Debbie, Carrie, Mom and me

Carrie Fisher dedicated her final book, “The Princess Diarist,” to her mother, whom she thanked “for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die” after a health scare in 2012. “I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form,” Fisher wrote.

Now, of course, both of them are gone, dying within a day of each other just after Christmas.

Fisher, 60, and Reynolds, 84, had a complicated relationship that included a full decade of estrangement. Somehow they got past it and wound up as a close-knit pair, living next door to each other in mansions with a shared driveway.

Most of us don’t have famous mothers, but the trajectory of the Reynolds-Fisher bond feels familiar nonetheless. The women of the Greatest Generation are a formidable lot. And they were our moms.

My own mother and I lived separate lives for many years. After my father died, she remained in the family home in Rhode Island while I moved to Illinois, New York and finally, Pennsylvania. We saw each other several times a year and caught up weekly on the phone.

That changed when Mom was in her early 70s and began to have health problems. She wound up moving into a house my husband and I bought and renovated next door to our own. So there we were, side by side, like Debbie and Carrie—minus the mansions.

It was a tough transition and Mom didn’t like it here—not the house (too small), the town (too rural) or us, really. But over time she adapted. She made friends, found new doctors and resigned herself to Walmart as a poor substitute for the varied shopping options she had enjoyed “at home,” as she called Rhode Island during the entire decade she resided here.

We forged a new and different relationship. Mom’s health and cognitive issues put me in the caretaker role—the classic swap. I became the mother, doing her pills and bills, handling doctor’s appointments and emergencies.

One time I flew to Ohio to visit my brother. The phone rang. It was Mom. She had fallen off the side porch and was OK, but had broken her glasses.

I called my husband and told him to take her to Lens Lab. Unfortunately, he let her buy frames that were 20 years out of date—much like the ones Sophia wore in “The Golden Girls.” Mom had them for the rest of her life, and every time I saw them it was a reminder that I wasn’t there when she needed me.

Although Mom had many close scrapes, she always bounced back. I was pretty sure she would live forever. I know from other Boomer friends caring for aging parents that the fear of predeceasing them is a common worry.

In the end, I outlived my mother. And even with all the difficulties of having her next door, I’m grateful for the experience. I got to know her in a new way.

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It really is a wonderful life

The Atlantic magazine just ran an article examining my favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” from the specific angle of banking. It seems the classic 1946 film, which I watch every holiday season, still has a lot to tell us about predatory lenders, foreclosures and payday loans. There are more Mr. Potters, the greedy developer, out there 70 years later than there are George Baileys.

George, the Jimmy Stewart character, is the hero of the movie. He runs a small, family-owned savings-and-loan business serving his neighbors in the town of Bedford Falls.

George is unusually generous in his credit decisions, making loans based in part on his personal knowledge of the character of the applicant. Nowadays, with banks continuing to consolidate, it’s rare to find an institution that will take a chance on someone the way George Bailey does.

I found the article fascinating, and it’s certainly true that money questions loom large in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Indeed, the plot turns on George’s uncle’s careless loss of $8,000 in savings-and-loan money and the potentially catastrophic repercussions of that loss.

But beyond the financial issues, it’s George’s mental state that always gets me. In a movie known for sweetness and light—a beloved seasonal classic—here is our hero, seriously depressed.

He’s not the only one. Christmas is supposed to be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, or so every TV commercial tells us. But for many of us, it’s not. “One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season,” said an article in Psychology Today.

The holidays are the most difficult time of the year for anyone who is separated or estranged from their family—or for those without a family—or for anyone who has suffered a loss. The older you get, that’s pretty much everybody.

Others get depressed due to “excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life … in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more,” Psychology Today reported.

Indeed, that’s just what happens to George Bailey.

George feels like a failure. He second-guesses his life choices and torments himself with thoughts of all he’s missed. He’s always wanted to travel, for example, but every potential excursion was aborted before it started as George sacrificed his own dreams for the good of others.

Uncle Billy’s loss of the money is the last straw. George becomes suicidal, stepping back from the brink only when his guardian angel, Clarence, appears to show him how the world—and Bedford Falls—would look if he had never lived.

George sees how our every deed causes ripples, like the proverbial stone thrown into the pond. Everything we do affects others in unknowable or unexpected ways.

George comes to realize that you don’t have to be a big shot, like his flamboyant and successful younger brother Harry, whom he has always envied, to have a Wonderful Life. Being who you are is enough.

As my friend Cliff always used to tell me: “You can’t compare!”

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Sugar and spice and everything nice for Christmas

Some of my friends take part in cookie exchanges, or parties where you bring an oversupply of your own best Christmas cookies and swap them for cookies that others have baked. Everyone walks away with a mound of cookies of types they might not make on their own.

I got invited to a cookie swap once but I had to refuse. I’m not much of a baker. I remember making Elevator Lady Spice Cookies one time from the “I Hate to Cook Book,” but generally speaking I leave the production of Christmas cookies to those who are better at it than I am.

When I was a kid, my aunt and grandmother used to make platters of Italian Christmas cookies for the family table, dense little morsels topped with confectioner’s sugar frosting and a sprinkle of nonpareils. At home, my mom made classic sugar cookies, using cookie cutters to shape the dough into bells, candy canes and trees. We always left some out for Santa.

But my eyes weren’t truly opened to the grandeur of Christmas cookies until I was in my 30s and had bought my little cabin in Dingmans Ferry. Living next door was an older woman named Isabelle who became something of a second-mother figure to me. German by birth, Isabelle had an amazing capability for baking and was so serious in its pursuit that I came to feel that baking was her life’s work—her art.

If memory serves, Isabelle would start baking her Christmas cookies sometime in October, beginning with the crisp varieties that hold well in a tin and moving progressively forward, cookie by cookie, into December. She turned her cottage into a cookie-baking assembly line, setting up folding tables in the living room to augment the dining table in her tiny kitchen. At night I would peek out my bedroom window and see the lights blazing next door as Isabelle baked into the wee hours.

She must have produced hundreds upon hundreds of cookies—perhaps thousands—each and every year. She gave them away as Christmas gifts to lucky friends and family members, keeping just a few tins to have on hand when people stopped by for tea. Isabelle herself did not eat Christmas cookies. She told me she had lost her appetite for sweets when her husband, Bill, died.

I never knew there were so many kinds of Christmas cookies. Besides the standard sugar cookies, butter cookies, chocolate chips and gingerbreads, Isabelle made biscotti, macaroons, pfeffernusse, meringues, almond cookies, lebkuchen, pizzelle and a dozen other varieties I couldn’t name. Many of the recipes had come down in the family and were 100 years old.

Isabelle had the knack—she had the touch. Somehow her cookies were crisper, nuttier, thinner, more buttery and just plain prettier than anyone else’s. Oh, and absolutely scrumptious.

Isabelle is gone, but her daughter, my friend Barbara, maintains the cookie-making tradition, so I still get spoiled every year with a huge plate of Isabelle’s cookies. Christmas just wouldn’t be as sweet without them.

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Making a list, checking it twice

I happened to be in a local store on Saturday, idly searching for I didn’t know what—anything that might strike me as a good gift for someone on my Christmas list. Not that I had an actual written list, only a vague thought that I had yet to buy anything for A, B or C.

And there it was: the perfect garment, jammed into a rack alongside a bevy of others that would not have been perfect. This garment—a sweatshirt, actually—was the only one in this particular design. And it was even the right size.

It remains to be seen if the person I bought it for actually likes it. But at least I can add a (mental) checkmark to my (nonexistent) list and feel that I found something cool for this one friend.

I haven’t completed my Christmas shopping yet. In the tradition of my mother, who always began her holiday buying in August, I’ve picked up a few things in the past couple of months and ordered other items online. But I still have a way to go.

Mom had a lengthy Christmas list, buying not just for family but also for a host of friends and colleagues—for years, she did a dollar-gift exchange with a dozen or so people at work. Expert shopper that she was, she was a genius at sniffing out cute, funky, unique little items that were so quirky you had to love them. We got them as stocking stuffers and I still treasure the mini cat-shaped tin she found for me years ago. It’s a dead ringer for my kitten Moe.

I too enjoy finding the little gifts—the Mom-style stocking stuffers. For larger presents, I rack my brain.

It’s harder than ever to buy for people because by and large, none of us needs anything—or if we do, we go out and buy it ourselves. When we were kids we might get socks and underwear among our Christmas presents, simply because we needed socks and underwear. Nowadays, no one finds undies under the Christmas tree unless they’re in a big pink box from Victoria’s Secret.

My niece Cynthia has told me not to buy clothes for her kids for a while—she has enough for all three of them into the foreseeable future. So we wrote a check for shoes, which they do need, and also got a small gift for each child: a build-a-robot for the elder son, who’s a mechanical genius; a singing Elsa doll for our grandniece; and a noisy toy you can bang on for the baby.

“Rob and I were curious so we ended up opening everything,” Cynthia messaged me after receiving the package. “It was almost like Christmas for us. The kids will love it all! For you guys not having kids, you really hit the mark.”

It was good to know we weren’t completely clueless as aunt and uncle. Now, if I could only think of what to get for the other missing links on my list.

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It’s not easy being green

All summer and fall, as my husband and I worked on various home improvement projects, we set aside metals in a minor heap on the back patio. Last week, before the snow fell, we hauled them to a local recycler.

Metal prices have plummeted, even for copper and brass. The technician weighed what we had, from an old aluminum porch chair to a broken stepladder to a bunch of miscellaneous pipes and motor parts. Then he got out his calculator and handed us $7.

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” he joked.

At least we had the satisfaction of keeping it out of the landfill. Our efforts may not count for much in the face of the possible consequences of climate change. Still, we recycle where we can. You’ve got to start somewhere.

I used to bring things to the county recycling center, but after a while people began abusing the service by dumping garbage there too. What a mess. After the prices paid for metal, glass and plastic recyclables cratered, the county decided it wasn’t economical to continue. The recycling center closed.

Since then, my neighbor and I have shared the cost of having a hauler come by once a week to pick up our single-stream recycling bin. It irked me at first to have to pay. After all, I’m giving them things they can sell for a profit. Why charge me too?

But recycling is a tough business with thin margins. The hauler must send massive, specialized trucks over long distances to pick the stuff up, and then sort and warehouse it all. That’s got to be costly.

Instead of the standard blue barrels, the recycler gave us an enormous receptacle, almost a mini-Dumpster on wheels, in which to collect our recyclables. The truck comes on Tuesday mornings and with a great clatter, extends robotic arms to clutch the bin and upend it into the deep interior of the vehicle. No human hands involved.

Between the two households, we rarely come close to filling the bin. Our combined bottles, cans, junk mail and newspapers generally take up about half to two-thirds of the receptacle.

I’ve always thrown my used holiday wrapping paper into the recycling bin along with everything else, but I’ve now learned that most of it can’t be recycled. The paper is impregnated with other components, like glitter or foil, or it may be coated with a plastic film.

The environmental impact of Christmas wrapping paper is not insignificant. One estimate puts the damage at 100,000 trees lost every year—“trees that would be better left to absorb carbon dioxide and offset our carbon footprints,” an article on the subject scolds.

You could opt out of wrapping paper altogether and go with recyclable alternatives like brown bags or newspaper. If that seems too drab, reuse is another option. I, for one, have always saved used Christmas paper for service the following year (though I’ve never ironed it, as some are said to do).

Cheap? Nope. Just call me environmentally sensitive.

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Hooray for Hollywood

When my husband and I were courting, many moons ago, we used to go to the movies every Monday night without fail. The Cineplex nearest to where we lived offered some kind of Monday special that we took advantage of to see almost everything that came out, starting with “The Scent of a Woman.” Hooh-ah!

Nowadays we don’t go to the movies nearly as often, even though it’s easier to do so. Instead of driving 18 miles like we used to, we now have a multiplex 5 miles away that opened several years back.

But is it me, or did something happen to movies in the 24 years since Al Pacino’s blind tango? There’s so little I want to see.

Anything based on a comic book or videogame leaves me cold. I’d rather read a book than watch most action movies, and without a kid in the household, we don’t bother with computer animation (though “Moana” sure looks cute).

And of course, if we do miss something in the theater, we can easily catch up with it via Netflix, so long as we don’t mind waiting six months for the DVD to come out.

But this time of year, we get motivated again. As always, the best movies cascade into theaters during the period just before and just after Christmas—timed, apparently, to stay in the forefront of everyone’s minds in the run-up to awards season. We’ll be going to the movies fairly often for the next couple of months, a good distraction from the advent of winter.

We began over the weekend with “Rules Don’t Apply,” Warren Beatty’s movie about Howard Hughes. The aging star plays the aging, eccentric aeronautics mogul and Hollywood billionaire in a romantic comedy that’s essentially about business—an American theme if there ever was one.

We were underwhelmed; I expected better from the man behind “Reds” and “Bulworth.” But I won’t be surprised if Beatty nabs an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Oscar judges seem to love on-screen depictions of mental illness, and Beatty’s Hughes is as oddball as they come.

At dinner afterward, people at the next table were raving about “Arrival,” a film about an alien landing. I generally don’t like sci-fi, but this one, focusing on a linguist’s attempts to communicate with the extraterrestrials, intrigues me. It’s on our list.

We may also try to catch “Allied,” since I’m a sucker for movies set during World War II (though I don’t know, should I be boycotting Brad Pitt?).

The previews, meanwhile, offered peeks at some coming attractions that might be worth seeing, including “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman portraying Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination.

There were only three people in the theater besides us for “Rules Don’t Apply,” and we could hear sound effects from a noisier movie on the other side of the wall. Still, there’s nothing like going out and seeing a film on the big screen. Along with baseball, it’s one of the great American pastimes.

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All in the family

I envy people who know their family histories going way back—or at least, “way back” by American standards, which essentially means 18th century. (Was there life before 1776?) My first husband’s family, for example, had deep roots in New England. He was named for an ancestor who was prominent during the American Revolution.

I’m reading a memoir by a novelist I like, Diane Johnson, who traces her roots to a young Frenchman who emigrated to North America in 1711. He married a Massachusetts girl, giving rise to a family that kept documents, letters and personal memoirs over the course of 300 years. That’s fortunate for Johnson, who writes about them all in “Flyover Lives.”

Her ancestors tell stories of extreme hardship—unheated shacks, ceaseless toil and frightful illnesses. What is “bilious fever”? It’s no longer a medical diagnosis but was a killer back then.

A great-great grandmother writing in 1876 described the deaths of her three little daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, in a matter of weeks from scarlet fever. Her husband was a doctor, but there was little a medical man could do at the time. The couple later lost four more children. One survived to adulthood.

There’s no way on earth to trace my family that far back, for everyone on both sides was still in Europe in 1711, no doubt leading unremarkable lives. Maybe municipal or church records exist somewhere (baptisms? land transfers?), but there’s no way to find them. I don’t even know all the names.

I’m Polish on my father’s side, Italian on my mother’s. My Polish grandmother claimed to be from an aristocratic family, yet she came to America on her own at the age of 14 in the early 1900s. Would a girl from a noble household flee all alone like that? More likely this is an example of something a French friend of Diane Johnson’s teased her about—the fact that “all Americans believe they are descended from royalty.”

I don’t know this grandmother’s maiden name, date of birth or town of origin. Heck, even my grandfather’s name is a mystery, though it’s now mine. The name has morphed over the years from the Polish form, no doubt laden with interesting accent marks, to what it is today, shedding consonants along the way.

On the Italian side, my grandmother was a babe in arms when her parents sailed by steerage to America somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. Grandma knew little of their lives in Italy, save for their areas of origin (Naples for her father, northern Italy for her mother). My grandfather, by contrast, was a young adult when he emigrated from a town called Cave, now a part of Rome, seeking economic opportunity. He’s the only one whose family ties might be traceable.

The question of who we are and where we come from is a mystery with many layers. DNA analysis adds a new wrinkle, introducing unknown ancestors from unexpected places. Still, it might be fun to try it.

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God save the queen

“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,” sang the Beatles, “but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Turns out they were right, if we are to believe a new and mesmerizing TV series about the reign of Elizabeth II.

“The Crown,” a Netflix original series that’s catnip for those of us who sat glued to “Downton Abbey” for six seasons, begins with the marriage of 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to her handsome consort, Philip (Matt Smith), in 1947. But within a few short years, the death of King George VI thrusts Elizabeth into the new and not entirely welcome role of sovereign.

The aged Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, in a fat suit) mentors the new queen, as does her grandmother, Queen Mary, played by Eileen Atkins in the best dowager-countess style. (Atkins could take down Downton’s Maggie Smith.)

It’s grandmother Mary who tells Elizabeth to keep her mouth shut. As the head of a constitutional monarchy, she must keep her opinions to herself and not interfere in the workings of government, even though she is routinely briefed and consulted on the affairs of the day.

“To do nothing is the hardest job of all,” Mary says, “and it will take every ounce of energy that you have.”

The show began streaming last Friday and we have already watched six of the 10 episodes in Season 1, torn between bingeing and a desire to save some installments for later. Even my husband, who is no Anglophile (and didn’t like “Downton”), is caught up in the drama.

The palaces, the hunts, the trip to Kenya. The courtiers, the political intrigue and the members of the family—including the acid-tongued former King Edward VIII, who lives abroad since abdicating the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson but returns for the funerals of his brother and mother.

The bigger question, I suppose, is why we Americans—or some of us, anyway—are suckers for a show about British royalty. To be sure, England was once the mother country. But that was long before most of our ancestors arrived in the United States. This Anglophile, for one, doesn’t have a drop of English blood.

Maybe it’s the display of order in a chaotic world. The manners and customs may be stultifying, as Elizabeth discovers in assuming her royal duties. But at least they are clear-cut and definitive. You know what you’re supposed to do, even if you resent every minute of it.

Whatever the reason, it’s instructive to note how fake news stories and Internet memes kept cropping up during the 2016 election season suggesting that the queen might be an alternative for those dissatisfied with the actual candidates.

“The Queen urged Americans to write in her name on Election Day,” deadpanned the New Yorker’s humor columnist, Andy Borowitz, “after which the transition to British rule could begin ‘with a minimum of bother.’”

In lieu of that option coming to pass, at least we have “The Crown.” I was cheered to learn that Season 2 is already under development.

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Do senior discounts mess with your head?

The year I turned 55, my cousin, who is younger, drily wrote a note on my birthday card. “Welcome to the world of senior discounts,” she said.

That same birthday, a slightly older friend enthused that now I too would get reduced fare on city buses. She lived in San Francisco. I lived in a place where the only city buses were big yellow ones for schoolchildren.

That was more than a decade ago, and in the interim I have qualified for even more senior discounts as the years have ticked by, including the big enchilada, Medicare. There are no other cost breaks on the horizon to further incentivize aging. The supermarket won’t offer anything extra when I’m 80. It’s 5 percent on Tuesdays whether you’re 65 or 95.

I never gave senior discounts much thought until I read Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book on growing older, “Goddesses Never Age,” a year or so ago. Northrup, an OB/GYN and women’s health expert, advises refusing senior discounts and otherwise ignoring the passing of the years, lest you get hung up on thoughts of yourself as aged and infirm.

In the real world, you often don’t have to request discounts—you’ll get them automatically. I’m trying to remember the first time a cashier rang me up as a senior without my asking. It happens so often now that it’s not worth mentioning.

One time my husband and I went to the movies with a younger friend who got a little freaked out when the clerk gave her a senior discount, too. She was 50 at the time but apparently just being with us aged her, at least in the eyes of the teenager selling tickets.

My husband, for his part, likes senior discounts, and every other kind of discount too. If a senior discount is not an option, he’ll ask about veteran’s discounts, AAA discounts or whether buying multiples might qualify him for a discount. It doesn’t bother him to self-identify as old. He just doesn’t think about it.

But I do, and in that regard I agree with Dr. Northrup. Watch your language, she counsels—you are what you think. Don’t joke about “senior moments,” and stop saying “at my age” (as in, “Can you believe I went sky-diving at my age?”).

Keep your age a secret and don’t make a big deal of those scary milestone birthdays—the ones that fall on decades. Instead, consider yourself ageless.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went for a mini-hayride with the same friend who once got that movie discount with us. It was a quick trip through some woods and across the local golf course to a pumpkin patch. My husband plays golf there and knows the manager, Joe, who was driving the hay truck.

“Are these your daughters?” Joe asked when we arrived—and he wasn’t joking. Maybe the sun was in his eyes, but we looked young to him. I didn’t spoil the moment by asking for a senior discount.

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Painting to beat the weather

Here we are with the weather beginning to turn, the leaves drifting in colorful swirls and the election right around the corner—and my husband and I are still not done with our endless porch renewal project. We figure on finishing up this week, and there’s an urgency to the deadline. Snow has already fallen in areas just north of us. We are running out of time.

The endeavor began in early summer when I decided to paint all the porches, starting with the side landing off the TV room. It was a pretty easy job, except for the bottom post at the foot of the stairs, which needs replacing. That’s one of the checklist items we must finish this week.

Then came the front porch. It’s huge, and ringed by railings and their supporting infrastructure of posts, each of which must be painted individually. Leading up to the porch are nine super-wide wooden steps, with their own railings and posts on either side.

I alternated colors (white for the posts and woodwork, a gray-beige color for the railings and floors), so it was fussy work, especially when you count the prep—sanding, filling and priming, all tasks that I hate. Most surfaces needed two coats. And then, the weather factored in. I couldn’t paint when the sun was beating down or when it rained. The job seemed to take forever.

While I was wielding my brush and roller out front, my husband was in the back, rebuilding the (thankfully smaller) porch at the rear of the house after discovering rot in the original decking and supporting columns. He’s put it back together now and I did most of the painting out there last week: ceiling, trim work, back door and door to the attached storage room. Next up: the floor.

We’ve been lucky that the weather has held for so long. But the illusion of endless summer through September and most of October gave us a false sense of endless time. Over the past weekend that changed. Now fall is decidedly here—and so is our deadline.

As beautiful as the season is, autumn carries with it a hint of dread. Maybe that’s the point of Halloween? The ghosts and goblins underscore what we already know: that everything is dying and the big chill will soon set in. The bright colors, pumpkins and mums are but a temporary distraction.

As the days get shorter, those of us who are susceptible may slide into seasonal affective disorder—or SAD. Years ago, my wonderful brother built me a light box containing full-spectrum bulbs. It has helped me through many a dark season, and one year I loaned it to a friend who was feeling SADder than I was.

Once the time changes and the nights lengthen, I’ll haul the light box down from storage and plug it in. But first let me finish my final touchups and wash my paint brushes one last time, knowing we won’t be sitting out on our freshly painted porches until spring.

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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, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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