GETTING “THE GETTING OLD BLOG” ORGANIZED

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Now that “The Getting Old Blog” is more than a year old itself, it’s beginning to look messy, like every other one-year-old that’s not tidied up regularly.  There are essays and other short pieces all over the place — getting lost amid jokes, cat photos, recipes and also a few stories here and there.  And then there’s the literary non-fiction, popping up where least expected and disappearing when I’m scrolling down to find it.

In a sudden fit of housekeeping energy that may vanish and leave me stranded if I don’t seize the moment, I am therefore cleaning up the blog with three new pages. They are headed, respectively:  “Short Fiction,” “Selected Non-Fiction,” and “Selected Essays and Other Short Pieces.” They will each contain links to the pieces in their categories published within the past year that I think worth saving from oblivion.

One page goes up tonight, the other two in a couple of days.  Hope they help with exploring the best of the blog so far.  Happy reading….

FIRST HUSBAND (II of II)

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[A story continued from previous post.]

Inertia won out. It was easier, and at least marginally more interesting, for Millie to resume her thrice-weekly meetings with Richard when he returned a divorced man than not to. Another thing: she had begun to miss the sex. While he was gone, she found herself leaning forward with spread-apart thighs and rubbing herself back and forth on the Chevrolet seat at red lights.

It was less easy to fool her mother.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“With whom?”

“Friends.”

“What friends? April?”

“Other friends.”

“So what time will you be back?”

“Late. Don’t wait up.”

At least she always made sure to drag herself out of the Murphy bed by one o’clock or so, pull on her clothes and drive home, so that she should be in her own bed when her mother got up to bring in the morning paper. Which was something. (And not easy.) But not enough of a something to warm up the chill that was enveloping the parental breakfast table and the many dinners a week she still ate at home.

For his part, Richard objected to her not spending the night. He thought she should rent a furnished studio apartment of her own. She could afford it now that she was a copywriter, he said. It would also solve her mother problem. Why was a grown woman  — was that what she was, a “grown woman?” — still living with her parents? Dutifully, she found a vacancy in a decent-looking building and put down a $55 payment for March. The apartment was just like his, Murphy bed and all. But whenever she thought of living by herself in that gloomy, ill-lit and transient accommodation, soon to be hers, she felt only fear.

February inched along. She made no preparations for the move or for explaining her imminent departure to the two people who cared about her so much. Just before the end of the month, she summoned up courage to confess. Her hitherto gentle and forbearing mother spoke sternly. Millie was on the verge of an irrevocably awful act. There were only two reasons an unmarried girl left her parents’ home: Either she was going to do something very bad she had to hide from her family — here her mother paused meaningfully — or else she was such an unpleasant and difficult person even her own flesh and blood could no longer bear to live with her!

Head pounding with tension and guilt, Millie knew this was both nonsense and true. Did she really want to move out? Of course not. She just wanted everything to be all right. She began to cry. Her mother soothed her. In the end, she told Richard she couldn’t bring herself to hurt her mother, which was a kind of lie but not entirely.

“So there goes $55,” said Richard.

Why should he care? She was the one who had lost it. What a failure she was!  One day when she knew he had morning classes, she let herself into his studio with the key he had given her and called in sick at work. Then she sobbed aloud, hugging herself on the shabby green sofa against the grimy window. There was very little comfort in the apartment when Richard wasn’t in it. After a while, she got up, locked the door, and drove to a doughnut shop, where she bought six jumbo doughnuts with yellow custard filling and chocolate icing, plus a quart carton of milk. Parked in a neighborhood several miles away where no one could possibly recognize her, she methodically munched her way through all six doughnuts, washing them down at intervals with gulps of milk from the waxy triangular opening in the carton.

When she was done, she felt very full and slightly nauseous, but not enough to throw up. She unbuttoned the waistband of her skirt, stuffed the debris back into the empty bag, which she left under her car before pulling away from the curb, and drove home. She told her mother she had felt ill at work and needed to lie down. Drugged with starch, she fell asleep at once. Next morning she had a terrible taste in her mouth, but it passed.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” said April.

“Oh, April,” Millie exclaimed. “You’re my only friend. What would I do without you?” Actually, Millie didn’t have a very high opinion of April. No gumption, no ambition. Ironing her cotton blouses night after night. What did she know about life?

But it soon began to look as if April might be right.

Millie’s mother decided to look for a job herself. She made it known at the breakfast table. Now that Millie’s father had a broker’s license and was selling real estate days, evenings, weekends, and Millie was working and (she added darkly) doing who knew what else — what was there for her at home all alone? Back in New York, she had once sold gloves at Lord & Taylor during the Christmas season. Maybe she could find something like that downtown.

“Good, that’s good, Bubi,” said Millie’s father, turning a page of the newspaper and getting butter on it. “It doesn’t hurt to look.”

Her Russian accent and good taste in dress put Millie’s mother on the floor of the Arts and Gifts Department of Robinson’s within a week. She reported back proudly to Millie and Millie’s father that Mr. Wonderly, the buyer, had told her she was charming and that customers were going to love her. After that, she rose before dawn every morning to take the curlers out of her hair, carefully apply makeup, and leave breakfast on the table for Millie’s father before she ran for the downtown bus. (She wanted to get in early to help Mr. Wonderly arrange the floor and make sure her sales book was in order before the store opened.) At night, she was tired. Millie could count on an announcement to that effect as soon as she walked in the door, always later than Millie herself. (Well of course, thought Millie; what did she expect, standing on her feet all day?) Then she would hurry to change out of her good clothes into a housedress and get some food on the table — sometimes a warmed-up casserole she had prepared the previous Sunday but more and more often something she had recently discovered in Ralph’s called a “TV dinner,” which you could defrost in the oven and eat right out of its own aluminum tray and which meant very little washing up.

Millie’s father was not entirely pleased with these developments. There was occasionally some parental bickering about Millie’s mother’s new life. But the mournful looks and sighs Millie’s mother had previously lavished upon Millie disappeared. Her head was now full of Mr. Wonderly and the sometimes famous clients who sought her assistance in selecting exclusive gifts for friends and dear ones. One afternoon she helped Rita Hayworth choose a vase. She was so gracious, said Millie’s mother. Millie knew she should be relieved, but she sometimes missed the days, not so long ago, when her mother was always worrying about her. It often seemed as if no one cared what she was doing anymore. Except Richard.

Richard definitely cared. He thought she shouldn’t be wasting her talents writing about navy rayon crepe dresses. (“Navy’s in town!”) Or little fur capelets. (“Take a stole to heart!”) He told her about teaching assistantships. She hadn’t even known they existed. Why, if she got one it would pay enough for her to go to graduate school, maybe even go far away. He also generously offered to write a letter of recommendation. As her instructor, of course. So it was really lucky she hadn’t been able to give him up. And wouldn’t her going back East for a doctorate be the perfect bittersweet ending for what they had had together!

Beach weather arrived. Every weekend, they drove out to Santa Monica, or sometimes Venice, and spent whole glorious days walking up and down in the surf and splashing in the sparkling water. She tanned easily and smoothly; her hair bleached in the sun and salt until she was almost a California blonde. Richard taught her how to get far enough out to turn her back and jump up just as a big wave was about to break so that she could ride it almost back to shore. The other thing she loved was to stand with Richard where the water came up to his chest, put her arms around his neck and wrap her legs around him. The water helped him support her bottom, so they could kiss like that for a long time, their bodies rubbing wet against each other, their mouths salty and their eyes laughing at each other.  Sometimes other people in the water looked at them, even though they couldn’t really see what was going on beneath the surface. Millie liked that, too.

After the beach, they would come back to the studio apartment and shower. Then she would make supper on his two-burner hotplate. She had it down to a science. A skirt steak in the frying pan on one burner, frozen vegetables (usually string beans) in the sauce pan on the other burner. And for dessert, farmer cheese mashed with diet grape jelly (so that it tasted like cheese cake without crust) and then patted into little custard cups. He thought she was a wonderful cook. When they had finished eating, she would wash up in the bathroom sink, because the alcove holding the hotplate and mini-refrigerator had no running water. That was kind of a pain but wasn’t forever, she kept reminding herself. And in bed, after they had finished with the sex part, he would tell her stories about his more unusual erotic adventures before he had met her. Rather like Scheherezade in reverse, she thought.

“And you liked that?” she would ask, incredulous but feeling at the same time quite worldly as she heard about these secret, somewhat slimy practices. (Although she certainly would have refused to do such things herself. Thank goodness he never suggested it.)

“Well, yes,” admitted Richard. He curled around her, nestling her back against his chest. We’re like spoons, she thought. That must be why they used to call it ‘spooning.’ She pressed her naked rear more firmly against his naked crotch. This was the coziest thing about being with Richard. She would miss it a lot when she went away to graduate school.

For his birthday in August, Millie bought him a charcoal grey flannel Ivy League-style suit at Bullocks. Being out of season, it was on sale. She might be going away to school soon — by now she was almost sure of it — but he deserved something better than the two terrible polyester suits he had. (They were his entire wardrobe if you didn’t count the worn tweed jacket.) Even on sale, the suit was $75. Millie was making $50 a week, paying a one-third share of the expenses at home, and trying to save at least a little bit, to build up her bank account again. So she knew she shouldn’t have spent this much money on Richard. But she did want him to look nice. And his eyes became wet when he saw what was in the gift-wrapped box. Millie had never seen a man cry. She hugged him. Richard said no one had ever been so kind to him before. After Millie dragged him back to the Bullocks’ tailor to get the cuffs to hang just right — alterations were free — he looked so wonderful in his new suit she also bought him two button-down cotton oxford shirts and a silk rep tie to go with it.

Fat envelopes came in the mail for Millie. She’d been accepted into the English Department doctoral programs at Radcliffe, Columbia, Cornell and the southern California university where Richard taught, to which she’d applied as a back-up. But there was only one offer of a teaching assistantship. From the back-up, where Richard’s recommendation had counted for something. Richard was very pleased for her. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” said April.

“I’ll be right here, in L.A.,” said Millie. “We can still go to movies.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said April. “Enjoy your life.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, April!” exclaimed Millie. “You’d think we’re never going to see each other!”

But April was right again. There were no more movies. Although they exchanged a few phone calls over the course of the next year, they never managed to get together. It wasn’t until much later when Millie was back in New York with Richard that she realized it. Afterwards, whenever she saw someone wearing a freshly ironed cotton blouse she thought of April, and wondered what had become of her, and if April was wondering the same about her. But by then, there was too much that Millie couldn’t talk about. So she never made a transcontinental call, or wrote.

For a while Patsy and Elena filled April’s place in Millie’s life. Both were also teaching assistants in the university’s English Department. Patsy lived in Pasadena with her parents, the last child in the nest; her two older brothers were married and living elsewhere in California. She had a low sexy voice; it was too bad she still dressed like a high school girl in socks, loafers, pleated skirts and white peter pan dickeys under her slightly pilled lambswool sweaters. Elena was one of two daughters of a Greek magnate with a chain of movie theatres all over Mexico; she spoke Greek, Spanish and fluent English with a very slight lisp. She also wore beautiful slender suits from I. Magnin with handkerchief linen blouses and David Evins pumps. Elena was at first reticent about where she lived but eventually let it be known she was staying with an older sister in a one-bedroom apartment her father had rented for them in a new luxury high-rise. “He wants us to be safe. It’s very secure there,” she explained.

Elena’s family lived in Guadalajara.  “Will you go back there, afterwards?” asked Millie.

“Quien sabe?” Elena said. “Anything can happen.”

“Like what?” asked Millie, fascinated.

Elena clarified. “My father really wants us to return to Greece. The King and Queen are back, but he is very cautious. He says he will wait and see.”  Millie didn’t know that Greece still had a king and queen. She was too busy to follow everything in the world. She just nodded wisely. Patsy nodded, too.

During her first year at the university Millie was also too busy even to think where she might be headed with Richard, or whether she should be headed anywhere at all with a man who had four children. He was just part of her life every Friday and Saturday night. (They had dropped Wednesdays, because of her teaching load. She was also taking five graduate courses for her degree.)

“Do you ever think abut getting married?” she asked the other two near the end of the second year.

“Of course,” said Patsy.

“Not really,” said Elena.

“You’re kidding!”

“I don’t have to think about it,” said Elena. “If I don’t find a good husband on my own by the time I’m twenty-five, my father will find someone.”

“And that’s okay with you?” asked Millie.

“She comes from another culture,” said Patsy.

“It’s not like in India,” explained Elena. “Where you never see the man before the wedding. My father would introduce me to a number of suitable Greek men who had already indicated interest. Perhaps he would host a series of parties. Then they would each take me out. Once or more often, depending. Afterwards my father and I would discuss my preferences. All very civilized. What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, thought Millie, if the men were young and attractive and rich. It might be nice to have a powerful father like that. To take care of everything.

“And if I didn’t like any of them,” added Elena, “my father would introduce me to more men. My father knows a lot of people.”

Millie was already almost twenty-four. Her father wasn’t going to introduce her to anyone. And there was no one on the horizon even remotely possible. At twenty-five, she would be an old maid.

Richard’s former wife suddenly remarried and moved to Canada with her new husband. She had said nothing about these developments until after the fact. No more alimony!  Richard at once produced an ugly little ring with a tiny ruby that had been his mother’s. What could she do but let him put it on her finger?  If it doesn’t work out, she wrote in her journal the evening before their marriage, we can always divorce in two years.

She finished her course work, took the written and oral exams for the doctoral degree and they moved to New York — where she wrote advertising instead of a dissertation, thereby earning their living, while he wrote unpublishable novels. In the end, it took six years to disentangle herself. Nine years of Richard all together. By then, her twenties were over.

“What a mistake he was,” exclaimed her third husband more than half a century later.

“I was just a baby,” she said. “Didn’t have a clue. You didn’t make mistakes?”  Besides, she thought, that was then. And now is now. And everything is different than it used to be.

It always is.

FIRST HUSBAND (I of II)

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[A story.]

 Richard was thirty and Millie had just turned twenty-one when they met in an introductory television production class he was teaching nights at a large Southern California university. Millie was taking it to be ready when a better job opened up at the television station where she was currently typing stencils of soap opera scripts in the mimeograph department. Only two other women were in the class. One looked to be in her late forties; the other wore a head scarf and came from a Middle Eastern country.

At the end of the first session Richard came over to Millie, asked where she lived and if she had transportation. She said West Hollywood and that she was taking the bus. He offered to drive her home. By the time he pulled up at her front door in his 1937 Plymouth, she knew he was from New York, had been at Harvard, directed university little theater and wanted to write and direct plays on Broadway. He knew she’d come to California with her parents after graduating from Vassar a few months before, was not seeing anyone (“anymore,” she added), missed the East Coast and was unhappy with her job. They’d promised it would be a stepping-stone to editorial work, but she didn’t think she could stand the dreary typing much longer. “We’ll have to find you something more suitable,” he said. Then he asked her out.

She liked his height — important, since she was tall herself. Also his worn tweed jacket and his take-charge attitude about her wretched job. His hands on the steering wheel looked competent. His being the instructor of the class didn’t hurt, either. At college, she’d spent a whole year mooning fruitlessly over a Shakespeare professor who was sending signals he might be interested but never did anything about it. Of course, television production wasn’t Shakespeare, but still…. Richard’s hair and eyes were dark, which was good. Blond blue-eyed men made her think of Gestapo officers in movies. She said yes.

He picked her up after dinner on an evening when he had no class and took her, with apologies, to a prizefight. It was the only live thing on that night, he said, and he hated movies; they got made, went into a can and then you sat in a dark room, long after the actors had gone on to something else, watching dead film stored in a reel and projected on a screen. She herself loved movies, but when he explained that the fight tickets had been free, she allowed herself to be led to a seat, sliding past noisy blue-collar fight fans sloshing beer all over themselves. Unattractive and sweaty small men were slamming each other around in the ring. To her relief, they left before it was over. He parked a block from her house, turned smiling towards her and kissed her over the stick shift.

Oh, he was a wonderful kisser. And it had been so long. She felt herself slipping into bonelessness. His hand moved to her nipple, burning through her sweater. Moisture seeped into the crotch of her panty girdle. He whispered softly in her ear, “Do you mind the back seat?” She pushed him away and sat up straight, flushed and startled. Should she be insulted? “Um, yes, I do.” Did that need explanation? “I’m not as experienced as you think,” she added.

He seemed not to understand this. “Are you a lesbian?” he asked.

Why should he think that?  “I just haven’t had a lot of sexual experience.”

He looked at her in disbelief.  “Experience with intercourse,” she added.

“You’re not a virgin, are you?”

Ah, did she have to answer?   “It’ s complicated,” she offered. “I no longer have my –”  What should she call it? All the words seemed so Victorian. “But my college boyfriend and I, we never …. So I don’t know. How do you define virginity?”

He digested this attempted explanation in silence.

“He was being kind,” she went on. “After he, um, got in, he asked if it hurt when he moved and when I nodded, he said we could wait until next time. Then he, uh, withdrew without, you know….”

I shouldn’t need to tell him this, she thought. But she had already begun and couldn’t leave it there. “Afterwards we were together only one other time, in a hotel. He lost it there because I was nervous and laughed. That’s when we broke up. He said something was wrong with me. I think he was wrong about that, though.”  This was not entirely true. She was certain he would have had less trouble with another more spontaneous girl. “It was his first time, too. So he probably just didn’t know how.”

“All this was when?” asked Richard thoughtfully.

“About two years ago.”

“And after that?”

“Vassar’s just for girls.” She didn’t mention the Shakespeare professor.

“I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, patting her hand. “We’d better forget about the back seat, though.”

She felt soiled by her disclosure. But the following week in class, he winked at her while she was sprinkling Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of an Alpine village being filmed by another student. And afterwards, he drove her home again to the same place a block from where she lived, where he again kissed her enthusiastically. She was so relieved they seemed to be back on track that she giggled and said flirtatiously, “Oh, Richard, here we are kissing madly away and I don’t know the first thing about you. Why, you could be married with three children!”

To which he responded gravely: “Actually, I am married. And I have four.

And all Millie could think when she heard that – she who had been described by the Shakespeare professor in his final report as having “a mind like a steel trap” — all she could think was, “Well, he’s done it at least four times. He will know how.”

He did know how. He demonstrated his knowledge in a studio apartment opposite Paramount Studios that rented for $50 a month. Millie dipped into her small savings account to give him the first month’s rent — but only because he explained that Winifred was going back to Texas for a divorce in a few weeks, as soon as the baby was old enough to travel. Then he could stop paying rent on the house they were all living in and take over the rent of the studio. Besides, she thought of the $50 as an investment in her own sexual education.

She brought new sheets and pillowcases to their assignation in the apartment. He brought a couple of bottles of Schlitz, a package of Trojans and a tube of K-Y jelly. He asked if she wanted a drink before they went to bed. To loosen up. She said, truthfully, she didn’t like beer. (It gave her gas. This information she kept to herself.) So they pulled the Murphy bed down from the wall, made it up with her new sheets and cases, took off their clothes and climbed in without the beer. Not exactly the “first time” she had dreamed of. But this was real life and she had to stop dreaming. Besides, once she had learned everything he had to teach, she was going to leave him for someone more suitable.

Afterwards, she had very little memory of what transpired their first evening in the studio other than that he accomplished what they both had wanted, it had hurt some but not too much, and there had been no blinding explosion of joy. But she did like the kissing, touching and finger work. And he assured her that in a week or so, it wouldn’t feel tight or sore.

He was good as his word about the soreness, and also the rent. After the Murphy bed had come down from the wall a few more times, it didn’t hurt at all. And Winifred soon packed up their children and belongings and drove away to San Antonio, whereupon he moved into the studio with his clothes, papers and typewriter, and took over the monthly $50.

Blinding joy, however, remained elusive. He propped her on pillows. He stroked, slavered, and pumped away — dripping perspiration all over her. She would have faked it, if only to bring his moist exertions to an end (she did not enjoy the drops of sweat), except she didn’t know what to fake. Then he said getting rid of the rubbers might help, and got her the name of a gynecologist who reputedly had no objection to supplying unmarried girls with diaphragms. It was an embarrassing visit; when actually face to face with the doctor she had colored the truth by claiming to be engaged. But she came away equipped with a rimmed rubber barrier to conception nestled in a pretty blue plastic case, instructions for insertion and removal while sitting on the toilet, and the doctor’s congratulations on her engagement. She kept the diaphragm, spermicidal jelly, and a container of baby powder to dust it off with afterwards in Richard’s bathroom medicine cabinet, lest her mother discover any of these objects at home.

Still nothing doing in the joy department.

He found her another job, writing advertising copy for misses’ fashions at The Broadway Department Store, which paid more than typing stencils and came with a 20% employee discount. Then he found another 1937 Plymouth in which she could drive to work. Priced at $125 it was a steal, he said.

“Who is this man?” asked her mother the first time she parked noisily at the curb. Millie tried to explain, leaving out the sex part, but Harvard did not help and Richard not being Jewish was the least of it. “How many children?” asked her father. She began driving to meet Richard instead of having him pick her up. Whenever she left the house in the evening, her mother looked stricken and sighed mournfully.

Millie sent a jolly birthday card to her old college boyfriend in New York, whom she had not seen since their hotel debacle — including an upbeat report on her new job, car and man. He wrote back with gratifying promptitude that it was great to hear from her and she should get her ass back to New York right away because he was sure Richard, age thirty, was not the man for her. He was jealous! But what was he proposing? On closer scrutiny of his letter, not much. So what would she do in New York? Where would she stay? With what would she buy a ticket (perhaps, to be safe, a round-trip ticket), now that her spare cash had gone towards her own sexual education and the Plymouth? While she was reflecting on these problematic matters, the old college boyfriend wrote again to announce he was marrying a certain Celia, also from Vassar but several years older than Millie (meaning more sexually with it, thought Millie) and — a final humiliation! — they would love to see Millie at the wedding.

She was defective. She was sure if her sexual organs had worked the way they were supposed to, so she and the college boyfriend could have climaxed together, as in her thumb-eared copy of Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage, he wouldn’t now be marrying this smirking older woman and leaving her to seek crumbs of comfort in a squeaky Murphy bed where she might never dissolve in ecstasy.

God helps those who help themselves, Millie told herself sternly. A few nights later, she bought a pint of cheap wine at Thrifty Drug on the way home from work, stuffed it into her capacious handbag and hid it under her pillow until it was time for bed.

It took forty-five minutes of rubbing herself with spit (she checked her bedside clock when she had finished) — growing so hot that whatever she was feeling could hardly be called pleasure — until she finally managed with the underside of her stiffened left index finger to trigger a small deep centered thrill beneath the heat, a delicious little thrill that mounted and mounted in intensity until she couldn’t hold it back, it came on in spite of her, like a huge wave rising, rising and o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h….o-h-h-h-h-h-h…. So that was how it was! What else could it be? She had done it! She had brought herself off! She was so elated she wanted to send a telegram: Stop the wedding!

She wasn’t that crazy, though. And once she knew what was supposed to happen, she did feel more confident when she visited Richard, even if she could never describe for him exactly the location of the spot where the small deep thrill lay waiting because it seemed to keep moving around. However, she eagerly stretched her legs apart, this way and that, to reach for it, that tiny marvelously quivering core of unbelievable pleasure, and began to enjoy herself in bed.

But did she love him? She asked her sometime journal that very question. She also tried calling him “my darling” within the privacy of its pages. It looked wrong when she read it back. He wasn’t her darling. Celia had her darling — well, her former darling. Richard was just her experienced married lover, who had hardly any money because he was sending almost all of it to Texas, and a rotten wardrobe except for the worn tweed jacket, and — as she was beginning to discover — a somewhat elastic conception of truth.

For instance: When he’d said he was from New York, he meant Syracuse, New York. When he’d said he was at Harvard, he meant after his marriage and only for one year, as a graduate student. Then he’d transferred out; his degree was from somewhere in the midwest. (And his undergraduate degree was from Clark, wherever that was.) He hadn’t written a play since graduate school. What he seemed to be working on now was a novel about his boyhood love of baseball that she, the literature major, thought so sloppy in its writing as to be hopeless. She offered to edit it for him, but after she had laboriously marked up the first chapter, he snapped at her that if she was going to take a schoolmarm approach to a work of genius he didn’t need her help thank you very much.

As for his looks, well, yes, he was considered handsome. (Her supervisor at The Broadway, a snippy unmarried woman who had to be at least thirty-five, actually cooed over his photograph.) However, stripped of his clothing…. Ah, that was another matter. His shoulders were narrow.  He had a large mole in the center of his back that she disliked. (She tried to keep her fingers away from it when she had to clasp his damp body to her.) Worst of all was the uncircumcised penis, which she hadn’t noticed as different in any way when it was ready for business but featured an excess of unpleasant foreskin when not, so that going down on him was like mouthing a quantity of crumpled rag.

At the end of the semester, Richard gave her an A plus in the television production course even though she’d stopped coming to class after leaving the television station job. Then he went away to attend the divorce hearing in San Antonio and help Winifred find a permanent place to live. (She and the children had been staying “here and there,” he said.) He’d be gone a month, until the spring term began. Millie was glad. When her mother noticed she wasn’t going out evenings, she announced she had given him up. Her mother told her father. With the advice and assistance of his mechanic, her father bought her a nice blue 1946 Chevrolet sedan previously owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who only drove it to church on Sundays. Then he helped sell her noisy Plymouth “as is” for $75. The Plymouth barely made it up a hill into the buyer’s driveway. She and her father made their getaway in his 1952 Pontiac before the buyer returned from work.

It’s not as if Millie didn’t know right from wrong, smart from stupid. But the month without Richard was so boring. She would come home from work in the Chevrolet for dinner with her parents and have to hear her father tell, between mouthfuls, what had been in the headlines that day. His jaws moved vigorously as he chewed; she could see the bones of his skull roll beneath the sides of his forehead. After he had finished his one scoop of coffee ice milk (her mother was trying to keep him on a diet), Millie would help put away the leftover pot roast or broiled chicken and dry the dishes. “Thank you, Ludmilochka,” her mother would say. “Now maybe I can relax a little with the paper myself.” Then Millie would go to her room to lie down on her bed and turn pages of public library books the contents of which she had trouble remembering even while she was still reading them. Saturdays she spent with April, the other junior copywriter, with whom she shared a small office. April was Millie’s age, a recent UCLA graduate who also lived at home, although with her mother and grandmother. You couldn’t discuss books with April — she spent her evenings ironing blouses — but she was someone to go to movies with. Once Millie made the mistake of staying at April’s house for dinner after driving her home; they had to watch The Arthur Godfrey Show with April’s mother and grandmother afterwards.

April didn’t see why Millie should give up seeing Richard before someone better came along. “Believe me, it’s no fun having no one in your life,” she said.

“Even though I told my mother it’s over?” Millie asked.

April shrugged. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, will it?”

[To be concluded in next post.]

RX FOR PRE-HOLIDAY STRESS: TAKE AS MANY AS NEEDED

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[All from “The New Yorker Book of Doctor and Psychiatrist Cartoons,” 1993 — meaning this is old stuff, going back as far as Thurber. But tried and true for whatever ails you.  Is it my age showing, or was everything funnier then?]

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[Caution: Overdosing is perfectly safe.]

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Feeling better now?

TWO DAYS IN AUGUST

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Originally posted on The Getting Old Blog:

Before we put December 7 completely behind us, here are another two days to remember.

August 6.  And August 9.

Hiroshima.  And Nagasaki.

It’s easy to forget that nothing is just about us.

So let’s don’t.

View original

REMEMBERING DECEMBER 7, 1941

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[Americans as old as I am, or older, will all have some personal memory of where they were and what they were doing 73 years ago today. The rest of you may wonder how anyone could remember that far back.

We remember because of the sudden and unforeseen events occurring on that day; they triggered our country’s unprepared entry into World War II — and thereby changed all our lives in so many ways it would be hard to forget them, even if we were still just children playing in the backyard that Sunday afternoon.

Those of you who’ve been following TGOB since last year may recall I first ran this piece on December 7, 2013. If so, think of it as commemorative. I’ll probably continue running it, or something like it, every December 7, as long as I can.]

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HITLER’S LAMPSHADES

It was a day that would live in infamy, the President said.

But I was only ten and a half and didn’t know what infamy was. When the news broke that Sunday, interrupting the regular afternoon radio programs, I was playing behind the garages with Richard Mancini and my best friend Barbara.

Barbara was in my sixth-grade class at Franklin Avenue School and lived just one house away from me. In between was a small wooded lot where a ramshackle one-story structure with a porch leaned sideways on a small patch of clearing in the trees and brush. It belonged to an elderly Japanese couple. You could tell they were Japanese because they were shorter than other grownups and had slanty eyes. But you almost never saw them except when the woman came out the front to sweep the porch or the man came out the back with garbage.

My father had brought us to Hollywood a year and a half before because he had lost his job playing cello in New York and thought he could find work as a studio musician. He hadn’t had much luck. “It’s all connections,” he told my mother. She then told me she might have to become a live-in maid in some rich family’s house if he didn’t find work soon. I would have to share a room with her. I didn’t want to share a room with my mother or go to another school.

I certainly didn’t want to be the maid’s little girl in anybody else’s house, and be meek and humble, and never get to play with Barbara or Richard again. Other kids’ fathers had jobs, I thought. Why did mine have to be different? My mother sighed and put her arm around me. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The boxy little bungalow my father had rented for $30 a month was one of a set of four — two in front and two in back — on Los Feliz Boulevard. Ours was in front, with the living room and kitchen facing the street and two small bedrooms and a bathroom facing the bungalow behind it. All the way in the rear was a courtyard with two garages on each side; behind each pair of garages was a wooden platform, angled out over a valley. The platform on our side held an incinerator, a long bench, several clotheslines and a double railing to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Mancini, the landlord, lived and worked somewhere else but often came to do maintenance at the bungalows on weekends. When he did, he brought his son Richard with him. Richard was twelve, tall and thin, with straight dark hair that fell into his eyes. I liked him very much and had a feeling that he liked me too.

What I usually played with Barbara when Richard wasn’t there was a make-believe story called “Mother and Baby” which featured my Dydee Doll. Almost every little girl had at least one Dydee in those days. It came with a toy baby bottle you could fill with water. Dydee’s mouth had a hole where the water went in when you squeezed the bottle and its belly button had another hole which squirted the water out when you squeezed Dydee’s tummy. The pink flat area between Dydee’s legs had no opening, so it wasn’t exactly like a real baby. But you could pretend.

What Richard always wanted to play with us was “Doctor Delivering Baby.” Barbara and I took turns being Nurse and Patient. Richard was always Doctor, the one who reached up Patient’s dress and pulled Dydee out from between her legs. After helping Patient to lie down, Nurse mainly just watched.

I was very excited by this game, especially when I was Patient. I loved lying down on the bench beside the incinerator, under the clotheslines, pushing the doll up between my legs, tucking it snugly against my panties, and then carefully arranging the skirt of my dress to cover my knees. I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be more realistic to take off my panties before lying down, because how could a baby be born through a pair of underpants? But I thought Richard might be shocked at this, so didn’t mention it.

Doctor would pretend to wash his hands, Nurse would pretend to help him slip on his rubber gloves, they would both turn to me, and I could hardly breathe waiting for Doctor to reach up under my dress, grope for the doll and work it down between my legs, the backs of his hands sliding very slowly against the skin of my bare thighs, until it was “born.” He would then wish me much happiness with my new baby and present it to me proudly, to clasp against my flat chest.

So that’s what we were doing the first Sunday afternoon in December 1941. When Richard had finished his Doctor speech, I pulled myself up from the bench and handed the doll over to Barbara. Then I realized I just had to pee. “Wait till I get back,” I called, running to our bungalow.

My mother and father were both in the living room as I flew past them to the toilet; they were listening to the big Stromberg Carlson radio that stood against one wall. When I came out, my mother said, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s probably war.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked. “Is it in America?”

“I’m not sure,” my mother said. “I don’t think so.”

But my father just said, “Ssssh.” I shrugged and ran back out to Richard and Barbara. The word “pearl” made me think of rings.

“We’ve been bombed,” I said importantly. “It may be war.”

Barbara looked up from the bench at the sky. “Bombed where?” she asked. “I don’t see anything.”

Richard had a somewhat better grasp of world events. “War with who?” he asked. “Hitler?”

“Japan, I think.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “Japan is America’s friend. My dad said so. They’ve even got people in Washington right now talking with Hull about trade or something.”

“Who’s Hull?” asked Barbara.

“Cordell Hull,” said Richard. “Just our Secretary of State, that’s who.”

This was beyond me. “Well, my mother said we were bombed by Japan,” I insisted.

“That doesn’t mean it’s so,” said Richard.

“My mother’s not a liar.”

“Didn’t say she was,” said Richard. “She must have heard wrong. I know for a fact we’re not at war with anyone.” He turned right away from me and towards Barbara on the bench. She still had Dydee under her dress. “As for you, dear lady,” he said in his Doctor voice, “aren’t you in terrible pain yet?” Barbara nodded vigorously and clutched her stomach. “Ow, ow!” she cried. “Help me, Doctor! Please!”

Richard pulled on his pretend rubber gloves without waiting for me to assist. “There, there,” he said to Barbara. “It’s going to be all right.” He waved me to his side. “Nurse! Let’s start getting this baby born right now.”

But after Barbara and Richard went home and I was back in the house, listening to the President telling the country that America was at war, and with Japan, I gave the situation serious thought. I already knew that Hitler hated Jews and that my parents and I were Jews, although I wasn’t sure what made us that.

We weren’t religious. And we didn’t do anything different than other kids’ families. But when we had first come out here and were looking for a place to live, I had seen signs posted in certain neighborhoods we drove through that said, “Jews not welcome here,” and my mother had said that meant us. I had also heard the grownups talking one time, when they didn’t know I was listening, about Hitler making lampshades out of Jewish skin. And then I had read headlines in the newspaper my father brought home every day that shouted in big letters: “Hitler warns U.S.: ‘You’re Next!’”

So I had been very glad we were in Hollywood instead of New York, even if my father was still out of work, because we were farther from Hitler and it would take him longer to reach me.

(Did they peel your skin off after you were dead, or before?)

Now with this news about Japan, I took out my geography book and studied a map of Asia and Alaska. They were really close together, almost touching in one place, and I saw that Japan could get to me that way, moving down through Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon to California.

On the other hand, I had never heard that Japan particularly hated Jews, so I supposed it wouldn’t be worse for me than for anyone else if they reached Hollywood. But the safest place to live seemed to be Kansas, because it was equally far from each coast. It would take both Japan and Germany a long time to get there.

Would I have the courage to run away to Kansas by myself if my parents stayed put? Probably not. There was still President Roosevelt, though. My mother said he had saved us from the Depression and from Jew-haters like Father Coughlin on the radio and Westbrook Pegler in the newspaper. Now that America was at war, could he save us again?

A week or so later, the Japanese couple next door disappeared. It seemed to happen overnight. Nobody saw them go. One day there, the next day — boom — gone. My mother said they had been taken to an unknown place to stay, together with other Japanese people. It was for their safety and for ours, she explained.

“Did they get to take their furniture with them?” I asked. The windows of their house were shuttered; you couldn’t look inside. My mother didn’t know. I thought it would be very sad if the old man and woman had to go away without any of their things. And who would take care of everything while they were gone?

“The place is locked,” said my mother. After that, people stopped talking about it, even though the house stayed vacant for as long as we lived next door.

My class at the Franklin Avenue School talked about the Japanese Front during Social Studies period, though. Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan. The news from there was never good.

Then Richard’s parents decided to send him to parochial boarding school in another state. He came to say goodbye just before New Year’s. “When will you be back?” I asked. “Not for a long time,” he said. “Summer maybe.” His father was waiting in the car, so that was all there was to it. No special look, or promise to write or anything.

Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as I liked him. Or maybe he had lost interest because I hadn’t known who Cordell Hull was.

Weekends felt empty without Richard to look forward to. For consolation my mother let me bring home a mixed-breed spaniel puppy from a litter in the garage of a lady down the block who was giving them away free. She said the puppy would be company for her when I was in school, so there were at least two reasons to have him.

Unfortunately, whenever he was let out to do his business the puppy went hunting for frogs on the property that used to belong to the Japanese couple. Then he would vomit parts of barely chewed-up raw frog all over the clean kitchen floor. My mother said if the Japanese family had been allowed to stay, they wouldn’t have let him do that. She didn’t call Japanese people “Japs,” the way everyone else was doing. “They weren’t hurting anybody,” she added. “They were nice quiet people.”

“I thought it was for their safety and ours,” I said.

“Well, that’s what they tell you,” said my mother darkly. “But who knows?”

I never had to become the maid’s little girl in someone else’s house and learn to be meek and humble. In July, my parents and I moved back to New York, where my father finally found a regular job. We left the puppy with Barbara, who promised to take good care of him. I wondered how Barbara’s mother would deal with the chewed-up bits of raw frog on her kitchen floor, but my mother said she had enough things on her mind without worrying about that.

My father rented a three-and-a-half room apartment in Kew Gardens for $45 a month, and I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 99 Queens in the fall. Here we followed the European Front during Social Studies period and pinned up little maps cut from The New York Times on a bulletin board. We also made round balls of tinfoil from the packages of cigarettes our parents smoked, because the government was short of tin. It was the class contribution to the War Effort, though no one at school explained the exact use to which these balls were going to be put.

However, my mother read in the paper that C rations were packed in cans made of tin. After that, whenever I sat in the kitchen carefully peeling a thin skin of tinfoil from its tobacco-scented paper backing I felt I was helping feed hungry soldiers.

I sent our new address to Richard’s father in California, but Richard didn’t write. Then I began going to Viola Wolff’s School of the Dance, above a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard. There on Mondays after school I learned to foxtrot, waltz and rhumba with a boy named Robert Goldbaum whose family had escaped from Germany while they still could. (They were lucky, said my parents.)

Robert clearly liked me a lot, since he kept choosing me as his partner. Which meant it was safe to like him a lot too.

Although things still weren’t looking so good for America war-wise, Miss Oshman, my seventh-grade teacher, said she was confident that with the help of Our Boys, President Roosevelt would pull us through. My father was working again, I had met Robert, maybe Miss Oshman was right.

So although I was now three thousand miles closer to Hitler, I stopped thinking about lampshades.

© Nina R. Mishkin 2013

BIG POT COOKING RULES AGAIN!

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[One year ago, on December 5, 2013, I made a big pot of minestrone and blogged all the whys and hows behind this warming, labor-saving concoction. Now that icy winds are biting again, the gorgeous red leaves of autumn have fallen from the trees, we’ve begun sitting around the (gas) fire of an evening, and I’m still as lazy as last year, if not more so — why not reblog it? Why not indeed?]

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IN PRAISE OF BIG POT COOKING

I’ve never really liked to cook, although I used to pretend when I was younger. I didn’t want to humiliate my children by being the only mother who hadn’t contributed anything to the PTA cookbook. There was also all that social life involving other couples coming over for dinner. Which — it goes without saying — the hostess (i.e., me) had to have made.

Now there are no more PTAs in my life, and we socialize with surviving other couples by going out to restaurants so they don’t have to have us over for dinner in return. But whenever I do find myself in the kitchen, I rely heavily on big pot cooking.That means everything goes into one big pot, and then comes out of the same pot all ready to be eaten.

There are numerous advantages to this simplification of culinary life.

1. If you do have company over, you can be in the living room with the company until it’s time to eat. Supper’s all ready and kept warm in the pot. No more perspiring over a hot stove while politely rejecting insincere offers of assistance; no more hearing tantalizing bits of conversation that drift in from the other room but you can’t quite make them out; no more feeling like the hired help.

2. If the meal is just for you and your beloved, what’s in the pot is definitely going to last until tomorrow and probably the next day, too. Think of it: no cooking for two more days! You might even get a fourth day out of it, but I advise freezing that last bit until you’ve both forgotten about it. Then when you finally discover it, defrost it and heat it up, it will taste just like new. Better than new! (“This is great! Why didn’t we eat it earlier?”)

3. Washing up is a cinch. For the first two or three days, cram the whole pot back in the fridge after supper, so you only have a plate, glass and fork or spoon to deal with. When you finally do have to wash the pot, remember it’s just one pot! Also remember what a mess you used to make when you tried to master the art of French cooking with Julia Child. And be grateful.

A recipe? What a coincidence you should ask! Here’s what’s bubbling away on my stove at this very moment as I type! I had to make it, so I could photograph it, so you could see it. And want it. And make it for yourself.

MAJOR MINESTRONE

(Adapted from Mark Bittman, “How to Cook Everything.” His is good. Mine is better. I’ll put money on it.)

First you will need:

A POT

A 5 TO 8 QUART POT

and

A SOUP LADLE

A SOUP LADLE

You will also need:

  • A chopping block, sharp knife and can opener
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large chopped yellow onion
  • as much chopped garlic as you like (I like a lot)
  • 6 or more cups of your choice of chopped vegetables from the store, plus whatever is in the house. I use some, but not all, of the following: peeled potatoes (not yams!), carrots, zucchini, yellow summer squash, string beans, pea pods, red pepper, sometimes celery, sometimes grape or cherry tomatoes, sometimes cauliflower or broccoli florets, sometimes turnip, sometimes parsnip
  • frozen peas, at least a cup
  • handful of chopped parsley, kale, baby spinach, swiss chard, or even baby lettuce
  • 8 cups of vegetable broth, no-chicken broth, chicken broth — or a combination of any of the above plus enough water to get to the minimum 8 cups. (As you cook, you will probably want to add more fluid, so keep extra broth, tomato juice or vegetable juice on hand.)
  • 1 15-ounce can of well rinsed no-salt beans (pinto, white, black, or great Northern), but not garbanzos or kidney beans unless you really love them
  • 1 15-ounce can of fire-roasted tomatoes
  • handful of brown rice if you have any (it’s optional)
  • handful of any kind of pasta, preferably gluten-free (If spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine, break into pieces)
  • shaved or grated Parmesan or combination of Italian cheeses

As you can see, this soup recipe is extremely fluid — no pun intended. In other words, you can put in just about anything but the kitchen sink or the Vitamix:

Everything but kitchen sink and Vitamix

EVERYTHING BUT KITCHEN SINK AND VITAMIX.

The only real work is cutting up the vegetables.

Veggies cut up and ready to go...

VEGGIES CUT UP AND READY TO GO.

Now we’re all set:

  • Heat olive oil in pot till it starts to smoke
  • Turn down heat and add chopped onion and garlic
  • Saute till onion is soft, then add all the rest of the chopped veggies
  • Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring.
  • Add salt and pepper, the rinsed beans, the canned tomatoes and about 6 cups of the broth and/or water
  • Throw in rice (if you’re using it), pasta, and the chopped greens.

It should look like this:

Nothing more to do but wait...

NOTHING MORE TO DO BUT WAIT…

Partially cover, let cook on low heat for about two hours, adding more liquid as needed. If you use up all your broth/water, even adding plain water is okay.

Does it now look like this?

Does yours look like this?

ALMOST DONE!

Time to:

  • Set the table
  • Adjust the seasonings
  • Ladle into soup plates
  • Dribble olive oil over the surface of each plate
  • Add generous helping of shaved cheese
  • Eat!
BON APPETIT!

BON APPETIT!

P.S. Vegan if you omit the chicken broth and cheese. I don’t.

P.P.S. Fresh fruit and a square of 70% chocolate for dessert. On a napkin!

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Afterwards: One spoon, one plate, one glass in the sink. [Per person. ]

Told you so.