The Circle Becomes Smaller

No Longer Part of the Earthly Circle: Buddy, My Mother Jan, and Bobbie Hamming It Up Circa 1980

“The circle becomes smaller,” said Esty, a French nonagenarian who lives in New York. She and I were on the phone discussing the death of our friend Bobbie Carlin last week.

Bobbie’s death has been a shock to most of us who knew her. At 81 she wasn’t young. Nevertheless, she had such a tenacious hold on life that it is hard to believe she is gone.

I knew Bobbie for much of my life. Her daughter Susan and I became friends as teenagers. Soon my parents teamed up with Bobbie and her funny, darling husband Buddy for escapades and anniversary parties.

In February I wrote about visiting Bobbie in New York City. She was like a second mother to me … in good ways and bad.

I’ll never forget my frustration one day about ten years ago when she and my mother were chatting in our living room in Massachusetts. I peeked in to say goodbye since I was leaving for a friend’s wedding.

They shot identical looks at my sundress and uttered in unison three words every daughter dreads: “You’re wearing THAT?”

It took me some time to convince them that since the wedding was an informal garden party my attire was entirely appropriate. (The fact that I was wearing a hat apparently helped.) I was almost late for the wedding and wondered as I sped along the road whether I really needed one mother, let alone two. I was, after all, an adult.

Today, of course, I’d be happy to have either of them around to criticize my wardrobe. I’d still stand up for my goddess-given right to dress as I saw fit. But I’d try to be a little more patient with their perceived mandate to express their opinions.

In many ways my circle and my world will indeed be smaller and less rich without Bobbie. She was maddeningly opinionated, but she could laugh at just about anything. She was familiar with every inch of her beloved city. And she knew every Broadway song ever written.

She prided herself on being ageless. The only time she ever allowed a white hair on her head was when she and her hairdresser decided on a look they called “tortoiseshell,” a combination of red, black, and white tufts. It sounds weird, but it was hugely flattering—especially when the tortoise slipped on a pair of huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses.

Bobbie knew how to dress better than anyone else I have ever known and was always perfectly turned out.

When I complained once at being caught by a camera in informal clothes and no makeup, she told me, “A person should never leave the house unless she is prepared to be network television.”

I laughed because I NEVER look prepared to be network television. She was deadly serious, however.

Bobbie pretended she wasn’t sentimental. When the smart, graceful, and remarkably un-neurotic Susan became pregnant for the first time, someone asked the grandmother-to-be what she wanted to be called by the newest generation. Grandma? Nana? Grand-mère?

“They may call me Mrs. Carlin,” she replied loftily.

In the end Ian, Gillian, and Danielle called her “Barbar,” a shortened version of her formal name, Barbara. And she loved them—as she loved New York, cheap theater tickets, stylish boots, her dancer daughter, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, and makeup samples from Saks Fifth Avenue—extravagantly.

When I think about it, the truth is not that my circle and the world are smaller because Bobbie died but that they are larger because she lived.

I will never be able to emulate her sartorial style, which relied in large part on very slender legs. I hope, however, that I can match her passion for life.

For now, I’ll settle for singing a chorus of “My Funny Valentine” around the house in her honor. She loved that song. And she was indeed the funniest of valentines.

Bobbie in February

To hear me sing “My Funny Valentine” (pardon my recording technology–not to mention my piano playing!), click on the “Play” button below.

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Return Trip

Courtesy of Franklin Medical Center

I didn’t expect my life after my mother’s death to be a straight path. I don’t specialize in straight paths.

I expected it to be bumpy—and it is. It’s also curvy.

Some of the curves have been a little scary. Every tenth day or so I turn around and don’t quite know who I am or what my future will be.

I try to see this uncertainty as a challenge. Mostly I succeed. But a girl can tire of challenges.

Some of the curves are oddly gentle.

Last Thursday night I took my 86-year-old neighbor Alice to the hospital, to the same emergency room that had been my destination with both of my parents.

Alice had fallen in the middle of the day. By evening her leg was so sore that she wasn’t sure she could get to bed. So she called me—and my friend Esther and I helped her into my car. We got to the ER around 9:30.

In strolled the sympathetic red-haired doctor who had charmed my mother on her last visit. Unlike me, my mother was not a woman to use the word “cute” lightly. Nevertheless, I believe it passed through her lips that night last August as she grasped his hand.

The whole experience could have been a bad curve for me—not to mention poor Alice, who was definitely in a great deal of pain.

It could have made the grief turn around and around and around in me as I remembered being there with my mother and facing her death for the first time, not as something bound to happen at some point in the distant future but as something almost sure to happen very soon.

Somehow instead of a scary spiral this ER visit turned into a calm unraveling, a path toward healing.

It made me smile to see the staff continue to do for Alice and others what they did for my mother on a very difficult night. Acting kind and concerned and competent. Going on.

And of course it was wonderful to be able to bring Alice home that night. We eventually found out that she has a hairline fracture of her hip, which will heal with a lot of rest (NOT something my dynamo neighbor is good at, but we all need our challenges) and lots of cosseting from children and friends.

She was sore, but she wasn’t dying. Not soon, anyway.

The night wasn’t a do-over. I love Alice, but she’s not my mother.

It WAS a comfort, however.

I Must Be in the Right Business

On Friday I delivered a lunch lecture to students at Greenfield (Massachusetts) High School.

The lunch lecture program is a sort of continuing-education feature for the students, although continuing education is clearly the wrong term since these kids haven’t concluded their original educations!

Basically, its aim is to expose them to different fields of study, different people, and different careers as an adjunct to their regular curriculum.

I was asked to talk about my work as a food journalist and blogger, to analyze why I love to write about food.

As you can imagine, this was pretty easy. I explained that I got into food writing the way I get into pretty much everything … by accident.

I went on to tell the students about the ways in which food writing makes my life more integrated, connects me to other people, and enables me to write about any topic I choose since just about everything can be related to food one way or another.

I provided a few examples of this wide-ranging focus, explaining that in the past I had linked recipes to such topics as vintage television programs, women’s history, literature, baseball, and astronomy.

I emphasized the ways in which my writing uses just about every subject I have ever studied. I knew this emphasis would go over well. I remember wondering when I was in school whether anything I was learning would ever prove useful in that far-away land called real life.

(Actually, I haven’t ever found much use for biology in my writing, but I don’t rule out being able to work it into an article or blog post one of these days!)

After this brief survey of my work, I asked the students to identify their favorite dishes for me … and to tell me if they could who had first made the dishes and why these particular foods were meaningful to them.

After the first couple of hands went up and were answered, the room exploded with young people eager to share their love of food and family. Among other dishes we discussed Pork-Fried Rice, Dad’s Enchiladas, Teriyaki Pork Chops, Ice Cream with Lavender Sauce, and several different versions of Macaroni and Cheese.

One student who had studied culinary science (I wish they had had that at MY high school) told me about his own creation for a final exam. He had prepared a breakfast pizza with eggs, cheese, sausage, and a multitude of additional ingredients. I’m sure he got an “A.”

We ended our session with enthusiasm—and hunger. The students themselves illustrated my point that food and cooking are meaningful both as pillars of everyday living and as keys to relationships and memory.

So I’m clearly in the right field. Now all I have to do is make A LOT more money cultivating that field…….

Speaking of school-age children, I’ll close here with an essay I wrote in my writing group last week that touches on my much younger self. We were asked to write briefly about a tree. This is what I came up with.

The Apple Tree

I’m not very old—probably about five, old enough to go to school each day but not old enough to have much homework.

Afternoons after school stretch their arms out to me, full of promise.

My first choice in the afternoon would almost always be to go inside and watch an old movie on TV, preferably one in which Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy harmonize as they sing of their love for one another:

“When I’m calling you oo-oo-oo oo-oo-oo………”

Most days, however, indoor, sedentary pleasures are forbidden by my mother. She wants an active, social child as well as a chanteuse.

Today her prohibition of indoor pastimes is fine with me. I have an outdoor mission.

My slightly older neighbor, Jamie Patrick Scios, has broken his leg climbing on the family television set—how and why no one knows. I am enamored of his crutches.

I have one ambition right now: to climb an apple tree in the backyard, hurl myself out of it, break my leg, and obtain my own set of crutches.

I put my Keds-clad feet in successive elbows of the gnarly old tree until I feel very high indeed—maybe as high as eight feet (which is a big deal for little me). I spread my arms apart like wings, launch my body into the air, and head for the ground.

But … I am small and limber, so after a lovely little whirl I arrive intact on the soft grass.

I try again to no avail. Grr.

I have a feeling my mother must have told the tree to take care of me.

Several weeks later Jamie lends me his crutches. They are a lot more work than I expected.

Thank you, Apple Tree, for not taking me too seriously.

Not the Original Apple Tree

Mother’s Day

My mother loved celebrations.

Mother’s Day is perfectly gorgeous here in western Massachusetts: perfect May weather. Our early lilacs are brightening up the landscape, and a few apple blossoms and daffodils remain.

In church this morning our minister, Cara, suggested everyone quietly name a mother who deserved remembering on this special day. I mentioned my mother, Jan (a.k.a. Taffy) and then heard my neighbor Alice softly say the name of her own mother.

Alice’s mother Mary Parker (whom we all called Gam) was a grandmother figure to all of us children in the neighborhood, one of the strong inspiring women of my youth. She was admirable, funny, and fierce.

Hearing that name made me think of so many other mother figures I celebrate today, including Gam.

I recalled my own grandmothers, Clara and Sarah, as well as my beloved aunts, Lura, Selma, and Connie.

I recalled my godmothers, Kay (who was named poet laureate of the state of Delaware) and Dody (who SHOULD have been named poet laureate of French film and key-lime pie). Both went to college with my mother.

I recalled my mother’s other close college chums—smart, fun women who taught me a lot about female friendship: Sylvia, Riley, Giff, and Bobby.

I recalled my mother’s other smart close friends: her partner in business, Claire; her partner in singing, Bobbie; and her partners in bridge and neighborhood gossip, Randy and Annie.

I also recalled some of the female teachers who have made a difference to me: Helen, who taught Sunday school and encouraged my personality (not that it needed a huge amount of encouragement); Bebe and Ma’am, my second- and fourth-grade teachers in two very different corners of the world; Penny, who taught me to play chords on the piano and to love music always; and Desley, Shelley, and Janet, who helped me survive graduate school.

It made me sad to realize that of all of these women only a few survive. Most of the teachers are still around, and my Aunt Lura is still with us. My mother, our other relatives, and most of my mother’s friends (except for the redoubtable Claire and Bobbie) are gone.

Nevertheless, my overall feeling was and is one of celebration that I am lucky enough to have been cradled by so many remarkable women over the course of my life.

I hope to continue to find mother figures as I age. (Someday I will have to turn 40.) And I hope to serve as a surrogate mother to others in their life journeys.

I realize that most of my readers are busy celebrating Mother’s Day today—but if you’re reading this at any time please take a moment to leave a comment below naming a mother figure who has helped shape you.

Writing her name and recalling her influence on you will make you feel mothered all over again. I promise!

Happy Mother’s Day … today and every day.

Esther, our church choir director, send these lovely roses home with me today in memory of my mother.

A Workshop

Grimod de La Reynière (I’ll get to him!)

Last week I attended a writing workshop for the first time.

The workshop is sponsored by the hospice program that helped my mother (and me!) when she was dying. Its basic purpose is to help people deal with bereavement through the writing process.

I already write about my bereavement (and just about everything else in my life) pretty regularly. Nevertheless, when the hospice people called and asked whether I’d like to attend I said yes. I had never participated in a writing workshop before, and I can always use a little feedback!

The workshop wasn’t quite what I expected since we don’t bring samples of writing from home to read. We just write in place, prompted by various cues from our group leader. We then read our writings aloud. If we don’t feel like reading, we don’t have to. So far everyone has felt like reading.

I wish I could tell you about the leader—and about my fellow workshop participants! Unfortunately, the whole thing is confidential. I can share some general impressions—and I’m sure as time goes by I’ll be sharing more of the essays I write.

Based on last week’s initial offering, I can say that I’m a bit different from the other participants—and not just because I’m a professional writer. The other group members expressed their grief in a manner that contrasted with my mode of writing.

Like me, most of them are dealing with the loss of parents. A couple have lost siblings, and one has lost a close friend. In general, their writings relayed their feelings in a way that made their sorrow sound more overt, more raw, than mine.

As we read our essays I felt a little phony somehow, a little less than authentic in my grief. I knew this was silly. I certainly miss my mother and mourn her death. And grieving isn’t a competition. I felt that way nevertheless.

Instead of dealing straightforwardly with death and loss as the other essays did, my writings skirted around those topics. They wove in a little philosophy, a few anecdotes, some threads of conversation, and even a joke or two.

I was reassured over the weekend as I dipped into a book called The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Author Adam Gopnik included the following sentences in an essay about two turn-of-the-century (the 19th century, that is!) French food writers.

“We have often heard these days about the difference between sincerity (saying what you truly think) and authenticity (being who you really are). There is as big a difference, though, between being sincere and being in earnest.”

His point was that the people of whom he wrote were absolutely sincere, and really quite authentic, in their writing about food. They were seldom in earnest, however.

They toyed with their words and their concepts. They laughed at their subject matter even as they expressed passion for it. They were simultaneously serious and playful.

Gopnik believes that all food writing stems from these two writers, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière.

Perhaps I’ve been writing about food for too long. Perhaps I’m really French. All I can say is that I identified with the spirit Gopnik described in Brillat-Savarin and Grimod de La Reynière.

In writing about anything—including and perhaps especially bereavement—I almost always combine the playful and the serious, the sincere and the humorous.

I do occasionally feel a little out of place, and I’ll probably continue to do so all my life. Nevertheless, after some reflection I realize that I am ultimately comfortable with my writerly voice. It suits my personality. And it suits my view of life. I see our earthly existence as theater, rich in emotion but also rich in spectacle and humor.

The bereavement group wrote three separate essays last week, one that took about ten minutes, another that took 20, and a third that took less than five. Here is my third, very short essay.

A Place on a Map (an assigned topic)

My grandmother’s infinitely stretchable Victorian house in Rutland, Vermont, still exists on Route 7 and could probably be viewed on Google Maps … if I knew how to use Google Maps and if I had truly high-speed internet service.

I don’t need to see it as it is now. I can close my eyes and remember what it was like for me as a child, smelling beguilingly of stewed rhubarb and decaying books.

And can I recall my mother’s vivid memories of it in HER childhood—her Eden; her Disneyland; her evergreen, always safe home.

My grandmother’s house in February 1937.

Meeting the Candidates

Tedd White (left) and Lark Thwing at the Candidates' Forum

Monday evening as I sat at a forum for candidates running for selectman in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts, I wondered what it would be like if we knew all of our candidates personally—particularly those in the upcoming presidential race.

My guess is that if I’d known Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for years, I’d be less inclined to listen to their positions and policies and more inclined to draw on my experience with them to judge their fitness for office. I’d know whether Mitt really cares about those he works with, whether Barack can really use his giant brain for practical purposes.

On the other hand, as the forum showed me, I’d probably have a much harder time making up my mind between the two.

I’ve known one of the candidates, Tedd White, since we were teenagers if not longer. His father and grandfather were farmers before him down the road, fixtures in the town and in my youth. I watched his sons grow up.

I’ve known the other candidate, Lark Thwing, for at least 20 years. His late parents were dear friends to me and to just about everybody else in town. And Lark and his wife Beth have become friends as well since they retired to live in the town. (Like me, Lark spent every childhood summer in Hawley.)

Also present at the candidates forum: a stuffed cow. (I have no idea why.)

We don’t usually have multiple candidates for positions in Hawley. In fact, we frequently have no candidates at all. Hawley is generally a sleepy little town. That sleepy little town is at a crossroad just now, however, so everything to do with its government is a little abnormal.

The problems all started with Hurricane Irene. Last summer shortly after the hurricane I wrote an essay about the many ways in which Irene seemed to have brought our town together. I was optimistic about the future.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of the hurricane divided the town. The controversy revolved around river cleanup.

Most of our part of Hawley runs along the Chickley River. The river suffered hugely during the storm, destroying large chunks of the road and gushing onto people’s lawns and fields. We were lucky no one was hurt and not too much property was destroyed.

After the flood, the town, the state, and the National Guard set to work repairing the roads. Fixing the river was trickier. The selectmen wanted to clean up the river, which was filled with debris, and to re-route it in spots to help prevent future flooding.

One of the selectmen in particular had been longing to work on the river for years (he loves to go out and play with his machinery!) and saw the emergency as a chance to fulfill his dream.

The selectmen had trouble persuading federal and state officials to tell them how much aid (if any) the town might be able to obtain for river cleanup. Worried that snow would fall before they learned about funding, they decided to start the work as quickly as possible and trust to their political connections to secure reimbursement later.

The selectmen received a temporary emergency permit to work in the river. The work they spearheaded became controversial almost immediately, however, as it went beyond what many Hawleyites had envisioned.

Concerned citizens, the town conservation commission, the state department of environmental protection, and odds and ends of groups including a conservation organization called Trout Unlimited protested the scope and efficacy of the work. The state eventually issued a stop-work order.

Personalities flared, and two major factions developed in town. One viewed the selectmen as absolute heroes and berated those who had brought “outsiders” in to interfere with town business. The other maintained that the selectmen had vastly, even dangerously, exceeded their mandate. Each group argued that the other was involving the town in potential expense and litigation.

The worst part of it all, from my point of view, was that much of the time neither side could quite bring itself to believe that the other was acting in good faith.

The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that two of our three selectmen were gravely ill and therefore not working at their peak. One, our honored selectboard chair Darwin Clark, died in the middle of March.

Darwin had lived in Hawley all of his life. He attended one of the town’s last one-room schools in his youth and spoke with an accent that was specific to the town. A dairy farmer, he was what my father used to call a “country slicker”—a rural dweller who was razor sharp about local matters.

Unfortunately, Darwin’s illness over the last year meant that the town could not draw on his experience and wisdom very much during the river crisis. It is his seat on the board that Tedd and Lark aspire to fill.

I listened attentively to the candidates Monday night. Both spoke with civility and eloquence. They clearly have different visions of the town’s future.

Tedd talked about his training as a decision maker and pledged to work to lower taxes (an admirable hope but in my opinion a doomed one). He also reminded us of his family’s long-standing ties to Hawley, ties people in town value.

Lark spoke of building consensus, of improving communication among townspeople. He touched on his history of bringing people together at work and in volunteer organizations.

Both candidates come from families with a history of civic involvement. Both have supporters and signs all over our little hamlet.

Lark’s signs are colorful and straightforward. Tedd’s signs are plain but a little catchier in their wording, which mostly refers to his dairy farm. One promises that he will “work for the town until the cows come home.” Another says he “won’t milk the taxpayers dry.” My favorite appears at the bottom of this essay.

Both these men are neighbors so I know that they love Hawley and that they are generous and competent. I don’t agree with both of them all the time. I do think either of them would make a hardworking, likeable selectman. Would that our presidential choice were this difficult!

I plan to vote for Lark Thwing on Election Day next week. I think his flexibility, his desire to include more people in town affairs, and his cautious neutrality on the river issue will stand him (and the town) in good stead if he becomes our selectman.

Nevertheless, I wish I could vote for both candidates. And I hope with all my heart that whoever wins will help us find a way to heal the divisions in our town.

My favorite campaign sign of the season. Eat your hearts out, Barack and Mitt!