Sunday, December 09, 2012

Main Street USA

I guess everyone loves a parade and yesterday I watched Downingtown Borough's Christmas Parade. A lot of people say they live in Downingtown but like me they have a D'town post office but live in Uwchlan Twp. Lionville, Upper Uwchlan Twp., etc.. The Borough of Downingtown is not very big actually and like my hometown, Darby Borough, it is an old mill town. Whenever I am in Downingtown Borough I see the similiarities to the Darby Borough of my youth. Many of the residents are members of the Firehouse, the Moose Club holds "Family Night Dinner" on Wednesdays and the VFW always has some activity or event going on. There is a diner, a jeweler, a bunch of hairdressers where the older women still get a wash and set. So, naturally, I thought of Darby while watching the Christmas Parade and for a few minutes I was in Darby, the band in Blue could have been DC Marching Band and the Clowns teasing the kids could have been anyone's Dad. Problem was, like in a weird dream of home, where nothing makes sense, I didn't recognize anyone. The "Good Neighbor Community" is not mine and it has been decades of years since a parade marched down Main Street in Darby. So what made two boroughs with a similar history and demographic diverge so sharply?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Deck the Halls...

I don't have a Christmas decorating plan but it invariably ends up happening the weekend after Thanksgiving since I've had a few days off and the usual laundry, vacuum, clean the toilets, that occurs every Saturday was already done on Wednesday. So, the boxes come up from the basement, their peculiar but familiar scent heralding the season as effectively as the angel Gabriel. There are delicate angels and vintage snowmen and garland and mistletoe and odd pieces of things that need to be glued or discarded but end up back in the box unused and unrepaired. There is a box of Christmas books from when the kids were little, our bedtime reading for many years of Decembers. I know it is time for them to go but the feelings they evoke are stronger even than the ones I feel when unwrapping the old tin cans that my grandmother used to store her pizzelles. I am not sure what to do with the books since I don't intend to give them away and it seems silly to leave them out. We are a family with grown children but not so grown to have babies of their own. There is no one excited to read Santa's Workshop in our home.

I rummage through the pile and find Ali's favorite, The Christmas Kitten and remember the first Christmas after my parents came to live with us. Mom helped us to decorate but midway through she forgot what we were doing and nervously asked to go home. When she asked for her mother, who had been dead for more than ten years, I wasn't sure what to say. She cried. I coaxed her into sitting down on the couch and sat real close next to her so she wouldn't be so scared. Ali was just 14 then but she read the situation and joined me on the other side of Mom. We held her hand, tried to comfort her. Just like today, I had discarded the pile of children's books while decorating and was half sitting on them. I picked up The Christmas Kitten and started reading.
On the night of the first big snow, in an old plaid shirt, in the corncrib of the big red barn, old Ginger gave birth to a small litter
Mom stops crying and points to the illustration of the kittens nursing and smiles at Ali. I keep reading. I read slowly and make a point to show Mom the pictures. She holds Ali's hand tightly. We finish reading just as the last light of the short day leaves the room.

There are decorations with more glitter and ones with more value but there are none so meaningful as this tattered, old book. I sit it on the piano and greet another season of wonder.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Last Times

I make promises that I cannot keep. You wouldn't suspect. I am so reliable to my family and friends. But I do it nonetheless. I promise that I will quit smoking when I know it is a promise that I am not willing to keep. Maybe I should just promise to think about quitting. I do that all the time anyway.

I promise to listen better but I am incapable and often have to ask either Ali or Mark Anthony to repeat the story. This is not fair. A story is not half as good the second time around. They tell me many stories. Maybe I should ask them to tell me only one story a day. Maybe then I could listen better. I wonder what story they would choose. I promise Danielle and Caesar and I used to promise Mark, when he was still alive, that I would write a book. Danielle and Caesar still ask every few months about "my book". I tell them it is fine. I write a little here and there. Sometimes I am impatient and ask them how I am supposed to write a book when no one has clean underwear and my commute to work takes several hours? Where is there room to write? They just nod their heads. Tell me they will wait. They look forward to reading "my book". I looked forward to writing it for a long time but then it seems like such an egotistical thing. Self centered and self absorbed. As though my story is any better than your story. The poor listener asking others to pay attention.

Until today, in the bathroom. I will skip the bathroom details. I hate when people include bathroom details in their stories. I know and you know what goes on there. It is mundane and basically just physical housekeeping. I do like bathrooms though, especially clean bathrooms with whimsical decorations. That I will talk about. I will remember a really nice bathroom. Today in the bathroom I thought about the Tarzan swing down by Darby Creek. I thought about how I'd play there in spring because by summer the weeds and poison ivy outgrew the banks of the creek. It was several years that we played on the swing. Somewhere before age thirteen. How I'd climb onto the swing and poise myself on the ledge of the hill. Then I'd jump onto the rope and fly over the creek, many feet above it. I am bothered because I can't remember the exact last time I did that. I played on the Tarzan swing every spring for many years and one of those times was the last time. But which time? If I had known it would be the last time would I have swung higher? Would I have let go and fall into the cold water? Would I have felt sad that this part of my life was ending? After this I start to think about other things. I am thinking about the exact last time I built a fort in the woods. Or played capture late into a summer evening. I didn't know it would be my exact last time. I assumed I would do it again. These thoughts are enough to make me consider writing the book again. This is something I can share with a reader that doesn't seem egotistical. Maybe, I think, others think of their exact last times too and maybe we are all the same in some way. A way that makes "my book" less about me and more about what is universal. Me and my characters are just examples really of all the other people in the world who are wondering at this exact minute of their exact last times.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dottie, Dottie, Dottie

“I’m strict,” Dottie Sandusky told the court with a proud tilt of her chin. “I like for things to go in a certain way."

Don't we all? Life has a way of teaching us, usually sooner rather than later, that we have very little control over the biggest things in our lives. For me that lesson was learned after the birth of my first child. I imagined how our days would unfold, my husband, baby and me. I mentally created the idyllic holidays around the fire, the prize winning Halloween costumes and I looked forward to an idealized version of the modern family. Until day two. Two days home from the hospital, late into a Saturday evening, well, Sunday morning, after rocking and nursing and singing to a screaming baby for over an hour or so there was silence. Finally asleep. I glanced down in the darkened room at the little stranger and was astounded to find her not asleep, but wide eyed, staring deeply into my own eyes. This was not the baby of my imagination but a living, breathing, beautiful human being with desires and ideas of her own. That desire was to stay awake, that lesson was enormous.

The life I lived was never quite the same as the one I envisioned. Holidays were not idyllic, but loud and boisterous (there was a fire in the hearth) and Halloween each year started with great intentions, subjected to the revisions of a 9 year old that turned the jolly clown costume into the clown from Poltergeist. I grew and changed as I learned that those things I wanted were not always the same as the things my kids needed.

Our home was not haphazard, there were family meals every day and bedtime stories every night but there wasn't always clean underwear or matching socks. I allowed my kids to take a couple not really sick, sick days every school year because sometimes on a cold winter day it is a lot nicer to make pizzelles with your Mom, or watch a movie with Grandmom. I don't think it affected their educational or intellectual ability too much.

Despite my not so strict standards, I paid attention. I noticed when one of my kids was unusually quiet, I banged on bedroom doors when something seemed weird (it was weird, someone had snuck a frog into bed with them). I knew when a beer was missing or someone came in smelling like cigarette smoke. I watched guests and relatives with the ferocity of a Mama Bear. I trusted my children's well being to no one. I questioned my sanity when I made a blanket rule that we don't do sleepovers (best rule ever btw). I did this because I knew that although I might "like for things to go in a certain way" that doesn't always happen. My job was to be sure that the wrong things were things that didn't matter too much.

As a mother, I am disappointed and angry with Dottie Sandusky, a woman who prided herself on running a tight ship while ignoring the fact that the boat was sinking beneath her feet. Did she know? It will be the next big question and one that only Dottie can (and did) answer. If she really did not have an inkling to her husband's behavior, as she testified in court, where was Dottie looking? What filled Dottie's life so fully that she didn't even once think that something was awry in her home?

Dottie Sandusky has something to teach all of us, maybe someday we'll know what that lesson is.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Oh, Girls of Prendergast High

By mid-afternoon on this, unusually warm for January Friday, workers from Radnor to Mayfair, in cubicles and behind Wawa counters were discussing the news from the Diocese of Philadelphia. The announcement culminated a week of speculation about the fate of our Catholic schools. Nowhere was the news more painful than on the “hill of Drexel” for there sits what was once described as “one of the finest buildings in the diocese”, Archbishop Prendergast High School for Girls and the more modern structure, Monsignor Bonner High School for Boys. After nearly 60 years of educating the young men and women of Delaware County, the schools will close in June. These bare facts, reported throughout the region this evening, seem flimsy and irrelevant to what the schools mean to the students there now as well as those of us long ago graduated. Talk of budgets, restructuring and dwindling enrollment belie the true impact the schools closing will have on its current students as well as the communities and parishes that support the high schools.

My first memory of “Prendie” is hazy but in it the school is a magical place. It is around Christmastime in 1964 and my sisters and I are on the bus coming from 69th Street to Darby. It is dusk and dark comes fast that time of year. As the bus lumbers down Marshall Road, my sister tells me to look across the field to the light at the top of the hill. I see the shadow of a magnificent building and the light of the bell tower. “That is my school”, she tells me, and “someday you will go there too”. I am 4 years old and for the next ten years, every time the bus turns the curve onto Marshall Road, I look across the field to the top of the hill and think “someday that will be my school”.

By the time I was in 5th grade, my second sister was a Prendie Senior and I had a close-up view of life at Prendie. Roseann was in the Glee Club and I attended her concerts and plays, always waiting in the wings with flowers of congratulations. Her love for Prendie was unwavering, giving her the family nickname of “rah rah”. As much as we teased her, those brief moments at Prendie made me consider that there was something special happening there.

In 1974, finally part of the Prendie family, I slowly came to realize that this beautiful building held within its walls an energy and vibrancy that created strong and resourceful women from little girls. Archbishop Prendergast held the highest standards of academics and even I learned to conjugate a Latin verb and still know the difference between a first and second declension noun. More importantly, Prendie was a place to explore and understand the meaning and significance of female friendships. We were encouraged to know and understand one another, to find the things we had in common rather than focus on our differences.

For Freshman, that common thread was Prendie itself. We were the “Girls of Prendergast High” and learning the fight song and alma mater were rites of passage as were “Big Sisters” and “Freshman Day”. We came from many parishes but by the end of that year, we were the “Class of ‘78”. The joys and tragedies of our high school years were shared with the friends we made and there always seemed to be more friends to meet. During gym you’d learn that your square dancing partner had the same affection for poodles that you held or at lunch the stranger next to you blossomed into your best confidant. By Senior year, the milestones you looked forward to such as Ring Day and Music on the Stairs were bittersweet with the knowledge that they would be your last.

Today’s announcement was the death knell to the Prendergast community and with it go the long traditions passed to my sisters and then to me and then to others behind me and upheld today by its current student body. Along with all of us who attended or are currently attending Prendergast, there is the loss to all those who may have attended Prendie in the future. All those little girls looking at the bell tower and thinking “some day that will be my school”.