Wait…Whaaaat?! Volume 2

Castro

This is the second in my series of “burying the lead” stories. The first was about a friend that I knew for years before casually finding out that she was once selected to play piano in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow against Van Cliburn himself. Wait…whaaaat?!

This entry is about another one of my fellow writers, Darcy, a chap from Montreal. Darcy and his wife, Helga, spend their winters in South Florida and attend the same weekly writer’s group that I do. They seem to be very nice and intelligent people and I’ve known them for about three years.

I wish I could say that I was a bigger fan of their writing, but that’s okay. There is chocolate and vanilla for a reason. Helga is primarily an artist from what I’ve learned. I really wish I could see her artwork, because as a writer, well…I’d rather see her artwork. One time she read a story about a trip with her sister to Eastern Europe where they visited some of the camps where family members were kept before and during World War II. It was a great opportunity for drama and pathos, but read more like an extremely clinical travel brochure. This was compounded by the fact that this is a common theme in our group and some of the other writers have produced some of the most moving stories that I’ve ever heard.

Darcy is more of a serious writer. He is very intelligent and has a vast knowledge of history. Unfortunately, his style still eludes me. There are four distinct things that I find difficult about his writing:

  • He writes a fair amount of poetry. This one is on me. I typically do not care for or even get most poetry. I do have a bizarre talent for writing rhyming song lyrics in the form of parodies, but they are typically at the Dr. Seuss level.
  • Darcy has a habit of using a lot of arcane language, but more in a smug than clever way. He uses those words that only appear in the New York Times crossword, or in the writing of Shakespeare. Frequently, after reading a piece, several of the group members are reaching for their dictionaries. Sometimes, I feel as though he ate a thesaurus and subsequently took a crap on the page.
  • He can be a little wordy. We meet in a library. One day, the room was so cold that we had to open an outside door to let some warm air in. Darcy was in the middle of a rather lengthy piece about some obscure event in Canadian history when a vehicle with a siren drove by the library. When I said, “Uh-oh! It’s the run-on sentence police!”, it got a pretty big laugh.
  • Much of his stuff is just uninteresting. The purpose of writing is to infuse the mundane with passion and interest, not the other way around.

On this day, Darcy started off with a typical story. He and Helga were attending the funeral of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It was quite clinical and mercifully short until he got to the point where he left her on the curb and went to retrieve his black Lincoln to pick her up. When he pulled to the curb, before she could get in, a man opened his back door and three men slid into the back seat.

Now keep in mind that in three years, this is the first time my ears pricked up expecting even the slightest of amusing anecdotes from Darcy. His previous “funny” story involved a very strange episode with an over-abundance of phlegm, and a deeply disturbing and possibly inappropriate episode involving his mother.

Darcy continued with the following:

I got out of the car and waved for Helga to get into the front seat. I got back in the car and turned to inform my unexpected passengers that they were in the wrong car. When I looked at the men, I found two rather large and frightening men on either side of Fidel Castro.

Wait…whaaaat?!

Darcy said he was so surprised that her just turned back and started driving when one of the men said “airport”. He drove them silently 40 miles to meet their plane. When they arrived at the airport the men thanked them politely. Fidel Castro shook both Darcy’s and Helga’s hand. Incidentally, no money changed hands.

The story ended well and certainly had everyone’s interest. Here’s what blew me away. I’ve known these people for three years and have heard several dozen of their stories. Some of the people in the group have known Darcy and Helga considerably longer and none of them had ever heard this story. How? Why not? I feel that I have a lot more interesting stories than Darcy, but I absolutely guarantee you this: If this were my story, sometime within the first five times we met, I damned sure would have worked in the story of the time that I met Fidel Freakin’ Castro and the time he bummed a 40 mile ride to the airport from me.

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Aroma Therapy

Aromatherapy

I recently spent a couple of nights as a guest of my sister-in-law in New Jersey as I was attending my 40th High School Reunion. She insisted on letting me use her bedroom while she took the sofa. I did lodge a small protest, but she had already arranged everything prior to my arrival. Well, almost everything.

For example, she left on her nightstand, a small lamp. While this lamp gave all indications of being a regular lamp, alas, it was not.  This lamp was controlled by simply touching it. It was also the only light in the room that could be reached from the bed. There was another lamp on the other side of the bed, but it was not working and was clearly used for symmetry rather than illumination. There was a light switch on the wall, but there was no overhead light. This switch controlled a single outlet, which of course, was the one I needed for my CPAP machine. There was at least one other floor lamp that was neither near the bed nor the door.

The small working lamp had a three-way bulb in it, so in order to reach full illumination, you needed to touch it three times. This was only a problem when it was already on as I would often touch it just to determine if it were at its brightest level (I like as much light as possible). This usually resulted in plunging the room into darkness when trying to maximize brightness. I also do not see well in the dark, especially coming immediately after brightness. Since this was not my home, I would sometimes have a hard time finding the lamp after this type of outage. I would equally as often hit it too hard and knock it over. I tried clapping, but it didn’t respond to that at all.

My wife’s eyesight is the opposite of mine. She never leaves the house without sunglasses and generally keeps to the shadows during the daylight hours not unlike a prison escapee. At night, however, she becomes Vampirella, the Owl Woman. She has used tape to cover every clock face and tiny light on all electronic devices even though she uses a sleep mask and has functional eyelids. Neighbor’s floodlights across our canal over 100 yards away, somehow bend around our blinds and find her retina. Her sister apparently is similarly afflicted.

While getting settled in, my sister-in-law offered to remove a few small personal items that sat next to the lamp from her nightstand. It appeared to be a small dish containing a cotton ball and a couple of small containers. Not wanting to put her out, I told her that they were not in the way and just slid them to the edge. This would later prove to have been a big mistake on my part. After she left, I continued to set up my space. I decided to slide the lamp a few inches farther from the bed, which instantly plunged the room into darkness the instant that I touched it. Once I found it again, I gave it three quick taps to get back where I was. Hmm, wasn’t it brighter before? Maybe I tapped it too fast. I’ll tap it again…blackness. Eventually I got the hang of it.

When I went into the bathroom to shower in the morning (thank God for the sun), I got a strong whiff of a peppermint smell. Damn! I’ll bet my Colgate toothpaste leaked in my toiletry bag. Nope, it wasn’t that. I brought my own shampoo, but not soap. While looking around the bathroom, I was immediately dismayed. There was soap. There were several soaps, in fact. Each soap, however, appeared to be heavily scented. I know this shouldn’t be a problem for someone normal, but this might be a good time for me to discuss the Stinky Candle Store.

I have a mild sensitivity to many scents and perfumes. I’m not allergic and I don’t get headaches from them, but I just don’t care for most scents, particularly in bulk. You may recall a store that was in many shopping malls several years ago called Yankee Candle. I couldn’t go in the place. Quite frankly, I had a hard time walking by it. This is odd because I would stop in front of Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather and inhale deeply. My wife said it smelled like wet cow. To me, it smelled like baseball gloves and spring training, the most wonderful scent in the world.

Eventually, my kids noticed my peccadillo and began referring to any odor-heavy location as “the stinky candle store”. This affliction also limited the scents that I could tolerate. I once made a co-worker move out of our office for drinking hazelnut coffee. In another example, there used to be a “Forest” variety of deodorant made by Mennen that I could tolerate. When it was discontinued, I had to travel to about fifty different stores to find the last of the stock to buy myself a couple of more years. After those were gone, I took a trip with my family to Southern California. We took a side trip for a day to Tijuana, Mexico. Upon entering a convenience store for a drink, I found a Mennen product that was labeled “Green”. It was the forest scent in Mexican packaging. I bought all eleven units and spent the rest of the day worrying about how to get through U.S. Customs with such an odd purchase.

Getting back to my sister-in-law’s, I eschewed the vanilla/raspberry liquid soap and the bar with multi-colored swirls throughout. I ended up using the hand soap. It was orange in color, but didn’t seem to have a specific scent. I rinsed heavily and survived the experience. I headed off to my reunion without further incident.

Upon returning later that night, I spent a few minutes chatting with my host before retiring for the night. After a few fits and starts with the lamp, I was able to change and get into the bed. The peppermint smell was back, but stronger than ever. Had I brushed my teeth, but forgotten to rinse? Did I leave a glob of toothpaste on my chin? No, neither of these were the case. There must be some sort of air freshener here. No, I don’t see anything.

I finally fell asleep, but was plagued by a nightmare where several elves were beating me with giant candy canes in Santa’s workshop. I tried to cry out, but instead was choking on a massive wad of chewing gum and York patties. In the morning, the scent seemed to follow me into the shower. It was so heavy that in desperation I used the soap with vanilla, one of my most hated scents. When I packed, everything smelled of peppermint.

Over breakfast, I finally asked my sister-in-law about the smell. She told me that she uses essential oils and that the small dish by her bed had a cotton ball with a few drops of peppermint on it. She added that she had offered to move it, but since I declined, that I must have been okay with the scent. I told her that I had no idea what was in the dish, but also couldn’t figure out why in became so much more intense on the second day. She had no explanation.

I finally figured it all out when I arrived home. I brought my suitcase into the laundry room in order to wash my clothes. The peppermint was pervasive, causing me to wash the clean clothes along with the dirty ones. Even after being washed and dried, one pair of underwear still had a reasonably heavy peppermint scent. I remembered that while getting undressed after the reunion, I was reaching to put my underwear into my hamper bag that I travel with. I touched the lamp while reaching, plunging the room into darkness at which point, I must have dropped or placed the underwear briefly onto the corner of the table dipping it into the small dish of essential peppermint oil. After turning the light back on, I picked up the garment, transferring the scent onto my hand.

I was quite pleased that my temporary descent into peppermint-fueled madness had passed. I sent my sister-in-law a note explaining the sequence of events and apologizing in the event that her bedroom now smelled more like my ass than of peppermint. I took a moment to breath in deeply the scents and the non-scents of home. It was great to be back to normal. I kissed my wife as we got into bed for the night. I smiled as I turned off my lamp the way lamps were meant to be turned off. I took the mask from my CPAP machine and put it over my nose so I would sleep like a baby. During the first deep breath I got another blast…of peppermint! I was too tired to deal with it tonight. I knew I was going to be fighting some elves, but this time I’d be ready. This time I would be the one wielding the peppermint stick.

 

Miss Mary

Miss Mary

My daughter successfully defended her dissertation this week and completed her PhD. It was a proud moment for my wife and me, but it also made me think of Mary Davis. She had a lot to do with us making our move to Florida fourteen years ago and helped to start our lives down here into motion. Miss Mary, as we called her, met my wife nearly two decades ago when she was looking for an attorney. I’m not sure how she found my wife in her small family practice in Montclair, New Jersey, but it was a fortuitous connection for Miss Mary and for us.

Miss Mary was an eighty-three year old African-American woman who lived in a small apartment on the Montclair-East Orange border. She needed an estate attorney to assist with her one hundred-and-three-year-old mother who was dying of cancer. My wife got to know Miss Mary through this process and would come home and tell me what a delightful person she was. Sadly, Miss Mary was diagnosed with cancer herself almost immediately after her mother’s passing. She told my wife, “I took care of that old witch for thirty years, and as soon as she was gone, I got the cancer myself.”

As an only child of two only child parents, Miss Mary had no family. She grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey around the same time as Count Basie. My wife started inviting her to our kid’s concerts and performances. She always would make these amazing fruit salads in a carved watermelon rind that looked like a basket. She became an honorary grandparent to our children. Everybody she met loved her. Each week, she would take a bus downtown to do her errands, including a stop at the bank followed by a visit to the funeral home. She had planned out her own funeral after getting to know them through her mother’s services. She would stop in each week and chat with the workers while she paid another installment.

As a college professor, I had a relatively light schedule, so I would often pick up Miss Mary and take her to doctor appointments. I would also sit with her during some of her hospital stays. Here is where I really got to know what a fascinating woman she was. Miss Mary was like a walking and talking version of black history. Her home town had many of the first black-owned businesses in the state. She told me of a trip to the Apollo Theatre where she saw a young Ella Fitzgerald perform for the first time. She was just getting warmed up.

She moved to California to become a domestic worker in Hollywood. Miss Mary worked for several years as Lana Turner’s maid. She spent a week on a train taking Benny Goodman’s baby across country while he and his wife flew. In one story, she was visiting Eddie “Rochester” Anderson with a friend on a day off. He was having a barbecue and was serving lobster. She told me that he was chasing her with one of them and she was so frightened that she jumped into his pool. Joan Crawford took her to lunch at the Brown Derby. Van Johnson gave her a stuffed rabbit made of ermine as a gift along with a signed photo claiming to be her biggest fan.

This was only the beginning. She then went to work for the phone company which was still called Bell Telephone at the time. She was a pioneer who trained other workers and spent twenty years traveling around the world. She had developed a taste for all things Japanese and her apartment was furnished and decorated in that style. Miss Mary was also politically savvy. We both supported Al Gore over George W. Bush and she may have hated the republicans even more than I.

One day, my wife and I drove to the hospital to pick up Miss Mary after some tests. My wife dropped me by the outpatient entrance and I went in to wheel Miss Mary out. Before we made it to the door, she grabbed my arm as we both noticed an elderly woman who was trying to get the concierge to summon the bus from her senior complex. It wasn’t going well. Miss Mary turned to me, but I was way ahead of her. I told the woman that we were heading in her direction and would be happy to take her.

My wife was dumbstruck when I came out pushing not one, but two wheelchairs. “I sent you in for one and you came out with two?” she asked. Miss Mary told her that I had her permission and that was all my wife needed to hear.

Eventually Miss Mary reached a point where she needed regular help and her doctors said that it was time for Hospice. My wife and I discussed it with our children and told them that we would be moving Miss Mary to our home so she would not be alone. I called Miss Mary from work to tell her that I was coming over to determine what type of bed we needed to order, but she did not answer. Worried, I called my wife and we met at Miss Mary’s on the way home from work. Miss Mary had either fallen and passed or passed and fallen.

Since she had it all prearranged, her services were quick and efficient. For some reason, she left specific instructions that only a very few people were to attend. At the cemetery, it was basically my family and a few people from the funeral home. The next task was to deal with her apartment and belongings. My wife was Miss Mary’s executor. She left a small amount of stock to each of our kids. When we started to clean out the apartment, we learned so much more about this fascinating woman.

First of all, Miss Mary was a shoe nut. She had dozens of pairs under the bed and stacked in closets, many never having been worn. She seemed to have every greeting card and piece of correspondence that she ever had received. Miss Mary loved to hide money. $3, $5, $8, were stuffed in shoes, drawers, and envelopes. We had to meticulously go through every scrap. This turned out to be worth the effort.

We found the most amazing artifacts. There were dozens of awards, citations, and materials from the early days of the growth of Ma Bell. There were amazing cards and programs from Birdland, the famous jazz club in New York City. We found autographs of Count Basie and other jazz greats, and a fight poster signed by Sugar Ray Robinson. There was also some very interesting political material. We were impressed to find that Miss Mary was actually a delegate for the 1960 presidential election. What really blew us away was that the old faker was a delegate for Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge and not for JFK.

Here’s the crazy part. There were cards and photos from what seemed to be scores of children. “Thank you for everything, Miss Mary.” “We love you, Miss Mary.” Apparently, she either took care of or raised half of the children in Southern California at one time or another, and they all kept in touch.

She touched my children as well. We had to scramble to clean out Miss Mary’s apartment to avoid paying another month’s rent. We had used most of our December vacation to do it. We used some of the cash we found to go to Florida as a family during the kid’s spring break. Just before we left, I heard that they were opening a new campus for my University in South Florida. We checked out the area and I soon looked into a transfer. We moved a year later to a state where college was actually affordable compared to New Jersey. My oldest daughter got nearly a full scholarship to the University of Central Florida. She was able to get a free Master’s degree along with a teaching fellowship. She was then able to get into a fully funded PhD program at North Carolina State. She now has her doctorate and begins a full-time tenure track professorship today.

My other kids have thrived as well, and when they have successes, I often think of Miss Mary. It turns out that a woman who never married or had children of her own sowed more seeds than most. I hope that my wife and I can leave a similar legacy of love and achievement. I wish for the same for my children.

 

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