WRITING SHORT: 47/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

For some mothers, the hard part is never over.

A high-functioning daughter is on the phone. Such a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” she says. “You’ll have to come for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then. Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. What closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls round. The mother thinks about summer. She hardly ever sees these young grandchildren now all three are in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons, playdates. At least those are the excuses.

“Which weekend should I plan on?” she asks carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.  The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression. “No weekend, actually. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did the daughter forget the invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for having to beg.

The daughter is decisive. “Not such a big house. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, as if what she’d said was amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you this summer?”

“You” could be taken as plural. But the mother really means singular “you” — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant, much loved baby girl.  “Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “Maybe we can find  time in the fall. I’ll check with Bob.”

Why be surprised? For a long time, the mother’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter. Should she have nailed down her August weekend with a confirming email last October? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained by others (counselor, doctor, childless friend) that with this disorder, the daughter can’t know how it makes the mother feel. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks. Not their heart that hurts.

[Reblogged from June 23, 2015]
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WRITING SHORT: 38/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

A well-known Boston law firm shattered, and its various rain-making partners took their business and legal staff elsewhere. One of those partners came to the firm where I was an associate. He needed more lawyers to work on his cases; I was drafted. That’s how I met Attorney S., a former full partner at the now-defunct firm, only a “contract” partner without equity at this one. She was fashionable, hard-working, judgmental and cold. A superb trial lawyer, she had absolutely no mentoring skills. The other associates called her “The Ice Queen.”

However, there was a certain unspoken camaraderie at that firm among its few women lawyers. Not that anyone would have laid her job on the line for you. But when my mother died and I went to tell Attorney S. I’d be away for five days, she came out from behind her majestic partner desk and put her arms around me. When I informed her, among others, that I’d been given a year’s notice, she was the only one who actually gave me names of contacts with whom to begin my job search. And long after the partners decided to rehire me to practice in another department and she herself had left to join a new boutique firm as a full equity partner, she sporadically stayed in touch. Then she offered me a better job.

Of course, I was grateful. But at the boutique firm, was she now any friendlier?  She occasionally invited me to one of her parties, if the guest list was short. We might have lunch, if she found herself free. But on weekends she never had time. That’s when she shopped, and socialized with more important people. After moving to Princeton, I now and then sent emails;  she always answered, never wrote first. From a distance I pitied her: no children, no close family, no longer young. So year after year I also sent birthday greetings.  And each time she replied she was so happy I remembered — yet never sent greetings to me.

At last, I gave up. As they used to say, it takes two to tango. Whatever she felt and couldn’t express, who needs that kind of friend?

WRITING SHORT: 32/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

What if I’d been less timid in days gone by? Such as when teaching Freshman English at USC.  Aged twenty-two, I would sit cross-legged on the front desk in pencil skirt and white linen blouse, imparting my view of life to a group of sorority and fraternity pledges, a few Korean War vets, and several members of the Freshman football team who sat slouched against the back wall, exchanging sotto voce opinions about my ankles and other anatomical parts.

The weekly writing assignments generally resulted in compositions mediocre to bad. (I was not an easy grader.) However, one stood out. The writer had a strong sense of what was wrong with the world and no hesitation about putting it on paper. Despite his technical mistakes, I gave him an A minus and a “See me.”

He was eighteen, and not frat material. Not a jock either. Strongly built, tall and suspicious, he was racking up D’s and F’s in all his other courses. They were basically crap, he said. He’d pretty much stopped going. How come the A minus? I told him how come. I encouraged him. He wrote more. He never missed a class. He hung around afterwards, wanting to talk. Intrigued, I listened.

His father had thrown him out a year before, for unacceptable behaviors he didn’t itemize. He was living on his own and paying for college by running drugs into California from Mexico on a boat belonging to his uncle. (Whether the uncle knew was not made clear.) He’d had girls, but never a keeper. Soon he was wishing for someone like me.

I had a steady boyfriend. Tony was my student, and four years younger. But I’d never before met a strong, angry drug runner  who wanted someone like me. I let him buy me a beer.

We had the beer at an out-of-the-way bar where no one would see. Then his eyes asked the question. I chickened out. The next semester, he left school. He’d knocked up a girl and was marrying her. He said It was the right thing to do.

All the same, I sometimes wonder. Suppose I’d gone down the road less traveled. Would my life have been different? Would his?

WE’RE HAVING A BAH, HUMBUG HOLIDAY AT OUR HOUSE

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I was at the upscale pet food store at the mall earlier today to nail down a bag of the fancy frozen raw venison chunks with which we spoil our cats at dinnertime. (The store only stocks one or two of these a week. Not many cat owners as nutsy as me out there.)

No one else was in the store yet. I had two young male clerks entirely at my disposal.  “Happy Holidays,” they chorused as I paid.

“Thanks, but I take the ‘bah, humbug’ approach,” I said, putting on my agent provocateur hat.  “Now that my kids are grown with kids of their own, and all of them are somewhere else, I’d just as soon pass on the holidays.  I’ve mailed out the presents. I’m ready for January 2.”

One of the clerks — the taller, cuter one — laughed.   “I don’t care about Christmas either, ” he said. “But I can’t wait till New Year’s Eve.”

Cuteness shouldn’t count but it does, so I was conciliatory.  “Well, you’re a guy. But I always dreaded New Year’s Eve because it meant going to parties where you had to be kissed at midnight by men you’d rather not be kissed by.”

They both were kind enough to laugh again.  (Clearly they had nothing better to do until another customer showed up.)  Encouraged, I went on:  “So all those New Year’s Eves have run together in my mind and I can specifically remember only two. One was in 1949, before you were born, when my boyfriend took me to a party at friends of his parents to admire a small black-and-white television set, the first any of us had seen.  We all sat around on bridge chairs in front of it, with the lights out, as if it were a shrine. Holding hands in the dark was nice, though.”

My mentioning 1949 must have silenced them, allowing me to continue.  “And the second was in 1959 when we were all toasting Fidel Castro for having come down from the Sierra Maestra to bring democracy to Cuba.  A lot we knew. The midnight kissing at that party wasn’t so great either. But all the thousands and thousands of other New Year’s Eves in my life?  Nada! Gone with the wind!”

Tall and cute tried to top me.  “I went to one a couple of years ago where I drank so much I got sick right at the party and vomited all over myself, the couch, somebody’s shoes, the rug…..”  He chuckled in happy reminiscence. (And this is the guy who can’t wait to ring in 2015.)

“Well, there you go,” I said, feeling we’d now run the subject into the ground and it was time to leave. “When you’re in your eighties, you’ll have at least one good New Year’s Eve story to tell!”

The idea of being in their eighties was even funnier than the vomit. Merry peals of laughter followed me out the door.

But you all have yourself a real good holiday. And never mind grumpy old us. We’ll be having one, too.  Only our way.

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THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

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[A follower of this blog who prefers to remain anonymous and therefore never posts comments online sent me an anecdote by email yesterday that she thought might be right up my alley because it takes place in a courtroom.  I haven’t been inside a courtroom (professionally or otherwise) for upwards of nine years.  But she did roll it up the right alley.  Whether it’s the old Pavlov’s dog reflex, or simply the new blogging me always on the qui vive for fresh material, I asked if I could use it, without attribution of course, and she at once replied, “You betcha.”  Rest assured it has no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever.] 

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Anglo-American juries may be comprised of twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty.  But you can usually count on them not to be bamboozled in the end.

A defendant was on trial for murder. Overwhelming evidence in the record indicated guilt. But there was no corpse!   Suspecting his client would nevertheless be convicted unless he could raise last-minute doubt in the minds of the jurors, counsel for the defense resorted to a trick in his closing statement.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said, as he openly checked his watch. “I have a surprise for you all.  In exactly one minute, the person my client is charged with having murdered will walk into this courtroom.” He spun on his heels and looked directly at the courtroom door. The jurors, stunned expressions on their faces, all turned expectantly to the courtroom door as well.

A minute elapsed. The door remained closed. Defense counsel then turned back to the jurors. “And now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said,  “I have a confession to make.  I lied to you just now. I have no idea where the alleged victim in this case may be. But you all looked eagerly to the door when I promised he would walk through it.  Therefore I put it to you that each and every one of you has a reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was killed in this case, and you must return a verdict of not guilty!”

The jury retired to deliberate. It took them very little time to return.  “And what is your verdict?” inquired the judge.  “Guilty!” pronounced the foreman.

“But how?” stammered counsel for the defense. “You must have had some doubt. I saw all of you stare at the door.”

“Yes, we looked,” the foreman replied.  “But your client didn’t.”

ARE YOU A JEW?

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Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.

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A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this “big kid” must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We’re not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”

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“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.