Post #38: The Tower of Nickels and Dimes

IMG_1046POCKET CHANGE: 1961

My Grandpa Lou would walk in the door. A kiss and then his hand would reach into his pocket. From his fingers would come a waterfall of coins clattering and clinking and plunking! I was too small to touch them. Too small to even know what they were for. All those pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters were shiny and rattley and meant for me. Spare change scooped from his pocket every night with the nonchalant precision of a soda jerk digging out a double scoop of Fudge Ripple. Once in a while a real Indian Head nickel or a steel penny, still in circulation then, would be blended into the handful, a curious and alluring whisper from his past.

What was he doing? Building, of course. Little by little, my Grandpa was building a Tower of Nickels and Dimes for me, his tiny F. W. Woolworth. Coins for my bank. Coins for my future.

ONE THIN DIME: 1966

Morning Kindergarten or afternoon, it didn’t matter. The rule was the same. You came to school with a nickel and that nickel was for one thing only. Put your nickel in the slot, twist the dial and a perfect little pint would tumble into your hand. The Milk Machine. No one ever drank white milk when there was chocolate available. Everyone drank straight from the carton.

But on the days where my mother was out of nickels and only had a dime to give me? Well there really was no choice.

I would buy a ten-cent Eskimo Pie from the Good Humor Man at the corner instead and eat it on the way to school.

I’m sure no one ever knew.

ALLOWANCE: 1967

We worked all week. Toys in the toy box. Books on the shelf. All the paper napkins folded into triangles. Back and forth from the table to the sink, plate after plate after plate. Don’t forget: use two hands!

We worked all week. We waited all week.

And on Fridays we each earned a dime.

I saved them all. Collect ten for a trade with Dad for a real grown up dollar bill.

Work and save and work and save. All my dimes together bought my own Incredible Edible set. Now that I earned my own money I could even make my own food. Life was good.

HALF DOLLARS: 1972

Full of a good dinner, surrounded by those he loved best, my nattily dressed Grandpa Nate would lean back in his chair and smile.

We knew what was coming. So did he. With a sign to my grandmother a bag was procured from who knows where and it’s contents spilled out on the tablecloth.

A king’s ransom! A pirate’s bounty! A rich man’s loot!

All for us! All for us! All for us! The coins were heavy and impressive and our heads swam with the possibilities of it all! Piles of Franklin half-dollars all there for the taking. So much money. We could buy anything in the world!

But alas! Euphoria is short lived. The coins were to be treasured and to be saved, but never to be spent.

We sadly concluded that being rich has its burdens.

2-DOLLAR BILLS: 1981

If you go there, you’d better know how to order. Get in line; grab a tray and pay attention! Hey you! Do you want French fries, onion rings or fried broccoli? For your burger, double, triple, quad or quint? Your bun? Kaiser, onion, plain or WHAT? Want mushrooms, grilled onion, pickles or peppers? Order it now or forever hold your peace! And if you decide on condiments only say what you want, not what you don’t want. DO NOT MESS THIS UP!

If you follow the above rules exactly, Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger will give you the best burger on the planet. And in keeping with their Krazy ways they will often fork over a $2 bill for your change. You’d better know what to do with it! Cherish it.

PENNIES ON STREET: Always

I seem to spot them everywhere.

On the sidewalks and the side streets. Dug out of the corners of car and of the couch. They gleam at me. Heads up or heads down. I scoop them up and I save them. I squint for the dates and wonder about how many fingers have touched them, how they were lost, how much further will they travel? Little silver and copper time capsules! And they jingle in my pockets.

Is it lucky to find a penny or a coin? You tell me.

Perhaps it’s just as lucky to spot a dandelion about to curl open to the sun, lucky to notice a person who took the time to hold the door, lucky to discern meaning from the lines of a poem.

But it’s so much harder to hold those things in your hands, to jingle them in your pockets.

So I save all the coins I find, knotted into handkerchiefs in my drawers, zipped tight into a special pocket in my jacket, sometimes clutched in my fists.

I save them because I have a plan. Someday for someone I’ll dig deep into my pockets and scoop out a handful of coins. . From my fingers will come a waterfall of coins clattering and clinking and plunking. I’ll be building someone their own little Tower of Nickels and Dimes.

 

 

HOLIDAY

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In keeping with my utterly indoorsy nature, I’ve found the best way to stay warm and content in the freezy cold during the holiday season. Beaches are lovely, but sausaged into a bathing suit I am not, ski slopes are inspiring but steep. I’ve been around a while. I know what I am doing. I am happiest and safest basking in the warm glow of the TV. It pays to be picky though. This year I went on holiday with the movie Holiday.

For any of you who aren’t familiar with this 1938 George Cukor directed gem, Holiday is one of the best pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A quickie synopsis: Cary Grant (Johnny Case in the movie) plays a hardworking young man who meets and falls in love with a woman named Julia Seton, (NOT Katharine Hepburn) on his first ever vacation, is smitten, and immediately proposes. Once back in New York he’s invited to lunch and is stunned to discover that he’s about to marry into one of the wealthiest families in the city. His fiancée Julia, however, is determined to impress her austere and humorless father and propel Johnny into the stratosphere of the family business. It would appear this self-made man is about to hit the jackpot. But here’s the twist: Johnny Case, a man who has been working constantly he says “since he was ten years old” wishes to retire early and work late. He wants to enjoy life while he’s young. He’s amassed a small sum for this purpose. His fiancée is appalled. Luckily for him (and the movie) her sister Linda, played by Katharine Hepburn, is entranced.

Pleasures of watching Grant and Hepburn aside, I’ve nurtured what I thought was the central conceit of this movie–retire early and work late— for a lifetime, ever since first saw it when I was about 14. I mean really, how appealing to retire and enjoy life first and work later? Except that gung ho and hyped up even then, I didn’t do it. Immediately after college I hopped a plane to New York and shoe horned myself into a publishing career. Screeched to an about face to stay at home with my sons. Was grudgingly transformed into a PTA guru. Unexpectedly tripped into a teaching career. Cut forward many years. Here I am. Based on what I thought was the premise of this movie; I’ve been aggressively working through my youth and should be deeply unhappy. But most assuredly I am not.

Here is why. Let’s retell the story.

In college I studied what I loved best, majoring in art history, immersing myself in not just the beauty of the works, but seeing the world through the prism of artistic creation. When it was time, I took those visions, those viewpoints and made them work in the work world helping to create titles involving everything from science books to cookbooks, how-tos to children’s books. It was my choice to stop work and stay at home with my boys. I consider myself lucky to experience the joy of being invited to share rice crispie treats and juice boxes under the secluded sheets of a table fort.  I am proud of (sometimes) saying just the right words to make a roomful of tired and hungry 5th graders reach inside themselves to think things they’ve never thunk before.

So really. Have I been working the whole way through, or have I really been on holiday the whole time without even realizing it? Either way, why stop?

I get to be wrong here. In spite of my longstanding love for this movie, it’s not really about retiring early, working late at all. It’s about doing things that you love, if you are especially lucky, with the person or persons you love. Sometimes it’s about inventing and reinventing yourself if life’s path zigs where you expected it to zag. It’s about perspective.   It’s about finding a way to enjoy life.

An old friend once admonished me: “Do something kind for yourself every day.” Go on. Do it. Happy Holidays and Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

THE COLOR OF YOUR EYES

Some of the best things in my life almost never happened.

So there I was, nervous as all get out but attempting nonchalance by leaning against the cinderblock walls. I was waiting for my youngest son as he finished his first day of preschool.

The cool moms, to a woman clad in variations of the right workout gear, were all animatedly chatting. I longed to be animatedly chatting too but rarely managed it. I was usually uncomfortable because I could never figure out the right thing to wear at the right time or say the right thing at the right moment. To be fair, the women seemed nice. They probably were. But at that moment those women felt as distant and as unapproachable to me as the perfectly coiffed celebrities in People Magazine. This is a magazine, by the way, I profess to hate but will always read if a copy is in front of me.

As I was counting the minutes until my escape, I spotted a woman I’d seen earlier in the morning. We’d been at the elementary school helping set up the book fair, but we were rushed, we were working and we hadn’t actually met. I was sure she wouldn’t recognize me. If she did I was sure she didn’t want to bother talking to me. And so, not to humiliate myself, I pretended I hadn’t seen her. Like a little kid, I was actually staring at my shoes.

But then there were four shoes in my lowered field of vision, not just two. It was that woman of course. She said she saw me this morning at school and she also had a son in the other preschool class. She was going to take her son back to work at the elementary book fair in the afternoon. She asked if my son and were I going back there too.

We were. I said I’d meet her there. But the little boys hadn’t had lunch. So I didn’t head straight to the school. I went home. I packed two lunches: one for my son and one for hers and headed back over to the school to meet her. She reached out—I reached back.

This is the story of how I almost missed meeting the person who became one of my closest friends. And because I was so desperately shy, my son almost missed meeting the little boy who became, and still is, his best friend.

***

I was hot, grubby, and seriously underdressed when I got the call at work.   There was a dinner party at some elegant spot on the Upper East Side. The person on the other end of the line was actually begging me to come to this dinner. I was clearly a last minute fill in—she denied it. She applied some serious pressure—naturally I caved. There was no time to go home to change.

I arrived at the restaurant early, but couldn’t make myself walk through the door. I circled the block once. Then twice. Then again and again and again. Panic was rising with every circuit. I was going to bail out on this thing. I could feel it.  A million excuses crowded my brain I but couldn’t figure out which one sounded most plausible. At last, my immense sense of guilt about sneaking away overcame my immense sense of panic.   I pushed myself through the front door and was directed to a long table. There was one chair left and I slid into it. I found myself seated across from a tall, thin man with distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and a very kind face.  He was nice. In fact, he was much more than that. Had I used but one of my many excuses and headed back to Brooklyn I would have missed meeting the man who would eventually become my beloved husband, my soul-mate, the excellent and deeply caring father to our three sons and numerous cats.

***

Some of us are born knowing how to make small talk seem effortless, know when it’s proper to kiss on one cheek or two, know how to look people in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying.

Some of us are not.

I was lucky twice and who knows how many times more. But how many connections had I missed by not reaching out? What had I missed? Who had I missed? And then I realized an extraordinary thing.

I never knew the color of anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t know—how could I if I wasn’t really looking at them, focusing on them?

So I forced myself to look up and really look at people, not just at who they appeared to be but who they really might be. You can tell by the eyes.

A long time ago a woman reached out across a hallway to me and became my friend. A man with a kind face reached out to me across a table and became my husband.

It’s my turn to reach out first and wait for the reach back. When I really look in people’s eyes what I most often see is kindness.

 

 

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: LARGE PRINT EDITION

Even if I were not deeply inclined towards introspective navel-gazing (which I clearly am or why else I would I be laboring over this blog thing) I know a sign when I see one. There it was in a 42 type font, staring at me from the library shelves. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Oh please, is it just me, or does that fairly scream oxymoron?   A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN was on my 9th grade reading list in my all girl English class. I remember the provocative little paperback volume inviting us, urging us to think independently, to nurture our creativity, to never allow ourselves to be quashed out there the wide, wide world. And while all these years later I couldn’t recall the actual details of the book, the words “a room of one’s own” has held this allure and resonance that has lingered over my thoughts and hovered over my senses. It has to be true for so many of us. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see what each of us could create with a private space, secure funding and untethered responsibility?

Virginia Woolf gave the revolutionary talks that became A Room of One’s Own in 1929 when acceptance of women in any area outside the home was at best grudging, at worst, openly hostile. My classmates and I were bequeathed the scruffy paperback versions of the book nearly fifty years later. Times had changed.

Let’s briefly dial back the clock to approximately 1980. The flickery TV is on and the Enjoli perfume commercial blitzes onto the screen. You remember. An “8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman.”

“I bring home the bacon! Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.!”“ Ouch. Changing times indeed. But think about it, if thinking is even possible as you watch that feathered blond strut with a combination of aggression and suggestion towards the camera. What’s being sung here loosely translates to this: “Hey, Baby. You want it all, you can have it all. Do it. You asked for it, didn’t you?”

What’s particularly galling is that this twisted little passive/aggressive advertising fantasy was most likely penned by some guy. Under the guise of celebrating “womanhood” there’s this underlying challenge. So now women were to aspire to working a full-time job, having a house full of kids, looking fantastic at all times and still having enough energy to “read his tickity tock.” Do it, baby. She can.” Game on, right?

Hey, he bought her the perfume after all. But while I am not a social scientist nor do I have any claims on making an exhaustive study of women’s rights in the 20th century, I would argue that for all of the gains for women in that ensuing fifty years, making it as a woman had not really gotten that much easier than in V. Woolf’s day. We can’t do it all.

The gung-ho girls of Miss Rode’s 9th grade English class tried. I know I did. I went to college and then into book publishing which I will tell you honestly was intellectually stimulating, hugely fun and in some ways thoroughly annoying as most business are. Getting married at age 30 didn’t slow up the work life in the least, letting me indulge my “bringing home the bacon and frying it in a pan” fantasies to the fullest. Good for me.

I then dropped the frying pan when my husband and I had twins when I was 33. There was no part-time at that time, at least where I was working. While the job itself was sort of glamorous (the best perk being the free books) the balance was the very modest salary. Had I gone back full-time I still couldn’t quite afford to pay a sitter to take care of my sons. I chose to stay home with the boys. At least it was a choice—that in and of itself is a remarkable gain from Woolf’s time.

But the other parts of the Woolf equation continued to slide just out of my reach. For those of us who decided to have children no amount of money saved ever feels like quite enough.   Parenting, difficult and wonderful as it is, is in many ways the definition of responsibility. And the only “room of one’s own” in a house with children is the bathroom and often not even that. But if I wasn’t a fully developed intellectual wolf in my previous life I liked feeling that I was little by little working my way towards a world of deeper thinking. There was definitely a part of me that liked being defined by my business cards.

On the home front, driving on the squirrely back roads of the suburbs, straining to see over the massive hood my SUV (we needed the space in that thing, not the cachet of driving it) I was often dismissed as nothing more than a lamb of a soccer mom. Even though my children didn’t actually play soccer. But of course there is a massive difference in being a dutiful wife and mother because convention dictates that’s what one must be and actively choosing to be one. At least for a period of time.

But in spite of that, all these years later, squeezed into black spandex exercise wear and clutching Trader Joe’s bags, there’s a niggling sense of failure that taunts me. Of not being that bell-bottomed, hip-swinging,do it all, bacon bringer of the perfume ad. I felt thwarted. I felt ridiculous. I felt lost. Which is how I eventually found myself in the large print section of the library. I was pretending I was there because the large print section is an excellent place to snag hard-to-find titles. The truth, of course, is that the big type a whole lot easier on my middle-aged squint-vision. But then, right at my eye level, was A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. In very big letters so maybe I wouldn’t miss it. Choice? Of course I had a choice. What I chose to do was stop pretending and think about Woolf’s provocative invitation once again.

Maybe when one comes face to face with a book like that, especially in very large letters , it’s not an oxymoron at all but instead a sure sign that perhaps one is not quite done yet. Woolf was encouraging women to stake a claim for themselves, to have courage in their thoughts and convictions, to not accept that things just are as they are, to find themselves and move forward. Excellent advice back in the day and for the future.

But rather than pine for a room of my own, perhaps I could just settle for some clear, quiet space in my head. Rather than feel defeated and demoralized because I couldn’t and can’t balance work/home/husband all at once all I can accept that maybe “having it all” doesn’t mean “having it all at precisely the same time. “ Maybe A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN is not simply about inventing one’s self but reinventing one’s self. A large print battle cry. Time will tell. Welcome to my attempts to live bravely and well. Welcome to the thinking that will fill that private “room” in my head. See you soon.