Monday, March 23, 2015

"No pressure, no diamonds." ~ Thomas Carlyle

"Terry, get your elbow off the table!"

Oops, I did it again! After school and after my homework was done, I'd run outside to play with the other kids who lived on our block, and I was tired. We were sitting at the dinner table, and it seemed to me that if I held my head up with my hand and rested my elbow on that dinner table, I was much more comfortable…

"And, Terry, you know not to talk with your mouth full!"

But, back when I was young, it wasn't what made YOU comfortable. It was what helped make OTHER people comfortable. That, and the fact that people had manners then. Everywhere we went people had manners. When a kid slipped up, there was someone older and wiser to tell him so, too. And that "older someone" was anyone older than you were at the time. It just worked that way.

Dad had gotten home from work, I had set the table, and Mom had finished making the green salad we always had before the meat-and-potatoes part of dinner came to the table. It was like nearly every other night at dinner time in our house in Culver City, California way back then…

Mom and Dad talked about their day while we sat there eating. Then one or the other always asked Jackie and I about what had happened during our day, mostly the school parts of our day, of course. I usually went first because I never got into trouble at school. In fact, I loved school, loved learning, and watched my teacher very carefully everyday because that's what I planned to be - a TEACHER!

"What did you learn today at school, Jackie?" Dad asked.

"Nuthin'," said my 10-year-old brother. He always said that, but then he'd get started on the dodge-ball game they'd played at recess, and what he'd seen on the way to and from school, and what a great hit he'd had when he got home and played baseball in the street with the other boys in the neighborhood. 

After Jackie said, "Nuthin'," Mom let Dad do the prying about his schol day, and she went into the kitchen to bring out the ginger creams she'd made that afternoon. "Terry, come in here and help me." 

I LOVED ginger creams… especially the white frosting that Mom slathered on their tops. In fact, I'd "licked the bowl" after Mom had frosted that big flat brown rectangle of cake filled with dates and whatever Mom thought would fit perfectly inside of that dessert.

Now, I'm not sugar-coating our nightly family dinners. That's what dinner was like, except for Sundays when we'd have breakfast later and dinner earlier. Dad would always cook breakfast and Mom would always put a roast into the oven to tantalize us all afternoon. We'd have two meals on Sunday with lots of snacking inbetween.

As we got older, there were times when either Jack or I would have to leave before dinner was over, and we were taught to say, "May I be excused, please?" The answer was always, "Yes, but be home by_____." (Fill in the blank…)

We did go out to dinner at an actual restaurant about 2 or 3 times a year. To prove to you that we weren't perfect, or at least my brother wasn't, let me tell you about one of those times…

We got to the restaurant and were shown to our table. Dad pulled Mom's chair out for her, and he told Jack to do that for me. Jack said, "NO! I don't wanna," but Dad gave him "The Look," so he pulled out my chair. It happened that I was talking ballet lessons at the time, so I planned to try my best to sit down gracefully without looking behind me at the chair. You know… I was trying to behave like a "lady."

Now, Jack was not happy about pulling out the chair for me, his mean, mean, big sister! I'd probably insulted him that day and he'd puched me when no one was looking , or something like that. So Jack pulled out my chair, and I mean he really, really pulled out my chair. You see, Jack LOVED baseball, and football, and basketball, too. That boy had great timing, even that young, and he was good at all sports for the rest of his school life. 

So Jack, the sports maniac, pulled out my chair, then banged it into the back of my knees, and, as I was starting my "sitting down gracefully," he pulled that chair back away from me. 

SPLAT! Yup, SPLAT! I fell on my "tail-bone" with my legs splayed and my behind hurting and my embarrassment spreading like red paint all over my face. I didn't even have the fresh artichoke on the menu that night, even though artichokes are my favorite food in this world! I didn't eat a thing. And, worst of all, I couldn't even figure out a way to get even with Jack… miserable little brothers… Why did Mom and Dad decide to have TWO kids? What a mistake!!!   

Jack knew there was nothing Dad could do right there in the restaurant, and he probably thought Dad might forget before we got home. And, maybe he did… I don't remember.   

But that was then, and now is sure not THEN…

Last week I was digging into lettuce wraps at a local restaurant we go to when I just can't wait any longer for more lettuce wraps. Whoever invented them, was a genius… simply a genius… that's all there is to it. It's a family-friendly place we go to, and that's fine with me because I love kids. Even babies that whine get a smile out of me… most of the time. But times have really changed… families have changed… In fact, the new family-dynamics scare the teacher in me to death!

I am NOT adding anything to what I witnessed sitting at the table next to us… nothing added, exaggerated, or embellished. It's the "whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God!"

We saw an empty table and we sat at it. At a table near us was a family consisting of two parents and 3 kids, one about 6 or 7, one about 5, and one about 3 years old. I was thinking to myself that it must be nice for those parents when all the kids are in bed and quiet reigns in their house. But then, I learned that a sort of quiet probably reigns every night at their house. Mom and Dad were each intimately involved with their iPads. They never once, in all the time we sat down at the table next to them until we left the restaurant, looked at anything but their iPads… NEVER! 

"None of your business, Terry, " you say. And you'd be correct, except…

"Mommy!  MOMMY! What's dis?" said the 5-year old, as he looked at the food set before him. 

No answer… No one even looked up.

Then he whimpered, "What's dis…?…" He crammed something from his plate into his mouth. Then he reached into his mouth and took the food out again and looked at it... Then he licked at it… Then he threw it at the space between our tables… Then he giggled.

"Mommy… Mommy… Mommy… Look what Bobby did!" announced the 6-or-7-year-old. But neither parent looked up from their iPads. Instead, they busily tapped out a message to a friend or played a game or something.... So the 6-or-7-year-old, like a good older sister, threw some food at the 5-year old who screamed as loud as I think he was able. 

Many of the folks eating their food looked over at the kids, but went right back to eating. It wasn't their business, after all. And neither was it mine… but I kept watching. No one seemed to mind at their table however. I drew that conclusion because neither parent looked up from their blasted iPads! And, I predict that the 5-year-old is going to be as good an athlete as my brother was, eventually. You see, he'd decided to use us for target-practice, using his food as the bullets. Thank heavens, he was still too young to have great aim, but someday, someone would be getting a "SPLAT" right in their left eye… I betcha.

Meanwhile, the 6-7-year-old had had it! "Mommy! MOMMY! DADDY!" No response from the "parents." So she got down from her chair by falling off of it, screaming for a few seconds, and then, grabbing the leg of the table, she stood up. (And you know the drill by now…) Neither of those two parents looked up at their child… or in this case, down at their child. So she wandered away...  

The 3-year-old is a future artist of the first degree, I think. He grabbed the left-over food on his siblings' plates and dumped it all on the table and moooooshed it all together. Then, with his finger, he drew in that colorful debris, giggling as he went. But, being the young artist that he was, he wanted to be closer to his work, and I know that feeling. So he climbed from his booster seat up on top of the table like he'd done it before, and he laid on top of his artful "foodie" creation. He giggled contentedly, and then he yawned.

And that begs the question… "If a 3-year-old decides to sleep on top of a table, might he roll off the table and hit the floor?" Beats me because the 5-year-old had decided he was an explorer, and he walked away to visit other universes. Finally, I couldn't see him anymore, and, when I looked at the 3-year old again, he was sound asleep on top of his very original creation.

For some reason the parents started to shut down their iPads and finish their cold food. They still had not looked over at their children, or, in this case, child because the other two had flown to galaxies far beyond our own… They might have been in the kitchen, for all I knew.

"Where're the kids…" said the mother with food spilling out of her mouth.

"Around here somewhere…" said the father, sitting with both elbows on the table.

"Oh, they'll come back…" said the mother. 

And the two wanderers did, finally. But the artist was sleeping contentedly on top of his "foodie" creation.

And the "family" left after the server brought the bill and was paid. 

If you've read all this, it's important to me that you understand this:  I don't believe ALL families are like this now, but Richard and I do eat out a lot these days, and I DO see parents customarily tapping their iPads instead of having dinner-table conversations with their children. And I DO see kids typing away on their iPads, instead of telling their parents what happened at school. Hopefully, it's just a terrible Southern California problem, and you readers never see this kind of "parenting" when you are out to eat.

But just to keep you thinking… What sort of people will those kids grow up to be, I'm wondering...  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"When you want to test the depths of a stream, don't use both feet."           ~ Chinese proverb

"How are babies born?" 

That's a question that I asked my Mom once when I was young, and we were driving back from our aunt-and-uncle's house in Hawthorne, California.   

I can still remember that a look passed between my parents, and there was this discomfort in my Mom's voice when she said, "I'll tell you when you're older, Terry." So I sat back down in the back seat of our car as we drove past MGM studios on the way home to our little house, and began silently tormenting my little brother, again.

Mom didn't get right back to me about that question, and I promptly forgot I'd even asked it… for a little while. You see, if Mom didn't want to tell me, my cousin Mike would be happy to tell me the next time I saw him. Mike knew everthing. He was 6 months older than I was, and in "kid years" that meant that even though he didn't know as much about schoolwork as I did, he knew twice as much about life. He was a BOY, after all, and boys seemed to know stuff, stuff that never even entered my mind. I guess I was too busy reading "The Gypsy Fairy Stories" and books like that. Oh, and by the way, although it's probably been out of print for a hundred years, if you ever happen upon that book… well, it's nothing like the Brothers Grimm's take on fairy tales, let me tell you! I still wish I had that over-sized book that explained more about life than my Mom had ever told me.

Mike did tell me one day how babies were made, and I didn't believe him, of course, and time passed. In fact, lots of years passed. In fact, I was at the University of Nebraska studying art and English Literature when it all happened…

I got the flu. I lived in the sorority house, and since I was the "Assistant Pledge Trainer," I shared a room with the "Pledge Trainer." My fever was high, and I was miserable… completely drained… no energy… SICK! 

Suddenly, my closest friend exploded into my sick room. "Terry! There's going to be a movie at the library showing a woman having a baby tomorrow night… They're showing the whole thing! GET BETTER!!! We've got to go see that! GET BETTER!!!"

Well, as I walked to the library the next evening with Sallye and a couple more "sisters" I was still soooo weak. I hardly ever get sick, but seeing a lady having a baby was worth putting on my heavy coat and walking the 4 or 5 blocks to the campus library to see this event. I'm NOT going to say "Curiosity killed the cat," but it almost did me in.

At night the campus library was usually only occupied with serious students holed up in the stacks, never here in the library's small auditorium. But there were only 4 seats left on that cold early-Spring evening, and we got them. After the librarian closed the door, shut off the lights, and turned up the library heater, the film began.

It was a Russian film… in RUSSIAN! The lady having the baby was a very large, very strong lady who looked a little more like a man than a woman to me. But then I was getting light-headed from the heat in that stuffy, smallish auditorium, and my fever hadn't passed yet, either.

I'm not going to tell you all the details of the film. After all, we're adults here. But the camera was close up, very close up to parts of a woman that only a doctor would ever see, it seemed to me. Yes! We saw a baby being born. But the room they were using to birth the babe wasn't like the hospital where I'd been a candy-striper at home in Stamford, Connecticut. I'd brought flowers and mail to the ladies waiting to have their babies, or to the ones who'd just had their babies. I had loved that volunteer "job." But this movie was probably more like it had been in my grandmother's day. There was lots of screaming, but not shrill screaming… it was deep and punctuated with grunts and there was lots and lots of sweat flying all over the place. Actually, I think now that the library had felt it was its duty to curb the passions of the student body… well, at least of those students who came to this real-life horror movie.

When it was over, the baby, covered with whatever is in that baby-sac inside the mother, was screaming, and the mother was still making groaning sounds. And NO, the mother wasn't all decked out in a lacy bed-jacket on clean white sheets like they always were in Hollywood movies… and her hair was a mess. Most of the girls who left after the movie was over were pale and some were shaking. There was no giggling or laughing from any of us viewers. There was this strange, stunned silence. Even the guys who'd come to the movie were silent. 

When I got up to leave I was dizzy. The heat in the room must have been as hot as the left-over fever that still lingered inside of me. But as soon as we walked out of the library door, the Nebraska cold hit us in the face like a hammer… or more like hundreds of miniature ice hammers. But we only had about 4 blocks to walk, so we walked.

All at once I was laying on the sidewalk like a frozen tree branch. Must have fainted… When I hit the cement, it was my left jaw that landed first, but I found that out later. My "sisters" helped me up, and we kept on walking to the sorority house with one catch... I didn't know where I lived or where we were going. And my molar on the left side of my mouth was hanging by a fleshy thread.

"Where are we going?"

"What do ya mean, 'Where are we going?'" Sallye asked me. "You know we're going back to the House!"

"Where are we going?" I asked 2 minutes later… and 2-3 minutes after that… and again and again.

"Do you know your name?"

"Of course, I know my name! It's Terry Kingston! But where are we going?" I recognized the faces of my "sisters," but when they asked me if I knew where I lived (Stamford, Connecticut), I hadn't a clue. I knew some silly detail-kind of things, but there were these gaps in my brain… things that a person ought to know instantly.

The three girls talked among themselves, and they decided that they would take me to Student Health ASAP. So we turned somewhere along the way, and in we went. I'd never been to student health before. 

All that happened in that small student health building is still a mystery to me, until I heard a tiny pop, or some sort of sound like that, inside my head. Sounds silly, I know, but I heard something. I looked down and I was in bed, sitting straight up with 2 or 3 pillows behind my back. In my hands was a magazine, an up-side-down magazine and I was rifling through it with a vengence… backwards and up-side-down!

I don't remember how long I had to stay in Student Health or much about the after-math, except that I had to go to a dentist and have a bridge put in where I'd knocked my tooth out. 

The funny thing is that, as time passed, I could remember all the preface of that fall, and even a little bit about the walk to Student Health. But the things I knew that night and the things I didn't know were garbled in such a funny way.

The moral of this incident is that I've always thought, since then, that the best way to have a baby was for the doctor to completely knock the lady out, yank out the child, and, if she were a girl, to dress her in a cute little polka-dotted dress with matching shoes, and then present her to the Mom about a week later with the Mom dressed in her lacy bed-jacket with her beautifully combed hair gently circling her face, sitting  in a bed with perfectly white sheets. It sure seemed like a better way than that movie I saw a looong time ago!      

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action."  ~  James Russel Lowell

We'd ordered our hamburgers and those amazing, freshly cut, freshly cooked, French fries at "In-and-Out" on the way home from Phoenix, Arizona. My husband, who almost never eats meat, had been looking for miles along our drive home for the "In-and-Out," and I could hardly wait. The little building was brimming with folks who loved those burgers-and-fries, but we'd finally found a small table for two. Richard was waiting in the front to hear them call the magic number "97," and then we would "pig out!" 

I was sitting there, waiting, looking at all the people who were stuffed into this little building. Across the aisle an older lady sat alone at booth for 4, eating her hamburger and fries, alone. There was a tiny line of catsup dripping down the left side of her chin, and I knew that soon, my chin would probably be dripping mustard down the front of my blouse! 

Though the older lady was all alone, her eyes were alive, scanning the crowd, and when she looked my way, I averted my stare and tried to appear courteous, instead. I had a long wait, I knew, but people-watching is always fun to do. Richard still wasn't back with our food, and the older lady was half-finished with her eats, so I began my usual wondering about who she was and where she came from and where she might be going after this…

Meanwhile, the mashing and smashing of people moving through the aisles, or jumping at tables, or slouching away from them, was like a badly rehearsed dance. I noticed an older lady, her bright red plastic tray full of a hamburger, fries, and something to drink, looking vainly down "my" aisle for a place it sit before her food got cold. But there was no place. She was "up a slew-crick," as my Mom would have said. Poooor lady…. but where was MY food…?

And then, the lady with the catsup-chin looked up and shouted, "Are you alone? Come! Sit here!" and she took another big bite of her double-decker cheeseburger and then quickly thrust a handful of fries into her half-full mouth. But the standing lady looked a little abashed. She was shy, and the hustle and noise seemed to overwhelm her. Could it be that this was her first time at "In-and-Out?"

"C'mon! You won't find another place to sit, and I'm all alone, too!"

And so the "standing lady" became the "sitting lady." After she'd set her plastic tray on the table and quietly settled into the booth, she looked across the table at her mysterious lunch companion and seemed the tiniest bit frightened. I, on the other hand, just looked! 

The catsup-lady was taking another big bite of her Double-Double hamburger, and it was right about then that I realized I needed to look away and fixate somewhere else. But what would these two very different ladies do between bites? How does a shy lady start up an acquaintance with an out-going "foodie" like the total stranger who'd called her over to sit down?

Well, I didn't have to look at them to listen… did I… "What did you get?" asked the Catsup-lady.

"Well…  I got… a… cheeseburger."

"Yeah, but what did they put on it?" This between two more mouthfuls of fries. (OK, OK, I was watching again… Sheesh!) 

"I only have catsup on mine…"

"No PICKLES????? Ya oughta try the pickles… M-m-m-m…. Why are you here in Moreno Valley? Do you live here?"

"No. I had to visit my husband in the hospital."

"Is he going to be OK?"

"Well, it is looking better… I'm scared, though. Are you married?"

"I'm a widow. For twenty years I've been a widow..."

Richard came back with our cheeseburgers and fries, but, being the considerate wife I am, I let him eat in peace without conversation. (Of course, I'm lying!) That wasn't the reason I was uncharacteristically quiet during our whole lunch yestersday. I was simply fascinated. 

I listened to the two ladies' conversation as they shared their lunch table and their lives. Two perfect stangers, who would probably never meet again in this lifetime, talked to each other about their deepest fears, and neither even knew the other's name! 

"The kindness of strangers" that Blanche Dubois talked about is a miraculous thing, and sometimes it comes at the exact the moment when you need another person… a stranger, best of all. With a stranger, you need no pretense. You willl never see them again, so there is no need for elaborate shams. It's you, and only you… and them, and only them… The truth is easier without all the trappings of trivia.

Their body language was fun to observe. The late-comer sat, cuddling the back of the red plastic booth, at first. But as their conversation deepened, she put her elbows on the table and leaned in. She took a deep breath and let it out, and then her shoulders lowered, and there was this lovely sigh of relief that came from her. 

That lone lady in the booth for 4 had been an angel of mercy to that lady loaded down with packages and fear for her husband. And the Catsup-lady had a lovely companion for lunch who needed the only sort of calming that could have soothed her fear… someone who'd been though the worst. Complete strangers had reached into the other's heart and given them a perfectly priceless gift. 

They hugged each other when they left "In-and-Out," got into their cars, and drove away in opposite directions. 

I hope that the lady's husband recovers, and I hope that all good things come to the "Catsup Lady." Maybe she'll find a "Mustard Man" and live out the rest of her days with him. But most of all, I hope I can be a "Catsup Lady" for someone when it's needed. And, oh, do I hope that a "Catsup Lady" will turn up somewhere at the exact time I need her.