Cleaning windows, and other strange triggers.

I may have mentioned before that I’m not a fan of house cleaning.  Once in a while, though, I have to do a few basics.  Vacuum up cat hair.  (Tell me again why I love Lulu.)  Wash the toothpaste spatters from the bathroom mirror.  Clean an occasional window when it becomes so foggy I can hardly see out.

It was that last job that recently brought a tear to my eye.  It made me think of Jeanette, my dear friend, and the woman who kept my house spotless for several years.  There I stood trying to get the damn streaks out, wishing I were reading a book, lifting weights, going for a walk, standing on my head — anything but cleaning windows.

Not only do I miss J’s cleaning skills, but I miss her.  She was my friend from the time we first met, but I learned what her friendship really meant to me when D moved out.  She held my hands and hugged me and cried with me.  She loved me the very best that she could through the toughest time of my life.  I never had a better friend.  We still talk on the phone from time to time.  She stays constantly on the go, raising a young granddaughter all by herself.  She’s older than I am.  I don’t know how she does it.  But she does, without complaint.

And so I went from feeling pitiful for having to clean windows (How silly is that?), and missing Jeanette (not so silly), to singing my favorite window-cleaning song along with Van Morrison, both of us at high volume.  Sadness evaporates like Windex on a window pane when Van’s in the room.

This afternoon my grandson came over to help me with some chores around the house.  He’s very handy.  He repaired a light switch in the bathroom.  Now I don’t have to worry about the light suddenly coming on at three in the morning.  He programmed my thermostat so it would stop clicking on at odd times and making the downstairs too hot.  I probably could have done that one myself if the print in the instruction booklet wasn’t so small.  Once he had finished a few other minor odd jobs, he came in from the garage and inquired, “Grandma, are you ready for your tree?”

Until that moment I had been undecided.  I wrestle with the tree issue every year.  So far I haven’t figured out whether it’s sadder with or without it.  Spontaneously, I gave him my answer, “Yep, let’s bring it in.”  And so we did.

As he was putting the tree together, I reminded Grandson that he has helped me reconstruct the tree every year I’ve had it except the year I bought it.  That year I did it all by myself just to prove I could.  The memory brings back a flood of emotions that I tried hard not to show in Grandson’s presence.

It was my second Christmas alone, my first in this house.  I knew I couldn’t handle a real tree by myself.  We had always had the real thing in the past so buying a “fake” was a difficult decision.  But I knew it was the only practical thing to do so I headed off to Peppermint Forest in search of the perfect not-so-perfect Christmas tree.

I walked around the “forest” many times as I struggled to justify the prices on the tags of the best quality, prettiest trees.  I finally bit the bullet and chose my favorite, rationalizing that over a period of several years the price would become roughly the equivalent of having bought a real tree each of those years.  I stood in line, paid for the tree, and waited for the giant elves to load it into my car.

I got home with my precious purchase only to realize I might not be able to get it out of the car by myself.  I was able to pull the box to the garage floor, open it, and carry each piece/tier of the tree into the house.  As soon as I started to put the tiers together I realized the tree was too big for my room.  What was I to do?  What could I do?  I did what any not so sane person would do.  I sat on the floor and cried.  I’m talking BOO HOO crying.

Then I got tough again.  And I started putting those heavy, prickly branches back in that damn shrinking box.  By then I was crying angrily.  Angry at the world, and most especially at my ex.  This entire fiasco was his fault.

I know that fear often causes a surge of adrenaline, giving a spurt of strength that a person doesn’t normally have.  I did not know until that day that anger and frustration can have the same effect.  Now I know.  I put that box, tree and all, back in my car by myself, and drove back to the “tree farm”, despite the fact that they had a no-return policy.

I locked the tree in the car, took my receipt inside, waited in line again.  I had practiced my spiel as I drove.  In my calmest, steadiest voice I explained that I couldn’t use the tree and wanted to trade for one slightly smaller.  When the clerk hesitated, my voice stayed calm but my teary eyes betrayed me as I said, “I have never done this Christmas tree thing by myself.  I misjudged the size.  I’m asking if you would be so kind as to make an exception for me.”  By that time I had an audience which included three clerks, one a manager.  The manager stepped up to the plate and told me (and the rest of the gang), “Yes, ma’am, we will.”

I suppose I still feel the trauma of that experience each year when we bring out the holly and the ivy, and yes, the magnificent tree.  I’ve laughed and cried as I’ve written this piece.  I’m grateful for both, I think.  At least I’m no longer numb.  Feeling deeply is a good thing, isn’t it?

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“In My Dreams”

I’m cold.  So cold I’m shivering and shaking.  I hear something running.  A furnace?  A faucet?  A waterfall?  Slowly consciousness starts to make an appearance.  I realize it’s raining — hard.  And I really am cold.  Of course I have to go pee after listening to all that water.

So I got up.  Went to the bathroom.  Looked at the clock.  5:00 a.m.  Too early to stay up.  I put on a long-sleeved shirt and curled up again in my too-big king-sized bed and let the sound of the rain lull me back to dreamland.

I’m at my former in-laws’ home.  It isn’t a place I’ve seen before.  It’s a different house.  My father-in-law is there.  He sits back and observes more than he participates, his crooked little smile on his face.  My mother-in-law plays the part of the queen bee, as always.  She’s an attentive hostess as she sees to her guests and keeps the party flowing.  She’s always done that so very well.  They seem happy, my in-laws, and contented.  Mother-in-Law brings out some photos she’s found while cleaning.  She wants to share them with me because my children are in them.  We enjoy sharing times past.  Happy times.

I stirred.  Then sat up.  I looked at the clock.  It was almost 8:00.  Late.  My first instinct, first thought, was to call my ex.  No, I realized, that wouldn’t do.  Maybe an e-mail.  No, maybe not.

I wanted to let him know that his dad is okay.  You see, his dad died not long after we separated.  I wanted so much to comfort him back then, but was not allowed to do so.  He wouldn’t allow it.  I’m still not allowed.

Isn’t it interesting/strange how our dreams try to help us finish what our real lives can’t accommodate?  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it serves only to recall and exacerbate the pain.

“In My Dreams” by Emmylou Harris.

The Food Pantry.

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. ~ Helder Camara

Yesterday I volunteered for the first time at a local food pantry.  An acquaintance had told me they sometimes have Spanish-speakers who come seeking groceries and they need a volunteer who can speak their language.

I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to take on another project.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to learn a new “trick.”  But for some reason a little voice in my mind told me to go for this one.  Fortunately, my concerns vanished the minute I walked through the door.

The other volunteers welcomed me and immediately set about my on-the-job training.  One long-term volunteer took me under her wing and explained my duties.  Food Pantry workers have been around for a long time and these women, and one man, impressed with me with their streamlined approach to getting the job done.  Someone has already invented this “wheel” and these folks know how to use it.

Two volunteers work with each client: one to explain their point system and the choices available, and one to keep a stroke count of the points as the client makes his/her selections.  The number of points depends upon the number of family members.  It worked quite well.

There is an anonymity policy firmly in place at the Pantry.  Each volunteer must sign a pledge to protect the identity of every client who visits the facility.  I tell you this in order to say that there were a couple of families represented yesterday that touched me deeply.  I would like to make some comments about them, but I am changing details in order to avoid even a remote possibility of betraying their privacy.

The first was a mother with her three children.  I don’t think I approached this job with preconceived notions about who the clients would be, but I couldn’t help thinking, as we assisted this family, that they looked like a typical American middle-class family.  They were well-dressed.  The children were polite.  The mother was very grateful, and apparently surprised at the amount of food they could take.  She was attentive to her children and let them help choose things they liked to eat.

The youngest child, a little boy, spotted a small jar of honey, and wanted it in the worst way.  He would pick it up, ask his mom if he could have it; his mom would explain that something else might be more practical, and he would put it back.  A couple of minutes later he would pick it up again and quietly ask his mom again if he could put it in their cart.  I cannot tell you how happy I am to report that he got the honey.  His mom finally asked him how he would use it.  He explained that he could put it on toast or add it to a peanut butter sandwich.  Such a small thing.

My first clients taught me that maybe all of us are closer to poverty and hunger than we realize.  I don’t know what happened to this little family that put them in a bind, but I do believe it could happen to anyone, given the right (wrong) circumstances.

The other client was a woman who came in alone.  She had been in this country only a few months.  Her English was pretty good.  She was able to communicate.  She explained that her English teachers had been British, so adapting what English she knew to the American South is a bit tricky.  We tend to drawl and elongate some of our vowels down here.

She was able to tell us that they left their home because they feared for their safety.  They were persecuted for their religious beliefs.  They came here because “America has many opportunities for those who work hard,” and they can practice their faith freely.

She told us she has three children.  Her husband has finally obtained a green card and has found a job.  He held a good position in their home country, but because of the language barrier, he can’t get a good job here.  Hopefully, he will move up rapidly, she told me.  He is working very hard.  The children are happy to be here and are learning English rapidly.  They have adapted well.

Yesterday was one of the coldest days we’ve had this season, and this woman had walked several miles to get to our site.  She told me her child’s school principal had told her about us.  She chose her groceries and told us her husband would pick her up at 3:00 pm when he got off work.  That meant she would sit there and wait for more than two hours for her ride.

I asked the coördinator whether it would be okay for me to take the client home.  (I’m the new kid on the block.  Don’t know what’s appropriate.)  She said I could ask.  I told the client, “I would like to take you home.  Would you allow me to do that?”  She gave me a big smile.  “Yes. Thank you.”

As I was driving away, after dropping T and her groceries off, and meeting her oldest daughter, all I could think about was how much we who live in a free society take for granted.  I feel humbled and grateful.

One-issue voting.

My youngest sister G called me recently.  She sounded excitable and at the same time disheartened.  Here’s a part of the conversation I had with her that day:

G – You know my friend Penny Ante?

Me – Yes, I think I remember her.  (Actually I remember her quite well.)

G – (Talking nonstop.)  She called me this morning and do you know what she asked me?!  She wanted to know if I would put a Romney sign in my front yard.  I told her no I wouldn’t put her sign in my yard because I’m voting for Obama.  Then Penny screeched, “You mean you’re FOR abortion!?”

At this point my sister, talking to me, lamented, “I don’t know anyone who’s for abortion.  Do you?”  I agreed with her, “No, I don’t.”

(I have just returned from a brisk two-mile walk through the neighborhood.  I often take this sort of break when I feel myself stepping on a slippery slope.  It helps me to arrange my thoughts into a meaningful perspective.)

It seems to me that voting is a multifaceted proposition.  When we take one issue and make it our reason for voting, we cheat ourselves, and in a sense, the American system.  It’s also, in my opinion, the lazy path to voting.

Voting is a privilege and a responsibility.  The responsibility part is sometimes difficult.  It requires us to be informed voters.  It means we listen to several angles on the same topics.  It means reading letters to the editor in the local newspaper.  It means listening to a friend who disagrees with you.  It means researching a candidate’s record on the matters that are important to you.  The fact that you and a candidate agree on one issue does not necessarily make him/her a good candidate.

Make a list (well, at least a mental one) of the issues that matter most to you.  Then, set about finding out how the candidates view those items on your list.  You can’t get the true picture by watching the same news channel all the time.  We all have biases and often they show.  It’s hard work to wade through all the garbage that accompanies our political races these days.  But it’s worth the effort.  And it’s our job!

Go on now, examine those candidates carefully.  Then vote!  Please.

I hereby retire my soapbox.  Well, for now. 

Sandy wreaks havoc.

The cost of the storm is incalculable… ~ NJ Governor Chris Christie

Some have called her Frankenstorm.  She was a monster for sure.  It seemed to me she came out of nowhere.  Families were living their lives — sometimes limping along, sometimes soaring gleefully.  Doing what people and families do.

Suddenly, with little warning, she descended and created chaos.  She zeroed in on a specific site with no concern, no compassion, for the resulting far-reaching damage she would cause on her way in.

Who could ever have imagined the extent of destruction a big puff of hot air would generate?

And now, in the wake of the storm, it’s impossible to know how many lives have been forever damaged.  Many.  That we know.

Ah, but we are a resilient bunch, we humans.  We immediately begin the clean-up.  We pick up the pieces, and when they no longer fit, we put them in a pile with other items that don’t fit, and we make a new something that will help us on our way.  In the process, we start to mend not only our lives, but those of the family and friends around us.

One day the sun shines again.  The stench is gone.  The broken parts are repaired or recycled or discarded.  We start to sing.  We smile at a stranger.  There’s a bit of a spring in our step.  We are pleased with how much we like the new, reconstructed version.

Today, my heart aches for all whose lives have been forever altered, against their will, by this monster storm.  May your recovery be rapid.  May you have the hope that will keep you on an upward path.  May the sun shine upon your face.  May your god carry you when you need to be carried.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;                                                                     Man never Is, but always To be blest:                                                                              The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,                                                                   Rests and expatiates in a life to come.                                                                                ~ Alexander Pope