Archive for the 'love' Category

Who’s in charge anyway?

Brandi of Fancy Free Photography just sent us a link to our wedding photos. Viewing them, I smiled so much that the persistent rain clouds parted, and I felt physically uplifted. My breathing quickened, my eyes refused to blink, and my fingers clambered over my Dell keyboard as I scrolled haphazardly through the evidence of our wedding day.

Almost two hundred pictures leaped off the screen. Jackie, me, the two of us, our guests, the Rabbi, and the harpist cascaded down and across the screen, everyone a keeper. I could not get enough of them. They are worth the price of admission, but they hardly do justice to the herculean efforts that changed the occasion from a standard wedding of two lovers to an odyssey that might never have happened.

A year ago, as we shared Jackie’s sauna in her castle dungeon of a garage, we spoke of marriage and promised ourselves to each other. Even then it seemed like the beginning of a quest, complete with digitized monsters and other obstacles that block the hero’s path as he seeks the prize at the end of the latest video game.

Some gamers have what it takes to overcome a myriad of challenges. Taking the correct path, acquiring the latest weaponry and being quick on the draw are vital components. But the key to gamer success is accepting setbacks and then coming back for more. Nothing can divert their attention from the final objective. Difficulties on the way are quickly analyzed, corrections made, and then they’re back at it. Time is of little consequence. It simply must be done. No excuses or exceptions are permitted.

Jackie is a black-belt at overcoming obstacles and achieving her goals. Her talents would make short work of 2019’s most popular video games. Resident Evil, Call of Duty, Apex Legends, Sekiro, and Devil May Cry are child’s play for this woman. Older games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto 2 would be rejected out of hand as not being worth her time.

I’ve seen it up front and close. I consider myself diligent and loathe to procrastinate, but compared to Jackie I’m a slug. I look like a three-toed sloth compared to her cheetah-like movements. One better stay out of her way when she’s set her teeth. Best to just lean back, relax and watch things evolve.

I participated in determining the number of wedding guests. What started out as a family-only affair quickly grew large enough to repopulate Pompei following the eruption of Vesuvius. Other than that, my contributions to the event’s details consisted largely of cheering Jackie on with “Sounds good to me. Whatever you say, sweetheart. And, I’m available when needed.”

The wedding venue Azu, food selections, the officiating Rabbi, photographer, florist and harpist all fell nicely in place. Plans were completed and deposits paid. Then the corona virus appeared, uninvited and apparently angry at its exclusion from our guest list.

As the magnitude of the virus epidemic became pandemic, alterations to our wedding plans went from annoying to maddening.

Out of town guests dropped like flies. Who could blame them when their seat companion might be Senor Corona? Weddings are seldom first choice in most people’s vacation plans. Some guests, anxious to find any reason to stay home, might have been grateful for the rising rates of hospitalization reported by a media starved for news.

Much like a CNN talking head on election night, we constantly evaluated input from friends and relatives and considered postponing the blessed event. But, like a peregrine falcon zeroing in on a rabbit, Jackie stayed focused. “We are doing this now. No postponement. I’m not planning this thing again.” My weak contribution of a series of yes dears sealed my fate.

Pronouncements emanated from the Oval Office and the Governor’s Mansion. All seemed to have been conjured up solely to deep-six our wedding. No large gatherings. No gatherings of more than ten. Stay six feet apart. Stay home. This means you, Jackie.

The guest list declined by a quarter, then another quarter. In a show of solidarity, people dropped out who were never even on the guest list. I had visions of the attending, sad-faced guests wishing us well while contracting the virus from eating wedding cake, then falling at our feet. We decided to move the wedding to our house, thereby eliminating the potential cost of body removal from Azu’s bill. The guest list was trashed and a blizzard of E-vite mailings uninvited most of the remaining stalwarts.

The harpist was the first to quit. Jackie found another in the middle of the night. The florist threatened to throw the boatload of flowers over our fence to avoid contracting the malady, but Jackie sweetly reminded her of the contract she had signed. The cake baker left a terse message declining the pleasure of producing it; Jackie decided that cookies were good enough. The officiating Rabbi developed a nasty malady that prevented her attendance. Jackie called half of Ventura County and found a replacement who felt rabbinically protected from the heathen virus. Jackie was not to be denied.

On the off chance that either President Trump or Governor Newsom might swoop down on us, we performed the wedding in two shifts, each with few than six people. Others, stuck at home, could view the shrunken event via Zoom; at least we saved money on the food.

The threat of rain abated an hour before the event, and it remained bright and warm until an hour after its conclusion. I attribute that heavenly blessing to Jackie’s can-do reputation which goes well beyond these earthly environs.

Looking at the photos, you’d think that we always planned it that way. Maybe we did, but we just didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t your common garden-variety wedding. But then with Jackie in charge, you knew it was going to be spectacular.

Plays, Cemeteries and Dinner

Sunday was our day at the Ahmanson.

Daughter Nancy and I have been series subscribers since Ila died. Ila loved musicals and we often found ourselves several rows back from the stages at LA’s downtown Music Center, the Ojai Art Center and the Rubicon in Ventura. Before we moved to Ojai and the schlep became a bridge too far, we had great seats at the Hollywood Bowl including coveted reserved parking.

As her illness progressed, Ila found the noise, regardless of the decibel level, and the milling crowds too much to handle and we stopped attending live plays and movies. Even a simple visit to the band shell in Libbey Park was, for her, like living through the height of the Luftwaffe’s 1940 London blitz.

Our final venture into entertainment was a trip to Hollywood’s rococo Pantages Theater to see Beautiful, the musical about Carol King. Ila lasted less than five minutes into the performance. Signaling her discomfort, she covered her ears. We rose from our center section seats and excused ourselves to each of the fifteen people we trod on as we slogged past them. We then spent quality time seated on a lobby bench while daughter Nancy remained through the first act. Mercifully, we left the confines of the theater before the second act and drove home.

My day for the Ahmanson routinely begins with a trip to Conejo Mountain Memorial Park to visit Ila in the cemetery section reserved for Jews. Authors of bereavement guides are quick to remind me that Ila really isn’t there under a blanket of Saint Augustine grass; rather, she lives in our memories. To which I respond…how do you know?

With ten dollars, I buy cut flowers at the Park office, picking a bunch that I think Ila will like. I arrive at the grave site and arrange the flowers in the container embedded at the foot of the grave. I clear some dead leaves from the site onto a currently unoccupied neighboring plot. I stand and look at the inscription on the grave marker…We love you up to the sky and beyond.  I speak to her and ask how she’s doing, knowing there will be no audible response. I remind her of my upcoming marriage to Jackie and I feel guilty. I remember the bereavement group facilitator saying that Ila would want me to be happy…and I wonder.

I place a small stone on the corner of the grave marker. I had carefully selected it from the array in front of the house. It was smooth, a pleasing brown color and about two inches in diameter. There are several Jewish theories why a stone is left behind. Flowers are rarely put on Jewish graves; I’m an exception. Flowers are impermanent while stones, like memories, are lasting. My personal belief is a bit selfish; it’s a tradition that tells others I was here.

I took a photo of the grave and the flowers. I take one during each visit. I occasionally send one to the kids with a note that tells them that Nana says that she loves you. Some I just keep in my iPhone memory, helping to keep track of my visits. I say good-bye and tell her that I love her.

On the way to my car I pass Naida’s grave. Naida and Ila shared illnesses, became an odd couple of fast friends, and now lie together twenty feet apart. I bid Naida good-bye but am out of stones.

It took thirty minutes to arrive at Nancy’s Calabasas home where coffee and deli stuff waited. Finished downing a combination sandwich of Gelson’s corned beef and hard salami, we left for the Ahmanson, got there with time to spare and, despite murmurs about the Corona virus, found a packed theater waiting to see The Book of Mormon. We had seen it years ago, and although laden with some embarrassment at its rapid-fire jokes about a little understood religion, had thoroughly enjoyed it the first time.

As usual, our seats were centered, ten rows back from the stage where the scenery was highlighted by a horn blowing statue of the angel Moroni calling people to the gospel of Jesus. Early in the performance, it became apparent that I needed more than a golden horn to hear the lyrics of the show’s now familiar tunes.

Although fitted with hearing aids, more than half of the spoken words were a great mystery to me. Laughter rose throughout the theater while I too often sat idly by wondering what was so funny. Nancy tried to lessen the impact of my affliction on my psyche by assuring me that she too could not understand everything. Yet whenever I leaned toward her and said, “What did he say?” she was able to tell me, albeit too late to enjoy that joke while the audience had moved on to another unintelligible phrase. Resigned to the inevitable, I sat back, clasped my hands in my lap and settled for half a loaf.

Like senses competing for attention, my eyesight in dimly lit settings is no better than my aging ears. As though encouraging pratfalls, the Ahmanson puts a half height step at the end of the darkened aisle and another one at the foot of the exit ramp. My recourse is to slowly shuffle my feet while seeking those challenging steps. I sometimes lose the contest and half hurtle forward into the waiting arms of a stranger.

My adventure with senescence continued after the play with a dinner trip to the Wood Ranch restaurant in Agoura. Once again, my reading skills were tested by a dimly lit environment intended to create a relaxing atmosphere for everyone other than Mr. Magoo. Although a light beamed from the ceiling, it focused like a laser beam on the tiny center of the table. It required that I lean forward with my elbows in the complimentary bread bowl to stand a chance of capturing some lumens.

Dinner conversation was highlighted by the possible whereabouts of my misplaced hat and concluded with the realization that I had lost my Visa card. Capping my Emmy winning performance, I gracefully rose from the table and unknowingly dropped two napkins from my lap onto the floor. Perhaps a bibb next time.

Nancy and Kevin were unwilling to allow me to go solo to locate my car for fear that I might be found at dawn, frozen in the parking lot. Better safe than sorry has become the law of the land. I drove home without causing a pile-up on the 101 and, displaying an as yet intact smidgen of independence, refused to call the kids to let them know I had arrived safely.

I suppose I enjoyed the play.

Lunch with Yoram

Yoram, my good friend from the Upper Ojai, and I celebrated our still functioning lungs with lunch at the Ojai Café Emporium. We often go there when we’ve exhausted other venues. The food is tolerable, the prices manageable and the waiters are especially kind to old people.

I ordered a small-size Famous Ojai salad. Reputedly containing bits of turkey, I had trouble finding them amidst an oversupply of bacon bits. The quite tasty molasses muffin and two pats of room temperature butter made up for the missing turkey chunks.

Yoram had no trouble decimating a generous tri-tip sandwich surrounded by a large clump of sweet potato fries. He washed it down with several glasses of Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade that mentally challenged my own bladder control.

Sticking to our usual routine, we quickly disposed of our critical analysis of the recent Oscars show, had a Trump inspired dissertation on “what is this world coming to”, and offered a brief synopsis of our latest physical complaints, headed by our growing inability to remember just about anything.

The conversation moved on to wives, or in my case, about-to-be wives. Men are somewhat limited in this subject. For example, I have often told Jackie that men never talk about having sex with their wives, or anyone else for that matter. Women, I am told, can spend an inordinate time on that subject which often includes frequency (sometimes none), ability to maintain erections (sometimes none) and the size of the male member used during the act (sometimes accompanied by admiring oooohs and aaaahs from those women in attendance.)

Men are more often focused on living conditions in the home. To that point, Jackie and I have just completed the first month of living together in sin. It’s been a bit of a challenge accommodating to each other’s way of keeping house. That we are still in love is testimony to our ability to stay strong and laugh at what might otherwise be an early termination of a perfect union.

Usually it’s the small stuff. The garbage disposal for example. When I lived in the Upper Ojai, I had the joy of dealing with an anemic septic system. After several lessons in humility, and being unsure of the cause of my problems, I studiously avoided putting anything through the garbage disposal. I became a happy guy with multiple bags of trash that were dealt with by assigning that responsibility to E.J. Harrison and Sons, our local mafia connected, but ever so helpful, sanitation engineers.

Free-will advocate Jackie believes that anything not breathing is a candidate for the disposal. And in some cases, not breathing is optional. I began our home-buddies’ relationship by whispering suggestions to her that might help reroute the trash from the disposer to the compactor. And then the disposer died, probably from too much gluten-free trash. We installed a new one that made the house shake with abandon. This disposer had no enemies. Wood planks, concrete blocks and railroad spikes were no match for the new beast in town.

Dazzled by its prowess, I gradually participated in, and then reveled in the wanton destruction of anything that did not move. Jackie and I bonded in our love for the once-despised machine. We had dodged a bullet in our relationship.

The washing machine was another stress producer. I had replaced the old machine inherited during the purchase of the Andrew home with a very white, very tres chic matched set that looked like it was begging to be used. My old wash day habit included waiting until there was only one pair of unsullied Kirkland boxer shorts left in my dresser drawer. I had it timed perfectly so that I could go from weekend to weekend before refreshing my supplies. Water and soap conservation led my reasons for avoiding too-often machine processing.

Jackie never has soiled clothing in her possession for more than eight hours. A machine load to her often includes one cute pair of black Lululemon yoga pants and a loose fitting, yet revealing, top. That’s it. Like the garbage disposal, I decided that it was better to join ‘em than to fight ‘em.

Her daily journey to the laundry room now includes one pair of my shorts, a t-shirt and one pair of white socks. Because I have but one t-shirt to contribute, it returns clean to the top of my shirt drawer where it is worn again the next day. People at the athletic club think I’m destitute because I wear the same t-shirt every day. To help justify the frequent natural resource robbing wash cycles, I occasionally contribute a large green bath towel to the load. You could eat off it. Yet another bullet dodged on the way to marital bliss.

Other challenges exist as we head toward formal matrimony in just thirty-nine days. The proper protocol for thermostat setting is a work in progress as I try to accommodate to temperatures that would challenge an Emperor Penguin. TV shows, especially those mind-numbing series depicting inane, beautiful young men and women, currently populate the hit list in our home. Gone are those special programs that challenged my mind such as Ant-Man versus Wasp, Bad Boys 2, Ninja Assassin and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

But, despite the odds, I’m confident she’ll come around to my way of thinking. Right after hell freezes over.

Wash Day

I’ve been in my new house for almost four months. It’s been a bit of an adjustment.

…Traded one hundred and ten oak studded acres for a tenth of an acre and a mulberry tree.

…Abandoned two hundred stately olive trees and adopted one miniature citrus.

…The Topa Topas, formerly blessed with a 360-degree view, are now a mere snippet of their former stature.

…Car and foot traffic have multiplied a thousand-fold.

…The chirping of birds and the howling of coyotes has morphed into the squeals of young children.

…Earthly possessions have dwindled to a precious few to accommodate the loss of three thousand square feet of living and storage space.

…Traded an eighteen-minute drive to town for an eighteen-minute walk.

…Carried Westridge groceries home like a bag lady, instead of tossing them in my trunk.

I’d like to say that I love my new home. But that would be stretching it. With few exceptions, love at first sight only occurs in novels and movies. Rather, true love tends to be a long-term developmental effort. And, once achieved, love often changes into something more practical. Like a warm pair of socks or a favorite sweatshirt.

Jackie is an exception. My infatuation turned into love early in our relationship and it continues unabated today, two months before our March wedding.

Jackie loves her own house. Like her, it is petite and beckoning. Situated amid the oaks, it is an Arbolada gem. Two bedrooms and one bath, it suits her like a soft, well-worn pair of slippers. Her mother’s possessions flit throughout the miserly twelve hundred square feet. A delightfully warm jacuzzi and a garage-dwelling-sauna provide comfort to her at the end of the day. On warm summer afternoons, the cushioned patio chair welcomes her and offers a glimpse of sun through the overhanging branches of a magnificent ancient oak larger than her house.

For what seems an eternity, I have worked tirelessly to wean her from her very special place and bring her to my home. I succeeded last week when her cherished possessions were moved unceremoniously from her beloved home to my yet to be loved house.

We are in an adjustment period. Opening multiple kitchen drawers to find the right utensil. Trying to sleep through the night in a room that has been meticulously decorated with her familiar artwork. Trashing many of my old possessions that have been deemed superfluous to our new lifestyle. Learning to operate the over-optioned washer and dryer. Flipping multiple light switches to find the right one. Quietly rising in the early morning hours so as to least offend a sleeper trying to squeeze out a few more minutes in a warm bed.

My house comes complete with mysterious sounds including strange clicks, periodic creaks and its own brand of noise produced by the unfamiliar, temperamental two-zone heating system. The house also has another eerie habit…the movement of objects by an unseen hand.

Angelica, the cleaning lady arrives on Monday and includes a bit of laundry in her repertoire. Wishing to stay out of her way, I generally vacate the house and find something to occupy myself while the premises are being made presentable. Evidence of Angelica’s prowess includes a clean smelling, sparkly interior, shiny wood floors and a spotless stove. She uses dozens of cloth towels that are cleaned in my washing machine at the end of her day.

I came home yesterday and was surprised to find that the washing machine had been moved forward from its usual position leaving an irregular foot-wide gap between the wall and it. My initial reaction was that Angelica had moved the machinet in order to clean behind it. I called her to verify my suspicion but was assured that she had not moved the beast. It took all my strength to slide it back into its proper position.

Still wondering about the mysterious Maytag movement, my thoughts turned to Ila, my first sweet princess, who has been gone more than two years. Her ghostly connections with me following her death often include the appearance of objects in unaccustomed places. I attribute those events to her displeasure with me, her concern with something I had done, or just a reminder that she is still part of me. Could this most recent occurrence have something to do with Jackie’s arrival? Perhaps, but Ila had never moved something as massive as a two-hundred-pound washing machine. Pausing and thinking more rationally, I dismissed my initial conclusion.

And then the toilet overflowed.

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

I just got home from a pre-Mothers’ Day brunch with Jackie, Dianne, Judy, Cathy and Edie. It’s become an annual ritual where we share stories about our mothers, complain about their faults and, less frequently, extol their virtues. I am somewhat of an anomaly in the group and am occasionally referred to as a Normy, or someone who is out of step with the other group members.

Today’s brunch topic was “nurturing.” Defined as caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone, we all shared stories about our mothers that fit that definition. My story may have stretched it a bit, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

When I was fifty, I lived in Los Angeles with Ila and our three kids. My mother, Celia, having years before rejected our suggestion to move to Southern California, still lived in her two-flat brownstone in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side.

My father had, some time before, passed way in the same year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. The end of more than sixty years of marriage had left my mother alone in her home. My brother watched over her, but most of her day, and all of her nights, were spent by herself.

In addition to family life cycle events that brought me and my family back to Chicago, I would occasionally come to town on business. I’d often stay with my mother and sleep in the spare bedroom, the same room that, as a teenager, I had shared with my grandmother.

On this particular visit, my plane was an hour late. Our now ubiquitous cell phones had not yet been invented and making a pay phone call from O’Hare Airport seemed like too much of a stretch. So I hustled a cab and I arrived at my mother’s doorstep around eight that evening.

The brownstone’s entry door had a glass panel that allowed a visual inspection of her visitors before buzzing them into the hallway. I pressed the buzzer and waited. The door opened and my eighty-year-old, five-foot two mother appeared.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are welcoming while others express irritation. Some are contrived while others are sincere. Some are hidden while others are expansive.

As I looked at my mother’s face through that glass panel, her smile showed relief, welcoming and love. I had seen that smile a thousand times and had always felt warm in its embrace. She buzzed me in, we hugged, and I was home.

My mother came to this country in 1925 as a teenage refugee from Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine that then boasted of a population of about seventy-five thousand people. Beset by pogroms, my mother’s Jewish family suffered the usual set of indignities and, more to the point, state-sponsored murder.

Arriving in Chicago and speaking little English, Celia went to work at the Brach Candy Company where she was proud to often remind us that she had risen to the exalted position of “fore-lady.” Although she learned to speak English, her eastern European accent was etched into our conversations. I was never quite convinced of her reading skills even as she turned the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her handwriting was shaky and her signature nearly illegible. But she excelled at adding up columns of figures entered on the paper bags that customers took home, stocked with the food purchased at my father’s grocery and deli.

She made many of the items at the deli including chopped liver and coleslaw. I’d watch her make potato salad as she peeled the Idaho spuds that were still boiling hot. Any thought of health department rules were cast aside as she dipped her arms into the huge pot up to her elbows to mix the mayo and other tasty ingredients into the soon to be savored, high calorie delight.

When I was a kid, our home, a three bedroom flat in an Albany Park ghetto, was everyone’s home. Seeming strangers stayed with us for a day, then a week, then a month. When Celia wasn’t working at the deli, she was cooking at home. Without complaint, she fed all who came, washed their underwear and made them feel at home.

Parties, both planned and unplanned, were more often than not held at our place. Complete with food and drink, they went on late into the night. I often found my ten-year old body at rest on the cot in the dining room while a penny-ante card game went on at the table next to my bed.

People came and I watched. I saw my mother welcome all who entered through her door. I heard her greet them with genuine happiness and a smile on her face. I heard her laugh and I watched as she made sure everyone had what they needed. And only when everyone else had their share did she take hers.

I don’t remember much of what she said to me as I matured. Perhaps because she didn’t often tell me what to do or how to act. But I learned from watching how she treated others. How she never complained about having too little or working too much. How, even on the toughest days, she had a genuine smile for her husband and for me.

My mother would not have known the meaning of the word “nurturing” but she practiced it every hour of the day, every day of her life. And I am who I am because of her.

Happy Mother’s Day mom. I love you.

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

I’m a fiance

Taken from the French, the word fiancé is the masculine term for a man who is engaged to be married. A fiancée (note the double e) is a woman who has chosen a similar fate.

I haven’t been a fiancé for almost sixty years since dear Ila and I linked our lives together. It feels a little strange and a bit lofty at my age to be calling myself a fiancé. So I thought there must be another term that means the same thing but would slide more easily off my tongue than “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my fiancée Jackie.”

According to Wikipedia, being engaged is not the same as dating. During this period, a couple is said to be betrothed, intendedaffiancedengaged to be married, or simply engaged. “Hello, I’m Fred and this is my betrothed, Jackie.” Or “Hello, I’m Fred and this is Jackie. We are intended.” Nope. Just doesn’t work.

I shared my new status with my bereavement group at Help of Ojai. When asked if anyone had anything to share with the group, I quickly said “I’m engaged.  And my fiancee’s name is Jackie.” The faces of those sitting around the table gave me cause for celebration. I asked if I sounded awkward saying fiancé. I was assured that I had done it well and could lay to rest my fear of using the term.

You may recall that I had the same difficulty finding a term that described our status before Jackie and I were engaged. Back then it was a toss-up between partner, sweetheart, significant other, beloved and lover. We have managed to live through that awkward period without significant damage. and I’m sure we’ll do the same while coping with uttering fiancé or fiancée.

The question most often asked after someone congratulates me for being engaged is “So when’s the wedding?” After some hesitation, I generally say something cute like one small step for mankind or you’ll be the second to know. According to my sources, the length of an engagement varies widely. The longest engagement on record was between Octavio Guillan and Adriana Mart¡nez. They finally took the plunge after 67 years in June, 1969 in Mexico City. Hopefully, they had time to consummate the marriage before one of them invoked the phrase until death us do part.

The ring also plays a significant role in engagements. The tradition dates back to the ancient Egyptians when a ring was thought to symbolize eternity. It was worn on the ring finger which was believed to have a vein running directly to the heart, later named vena amoris. Second century Romans believed that a ring signified the ownership of the woman.

The first recorded use of a diamond engagement ring occurred when Archduke Maximilian proposed to Mary of Burgundy. The diamond ring craze began in earnest when Cecil Rhodes founded DeBeer’s in the late 1800s. Pricey, but probably better than the early caveman who tied cords of braided grass around his chosen’s hands, wrists and waist to bring the hussy under his control.

We spent time looking for the perfect ring. And we found it in a small jewelry store in Santa Barbara. More a storeroom than a store, Tuon, the owner, made us feel confident that he could bring off the pairing of a diamond with a setting that did it justice.

Anxious to get the ring on Jackie’s finger before Thanksgiving, I called Tuon weekly. “Not to worry, it will be done”, Tuon assured me. His text on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving said “Come to the store Tuesday morning. I have what you seek.” Jackie had a full day at school Tuesday and gave me license to pick up the ring without her. I protested, ”But what if you don’t like it?”. Fearless as always, she sent me on my way.

It gleamed. It was perfect. It was her. I took a photo and sent it to Jackie’s iPhone. Her priceless shrieking told me we had done good. I unwound and took a deep breath. One small step…check.

Tuesday night seemed an appropriate time to formally propose and present the ring. I added a Where’s Waldo tie to my outfit that included tennies, a  tee-shirt and worn Levi’s. I knelt at her feet and said “Please do me the honor of marrying me. She giggled, put the ring on her finger and said with that twinkle in her eye “Yes I will.” Another small step…check.

No one has yet asked me “Why did you decide to get engaged.” I’ve thought about it. Jackie and I have spoken of it frequently. It’s not some crazy idea that just popped out. I am nearly eighty, some sixteen years older than sweet Jackie. Should I depart this world at ninety-five, Jackie will be my current age. I’ve tried to mentally list the reasons why I want to be engaged. After all, there are lots of people who live together happily without marriage. Maybe nearly sixty years with Ila left me with the belief that if you love someone, marriage is the logical conclusion.

I don’t think that logic is a vital component in the decision to marry. If we base it on logic, the odds seem to be arrayed against marriage. No, I think it’s simpler than that, perhaps genetic. Perhaps it’s like that caveman with the braided reeds who understood that a lasting relationship includes the warmth, the sharing and the relative certainty of marriage.

Time to work on a guest list.`

Diamonds are forever

We spent the last two weeks searching for a ring for Jackie. A very special ring.

  • The tradition of wearing an engagement ring on the left hand’s fourth finger originated in Egypt, when it was believed a person’s “vein of love” ran directly from the heart down to that finger.

Our odyssey began when we went to one of Jackie’s favorite, oft visited, places. The Optimum Health Institute, located just this side of San Diego, has long been a refuge for those seeking a cure or just some time off. It provides an escape from the rest of world, while providing health benefits that, for some, are the final opportunity to treat real or imagined illnesses without the side effects of traditional medicine.

For others, OHI is a way to drop unwanted pounds and jump-start a new flab-less life. One of the rituals for those who sport unwanted paunches is the morning weigh-in. The process of OHI weight reduction often includes a daily verbal update such as “I’ve lost ten pounds since yesterday.” Encouragement and praise by others are de rigueur and serve to keep the dieter on track. A spoil sport, I often assume the role of devil’s advocate, reminding the gleeful flab-shedder that he or she has been starved of salt, a major contributor to water retention. And, accordingly, the greatest weight loss in the early stages of the OHI starvation regimen is the loss of body fluid, not fat. Alas, my words are always ignored.

Carl, plump and in need of a second visit to the spa after falling off the wagon the first time, is a frenetic jeweler from Chicago. A gregarious, glib, teddy bear look-alike, Carl was all ears when I asked him about diamond rings. Sensing a kill, he zeroed in on me with facts and figures. Size (bigger is better), color (white good/yellow bad, clarity (a limited number of imperfections) and cut (pear, oval, marquis, round) were thrown at me along with hastily drawn diagrams, comparison tables and pretty pictures. I soon realized I was way out of my element.

  • The world’s adoration of this sparkling stone began in India, 400 BC. At that time, they were valued simply based on size.

Carl deals with a diamond wholesaler in San Francisco. After generally describing what we were looking for, he promised to call his wholesaler and have sample diamonds delivered to his room at the spa. He seemed unconcerned about the lack of spa security. Such a valuable commodity seemed ill-served by his lack of reverence for its safety.

  • Formed about 100 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, diamonds travel upwards and are eventually accessible to us because of volcanic activity.

As promised, the stones arrived the next morning in tiny individual paper packets that belied the value of their contents. Taking time out from our schedule of goal setting, meal planning, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and gaining emotional freedom through meridian tapping, we adjourned to Carl’s room for a display of his wares. We did a lot of oohing and aahing, punctuated by some amazement at the prices of the various stones. Carl displayed the stones by nestling them between his pudgy fingers, a practice that made the two carat stones appear small and of dubious value.

  • The largest diamond ever discovered was called the Cullinan diamond. It was found in South Africa in 1905 and weighed in at an amazing 3106 carats, or 1.33 pounds.

The price of the pretty, sparkly stones was out of our reach and were sadly and unceremoniously committed to Carl’s bedroom dresser drawer. He promised a new set of stones, smaller and more reasonably priced, by the next day. Good to his word, they promptly appeared the next morning as if they had been tele-ported over the internet.

The price of a diamond does not change proportionate to its weight. Two carat stones can be three or four times the cost of a one carat sparkler. The stone’s setting, generally white or yellow gold, sometimes platinum, and encrusted with very small diamond chips, adds additional cost.

  • A diamond chip is a piece of diamond that is not faceted. Diamond chips are usually small (less than 0.2 carats in weight) and are often used as accent stones surrounding a bigger center diamond. Since chips are not polished, their surface is not smooth but is rough to the touch.

More oohing and aahing was accompanied by Carl’s admonition intended to impress us with the good deal he was offering. Demeaning the value of any potential visit to a competitor’s store, we were cautioned to pay scant attention to the little, almost illegible, tags appended to the rings in a jewelry store’s cabinet. Solemnly, we were also told to pick our jeweler like we pick our family physician; someone you could trust.

  • As soon as you leave the jeweler with a diamond, it loses over 50% of its value. Not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention, but diamonds aren’t actually that rare.

The next day, looking for a well-deserved break from our meridian tapping, we drove to Del Mar, the place where people lose money at the race track. We visited Ralph, a jeweler who Jackie had stumbled upon a few years ago. An amiable, helpful sort, Ralph displayed some of his glittering rings. Jackie’s eyes lit up when she saw a beautiful ring with a round stone and an affordable price tag. Without prompting, Ralph reduced the price of the ring by a third. We were ready to buy…almost. “Please hold the ring for us and give us the weekend to decide”, we implored him. Ralph graciously agreed. Unfortunately, like car buyers, never let a fish go until it’s in the net.

We’ve got an appointment with a Santa Barbara jeweler on Friday.

The Temptations

It was Sunday and I was on my way to Nancy’s house. My daughter and I bought tickets to a series of plays at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Enjoying each other’s company as much or more than the plays, we had just ponied up for a second season of six performances. It’s become a father-daughter thing, where conversation often outshines the entertainment at the theater.

The Sunday matinees start at one and are generally populated with a sea of gray-haired attendees.  The early start time lets us get back to Nancy’s Calabasas home, where we can have dinner at a nearby restaurant before I get back on the road for the seventy-five-minute drive to Ojai. Kevin, my faux son-in-law, partners up with us for dinner, sometimes at my favorite Jewish deli, Brent’s in Westlake.

I left home around nine that morning and, as has become my custom, stopped to visit Ila’s grave at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park. It was going to be a beautiful day. The early morning fog had cleared to a bright low hanging sun that challenged my eyes with its high beams. I bought a pretty bouquet of multi-colored flowers at the park office and brought them to the grave site. After placing them in the holder, I stood over her memorial tablet and read what was etched into its simple surface…I love you up to the sky…and beyond. Words that Ila and I had spoken to each other hundreds of times, often part of our bedtime ritual. Sometimes I’d begin the phrase and she would end it. Other times, Ila would start and I’d finish. Simple and loving.

I told Ila about the events of the past month, how much I missed her, and about those life altering events that were slowly changing me. Sometimes uncomfortable for me to say, and maybe for her to hear. I finished and placed a stone on the memorial tablet, a custom used by Jews to announce that someone had visited and remembered her.

Back on the 101, it took about thirty minutes to get to Nancy’s. She and Kevin live in a hillside home that has great views. Grandson Morey, out on his own now, grew up there. Until a few months ago, his voice was on the answering machine with a message that included the home phone number. When he was about six, we went on a family outing where we helped him memorize that phone number. It also became forever etched in my brain. Almost twenty years later, whenever I’d leave a message, Morey’s voice reminded me of that trip.

After an omelet fashioned by Nancy, we got in her car and she drove to the Ahmanson. The theater is in a complex that includes the Ahmanson, the Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum. A formidable group of venues that attracts thousands of visitors to downtown Los Angeles. It also creates mind numbing traffic jams, frayed nerves, much honking and the occasional son of a bitch.

It took forty-five minutes to get to the theater and another forty minutes to get into the parking structure. You’d think that the great minds who built the complex would have made access to it more than just a contest between frustrated drivers; all looking for a way that improves their chances relative to their competition. Parking the car without damage to it or our sanity, we had about five minutes to escalate up six levels in the garage, present our tickets, pee, and get to our seats.

The main seating area seems designed to take full advantage of the mass hysteria that would be caused by a fire or natural disaster. Each row has about fifty seats and there is no center aisle. Getting to our centrally located seats 24 and 25 meant carefully side-stepping down the aisle to avoid crushing the toes, purses and other paraphernalia of those already seated. Excuse me, ooops, sorry, my bad. Thoughts of potentially repeating the process at intermission made my blood run cold.

The play began. I was mightily impressed by the set and, more importantly, the performers. It was as though dancing and singing came as naturally to them as breathing does to me…but with less effort. My god, I thought, there must be thousands of men and women as talented as the ones set before us. Just not as lucky.

At 76, Otis Williams, who formed the Temptations, is the only living member of the original quintet. There have been twenty-three reincarnations of the group since its 1960 origin in Detroit. Its blues music set the gold standard for this genre. The Ahamnson performance featured short clips of songs that included Baby Love, Gloria, My Girl, You Can’t Hurry Love, You’re My Everything, and twenty more.

The original Temptations suffered the usual indignities of too much fame, too little family time, and too much temptation. Blues is an understatement of their sad, lonely and loving music. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance came when super talented Ephraim Sykes, playing the role of the bespectacled, ego-driven David Ruffin, sang I Wish It Would Rain. A song that chronicles the emotions of a man who has lost his woman…

Sunshine, blue skies, please go away
A girl has found another and gone away
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom
So day after day I stay locked up in my room
I know to you it might sound strange
But I wish it would rain, oh yeah…

The first act was long, prompting an intermission trip to the men’s room. Men are lucky, at least when it comes to peeing in public places. Pee, zip, flush. Wrestle with the decision to wash or not to wash, and we’re done. Women either biologically or due to the fashion of the day, or both, require more time and more space; neither of which is in abundance at the Ahmanson. However, in contrast to the farce at the parking lot, the coming and going of women through the restroom is wonderfully choreographed. Attendants are stationed along the line, monitoring the availability of toilets and preventing overzealous she-devils from crashing the line…no exceptions. Bob Fosse would be impressed.

Fearful that we might do an encore of our earlier feet stomping performance, we returned to our seats quickly. More songs poured forth from the stage adding to our delight. When the show ended, no one needed prompting to stand and applaud.

Exiting the parking lot proved uneventful as did the ride home. We talked about the show and its ability to chronicle life’s happiness and sorrows. With music that makes you smile, relate to and cry. Music that makes you remember what was. And what can be when you’re lucky enough to say You’re My Everything.

When my way was dark, and troubles were near
Your love provided the light so I could see, girl
Just knowing your love was near when times were bad
Kept the world from closing in on me…


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