Posts Tagged 'Smiles'

Living with Limitations

The New York Times recently ran a guest editorial about the French artist Henri Matisse. It was written by Nick Riggle, a relatively young man who has challenges adjusting to his new life after two debilitating accidents.

Matisse also suffered the impact of aging and its effect on his body. His early works were primarily focused on traditional painting methods, and he received great acclaim for those including Joy of Life and Woman with a Hat.

At 71, Matisse suffered a life-threatening illness. Treatment extended his life by 13 years but left him unable to hold brushes, effectively ending that phase of his artistry. Rather than give up his abiding desire to continue the production of fine art, Matisse adopted a collage approach to its creation. With assistance, he could paint a sheet of paper and then cut pieces from the sheet which then were glued together to produce an image. Some of the finished pieces were colossal in size. Blue Nude, and The Swimming Pool are two examples. These pieces done in his seventies and eighties are often described as the high points of his career.

As I read the editorial, I compared what Matisse had done with the challenges in my own life. I am not a great artist with assistants, nor do I yearn to leap tall buildings in a single bound. but over the years I have experienced changes that require adjustments to what I once thought were simple tasks.

I walk a bit slower, stare at sidewalk cracks, and scan for those partially embedded rocks whose tops seek to catch the front tips of my shoes. It may take me a little longer to reach my destination, but I’ve adjusted.

My night vision is poor, so I don’t drive at night. I can always get a ride and am grateful for friends.

Our dimly lit home presents challenges. Buying flashlights and putting them in various places solves most of the problem. I can buy a pack of 18 flashlights with batteries from Amazon but, like pens, they seem to find their own hiding places.

I began to lose my hearing about 10 years ago. At first, I nodded a lot at my companions and hoped that I had not just agreed to lend them money. The acquisition of overpriced hearing aids solved most of the problem. I don’t pretend I can hear you and find that most people are OK when I say could you repeat that?

Sub-titles are an essential component of watching Netflix. I have trained my brain to stare at the captions even if I can hear perfectly. I watched the comedian Tom Papa last night and tried to stop fixating on the written words as they crawled across the bottom of the Roku screen. A failure, I read the punchline before Papa could say it. He wasn’t that funny.

Like Matisse, I have been fortunate in finding new ways to entertain myself, like the ukulele. The instrument is relatively undemanding and, when I am with seven or eight other players, I can hold my own.

I like to think that had I adopted the uke at a much younger age, I would be a much better player. Wishful thinking, probably, since I’m sure my disdain for practicing would have held me back regardless of my age or the cussedness of any instrument.

Getting caught up reading the Matisse op-ed piece, I wrote a response to it…Dear EditorI have recently taken up the ukulele at the age of 83. My fingers aren’t agile enough to play chords that require four fingers or are spread over too many frets. So, I just skip those chords, but I keep on singing. And I have a good time even if my body isn’t as good as it used to be.

Attempts to address my physical limitations with devices and substitutes, are nothing when compared to the challenges facing others. This could not have been more evident than when we visited Saint John’s hospital in Camarillo just before Christmas.

Five of us brought our ukuleles and our voices to the extended care unit where a dozen largely silent patients awaited our presentation of holiday music. Unit residents were mainly in wheelchairs, and some had a special breathing apparatus. They had positioned themselves within ten feet of us and seemed anxious for us to start.

We began with A Holly Jolly Christmas. An upbeat song written by Mitch Gabler and first performed in 1964 by Burl Ives, the album also had Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I was a little nervous as I sang the Holly Jolly lyrics…

Have a holly jolly Christmas
It’s the best time of the year
Now I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But have a cup of cheer

I had doubts about the audience reaction to the lyrics. Would they feel less than jolly, and would some be unable to have a cup of cheer? Would they agree with the song’s claim that this was the best time of the year?

I occasionally looked up from the sheet music and scanned the faces.  Nearly all were covered with masks and guessing what was going on under them was nearly impossible. We played on.

The song ended and there was applause. Not polite applause. Real appreciation.

I relaxed and so did my band members. We quickly launched into Love Potion #9 and Robert played the kazoo. And then Feliz Navidad followed by Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, and a dozen more. We became more animated. I sang a few lines acapella when the feeling took me. Maybe it was just me, but as we played on, I was sure the applause had increased in volume and duration. We did an encore. And then one more.

I imagined the faces under the masks. I was convinced they were smiling. For while their physical capability was limited, their capacity to enjoy the music was unlimited.

I forgot about the F# and Bb chords that were always too much for me. I played as if all the notes were nested in a single fret. I had overcome my feelings of insufficiency. I had made people happy despite my limitations. I rivalled Lady Gaga. 

We ended the hour by sharing cake, pastry, and other sugar laden treats. I thought it odd that the hospital would be serving stuff like that. And then I remembered that we were celebrating the holidays. A perfect time to cheat and enjoy the sweets before heading back to real life in the extended care unit.

As we packed up and headed to the exit, I realized that we were not quite ready to bring our act to Carnegie Hall. But despite our limitations, we had found a way to bring a substitute to those who needed it. Matisse would have been proud of us.

One of the nurses reached out to me as I passed her. She grabbed my hand, thanked me, and wished me a merry Christmas. I promised her that it would be.

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.


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