My Father’s Ashes Came in a Pill Bottle

pillbottle

 

A few weeks ago my siblings and I got an e-mail from my brother telling us that my father’s wife was offering up some of my father’s ashes to us, his children.    I didn’t want to experience what people describe about little bone fragments that you have to touch 0r do what Keith Richards ostensibly did with that whole sniffing of his father’s ashes thing.

“Uh….sure?” I answered back and we decided to do something together.  We wanted to pick a spot that meant something to our father and it came down to his beloved Syracuse University or the spot in New Hampshire where he and my mother met.  Selfishly I decided that the trip to Syracuse was WAY too long, and that New Hampshire, between my brother in Vermont and me in Boston would make more sense.

My parents met at a now non-existent resort.  In its heyday, it looked like this:

laketarlton

Now, it looks like this:

foundation+

That’s where the main building stood.  Even though it is still situated on a lake, it’s devastatingly sad that now it’s on the side of a busy road that didn’t exist back then.  It’s flanked by two run-down houses in a very run down town.  It’s hard to imagine that it was once a thriving resort town.

My father who had been a chorus boy in a Broadway show that not many people have ever heard of and was sort of a C-list performer at the Copacabana was hired by the resort  for a summer to entertain its guests.  He looked like this:

dadheadshots

My mother was the receptionist.  She looked like this:

momtarleton-2

So you can guess where this is going.  Magic was made and the rest is history.  Okay, so the marriage ended and my father remarried a woman who he had been with for 35 years before he died who made the choice to put a small amount of his ashes in an empty prescription bottle.  My father was a lifelong hypochondriac so when my brother and I unwrapped the yellow tissue paper that it had been folded into, we burst out laughing.  But really???  What the fuck?!  I later called my husband and begged him never to pour my ashes into a prescription bottle.  Maybe a can of Diet Pepsi or an empty K-Cup, but COME ON!  You can’t make this shit up.

My brother, daughter and I trudged through some incredibly overgrown, dense and dead grass that was covered by crusty snow to get down to the lake.  It’s the closest I’ve come to hiking in my life.  My brother’s wife stood at the top of a steep hill and cheered us on as we stood on a concrete slab at the edge of the water.

“So…what happens now?” I asked my brother.  He volunteered to go first and unscrewed the (childproof) cap of the bottle.  He somehow managed to get his share to do a lovely swirl in the air, while mine just sunk to the bottom, not moving or swirling at all.  He then shook the rest into the wind, where like every movie you’ve ever seen, they almost blew right back into our faces.  It wasn’t exactly the poignant, teary ritual I had expected.  It was actually rather funny.

We trudged back up the steep hill to our separate cars before heading off to have lunch in a rather bizzaro restaurant called Calamity Jane’s. As far as I can tell by doing a quick Google search, Calamity Jane had no connection to this little town and along with her pictures everywhere, there was a huge Teddy bear sitting on a chair.

We hugged in the parking lot and there was a flicker of sadness when my brother and I looked at each other.  A year after our father’s death, this ritual seems to be a wrap-up, the grand finale to his life.  For me, and I’m sure for my brother, it was very moving to see, for the first time, the place where our parents fell in love and take in the same views that they did.  My father would probably have found our decision for the location to be all wrong and even a bit inappropriate,  but for us, it was the only logical choice.

 

 

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Moving Day

moving

I have lived in 25 places in 51 years.  This does not include my two years in boarding school or my first dorm room in college.  Despite the fact that I spent my first 13 years in the house I grew up in, that averages out to an average stay in each place at 2.04 years.   I am not an army brat.  I haven’t been evicted from any of those places (Well, actually, I was “asked to leave” my first place out of college, a lovely converted basement apartment in the home of a single mother raising two young boys, because my friend was doing bong hits with her boyfriend while I was at work.)

My 15-yr old daughter has lived in 10 different places.  We aren’t running from the law or abandoning them under the cover of night.  Most of those places have been pretty wonderful except for one that looked like the Bates Motel from the outside.  Even though she is incredibly resilient, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt.

In the 6 years I’ve been married to my second husband we’ve lived in two houses both in 3-year chunks.  Our first place was a rental in an incredible and large Victorian home.  I would have gladly bought it when our landlords decided to sell but at the time we couldn’t afford it.  Instead, we scrambled to find something we could afford to buy and ended up in what I consider sort of C-list house with very low ceilings, a bedroom that barely fits our bed and a choppiness to the rooms that creates a lot of wasted space.  We couldn’t install our beloved ceiling fans because we would have been decapitated.  My daughter brought a friend over on the night we moved in and she reached up and said, “I’ve never been able to touch a ceiling before!” My heart sank.

I have always dreamed of walking through my front door and seeing a vast open room with soaring ceilings and windows everywhere.  My mother who came to this country with virtually nothing adored our house with its “cathedral ceiling” in the living room.  At the time I didn’t appreciate it  but I get it now.  My sister lives in Arizona and has what is called a “Great Room.”  I envy her her Great Room.

My husband and I have been mired in debt since we met.  With employment set-backs and large child support payments we have had to rely on credit cards to help get us through.  It’s quite frightening to see those numbers on paper and to watch our credit scores plunge.

Our house happens to be in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.  Houses fly off the market the second they’re listed and eager buyers submit letters accompanied by photographs of a smiling family like couples pitching themselves as potential adoptive parents.  Bidding wars and what people are willing to pay over asking price are off the charts.  It wasn’t lost on us that we were sitting on our only untapped asset.

My husband, who owned a house with his first wife for over 25-years has reached his threshold of brutal New England winters that require shoveling in sub-zero temperatures and mowing the lawn in sweltering heat.   Two winters ago we had our ceiling cave in in three different rooms from the record weight of the snow on our roof.  We had to replace our oil tank, our hot water heater and pay for miscellaneous service calls for plumbing, heating and structural issues.  When you have no reserve funds to tap into for these unexpected and large expenses panic sets in.  So, on a weekend less that two months ago, we decided that the only way for us to live debt-free, DEBT FREE!, was to put our house on the market and move into a rental.  As my friend Carla said to me, “That is EXACTLY what Suze Orman would have told you to do.”

We were lucky that we knew of a couple who desperately wanted to move to our town and fell in love with our house right away.  We didn’t need to go through the hassle of showings and Open Houses where we’d have to round up our animals and kill time for a few hours.  We sold it for almost $95,000 more than what we paid for it just three years ago, and with the equity already put into it we are walking away with enough money to start living the way we’ve always wanted to and to actually start saving.  The hope is that in a couple of years we can buy a weekend home in Vermont that I’ve always dreamed of.

The apartment is in a fantastic and fancy complex with a pool, a gym and an actual human who will whisk our garbage away while we sleep.   The ceilings are high, the living room huge and bright.  My daughter is very excited about creating her own space and I, now for the 26th time, get to design and nest in a place that I can be proud of.  I will miss having windows in the bathroom and kitchen and being able to let our dogs out throughout the day into our huge backyard.  I will miss the silence and privacy of a stand-alone house and a separate dining room with a table large enough to host dinner parties and Passover.  I will miss the hundreds of books that now sit in storage for an indefinite period of time.

We move in less than three weeks and I have started visualizing us in our new bed in our new bedroom, assuming what will become our regular spots on the couch and our animals trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  I’m not quite sure how long it will take to feel like home but I don’t doubt that it eventually will.  I’ve gotten good at this, for better or worse.  I’ve rolled with much bigger punches and continue to greet change head on.   This change will be a good one where  I can finally breathe a huge sigh of relief and fully appreciate everything that I have, and everything that I can look forward to.

 

 

 

And a Rock Feels No Pain, and An Island Never Cries

Medieval Akkerman fortress near Odessa in Ukraine

“I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate….

….I have my books
And my poetry to protect me,
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.”

–Paul Simon

In my 7th grade English class my teacher, who left an indelible mark on me, used the lyrics to “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel as an example of great poetry.  She was SO hip and cool and this sealed the deal.  I remember sitting in class and thinking in a very overly-mature way, that this was a song I could totally relate to.

Those who know me are probably thinking, “Oh please, you wear your heart on your sleeve,” but those who know me BEST have experienced my arms-length reaction from wanting to dig too deep.

I still have not cried over my mother’s death by suicide.  I’ve had thirty years to try, and it hasn’t happened.  When two days ago word came of my best friend’s suicide, I couldn’t cry.  They paralleled each other in that their lifelong struggles really couldn’t have led to any other outcome.  In making the many phone calls to spread the word of my friend’s death I envied those who sobbed instantly.  I felt cold and deficient in some way. For those of us who didn’t cry, we understood each other completely.

What’s interesting to me is that when a year ago, one of the men who lived in the halfway house where I worked died of an overdose, I crumbled to my knees and sobbed.  Maybe it’s because I had seen him the day before and laughed with him over lunch.   While watching as my father died, feeding him through a straw, I had to leave his bedside so he didn’t see me with my head in my hands crying like a baby.  I didn’t cry at his memorial and I haven’t cried since.

People have described me as the “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” type, but that isn’t entirely true.  I laugh because I’m a really happy person and my inside feels deeply but isn’t drowning in its own tears.   However, there are places that my head still cannot visit, the pain too palpable for me to explore.

I do mourn, and I mourn deeply.   Grief is wrapped up in many different packages and forms and there is no right or wrong way.   But most of all, I am numb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is This The Call?”: Spreading The News of an Inevitable Death

craigme

This is a picture of me and my best friend of over thirty years, Craig Ashton Johnson, taken at my first wedding where later that day, he made the opening welcome to our gathered guests.  He was sober and healthy and happy and everyone there was aware of the critical role he played in my life.

There was not one person who ever met Craig who didn’t love him instantly.  He was THAT person to an infinite number of people, so when just yesterday I was charged with contacting his East Coast friends to let them know that he had been found dead in a hotel room somewhere in Los Angeles, the list of phone calls and e-mails to those in his life became longer and longer and longer.

The first call I made was to a dear friend of his.  When she picked up the phone, one of the first things she said was, “Is this the call?”  Another friend, just a few hours later said the exact same thing.  We have been waiting for “the call” for years.

Crystal meth, the most insidious of drugs had turned him into a COMPLETELY different Craig.  The last time I saw him he was in a rage that made the veins in his neck pop out.  I was the recipient of that rage and it ended our friendship.  For a little over a year, I hadn’t reached out to any of his friends to find out how he was doing and I absolutely felt and still feel okay with that decision.  So, just last week when a friend of his forwarded me an e-mail that clearly described the worst of his downward spirals there was no question in my mind that “that call” would be coming very soon.

Craig made the very deliberate decision to end his life.  Without going into details, because in the end how it happened would haunt and devastate too many people, it actually took someone else to point out to me the parallels to my mother’s own suicide exactly thirty years ago. They were both a long time coming and in the end, although it seems heartless and callous to say,  there was a great sense of relief.

The reactions on the phone from his dearest of friends were varied.  Those of us who had been in the trenches of his addiction for so many years reacted like me–numb, relieved and guilty that we couldn’t cry.  Others sobbed and couldn’t speak.  We all began posting pictures and tributes on Facebook that have made us all smile and tear up.  He was a magnificent person.

He was “Uncle Craig” to his friend’s children. He drove them to supermarkets and let them pick out all the candy they wanted.  He loved animals.  He loved the Stones.  He loved Elton John.  He chain-smoked and drank coffee by the gallon.  He loved Honeycomb cereal.  He was brilliant and had a memory like an elephant.  He spent his weekends catching up with all of his friends on the phone.  He would devote hours to us all.  He was the funniest person I knew.

I will never get to drive cross-country with him and sing our way through every Elton John album from beginning to end.  There are so many ‘nevers‘ for so many but we all did what we could to make everything a possibility.  We all did everything we could.

Watching Thunderstorms With My Daughter

lightning

Many years ago after my divorce from my daughter’s father, she and I found ourselves living in a magnificent apartment with soaring ceilings in a fancy-pants complex with a pool, movie room and gym.  It was an incredibly special time for us as we were held in limbo until the next chapter.

At six years-old, she was still a bit fearful of the booms and flashes of sudden and sustained thunderstorms until one night, I had her lay next to me on her stomach as we stared out of the floor to ceiling window in our living room and watched a magnificent storm.  Watching and listening as I “oohed” and “aahed” and grinned my way through it she gradually lost her fear.

Ever since, she loves when a scroll at the bottom of the tv pops-up with severe thunderstorm warnings.  She has a weather app on her phone that alerts her as one gets closer. She’ll beg me to wake up to come watch as it rolls into view.

This past weekend while visiting my brother in Vermont strong thunder and lightning storms were pretty much guaranteed for the night we arrived.  After everyone else had gone to bed she and I sat in anticipation in my brother’s beautiful all-season enclosed porch, me in his perfectly placed armchair and she on a couch.  The lightning became fast and furious, like a monochromatic fireworks display.  We did that oohing and aahing thing in unison and giggled as we listened to ourselves.  While looking at the lightning I said it seemed as if the flashes and bolts were having an argument, a very dramatic call and response.  She complimented me on my interpretation and said I should write it down.

I suggested that we both write two paragraphs describing the shared experience from our own perspectives.  She enthusiastically accepted the challenge and has since forgotten about it.  I’m not up for the inevitable reaction of a 15-year old if I remind her and the excuses she’ll make.  It was a moment in time that I know neither of us will forget.  And even though this is more than two paragraphs, I have lived up to my end of the bargain, quite happily.

 

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH DISCOVERED ON THE HOOD OF JEWISH WOMAN’S CAR

tequilashots

 

From the Winsted Register Citizen

A 55-year old reporter from the Winsted Daily Tribune was found this morning in the fetal position in the corner of the old Arts & Crafts shack on the grounds of the former Camp Delaware in Winsted.  He was surrounded by a sandwich bag of gummy bears and brownie crumbs and a half-completed potholder still on that thing where you make potholders.  He was babbling about having stumbled on the scene of a couple of very attractive middle-aged women pouring shots of tequila through a funnel on the hood of a red Subaru. When they weren’t looking he snatched the leftovers that they were saving for later, ran into the shack and managed to jot down the headline you see above. Having landed such a  major story we will surely recruit him away from that daily rag once he gets out of rehab.

 

I don’t usually travel with a funnel.  As a matter fact I’ve only owned a funnel for about a month, purchased as a way to not waste the wine that I never manage to drink from my second glass.  As my friend Beth and I were getting ready for our bi-annual camp reunion we discovered that in order to effectively pour what has now become a tradition of  each of us doing one shot of tequila in the parking lot of camp, we needed to jerry-rig a way to pour it out of a travel mug and into shot glasses.

“Do you have a funnel?”

“As a matter of fact I DO!” and from there, we were off and running.

I’ve written endlessly about these reunions and the rush of happiness they bring to everyone who attends.  The ease and joy of being around people who we’ve known for over thirty years in a place that means so much to all of us is still hard to describe in a way that people who haven’t experienced it can fully understand.  It is what draws us back, every two years.

The atmosphere is loose and fluid as you float from one cluster of people to another.  There is no rushing around, no obligations to be anywhere other than just being together in a very short amount of time that goes way too quickly.  The weekend is a revolving door of people and the only regret is not being able to spend enough time with those who are so worthy of it.  As I said last year in a Facebook post, there is not one person there who is NOT worth knowing.

In these brief snippets of time the mood is light.  There is very little talk about the pressures of work and the demands of every day life.  Everywhere you look people have pipes or joints or those vape things in their mouths. In addition to the old-fashioned way of smoking pot there are “edibles” in gummy bears, brownies, lollipops and a bunch of other things as a cleaner delivery system.  They scare me.

We eat at the pizza place that we’ve eaten since we were six.  We order the same food that we can taste in our sleep, and have it placed on the table for everyone to share.  Feeding eight people costs in the range of $50.

Friday night we manage to scare the locals when close to sixty-five people pour into one of the only restaurants in town.  It’s like a scene from Candid Camera, the looks on their faces wondering what the hell is going on.  I watched as a little girl clung to her mother’s arm for dear life.  When I smiled at her she looked away in horror and fear.

On Saturday night on the basketball court there is a ceremony honoring people who have made a big impact and embody the spirit of camp.  We sit on the same bleachers we sat on as children (getting up on them is not quite as easy as it used to be) and listen to the magnificent tributes paid to lifelong friends.  A band of former campers play their amazing music and we dance and smile and hug long into the night.

Back at the hotel where many of us stay (I use the word “hotel” lightly) we gather in a small gazebo in the parking lot for a sort-of after-party, where those who still have it in them drink from bottles of vodka and tequila (I am one of those who do not have it in them.)  Things tend to get a bit animated and sloppy but they are priceless moments to be retold and retold as memories for years to come.  I watched as my friend Lauren dropped her phone in her cooler and mid-sentence pulled it out, looked at it, and kept talking.  She no longer has a working phone with an endless amount of pictures from the weekend trapped inside.  Somehow, it became 2:30 in the morning.

I have warned my daughter that she can not talk to me when I come practically stumbling through the door of my house on Sunday.  I’ve made the mistake of telling her that the only time I smoke cigarettes (I quit years ago) is at these reunions.  When she later asked if I smoked a cigarette I said yes (In reality, I may or may not have smoked a pack.)

It is now Monday and I have slept for a countless number of hours, have a pounding headache and an aching body.  The tequila elixir has long since left my system, the fountain of youth inside of me slowly drying up a bit.  Maybe in two years I’ll have a different car, with a different color hood, but always, from now on, I will travel with a funnel.

When Your Heart Is Too Big

bigheart

“Happy Mothers Day! Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Have a great day today.”

I received these words via Facebook messenger.  I saw them while my daughter was still asleep and my husband was still out buying me flowers.  I smiled widely while a tear may or may not have been slowly gliding down my cheek.

The message was from a former client in my job as a substance abuse counselor and in many ways, the son I never had.  And, because his mother died when he was very young, who knows, maybe I had become her understudy.  Either way, we have a bond that came out of nowhere and took us both by surprise.

My job has meant the absolute world to me.  It has become part of my identity.  I have thrown myself into it with a bit of uncertainty and a whole lot of faith.  In one year, I have marveled at how I have been able to draw out the men on my caseload in ways that they have admitted that no one else has done before.  It’s an innate skill of mine.  A friend once said to me that I can learn more about someone in 15 minutes than he could in years.

The halfway house is an incredibly welcoming place.  When the guys come home from work they come into the office and sit and chat about their day.  They ask about our days.  There’s no push to get them out.  As a matter fact, it’s those who don’t do this that gets the attention of the house manager.  When he sees one slip into the house without stopping to say hello, he’ll bellow, “What the hell are you hiding from?”

On the flipside, with so many overdoses and deaths, I found myself beginning to have anxiety and panic attacks every time I parked in front of the house.  This has never happened to me in my life.  When I heard over a weekend of the death of a 25-year old on my caseload my husband held me as my body shook. When clients saw me in tears after a death, they would ask me if I’d be okay.  Others would warn that getting too attached was a liability in this field.  When I just saw my doctor she said that the stress was throwing my body out of whack and gently advised that maybe this wasn’t the best environment for me to be in.

Recently under the very watchful eye of a new supervisor, the mood of the wonderful, somewhat fluid boundaries of the house began to change.  It was strongly suggested that the guys don’t come into the office for too long, that they should be redirected when they asked about our days into us saying things like, “It’s not about me.  How was YOUR day?”  When graduates stop by to say hello, instead of greeting them with our customary hugs, it has become this very stilted dance of a non-physical greeting, or I tell them to come outside where I could hug them, as always.  I didn’t care.

As this continued down a path of more and more restriction I would come home and vent to my husband.  A few weeks ago, as we lay in bed and I was getting more angry and upset, he said, “Your heart’s too big for that place.”  And he was right.  It was at that moment that I knew I couldn’t stay.

I’ve been walking around for days mourning the absence of my old identity.  I have part-time writing work lined up and am doing everything in my power to find a volunteer opportunity in the field where I can interact, freely, with those who struggle with substance abuse.  I will continue to fight the good fight in any way I can as this crisis of addiction gets worse every day.

The day after Mother’s Day, I came into work to find a card propped up against the phone on my desk signed by all of the guys in the house.  Front and center was this:

“While we are here, you are a mother to all of us.  Thanks for the love and care.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living The Dream?

cottage

Last weekend my husband and I sat side-by-side as he showed me pictures of a boat that he loved.  It had a lower deck with room to sleep 4, a cool little kitchen with a table to sit at and some other things that as a boat lover, made him slightly giddy.  It was nothing fancy, no crazy yacht, it was gently used and somewhat reasonably priced (or so he tells me).  He talked about renting a slip and taking little trips in it to wherever these types of boats can go.

HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” was playing in the background.  I have become sightly obsessed with wanting a “tiny house”, parked on a magnificent piece of land on water somewhere as a weekend home.  I get real estate listings from a town in the Berkshires with cheap houses for that dream of a second home. I speak about this as though it can actually happen.  And that gorgeous English cottage above?  It’s actually on a street named “Fairy Tale Lane,” somewhere in England.  That is the ultimate dream and I understand that that’s all it really is.  Just a dream.

We live in what I think is a “tiny” house.  It’s under 1,300 square-feet with really low ceilings and small bedrooms.  The fact is, it has absolutely everything we need and has an extraordinarily large backyard.  The previous owners planted beautiful flowers including two of my absolute favorites.  But, I find myself dreaming of higher ceilings with enough room to install ceiling fans in every room .  I want central air and a finished basement.  I want a “she shed” in the backyard so I can go somewhere and write.

Right now, we’re living the reality of cobbling together and doing that shuffle game to cover bills and to uncover places where we can cut back.  We’ve gotten better at this.  In a year there will no longer be a significant monthly payment that will allow us to breathe a big sigh of relief.  My husband is on the fast-track to ongoing promotions of potential significance.  So, we wait, for small and gradual windfalls that may allow us some small luxuries that we’ve worked hard for, for me to stop working at a job that I adore, but creates panic and anxiety that I’ve never had before, and be able to travel with him to cities that I’ve always wanted to go.

I have always worked with underserved populations, the homeless, incarcerated women, and addicts who have lived under bridges.  They DREAM of owning a home and see my life as “living the dream.”  And they are absolutely right.  I know I will never get a $3.7 million book advance that Lena Dunham just got.  I know that I’ll never own a apartment in Manhattan.  But some of those other things I’ve mentioned?  I see high enough ceilings for a ceiling fan.  Central air, easily done.  Pre-fab sheds are not impossible to turn into something that could work as a place to write.  Finishing the basement for my husband’s man cave?  Totally doable.

We all have dreams, they push us forward and if we have to compromise somewhere between a cottage on Fairy Tale Lane and a gently used boat, that’s okay.  We’ve done just fine.

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Friend I Haven’t Met

rickcarl

The above has risen to the top of “Best Picture Ever.”  The guy in the blue sweatshirt is my husband.  The one playing the role of Kate Winslet in “Titanic”is Carl, someone I am so happy to count among my dearest friends.  The thing is, I’ve never met Carl in person.

Five years ago I clicked into a never-ending black hole  of links that took me to a site where bloggers could post their work.  (Interestingly, to prove how completely obscure this site was it no longer exists.)  I posted something and within a few minutes I got a like and a comment from a complete stranger. I instantly cyber-pounced on this poor unsuspecting person, and tried to engage him in conversation.  He took the bait, probably a bit warily wondering why I was so overzealous and probably thinking I had no friends, and we took our conversation offline and into gmail chat.  In looking back on these chats and e-mails from 2011 I can tell by the way he signed off, with a “Cheers,” or a “Take care” or a “I look forward to reading your work,” that he wasn’t nearly excited as I was about this surreal and serendipitous way we found each other.  It wasn’t until I dazzled him with my  humor that he realized, “Oh what the fuck.  She’s not a raving lunatic with no friends.  I’ll give it a go.”

Carl lives in England with his stunning fiance and gorgeous teenage daughter.  He shared some of his writing with me, words that nobody else had seen at that point, and it was truly some of the funniest and most poignant writing I have ever read.  He deflected my compliments onto me and created a Power Point titled “Gayle Saks:  Mission Get Famous.”  He calls me “Jewess.”

Our friendship has evolved into layers on top of layers.  It has turned into Skype drinking sessions, one in which my husband became the drunkest I had ever seen him(with the time difference he and his fiance are troupers in their ability to persevere after a night out in a pub) and now includes an e-mail and social media friendship between our daughters who are the same age.  During one of these Skype sessions Carl held up a piece of paper to the camera letting us know that he was going to propose the following week. And, in the most beautiful gesture I’ve ever been on the receiving end of, a brand new dvd player showed up on our doorstep when he found out ours had broken.  When my husband and I opened the card, we gasped, and got teary eyed.

The simulated love fest on the Titanic happened a little over a month ago when my husband was in Belfast for a month on business.  It was a no-brainer that Carl and family would fly over for the weekend so they could finally meet.  I was very envious, and still am, but that love you see above, that comfort, is very real.  When they met each other it was exactly what we knew it would be–perfect.  My husband called me immediately gushing about them and got off the phone quickly because they had booked a very busy weekend.  They face-timed me from a pub and even though I could barely hear a word it was so incredible to see them in the same place with my husband as opposed to on the opposite sides of a computer screen. When they left to fly back home, my husband called me in tears.

In some of the happiest news I’ve gotten in a long time, Carl and his family have decided to spend a week with us in Boston.  There are no words to describe how excited I am (I’ve been having a recurring dream that they get here and feel like it’s a bait and switch and they hate me.)  We’re getting a cot so our daughters can sleep in the same room, we’ll be hosting a dinner party for them and cramming in as much of New England as we possibly can.  I know I won’t be able to hold it together as I hug them all for the first time.

I’m not sure Carl realizes how special he has become to me.  If you didn’t, you do now.

Love,

Jewess.

 

 

 

 

 

The Man With The Swastika Tattoo

swastika_face

 

Each week when I go to the federal halfway houses where I lead life skills groups I can expect some resident turnover.  Some are released during the seven days between my classes and some new ones are brought in.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that all of them take certain classes while they are serving out the rest of their time, and job readiness, one of my regular groups, is mandatory.

Because so many of these men (in this particular program it is all men) have done some pretty long “bids” in prison, they often don’t know the basics of navigating computers whether it be simple word processing, let alone the Internet.  They’ve never had an e-mail address or conducted an on-line job search. Most have certainly never had a resume.

The men who have sat through my group look forward to seeing me every week despite the fact that they initially resented having to be there.  Most turn out to be extremely humble in admitting their lack of knowledge and are very grateful when they see a resume, the end product of my group, seem to write itself  before their eyes.  I think they are surprised to see the skills that they do in fact have, the things they HAVE accomplished, laid out in such an impressive way.

Last week there were a couple of new guys assigned to my group.  One came right in, sat down, geared up for whatever I had to say.  Another, a rather large and  imposing presence, hung back,  looking a bit apprehensive.  I forget that I look older than I think I do so I assume that a bi-focaled woman carrying binders and paperwork makes me appear like every other teacher or social worker they’ve been forced to sit in front of for years.

“You look terrified,” I said to him.  “Guys, will you tell him he doesn’t need to be terrified?”

Those who knew me smiled and slapped him on the back and told him it wasn’t so bad, like telling a child that a shot will only hurt for a second.

“Come,” I said to the man, patting an empty chair, “Sit next to me.”

I’m still generally awed by the number of tattoos so many of these guys have.  It’s often hard to discern any virgin skin beneath the entire length of their arms,  shoulders and legs.  There are names of girlfriends, portraits of Jesus, Bible verses, gang signs and all manner of symbols and scribbles that mean nothing to me.  When this man sat next to me I did my usual and at this point reflexive  scan of the jumble of colored ink and random drawings on his neck and within that chaos, like a hidden object children have to find in an illustration in a magazine,  there was a swastika, which suddenly, in my eyes, made all the others disappear.

I have written before about having to suspend my judgement of this population in order to do my job.  I’ve laughed with bank robbers, drug dealers and embezzlers.  I had to process when one guy revealed to me, rather casually, that he spent nine years in prison on child pornography charges without denying a thing, and then move on.  Now instead of judging him on that heinous crime, he just gets under my skin because he’s sort of a pain in the ass.

I’ve written endlessly about being the child of a Holocaust survivor and how much that has shaped my identity.  I had to avert my eyes from that particular tattoo which by now had become an image in my head of a neon sign blinking, in red.   It was imperative that I shut down my gut reaction and continue to work with this man who in all actuality was rather gentle and in need of my help.

Obviously, this wasn’t easy.  I couldn’t smack him in the face and call him an ignorant fuck and walk out of the room.  What was even more difficult was not being able to just ask, “Why?  Why?”