s tune in our Long Island kitchen. “I’ll tell my ma when I go home, the boy’s won’t leave the girl’s alone…”  Her best friend and first cousin Lily would visit often. I would arrive home from school to the sound of laughter and the whirr of the blender concocting their favorite orange daiquiris as they talked of memories of home.

My mother was fiercely independent, stubborn and determined but above all loved by all who knew her.  She took her road test late in life and after her eighth go proudly waved the coveted certificate before us announcing she had passed – never mind how long it took her. I remember her driving instructor now a close friend, nodding enthusiastically in approval as he sat sipping tea and eating a slice of her famous apple pie.

Though my parents settled in the U.S. they celebrated their Irish heritage each and every day.  My father was General Manager of Rosie O’ Grady’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan, a haven for all those Irish or those who wished to be.  An Irish band played nightly and my father never failed to have the band sing “Lovely Leitrim” when my mother would visit.  During summers my father would rent a house for two weeks in a suburb of Dublin.  My love for Ireland was solidified during those summers. I recall the misty weather and our Irish friends announcing “a heat wave” once the temperature reached 70 degrees as they ran to the beach.  One summer, my father took us to a nearby farm where we picked out an Irish Wolf Hound pup we named Connell. My mother and Connell became inseparable and were a familiar sight around town; she driving and Connell sitting tall in the passenger seat. Each St. Patrick’s Day, my mother and Connell would travel to New York City to proudly march side by side in the parade. A tradition they shared till Connell’s death at age six -Wolf hounds do not live long due to the size of their huge heart…

My mother Mary like her beloved Connell, left us too soon.  At her wake, an old man who I did not know walked in and quietly sat in the back of the chapel.  As the hours wore on and the crowd thinned, he approached me to pay his respects. “My name is Michael Dillon. I lived in the same town as your lovely mother and we walked to school every day. Then one day, she got very sick and I didn’t see her for many weeks.” As he turned to leave, he paused, then added: “but your mother got well and a strange thing happened. A cow died.”  And in that moment a legend I had heard for so many years became a truth and my gratitude for having her as a mother forever realized.  And for that Dear Ireland I thank you.

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Memories of a Fifth Floor Walk up

My best friend Janet and I shared a fifth floor walk up apartment on E. 83rd between Park and Lexington Avenues in NYC during our early twenties. The neighborhood was phenomenal, ideal, a combination of serenity and vibrancy just a stone throw from both the Lexington Avenue subway and the majestic Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Our apartment was a tiny two room structure, the first room comprised of the kitchen and living room and the second containing two twin beds crammed so close together our toes almost touched.  A visitor entering our living room with two bottles of wine under each arm once remarked, “I’ll just put these in the kitchen!” to which I replied, “You’re standing in it.”   I remember one hot summer day our window air conditioner dripping rhythmically on the unit directly below us, prompting the downstairs tenant, an eccentric but pleasant woman to pay an impromptu visit pleading, “please, can you do something? that drip, drip, drip is driving me mad. Why the sound is going right through my teeth!” I handed her a pillow to muffle the offending din and politely bid her adieu shrugging the encounter off as typical city living, neither of us no worse for the wear. On the floor above us resided two young men, Dave and Barry, new to the city from the Midwest. Both possessed polite and kindly natures and we struck up an easy friendship often playing monopoly or simply running up and down the stairwell to each others apartments just to say hello or drop off a plate of brownies. . The casual relationship we shared with the boys gave our apartment building a feeling of dorm living and shelved the belief that living in New York meant never getting to know your neighbors. Tuesday was “Beauty Night,” a weekly ritual  we cherished involving face masks, pedicures and chilled cucumber slices on eyelids.  These do it yourself escapes soothed both body and soul though I do recall an unpleasant incident involving a peppermint foot cream which caused a burning reaction on Janet’s feet.  I remember one dateless New Year’s Eve cozily holed up in our apartment watching the entire 24 hour Twilight Zone marathon thrilled to not be out with the hoards attempting to hail a cab on a bitter night. Though it took some getting used to, our apartment’s five floor ascent allowed us the best physical shape of our life and in no time we could sprint up all five floors like marathon runners. An added perk was the old fashioned candy store we frequented only steps outside our front door on the corner of 83rd Street, a neighborhood landmark that has stood the test of time and still serves homemade lemonade and egg-creams. But as they say, all good things must end.

We said goodbye to our fifth floor walk up for a larger apartment in Stuyvesant Town located in lower Manhattan.  My dad had put his name on the waiting list five years earlier. “Stuy Town,” as it is affectionately known, allowed more space at a rent controlled price an offer we could not refuse.  So we packed up our bags and headed downtown to a two bedroom, elevator building on East 20th Street carrying too, memories bittersweet.

I visited our old fifth floor walk-up last summer, thirty years later and stood on the doorstep, it’s appearance virtually unchanged. I snapped the below photo as a testament to my first apartment and the days of living in New York City. And somewhere right now, I feel one thing is certain. Uptown or down, east side or west, a vacant apartment lies waiting. Awaiting a pair of twenty-something roommates eager to unpack their bags alongside their dreams, maybe in a fifth floor walk up…

Back in the hood with my sister Sheila…

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Magic Drinks

Featured Image -- 3062A Father’s Day Tribute…

ROCHESTER, September 26 — Eastman Kodak Company today announced its intent to stop making and selling slide projectors by June 2004.

“The Kodak slide projector has been a hallmark for quality and ubiquity, used for decades to produce the best in audio visual shows throughout the world,” the company said. “However, in recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies.”

One of my happiest and most comforting memories of childhood was our family slide shows.  These coveted movie nights which generally took place once a year, consisted of nothing more than three simple ingredients:  a blank wall  in our living room, a Kodak carousel slide projector with my father at the mast and myself and three sisters,  huddled on the sofa,  pressed together in anticipation like peas in a pod.  My mother, who had seen the slide shows too many times to mention, usually busied herself with other things, occasionally stopping in to comment on a particularly beloved picture.  Prior to turning off the lights, my father would announce in a deep theatrical voice “Who wants a magic drink?”

They were always different in taste and made from whatever struck his fancy that night; orange juice with a splash of pineapple juice and Grenadine or perhaps apple juice and ginger ale with a jigger of seltzer.  The ingredients were unimportant.  It was the anticipation of what was to be and the lovely ritual of our movie night routine that we cherished.  Those magic drinks were just part of the show.

There was always one slide, without fail, that was turned upside down. This would halt the show momentarily, as my father with a slightly frustrated “tsk” would right the renegade slide. And we were ready to go once again.

I loved that Kodak carousel projector and the faded yellow boxes of slides stacked beside it. They were never labeled so each reel was a surprise in itself.  Who might appear on the screen that night was anyone’s guess — my six or sixteen year old self?  Our first family pet Bubbles the beagle, or our gentle giant of a Great Dane we called Jenny?  My mother posing on the beach in her youth, or proudly cradling her first grandchild? The lack of chronology only added to the experience.

Some days, in the quiet of my mind, I can still hear the slow deliberate click of the projector, advancing slowly, telling without words the story of our life.  Slide to slide, toddler to teenager, mother to grandmother, youth to twilight.  An entire lifetime displayed on the wall of the darkened living room.

When my parents died, I cared about no other of their possessions except that time warped machine that could somehow transform me back to family vacations, birthday parties and people and places no more.  With my sister’s blessings, I brought it to my own home with the promise to bring it to family gatherings, a carousal reunion of sort.  Though it is yet to be.  It sits up on a shelf in an unused room.  I have taken it down one or two times in a half -hearted attempt to have my own family slide show but then, as it spits and jams due to age, return it in frustration to the loneliness of the upstairs closet.  I have made myself a promise. I will find a way to restore that Kodak Carousel to the beauty of its youth.  And I will mix once again, those magic drinks..kodak

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The simple, seasonal pleasure of ice skating

“Winter is here, best time of year, come on along sing a skating song…”

One of my fondest childhood memories was ice-skating on a small rink my best friend’s dad built for us in her backyard.  Round and round we would soar feeling the chill of the air on our cheeks.  Not an iPhone or computer in sight.   This year, to kick off the holiday season, I took my two sons to an ice rink near to us which overlooks the Long Island sound.  They enjoyed two hours of skating until they could stand no more. Finally in physical defeat rather than want,  they staggered off the ice with tired smiles and wobbly legs proclaiming “That was SO much fun…”

imagehttps://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/time-of-year/

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WPC – “Spare” – The Lonely Sweater

Spare (Defined) “Not currently in use; in reserve”

Glancing in the window of a recently closed children’s consignment shop, I spotted this tiny, orange sweater hanging forlornly in the now abandoned store front.  I pondered why this one vibrant item adorned with teddy bears, remained.  Perhaps a testament to a dream that was not to be or more simply that the sweater was left in haste?  I like to interpret it as a statement of fortitude left behind from the proprietor.   A symbol that whatever the future brings, he or she will survive.     I shall leave the interpretation to you gentle readers, but this melancholy image brought to mind the word spare for this week’s challenge.   

sweater

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/spare/

 

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WPC “Half-Light”

halflightNature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/half-light/

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One Word Photo Challenge – Change

Nothing that is can pause or stay;
The moon will wax, the moon will wane,
The mist and cloud will turn to rain,
The rain to mist and cloud again,
Tomorrow be today.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

bro2
Brothers then…

brps
And now…

.

oyn
My older sister Anne, whose gentle hand I still feel on my shoulder. Then…

sisann
And now. (Anne on left)


tree2
Our backyard tire swing. Joyous come Summer….

tree1
Lonely in Winter

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/change-2015/

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A picture paints a thousand words


men

I discovered this image taken over fifteen years ago in a small town on the Amalfi Coast, while going through a shoebox filled with old photos.  As I strolled past a beautiful old church I was struck by these four men sitting together on a Sunday afternoon, the middle two deep in conversation, the bookends, content in their own thoughts. Each gentleman bore a unique expression though their emotions are difficult to interpret.  As only in Italy, the fashion sense impressed, particularly the vivid blue socks and old style fedoras.  The fellow on the far left sported a more casual but equally dapper attire with his jaunty tweed cap and stylish sneakers.

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WPC – Symbol – Irish Worry Stone

stone1  I am not superstitious by nature, but this lovely, simple symbol of my Irish heritage is never far from my side. In fact, I keep it tucked in a small zippered compartment of my purse.  Made from Connemara marble, the Irish Worry Stone so smooth and cool to the touch, is reputed to keep worries at bay and bring a sense of comfort to those who hold it.   My mother loved these worry stones and often brought them back to friends as souvenirs when she visited her homeland of Ireland.  My close friend Joe, who was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 32 years of age was the recipient of one of my mother’s worry stones.  When he died, I visited his apartment where his mother was staying temporarily.   As we comforted each other with memories of her wonderful son she asked if she could show me something. Entering his bedroom she gestured toward his night table.  On the corner closest to his bed, lay the worry stone. I like to think that it brought him comfort.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/symbol/

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Daily Post Word Challenge – Early Bird

“Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, with charm of earliest birds”   John Milton

dawn
Dawn of Christmas Morning 2014

pheasant
Our beautiful resident pheasant. He graced us with his presence, early morning, for over three years. Then one day, came no more…To learn more about the bird, please read my short tribute “Ode to a Pheasant” https://nynkblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/ode-to-a-pheasant/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/early-bird/

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“My Happy Place” The Marvelous, Magical, Mystical Powers of a Bath

tub

“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”

Sylvia Plath

I am addicted to baths. It began in my childhood, at what age I cannot say for certain. I can envision myself and my two sisters bobbing around in our bathtub, a simple no frills fixture unlike the whirlpool spas of today. My mother, who instilled this love of baths in us, laid peacefully center.  It was those calming waters which somehow righted every wrong and made life at the end of the day oh so much more delightful.  “Can you start the tub?” we would call to my mother nightly and upon hearing the rumble of the water racing through the faucet, would immediately feel comforted.

As I grew into older childhood my nightly baths and love of, continued.  I remember bringing into the tub different props for amusement. My fondest memory involve the Barbie dolls which I would plunge into the water, their perfect bodies and pointed toes gracefully leaping from the soap holder which I would use as a makeshift diving board.

When I left for college I realized with some dismay, that my nightly baths ritual would become a thing no more. Bathing in a dorm bathroom shared by who knows how many others was something I did not find appealing – not to mention the cleanliness factor. Yes sadly, my nightly baths ceased upon entering freshman year in college and were promptly replaced by a shower.

Yet one night, the old urge struck. Returning from a night out and perhaps one Tequila Sunrise too many, I made my way to the dorm bathroom.  Perfect! At 3AM on a weekday there was not a soul in sight. I undressed and proceeded to the sink, my towel tightly wrapped around me. As I began to brush my teeth I felt the towel slipping. As it fell to the floor I was faced with two choices: pick it up immediately or finish brushing and then retrieve the towel.  Given the late hour and the desolateness of the dorm, I opted for the latter – my fatal mistake. As if in a dream I watched the bathroom door swing open to reveal a tall sleepy male, no doubt someone’s boyfriend as my dorm was all women. His eyes, which only moments before were half slits were now golf balls as he gaped at me standing before him, stark nude, tooth-brush still in hand.  I shrieked, tore past him and jumped on my roommate’s bed. Babbling and breathless I attempted to explain to her what still rates as one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.  Oh bath, how could you have forsaken me?

When I became engaged and began staying overnight at my fiance’s apartment I learned the meaning of true love.  Craving my bath one night, I mentioned that his tub did not seem well, completely clean.  I asked where I could find his cleaning supplies. “Do you have to have a bath every night?” he asked with some annoyance as he disappeared into the kitchen. Returning with a can of Comet and scrub brush he for the next 15 minutes, painstakingly cleaned the tub for me. And with that gesture, I knew I was marrying the right man.

I have two sons who have inherited their mother and grandmother’s love of baths.  I can hear the water running nightly and I have caught them filling up the tub to play their own Barbie doll type of diving game but instead they use pencils.  They catapult the pencils off the side of the tub in their own game of acrobatics.  At any hour, morning or night, at the slightest hint of a stomach ache or joint discomfort from sports, a tub is running.  Aqua therapy of sort.  I realize this is a luxury in our society and lecture them on the number and length of time spent in the bath.  But it often falls on deaf ears as my son races in from school, drops his back pack in the corner and heads up to the bathroom to turn on the bath.  He too understands the healing of the waters.

My adult bath ritual has changed only slightly since childhood.  I still take one every single night, but instead of the Barbies I bring one guilty pleasure which I lay on the side of the tub; four Hershey Chocolate kisses.  My second favorite comfort in life.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/happy-place/

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Magic Drinks

kodak

ROCHESTER, September 26 — Eastman Kodak Company today announced its intent to stop making and selling slide projectors by June 2004.

“The Kodak slide projector has been a hallmark for quality and ubiquity, used for decades to produce the best in audio visual shows throughout the world,” the company said. “However, in recent years, slide projectors have declined in usage, replaced by alternative projection technologies.”

One of my happiest and most comforting memories of childhood was our family slide shows.  These coveted movie nights which generally took place once a year, consisted of nothing more than three simple ingredients:  a blank wall  in our living room, a Kodak carousel slide projector with my father at the mast and myself and three sisters,  huddled on the sofa,  pressed together in anticipation like peas in a pod.  My mother, who had seen the slide shows too many times to mention, usually busied herself with other things, occasionally stopping in to comment on a particularly beloved picture.  Prior to turning off the lights, my father would announce in a deep theatrical voice “Who wants a magic drink?”

They were always different in taste and made from whatever struck his fancy that night; orange juice with a splash of pineapple juice and Grenadine or perhaps apple juice and ginger ale with a jigger of seltzer.  The ingredients were unimportant.  It was the anticipation of what was to be and the lovely ritual of our movie night routine that we cherished.  Those magic drinks were just part of the show.

There was always one slide, without fail, that was turned upside down. This would halt the show momentarily, as my father with a slightly frustrated “tsk” would right the renegade slide. And we were ready to go once again.

I loved that Kodak carousel projector and the faded yellow boxes of slides stacked beside it. They were never labeled so each reel was a surprise in itself.  Who might appear on the screen that night was anyone’s guess — my six or sixteen year old self?  Our first family pet Bubbles the beagle, or our gentle giant of a Great Dane we called Jenny?  My mother posing on the beach in her youth, or proudly cradling her first grandchild? The lack of chronology only added to the experience.

Some days, in the quiet of my mind, I can still hear the slow deliberate click of the projector, advancing slowly, telling without words the story of our life.  Slide to slide, toddler to teenager, mother to grandmother, youth to twilight.  An entire lifetime displayed on the wall of the darkened living room.

When my parents died, I cared about no other of their possessions albeit that time warped machine that could somehow transform me back to family vacations, birthday parties and people and places no more.  With my sister’s blessings, I brought it to my own home with the promise to bring it to family gatherings, a carousal reunion of sort.  Though it is yet to be.  It sits up on a shelf in an unused room.  I have taken it down one or two times in a half -hearted attempt to have my own family slide show but then, as it spits and jams due to age, return it in frustration to the lone closet.  Surely there is somewhere that can restore the Kodak carousal to the beauty of its youth so we may once again enjoy those magical images.

And I will mix for my own sons, those magic drinks..

Screwdriver Parties Part II

The world became a little grayer today. In his honor, re-blogging a story about a truly great mentor and man…

Shangri-La

Me with my old boss and friend, Jim Cappello October 18, 2021

Thirty-four years ago, I was hired as an Advertising Sales Assistant to a man named Jim Cappello. We worked selling advertising for a publishing company located in midtown Manhattan. I can still envision our sparse office located in that beautiful Art Deco building called The Chanin, between 41st and 42nd Streets. I recall the newspaper stand which stood in the grand lobby and remember with fondness the many dates I met in front of that bustling stand at the end of my working day. Some things in life never leave you. That job and working with Jim, the best boss imaginable, is one of those those things.

We worked together for ten years until the magazine closed in 1997. The memories are too many to mention but one ritual I never forgot was our Friday after work, “Screwdriver…

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Please Mom, May I’ve Some More?

My mother, a splendid cook and never one for following a recipe, on Sundays only, always prepared a roast. Whether it was the traditional roast beef or a succulent loin of pork I recall the aroma as if it were yesterday. The evening always began pleasantly, peacefully, as my family sat around the dining room table. And then the roasted potatoes arrived. Six roasted potatoes in that beautiful Lenox bowl, for six of us, including my 6”4 father. And at that moment, the dinner deteriorated with the frustrated pleas of my father as to why, why? my mother couldn’t make more than six potatoes. She never really gave an answer, but simply disappeared into the kitchen. This ritual went on for as long as I can remember during those Sunday night dinners and the question forever unanswered. Though I do recall her saying on more than one occasion that you should leave the table just a little bit hungry. It makes you remember how delicious the meal. I believe she just didn’t like peeling potatoes…

My best friend Janet, a fixture in my home during those years, always summed it up perfectly. “Your mother made the BEST hamburger I had ever tasted. But I always felt like it was the size of a meatball!”

Another old friend, well familiar with my mother’s cooking or lack of, used to taunt me “I hope you never have boys. They drink QUARTS of milk out of the refrigerator and full boxes of cookies at a sitting. And forget about it if they bring their friends over! They will eat you out of house and home!” Her words left me paralyzed with fear and right then, I secretly prayed for girls.

Three adjectives that come to mind in describing my mother’s portions… taste, spoonful, sip. “Give Kathy another taste of the string beans.” “Your father would love a spoonful of the turnip.” “Can you pour me a sip of orange juice please.” Get the idea?

I fear that I have carried on her tradition. My two sons, aged 12 and 14 are of average weight and seem to be satisfied with my portions but it is their peers that take notice when their plate is a little lacking. Just yesterday, a friend of my son asked politely if I would mind filling up his entire glass rather than only half. “Seconds” are a word so unfamiliar in my home that it is only understood as a time value. And, yes I guess I have to admit that when I make hamburgers for the family they are more slider than burger. Actually, my mother may have coined the term slider fifty years ago without even knowing it!

But unlike my mother and the potatoes, I am open to change. While preparing my list for the supermarket this morning I have made a decision. I will buy twice the normal quantity of everything. For tomorrow, let there be leftovers!
.

Nuns at the Colosseum

On my honeymoon, over thirty years ago, we visited the timeless and breathtaking Colosseum in Rome. Quite by chance, I came upon these three nuns, clad in pristine white habit who too were enjoying a day of sightseeing. I snapped this candid photograph which I still recall with fondness at each and every viewing. Also evokes memories of my catholic school days…

Autumn in Connecticut

“Come little leaves,” said the wind one day, “Come to the meadows with me and play. Put on your dresses of red and gold; For summer is past and the days grow cold.”

George Cooper

https://lingeringvisions.wordpress.com/2022/10/06/festival-of-leaves-2022-week-3-framed-by-the-dogwood/

The Good Doctor

Today marks the 14th Anniversary of the death of my friend, Dr. Mark O’Neill. He departed this world in his prime, after a long illness of which I knew not. It is said life is fleeting. Glancing at this photograph taken at my annual NYC Christmas party, thirty five years ago at which Mark was a fixture, I would tend to agree.

My first encounter with Dr. Mark was when I was in my early twenties. I met him at a nightclub known as “St. John’s East,” in the Hamptons, a string of seaside communities on the east end of Long Island. A mecca for throngs of young New Yorkers eager to escape the concrete jungle on summer weekends, the Hamptons was the place to be if you were lucky enough to score a share in a summer house. To say he stood out in a crowd was an understatement. A cross between a college professor minus the pipe and an amiable St. Nick with his neatly trimmed whiskers and twinkling blue eyes, Mark was not easily missed. On casual occasions he donned jeans and a brightly colored bow tie; on more formal ones, a sharp, impeccable tux, complete with cummerbund and brilliantly colored pocket square. Approaching my sister and me in the packed nightclub, he did a two step as he held a glass of champagne above his head then toasted us with a wink and a smile.

The next Monday morning as I sat at my desk in the small New York ad agency in which I worked, I sleepily answered the first phone call of the day. A familiar drawl that I could not quite place followed, “Kathy, this is a client of yours… from “St. John’s East….” And in those witty words I was forever captivated and a friendship born.

We learned he was a Thoracic surgeon in NYC with a private practice, though his work schedule never seemed to cut into his teeming social life. A dapper fixture at every black tie event that took place in New York city Mark could be spotted dancing in abandon and charming all he encountered. He was a lover of classic cars and on weekends often visited our apartment to take my sister and me for a spin around the neighborhood. He was known throughout the city due to his wide social circle. Uptown or down, he never failed to run into someone he knew. On one occasion, we had stopped at a traffic light outside the famous Pete’s Tavern a historic NYC pub where O.Henry was rumored to have written “the Gift of the Magi.” I was seated on my sister’s lap in the front seat of his bright red MG convertible. Looking out the window, I watched a car pull up on our right. The driver sat studying us with a somewhat puzzled expression, then remarked, “Why, Mark O’Neil, is that you?” Glancing over Dr. Mark waved casually, floored the accelerator and we roared off on that bright and beautiful sunny day.

I loved his quirkiness. He once phoned me to ask the length of a yam’s shelf life as he prepared to cook one for dinner. Yet in all the parties, black tie affairs, horse races, and charity events, wondered if deep at heart, he was lonely.

I think my favorite memory of Dr. Mark O’Neill was from the very last NYC Christmas party my sister and I hosted and from which the above photo was taken. At the end of the night, one reveler began a game of sorts called “The Challenge Dance” wherein the person up would do his or her interpretation of dance in any way they wished. Mark was the last one to go. Standing in the center of my living room, urged on by the clapping and hooting crowd encircling him, he bobbed and weaved up and down simulating what could only be described as a cutting or snipping motion with both hands. When someone called out what what in the world he was doing, he replied in true Dr. Mark fashion, “the surgeon dance.”

The last time I spoke to my friend Dr. Mark O’Neill was at my home in Connecticut a few months before he died. My sister had run into him at “The Hunt” an annual tailgate and horse race which took place in New Jersey. I had not seen or talked to him in a year or so and was so happy to hear that familiar slow drawl… “Hey Kathy, I was lucky enough to run into your sis here at the Hunt. I wanted to call to tell you I missed you…”

I miss you too Dr. Mark, every day.

Memories of Howard Johnson’s Takeout Counter

Lobby of the Chanin Building NYC and once home to Howard Johnson’s Take Out Counter

One of my very favorite memories of working in New York City was a ritual I enjoyed each morning before the onset of my work day. Tucked neatly away in a corner of my office building lay a parallel universe of culinary delight known as Howard Johnson’s. Famous for its orange roof, fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, Ho Jo’s as it was affectionately known, also offered a first rate breakfast. Whether a short stack of piping hot pancakes topped with a dollop of butter and jigger of syrup or a deep and dark cup of their aromatic coffee, for me there was simply no better way to start the day.

Located on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue the Chanin building’s lobby of gilded gold never failed to impress and within it, Howard Johnson’s an icon in its own right, had found the perfect home. Each day, at approximately 7:30 AM I ascended the subway escalator and made my way through the building’s sleepy corridors, still devoid of the morning rush. Entering the doors which led to the restaurant’s takeout counter I joined a line which snaked around the premises and boasted patrons of all ages, colors and creeds sharing the simple commonality of breakfast.

It was not just the Howard Johnson takeout counter I remember with fondness but the Irish waitress who worked there daily, never missing a shift. Neat and polite she was exemplary in her job, friendly and welcoming, beloved by all. She uttered two words the moment before each patron stepped up to place their order. Briskly wiping down the spotless counter, she would smile warmly and call out, “Now….NEXT!” Always the same two words delivered with grace and confidence. I grew to love this phrase and her lilting Irish accent, a badge of efficiency and never ending optimism.  

One morning, I noticed the line was almost double in size. I heard murmurs among the waiting customers and sensed a definite feeling of dissent in the air.  The Irish waitress was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a short and stout woman with a tuft of orange hair which she had carelessly bobby-pinned into a frenzied bun. Heavy streaks of rouge framed her face and two dangling earrings one in the shape of a fork and the other a knife adorned her earlobes.  An endearing overbite added to an expression of confusion though her demeanor was kind and friendly. A thick smear of tangerine lipstick framed her mouth which sported a perpetual grin as if she were having the time of her life rather than working. She suddenly held up in each hand, two plates of eggs then called out loudly, “Who ordered the fried eggs?”  A stern looking older woman, dressed impeccably, immediately stepped up. She called to mind the old school description of “ladies who lunch” though this time it was breakfast.   “I ordered eggs but specifically asked they be cooked over-easy. Which ones are mine?” The waitress stared intently, furiously studying the two plates before her. Then taking her index and middle finger placed them atop the eggs on one of the plates and pressed down gingerly. TWICE.  Smiling in relief she looked up and reassured, “These are definitely over-easy, guess they are yours…”  I watched the older woman’s expression as she attempted to digest what she had just witnessed. Firing back at the waitress she asked “You expect me to eat those eggs after you just put your fingers on them?” Needless to say we never saw the new waitress again and breathed a sigh of relief when the Irish waitress returned the following day.

Last month I returned to the Chanin Building for a visit. As I walked through that beautiful lobby, ghosts of the past amiably welcomed me home. My beloved breakfast haven that once pulsated with life like the entire chain of now shuttered Howard Johnson restaurants, is now a distant memory. A bygone era. I sometimes recall the Irish waitress whose work ethic and demeanor I so admired and wonder with some regret why I never asked her name. Besides fond memories of those takeout counter days she also left me with two words I will never forget, “Now…Next!” which I sometimes use in her honor while serving dinner to my family.

My Sisters

For it was ever our delight,
To love each other day and night,
Nor would I do a thing to spite
My Sister.
~”Mr. Lynch,” 1800s, in imitation of Ann Taylor (1782–1866)

Nothing quite like a night out with my sisters

Enjoying a screening of the iconic movie, “Napoleon Dynamite” tonight at the Tarrytown Music Hall. The three original stars who played Napoleon, Uncle Rico and Pedro were in house for a fun Q@A.

Ode to a Pheasant

Still miss the beautiful pheasant…

Shangri-La

“See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs, And mounts exulting on triumphant wings”

Alexander Pope Quotes , Source: Windsor Forest (l. 111)

pheasant

I cannot say for certain when I first made his acquaintance or tell you the exact day he stole my heart. We had just moved to a small town in Connecticut from New York City following the 9/11 tragedy. Our new home’s family room sported an enormous glass window which overlooked the back yard, a spectacular bucolic setting of manicured jade green grass, magnolia trees and a pond, all bordering a 200 acre nature preserve. I was growing accustomed to the ubiquitous deer and red fox sightings but had never before encountered a pheasant and was not prepared for the effect his physical appearance bestowed, both in brilliance and beauty.

His presence, generally either early morning or late afternoon, was always announced by a loud and strange-sounding…

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You Get What You Pay For

I first saw him in the elevator of my office building, tall, handsome and impeccably dressed. We exchanged nothing more than a few fleeting glances/smiles over the next couple of months and then one afternoon, somewhere between the 9th and 12th floor, he uttered the words I had dreamed of…would I like to meet for a drink that night? Ecstatic I floated back to my office, furiously contemplating where I could find a more enticing outfit than the frumpy gray suit I was wearing, ideal had I been operating the elevator. I needed something special… cute, flirty, fun. But where to find in 3 hours? And then a light bulb. The $19.99 and under dress store which sat in the lobby of my building. I had never entered the store but passed it daily on my way to the elevator bank always pondering the type of dress you might find for $20 bucks. But desperate times call for desperate measures I reasoned. Did I dare?

The bar, an iconic NYC pub called “Ryan McFadden’s” located on the corner of 42nd and 2nd Ave was packed with after work patrons both young and old. My office was a stone throw from Ryan’s, an absolute favorite neighborhood haunt with a great crowd and live music. I had never felt more attractive and carefree as I sipped my Tequila Sunrise, in that cobalt blue, stretch cotton mini dress (yes, dear reader, score for the $19.99 and under dress store!)  I admit it may have been a tad tight and perhaps the material a bit thin, but for the price, what could one expect? It was how it made me FEEL that was important.  Plus the fact, real or imagined, that my date could not take his eyes off me!  Our conversation flowed easily and the bar pulsated with energy and possibility. The music was phenomenal!  After my 2nd cocktail, I boldly asked him to join me on the dance floor, something out of the norm for me but the dress fueled my confidence.  As we jumped in time with the crowd to the strains of “SHOUT” I suddenly felt myself losing my footing.  The floor, ladled with beer from overzealous imbibers was awash.  The next thing I knew, I was horizontal.  Brushing myself off and struggling to maintain my dignity, I slowly rose to my feet. Several people behind me were laughing.  “Your dress,” one sympathetic woman whispered, “it’s totally ripped up the back…”   My last memory was the disappointed look in elevator guy’s eyes as he wrapped his rain coat around me and hailed a cab.  And with that gesture, the night was officially over.

For the next six weeks, I took the stairs up to my office – all twelve flights. For that reason or others unknown,  I never ran into the elevator guy again.  The $19.99 and under dress store closed shortly thereafter as well and ironically, a tailor moved into its space.

 The lobby of the beautiful Art Deco Chanin Building, NYC where I met my date that fateful evening…