Doing The Laundry With George

Growing up, my family lived in an old red brick apartment building in Queens, NY. The apartment building was its own little village on six floors. There was a feeling of comfort and safety having neighbors and friends around us.

I had good friends in the building and I ate many meals in my friends’ homes. In Lotti’s kitchen I always ate home-made matzoh ball soup, the matzoh balls light and airy. She introduced me to my first milkshake, made with chocolate and vanilla ice cream and served in tall, cold glasses.

Vanilla Kipferl (Vanilla Crescents)

Vanilla Kipferl (Vanilla Crescents) (Photo credit: sharon.schneider)

In Omi’s house, (my friend Linda’s grandmother) we settled into over sized chairs and we ate many home-baked cookies: granulated sugar-coated vanilla crescent cookies and chocolate kiss surprise cookies. To this day I can feel the taste of the melting sugar on my tongue, I have seen several duplicates in stores but they missed a very important ingredient: Omi’s special kind of love. I didn’t have grandparents and Omi made me feel like part of the family.

English: Windows in the red brick wall of an a...

My older sister and I, individually, had to do the laundry as our chore. In an apartment building, a couple of old washing machines and one dryer lived questionably in the basement. The basement was dank, dark, dimly lit and uninviting. Thinking back, there never seemed to be anyone else down there doing laundry, it was an experience you just wanted to hurry up and finish, it felt scary being there alone.

I would lug the metal shopping cart, that we also used for groceries, and hold on to it with both hands grasped behind me. It always left a lingering metallic smell on my fingers.The elevator always shook and made loud scraping mechanical noises as it bumped and lurched to a stop in the basement.

The only person who lived in the basement was George, the handyman.  We assumed from his accent he came from Romania or Russia but that was never confirmed.  George was a happy and unconventional man. When you talked to him, most likely he was upside down, standing on his head. There was nothing scary about him, in fact, when the door to his room in the basement was ajar we always felt safer.

Clowns Upside Down on the Ceiling

Clowns Upside Down on the Ceiling (Photo credit: wht_wolf9653)

George spoke little English but every so often he would determinedly either call himself Mr. Rockefeller or call my father Mr. Rockefeller; why we don’t know.

We accepted George the way he was as if he was a character jumping out of the pages of a John Updike novel, smelling slightly of old, cheap wine. All the mothers said “he was harmless.” Back then, he was.  In the sixties, that was normal, we trusted people. We didn’t even question his unusual style, we just laughed with him.

If you were lucky the two washing machines would be free when you had to do the laundry, the sense of achievement and happiness would be intense. I would dig my sweaty fingers into my jeans pockets, front and back, to find three quarters for each machine. The smooth shiny coins were placed in the slotted circles, I waited to hear the metal clinking sound as they dropped down.  Once I put in too much soap and bubbles, huge iridescent sudsy bubbles, started cascading down from the machine, everywhere. I was both thrilled and terrified at the same time. I ran for George.

There was one large dryer but more fascinating were these huge hanging racks that we would have to pull out of the wall and drape clothing on the clothing rods; how this was allowed and sanctioned by the fire department I will never know. Once we pulled back the steel rods and draped our clothing we could see the individual fires blazing. After we pulled our clothes from the hanging rods the clothes were stiff and scratchy. There were no fabric softeners, anything that was on those rods to were as crisp as burned toast.

Chemical Brothers

George lived in our building for many years, we would try to get  in touch with him by phone but he generally didn’t pick up. More often one of us went to his room and knocked loudly on his door.

One day, he disappeared, no one had seen him for a while. Everyone was talking about it but he literally vanished from one day to the next.

In my young imagination, I decided he must have rejoined the circus, as of course, a clown. He already had the sweet smile, the jolly personality and the impeccable skills for standing on his head.

When I remember George I remember him upside down, firmly saying “Mr. Rockefeller.” Why he did this nobody knew, but we all accepted him for who he was.  No one ever heard from him again but after all these years, I never forgot him.

 

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Snail Mail

Sheriff's Badge

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WHEN THE WORLD WAS A BRIGHTER PLACE…..

 

I sent a handwritten letter with photographs of my children to a wonderful man, earlier this month. We adore this gentleman and I dubbed him The Sheriff, many years ago when we lived in a small suburb of Boston. The Sheriff, and his wife Louise lived down the hill from us on a cul de sac. My children were young, 2 and 4, back then and The Sheriff was very much a part of our lives. He invited us to his July 4th bbq where my daughter sat on my husband’s shoulders, seeing fireworks for the first time, covering her ears and screaming. The Sheriff was invited to my son’s fourth birthday party and he arrived bearing a plastic green dinosaur that still lives lovingly in our basement; I cannot part with it.

I received a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff last week thanking us for the photos. The Sheriff was so touched we remembered him and that we still thought about him after all these years. We had kept in touch, though not often and once we even paid him a surprise visit but it had been a few years since we had communicated.

The two and four year old little kids he had known were now 16 and 18. When the children were young I bought a Sheriff’s badge for him and he wore it proudly; every time we ran into him he had it with him. It was plastic and silver and if it wasn’t attached to his shirt, he had it in his pocket. I know in my heart, he still has it, tucked away somewhere, in an old green address book or in the corner of a dusty bedside table. Even if it is missing in action he would never throw that sign of honor away. If we never saw him wear that badge again, he will always be The Sheriff to us, the one person who made the whole neighborhood “home.”

Dedicated to George

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Because Love Has No Religion

Roses

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I am slowly, very slowly and intensely taking off pink nail polish from my finger nails as if it was the most important task in the world. I feel like a surgeon scrubbing in to make him/herself totally antiseptic. It feels like that to me but I don’t know why exactly. I don’t know the codes or rules for going to a wake but I know, for myself, I have to wipe away every sign of sunshine from my hands because that feels right. My hands look plain, wrinkled, weather-beaten and bare. I’ve stripped off every clue to color because my friend Dawn is dead and the world feels color-less and grim.

I didn’t know what to expect at the wake; I had only been to one wake before in my life and that was thirty-five years ago. We arrived before the official hours and already the room was packed. I saw her husband, John first, and I hugged him, then their oldest daughter who hugged me as if to comfort me. Her middle son  sat tall and straight next to his friends and did not move, his eyes riveted to his mom’s casket. The youngest child was the most heartbreaking of all, he belonged to no one in that room. He was in his own world, going to the casket, returning to his seat, going to the casket and returning to his seat, his eyes on no one, alone in his private world. He sat neither with family or friends, he was in his own fragile bubble, looking younger than his years.

I thought in death, Dawn would look more like herself than she did in the last stages of her life. I somehow expected to feel comforted that I would see my friend as I had remembered her. I went slowly  up to the coffin although I was terrified; I knew it was something I had to do. But, inside my head, like an unrestrained child, inside my head I was screaming with disbelief and anger “this is not OUR Dawn” I thought, “THIS IS NOT OUR DAWN.”  In the coffin lay a woman I didn’t know, an old woman, with too much makeup. They had prayer cards with a picture of Dawn at her finest: natural, loving, with one of her great big smiles and that is what many people said they wanted to remember her by. Even though I felt the same way, the images for the next three nights when I tried to sleep were of Dawn in the open casket, someone I didn’t know, a stranger.

There were flower arrangements everywhere. A huge arrangement made from roses, dark, crimson roses that formed into a heart; it must have stood six feet tall. There were many other flowers, yellow, white, pink, every color you can imagine and as tall as one can dream.

Her husband John, then came over and put his arm around me to show me something. “I hope you don’t mind” he said but we used your letter to Dawn as our prayer.” In front of me, I saw a piece of paper with the words I had written FOR Dawn, many months before she died. It was called “Praying For Dawn” and somehow after writing it, I thought I would take a chance to drop it off at their house. It was meant for Dawn and her family, and yet here at the wake hundreds of people clutched the piece of paper that I had written.

Her family members wanted to meet me, they said they had all read it many times, I had no idea. I do remember that after I dropped it off I got a voice message in the back of my answering machine from Dawn, thanking me and telling me she loved it. I could barely make out her words but I never erased that message.  I gave my condolences to Dawn’s mom and she said “Oh, do you like that prayer, one of her friends wrote that!!!”  Somehow through my trembling lips and tears I managed to say that ‘I was that friend.’ I swear her eyes lit up and she thanked me and told me how often the family loved reading it. She asked ME if she could introduce me to Dawn’s father who had wanted to meet the friend that had written that poem. After the introduction, he hugged me, and then took my face in his hands and said “God Bless You”  “Thank you for writing that about Dawn, you captured her the way she really was. ” He told me he had wanted to meet the person who wrote it and knew I was a neighbor but didn’t want to walk into the wrong house and be embarrassed.”  I told him where I lived and told him that he and his wife were welcome to visit me at any time.

The emotional intensity for me was overwhelming. I was honored that they used my piece of writing at the same time I was in total emotional shock. People were complimenting me on something that I forgot about since I have written many pieces about Dawn in my blog. I looked at many of my earlier blog posts and I practically have a whole book about Dawn.

My husband practically had to drag me out of the door since we needed to get our daughter to her afternoon class. I saw an old dear friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time and we wrapped our arms around each other crying. “I feel so lost” she said, “I just feel lost.” We all felt that way, I think. Lost without a piece of sunshine in our lives, deprived forever more of this gift of a person who brought enjoyment to everyone she met. Dawn was our fighter, never giving up yet she still lost the fight to this horrendous disease. Dawn was our light, she was our strength, there was no one she didn’t like…..well, with the exception of a little dog in the neighborhood….We all laughed remembering that and it felt good.

Two days later I arrived at the church forty-five minutes before the service and again, there were many people inside. The church was beautiful, I had never been there before. The stained glass windows shone from the morning sun, the polished wood seemed inviting and homey. There were many new flowers, everywhere. So many people from our little community were there, every religion was represented, people from all parts of Dawn’s life were there to show their respect: sports teams, education, friends, family, neighbors, some of  the neighborhood kids, friends and their parents for all three children and the middle school Principal. Our community sometimes gets a really bad reputation but when something happens to one of our own, we come together as one. Our little town becomes so protective and so loving of one of its own; it’s happened before. Many years ago when a young boy had cancer, the town rallied together as well.

Both Dawn’s daughter and husband spoke at the funeral. Her daughter is a young woman with the most grace and poise I have ever seen. This young woman will be famous one day, I guarantee it. Everyone was either wiping their eyes or just letting the tears stream down their faces like leaks out of a rusty, old faucet. After the service the pallbearers brought the coffin out to the hearse. I saw a random pink flower on the ground that escaped and as much as I wanted to pick it up and touch it I couldn’t. It didn’t seem like the thing to do, it belonged to Dawn.

One thing I did not know was the tradition of the hearse and all the cars attending the cemetery making a final good-bye to the house where Dawn lived with her family. We drove around the loop as well and all I could think of was Dawn’s enormous Christmas wreath that she was always so proud of, hanging still around the front door. It seemed to me so heart-wrenching to do that, to watch her family ride in the car passing their house where their mother would never again live. Maybe it’s for closure too, I can only guess.

After that, we all went to our individual homes, sighing, looking at the ground, crying, solemn and gloomy and still, feeling that we were in a different world, a new reality. I don’t know how long it takes before the death of someone really hits you and takes its toll but I do know that it does take a while. After the company, the distractions, the food and the flowers, the only thing that matters is that there will be an empty chair at their kitchen table that no one can ever replace. And, at all her children’s’ games, their mom will not be there to encourage them and support them. Whatever condition Dawn was in, good or bad, in a wheelchair or not, Dawn was always there for her children, rooting for them, happy for them until the very last breath she took to say a peaceful “good-bye.”

Losing Dawn

Farmland near Queniborough. Unploughed stubble...

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I will never look at the afternoon winter light in the same way again. My friend Dawn died today, February 11th, 2011 when the sky was blue, the sun shone through wind-swept trees next to ice and black snow, nudging a path. From inside, it looked too pretty for someone to have died.  The sun was low and beamed on the bare empty branches like gold necklaces or a child‘s long, blond, sun-streaked hair.

I knew for a long time that my friend Dawn was dying. All of us in the neighborhood, walking partners and friends knew how her breast cancer metastasized to brain cancer. Hearing the words from my friend Margaret that Dawn had passed away a couple of hours ago in her house, was still shocking. Shocking in a mute, surreal way. It’s not as if I thought she would make a miraculous recovery, but if we didn’t see or hear about her, she was still okay and that was soothing and comforting. Intellectually, I should have known better; I didn’t. Knowing someone is going to die is so very different from their actual death. I couldn’t feel a thing.

I remember writing: “Praying For Dawn” on my blog and I made a copy for her. She read it and loved it and told me her family read it too. She even left me a message on my answering machine to say “Thank you,” I never erased that message.

Her daughter had just started college in Vermont as a February Freshman a few days earlier yet there was a car from Vermont  parked outside their house. Dawn and her husband John have three children, her daughter, age 18,  the eldest, her middle son, 16 and their youngest a boy age 14. There is no doubt in my mind that Dawn refused to die until her daughter was at school, just like my father lived through Christmas and died five days later, ten years ago.

What do you say when it’s actually over? Sometimes, nothing. The call I got from my friend should have clued me in but it didn’t. When she said “are you sitting down?” you would think that I would known immediately but I didn’t. My first thought was about my friend’s mother who is in her eighties. I, very slowly,  sat down. Thirty seconds later it hit me, “Oh Dear God, not Dawn,” I whispered into the phone. “Yes, she said and paused, Dawn passed away today, two hours ago.”

She died in her house, around the corner from me. Her parents who live on the Cape had come down a lot these past few years.  Margaret and I used to see them walking arm in arm, crying as they tried to walk slowly around the corner, holding on to each other for support. It took every bit of self-control not to run to them and hug them but they didn’t want to see Dawn’s friends, friends who were living when their daughter was dying. Would you?

Before my father died he used to say that “nothing is as important as your health” all the time and I remember it. I too, know grief. Now, I am grieving for my friend and her husband, children and their extended family. I am glad my friend’s pain and suffering are gone but knowing someone is going to die and them actually dying are two very strong and separate emotions. It’s the feeling of in between; it’s too new to comprehend and yet it was about four years in the making. Four years when I first noticed her bald, shiny head and twinkling green eyes standing outside wearing a cap in the pure, naked sunshine.

I laid beneath a sheet, two fraying cotton blankets, one dingy white, one blue, a thick burgundy colored comforter and an old beige puffy down comforter. l huddle beneath these blankets and still my hands are freezing and so too, my toes. I dig deep down inside the blankets and try to cover myself but I still don’t feel warm, I think I will never feel warm again.

In Memory Of Dawn

Beyond The Pink Sky

Free for use My photos that have a creative co...

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I’m watching tiny flecks of snow come down constantly, through the trees and on the trees like vanilla frosted brownies. It is peaceful with my husband and children home. They have a snow day and they are as excited now as they were when they were eight and ten. I don’t think you ever  get over the excitement of a snow day, no matter how old you are or what you do.

My daughter and I ate egg and cheese sandwiches that my husband made. Our son sat in the family room in his blue fleece beer mug pajama pants, his phone in one hand, the other playing X-box. I wanted to say “come here, watch the snow fall from the sky” but I know better. At their ages, 16 and 18, they have their own personal snow scenes that don’t include me. It took some getting used to when they were in their early teens but now we have settled into a routine. I know that this routine will only last a little while and then it will change and be replaced by another. I’m not great with change but I know I need 24-48 hours to get used to new things and then I am fine or as fine as I can possibly be.

I am wearing my dad’s old West Point sweatshirt and blue snow flake pajama pants, lying in our bed, alternately reading, writing and glancing up to the sky to see the delicate flakes fall. The sky is so full of snow that it looks pink. I always say I hate the winter and I do but for the first time I wonder if I did live in a warm climate all year round, would I miss it?  Would I appreciate Spring as much as I do if I didn’t have to go through Winter?

My daughter just brought me a cup of tea and served it to me in my room. How lovely that she asked me if I wanted a cup. Children are joyful beings and as an old teacher once said “they will constantly surprise you” and they do. My children will be grown-ups soon, they will age, as we all do. My children have grown up here in our little house with their bikes and skateboards, “Razors”  and their lemonade stands.

The best thing I have ever done in my life is to get married to my loving husband and have two of the most amazing children you could hope for. I never had much ambition in life other than being a mom and writing, but being a mom is who I am; it’s what I was meant to do; it’s my Nobel Peace prize, my heart and my soul, my life’s work.

When our work in life is completely over bury me near a tree that blooms pink flowers with my husband and soul-mate, my love and best friend beside me. If all it said on my headstone was “Loving Wife” and “Beloved Mother” I would be gently smiling, and at peace.