The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘family’

ON CIRCUMSTANCE

We have all heard the phrase, “Victim of circumstance.”  I thought about that this afternoon.  The implication is that we are not the masters of our destiny but mere pawns in a game of randomness.  Perhaps that has some merit.  So I thought about it further as it applied to me.

On November 29, 2011 I lost my golden retriever companion, Spenser (post “The Great King”).

Had it not been for that, I would most likely not have started taking his companion, Gracie to the dog park.

Had I not have gone to the dog park with her, I would not have met the three golden retrievers who have become somewhat semi-permanent guests (post “Do Dogs Shed Tears”).

Had they not become semi-permanent guests, Gracie would most likely have continued to cling to me.  Instead she has become “the leader of the pack” and if I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy their company I would have wallowed in my self-pity over losing Spenser.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of these circumstances have brought me to where I am today – enabling all of the above to have occurred in the first place.

Whether we choose to view ourselves as helpless and victims of circumstance or take the opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons is strictly up to each of us.

May I offer you more ice for your beverage?

A VERY DIFFICULT DECISION

It was 1983 and Chicago was about to elect a new mayor.  The good thing was that both contenders, Bernard E. Epton and Harold Washington lived in my neighborhood.  I had the privilege of knowing and liking both men – so the question of  who would receive my vote posed a bit of a conundrum for me.

Both were attorneys and were already engaged in political careers – Bernie as a member of the State Senate – occupying the seat from which Barack Obama would later get his political start.  Harold was a Member of Congress.  Of course, Harold Washington would go on to win the election and become Chicago’s first black mayor.

The contrast in both their politics and personalities was stark.  Bernie was a moderate Republican and Harold a liberal Democrat.  Bernie was reserved in his personal demeanor – in part because he frequently suffered from terrible headaches as a result of his service in the military during the Second World War.  On the other hand, Harold was affable and jovial and always reminded me of a black version of Santa Claus.  His nearly three hundred pound weight, which ultimately caused his death by heart failure, completed this picture of kindness and generosity.

If there was one thing that endeared Harold Washington to me it was this.  He lived on 53rd Street – directly across the street from a beautiful park about a half mile from my apartment.  There were several trees across the street that had become home to a colony of feral monk parakeets.  The nests were enormous in size – at least they were to me since I had never before seen a monk parakeet nest.  I frequently went to this park with my dogs just to admire these birds.  At one point I counted more than forty of them – and wondered how they managed to survive Chicago’s frigid winters – but they did.

Apparently, someone was less impressed than I with the idea of monk parakeets flying through our parks and petitioned the Park District to remove the nests and dispose of the birds.  The Park District, hearing no objection began to prepare to do just that.  Then Harold got wind of the plan.  He also loved those birds and put a stop to all that nonsense.  I appreciated his intervention and compassion.  That park has subsequently been renamed in his honor.

But as it turned out I didn’t vote for Harold but chose Bernie instead.  The reason for that decision was because of another act of compassion – this time to Bernie’s credit.

I arrived to open my office one morning and as I sat doing some paperwork my staff came in at the appointed time.  One of the recruiters was a 28 year old woman who had only been with us for three months.  She was married and the mother of a three year old boy and a one year old girl.  Her husband was an auto mechanic.

When the staff had all arrived I began our customary morning meeting to discuss the various recruiting assignments on which I wanted them to focus.  I could see that this young lady, Michelle was wearing more makeup than I had previously noticed.  But it wasn’t sufficient to cover the obvious bruise and the fact that the skin under her left eye was purple.

I concluded the meeting and began wondering how or if I should discuss this with her.  Perhaps she had an accident – but I didn’t think so.  You will remember that this was back at a time where people who were good employers took an active interest in their employees’ well-being.  It was a time before everyone was afraid to get involved for fear of being sued by the employee with the full support and weight of government.  It was a time where people thought that compassion was just that – not an overture to something more sinister.

I had several interviews scheduled that morning and conducted those in less than a thorough manner since my mind was really on my employee, Michelle.  But I got through them and at noon the entire staff headed out for lunch except for her and me.  When I was sure that we were alone, I stepped out of my office and sat on the chair next to Michelle’s desk.  I started with some small talk about how her morning went and then decided to take the plunge.

“You know, I think of all of us here as family.  And I have to say I couldn’t help notice the bruise under your left eye.  Are you okay?”

Michelle began crying and I took her by the arm and brought her into my office.  I closed the door for privacy in the event that any “family members” returned early from luncheon.

She had been married to her husband Tom for five years and as the years went by, Tom had become more and more abusive – both mentally and now physically.  He had returned home from a night out at one of the bars that he frequented and wanted something to eat.  But there wasn’t much in the house.  And he took out his hunger and frustration on his wife by hitting her with his fist.

This was not the first such violent outburst on Tom’s part, but it was the first time that his anger was visible – since he normally punched her in the stomach or back.

Michelle, both for her own safety and for that of their two children, wanted to leave him but she had no money and she didn’t know what to do – other than to return to her parents’ home.  She was afraid for her life.

We talked some more and I realized that probably getting divorced from this man would be a good first step.  But I only knew two attorneys – Harold Washington and Bernie Epton – neither of whom practiced this sort of law.  Harold was in the nation’s capitol at the time so I called Bernie to see if he could direct me to an attorney who could help Michelle.

Despite his position as a State Senator, Bernie also had a law firm in Chicago – and since the Senate was in recess I thought I would try him there.  So I looked up his number and called – planning to leave a message and hoping that Bernie would get back to me.  Michelle needed to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Much to my surprise, Bernie’s receptionist put me through to him.  I explained the situation and I said, “I know, Bernie this is not the type of law you practice – but I’m wondering if you might be able to refer me to a colleague who could help my employee.”

Bernie responded by asking for my phone number and said that he would make a few calls and get back to me.  I didn’t know what time framework he had in mind but I was hopeful that this was a sincere statement and not just a polite put-off.

I was amazed when my receptionist rang my extension less than an hour later and said, “Bernie Epton is on line three.”

Bernie had called a colleague and made an appointment for Michelle with him for the following morning.  Apparently, he had a done a favor for this attorney some time previously and the man owed him one.  That favor was soon to be repaid because Bernie asked this attorney to handle Michelle’s situation “pro bono” and he had agreed.

Michelle left both Tom and my company and moved to Stockton, California where her parents lived.  I was sorry to see her go because she had a lot of promise and had circumstances been different, I think she could have become a very successful recruiter.

When she told me about her decision, I gave her money so that she and the children could travel home and told her that she could pay me back when she had gotten on her feet.  A few months after she left I opened my mail to find a letter from her and a check as partial payment.  And each month after that for about a year another check would arrive until the loan was paid in full.  The following month we received a beautiful fruit basket from Michelle.  The card read, “To all my friends back home.  God bless you.  I miss all of you.”

Harold Washington was a compassionate man – a man with a lot of “soul”.  And his opponent Bernie Epton was, to use the appropriate Yiddish term, “a mensch”.  I respected both of them greatly.

Deciding which of the two would receive my vote was a very difficult decision.

THE TWO DOLLAR BILL

Yesterday was a very busy one – lots of errands to run and things to do.  I tried to get as many of these done as soon as Gracie and I returned from the dog park in the early morning, before the temperature rose to the near one hundred degrees that was predicted.  But some of them had to be finished in mid-afternoon – including a visit to the bank.

I was in a different part of town and, rather than go to my usual branch, I saw another one that was just a block from where I had other business to conduct so I went there instead.  I didn’t realize that this branch was “under siege” – in other words, it was in the process of being remodeled.

When I walked in I was immediately hit with the smell of plasterboard and paint.  Neither of these convey an aroma that I particularly enjoy.  But my transaction was simple and I didn’t expect to be there very long.  (I did feel sorry for the bank’s employees who had to deal with the smell for an eight hour day).

There were only two teller windows that were open but just one person ahead of me in line.  The customer at one window left almost immediately after I entered and the woman ahead of me went up to the available teller.  I was next.

I could see that the woman who had just moved to the teller’s cage had a number of transactions which seemed rather complicated and I would most likely be helped by the other teller.  I didn’t expect that I would have long to wait as the young woman and man who were at the window had begun their transaction before I entered the bank.  I was wrong.

As I was now in hearing distance, it became clear that the young woman was either the young man’s relative, friend or guardian.  Apparently, he suffered from a mental impairment as she and the teller both tried over and over to get him to endorse the check that he wanted to cash.  He didn’t seem to understand what he had to do and, with slurred speech, kept asking what they wanted of him.

When I realized that this young man had difficulty doing things that you and I take for granted, my rising impatience suddenly was quelled and I decided that it really didn’t matter if I had to spend an extra few minutes.  That was not the reaction from the queue of customers behind me which had grown to five people.  I could hear people behind me complaining about their wait.  Perhaps they didn’t realize that this young man had special challenges.

Finally the young man grasped the idea of endorsing his check and signed his name.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

The teller counted out his cash, two hundred forty-two dollars.  I was all set to go to the window when another fly entered the ointment.  The young man wanted a two dollar bill.  The teller didn’t have one in her cash drawer – neither did the other teller.

The young man, much to the embarrassment of his companion began stomping his feet and started shouting, “I want a two dollar bill.  I want a two dollar bill.”  By this time I think that everyone in the line realized the young man’s condition and the grousing about having to wait so long stopped.

Many, many years ago my parents gave me a wallet for my birthday.  Inside the wallet, dad had folded over what was then a brand new crisp two dollar bill.  Dad said, “Keep this in your wallet for luck.”

That wallet eventually wore out and was replaced by another and yet another and many more afterwards.  I always meticulously removed my dad’s two dollar bill and transferred it to the new wallets.  Suddenly, I realized that I had that two dollar bill in my wallet.  So I removed it, excused myself and went up to the teller’s window, holding it in my hand.

The teller handed me two singles and gave the young man my two dollar bill.  He was happy to receive it and he and his companion, who smiled a “thank you” at me, soon left the bank.  The teller thanked me for my help and I quickly completed my transaction and started for home.

On my drive I decided that I would replace the two dollar bill with the two singles I had received at the bank.  I’m not sure if two singles have the same magical lucky power as one two dollar bill.  We’ll just have to see.

But if dad were here, I’m sure he would have approved.  And I hope that two dollar bill brings that young man good luck.

ON IMAGINATION

Mine was the first generation to be raised on television.   In many ways, this new invention signaled the end of imagination.  We didn’t have to use our minds to picture what was happening as the story unfolded.  We merely had to stare ahead at the picture in front of us.

One day dad came home with a present for the family.  One of his friends who was a big radio buff had taped a large collection of old-time radio shows on his reel to reel recorder.  He had made copies of many of these and dad came home with a shopping bag full of these tapes.   He wanted me to experience the joy he and his family had when they had originally listened to them.

I don’t remember all of them but there were episodes of “Burns and Allen,”  “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Jimmy Durante,” “The Green Hornet,” “Dragnet,” “Jack Benny,” to name just a few.

That night after dinner dad pulled out our tape recorder, turned off the lights and lit a candle in order to re-create the atmosphere he knew when he first heard the shows and his family sat around their radio.  We began listening to the invisible voices of comedy and drama.

The quality of the recordings was poor.  We had to pay close attention to hear the voices that came to us from the ether of a past day.  As we heard these entertainers on a now-obsolete technology, we had the opportunity to apply our imaginations to the lines the actors spoke.

I’m sure that each of us had a different image of the way that Fibber McGee and Molly’s house was arranged.  Or what the city where the Green Hornet did his good works looked like.  We were free to imagine as we would.

It was a wonderful experience and began a tradition.  Once a week we would regularly spend a few hours together and continue to play through all the tapes dad’s friend had recorded.  These were magical moments – an experience of art and family.

Today the golden days of radio have passed.

We sit in a movie and are disappointed if there isn’t enough action, car chases, buildings being blown to smithereens and a sufficient number of killings.  We don’t have to imagine anything as our senses are overloaded with visual images and an appropriate amount of offensive language all conveyed to us at a far higher level of volume than is necessary other than for those of us with hearing problems.

Well, that’s probably what today’s public craves – and Hollywood doesn’t disappoint it’s audience.  “Give the people what they want” is their mantra.

I found an excellent source for old-time radio shows and ordered ten of them.  They arrived yesterday.  Tonight I’m going to snuggle up with Gracie and begin listening to them.  Rather than curse the drivel that is on television or the big screen I’m going to light a candle and start enjoying them.

Imagine that.

THE CHINESE LAUNDRY

Mrs. Lee owned the little laundry a block and a half from my apartment that I used to take care of my garments.  Every Saturday at noon I would bring the stuff that I had soiled that week in and would pick up the previous week’s newly cleaned clothes.  Mrs. Lee always had my clothing ready for me.

I tried practicing my limited Mandarin with her – but discovered that she only spoke Cantonese.  But I did know enough Cantonese to count to ten.  (That and being able to say Happy New Year was the extent of my knowledge of her dialect.)  I think it amused her that I was trying to speak her native tongue.

Anyway, she took great care of me and learning my schedule would always have my little bundle of clothing ready and my dry-cleaning right at the front of the store so that I didn’t have to wait for her to find them among all the piles of freshly cleaned laundry that filled the store.  By this time I had been a customer for five years.

After my father died I did not go into the laundry for three weeks.  The first two of these were spent taking care of the arrangements for dad, then a week in New York to get my mother settled in and to make sure that she was doing okay.  Then I decided that spending time with Finney my Irish Setter who had spent all this time in a kennel was more important than having clean clothes.

But I got back on schedule and the following Saturday I arrived at my usual noon time to get the laundry and dry cleaning which had languished in Mrs. Lee’s laundry during my absence.

As I went in the door Mrs. Lee excitedly lifted the wood slat in the counter that allowed her access to the working part of the store.  She rushed over and gave me a big hug and said, “We missee you.  Where you been?”

I told her that my father had died and that I was trying to get my mother settled after the loss that we both had suffered.  I remember that my eyes welled up with tears as I explained this to her.  Mrs. Lee began to cry.

She looked at me and said, “You an orphan.  Mustee take care you don’t go hungry.  You waitee here.”

She went in the back of the store and I could hear the that she had turned on her stovetop.  As I waited I rested my laundry on the counter and I could hear the hissing, splashing sound that is made when food is added to the hot oil in a wok.

After about five minutes, Mrs. Lee returned to the front of the store carrying a typical white Chinese restaurant-style carry out container.  She placed this in a small paper bag and said, “You eat.  You not go hungry.”  She had made me a meal of stir-fry chicken, onions and snow pea pods.  I didn’t know what to say other than, “Thank you.”  I gave her a hug and took my clothes and her meal home.

As I thought about it on my short walk home I realized how special this lady was in trying to do what she could to assuage my loss.  Our only interaction was my weekly visit to drop off and pick up my cleaning.  We really were little more than strangers – or at the most acquaintances.

The following week I went to Mrs. Lee’s laundry per my usual schedule, my arms loaded with an unusually large number of garments.  I walked in and she greeted me as usual as I dropped my big load on her counter.  She did the count on all the garments and wrote up my tickets.  I reached in my pocket and handed her the claim checks for the previous week’s load.

As usual Mrs. Lee had my garments ready for my pickup at the front of the store.  I laid out the money to pay for them which she took and then came to the counter with my garments.  She also handed me another little brown paper bag which contained another carryout container of food that she had prepared for me.

Until she returned to Canton three years later to help her ailing brother who was dying, every Saturday that I went in to Mrs. Lee’s little laundry she always had my laundry ready for me – as well as her little carryout box so that “I didn’t go hungry.”

Mrs. Lee was a very sweet lady – and I miss her.  But it gives me hope that there are still some kind and caring people who roam the face of planet earth.  I hope one day to be considered one of them.

THE FUNERAL HOME

My relationship with my grandmother is one that I wish every child in this world could experience. She was my greatest advocate, my defender and to me she was a saint. Losing her was the deepest knife thrust my heart ever received.

For a number of years my mother and aunt had been estranged. I would tell you the reason for that but as it is many years since, the reason has lost its significance. I loved both mom and my aunt dearly – and I did everything I could to get them re-united. I spoke with my aunt on a regular basis and encouraged her to try for a rapprochement with mom.

Auntie H. was a wonderful woman – and she felt a sense of obligation to immediate family. As a result, although I know she loved me dearly, she felt that I was “betraying” mom in even speaking with her as this divide continued.

But I pursued. (I can be obstinate at times – and I thought that with such a little family to hold onto we all should be as one). And so it happened.

I had returned from college for the Christmas holiday. Grandma, dad, mom, our cocker spaniel, Andy and I were settling in to an evening of good food and family on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, the downstairs doorbell rung. It was Auntie H. and her youngest daughter who had come to surprise us with a visit. (Mom and her sister hadn’t spoken for at least five years).

Suddenly all the grievances (real or imagined) fell away and we were together again as one small – but now slightly expanded – family. Tears flowed freely from everyone’s eyes – and my aunt never gave away the dirty little secret that she and I had talked during this long hiatus. Had it not been for my aunt’s gratuitous visit, she would never again have seen her mother alive.

I returned to Chicago after the New Year and went back to the busy work of studying and trying to learn from people who were far brighter than I could ever hope to be. And only a few days into getting back into the regimen I returned to find a note in my mailbox and another attached to my dorm room. My resident head, Carole wanted to speak to me. I went down to her room.

She told me that there was something urgent going on at home and I needed to call my parents and she offered me her telephone. I dialed home and dad answered, but without the usual upbeat voice that I knew through the many conversations we had over the years.

You have to come home. Grandma’s ‘ill’.”

I remember saying, “How ill is she?” After a little pause, dad said, “She died this morning.”

To this day, I remember the emptiness I felt – as though all the air had been sucked out of my body. I remember feeling a near faintness at the pronouncement of these words. This wonderful woman from whom I had learned so much and to whom I could always turn when I needed help or support was gone.

I remember listening to dad tell me that a ticket was waiting for me at O’Hare Airport to fly me back to New York. I remember getting through that conversation, hanging up the phone and starting to cry uncontrollably. I remember Carole putting her arms around me, putting her head on my shoulder and giving me a hug. In my head I heard the sounds of the old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child.”

Because we were a small family, relatives didn’t die very often – and, for their own reasons – my parents shielded me from the deaths of their friends. I had never before attended a funeral – and grandma’s was my introduction to this part of life’s passage. It was not a part of life that I savored or enjoyed.

The wake went on for two days. Grandma’s casket was closed and, other than on television, I had never seen a dead person. I didn’t want to remember my grandmother that way and so I was happy that my parents had decided to conduct the rituals of death in this manner.

Friend after friend – mostly grandma’s and my parents’ came up to us and expressed what I took to be their sincere sympathy. They said all the “right” things that one can say at these moments.

They told me, “How much my grandmother loved me and that they knew I had reciprocated those feelings towards her.” I heard the same well-intentioned statements for hours on end and I wanted to scream, “You have no idea what this woman meant to me. Be quiet already.” But I behaved appropriately and thanked them for their statements.

But after awhile, I couldn’t handle it any more. I inappropriately left the room and started walking on the floor where grandma’s wake was being held. There were several other rooms on the floor of the funeral home, one of which was occupied by another deceased person. I saw that this coffin was open – and because I had never seen a corpse, I admit to a certain fascination and went in. There was no one else in the room.

There in the casket lay a woman. I approached,  viewing the first corpse I had ever seen in real life. As I looked at her, I guessed this lady was in her nineties. I remember admiring what an excellent job the funeral home had done in making her look as though she were ready to enjoy an evening at the Met. She seemed positively serene and happy.

I started to leave the room in which she lay, having steeled myself to hearing yet more of the comments which had driven me from grandma’s wake. By this time, the funeral home had provided us with a second book where those in attendance had signed in to represent their appreciation for my grandmother’s life.

As I left this elderly lady’s room, I looked at the book which sat on the little dais at the entrance. Nobody had signed their name. So I did.

Over many years, I have often wondered – had this lady simply outlived all those who loved her and whom she loved? Did nobody care about her life and passing? And did whoever received the “Book of Remembrance” ever wonder – who was this stranger who had signed it?

 

THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

 Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. The smells and tastes of the day filled our small apartment. But what I liked most about Thanksgiving was that it was the gateway to my even more favorite celebration – and that, of course, was Christmas.

 Grandma was a phenomenal baker. Her strawberry short cake, lemon meringue pie and apple strudel were legendary. But when it came to baking cookies, she left that to my mom. And mom was up to the challenge.

 Night after night after Thanksgiving, mom would bring home flour and sugar and bags of nuts, as well as beautifully painted cookie tins. We would store these in our already crowded pantry. But the perishable items, the butter and eggs would have to wait until they were nearly ready for incorporation into the different cookies that she would bake.

 I had a hand in all this. My job was to crack all the nuts and put the meats in glass jars – carefully keeping the almonds from the walnuts and the pecans away from the hazelnuts. Fifty pounds of nuts to shell. I enjoyed doing it, but by the time I finished my task my hands were usually pretty sore and tired. 

The butter began making its appearance – but the eggs were always an on-going and last minute purchase. There was a store that sold “cracked” brown eggs, about a mile and a half walk from our apartment. They were $.19 a dozen. Because the shells were cracked, they had to be used within a day or two of purchase. But buying these was a big cost saving as mom usually went through 30 dozen or so.

 During her annual “cookie confab,” mom never varied her work schedule. She would leave for her store at eight in the morning and return home at six that night. Then a brief dinner – then on to cookie-making – normally until about eleven in the evening.

 She made wonderful sugar cookies cut out in the designs of angels and stars and camels and topped with a half a walnut or a maraschino cherry or merely sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.

 There were shortbread cookies, carefully sliced in half. Between the two pieces she would sandwich a thin layer of home-made raspberry jam.

 There were delicate rum balls which had been rolled gently in confectioner’s sugar. Pecan crescents were always on the list. All in all, mom made over twenty different kinds of cookies each year. But my favorites were the lace almond pralines.

 Mom would take the almonds which I had shelled and blanch them. Then she would crush them to the point that they were as fine as a grain of sand. She added a bit of flour to them and some melted butter. When the mixture was lightly bound together she rolled them around small wooden dowels and quickly transferred them to the frying pan which contained several sticks of melted butter.

 These cookies were so delicate that perhaps only one out of three came out intact – but I got to eat the ones that did not meet mom’s standards. I still can taste the butter and the amazing almond flavor.

 You may ask why mom made so many cookies for a family of four. The answer is that this was her Christmas present to our friends and neighbors and to those people whom she considered her most loyal clients at the store.

 She would cut out pieces of wax paper to line the beautiful tins, adding a few of this kind and some of these and would hand deliver them to her customers up and down Park and Fifth Avenues after tying them with beautiful bows.

 After tasting her cookies, five of her clients offered to advance the money so mom could open a second business – a cookie store. They weren’t interested in being partners in the business. They simply wanted to be able to buy them throughout the year and raved that they had never had cookies like mom’s before (and I suspect they haven’t since).

 Mom had a simple reason that she did not accept these offers. 

She said, “I make cookies because I love to do it. I enjoy watching people eat and enjoy them. If I started to sell them commercially – it would just be a business. And that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

 After all these years, I still miss the smells and tastes of mom’s wonderful cookies.

 But I am glad that, at least as a child, I had the opportunity to share in her Christmas Miracle.

 

Tag Cloud