Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Reruns: Mom -- Faith, Sapphires, and White Light: Part Four

(original post date: May 25, 2011)

A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the fourth and final installment of an essay that begins here.


Within a year of that fabulous long week on the hill in Truro, I gave my parents a stack of paperbacks. They were new copies of books that I had read recently and that I loved for one reason or another. My giving them the books was my way of sharing with them who I was and who I was becoming.

The stack of books included a copy of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb. Significantly, this was the only piece of nonfiction in the group, and I realized my parents might have some difficulty believing MacLaine's experiences and appreciating the beliefs that had developed as a result. I knew it would be more comfortable for them to absorb the spiritual messages of the novels in the stack. Still, it was a good book to give my parents. Maybe it would help them understand my mindset.

And, more than anything, I wanted my mother to read what amounted to about two pages somewhere in the middle of the book. The couple of pages were about Peter Sellers, about an anecdote he had shared with MacLaine.

Just prior to making Being There, Sellers had a heart attack, and it was serious. He had recounted to MacLaine his emergency room experience, his soul leaving his body and floating above it. While disconnected from his earthbound self, Sellers saw that which they call the “white light,” and it beckoned. But, he didn’t answer its call. He knew he had other things to do within the body on the table. And so he returned.


My parents were visiting me in New York, and my mother and I were sitting in my apartment chatting. I asked if she had enjoyed the stack of books I had given them. She said they had. I asked if she had read the Shirley MacLaine book. She said yes.

I then took the opportunity. “What did you think about that Peter Sellers anecdote? His experience in the Emergency Room?”

My mother’s eyes lit up. An energy enveloped her. She had permission. Permission to tell me about her own experiences – floating above her body, seeing the white light. Returning.

She’d been there. She’d done that. And for years, probably, she assumed it was all an hallucination. An experience that could not be shared, an experience whose other-worldliness would never be understood or validated.


Several years later, I was visiting my parents in Virginia. It was during my unhappy marriage years. I left the unhappiness in L.A., and took a flight back east sans mate. Mom and I were up late one night, sitting in the kitchen. The soft light bounced off my ring’s sapphires and diamonds as we sipped our martinis, smoked cigarettes, and so engaged in a bonding experience that is unique to WASPs.

She told me that night about the graduation ceremony in early June, 1969. The dutiful faculty wife, she was in attendance, sitting quietly among the well-wishers. At some point during the ceremony, a man behind her (a graduate’s father) had a heart attack, “made a noise,” and died on the spot. The noise, it turned out, was the “death rattle.”

A week later, the Accident occurred, and my mother was in the Intensive Care Unit. She had tubes up her nose, tubes down her throat, and tubes in places where there hadn’t been holes two days before. She was outside of her body, floating above it. She had seen the white light.

Then, she heard a noise, and she recognized it from the week before. It was the “death rattle.” But this time it was her own. Hearing it forced her to make a decision.

Something told her to cough. But, with all those tubes in there, she couldn’t. So, she began to pull them out, one after another. Furiously pulling tubes, furiously coughing.

Witnessing this, a young nurse turned to the Head Nurse on duty. “Mrs. Gates is pulling out her tubes!” the young nurse said.

“Oh, just let her,” the Head Nurse replied.

The Head Nurse was Mary Lou – a friend of the family. Her response to Mom’s actions reflected the resignation of a professional who could do no more. A medical professional who was disgusted by the inevitability she was witnessing.

"Oh, just let her,” Mary Lou had said.

So Mom pulled out those tubes. And she coughed. And she coughed. And she coughed. And whatever was blocking her future from her past was released suddenly. In a few short moments, she went from dying to living.


“Wow,” I said to Mom, having heard for the first time about the man at the graduation ceremony. “Do you realize how connected you are to that man who died?”

“Hmmm?” she said.

“He died so that you could live,” I said.

“Oh,” Mom replied, with her graceful innocence. “I guess I never thought about it that way.”


It would probably be pushing it to ask my mother why she chose to return to her body – why she chose to live. I’m just not sure she could answer that. But, maybe I’ve never asked because I don’t want to hear the answer. As long as her answer is a mystery, I can supplant it with my own:

Mom had to come back for me. How could she not? Could I even have reached eighteen without her? And, who would have been there to hand me a ring that was far more sophisticated than I? Who would have dared to give that ring to me? Who would have thought to tell me, through that gift, that I was worthy of its brilliance, that I might someday rise to its level of class and elegance?


Over the years, I’ve looked at my hand – the hand with the ring on it, and I’ve watched it become my mother’s hand. I am more than a decade older than she was when the Accident changed her life. I am older than she was when she passed along the ring to me.

I have no daughter with whom to continue the tradition, but that’s okay. I don’t think I want to give away this ring just yet. As long as it’s on my finger, I still have more reasons to become worthy of it.

More years to gather sophistication.

More years to acquire class.

More years to become the person Mom envisioned when no one else – not even I – could.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Reruns: Mom - Faith, Sapphires, and White Light

A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the third of a four-part piece. To begin at the beginning, go here.

Cape Cod is a wondrous place, and there is a hill on the dunes in Truro where I became friends with Mom. Her parents once owned a house on that hill, and so we would travel there from Virginia for two blissful weeks every June. But that was during my childhood, and it is not the time I am alluding to now.

By my early twenties, the house we once had free access to was no longer in the family. My grandmother died while my mother was in the hospital, that summer of ’69. A few years later, before he died, my grandfather offered the house – at an incredibly reasonable price – to my mother and her two brothers. No takers. Thus went the house.

But it wouldn’t be long before my parents would miss the hill on the dunes in Truro – where everything is peaceful, where nothing goes wrong. So, they pooled their resources with another couple and rented a familiar house for two weeks. It was the summer of ’81, and I easily found two friends who would go in with me on a car rental so that we could drive up from New York to the Cape for a long weekend.

I was settling into adulthood then. I had been out of college for two years, and I was relatively happy with my life as a waitress-by-day/writer-by-night. I was emerging from the sad/angry person whose face had appeared on my original college ID. Mom and I enjoyed each other’s company.

The following summer, my parents and their friends, the Putnams, returned to the Cape. And so I, with a different duo of friends, returned as well. Another easy-going long weekend, another weekend of bonding with Mom.

(Me, growing into the ring.)

A few summers later, Mom and Dad once again made rental plans with the Putnams. Same hill on the dunes, different house. And this time, I was less concerned about who would go with me. I just knew I needed to go. And I planned to be there for a full ten days.

The latter weekend of my stay coincided with the arrival of Martha and her then-husband who drove up from Northern Virginia. (They would be staying the second week.) That latter weekend also featured a visit from our Uncle Gil, Mom’s younger brother. Based in Boston, it was easy for Gil to drive up for an overnight.

The night of Gil’s stay, the Putnams retired to their room after dinner, leaving us, the extended family, sitting around the table. For reasons I cannot recall, the conversation turned to the Accident, and we shared our memories.

Gil talked about receiving a phone call from Virginia. I don’t know if he said who delivered it, but the message was this: “Prepare for your sister’s death.”

He was 39 at the time of the phone call, and he told us that after receiving it, he just went outside and started running around the periphery of his family’s house in Lyme, Connecticut. He just ran around the periphery, frantically singing Beatles songs, he said.

I forget what stories my father and my sister shared that night. I probably had heard them before. I suppose, therefore, they had lost interest to me. I do remember, though, turning around the conversation at one point.

“Mom,” I said. “We always talk about what we were going through while you were in Intensive Care. What were you going through?”

Although I asked the question, I cannot recall the answer she gave that night. And that’s probably because the answer wasn’t complete. But the complete answer did come eventually. It came in pieces, over the next several years.

to be continued (and concluded) on Monday, July 29th.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Calling In Sick...

Be back soon...  with fresh Thursday posts and visits/comments to others.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday Reruns: Mom - Faith, Sapphires, and White Light: Part Two

(original post-date: May 11, 2011)

A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the second of a four-part piece, divided so as to keep each entry short. To begin at the beginning, go here

Perhaps the emotional plate was just too full then. After all, ours was quickly becoming the House of Hormones. Though still in her early forties, Mom was beginning to go through the early stages of menopause. Martha was well on her way to adolescence, and I was just beginning to flirt with its whiplash.

So while Mom confronted hot flashes and other assorted symptoms over the ensuing years, my sister and I confronted our own burgeoning beings. Not surprisingly, our confrontations were as different as the two of us. Martha’s response to the simmering crockpot of adolescence brought to mind Sarah Bernhardt – weepy drama played to the hilt. My response was more in synch with the times – denim-clad rebellion in search of mind-altering drugs.

When Martha turned eighteen, Mom gave her the emerald and diamond ring. And, I’ll admit, there was nothing at all about the gesture that seemed inappropriate. There was something about Martha that already seemed middle-aged at that point, and for that reason, she always struck me as a bit of an anachronism. A cocktail ring – so clearly representative of another era – fit well on her hand. It also would fit well on the campus of the Southern women’s college that she would attend (not coincidentally, the very college where our father taught).

My turning eighteen was another matter altogether. I would not be celebrating the big milestone with my family in Virginia. Rather, I’d be five weeks into my college adventure – in Morningside Heights, just south of Harlem. And while sending the ring via UPS or something of that ilk was certainly an option, Mom decided instead to give it to me early. With no fanfare, she presented it to me in New York, the late August night before our harried day of getting me into my freshman dorm at Barnard.

I remember the look on her face when she handed me the box with the ring in it. The look was hesitant. Tentative. It was a look that said, “If you lose this, or if you sell this for drugs, I will never forgive you.”

I took in that look, and I responded with what had become my trademark, my weapon, and my armor: merciless sarcasm. “Thanks, Mom!” I said, smiling. “And I love it that the blue of the sapphires goes with my jeans!”

She didn’t have a comeback, but she also didn’t need one. She was clearly the stronger party in that scene. By entrusting me with that ring, she had demonstrated that, between us, she could be even more of a risk-taker than I.

I immediately slipped the ring onto my finger. And since that day, I have worn it always.

At the time, my rationale for wearing it was this: if I wait until I have an occasion to wear a sapphire and diamond ring, I will never get to wear this ring. Complementary reasoning went as follows: if this ring is not on my finger, I cannot honestly say that I know where it is.

And so I justified wearing the ring.

But, God, it must have looked awfully silly on me those first several years.

I still have the first college ID that I was issued (the picture probably was taken a day or two after I slipped that ring on my finger). I have kept the ID because I always want to remember the person in the picture. My facial expression then revealed a curious combination of anger and sadness. To go with it, I had short, androgynous hair, no make-up, and the hints of a tee shirt that made no statement whatsoever. Oh, and there were the zits, too. Not a happy camper.

I was an unlikely candidate for a sapphire and diamond ring, and in retrospect, it is no wonder I was never mugged for that particular piece of jewelry. Probably, any mugger who saw the ring then looked at the rest of me and thought, “Nah, those stones can’t be real.”

Yet, I continued to wear it. Ultimately, I grew into it.

And during that decade of shedding anger and sadness, and replacing them with grace and enthusiasm, something else happened: I became friends with my mother.

to be continued on Monday, July 22nd.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An Introvert's Conundrum

For the longest time, I wasn’t sure where I fell on the extrovert/introvert scale.  In fact, I once took the Myers Briggs test and landed pretty much on the fence in the E/I section, so even that attempt to figure it out didn’t help.  I can’t recall the exact questions on that test, but I can tell you this:  I have good social skills; I am (I believe) an entertaining and thoughtful conversationalist; and I like people.  I also can tell you this:  I enjoy my own company and don’t need constant socializing. 

Fortunately, I have a friend who is an expert in communications and conflict resolution, so her knowledge of personality types goes way beyond the Myers Briggs testing language.  Several years ago, when I shared my E/I dilemma with her, she responded with a question.  “Where do you get your energy?” she asked.  “From being alone or from being with other people?”

“Oh my God!” I replied quickly (no thought required), “From being alone!”

And thus, I was deemed an introvert.

And that totally works for me.

In fact, once I’d learned the formula, I also came to acknowledge that when I make social plans, I need to remember what could drain my energy.  I need to space apart my social plans and avoid over-committing.  If I line up too many get-togethers, I will rebel.  I will end up cancelling some of them and/or I will be cranky company at a time when I’d be better off alone.

I’m glad I know this about myself.  I’m glad I’m not socializing for socializing’s sake, thinking that if I don’t, there’s something wrong with me.

That goes for dating and relationships, too.  There really is nothing worse than “feeling that you must.”

…A dear friend came over recently, and we noshed on the types of Trader Joe’s foods you only buy if someone will share them with you.  As we caught up, she shared with me the story of several of her friends whom she’d grouped together as “Bad Boyfriend Recidivists.”  When she’d told me about their current situations, I was struck by how absurdly they were involved in their respective dating/relationship games.  They were actively participating in some shit that was riddled (I mean, riddled!) with red flags.


I can’t answer that for the women in question, but the conversation led me to share two thoughts with my friend.

First, I’m glad I was once married.  Sure, it didn’t take, but it happened, so I have that behind me, and maybe that history prevents some desperation I might otherwise feel. 

Second, I’m glad I am okay being alone.

I then shared with my friend a line from the poet May Sarton.  I should tell you that I only know of this line because I heard it on NPR.  (I’ve never really taken to poetry, and I’d not previously heard of May Sarton.) 

Regardless, the line is this:  “Loneliness is the poverty of the self; solitude is the richness of self.”

(At least, that’s the wording I found just now through a quick Google search.)

So, I guess I’ve got a rich self.  Because for all the time I spend alone, I do not feel lonely.

Still, though, there’s the conundrum.  While I am quite comfortable being alone, I know that the company of another introvert would give me a joy I can’t get on my own.

I have to remind myself of the good times I’ve had sharing occasional space with a man who appreciates his own solitude.  A man who craves quiet but also has good social skills.  Who is an entertaining and thoughtful conversationalist.  Who likes people.

… Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to read like a profile on match dot com, but if you know of anyone in the L.A. area… 

Never mind.  He probably would rather be alone.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Monday Reruns: Mom: Faith, Sapphires, and White Light: Part One

original post-date:  May 4, 2011

A NOTE BEFORE READING: Today’s post and the three Monday rerun posts that will follow it come from a memoir project: five Catalysts and five Constants. The project’s essays are all quite a bit longer than my usual posts, so I am going to share this one in four installments.

On the occasion of her eighteenth birthday, my mother received a cocktail ring from her Aunt Catherine. Catherine, who never married, bought the ring in France in the 1920’s. It has a classic deco design – diamonds and sapphires glistening subtly in a platinum setting. It must have looked quite beautiful on my mother’s young hand. It must have looked quite appropriate, too. The year was 1945, the locale was New England, and young women my Mom’s age had occasions to wear cocktail rings. They even had cocktail dresses.

I don’t think, though, that Mom was wearing either a cocktail ring or a cocktail dress the night she met Dad. I’ve gathered it was a much more casual event, a get-together thrown in the Manhattan living room of some of their mutual friends. But regardless of costuming, they did meet, and in April of 1950, they got married. By the end of that decade, they had two daughters. My sister, Martha, was born in early 1956. I was born twenty months later.

It must have been shortly after my birth that our mother made a decision about the future. Inspired, no doubt, by Catherine’s generous gift – and reflecting her own appreciation for the gesture – Mom decided that my sister and I would each receive a cocktail ring on the occasions of our eighteenth birthdays. Martha would get the emerald and diamond ring that Mom had inherited from “Aunt Edina” – her father’s former nanny. And I, who had been named after Aunt Catherine, would get the beautiful deco piece. My mother would thereby begin a tradition.

In the late 1950’s, a sense of tradition probably had its place. And Mom had no reason to believe that her plan wasn’t sensible. She could not have anticipated the decade ahead. She could not have anticipated the dramatic cultural transformations that, among other things, would lead to women burning their bras when they might otherwise be shopping for cocktail dresses.

Maybe no one could have anticipated the Sixties. But there they were: the civil rights movement, the assassinations, the war and the protests against it, flower power, Woodstock. Events in the country seemed to unfold at a pace that was at once necessary and out of control. Those events changed our nation’s context completely.

And at the end of that decade, a much more personal event changed our family’s context. Also completely.

My parents went to a cocktail party at the Country Club, and their close circle of friends decided on an after-party. A late-night meal at the restaurant owned by one of the couples in the group. It was Friday the 13th. June, 1969. The restaurant was probably no more than a ten-minute drive from the Country Club.

My parents were not even halfway to the restaurant when a Cadillac sedan slammed into the passenger side of their tiny English Ford. My Dad, who was driving, got off lucky. Despite the car’s being forced a good fifty feet off its course, he suffered only a few broken ribs. Mom, though, was in bad shape. The paramedics had to cut off the door to extract her from the car. They also had to cut the beautiful cocktail dress she bought in Paris two years earlier.

I was eleven years old that summer; my sister was thirteen. We received the news when the Cooleys (our parents’ closest friends) showed up where we had been babysitting. After telling us the abridged version of the event (which was all anyone knew at the time), the Cooleys took us home to pack some things. Then we went to their house, which was less than a quarter-mile from our own.

That first weekend was strange – so many people coming by with food. An odd energy. It seemed serious, but not too serious, all at once. Although we were told initially that Mom had a broken arm, it became apparent soon that there was more to the story. But it was only when she was “out of the woods” that we learned how dire her condition had been.

Dad was home by the middle of the following week, and so Martha and I went home, too. But Mom would be in the hospital for most of the summer, as her ultimately extensive list of injuries included a broken pelvis, which would take a few months to heal.

I can’t remember if I ever truly felt the pain and fear that an eleven year old might be expected to experience during that summer. I knew, in a way, that I had almost lost my mother. But, I also knew that I hadn’t lost my mother. And so the “almost” was intangible somehow.

I also wasn’t one then to reveal any deep digging into personal emotions. Sure, I would cry openly for hours over a good, sentimental movie or television program, but when it came to family stuff, I was famous for my stoicism. Maybe I did appear stoic. Maybe I had to – if only for the sake of marking my own territory in a land where my older sister’s dynamics absorbed just about all the energy in a given space.

In any event, after the Accident, and after Mom came home finally, my alleged stoicism regarding the event didn’t exactly stand out in the crowd. The whole family seemed somewhat resigned. And rather than celebrate Mom’s having lived, we just tried to pick up where we had left off.

But, we each carried the Accident within us. For years, it would be a burden that we would never forget, and one that we would never explore fully.

to be continued on Monday, July 15th

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Noise Will Be Noise

Although I was raised in a distinctly rural part of Virginia, I have spent all of my adult years in urban hubs.  First, New York.  Now, Los Angeles. 

And while the NYC neighborhoods I once lived in are now well out of my price range, my experience – at the time – was of being on the cusp of wealth and danger.

When my ex and I lived in Park Slope, Ben (the alias I have assigned to the ex) described our block as “Park Slop.”  It was most definitely on the cusp.  Make a left when emerging from the building and you’d soon be walking by the types of brownstones you might purchase if you were to win the lottery.  Make a right when emerging from the building and you’re doing another form of gambling altogether…

The same is true of my current hood.  In fact, it’s exactly the same.  If I hang a left, I will soon be walking in an area that is graced by multimillion-dollar homes.  If I hang a right, I will walk into an area from which I sometimes hear gunfire.

But gunfire isn’t the primary noise this time of year (or any time of year, actually).  This time of year, the 4th of July noisemakers (firecrackers, M-80s, etc.) are prevalent, and I’ve never understood why they are so enticing.  I don’t “get” creating unnecessarily disturbing noise.  Fireworks displays are one thing, but noise for the sake of noise?  What’s the draw?

Once, when Ben and I were returning from dinner at a nice restaurant closer to Park Slope’s brownstones, we saw a dog lying in front of our apartment building.  It was around the 4th of July, and the noise-making had been happening for more than a week.  As we approached, we learned that the dog had leapt from an apartment window because it was stunned by the sound of a noise-maker. 

So, what did the idiot kids do to get that dog on its feet? 

They launched another noise-maker.

Jesus!  Do these people not have brains?  Or hearts?

Despite the cruel logic, the plan worked.  Another noise-maker got the dog on its feet.  And bless that beast’s heart for returning home to a place where the humans responsible for its well-being were in fact irresponsible in a really big way.

  On an unrelated occasion (except for the time of year), I traveled with one of my dearest college friends down to Wilmington, Delaware, where we would enjoy the 4th of July holiday with her parents and her myriad siblings (my friend is the oldest of 11).  My friend and I took the bus down from NYC.  Her husband would be joining us the next day. 

After he’d arrived, the three of us and maybe two of my friend’s sisters headed out into the woods that were near their parents’ house.  The agenda was noise-making, and they’d brought along the “tools.”  I had no interest in creating the noise.  I simply came along for the ride.

I have no idea what my friend, her sisters, and her husband were hurling into the dark, but after one of those noise-makers was flung, one of those sisters heard a crackling noise.  Fortunately, they moved onto that discovery quickly, and within 30 seconds, they were jumping up and down on the forest fire they had almost started.


It would have really sucked to have been hauled into the police station for that potential carnage, but I gotta say, if that had happened, my desire for freedom and my absolute innocence would have trumped any loyalty to my friends. 

Sure, they could have booked them – my friend, a magazine editor; her husband, a doctor. 

But me?  The waitress in the mix? 

“Sorry officer,” I would have said.  “I had nothing to do with starting that fire.  I came along as a guest.”