Category Archives: Stories

All that’s left

About the time I started middle school (or, as we used to say, “junior high”) I had exasperated my piano teacher to the point where she decided I had to find a new teacher. I still don’t know how I flummoxed my mom so. I suppose it could have been my legendary stubbornness.

(Example: My parents told me I could practice any half-hour of the day I wanted. Could be before school or after school or in the evening; I could manage the time as I pleased. I did not like this edict, even though I liked learning to play piano and was quite good at it. Know how I responded? I set the alarm each morning at 3:30, got up and banged my etudes and sonatas as loudly as I could  until 4 am and went back to bed. My parents, to their credit, didn’t mention it at the time, although I know now that middle-aged people don’t sleep very well and absolutely abhor being awakened 3 hours before the alarm.)

Mom found a new teacher for me, a world- renowned composer and teacher who had been featured in the newspaper for publishing her latest opus. Remarkably, she lived within walking distance of our house, but she was not taking any new students. Somehow my mom finagled an interview and audition for me.

I was really nervous for our meeting. But Mrs D, as her students fondly called her, seemed genuinely charmed by me, earnest girl that I was. Mrs D had not one but TWO grand pianos in her living room (a wall had been knocked out to make room) — talk about impressively intimidating. I played for her my best Für Elise on one of the pianos and poof! Mom was no longer saddled with me as her piano student. Soon both my sisters followed me under Mrs D’s tutelage.

Mrs D was quite a character. She taught us not only the notes but to “sniff the keys” — that is, to feel the music and not be afraid to get demonstrative with the keyboard. She would tape ping-pong balls to our palms to counter our tendency to flatten our hands. She was brilliant, whimsical, odd, unafraid, tough, loving, and the most fascinating person I knew. She was a renaissance woman — she wrote novels, painted paintings, traveled the world with her beloved husband, and composed and played songs that evoked a range of emotions for both the listeners and the players. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when Mrs D dedicated a sonatina to me.

Once as a teen I ran away from home…to Mrs D’s house. She listened to me, opened up a can of black olives to console me (our bonding food — with her I was odd, too), and patted me on the bottom as she pushed me back toward home. Another time she and her husband were preparing for their imminent trip to Europe. Not wanting to pay high prices for stuff they could easily bring with them, they one day had me help them make martinis and pour them into seal-a-meal packaging to put in their suitcases. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, but it was a merry time helping them get ready.

Several years ago Mrs D’s husband died after a devastating Alzheimer’s decline. She missed him terribly but stayed vibrant and modern, though she was nearing her 90s. She hung out on Facebook, kept composing and publishing music for children, and wrote her autobiography. Turned out she was a codebreaker in WWII but had been under a 50-year veil of secrecy.

Eventually she grew frail and could no longer live in home with her two grand pianos. She was moved to a nursing home where she charmed the staff and entertained the other residents with her piano-playing and storytelling. My sisters and I visited her Thanksgiving of 2010 and sang her this song in harmony. She held each of our hands and made lengthy eye contact, loving us through and through. “Please come back soon, my sweethearts,” she said.

My mom and I visited her last Spring, about this time. We filled her in on our lives, listened to her reminisce, and told her we’d visit again.

Mrs D died last June. She was 92.

I attended the estate sale at her home this weekend. All of Mrs D’s  belongings were on the lawn being picked over by passers-by (the pianos were gone, in the possession of her son). Remnants of a life — junk really. Travel books from the 1970s that no one will ever read. Wall hangings and artwork that look hopelessly dated. Ten thousand travel photos that have meaning only to the two people who took the trip.

I browsed. I time-traveled. I was back in junior high. I was sitting through recitals in that living room. I was either eating black olives or packing green olives in liquid. I was visiting Mrs D while home from college. I was introducing her to the man who would become my husband. I was chasing my toddler around in that living room, trying to keep the knick-knacks safe from her grasp as I showed her off to Mrs D. While my life was ascending, I didn’t even notice Mrs D’s corresponding counter-arc.

This is what’s left of a life. Tchotchkes that outlive their owner, untethered and unowned. Doomed for a landfill. A wave of grief swept over me for the loss and love of Mrs D, the inevitable loss we face, the complete disconnection that waits for everyone. What would my estate sale look like?

I decided to salvage only one item, as impractical as it is symbolic.

A different type of keyboard, to be sure. But a touchstone to a woman who touched my life in a profound way.

Murphy’s Date Night

Roger and I did something we’ve never done before: booked an in-town hotel room. We pre-paid it on Friday after we got an offer from a family friend to take our kids Saturday night for a sleepover.

It was to be a time of reconnection and renewal for us, a time to have no responsibilities, which you really can’t do in your own home where there’s always a pile of laundry that needs folding, a counter that needs wiping, a yard that needs tending, bills that need paying, or a computer that’s whispering, seductively, turn me on — c’mon, you know you want to.

After  we dropped our kids with our friend, our plan was dinner – movie – hotel. A good night’s sleep and a leisurely morning (no, you’re not getting more details than that).

We headed for dinner at a place I’d heard about through my friend Jolene. The menu was organic, featuring clean foods at doable prices. We started with a happy-hour priced Tempranillo and some fermented vegetables — gorgeous and yummy deeply-colored red, green and yellow slaw veggies (this will come into play later).

For my entree I ordered fresh local trout, creamed kale in coconut milk — ayurvedically aligned with my body’s needs, as well as sunchokes, a tuber that can best be described as artichokes-meet-potatoes. As soon as the server brought my dinner, I took one bite of each of the three dishes.

And immediately began to feel sick. Nut allergy sick.

We asked the server to double-check if there were nuts in anything (I had asked prior to ordering, as I always do).  She reaffirmed that she had served me no nuts.

This sent me into a panic. For this meant that either (a) I was allergic to something new, something I didn’t know about and thus could not stay away from, or (b) I was having a psychosomatic reaction and ruining our evening.

The server returned from the kitchen again with a list of ingredients used to make my three dishes. Olive oil, lemon, garlic, coconut milk, nutmeg…nothing suspicious.

Yet I could not argue with the swelling on the inside of my cheeks, the burning in my esophagus. I took a Benadryl, which I knew would soon stop the allergic reaction as well as sedate me eventually. Not what you want to happen on Date Night.

The fourth time the server came to check on me, she apologized profusely. “I just found out there are cashews in the creamed kale.”

I burst into tears. My body was not lying to me. I knew it.

She comped the whole meal, which was left uneaten, and said that karmically, she couldn’t let us pay.

Right-o.

~~~~~

We checked in to the trendy hotel and got a top-floor room. We scaled back our plans and decided to watch an in-room movie. After reviewing our choices, we decided that the flick 50/50 was the right length and intensity for my level of cashew-induced blaaarrrgh and Benadryl-induced flatness.

I stayed awake through the movie. As expected, my stomach eventually decided to violently protest the introduction of cashews to its sacred domain. And this is where the multi-colored vegetables came back into play.

You’re welcome.

After the movie was over, we watched a bit of SNL and fell asleep.

Drugged though I was, I had trouble getting to sleep. The last time I looked at the clock it read 11:45.

~~~~~

Whrrrrrrrrr! <FLASH> Whrrrrrrrr! <FLASH> Whrrrrrrrr! <FLASH>
A FIRE HAS BEEN REPORTED IN THE HOTEL.
PLEASE EXIT YOUR ROOM AND PROCEED TO THE STAIRS IMMEDIATELY.
DO NOT TAKE THE ELEVATORS.

It was 12:35 am. Roger and I bolted up in bed and look at each other. Are you freaking kidding me?

Whrrrrrrrrr! <FLASH> Whrrrrrrrr! <FLASH> Whrrrrrrrr! <FLASH>
A FIRE HAS BEEN REPORTED IN THE HOTEL.
PLEASE EXIT YOUR ROOM AND PROCEED TO THE STAIRS IMMEDIATELY.
DO NOT TAKE THE ELEVATORS.

We put on our street clothes, our shoes and coats. We left the room and joined the stream of others leaving theirs. We headed for the stairs and wound down them (top floor, remember?) single file. People made jokes about how at least we weren’t on the Costa Concordia. I was lamenting the fact that I’d left my journal and the kids’ in the room. Hadn’t I always said those would be the first things I’d grab in case of fire?

Finally we exited outside. It was cold.

Roger and I walked around the hotel to where our car was. From here, we could see into the lobby. And oddly, no one there was evacuating. There were no fire trucks. Only a sheriff’s car.

We returned inside to the front desk where a frazzled attendant assured us there was no fire and we could go back to our room. We found this out only because we asked. The others from our floor were still shivering outside.

We climbed the stairs to the top floor, our blood pumping. The blaring public service announcement had finally stopped. We once again readied for bed and tried to calm our pounding hearts enough to sleep. Roger was successful.

The last time I looked at the clock it was 3 am.

 ~~~~~

In the morning we checked out, retrieved our children (who each earned a good report from our friend) and returned home.

To 57 degrees. Inside.

We called the furnace guy, who spent two hours repairing our furnace. On a $$$unday.

~~~~~

  • I did not die from anaphylactic shock.
  • The hotel was not on fire;  and belongings and my journal didn’t end up a pile of ash.
  • The furnace was under warranty.

Still, the next time we have such a Date Night, I’d prefer that it be governed by Yhprum’s Law than by its evil cousin, Murphy.

How was your weekend?

The lessons of Soul Surfer, as interpreted by my daughter

Tessa, Reed and I are watching Soul Surfer, a DVD that Tessa picked out from the local Redbox with Daddy while Mommy was out of town. They’ve already watched it but we see it again together.

It’s a feel-good movie with heartwarming moments of triumph over adversity and portrayal of family unity and support, and it tackles the question, why do bad things happen to good people?

Bethany Hamilton was a 13 year-old surfer in Hawaii when, in 2003, her left arm was taken by a shark. She not only surfed again, but she surfed competitively and won. She has since become an inspiration to anyone who has had to overcome an obstacle, especially children and teens.

The main character is played by AnnaSophia Robb whom, as I’ve said before, bears an uncanny resemblance to Tessa (or vice versa). So Tessa has always identified with this grounded and wholesome actress, who hails from the Denver area.

I keep pointing out, as we watch the film, values that Roger and I have been trying to instill in our children.

  • “I’m impressed by how the entire family is on the same team, supporting each other and not fighting!” I say with particular emphasis.
  • “Look at how Bethany lets nothing stop her! She is going to surf again no matter what. Such determination!” I belabor with many exclamation points.
  • “I notice how she feels sad but doesn’t let the sadness stop her,” I note.
  • “Wow. Bethany doesn’t waste any time feeling sorry for herself, does she? She doesn’t expect people to give her special treatment.”

Just in case Tessa and Reed missed any of that.

The angel choir chimes in my head when Tessa says to me: “Mom, I’m going to be just like Bethany for the next week!”

OMG, this is going to be so fantastic. No more pecking at her brother. No more excuses about schoolwork. Feeling emotions but not letting them rule her. Commitment to her goals.

It’s gonna be a great week.

At bedtime in her room, Tessa moves around oddly as she gets ready for bed, but I can’t quite pinpoint why. She argues with me over various issues: packing for school tomorrow, picking up dirty laundry from her bedroom floor, who gets the last toaster strudel in the morning, and how she really doesn’t want to go to an after-school activity this week.

“Tessa,” I say.

“Whatt!” she says with the sullenness of a full-teenager, which she is not yet.

“What about being like Bethany this week? I thought you were going to try to get along with Reed better and meet your commitments and keep going even if some things are difficult.”

She looks at me as if I’ve got surfboard styrofoam for brains.

“Mommm,” she begins to spell out to me as if I were the child, “What. are. you talking about? I MEANT that I was going to not use my left arm for a week.”

Oh.

My bad.