Turning Five

I'm not sure how old I was in this photo--but it can't be a lot more than five!

I’m not sure how old I was in this photo–but it can’t be a lot more than five!

Tears flooded my pillow on the eve of my fifth birthday.

Lying in my bed on Lawn Ridge Road in Orange, New Jersey, I couldn’t stop thinking about the milestone to come. First I would be five, I reasoned. And then I would be twenty. And then I would be old. My life was almost over.

In vain my mother reassured me that five year olds all over the world appeared happy with their lot—and that I had quite a few years to go before my life ended. I refused to believe her. It was hours before I fell asleep, exhausted with worry.

I repeated the pattern when I turned ten. My mother, who had spent many years as an elementary school teacher, tried to convince me that ten was one of the best ages a person could turn.

In retrospect, I realize that she was right. Ten is a golden year, when children are secure and knowledgeable and coordinated, and their hormones haven’t kicked in to confuse things. At nine years and 364 days, however, I was convinced that the next day I would have one foot in the grave. Maybe even a foot and a half.

Over the years, I learned to handle my fear of aging. Having noticed that the numbers divisible by five seemed the most daunting, I decided at the age of 20 never to reach one of those numbers again. When the calendar wanted me to turn 25, I turned 24 for the second time. The next year I went straight to 26. I stayed there for a while; 26 seemed like a good age.

Eventually, I stopped changing ages altogether. I still celebrated my birthday—who doesn’t love a birthday party?—but I eventually established a practice of turning 39 year after year after year. If it was good enough for Jack Benny, it was good enough for me.

I could probably find a therapist to explain and treat my fear of aging. I’m no dummy, however, and I’m pretty sure I understand the cause of this phobia. I was very smart at a very early age. As a consequence, for the first 20 years or so of my life I was generally the youngest person in my social set to enter a grade in school or play a role in a play or read a “grownup” book or learn a mathematical skill.

I defined myself by my youth. Any threat to that youth—and the calendar is the ultimate threat to youth—seemed to threaten my essence.

I spent most of my life worrying about aging. When at the age of 27 I saw the first gray hairs glinting on my head in the rearview mirror of my car I almost ran the car off the road in panic.

I called my mother to tell her about this incident. At the time she was in her 60s and still had NO gray hair. (I inherited my father’s hair; he looked like a brillo pad for much of his life.) “Is the car all right?” she asked.

I was indignant. “Your daughter’s hair is turning gray, and all you care about is a mechanical device?” I huffed into the phone.

I soon found that l’Oreal could help me with the gray hair—but not with the aging.

I often identified with a line near the end of Richard II in which the doomed king muses, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

A couple of years ago, my fear of aging began to abate.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)--but happy.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)–but happy.

I had just finished Pulling Taffy, my memoir about caring for my mother in her last years when she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke at women’s clubs, church groups, and senior centers about the strategies I had developed over time for caring for her and the lessons we had learned together.

One evening during the question-and-answer session that followed one of my talks a woman thanked me for the knowledge I was sharing, noting that she would put it to good use.

It suddenly hit me that the most valuable part of my talks—and indeed the most valuable part of me—was the experience and knowledge I had developed over the years.

I would no longer be the youngest in most of the circles I would frequent. But I could try to be one of the wisest, I realized.

Now I believe that I haven’t wasted time. I have invested it. My wrinkles aren’t signs of decay. They are signs of life.

I have to admit that I’m still officially 39. And I’m not allowing my hair to go gray. One has one’s standards to uphold.

I no longer get upset if someone accidentally looks at my driver’s license and discovers my birth year, however. I have too many things to do, too many new things to learn, and too many lessons to share.

When I REALLY become old (in 30 years or so), I’ll be awesome.

Meanwhile, I have come to appreciate age everywhere, particularly in fiction, where older characters often have some much more … well … character than youthful heroes and heroines.

Don’t most people, secretly, prefer Endora to Samantha in Bewitched? I certainly do. She’s much more colorful, much more dramatic, much more fun. And she’s not afraid of her own powers….

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Another Birthday

My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

Stasis and Movement

perfectwaterweb

Now that spring is bumping its way into view I long for summer. I think part of us (part of me, anyway) never loses the Platonic ideal of that season we developed when we were children. When I think of summer I think of long, sunny days in which I have nothing to do but please myself and grow—days of swimming and dreaming and playing with friends.

In reality as an adult I juggle work and social obligations daily during the summer months. Still, I try to spend at least a few minutes of each afternoon sitting at my neighbors’ magical dam. I let my mind wander and soak up the joys of sun and water.

The dam today doesn’t look much different from the dam of my youth. The sound of the water flowing toward and over it is the eternal sound of my childhood. Resting by the dam, or gliding through the water with a breaststroke, I feel as though time has stood still.

Of course, time—like the water—is always moving. It’s one of life’s paradoxes that even when we think we are at rest, as I believe I am now typing this into my laptop with my dog Truffle snoozing at my side, humans and the cosmos are moving in myriad ways. Our globe spins on its axis and rotates around the sun. The sun and its solar system move around the Milky Way. Everything in the universe expands every second.

Similarly, the dam, which I think of as always the same, is transformed from instant to instant as thousands of drops of water whiz by. The very sound that symbolizes eternity for me—the sound of water flowing—is the sound of change.

Maybe change is the point. Perhaps the reason I so love the dam and summer is not because they are always the same but because they are, like life, always on the move. They breathe with me … nourish me … play with me. They remind me that we are most centered when we are busiest.

Come to think of it, I don’t have to wait until summer to regain the feeling of childhood. All I have to do is strive to be more aware of the ways in which stasis and movement coexist—and the spirit of youth, of learning and play and dreaming, will fill me.

I won’t tell Truffle about this just now, however. She is enjoying the illusion that she is at rest while napping.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Return to the Land of Dementia

Truffle:  Confused but ALWAYS CUTE

Truffle:
Confused but ALWAYS CUTE

I have spent a lot of time dealing with dementia in my life. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. My father contracted Binswanger’s disease, another brain disorder that leads to confusion and memory loss.

Most recently, as many readers know because I discussed it in my book Pulling Taffy, my mother had Alzheimer’s disease. She died two years ago.

A month ago I would have told you that I was through with dementia—at least until such time as it might hit my own brain. Unfortunately, I was just plain wrong.

I am now dealing with … doggy dementia!

Recently my 12-year-old cockapoo, Truffle, has become irritable late at night. When the time comes for her to go outside just before bedtime she growls, snaps, and barks aggressively. This behavior is just NOT like my little dog. In general, Truffle acts as sweet and cuddly as the stuffed animal she resembles.

Once Truffle gets back inside after her late-night walk she returns to her normal affectionate self and snuggles all night. Those moments of panic and confusion (on her part), of fear and anxiety (on my part), mar the evenings, however.

So I consulted with her Virginia vet, Terry Donahue, yesterday. Sure enough, Truffle appears to have cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a.k.a. doggy Alzheimer’s disease.

We are trying various strategies to cope with this. Some are (surprise!) expensive. Terry has prescribed anti-anxiety pills and suggested special food and nutritional supplements. These are certainly worth a try. It always amazes me that Truffle’s haircuts cost more than mine. Now her daily food and medicine budget may grow greater than mine as well.

Some remedies are already in the home. I turn on as many lights as I can as the sun goes down each evening to increase Truffle’s feeling of being bathed in light and to decrease the sundowner’s syndrome she seems to be enduring. The apartment now looks as bright in the evenings as it did when I was taking care of my mother. It goes against my Scotch upbringing to use so much electricity—but I have to admit that the brightness cheers even me in dark, cold January.

The greatest gift I can give Truffle, of course, is love. As I did with my mother, I try to be as patient and gentle as I can. It’s not Truffle’s fault that she has no idea who I am or what I’m trying to do with her when I ask her to go out at night.

The world always offers us more lessons to learn. Next time it’s time for me to further my education, I’d prefer to learn about something OTHER than dementia. For now, however, Truffle and I will do the best we can and enjoy life as much as we can.

Heaven Is a Dinner Party

Scovilleweb

the sign outside a library at which I talked about my book

I am winding up the official launch season of my new book, Pulling Taffy. Of course, I hope to talk to more women’s clubs, alumnae groups, seniors, and the like as time goes by. I have an engagement to meet with a book club in Virginia in a few weeks to hear reader reactions and answer questions, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that similar engagements will follow. The first flurry of appearances has come to an end, however.

I have had a couple of less than perfect (and less than profitable) gigs in my tour. Early in the summer I arrived at one distant library to give a talk. It was the first sunny day in a month. As a result, only five people (three of them related to me) came to my well publicized appearance. Even the librarian who had invited me went home to work in his garden instead of staying to hear me!

And one group of seniors was MUCH more interested in eating lunch than in talking or listening to me.

By and large, however, I have had a wonderful time talking about the book and about caregiving to a wide variety of people.

In fact, talking to them has been a privilege. Because my book is about very personal issues—about disease and death and parent/child relationships and caregiving—many of the people in the groups to whom I have spoken have opened up to me about their own personal concerns and experiences.

I have heard stories that have made me laugh … and stories that have made me cry. Last night I heard a story that made me do both.

A woman named Janet at the Sunderland (Massachusetts) Woman’s Club astonished me by recalling not only what I wrote in the cookbook I inscribed to her at a meeting of the club years ago but also what I sang to the group at the end of my previous appearance!

She went on to tell me a lovely story about her mother, the matriarch of a large Italian family. Like Janet (and me!), her mother loved food.

Janet’s mother always said that her personal vision of heaven was an ongoing dinner party at which her own mother was doing the cooking. Around the table were all the people she had loved during her lifetime—her siblings, her friends, her husband. One chair was empty. And when the time came and dinner was ready, she herself would sit in that chair.

Janet described visiting her very ill mother in the hospital. She looked down and whispered very softly, “Mom, I think your mother’s making dessert about now.”

Her mother whispered back, “I hope it’s pudding. And I hope it’s soon.”

And it was.

Who wouldn’t love meeting people like Janet and hearing stories like that one? (And of course she bought a book!)

Return of the Country Mouse

George

I recently spent 24 hours in New York City.

My main purpose was to attend the Peabody Award luncheon on Monday, May 20. The Peabodys, administered through the University of Georgia, were originally founded to honor excellence in radio. Now they encompass all forms of electronic communications.

I wish I could tell you that I went to the Peabodys to accept an award! Not yet.

I went because this year is the final one in which my former graduate-school professor, Horace Newcomb, will serve as the director of the Peabodys. Once he moves back from Athens, Georgia, to his home in Austin, Texas (and stops making Peabody-related trips to New York City), I’ll be unlikely to see him.

So I decided to attend the ceremonies, to which Horace has invited me every year for more than a decade. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to talk to Horace or his wife, Sara, in the hubbub of awards, congratulations, and food. I didn’t. But I wanted to talk to them one last time. I did.

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

From left to right: Peabody Awards host Scott Pelley, Sara Newcomb, Horace Newcomb (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

My father always said that if one is truly lucky in higher education one will find at least one professor who really matters, who teaches one to think and encourages one to do one’s best work.

For me, Horace was one of those professors.

He is pretty much the founder of television studies in the United States. He began by teaching in an English department, in fact, since early in his career few official departments existed in which one could study or teach television.

By the time I got to the University of Texas, where I got my Ph.D. in American studies but specialized in media history, he was a well known figure in the university’s Radio-TV-Film department.

He never completely shook off his English department roots, however, which meant that in a pinch I could discuss my American literature reading list with him as well as the one for television studies. He taught me to appreciate Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well as Stephen J. Cannell and Tom Selleck. (Okay, I admit I didn’t need a lot of teaching to appreciate Tom Selleck, but Horace helped me understand WHY I appreciated him beyond his good looks.)

I wasn’t Horace’s best or even favorite student. He was always generous with his time, however. He inspired me to hone my writing and my analysis of stories told in any medium.

And he occasionally talked me down from the metaphorical ledge when I was feeling stressed out by life as a Ph.D. candidate.

When I decided to ask outside readers to give an honest appraisal of my new memoir, Pulling Taffy, Horace was one of the few people to whom I sent the manuscript. He offered insightful suggestions for reshaping the book. I didn’t implement them all, but they set me on the path I ended up taking.

I was happy to hand a copy of the book to him and Sara after the Peabody luncheon.

I was also happy just to be there for the awards, which went to a remarkable bunch of people and radio/TV/web productions. Some of these (Lorne Michaels, HBO, Doctor Who) were known to me. Others were new. These included Filipinos who had created a video exposé of child malnutrition in their country and a Phoenix news station crew whose in-depth reporting on the cause of a local automobile accident eventually led to a federal inquiry and the recall of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

I left with a happy feeling from having encountered Horace and Sara; a few celebrities (I saved a departing elevator for Judd Apatow!); the glorious art-deco palace that is the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the hustle and bustle of New York, which always invigorates me.

Judd didn't offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Judd didn’t offer me a part in his next film, but he said thank you! (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

I also left with a piece of chocolate shaped like a Peabody Award and a bouquet of aromatic flowers that survived the bus ride back to Massachusetts and graced my table here for more than a week.

Most importantly, I left with inspiration. All the people accepting Peabody Awards were passionate about their work, and all of them had told stories that mattered.

I hope that my next big story will matter, too. I’m not sure what that story will be, of course; I’m running around like a crazy person publicizing my current book! But I’m cogitating. Stay tuned….

waldorf

One Today (or the Forest/Tree Dilemma)

Richard Blanco performs a sound check for the inauguration (courtesy of Richard Blanco)

I love watching presidential inaugurations on television. Even if I haven’t voted for the current president, at least one day in four years I feel a sense of common purpose with our chief executive, with other elected officials, and with fellow citizens glued to the spectacle in person or over the airwaves.

I am sometimes a little petty so of course as a chanteuse I found things to criticize in some of the musical offerings during yesterday’s inauguration. (Is it now against the rules to perform a patriotic song the way it was written?)

I thought the basic theme of the president’s speech was solid, however. And I was moved to tears by Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today.”  As I age (and I age very slowly, of course), poems seem to speak to me more and more. This one invoked the many landscapes, languages, and occupations of Americans in order to draw us together as one people to visualize, name, and create our future.

It may seem odd that a poem about unity should rely on so very many individual images—of prayers, of stalks of wheat, of doors and clotheslines, of blackboards and trains and tragedies and smiles. Nevertheless, it is detail that makes life rich. So each lone image Blanco added to his poetic soup kettle made the flavor stronger and more distinctive.

I am a detail-obsessed person. One of the agents whom I approached about representing my forthcoming book about my mother felt uncomfortable with its reliance on vignettes. She told me that she would be more inclined to represent the book if I reworked it into a narrative instead of a mosaic.

I considered taking her advice but ultimately decided against it. I experience life in mosaic form. Perhaps others do not. But to me, life’s narrative isn’t clear or well structured. It shifts shape messily all the time. And it is the richer because of its shape shifting.

I am aware of the dangers of eschewing the forest for the trees. We have to have a sense of how our life is going in general in order to understand that life. Nevertheless, I will always err a little bit on the side of the trees. I can see my whole last year with my mother—indeed, her whole life—in her favorite poem (“The Owl and the Pussycat”) or a bowl of succotash or the image of her weak little body poised on top of a cardboard box trying to balance itself.

It is life’s individual moments that make us laugh, cry, feel, and connect with others—that make us feel alive.

So I stuck with the mosaic form. Thanks to Richard Blanco, I feel better today that I did. And I feel proud to be part of the mosaic he described.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother's life: her smile never changed.

Just for fun, a photo from my book. This picture could in fact sum up my mother’s life: her smile never changed.