I have two sons whose personalities are as different as the seasons. The younger at age fourteen, is tow-haired, blue-eyed, sensitive, free-spirited, emotional, empathetic and kind. The elder, at sixteen, is dark in coloring, taciturn, responsible, diplomatic, witty and charming. The younger enjoys exotic and spicy cuisine – the elder prefers a more conventional menu. I can’t think of anything I did differently in raising them, so chalk their differences up to genetics. Recently, while cleaning out a toy closet, I came across two letters both penned by my sons and more interestingly, both addressed to the tooth fairy. In between the lines of their childish scrawl written so many moons ago, their personalities once again are evident. One airs on the side of sentimental, the other strictly capitalist in tone. Can you guess who is who?
I think it was her laugh. That mirthful, contagious laughter that I miss most. Just over a year ago, life became a shade grayer when I learned the news that my beautiful friend Grace, departed this world unexpectedly, so unexpectedly, at 49 years of age. Move on, they say. Life goes on. She is gone. Take comfort in the memories. All logical, all understandable. But what they don’t tell you is how do you find another best friend with whom you click so perfectly? A friendship that does not even come for some, once in a lifetime? Yes. I have moved on but I can’t forget her.
She first entered my world 10 years ago, when our children attended a three’s group at nursery school. And then as the years rolled on, we found ourselves again entwined when both our children, now in their teens, joined a springboard diving team in a neighboring town. And our friendship which began slowly, progressed from the occasional wave in the market to daily phone calls, often exceeding an hour in length. In an age of computers and texting I loved those phone calls. We delighted in discovering commonalities from our youth; how we both loved teen idol Scott Baio or debating the merits of which was the better beach; The Jersey Shore (her choice being a Jersey girl) vs Jones Beach (mine, growing up on Long Island). I would cradle the phone under my chin as I made the beds, never wanting to hang up as there was always just one more story.
Her tough façade shielded a gentle heart. She once trapped a possum that was ravaging her vegetable garden, in a cage she had purchased at Home Depot. That was so Grace. Why call a professional when she could do it herself? The next morning as she crept up to check the cage, she was devastated to discover that in trapping the creature, it had perished. As she dejectedly opened the trap door, the possum sprang out…She laughed and laughed as she told me she had forgotten that possums played dead…
Grace was steadfast and unwavering in her beliefs; a formidable participant in any discussion. A topic that came up frequently between us was the amount of driving time needed to arrive at a certain locale. We often carpooled together to diving and Grace claimed it took her no more than 20 minutes from her home to the YMCA, wherein I would argue that was impossible, as our house was closer and she could not get to the Y in less than 25 minutes. There were never any loud arguments just a persistent impasse. “Perhaps you drive faster than me?” I would remark. And she would confidently smile and say, “No, 20 minutes door to door…” and so it went for years with no declared winner, just a constant volley between us. It always took 5 minutes less when Grace drove anywhere.
Her two favorite words were “divine” and “fantastic” which she used with abandon. You felt like there was nothing she could not accomplish. She was the definition of a do-er. She was loyal, funny and protective. She loved Hugh Grant movies and the city of London where she had lived in her single years.
Above all, Grace loved her family. Her husband Craig and two daughters were the light and purpose of her life. She was the best mother imaginable and her spirit is seen in the unique and beautiful personalities of her daughters Maren and Devon.
Although I will not see my cherished friend again in this world, I keep close to me the memories of her voice, mannerisms and of course that laughter. If I am to take anything away from this tremendous loss it is that age-old advice that life is fleeting. I am not one for hugging but what I would give to hug her one last time and tell her how happy she made my life during our short time together.
And, during those times when I don’t feel her near, I ponder where her spirit may be and then a vision comes to me which goes something like this…
A calm, deep, soothing voice is heard: “Grace, it is time to leave to greet our new friends. It will take you 15 minutes to reach the gate and if the clouds are thick, it may take some extra time….” A steady, confident voice replies “It takes only 10 minutes. I have been there twice now and there is no way it takes more than 10 minutes.” God, begins to object but then reconsiders. She has not been here very long, but he already is aware of her capabilities. That is one of the reasons he chose her for this job. He responds calmly “Very Good Grace.” I trust your judgment. We all did.
“See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs, And mounts exulting on triumphant wings”
Alexander Pope Quotes , Source: Windsor Forest (l. 111)
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.
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..
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, I am doomed. I love my husband and generally wish him no harm. But lately, I am getting tired of his accusations involving his lunch which I painstakingly make for him each morning to bring to work. He says it tastes like Windex. No, in case you might ask, he is not suffering from any mental disorder involving paranoia. He has all his faculties and then some, perhaps that is why his taste buds are so finely tuned. And in fairness, the accusations do not come daily but generally once a month or so, and typically hone in on his turkey sandwich. Though yesterday he called in a panic to claim his grapes had a toxic-like taste as well. Not Windex this time, but something equally “bad”. “Don’t eat the grapes!” he shrieked. He asks if I am slowly trying to kill him.
And from where would this delusion arise? He claims to have seen me, on more than one occasion, spraying the kitchen counter in abandon and has attested to seeing droplets of Windex lingering in the air, slowly making their way down to his coffee cup. “You don’t pay attention,” he chides. He claims I inherited this trait from my mother. In fairness, he is not entirely wrong. She was a wonderful woman but indeed careless at times. I recall childhood memories of a defunct and blackened microwave oven, hidden in the corner of our garage, meekly awaiting my father’s return from work. A severe reminder that aluminum foil and microwaves do not mix. I can envision still, her pink plush bathrobe seared up the back, a result of standing too close to the stove’s gas burner on particularly frigid mornings before the heat kicked in. He reminds me of the time she added a packet of lemon dish cleanser, which had arrived as a free sample in that day’s mail, to our family’s chicken dinner. Luckily, before the dish was consumed, my sister remarked that the sauce had “bubbles” alerting my mother to a potential disaster.
I don’t know how to put him at ease. Take a bite out of his sandwich prior to packing? Do away with all my kitchen cleansers entirely and use only white wine vinegar (though that could mimic an industrial type cleanser taste as well). Consult with a professional? Yesterday, as I topped off his brown bag lunch with an apple and Hershey kiss, I tucked in a yellow stick-um note as well, as I sometimes do in my son’s lunch. It simply said “Made with love not Windex.”
I am still learning about men.
I was one of four daughters, attended all girl catholic schools my entire life, never knew what a jock strap looked like, have no idea how to change a tire and never experienced the bright stadium lights at a night-time football game. My father did put up a basketball hoop once in our driveway, short-lived when the ball sailed through the glass pane of the garage door. There it stood neglected for years a sad testament to the son my mother never had.
My Scottish reared father never once expressed regret at not having a son. Rather, he reveled in his four daughters and life among them. He loved his girls. Though there were times we tried his patience. A flashback of his screams from the shower after being cut by a worn down razor blade used on too many female teenage legs. Or his aversion to the smell of nail polish remover. He hated the smell of nail polish remover. He was equally content watching a rugby match as he was a cooking show.
During his daughter’s bridal showers, all four of them, rather than fleeing for the afternoon as most men might, my father would delight in being part of the celebration. There he would sit center stage, in his recliner, newspaper in hand (a ploy to feign disinterest) among the squeals and chaos of thirty females. Every now and again as a new gift was unveiled he would lift his head up casually and remark “Ah what’s this one? Hold it up a little closer Kath…”
My sister Sheila, too experienced this sometimes disadvantage of not having grown up with or been schooled among boys. When she and my mother visited Lord and Taylor to buy her first boyfriend a birthday gift, the saleswoman paused in puzzlement as she inquired as to where she might find the men’s “blouses.”
In addition to my father there was in fact one other male in our family. A big, beautiful Irish wolfhound, brought back from a holiday in Ireland. I recall listening in on a now famous conversation in our family between my mother and the vet. “I need to bring Connell in to be spayed,” The vet’s patient reply: “You mean neutered Mrs. Dickinson.” My mother’s reply “Oh, yes that is when they fix his vagina?” My sister and I stared at each other, and then burst into laughter. We thought that something must have gotten lost in translation as my mother, Irish-born, often had her own interpretation of words. Looking back however, I think she simply believed Connell like the rest of us, female, at least in theory.
I married and ironically, have two sons. My husband has taught them the things his own father taught him; how to throw a ball, using common tools for simple jobs, being kind and respectful. My sons are equally in touch with their feminine side and have as many female friends as male. They have five female cousins whom they see frequently further adding to their comfort level with girls, not to mention the added bonus of always have a date for the prom.
But I guess in at least one aspect boys will be boys. Despite my pleas, they still on occasion leave the seat up.
Our toy fox terrier Anabel however, is female. Score for my side.
He was to attend a therapeutic boarding school in the rocky mountains of Colorado, for the next two years. A school that specialized in the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of boys who were struggling. He had battled anxiety and ADHD for as long as we knew him but lately a more sinister villain called depression was taking over. Public school was not working for him and his daily trips to the counselor left him dejected and angry. He hated school, he told us again and again.
He took refuge in nature. Whenever upset, he would flee to the solace of the woods, headlamp in place along with a survival kit he had purchased on the internet. Gregory loved the forest which seemed to hold for him, its own therapeutic powers. As a going away gift we gave him a lithograph night-light with a forest of trees etched within, the golden hue soothing and calm.
He is a beautiful boy with deep red hair, fine features and porcelain skin. His face reflects an impishness that is infectious. He is highly intelligent and intuitive. My son and he became fast friends three years ago and enjoy a special bond as best friends do. We both knew this path was the best thing for Gregory but it did not make his leaving any easier as he had become a fixture in both our lives and home.
All contact at his new school was to be via letter, no social media of any sort, so I made it a point that we would write to him, at least once a month. I have a book of postcards, each one a different flower fairy illustrated by the brilliant Cicely Mary Barker, an English artist known for her life-like depictions of fairies in nature. I chose for Gregory a red-headed mischievous faced boy fairy and penned in the margin “this reminded us of you!” I then enclosed a second self-addressed card already stamped for him to return to us.
The next card we sent to him contained a dried wishbone from our previous night’s roast chicken. Growing up my father would always save the wishbone for me and my sisters. I thought it was just the type of ritual Gregory would enjoy. “Find someone you like at your new school and break the wishbone!” I scrawled. “We miss you.” But then, a week later thinking again about the wishbone, I was filled with dread. What if gets the long end and his wish is to come home? What had I done? In trying to comfort him I could possibly have made him feel worse.
One afternoon several weeks later, I paused at my son’s bedroom door after hearing him talking on the phone to what sounded like Gregory. He was clearly upset, distraught and his words a hurried jumble of emotion. “I want to come home. I hate it here. I miss you so much!” He had sneaked his mother’s phone while she was visiting to make the call. After several moments, my son replied in a calm voice “You have to push through…” I had never before heard the expression nor my son use it. When I asked him what he meant by “push through,” he explained that his middle school track coach always told the boys to push through the pain no matter how hard and they may just find they were stronger than they thought.
I worried about how he felt losing his best friend “Do you miss Gregory?” His response was always the same. “It’s fine mom.” And then I realized, perhaps the strain of seeing his friend in so much pain was harder than letting him go.
The last thing we sent him was a care package right before Halloween. It contained fake fangs, a calendar book with different photos of forest scenes, two packages of his favorite gummy bears and a small stuffed owl that had strangely beckoned to me from high on a store shelf. I imagined the little owl sitting on his night table. I also included a pre-stamped fairy card he could send back to us with ease. When I called his mother to review what I was sending, she paused when I had mentioned the stuffed owl. “He asked me if he could have a real one last week for a pet!”
Several weeks later, we received the fairy card by return mail. Gregory’s familiar hurried scrawl contained the following sentiments: “I loved the red-headed fairy card — I am learning to play the banjo! — Thank you for the owl, I keep him in my backpack.” But it was the last line that remains with me. “I still don’t like it here” he confided, “but I am going to push through…” And those simple words were all I needed.