Reunion offers peek into people’s lives

If, like the narrator of “Tangled Up in Blue,” you feel that your oldest friends are “an illusion to me now,” I have a simple Rx for you: Go to your class reunion. You will quickly discover that all the people you used to know are just as real as they ever were, and it’s only your illusions about them that are insubstantial.

I’m just back from my high school reunion, where I encountered a mathematician, just like in the Dylan song, and maybe some carpenters’ wives too. We also had teachers, bankers, entrepreneurs and electricians, farmers, artists, librarians, military men and a guy in the movie industry.

Many had retired from their careers but still worked. A retail manager is now a caregiver in a group home. An educator is hostessing for the summer at a seaside restaurant. An athlete who used to be a national gymnastics coach is now a life coach. And those were just the folks at my table.

The care and feeding of kids and grandkids is a major preoccupation for those who have them. Not all of us do, and I stand in awe of what some of my old friends have gone through with their offspring. The degree of love and commitment that it takes to raise a family is humbling.

Some say life is easier when they’re away from the kids, at their second homes in Florida, which many of my classmates seemed to have. But then, someone who lives in Florida has a second home in Utah, while another friend is building her dream house in (no kidding) Nebraska.

It would have been interesting, in fact, to poll the attendees about these and other details of their lives. I’m only sorry I didn’t think of the idea in time to suggest it to the reunion committee. Who, for example, stayed in our home state and who moved away? How many are still married to their original spouses? Which women were kept from pursuing their dreams by parents who refused to send their daughters to college? A couple of classmates mentioned that experience, a reminder of why it was our generation who founded the modern women’s movement.

The list of those conspicuously absent has grown since the only other reunion I attended, 20 years ago. People pored over the roster of the deceased in much the same way that many of us routinely read the obits in our local papers, glad our name is not among them (yet).

Others were missing by choice. “I didn’t like all those people back then,” one absentee candidly told a committee member. “Why would I want to get together with them now?”

Good point, I suppose. But if shared history isn’t enough of a reason, how about simple curiosity?

We got handed our diplomas together and then separated to start our lives. Now, we’ve had them. The graduation and the reunion are like bookends. It’s what’s in the middle that’s so interesting.

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The urge to purge

The start of my 30-day purge was a zero-sum day. To be sure, I got rid of one item, as per the rules of the challenge—a Paul Bowles novel that I kept intending to read but just couldn’t get into. The tattered paperback wasn’t in good enough condition to donate. Into the single-stream recycle bin it went.

But later in the day I made the mistake of going past the thrift store, one of my favorite haunts. There, on the 50-cent table, was a Looney Tunes drinking glass issued by Pepsi in 1973, adorned with a picture of Foghorn Leghorn. My husband and I have a small collection of these glasses, having nabbed Sylvester, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and a couple of others (alas, we broke the Elmer Fudd). But we didn’t have Foghorn. I had to buy it.

And therein lies the dilemma at the heart of this cleanout. It’s good to discard things and bring order to my overstuffed closets, drawers and shelves. But my husband and I are collectors, and the inclination to acquire seems antithetical to the urge to purge.

The instigator was my friend Stephanie in California. The idea is to throw out or give away one item on Day 1, two on Day 2, three on Day 3 and so on for 30 days, at which point you will have jettisoned 465 items. Steph was on Day 20 of her own purge when she invited me to join her, propelled by reasons both philosophical and practical: She foresees downsizing one day, plus she’s drawn to the Minimalist movement, which is all about simplicity and decluttering.

“It’s the detritus I’m after,” she said. “The stuff that’s lurking in the spice cabinet, back of fridge, back of underwear drawer. Socks you never wear, photos you don’t care to ever see again, half-burned candles… How many vases do we need? Drinking glasses? Cups and mugs that don’t match?”

Oops. I wish she hadn’t mentioned drinking glasses. The Foghorn Leghorn was a necessity. Really.

My husband and I can’t help it. We just seem to accumulate things, and there’s pleasure in it when it involves interesting objects, art and antiques. Yet, after almost 20 years the house is pretty full, no matter how many yard sales we have to offload the overflow. Indeed, I wonder if deep-sixing 465 items will be enough. Will it even show?

Five days into the purge and counting, I’ve put four blouses, five books, a box of fancy pencils and a day planner that I bought as a present but never gave into a box earmarked for the thrift store. Two packages of chai mix are set aside for the food pantry. The eliminations will get more difficult later, I’m sure, as the daily dump quota moves into the double digits.

Meanwhile, I’m expecting a package from California. Stephanie is sending a pair of Uggs she never wears and that are just my size. The Uggs will be part of her purge. But on my end, what will I have to deep-six to accommodate them?

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A Hard Day’s Night Revisited

Somewhere into the last half of “A Hard Day’s Night,” Paul’s rascal grandfather—inevitably referred to as “a clean old man” throughout the film—urges rebellion on Ringo. Don’t stick around here with your nose in a book, he advises. Go to Tahiti and sip palm wine “before you’re too old, like me.”

“I never thought,” Ringo muses, “but being middle-aged and all takes up most of your time, doesn’t it?”

Ah, Ringo! That line is truer than you could have guessed when you uttered it at the age of 24.

The movie, newly restored for its 50th anniversary, is full of those kinds of unexpected little moments. “A Hard Day’s Night” holds up wonderfully as a film, not just an artifact of Beatlemania. It may even be a comic masterpiece, comparable to the best Marx Brothers romps or Peter Sellers vehicles. It’s also, of course, full of music—songs that are fresh and thrilling half a century on.

You can never be too rich, too thin or have too much of the Beatles. So even though I had already seen the restored version a month ago on TCM, I was excited to discover the Black Bear Film Festival was bringing the new cut of “A Hard Day’s Night” to the Milford Theater last weekend. My husband and I caught the matinee on Sunday, 50 years to the day after the movie’s premiere in London on July 6, 1964.

What is it about the Beatles? Why were they the ones who caused such fervor and not, say, the Temptations, Beach Boys or Four Seasons? (We saw “Jersey Boys” earlier in the weekend; Frankie Valli and company made great music too.)

At the theater, I asked a 15-year-old friend what it was she so loved about the band, but she couldn’t articulate a reason. “Everything!” she said. “Everything!”

I’m no closer to an answer than Katya is, except to note that the music is sublimely happy. You can’t be depressed while listening to the Fab Four. There’s magic in the melodies and lyrics, in Ringo’s backbeat and George’s lead guitar. And those harmonies! Cue up “This Boy.”

Back in ‘64, my best friend and I couldn’t wait to see “A Hard Day’s Night.” Not long afterward, we took the train from Providence to Boston, an hour away. Early scenes of the movie are set on a train. That was inspiration enough for the two us to affect what we believed to be Liverpool accents and try them out on another passenger—as it happened, an old man not unlike Paul’s grandfather.

We were ridiculous, and later my mother chastised us for trying to trick a nice old gent. Did we actually fool him? I wonder. If he did see through us, he never let on. Maybe, in the middle of those long years of middle age that Ringo spoke about, he found it entertaining to converse with a couple of English girls—even phony ones.

It’s not palm wine in Tahiti, but it’s something.

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A book club just for two

I’ve always loved to read, just like my mother and father and brother. We had lots of books in the house when I was growing up, along with magazines and a couple of daily newspapers.

As a housewife with young children Mom joined a Great Books group, making her way through the Western canon from Aeschylus to Zola. We had a set of novels in fine bindings to which I turned after outgrowing our set of Junior Classics. There were library books galore and a scattering of paperbacks, including “Catch-22,” purchased when it first came out in the 1960s. Mom had it signed by Joseph Heller many years later when the author made a local appearance. That prized volume went missing during one of her moves, but we found it months later and it’s still on her shelves today.

When Mom first came to Milford, the two of us began sharing books—things we got from the library or volumes from our own collections. Our tastes differed, as I soon discovered when she started returning the books I loaned her with little notes inside containing thumbnail reviews. Of Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon Days” she said, “Much like ‘Seinfeld,’ this is a story about nothing.”

One thing we agreed on, however, was Stephanie Plum. We had separately discovered the comic mysteries by Janet Evanovich in the early 1990s and we had both read every numbered volume beginning with “One for the Money.” We were at No. 6 or 7 by the time Mom moved here. Since then we’ve read each release in tandem, gossiping about the characters afterward as if Stephanie and crew were friends of ours—which in a way, I suppose, they are.

Stephanie is a Jersey girl with big hair and great metabolism (she’s fond of donuts and fried chicken but only ever gained weight in one book) who works as a bond enforcement agent, aka bounty hunter, for her weasly cousin Vinny in Trenton. She’s somewhat inept. Her cars inevitably explode, she gets battered and handcuffed regularly, but somehow she always gets her man. There’s a sidekick named Lula, a pet hamster named Rex, an eccentric grandma and not one, but two, love interests.

At the threshold of 90, Mom has memory issues. But when I told her I would buy her the latest novel in the series, she immediately said, “That’s number 21.” Indeed, “Top-Secret Twenty-One” just came out. I devoured it and sent it off to Mom last week. I’ll be interested to hear what she thinks.

The one place where Mom and I disagree is about which man is right for Stephanie. When Mom asked my opinion, I thought for a moment and said Morelli, the handsome Trenton cop that Stephanie has been off-and-on with since high school. He seems like a solid choice for the long haul. Mom, on the other hand, picked Ranger, a buff Latino security specialist with a mysterious background that’s amplified just a bit in this latest book (think Special Ops). He’s more exciting.

The things you learn about your mother by reading!

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Nostalgia in the garden

Just as it did last year, rain has pummeled the peonies. Why do we have to get a downpour the very week they open?

We have two rows of them, red, pink and white blooms lining the walkway to the front porch. I planted them right after we moved into this house, hoping to re-create the magic of my grandparents’ back garden, where peonies spilled in luxurious abundance from a double row of bushes. My grandmother pronounced the word with an emphasis on the second syllable: pe-OH-nies.

My whole garden is infused with nostalgia; each plant makes me think of someone. Our irises came from neighbors in Dingmans Ferry and Milford, while the columbines and evening primrose originated in Rita’s garden. A painted fern comes from my friend Patricia’s next-door neighbor in Connecticut, while my brother supplied dahlias he got from folks he knows in Michigan.

And the lilacs are from my mother’s yard in Rhode Island, where my paternal grandfather planted shoots from his own bushes many years ago. By the time Mom dug some up for us, those shoots were 7 feet tall. My sister-in-law suggested planting one beside our porch, because wouldn’t it be nice to smell lilacs when you sit out there in the spring? Every year, I silently thank her for the idea.

I come from a family of gardeners. My grandparents on both sides tended huge plots of flowers and vegetables, and my mother had extensive gardens in her suburban backyard that she expanded every year, with an artist’s eye for color and texture.

Mom is a painter, and her gardens were another art form. She spent countless hours in them, planting, pruning, weeding, digging and fertilizing, and was justifiably proud of the results. She took photographs every year to document the garden’s evolution, and did watercolor still-lifes of the cut flowers she brought inside.

I counted on Mom’s gardening expertise as a major advantage when she moved next door to us. But to my dismay, she suddenly lost interest in planting. That first fall she made a halfhearted attempt to improve the small foundation gardens already in existence by means of a “yellow collection” she bought from a bulb catalog—though why she chose yellow is a mystery, since I knew she never liked that color.

We watched them sprout the next spring, but after that Mom didn’t do much more than buy the occasional hanging basket, which—by her final years here—she invariably forgot to water. “That’s over for me now,” she said about gardening, and to this day I’m not sure if the reason was age and illness, or anomie. Mom hated leaving Rhode Island and never really warmed up to Milford. Things just didn’t flower for her here.

Even so, an unusual iris from that yellow collection has taken root and spread, brightening the little garden in front of the house where she used to live. In some small way, it seems, Mom did leave her mark on the landscape.

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Four weddings and a funeral

I’ve often said the only good thing about aging is that everyone else your age is getting older, too. But I’ve never felt the truth of that remark as much as I did last weekend, when I went to Rhode Island for the funeral of one of my oldest friends.

Roberta and I grew up in the same neighborhood of modest postwar ranch houses—“the plat,” as we all called it. We rode bikes together, went to school together, graduated together. We began freshman year together at URI, but here is where our paths diverged. She dropped out, went to work and got married a year or two later (I was her maid of honor). She soon had a couple of kids.

Roberta built a life for herself right in our hometown, whereas I couldn’t wait to get out. I moved to Providence when I graduated from college and went to work at a big newspaper. I married a fellow reporter, spent a year in Europe and briefly returned to Rhode Island before leaving for Illinois (an advanced degree for my husband) and then New York (career opportunities for us both).

At some point, Roberta and I lost touch. But I knew she had gotten divorced—and then, so did I. Sometime later, she remarried, and in a number of years—after moving again, this time to northeastern Pennsylvania—I did too. Two women, four weddings.

We reconnected in our 40s at a high school reunion—the only one I ever attended—and have been friends again ever since, despite living 200 miles apart. We’ve seen each other a number of times, but the most recent attempts to get together—such as a plan to meet at my aunt’s in Massachusetts for an Italian cooking lesson—always fell apart at the last minute.

We’ve been looking forward to really catching up in July. There’s another class reunion scheduled, with a house party afterwards at the shore.

Instead—this funeral.

So many classmates attended that it felt like a perverse kind of reunion in itself. Some are friends. Some I’m in touch with on Facebook. Some I didn’t recognize, and others I didn’t really know even back in the day.

Never mind. We fell into one another’s arms and together mourned our loss. I seem to have more high school friends now than I had in high school.

When old classmates say you “haven’t changed,” what they mean, I think, is that you’re still recognizably yourself. That’s not the case for everyone. A man who was heavy in high school is now dapper and svelte. Another who was shy is now a hearty extrovert. Go figure.

All funerals are difficult. But there’s something about the passing of a peer that really gets you. As I said to my friend Joyce, also a classmate, this is going to be our life from now on. We went through the other life stages together—marriages and divorces, births and illnesses. Now we bear witness to the deaths.


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Anxious about Alzheimer’s

OK, so I’m not the only one. My friend B. is likewise spooked by the specter of Alzheimer’s or, more broadly, dementia in all its forms—perhaps even more than I, since Alzheimer’s disease runs in her family. She watched her brother slowly lose his mind and then die from Alzheimer’s, and now her sister has been diagnosed with the beginning stages of the disease. Alzheimer’s is the reason B. has long-term care insurance. She knows it could happen to her one day too.

Lately I’m seeing—or fear that I’m seeing—vague harbingers of dementia all around me. A friend says she’s spoken to Joe White when she means Joe Black, a form of verbal confusion known as aphasia, where the word you say is the opposite of the one you mean. Could it be an early symptom of You Know What? Another friend asks twice in the same conversation, just minutes apart, whether my car is a hybrid. Uh oh.

And how about me? I will sometimes fumble for a word that remains maddeningly elusive, creating a momentary conversational gap that (to my complete annoyance) friends or my husband rush to fill with word choices of their own.

Significant? Or am I being paranoid?

The Alzheimer’s Association says 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease today. That seems like too low a number, given that everyone knows someone—a parent, grandparent, spouse or friend—who suffers from it. At any rate, the tally is about to balloon as we baby boomers get older, since age is the single greatest risk factor. I hate that.

My father-in-law had Alzheimer’s. In the beginning, my mother-in-law managed the situation and compensated for his lapses through, it seems, sheer force of will. After she died, the job fell to us. By then Dad was no longer able to live on his own, and he wound up in a nearby VA facility where he received loving care for the last few years of his life. (Don’t believe all those horror stories about VA hospitals. We have nothing but hosannas for this one.)

My husband went to see him every week. I often went too. Dad’s face would light up in a huge smile when he caught sight of his son, but he didn’t quite know who I was—only that I came with George. Still, he was gracious and even a little flirtatious with me, calling me “young lady” because, I suspect, he didn’t remember my name.

We played cards while he still could (he went from master poker player to someone who couldn’t fathom 500 rummy), basked in the sun in the hospital’s roof garden or just watched “Bonanza” together in the day room.

In a weird way, the Alzheimer’s made it easier for my husband to connect with his dad. The disease wore away the rough edges and softened them both. It was one of the surprising gifts from an otherwise implacable foe.


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Mirror mirror on the wall…what’s with the wrinkles?!

When I thought about it at all (which if truth be told was seldom), I assumed I’d be one of those women who would “age gracefully,” never lying about my years or bemoaning a few laugh lines or gray hairs. I’d be like Georgia O’Keeffe, still striking in her 80s and 90s, the deep creases in her face signaling a life packed with all manner of fascinating experiences. Turquoise-and-silver jewelry figured in this fantasy, such as it was.

But now I’ve reached that age when, even though no longer young, I am still on the young side of old. And I find to my surprise that I’m not willing to put my head down on time’s chopping block quite yet. I’m still attached to the idea of remaining if not exactly youthful, then still recognizably myself—someone familiar in the mirror.

An old friend recently wrote in her blog about how great it felt to say goodbye to highlights and let her hair go gray. I love her Marie Antoinette do, as she calls it. But I’m not ready to follow Colleen’s example.

Like my mother, I began seeing gray hairs in my 20s. At one point Mom dyed her hair, but quit when she turned 40. Maintaining the illusion was too much effort. And she didn’t look any older gray than she did with dark hair, because her face was always youthful and attractive.

But even with that example, I’ve stubbornly continued to color. At every decade birthday, I check in with myself and ask whether it’s time. The answer, invariably, is “Nope! Not yet.” My 60th birthday has come and gone, and still I remain (with the help of my hairdresser) a brunette. Maybe 70?

Meanwhile, things are changing—albeit in slow-mo—below the hairline too, and these alterations are harder to address. Recently, for example, my cousin and a close friend both complained about reaching the tipping point with wrinkles.

Wrinkles? Aren’t wrinkles for women far older than us? “Funny how I keep thinking of us all as somewhere in our 30s or 40s,” my friend Stephanie said. “That’s how I feel in my head, even when my body and my mirror disagree.”

The cognitive dissonance continues all the way down to one’s toes. Some of my friends have stayed thin. Great metabolism. For the rest of us, menopause and/or quitting smoking (in my case the two were conjoined) brought weight gain.

“There are so many things about me to cover up,” a friend sighed when discussing what to wear to an upcoming party, “that a burqa comes to mind.”

My mom once described catching sight of herself in a storefront and sputtering “Who’s that old lady?” before realizing she was face-to-face with her own reflection. No wonder my friend Linda’s mother advised that at a certain point in life, it’s best to avoid mirrors altogether.

The other option, of course, is to learn to love what you see there—wrinkles and all.

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Cleaning out the in-laws’ house in Vegas

It’s surely a rite of passage in every baby boomer’s life to clean out the house of a parent. And that’s the job we faced during a recent trip to Las Vegas. We weren’t going to Sin City to gamble, see shows or use the city as a launch pad for a trek to the Grand Canyon—something, sadly, that we’ve never done in our many trips to Vegas. Instead, we were going to settle my in-laws’ estate and clear out their home in advance of a sale.

My in-laws lived in a 55-plus community in northern Las Vegas for many years and loved it. They went to the casinos daily, she to the bingo rooms and slots, he to the poker tables. The desert air was better for his asthma than the humid west coast of Florida, where they had originally retired. And being thousands of miles from family wasn’t a problem, since most everybody got a kick out of visiting and Dad enjoyed showing people the Strip.

Going through your folks’ stuff is a surreal experience, alternately heartbreaking and exasperating. Here’s Mom’s mink stole and the red jacket Dad wore to our wedding. Cue the teary eyes. But what’s with the smiling 2-foot papier-mâché bear in little-girl clothes? And why the large framed photo of JFK? Dad was a Republican. One of the first things he said to me when George introduced us was “I hope you’re not a Democrat.”

We had taken the photo albums, important papers and assorted heirlooms, including Mom’s jewelry, on an earlier visit. But there was still a lot to sort through.

We threw out a cupboard full of expired food—were Ramen noodles a dietary staple?—and most of the contents of the bathrooms, such as ancient tins of Band-Aids, a bonanza of hair-care products and spare sets of dentures in little plastic tubs. But we kept the cardboard box filled with close to 100 bars of assorted bath soap. Why did they stockpile so many? Did they fear a soap shortage?

In the garage was a collection of swag from the casinos: blenders, bathroom scales, alarm clocks, gardening tools—all acquired for free, unless you count the untold dollars lost in gambling. There were multiples of everything, still in their boxes and unused, because who really needs five mixers or three stainless-steel spice racks? Then there was clothing, likewise brand new—heaps of hoodies, jackets, fleece vests and T-shirts with casino logos. Very Vegas, baby.

In the end, I kept a spangly black scarf of Mom’s and a Rampart Casino rain slicker. George retrieved a tie of his dad’s with an op-art design and a still-life painting he had given his parents as a present years ago. We held an estate sale to unload the rest and donated what didn’t sell.

If nothing else, we gained a feel for my in-laws’ daily life by sorting through what they left behind. And now the house is ready for new owners.

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Bargain shopping with Mom

If there’s one thing my mother and I have in common, it’s our love of a bargain. We like nothing better than getting a good deal, whether it’s at a clearance rack, a discount store or a yard sale. Oh, the stuff we find!

Mom has always been thrifty, in large part from necessity. She’s never had much money but has always managed to dress well and surround herself with beautiful things. She’s an artist—a gifted watercolorist—and has the artist’s eye for spotting the one great object in a pile of junk.

When I was a kid, she brought home a hideous black desk she got for $5 at the Salvation Army. My father raised his eyebrows. It looked like garbage—until Mom refinished it. There was solid mahogany under those many coats of paint, with book shelves on either side and a drawer in the center to hold pens and stamps. Mom made that desk a showpiece.

Mom was fortunate to live in Rhode Island, a utopia for bargain shopping. Whenever I went up for a weekend, our ritual was Ocean State Job Lot on Friday night and the Christmas Tree Shop—epicenter for unbelievably low-priced home decor—on Saturday. There were great discount clothing stores, too. I still have a Woolrich tweed jacket that I bought at one of them for $15.

Shopping was one of the things Mom missed when she moved to Milford. True, there are lovely gift and antiques shops here, and a Kmart and Walmart nearby. But the nearest mall is 20 miles away. There’s an Ocean State Job Lot an hour’s distance in Beacon, N.Y.—that seems to be as far west as the chain has ventured. And there’s a Christmas Tree Shop near Scranton, an hour in the opposite direction. That’s a haul for even a determined bargain hunter.

Catalogs filled the breach, along with yard sales, flea markets and the occasional country auction. In a pinch, there was always the Dollar Store.

Every Mother’s Day, Mom and I would meet my aunt and cousin at a friendly diner off I-84 in Connecticut, halfway between their home in Massachusetts and ours. After brunch, the four of us would go to the Christmas Tree Shop in Danbury—familiar turf for Mom. It was almost like being back home.

Now my mother lives in a retirement community, as they are discreetly called, near my brother in Ohio. There is plenty of shopping in Columbus, but Mom doesn’t have the stamina or interest anymore. She uses a walker or a wheelchair to get around, and recently she acquired oxygen. Going out is a logistical challenge.

I miss those Mother’s Day excursions. I miss my mother—the woman she is now and the woman she was, the feisty one who saw the potential in an ugly old, painted desk and turned it into something beautiful, with just elbow grease and a vision.

I have that desk in my house now. Thank you, Mom.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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