Friday, September 10, 2010

Fudge for Breakfast

My mother used to make the best fudge—real fudge, not that soft stuff. Her fudge had a sturdy consistency, a "sheer factor." She would cool the cooked chocolate mixture down to almost room temperature, letting the butter melt and just sit still, and then beat it with a wooden spoon. At a certain point, the mixture would begin to lose its shininess, take on a sort of matte sheen, and get really hard to stir. This was the critical moment of truth—getting it into a pan and smoothed over before it completely seized up. With success, sighs of relief. With failure, oh, well, we could always mix the bits into ice cream.

My mother was a world-class hostess all her married life. In 1957, entertaining wasn’t anything like today. A cocktail party meant pretty dresses, dancing, Nat King Cole, and liquor. No girlie cocktails for my mother and father; they preferred Scotch, martinis, and after dinner Drambuie. There was smoking, laughter, and a high time was had by all.

Sometimes my father would flambé something. Once he put on a wonderful performance for a sleepover with my girlfriends. Flaming peaches, I think. It was awesome. I was the envy of the sixth grade.

Anyway, back to fudge . . . I was always an early riser, but on Sunday morning after a cocktail party, it was like an archeological expedition. I would wander downstairs, where the normally tidy living and dining room were a strange landscape. There would be the evidence of the bacchanalia. These clues were always enticing. Glasses containing strange olives, cigarette butts tipped with vibrant colors, my parents’ party shoes, records naked on the hifi. The whiff of foreign tobacco. And, if fate was smiling on me, there would be some fudge left over.

Fudge for breakfast had to be one of the most forbidden of pleasures. At 6:30 on a Sunday morning, there was no chance that anybody would catch me. I could put on my mother’s shoes, find a suitably untouched cigarette butt, grab some fudge, and pretend to party. I feel very fond of that girl as I watch her trying to act like a grownup.

By church time, the house looked almost normal.

Sometimes I think of those times and it seems like “before.” Just around the corner was so much national pain and strife, and a whole generation of baby boomers was about to take the stage. But just then, all that was unimaginable.

It was a mid-century childhood. And there was fudge.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Meatball Story

In 1979, my father, recently widowed, began to get his toe in The Dating Waters. Married to my down-to-earth, movie-star-beautiful mother for over 30 years, he was, shall we say, ill prepared. He worked in Manhattan, and had sublet a somewhat swanky apartment from a woman who was living elsewhere for a year. She had introduced him to her friend, Donna.

Donna could not have been any more different from my mother. She was petite, and wore Manolo Blahniks from the time she arose and put on her bed jacket. She floated into a room on a cloud of Joy de Patou perfume. She carried her tiny dog everywhere in a chic tote. Her hobby was getting her jewelry appraised. She had that kind of baby fine white-blonde hair that required twice-weekly appointments to make sure no roots showed. I’ll let you guess as to the upkeep needed on her fingernails and toenails. Donna owned a real Picasso. She Knew People. She had dated Michael Rennie (you know, from The Day the Earth Stood Still—klaatu, verada, nicto?).

It was such a disconnect for my brothers and me to contemplate this . . . exotic creature . . . in my father’s life. Really, it was as if we were watching from outside ourselves, as if a parallel universe had opened and something had gone horribly wrong. Nevertheless, we wanted Daddy to be happy, of course, and maybe this would be a relationship that would take his mind off his loss.

We decided that it would be a great idea to have a dinner party for Donna. So we picked the day for my brothers, maternal grandmother, and my best friend, Cheryl, to gather in our apartment for a buffet dinner. Our apartment was just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.

Donna expressed some concern about this trip. “You mean, out of the city?” she asked my father, as if she were on a safari, or a forced death march. But she valiantly agreed, and the date was set.

Now, at this time of my life, my grandmother had gifted me with a Seal-a-Meal Kit. This little kitchen helper was just great. You cooked a big batch of something, put it in a kind of thick plastic sleeve, and inserted the end of the sleeve into a heat-sealing device. Basically, you got a boil-in-bag for things like soup, chili, sauces, etc. I had made and frozen lots of these bags.

As the day approached, we spent a lot of time making sure everything was perfect. I decided on my signature dish of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and salad. I wanted everything done ahead of time, and I wanted everything to be plentiful, so I thawed four quart bags of meatballs in sauce. The apartment was clean, the cats were sequestered. We were all dressed up. Everything was prepped. All that remained was to cook the spaghetti and heat the meatballs and sauce. My friend Cheryl arrived, and we put the sauce into a big pot to heat. Sixty minutes, and counting.

“Alyson, this doesn’t look right,” Cheryl said, stirring the meatballs and sauce. And oh my God, sure enough, I had mixed together two bags of chili with two bags of marinara sauce. It was an unappetizing mix of meatballs, kidney beans, chili, tomato sauce, and oregano. We looked at each other in horror.

Quickly going into crisis mode, we decided that we would call the local Italian restaurant and throw ourselves on their mercy. The restaurant, named The Park View, was, as you might tell, from the name, not truly an Italian restaurant. But they had sauce and meatballs, the lady said. “Don’t you worry, hon,” she said. “I’ll fix you right up. How many meatballs do you think you’ll need?”

Well, quickly I figured it up. Eight people, let’s say three meatballs per person.

“I’ll need twenty-four meatballs,” I answered.

“Really! Well, okay, you just send your brother down to pick this up.”

By the time Kevin arrived, Cheryl and I were pouring the sludge of the ruined dinner into the toilet. I wish you could have seen the look on his face as he stood in the hall, wearing his fresh, white Saturday Night Fever suit, watching the two of us trying to dispose of the evidence of my crime. He stayed well away from the action.

“Kev, go down to The Park View! The lady is going to give you the new sauce and meatballs. And hurry, for God’s sake, they’ll be here in 45 minutes, and I’ve got to make sure everything’s hot and good to go. She’s going to have everything packed up for you, just bring the sauce back here and nobody will ever know.”

Kev, always ready for any crisis, hit the road.

Meanwhile, my other brother, Tim arrived, and my mother’s mother, Mimi. With only 20 minutes to spare, and having just used up the last of the toilet cleanser, we heard Kev coming in the door. He was holding two huge shopping bags, walking with them held way away from his suit. The smell of garlic wafted in with him.

“Here you go,” he said.

I looked at him in astonishment. “Are you kidding, how much sauce did she give you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “This is just the first trip.” And back he went to the car. Uh oh.

Cheryl and I went to the kitchen and began to open the containers. Now you won’t believe me when I tell you this, but each meatball was the size of a baby’s head. And sauce? My God, the amount of sauce was mind-boggling. By the time Kev came back with the last two bags, Cheryl and I were doubled over in helpless laughter, and completely non-functional. Kev stripped down to his underwear and took over the heating process. The kitchen looked like a scene out of a Fellini movie—huge balls of meat, steam rising from the pasta pot, nearly naked gorgeous young man. And of course, the doorbell rang. They were here.

Using an admirable aplomb, Tim managed to keep Donna and my dad on a “tour” of the rest of the apartment, and give them a cocktail, while we “finished up a few things in the kitchen,” like getting my brother back into his suit, and composing ourselves, and moving into the living room and back to make conversation as if nothing was wrong. We loaded the table with a big bowl of pasta with sauce, and the meatballs had their own place of honor on a turkey platter, the only thing I had that didn’t make them look more freakishly large than they already were.

“Okay, everybody, please take a plate and help yourselves,” I called, once again relatively calm and composed. Cheryl and I avoided looking at each other, lest we start each other off.

“Oh, come on Francine,” Donna chirped at her little yappy dog, “It’s time for some din-din.”

“Donna, you start,” I said, hearing my mother’s voice urging me to be a good hostess. “Here, I’ll fill a plate for you so you don’t have to put Francine down.”

“Oh, my goodness, we’re not having meatballs, are we?”

“Yes, can I give you one with your pasta?”

“Oh, no, I don’t like meatballs, I’ll just have a bit of salad. But Francine would like an eensy beensy bit of meatball, wouldn’t you, Francine?”

Even avoiding each others’ eyes didn’t work. Kev, Cheryl, and I just dissolved into a state I can only describe as incoherence. We just couldn’t help it.

The rest of the dinner was not the success I had hoped. Donna did not think the story was interesting or funny. Donna liked stories that involved her, her jewelry, Francine, her youth, and how much things cost. It was, shall we say, an early evening. Donna batted her perfectly lashed eyes, and my father took her back from the wilds of New Jersey to the safety of the City.

After they left and the sound of yapping receded into the distance, there we stood, my husband, my brothers, and Cheryl, looking at the mountain of meat on the tray, and contemplating the many containers still unopened.

“Well,” Cheryl said. “Let’s get this packed up and into the freezer.”

And that’s what we did. By 8:30, we were watching Monty Python, and taking aspirin. The best part of the evening was in front of us. And Donna? She lasted through about three more dates; my father came to his senses. There was much rejoicing.

And that is the night that we spent $213 on the meatball that Donna wouldn’t eat.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Gift at the Back of the Drawer

I was looking for a thumbtack, way in the back of the drawer. But what I found was a ponytail elastic, a Hello Kitty ponytail elastic—with a few strands of my daughter Molly’s snowblonde hair wrapped around. Her hair, but from so long ago. So many years gone by, and it still seems like just a moment ago. And with a sudden shift I am in that moment.

One touch of those strands and I start to cry. Not dainty crying, but loud, messy sobbing. Sit down in the chair and look for Kleenex crying. Cats come running crying. And it all comes back to me, comes flooding back to me. The feel of her weight in my lap. The clean, sunny smell of her cheek. The sound of her voice.

“Hug, Mommy,” she was forever saying.

“I never say no to a hug, Baby,” I would always answer. My baby. We still call her Baby.

The crying? It’s complicated crying. Yes, time has passed; children grow up. I’m not a wallower. I do feel sad that so many years have flown by, that the magical early years of childhood are past. But I’m also happy and grateful. So grateful that my memory of those times can come to me so sharply and bring a rush of joy. And so grateful that I have had the wherewithal to do my best as a parent. I have little to regret and much to be thankful for.

And Molly? I can see her from here, she’s out in the yard. She’s filling bird feeders, and having a sort of conversation with a very angry red squirrel. She’s strong and slender, tough but tender. She’s my daughter all the way. Amanda is more like her father, but Molly and I are tuned to the same wavelength. I finish her sentences, she reads my mind. We just know.

And that 3-year-old with the hair like straw spun to gold? Yes, she’s gone. Gone, but not forgotten.

(Art by Molly Stone)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

How I Narrowly Escaped Death by Massacre in My Freshman Year and Became an Honorary Steel Magnolia

In 1969, I arrived at my small, Southern college. I don't think I can adequately describe the cultural disconnect between the life I had led--in the metropolitan New York area--and the slow, placid, humid way of life I found in South Carolina. The emphasis was on civility and the Ladies' Rule Book was truly scary, with caveats like "no double dating at Lake Greenwood," "over-display of affection will result in punishment," "girls wearing slacks must exit by the side door only," etc.

Ever the editor, I edited my behavior, then watched and waited. I learned not to let my impatience show when waiting 20 minutes for a fountain drink, not to balk at the strange food (okra!grits!), and to withhold judgment about the level of sophistication of the residents. I had to remember that I was a guest in a strange land, where the people were different and I was completely uninformed. I took the required Freshman Bible course, bided my time, and adapted. I even acquiesced to Freshman hazing, singing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song and wearing a stupid beanie. It all seems so innocent now. It was kind of like summer camp, extended into the fall.

Because I didn't want to be "that horrible Yankee," a label I heard attached to another girl from the North, I was probably more willing to accept the eccentricities of our house mother, Miz Frazier. Of course, the Miz had nothing to do with liberation--it was just the way Miss was pronounced. I think Miss became a firm Miz once a girl had passed the years of spinsterhood and meandered into a kind of girlish crone state. Clearly, she had not forgotten her former debutante glory; she had never grown her wardrobe into adulthood. Miz Frazier and ruffles were good friends.

Miz Frazier lived in a "suite" on the main floor of the dorm, and monitored the comings and goings of the girls like a trapdoor spider. She could hear a pin drop from a half mile away, I swear, and if she caught you passing, you were invited in. She served iced tea and delighted in instructing girls on cosmetics application. You could always tell who had gotten caught in Miz Frazier's web that day, because they looked like puppets, with coral cheeks. Coral was Miz Frazier's chosen color, selected when she was a girl herself, and she never deviated from her colorpath. Miz Frazier was a practitioner of schadenfreude--she appeared to commiserate with girls who were guileless enough to share their boyfriend troubles, but in reality delighted in these youthful disasters.

Each night, Miz Frazier rolled her hair up in rollers. She used exactly five rollers, purple ones, with a cover that snapped over, giving each curl a permanent crease when removed. There were big airy holes in her hairdo, and she didn't always feel that washing the hair was required. Some nights, she used a dry powder spray instead of shampoo. Afterwards, she slathered on her cold cream and made her rounds, rollers wrapped in a hideous scarf. She had a well-worn frilly nightgown and robe and purple fuzzy slippers. She covered all three floors of the beautiful old mansion, checking on us and making sure we weren't planning a hippie revolution. Then she would gather us out in the hall, where we would sing "Now the Day Is Over," and some other clapping song. After that, we were usually free to pop some popcorn and get on with our evening.

One night, however, the routine changed. We heard her coming around the dorm, around 11 p.m., as usual, but her progress was marked by the sound of hammering. When she reached our floor, we observed her nailing the huge hallway windows shut.

"What's going on, Miz Frazier?" we asked. "Why are you nailing the windows shut?"

"Oh, my poor dahlings! The most awful thing has happened. Miz Jeanne Dixon has issued a prediction this day. She has predicted that theah will be a massacre at a small southern college! I am having palpitations. We must prepare for the worst. We are so vulnerable heah, with these big windows and all you innocent children at risk. But don't give it another thought, I have made us all safe now."

"But Miz Frazier, we all have big windows in our rooms."

"Well, you must nail your windows shut then, and push your steamer trunks in front of your doors. Remain in your rooms and wait for morning. If we get to morning, we'll be safe."

Now, at this point in my life, I was aware that Miz Frazier wasn't quite all there, but this was still an edict from an authority figure and neither I nor my friends were able to quite ignore the possible danger.

So we nailed our windows shut, pushed all our furniture in front of our doors, and armed ourselves with long bamboo spikes that we had kept as souvenirs from the temporary fence that had been one of the decorations at the Formal Freshman Soiree. We looked like a psychotic group of natives, half of us with rollers and green face masques, tearing the furniture away from the door and running into the hall at each strange sound, spears at the ready.

One girl, a charming southern belle who knitted all her own clothes, was especially disturbed by the rumor. (I'm not kidding, she knitted everything she owned and made afghans, slippers, scarves, etc. for presents. I never saw her without her knitting. She knitted her dresses, for God's sake. I think she had some kind of ADD or something; she could only think while knitting.) Anyway, at one point there was a big thump on the roof, and we all ran out of our rooms, crowding into the hallway. But here came Knitting Girl, and she had a RIFLE! A loaded RIFLE! Apparently, her dad wanted her to feel safe, and insisted she keep it in her closet.

"You idiots!" she screamed. "This is just what they want! They make a noise, and you just come out of your rooms like lambs to the slaughter. Then they can kill us all at once! Get back into your rooms and STAY THERE!"

Well, we did stay in our rooms after that--because we were afraid of getting shot by Knitting Girl. And the poor boys who had gotten wind of the rumor and were up on the roof trying to scare us were lucky they didn't get massacred by Knitting Girl.

Well, of course, the night passed; dawn arrived. We were alive, sleepy, older, and wiser. Miz Frazier was sheepish, but unbowed. "We must nevah forget, girls, that we are southern women, and as such, we are expected to handle any emergency and still be ladies."

I listened to Jean Shepherd on the radio for a lot of my childhood, and sometimes I could even hear his broadcast all the way down at college. I know Jean would have loved this story. I always wished I could have told it to him.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Man Who Came to My Door

I have had two mystical, unexplainable experiences in my life. There are a couple of other close contenders for miracles, but that's a story for another day. Today, I'm going to tell you about the first of my top two: The Man Who Came to My Door.

When I was first married, my husband and I acted as superintendents of a small garden apartment complex, getting free rent in return for managing rentals, taking care of hiring people to do repairs, managing the staff of part-time staff who cleaned the halls, landscaped, and plowed in the winter. We were the people who arranged for apartments to be painted when they were vacant, or helped the seniors who couldn't manage carrying groceries, or called the plumber. I got pretty good at fixing the boiler, which had a room of its own and was the size of an SUV, and as temporamental as an opera diva. The things I said to that boiler, honestly, I'm ashamed. Once, I remember, someone who hadn't been in our apartment before jumped about 3 feet into the air when the boiler came on in the adjacent basement area. I had become accustomed to "Bertha's" noisy eruptions, but for those unprepared, her noises could give quite a start.

Anyway, the strangest thing happened one afternoon. The doorbell rang, I answered it, and there stood an elderly man, slight of build, with the most amazing hair and eyes I had ever seen. His hair was white and downy, like a baby bird, almost blue-white in the sun. He actually seemed to glow. And his eyes--to this day I can't describe them. They were a blue that doesn't exist in eyes, a kind of luminescent cobalt and intense light blue that seemed to see right into my head. They were laser eyes, but kind and good. He radiated kind and good.

His clothes were clean but well worn. The thing I remember about his long-sleeved shirt is that the sleeves had been shortened in an odd way, with just a seam up around the bicep to make them short enough to fit him. Why I remember this detail--I don't know. Our entire interaction couldn't have been more than 30 seconds, but that stuck with me.

He asked very politely if I was Alyson Stone, née Button. That's what he said 'née Button'." I said yes, thinking that he was someone who wanted to rent an apartment. His gaze sizzled across the doorjamb. "I have been sent to give this to you." And with that, he handed me a dogeared, yellowish paperback book. I looked down at the book long enough to absorb the title; I looked up again to talk to the man. The man was gone. Simply gone. I went outside and looked around. Gone. Impossible. Gone.

The book was a manual on how to meditate. It described a process for imagining yourself going down a flight of stairs to an anteroom, sort of like a museum with showcases, then down another flight to a room of your design, furnished and outfitted in any way you wished. There should be, in this room, the book said, a comfortable chair in front of a screen on the wall. There were instructions for projecting healing thoughts, comforting thoughts, toward people you had come across in your daily life. There was an elevator for "guests" or "consultants" to appear. (I never know who will show up in that elevator, it's often a complete surprise.)

Of course I couldn't help but pay attention to the tenets of the book; I have used these techniques ever since. The book was not popular, not mainstream, not even traditional for meditation techniques. I would never have considered reading such a book. But the main reason I paid attention is because I alone knew the truth. That something impossible had happened to me, that the man who brought the book was magical in some way that I couldn't understand, but was willing to accept. The way I got the book made it easy to step into the magic; it gave me a rational reason to walk off the path and into the woods.

Before The Man Who Came to My Door, I worried constantly about things I couldn't do anything about: plane crash victims, droughts in Africa, poverty, starving children. I wasted my time fretting about things over which I had no control. All my worrying was just a purple haze around my head, serving no useful purpose.

Around the same time I read a simple statement that someone wrote in an interview in one of the women's magazines. The person said, "I try to take what God puts in my path--and act on it with grace." It struck home with me suddenly: I can't do anything about Somalia or a plane crash in Nepal. But I can spend the night sitting up with Mrs. Goldstein in 4G when she is scared. I can help her feel safe. She is in my path. Let me just put one foot in front of the other on this path.

So that is how I moved forward. I did my "concentrating," "my blue light," "my meditating," --I've never really settled on a description that is really accurate. I do no harm. I do not know if what I do helps, but I don't think it can hurt. The purple haze is gone. I try to imagine my thoughts like the gaze of The Man Who Came to My Door--a laser beam of blue, directed outward to the universe.

Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Just Not Spring Until the Begonias

Several years ago we bought a custom screen room that attaches to our house off the back deck. Every year since, there's this "Christmas in spring" feeling that infects the whole family on the day the room comes out. Our whole life changes, opens up, the sights and sounds of spring surround us, and we all breathe deeply for the first time in months.

Everything has to go in its place--the bird feeders, the privacy screen, the nested iron tables, the ottoman. The cats have their own pillow, too, and they complain vocally every morning until I let them out into their spot of sunshine.

The giant tea bags get moved to the front of the shelf. We like it unsweetened, perfumed with bergamot and the taste of la dolce vita. Cardinals appear to entertain us. Squirrels frolic. We have chipmunks, neighborhood cats, and an annoying blue jay. The sedum rampages out of its stone edge, the hostas grow like teenage boys, and a fairy ring of moss large enough to dance in appears overnight.

But nothing makes as big a statement to me as the begonias. Not just any begonias. We have to have two kinds: tuberous and New Guinea. They each have their own charms, but the tuberous are a direct connection to my mother, who distributed them each year for our spring church service. We just called it Begonia Day. It's like pulling a switch. And my mother is close by, living, breathing, laughing, making the spring sing. My mother's begonias. My magic mother. Ahh, my spring comes again. Magic.

Monday, April 19, 2010

“All Right, Children, Line Up for Art”

Let me set the scene for you. The year—1956. The place—Anna C. Scott Elementary School. My grade level—First Grade. Picture her, this girl. Blonde pony tail, cute dress with a sash that tied in the back, sturdy shoes. It’s a Friday, in spring. And Friday is Art Day.

After lunch and some Math, the teacher would finally make the announcement. “All right, children, please line up quietly. We’re going down to Art.” Those words, those wonderful words. I loved school; I loved the teacher; I loved my friends. But Friday was not just the start of the weekend for me. It was Art Day. All week I waited and planned, charged with anticipation for a new project. And it wasn’t any dinky amount of time, either, it was the rest of the school day!

I never dared to say a word after lining up—what if I got in trouble for talking and (gasp) missed Art? The line moved along, out the door, across the linoleum to the main hallway, our steps on the hall’s shiny wooden floor loud and echoing. Then down the stairs, into the inner sanctum of the janitor’s lair, halls and floors painted shiny apple green. Turn left here, right there, following the asbestos-wrapped pipes above us like a map until, at last, we reached The Art Room.

The Art Room was a corner basement room, but in my memory it is filled with sunlight. Nice big tables, fresh supplies laid out for us, and oh boy—the wonderful smells would hit you. Like a bloodhound, I filled my head with those scents—crayons, chalk, paint, turpentine, and the indefinable smell of sunshine on paper.

This day, the project was almost magical. Bowls of beads in every color sat squarely in the middle of each table. Curliques of thick wire. And our very own tweezers! The project was a bracelet for Mother’s Day. It wasn’t the first thing I had made for my mother in Art Class, but it was the first gift that seemed tangible. A bracelet! Something she would wear!

The world narrowed to silence as I carefully chose each bead, sorting them into groups, re-selecting, sorting again, organizing them into a line, threading the bits onto a wire, clamping the ends with my tweezers. Pink and orange looked so wonderful together, especially when I added a bit of opalescent white and a bit of woody beige to blend into something my eyes liked to look at. I was transported. I imagined my mother’s face when she saw her gift. She would put the bracelet on and she would be happy.

Imagine my six-year-old astonishment when the Art Teacher approached. “Oh, Alyson, pink and orange don’t go together at all. Wouldn’t you like to pick some other colors?”

I looked around at other bracelets. My friend Cynthia had used all white beads. Very pretty. Ellen had made a red/blue/yellow/green vibrant mix. I liked them, but I didn’t want to change my colors. I thought my mother would love the bracelet. I shook my head. The teacher shrugged. This week, I was a disappointment to her.

You might think that a six-year-old would be swayed by the judgmental eye of the teacher, but even at six I knew something very important: There’s no right or wrong in Art Class. Unlike other disapproving moments from authority figures, this one rolled right off my back. I went home with my bracelet, somehow aware that I had made an important decision. I wasn’t worried about the teacher’s opinion. I wrapped the gift, and when my mother opened it, she loved it. She kept that bracelet safe; I found it after her death, carefully stored in her jewelry box.

I still love the colors.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


A conversation today with a Navy wife started me thinking about a wonderful summer long ago. My boyfriend was in the Sixth Fleet, and stationed on the flagship. It was anchored at Gaeta, on the west coast of Italy, near Rome. I had traveled throughout Europe with my family, but never in Italy, and never on my own, so it was quite an adventure for my brother, Tim and me. He was 17 and I was 20. I spoke Italian and French, but Timmy couldn't even understand a South Carolina accent. We were so amazingly young, but we didn't know that. We thought we were quite the bon vivants.

I was so in love that summer. I lived on unfiltered Camel cigarettes and CocaCola all summer and went home pounds lighter. One bite of food and I was full. I had stars in my eyes, and Italy only heightened that giddy feeling. We walked everywhere or rode the train. People used to stop me in the street and tell me how beautiful I was, and give me flowers. I think being in love makes girls beautiful, because I never felt that way in normal life. The neighborhood adopted me, because I wanted to be part of them. I took my string bag to the market with the ladies, and got in the rhythm of the community. I was never so contented with a neighborhood.

My brother and I went off on our own for part of the summer, because the ship was gone and Cliff went with it. Tim and I went to beaches where young Italian campers shared their homemade wine with us, pouring it into our baby bird mouths from a goatskin flask. We went to Portofino, where I earned our room and board singing and playing guitar in the trattorias. We stood where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, where poets walked, where art was reborn.

One night, Cliff took us down a worn, uneven flight of stairs in Gaeta Vecchia--old Gaeta. We stumbled into the darkened stairwell, then into a maze of corridors, following beckoning aromas that turned out to be from pizza. Not pizza as we knew it in the U.S., but real pizza, made in a three-hundred-year old brick oven by beautiful young men who danced with the dough. When we tasted it, Timmy and I actually reached across the table and hugged.

On Capri, we climbed a thousand steps along a wall of flowers to reach a restaurant we had heard about. The lady grew her own vegetables, and we had our first real salad in weeks. We feasted on that salad, and then a piece of homemade peach pie, all the while looking at a view straight from a postcard, breathing the scented breeze, and looking at each other in disbelief that such a place could be real.

The summer ended too quickly. In the last days we went to the top of Gaeta, to a restaurant named A O'Re Burlone (The King of the Buffoons). We snuck up to the roof and danced under a full moon. I swear to you that the moon is bigger and closer in Italy. We saw fireworks from the flagship in the harbor. We talked endlessly and everything was possible.

Everyone should go to Italy at least once in their lives. While they're young. While they're in love.

(Photo by Stefano Viola)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering Mr. Bolbach

In Junior High, we were introduced to Algebra. The guide to this new world was Mr. Bolbach, who has remained in my memory clearly to this day.

About 5' 5" tall, he was a fireplug of a man, full of energy. He was about 60 then, at the end of his teaching life. I can still see his bald head and fringe of white hair, his blue eyes, and his signature bow tie.

Mr. Bolbach was passionate about mathematics, and I was a words person. But that didn't stop him from converting me. He would pierce me with his azure gaze from across the room, and challenge me to answer, to question, to understand, to appreciate his great love. A number line stretched across the room over the blackboard, and he would constantly refer to it, which was the best teaching method he could have used. He cemented information visually, and I have never forgotten it.

I also have never forgotten the moment when the light dawned over Miami between me and Algebra. There was this little shift in my thinking, and the magic made itself real to me. It was like a movement from 2D to 3D in my world, and love bloomed. It was all a big puzzle, cosmic, almost divine. Mr. Bolbach got to see me experience that. We must have made quite a picture, the two humans, old/young, short/tall, unlikely comrades-in-arms connected by the electricity of joy in numbers.

I kept in touch with Mr. Bolbach all the way through high school, but then lost track. I haven't thought about him in years, but recently I was talking to a photographer about the time I photographed that deserted school building where I learned so much. I wandered through the rooms, trying to find a way to capture the spirit that had lived there, looking for light and dark corners that would bring interest to my pictures.

I felt no connection until I went into the room where Mr. Bolbach had introduced me to his subject. A number line was up on the wall--the same one?--I don't know. I took a picture of it, now lost. No matter. Mr. B smiles through the years. One man with a mission. Mission accomplished.