“Children see magic because
they look for it.”
Here’s hoping we can all find some
magic in the coming year.
It was mid-morning about a week before Christmas, and I had a pile of Christmas cards to mail. A few cars dotted in the post office parking lot, and all I wanted to do was quickly unload the cards into the curbside mailbox.
Howver, the mailbox sat on the curb in front of a handicapped parking space. I looked around the lot again. One person had pulled into the second row and was getting out of his car. No one else was around and at least three other handicapped spots were available. I pulled up onto the slashes of yellow paint, planning to scoot up to the mailbox, drop the cards in, and be out of the spot in under a minute.
“Hey!” the man called out.
I looked back and saw him heading toward my car — using a cane. I quickly backed up and parked halfway across the lot. I didn’t want to get in trouble at Christmas for taking a handicapped parking spot. And I sure didn’t want to have that conversation with someone using a cane.
I waited in the car until he walked inside and then got out of the car and walked to the mailbox. As I finished stuffing the box with cards, he walked out the door.
“I was just going to say that I could take your mail in for you,” he said.
“Oh — that’s OK, I needed the exercise anyway.”
We both laughed and got in our cars.
I sat there a minute, shaking my head. I thought he was going to give me a hard time. Instead, he simply wanted to lend a helping hand.
The lesson: When I allow assumptions to limit my world, I miss out on a whole lot of quirky little miracles.
Also, never park in handicapped parking spaces.
Even if the parking lot is empty.
First, let me say that I was supposed to post this before Thanksgiving. But life got too … um … busy. So, back to the blog post about, yes, busy-ness.
The hours slip away like little boys racing around the corner of the house in a game of tag. I’m always reaching out to snag these hours around the holidays. Rushing here and there to finish to-do lists, buy ingredients for a special recipe, get another bottle of wine. I love Thanksgiving, but I’m not sure if I love the busy-ness of it all.
Am I simply filling hours with unneeded tasks? Do the things I do make a difference? What will I remember about these days?
In early November, I drove almost to the end of the Jersey Turnpike, to visit with former coworkers at The Gloucester County Times — most of whom I had not seen in some 35 years. Facebook has kept us connected and curious about each other’s present lives, and one member, the infamous Tom Wilk, took on the task of inviting us all to return to Woodbury, a town across the river from Philadelphia where we’d spent a good portion of our days and nights together in a smoke-hazed newsroom. Most of us had been right out of college, lucky enough to land a real job in the field we’d actually studied — journalism.
Here was the court reporter, the city reporters, the consumer reporter, the entertainment editor, the news desk and even the staff’s administrative assistant, who’d worked at the newspaper longer than any of us. Some had gone on to work at other newspapers that had quietly folded or been sucked up by corporate publications. Some had turned to other types of writing jobs, and some were retired. The GloCo Times had combined with another newspaper and moved out of Woodbury to new digs farther south. It also had a new name — the South Jersey Times. It was nice to know it still existed — damn! — the building was even newer and nicer! Our old newspaper building near the mostly defunct downtown now houses a coffee company, which seemed oddly appropriate, after surviving decades of bad coffee and powered creamer.
We met for lunch at one of the few restaurants we used to go to that was still open in the city, and we returned to our cars as the sun was setting. We talked about the people who shaped our careers, the parties in the parking lot, the Friday lunch “meetings” of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Journalists (SPCJ), the league volleyball and baseball teams, the guys in the back-shop that cut and pasted the stories and headlines into place, and the advertising team that dressed better than we did. We laughed about the crazy hours, the low pay, 35-hour work weeks (ha!), the attempt to unionize, and the stories we never forgot. We shared old photos and company newsletters and toasted the people who had died too soon. Later, I stayed overnight at a Holiday Inn off the Pike near Swedesboro — 35 years ago, the hotel parking lot would have been a tomato field.
The next day I drove around the county, where I’d lived from 1979 to 1985, just six years. I parked my SUV near a little house in South Harrison Township, with a peach orchard next door, that had once been mine. But the orchard was gone, and the house was being resided. I didn’t recognize it at first — the long stretch of windows on the front porch and sun room had been covered over with gray siding. Rusted disemboweled cars were strewn in back, and I felt embarrassed that the little house had come to this. I apologized aloud to no one.
I didn’t stay long. Soon, I was back on the Turnpike, headed north to the George Washington Bridge and I-95, where I was shocked to see panhandlers standing between the whizzing lanes of traffic after the toll booths. I was used to seeing them with their signs on the islands between coming and going traffic on major roads in Connecticut. But these men were stumbling amid the cars that had just paid their $15 to cross a bridge. How would or could anyone stop to drop some dollar bills into their hands? I felt like I had seen a new level of desperation.
Why am I telling you this?
I guess because it was a weekend that wasn’t about busy-ness. It was wonderful to spend a few hours with people from my past. It was even more enjoyable to know they wanted to share those hours together — traveling from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and all over New Jersey, or even a few blocks down the street.
When I look back at who I was then, I realize how much I was shaped by that place and those people. In so many ways I was blessed because they were kind and funny and smart. Fresh out of college, newly married and almost 1500 miles from the world I knew, I floundered almost every day in the beginning. Too shy, too anxious and too uncertain — about everything. Starting as an education and food (really?!) editor on the features desk, I was supposed to write a feature story and edit local news shorts to fill the Sunday education page, and then write a feature food story and edit recipes to fill the Wednesday food section. I’d done lots of writing and worked on the news desk on the daily college newspaper, but I’d never done layout, except in class. However, I learned quickly by watching Susan “Sooz” Caulfield, who was the features editor and Sunday layout editor for the paper. I had no choice.
And then I came in early to work on the news desk a few mornings a week, where the the masochistic news editor (and misogynist) ranted and raved and chain-smoked cigarettes on deadline. I was supposed the grab the sheets with headline formats, write them — 6-48-1, 1-24-3, 3-36-2 — as quickly as possible and send them back to him to check. I rarely got more than a “humph!” from him as he churned out the pages and ran out to check the pages being built by the back shop. My saving grace were people like Fred Petri, the editorial page editor, who worked deadline with me. He was calm and even and kind — and he probably completed twice as many headlines as I did in those early days. And never complained. Ever.
Little did I know I would take over the job of news editor just a few short years later. My life became a world of daily, hourly deadlines, and I even got to say, “Stop the presses,” early one Sunday morning in 1983 when we had to change the Sunday’s front page story to include the news of a massive terrorist attack in Lebanon that killed 241 American service members (yes, I had to google that). Again, Fred worked the desk with me along with Tom Wilk — two of the calmest people I have ever met. In. My. Life. And by that time, I knew the guys in the back-shop as well as the news team — having spent many a late Saturday night marking up Sunday pages with them. However, coming from the features side, I still felt uncomfortable making decisions about hard news. But again, I was helped by city editors like Bob Bradley and Jimmy Davis, who had years of experience writing and editing news stories.
Enough. Probably more than enough. I’ve rarely thought about those days — such a different life.
After six years in New Jersey, we moved to Rhode Island, where I was a stringer for the Pawtucket Evening Times for about six months. But it was a union newspaper, and I couldn’t write my stories on newsroom computers; instead, I wrote them at home at night (where a baby slept) on a 20-year-old electric typewriter and dropped the stories off at the front desk. I finally gave it up when I wasn’t even allowed to enter the newsroom. Ugh! I also interviewed for a news editor job for a small newspaper in Massachusetts — and I was offered the job. But that world no longer fit into my life, with a husband who traveled for work and a one-year-old daughter. It was more difficult to spend hours in a newsroom, to come home at 3 a.m. I found a another writing job and began taking classes at night to be a teacher, shaping a new life that worked for me and my family.
As the present year winds down, I’ve looked back and remembered who I was, so long ago. Sentimental? Maybe. But that’s OK. It tasted good, like a big bowl of buttered popcorn and a brand-new Netflix series to binge-watch.
Thank you, GloCo Times alumni. Thank you for caring about facts and news and ethics and getting it right, and, yes, for being young and dumb enough to work so hard for so little. But, most of all, thanks for the laughter.
That’s what has always saved me.
And always will.
I was lucky enough to meet Al Albrektson almost 10 years ago. The Rhode Island artist has painted several watercolors selected as images for Amica Insurance’s annual Thanksgiving card over the years; the most recent was selected in 2016. He turned 100 in September, and I — along with an art gallery packed with admirers — celebrated his life and work in October at the Providence Art Club. Founded in 1880, it is the third oldest art club in the U.S., and just 39 years older than Al!
Here’s a link to the article:
And here’s a video about Al that our video team created in 2016:
I’ve enjoyed helping with this Thanksgiving card for years — especially now, after I retired. If you’re looking for a simple e-card to send to family and friends, you’ve found it. There’s no advertising, no corporate nonsense. Make sure your audio is turned up to hear the music! Simply a card filled with light and hope — and it’s easy to send. Here’s the link to send the card: https://www.amicathanksgiving.com/
And here’s a video about the artist.
Trees croon yellow and gold
Bellow orange, scarlet and ruby
by late October.
“Look at me!” they insist
on these brittle blue days.
Soon, one night of wind and rain
will drop shrouds of leaves,
while writhing limbs
scrape the stars.
Today, on a river road,
a village of sugar maples
links arms overhead
and chants, “Let go!”
A canopy of stained glass
shatters down on me
in one last
It is one of the inevitable realities of growing older: the deaths of friends and family grow ever closer and more frequent.
I have lived far from my hometown and family members for four decades now. As a result, my experience with funerals as an adult has been limited to my parents, close relatives, and the family members of colleagues and neighbors – probably less than 20 funerals in all that time.
In contrast, attending funerals was a common (often weekly) event for me from about fifth through eighth grade in the small Iowa town where I attended an even smaller Catholic school. That’s because the Holy Name girls often sang at funeral Masses before lunchtime, while the boys took turns serving Mass.
I remember huge funerals that overflowed the pews (in a church that was majestic in comparison to the size of the town) and funerals with a handful of mourners. This aspect of small-town life remains the same for my friends who live in my hometown (although they no longer sit upstairs whispering in the choir loft). They now pay their respects to deceased friends and neighbors by helping to serve the funeral meal, making the salads and desserts, and mourning another local family’s loss. When I used to visit my hometown with my daughters in the summer, I often attended a wake or funeral with my parents. It was something you did to show your respect, to note a passing, to console the living.
On Sunday, Denise Theisen, a high school classmate – and one of my “Marcus Girls” – passed away. Over the years, as demanding family or business lives relaxed a bit, several of us got together for long weekends every other year in cities all over the Midwest, and it had become known as the Marcus Girls’ Trip. The girls had even traveled to Connecticut for a perfect leaf-peeping weekend two years earlier.
In recent months, Denise had warned us that her cancer had finally won the war – but the shock of its fury and finality is still hard to grasp. Her funeral is today, and her huge, close family and long-time friends will fill the church pews, which have seen generations of mourners come and go.
I had last seen Denise in May when I returned to northwest Iowa for the high school graduation of my brother’s triplets, and I had last talked to her on the phone just a few weeks ago, after she had moved into her sister’s house for hospice care. Even then, I thought she had months to live, instead of days. We laughed about how much chocolate she would eat without feeling guilty – and I now realize she probably never took one bite of the chocolates I mailed to her a few days later.
I will miss her laugh, her deep voice, and those looks that pierced through the bullshit in seconds. She was a smart businesswoman and a thoughtful friend. She was artistic and logical. She was a caring daughter and a mischief-maker. She was a joker and a philosopher. Even in our last conversation, she urged me to stay positive and be strong. And she told me that knowing cancer had finally come to take her was better than worrying about the likelihood of it happening for so long.
“It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said, about her long journey with cancer. “I don’t have to worry about that anymore. For me, knowing is better than waiting.”
Some of the Marcus Girls got together just days before Denise quietly passed away, and she gave them all something of hers to remember her by. During the visit, my friends told me that Denise grew visibly more tired, so she decided to return to her sister’s home to take a nap. However, instead of saying good-bye, she said, “Till we meet again.”
I have a black-and-white photo of Denise from high school. She is in the art class that we took together. She is looking up from the project she is working on and flashing that sly, what-the-hell smile of hers. If I can find the photo and scan it, that’s what you’ll see at the top of this post. If not, it will remain in my memory. (And, of course, I can’t seem to find it right now. But I look forward to stumbling upon it in the future, when I’ll have a good laugh with Denise.)
Till we meet again, Denise. Till we meet again.
The white-haired woman had propped her camera and telephoto lens up against her mailbox and was snapping photos in the direction of the Mystic River. As I got closer, I wondered what had grabbed her attention. On this solid blue summer morning, the river was quiet: no kayaks or crew teams or fishing boats rippling the water. I spoke a little louder.
“What do you see?”
“Oh! It’s my osprey, in the pine tree. He’s got a fish in his mouth,” she said, as she squinted through the lens. I looked in the direction it was pointed and saw the osprey perched atop a scrubby pine.
“I’ll miss him. Any day now, he’ll be heading south,” she said. “Each spring it’s the same. I wonder which one of us will be here next year. So far, so good.”
We laugh, and I wish her well.
I continue walking down the road that passes by wooden fences of old Mystic homes and the remains of summer gardens, underneath an interstate highway overpass, a saltwater estuary, the road to a peace garden, and a meticulous cemetery.
But now I am looking harder, longer.
I see the sunlight break into a thousand stars among the reeds at the water’s edge. I listen to the tractor trailers on the overpass overhead, tires changing their tune as they meet the bridge. I brush my hands over weeds and give them names – Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod and beach plums. I turn into the cemetery and sounds feel muffled. Shadows flicker off the stones as a breeze stirs the oak leaves high overhead. They hang on the longest in the fall, but soon they, too, will let go.
“What do you see?”
The question lingers. I could have passed by the old woman without saying a word, just as I have done hundreds, thousands of times on other paths and sidewalks and roads.
I think of all I’ve missed.
Of all I haven’t seen.
I love to find beautiful little spots that surprise me. This evening I walked through Wilcox Park in Westerly, where an outdoor play with four nuns was going on, people were setting up a stage for a concert tomorrow, someone was playing the guitar on a park bench, a young couple was fishing their toddler out of a fountain, and families were sprinkled around on blankets. It was filled with flowers, fountains, stately trees, and it was the sprawling backyard of a lovely old library — another surprise.
The library was a busy place on a Thursday evening in the summer — people played chess, a man read in a window seat, and the meeting rooms were busy. It even had a little coffee house, which is open during the day. It felt like a well-loved place. I will be back.
Westerly sits on the southeasternmost edge of Rhode Island, a place I never visited when I actually lived in the state. But it is a sweet gem that has reinvented its downtown with little shops and cute restaurants — and it is celebrating its 350th birthday this year. Here are a few more favorite photos from tonight’s visit.
Two grandsons race each other across the backyard,
across this longest day of the summer,
which looks as worn out as the boys’ parents.
My daughter shouts a warning of poison ivy
as these pre-schoolers stumble and roll into weeds,
and I find myself fretting about deer ticks again.
One grandbaby cuddles in his mother’s lap
while another coos and kicks in a screened play yard.
All they need do is smile, and I am theirs.
Then, from another yard in the distance,
I hear my mother’s voice yell “Go!”
And she is sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse again,
as four of her eight children
race barefoot to tag the pine tree near the road
and back again, trying to miss thistle patches.
My grandsons now pretend to be monsters.
When the mosquitoes take over,
my daughters’ husbands pick up plates
of half-eaten hot dogs and empty beer cans
as my children get their children ready for bed.
And I am reading Charlotte’s Web in a twin bed,
choking back tears over Charlotte and Wilbur
and my own fears and my own loss as two little girls
half-listen as their mother pretends to be a spider.
But it is Sunday night and these young parents
have to pack for work trips and study for online courses
and make lunches and double-check daycare schedules.
I remember how much I too dreaded Sunday nights,
how I dawdled over grading papers, making lesson plans,
or ironing a pile of button-downs and pressing pants.
Tonight, all I have ahead of me is the drive back home,
and I open the moon roof and turn up the music.
I have lived almost half my life on four wheels,
from gravel roads to interstates to suburban streets,
and now I watch the stars circle above me
on a Connecticut highway that leads
to a quiet condo, my choices, and maybe a Netflix movie.
Forty years ago today, I put on a white gown,
pearl earrings, ballet slippers, and a picture hat.
I slipped baby’s breath behind one ear
and walked down a church aisle to say, “I do.”
And I did for a long time. But I don’t anymore.
And so, by the time I get home,
this longest day will have blown out its candle,
and a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain.
I may hear a foghorn on Long Island Sound,
or the whistle of an Amtrak train stopping in New London.
Yes, a soft breeze will lift my bedroom curtain,
just as it did in a farmhouse surrounded by Iowa cornfields,
and an apartment off I-95 where tractor-trailers roared,
and a bungalow in New Jersey next door to a peach orchard,
and a suburban cookie-cutter house in Rhode Island,
and one big room over a deli on Benefit Street,
and a second-floor condo in the trees off busy Rte. 2.
Tonight, on this unmarked anniversary,
I celebrate all this day has offered,
for the memories that sifted up from long ago,
for daughters who are mothers,
and a mother who gave us all she had and never asked for anything,
for those I couldn’t make happy,
and those I did.
And I celebrate the girl in the white gown
who walked down a church aisle forty years ago
and that one single sprig of baby’s breath
behind her ear.