Archive for July, 2018

Hello, is Ila there?

Hello, is Ila there?

Ever since the Ojai fire in early December and the mass slaughter of old wooden telephone poles, nearly all of my calls come through my cell phone. My landline returned after four months. But by then I had weaned myself from a wired connection. I still do get landline calls and nearly one hundred percent of them are from people who want my money.

So, through necessity, I’ve developed a keen ear for determining whether the incoming call has been placed by some insensitive machine. You’ve probably learned the same trick of identifying robo-calls. It’s that slight hesitation as though no one is there, coupled with a tell-tale bleep, warning you that you are about to be connected to a real person. Like a well-trained gunslinger, I can usually press the end-call button before the connection is completed.

But sometimes the call is placed directly and so I’m required to listen to someone speak a few words before consigning the call to a far-away place. And that’s what happened around two o’clock Monday, about thirty-six hours after my return from Costa Rica. Maybe it was the jet lag that made me slow on the draw…or maybe it was something else.

Hello, is Ila there?  For what seemed like an eternity, I sat there, phone in hand, and didn’t know how to respond.  A series of possible answers flowed through my brain at warp speed.

Sorry. Ila passed away 

She doesn’t live here any more

No one here by that name

Please don’t call me again, my wife died nearly a year ago

After what seemed like eons of silence, I finally settled on No, she’s not here.  And I hung up before the caller could respond with obligatory condolences.

But that’s a lie. Ila is in fact here. Little bits of her have touched many people and she continues to influence their lives. Her DNA is deposited in her children and her grandchildren. Her honesty, generosity and morality have cascaded to her offspring. And will someday reside in her great-grandchildren.

I was sharply reminded of this by my daughter, Nancy, at dinner in Costa Rica last Friday. On a Friday that marked eleven months since Ila’s death. On a Friday that would normally have found me in the synagogue where I would stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for those who have passed out of our lives.

Instead, we were in a celebratory mood, having spent the last week enjoying all that Costa Rica has to offer including its abundant scenery, local food and wonderful people. It was our last night and ten of us were feeling no pain.

And then Nancy stood and said with great difficulty “Before this all ends, we need to remember those who are not here with us.” As tears filled her eyes, I looked around the table and saw all the people, now silent, who had been touched by Ila.

Her DNA, morals and peculiarities can be easily found in her two children. Her three grandchildren are fortunate offspring sharing in the gifts presented by Ila. In turn, her influence has helped lead her children in their selection of their partners.

And I am the principal beneficiary of her love and largess, freely given to me during nearly sixty years of knowing and loving her. She, who was a partner in all we did. She, who probably engineered the Chicago snowstorm that convinced us to move to California. She, who insisted that I start a business and stick with it despite the all too frequent times that found me questioning my judgment. She, who always stood by me as we weathered the periodic storms that nearly engulfed us.

And it goes on today to affect others. People ask me “Do you think that Ila is happy that you are not alone?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do think she would be happy with the new woman in my life. I know that my choice of a loving soul mate has been influenced by the woman who came before her.

So, the next time some caller asks Is Ila there? I’ll say Yes, but she’s busy now.

Fireworks on the Fourth

It was like the big bang, the birth of the universe. Booming, flashing and bright as the sun. That’s what it was like, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at Nordhoff High School.

It had been a long day, starting with the parade down Ojai Avenue. A taste of small town Americana that forces the corners of your mouth to perpetually curve upward and your hands to wave at every passing antique car, sleek coated stallion and smiling participant. I was continually reminded of our family camping trips to small towns where the county fair was the highlight of our adventure. Dusty, disorganized and unprofessional. But loveable, kind and welcoming.

I hadn’t been to the Ojai parade in many years. I’d been lodging a silent protest ever since the fourth had fallen on a Sunday and the parade organizers had shifted the parade to July 5th to accommodate church-goers. Unfair, I had thought then. But time erases all wounds, and my childish pouting had long ago ceased to be important.

Jackie had, in her can-do fashion, latched onto lawn chairs in the shade, along with free food and drink. Right up front and personal, where we might as well have been in the parade. Periodic breaks to greet passing friends made it seem even homier.

The parade ended around noon and we had time to visit the local Asian massage parlor. Little English is spoken there, and business is transacted with electronic devices, accompanied by a fair amount of hand waving and pointing. Not the best massage in town, but probably the cheapest. It’s mildly unwelcoming on the outside. Inside it’s surprisingly large, dimly lit, quiet and mysterious. Sort of like an opium den that’s had a Martha Stewart makeover.

Jackie’s friend, Susan, was visiting from San Francisco and staying at a motel near the high school. Because of the expected not-so-Ojai traffic jams, we decided to park at the motel and walk the quarter-mile to the fireworks. We picked up Susan and got a five second tour of her room where the three of us filled the available space. The jacuzzi tub next to the bed seemed particularly threatening . But the nightly room charge was cheap, unless you based it on the cost per square foot.

We walked to the high school, showed our tickets and donned a wrist band whose purpose was never revealed. We entered the stadium infield, found an unoccupied spot of grass, spread our blanket, and jockeyed for position. I was dubbed the Cream of the Oreo and was accordingly allocated the enviable position between the two women.

Having completed these logistics, we arose and searched for the source of the hypnotic odors wafting through the air, promising us assuredly unhealthy food. Drawn like moths to a flame, we tracked down two food trucks that had been nearly cleansed of all greasy deposits. Reading the menu and fearing for our lives, we retreated to our blanket and settled in for the nearly two-hour wait while the sun set and darkness became pervasive.

Lying on the grass, I had the distinct feeling that I was about to be trampled by small children. I wondered if I blended in too well and wished I had four bright orange Caltrans pylons to set about me. Even a small Ethiopian flag on a pole would be better than risking the maiming of irreplaceable body parts. Amazingly, I escaped major injury even though children (and quite a few inebriated adults) seemed blissfully unaware of the aging body spread before them.

It was getting darker but not yet inky-dark. Susan, complaining of stiff joints, went off to sit on the stadium bleacher benches. Alone, but for two or three similarly incapacitated persons, she remained there for the balance of the evening. This was an unexpected gift for Jackie and me, since we could now wrap ourselves in the blanket to supplement the inadequate cold weather gear that Jackie had insisted we did not need. Keeping warm against the descending night was brightened by the prospect of cuddling. With that special bonus, I was no longer concerned about the time spent waiting for the show to begin.

A ten-minute warning burst from a loud-speaker so close to my head that I thought I was wearing Bose headphones attached to my iPhone and set to max volume. Then another announcement blast erupted with five minutes to showtime. Just time enough to figure out the mechanics of the glow sticks I had purchased earlier. Mechanics that a four-year-old could have handled faster than me. Sticks aglow, we wrapped them around our necks and clipped the ends together. It was eerie, as we appeared to have our heads disconnected from our bodies. Much like Charles Laughton in the Canterville Ghost 1944 movie where he terrorized unwelcome visitors, including Robert Young, by carrying his seemingly cut off head in a silver tray held in front of his chest.

The show began. Slowly at first, then growing in intensity. Laying on the blanket, head looking straight up into the sky, I felt like I was in the show, not watching it. Bodies were involuntarily inert, barely getting “Oh my, look at that” out of our mouths before the next volley. Periodic booms that I usually complain about, were a welcome companion to the flashing and bursting of the fireworks. Kids who would normally display extreme attention deficit disorder were stark still, as though mesmerized. Aging adults, who thought they had seen it before, were enthralled. We were all viewing a cosmic birthing from within the birth canal.

And just when the show needed an extra lift, the finale arrived as if from another planet. Multiple rockets and bursting bombs filled the sky producing gigantic, multi-limbed alien life forms. Sonic booms again assaulted my ears and isolated my brain from the rest of my body. My only connection with reality was Jackie’s warm body touching mine. I felt like a kid again.

Then it ended silently, like the spinning down of a treadmill in cool-down mode.  It gave me time enough to absorb the grandeur without feeling like I’d overeaten. We lay silently on the blanket, not ready to end the night. People around us began to rise slowly from the chilled, damp ground. There was no sense of urgency to leave the site of the spectacle. No rush to our cars. Taking time to re-enter life. Strangers spoke to other strangers, wasn’t that something!

Yes, it was. And there could be no encore, for this had been perfection.


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