Posts Tagged 'Memories'

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

More than Yoga

Jackie organized a yoga retreat last Saturday. It was held at my house which, biased though I may be, is an excellent setting for anyone who wants a calming atmosphere, great views of the Topa-Topa mountains and a silence that makes one feel that they are no longer in Kansas.

A multi-year yoga fanatic and sometime teacher of the mysterious art, Jackie would rather organize retreats than eat pastrami sandwiches. Although based upon our recent visit to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills, pastrami is a close second. And if you add crispy French fries, a dill pickle and soda from a real Coca Cola bottle, the contest most definitely becomes a toss-up.

The retreat had the benefit of Jackie’s organizing skills and unlimited ability to focus on something until  every bit of it surrendered to her unalterable vision. No half-measures here, only the best will satisfy this petite wonder-woman. A slick website announcing the retreat, complete with the ability to sign up and pay, was merely the beginning. Heaps of gluten-free food from Rainbow Bridge, dozens of personalized ball point pens, fragile eco-friendly glass water bottles, a notable professional yoga instructor, a personable hiking guide from the Ojai Athletic Club. and a flavor-filled flask of my organically grown olive oil would assure the participants that they would receive more than their money’s worth.

Up before dawn on the day of the event, I inflated four bright red balloons. I put them in strategic positions along the road that would lead the participants to the place where all their dreams would be fulfilled. No matter that it was thirty-six degrees outside. I would nevertheless cope with the challenge of tying a very small knot in the neck of each balloon to assure that the inflated markers would last for the next hour or two. After that, the miserable little bastards could shrivel up like my penis in a below zero Chicago winter.

I had not intended to participate in the two yoga classes scheduled for the day. My lack of skill and grace as I waddled and stumbled through two prior failed attempts at discovering the mystery of yoga caused me to studiously avoid a third encounter. I thought this resolution was inviolate until Jackie, in that sweet, yet overpowering whisper said “Oh, please join us. It’ll be such fun.” My lack of resolve quickly melted like a Hagen-Daz chocolate ice cream bar on a hot summer’s day.

The first of many challenges to succeeding at a semblance of yoga involved the proper selection and placement of the various toys that are part of the ritual. The floor mat that every hard-core yogi carries to yoga classes and perhaps, it seemed, to weddings and funerals, was obvious as to its purpose. Hard book-shaped support blocks that reminded me of the nail beds that yogis are known to lie upon for hours riveted my attention; had no one ever heard of rounded corners?

These accoutrements were followed by a relatively stiff but yielding bolster that would, I hoped, only be used for naps. Next, a long-buckled strap that might otherwise be useful in a particularly active sexual encounter left me with no clue as to its real purpose. Several blankets, neatly folded in a manner I was not destined to emulate, offered some hope that they were intended to create a welcoming sleepy time environment like my kindergarten days at Hibbard elementary school. The final toy was a weighted eyeshade that was. I thought, only to be used when the group leader felt that I should be relieved by a firing squad of my self-inflicted agony.

I joined in the fun. Abundantly aware that I was surrounded by nine women, I tried to emulate the poses, twists, bends and other contortions that are representative of the yoga experience. I struggled to convince myself that my inability to reasonably replicate even one of the poses could be generally attributed to my extraordinarily long legs. My failure to maintain what would otherwise be called a push-up was inexcusable. Unable to accurately ascertain my left side from my right side usually brought me face to face with another more knowledgeable participant. I gradually found myself separated from the rest of the crowd who were obviously not enamored by my occasional poking them in their up till now private parts.

“Restorative” was the adjective appended to “yoga” in the final hour of an excruciatingly long day. I was ready to pack it in but the smile on Jackie’s face and the occasional “good boy” that emanated from her sweet lips gave me the will to carry on in the face of what otherwise might be called “Fred’s Folly.”

The hour consisted of a series of comparatively restful poses. Lying on my back with the bolster tucked under my legs, blankets covering my body and the eyeshade shutting me off from the rest of the world proved to be my favorite. I could have spent the entire day like that and become a lifetime advocate of yoga.

When I thought that the blessed lying on my back might be unhappily stripped from my grasp, the sound of a flute filled the otherwise silent space. It had a calming influence that could be compared to a mother’s love for her child. As my eyes were covered, sound was the only sense that I experienced. It seemed familiar. And then, as if a revelation, I knew it was Charles.

At Ila’s funeral nearly seven months ago, Charles had appeared unbidden at the side of her plain oak casket. Dressed in immaculate white linen, his hair neatly groomed and holding an American Indian flute, he proceeded to turn what was until then an unsurprising farewell to my love of fifty-seven years into an event that many would long remember. The notes emanating from the instrument were slow, sweet and in perfect tempo. I was sure that Ila must be hearing what was intended as both a fond adieu and a loving thank you for many years of a meaningful relationship.

And here we were again, this time at the end of a day that I thought might conclude with no particular memory. Lying there, thoughts of what had been flowed out of my memory like the playing of a video of our life together. A life that is fading a bit. A life that is yielding to new relationships and history yet to be written.

But as long as the sound of the flute is heard, I will remember.

Happy Birthday, Steven

Jon and Linda invited us to their home to hear their friend, David Roth, play the guitar.

I have great admiration for people who open their homes to large numbers of people, risking red wine carpet stains, backed-up toilets and conflicting requests about the thermostatically controlled temperature. The purveyors of such hospitality are usually adventurous, gregarious and welcoming. The Lamberts fit the mold perfectly.

Sweetie and I arrived unfashionably early, said hello to those we knew and a few we didn’t. Most were in the vicinity of our age group but with a smattering of the very young who, as the evening progressed, may have thought longingly of their idle smart-phones.

A couch at the absolute rear of the bridge-chair festooned room beckoned to us and we plopped ourselves into its welcoming softness, fully expecting to have our vision blocked by anyone who might choose to occupy the two taller chairs in front of us. No one did.

David Roth, a personable man with a name that abbreviated our own, and who you would be pleased to have to dinner, introduced himself and made us laugh. A folk singer and composer of some renown, he seemed quite at home in the cozy surroundings. My first inkling of what was to be a memorable evening came when David told us about his Chicago roots. Hmmm. A fellow landsman, I thought. Not a bad start.

David’s mother sat, appropriately, in the front row. He took genuine pride in talking about her, including her accomplishments as a theatrical performer. I’m sure Mrs. Roth must have thought, more than once, what a good boy.

David’s father also figured prominently in the Chicago scene having toiled at the long defunct Chez Paree, a restaurant cum nightclub that featured the likes of Jack Teagarden, Morey Amsterdam, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Frances Langford and a cast of now almost forgotten names. I spent Von Steuben High School prom night there in 1956 with Brenda Dobbs. Another connection.

My mind wandered a bit and, maybe as a result of the connections, I realized that tomorrow, June 12, was Steven’s birthday. Our son who left us much too early in life. He too, like David, was a singer, guitarist and composer. I tried to remember the words to some of Steven’s songs and failed miserably.

It seemed to get softly warmer in the room, more relaxed, more at home.

David reminisced about his bar mitzvah and the mischief he got into as a very young boy who reveled in running about the Chez Paree, no doubt pursued relentlessly by his father. Displaying a photo of Jimmy Durante, he pointed out his own angelic face alongside that of his sister, both sitting on Durante’s lap.

He shared that time when, not so long ago, he was confronted with thyroid cancer and saw his singing career flash before his eyes. Another connection.

Sloan Wainwright spelled David and shared her own brand of music. And the loss of her husband to leukemia four years ago. Her house that he had built for her and that now provided only warm memories. Another connection.

I began to wonder if this evening had been carefully choreographed to remind us of Steven’s birthday. Whether some wizard had conjured up David Roth and instilled memories in him that were just close enough to raise our own. You’ve been there, I’m sure you have.

David finished and a few people wandered to the front of the room, telling him how much they enjoyed his concert. I shared my Steven story with him. At first he seemed just polite, nodding and listening to me. And then his eyes told me that it meant something more to him.

Happy birthday, Steven. Wish you were here.

DuranteDavid


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