Saturday, December 9, 2017

Dying is Easy

Rock Star & Kathy Foss back in the day
I read a newspaper story about a 70-year-old guy ending up in a Miami hospital emergency room (ER), unconscious, his condition bleak. When the man's chest was exposed a tattoo came into view. "Do not resuscitate" it said, with a line under the "not". 
     What a dilemma! Here is another example of man's relentless pursuit of freedom of expression colliding with society's relentless pursuit of a code of standards applied simply, fairly and reasonably to all. Is any message clearer than the one you have needled onto your own skin? How much more concise do you need to be? In Florida the answer apparently is you need to have "Do Not Resuscitate" written on a piece of paper, signed by you and your doctor, and present at the time you begin to die. Even then, medical people, trained to do any and all things possible to postpone death for as long as humanly possible, have trouble believing anyone would chose to forego rescue efforts - even a dying man at the ripe old age of 70. 
Naughty and Nice -- Kathy Foss and me (but who's who?)

     For her 40th birthday my brother Rocky had his girlfriend's name tattooed on his chest. Kathy is a rough and tumble kind of girl, one of the guys when she needs to be, and she is often called by her last name: Foss.  
     This is the name Rocky had imprinted over his heart.  I think the fact that "Kathy" has one more letter than "Foss" may also have influenced his choice.  In any event, Rocky's act of devotion has provided us with lots of laughter, and some sadness, too. Kathy and Rocky are no longer together and through the years the women destined to follow her in and out of Rocky's heart have had to see another woman's name blazed onto his chest whenever he takes his clothes off. I wouldn't like that. Would you? 
     One day Rocky and Kathy's brother Tom Foss were working on the same project in New York. During a break one of the workers asked Tom if he and Rocky were brothers. 
     "No," Tom replied. "Just good friends.  Rocky, show him what good friends we are!"
     Rocky lifted his shirt to display his tattoo, a fat, red heart embossed with Tom's last name: Foss. 
Earth Mother Kathy Foss
Rocky juggling

     Rocky tells me he has no regrets about that tattoo. He still loves Kathy and always will. She is the love of his life. But even a tattoo could not make Kathy stay -- just like that unconscious man's tattoo, "Do Not Resuscitate", did not convince the Miami ER docs of his sincere desire to be spared the drama of bringing his dying heart back from the brink. The man was resuscitated and did survive. But only for a few hours. He died in his hospital bed the following morning and when his heart stopped beating that time, they let him go. Because the ethics committee had met and decided that the man's tattooed living will should be honored. And this, according to other media reports on the story, has set a precedent. In the future, such statements will be taken at skin value. 
     I told Rocky the story and he said that it would be a long and very painful process to have "Do Not Resuscitate" with a line under the word "Not" inked into the delicate flesh of the chest.  Rocky believes the guy meant what his tattoo said, just as surely as Kathy's name on Rocky's heart is a forever true statement of his real love for her. 
The philosopher and the romantic   Michael and Rocky
     My tattoo-less husband Michael says he would be inclined to not honor that man's tattooed message. He would need to know more. That's a Virgo for you. 

       "What if he was joking?" Michael says. "Maybe he was drunk, with friends, and was being crazy and foolhardy; clowning around." 
     "That would certainly be a sad and painfully misguided attempt at humor," I said. 
     "Oh yeah," Michael agreed. "A real miscalculation. But dying is easy. Comedy is hard." 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Nancy Friday's Saturday Sale

The house on Southard Street where Bill Manville and Nancy Friday lived, before fame rewrote their love story. 

Nancy Friday's obit appeared in the New York Times yesterday. I was surprised at how sad it made me feel to know she was gone. Of course she will never really be gone. Her books will live on and on. And those stories in Cosmopolitan Magazine, when Nancy Friday nurtured my emerging sexuality, will forever live in my memories.
     Nancy is a real icon in American pop culture and I was in great awe of her work. I didn't know her in person, but I knew others who did. I saw her once and was impressed with her power. She swept through a room and didn't hesitate for one instant. She knew where she was going and what she was going there for.
     I once heard a story of Nancy being taken out of her house by ambulance when she was stricken with appendicitis.  She was very, very sick and had been for a few days before her illness was finally diagnosed and the decision made for her rushed trip to the hospital for surgery.  Sick as she was, she managed to walk down the curving staircase from her bedroom.  This she insisted upon as she feared that the EMT people and their stretcher would mess up the new paint job.  She was a practical gal. Then Alzheimer's.
    As I reminisce about the day of Nancy Friday's yard sale in 2011, which I wrote about in the piece that follows, I recall a certain solemnity in the spirit of the place, a sort of sadness that permeated Nancy's no-longer-necessary things. Lamps. Chairs. Hats. CDs. Paintings. Now I maybe understand a bit better why those who managed the sale seemed to be guarding Nancy Friday's things like sentries. It was the beginning of the end. They were paying homage to her giant personality.  The best part of Nancy died before her body did. That happened Sunday. The obit follows. RIP Nancy Friday. We won't forget you!

Nancy Friday's Saturday Sale

The woman-on-top writer Nancy Friday had a yard sale Saturday. It was announced in the Key West Citizen, along with all the other yard sales in the Saturday morning edition. I am a Nancy Friday fan and have been since I began reading her fabulous features in Cosmopolitan Magazine when I was a kid growing up outside of New York City. Heaven to me in those days was the train ride from Katonah depot to Grand Central Station, armed with a Cosmopolitan and a pack of Marlboros. In Cosmo I studied the art of seducing interesting men as told in articles penned by sexy New York writers like Nancy Friday and Bill Manville. Imagine my intense joy when years later fate led me to Key West where my orbit intertwined with Bill Manville’s and we became friends. Bill was married to Nancy Friday, but by that time, Nancy was living in New York, her star rising fast, and their marriage heading for the rocks.
Hello . . . is this Nancy's yard sale?
    The object of my affection in those days was a classical guitarist who played the dinner hour at a Key West club. Bill was working on a novel at his house on Southard Street. He was very kind and encouraging to me, a wannabe writer without a clue about what to write. Bill was also well versed in romance, and I needed help in that department, too, because things were definitely not going my way with the guitarist. Sometimes Bill took me for drinks to the club where my boyfriend worked (although neither one of us drank alcohol). He said it wasn’t fair that he got the job of entertaining me until my boyfriend, “the banjo player", got off work. Bill told me great stories of his salad days, his life in New York City, where he wrote a column in the Village Voice called Saloon Society. He told me about working for Helen Gurley Brown and the big book of subjects that was kept at the Cosmo office. Writers leafed through the book and chose topics to write about, he explained. He told me about living in Italy and drinking at Harry’s Bar. He described the night he met Nancy Friday and was instantly smitten with her.  The very next day he told his girlfriend (a feminist writer whose first big success was a novel I had actually read) it was over between them.  She replied: “I know. It's Nancy.” Bill said, “Yes. It's Nancy.” And he walked out the door and never saw her again. Eventually he and Nancy married. But, as I said, Nancy was no longer around when I knew Bill.
Starving artists in Nancy's secret garden on Southard Street. Ann Lorraine is the mastermind behind the fabulous windows at Fast Buck Freddie's. Her husband is a songwriter, too. That's why we're all starving.
    One night, in his house on Southard Street, after I talked about my boyfriend’s latest offense and Bill agonized over a rough spot in his novel, he told me a secret. He was seeing someone, yet another feminist writer (feminism was almost as big as sex in those days), who (oh, joy!) was a friend to me. I’ll call her Jane Doe. Back then she wintered in Key West.
    “When Jane tells you this—and she will tell you this,” Bill said, “you must act surprised, as if it’s news to you.”
     I promised. A day or two later Jane Doe told me about Bill, and said that I must never tell. Shortly after that, the news of Bill's and Nancy’s divorce was tearing over the Coconut Telegraph. I told Bill that being in on the secret of his romance with Jane Doe, the tragedy of his megastar wife dumping him and getting his Key West house in the bargain, trumped every tale of sex and the city of Key West I’d ever heard. I felt powerful indeed, as a witness to the scandal du jour. The lives of the real writers! Left homeless, and wifeless, the romance with Jane Doe done, Bill moved to California.
    “My God, what intrigue!” I, the fledgling writer, gushed the last time I saw him. “I want to write it. But can I? I mean who owns this story?”
    “Whoever gets it into print first,” Bill said, flashing me his sexy sideways glance and dazzling smile. Then, he was gone, and the house on Southard Street became Nancy’s.
Nancy in 1986
    Saturday, we arrived at Nancy Friday’s yard sale around 9:30 a.m.. People were pouring not in, but out of the house, most of them empty-handed. We learned that a mob had gathered in front of the house well before 9 a.m. and the yard sale organizers had given in to them, opening the doors way earlier than the published start time. The main surge was over and done by the time we got there.
    The event was very well planned and executed, with solemn-looking attendants in every room watching shoppers like hawks. There were rules, too, like you couldn’t leave one house (there is a guest house and a main house) carrying merchandise that you hadn’t yet paid for to visit the other house.  When you did pay, you received a receipt, which you were to display to prove you were honest.        
    Clearly, the diva had left the premises. She’d left behind, appropriately enough—considering the nature of her work— a Kama Sutra-ish bed, with an intricately carved platform and dramatic headboard, for sale at $1,000. The bed was in a glass-walled room, overlooking the pool and gardens. Just about everything else, except a display of Nancy Friday’s books in various languages and editions, was gone. I picked up a fresh copy of “My Secret Garden” as my first one is well worn. We bought a brass lamp—had it once lit the way for some steamy prose by our lusty lady of the hour? Also, as described by the sticker price tag: “Nancy’s sun visor, $1.”
    The property is sold. Nancy has left Key West. The closing is this week, we heard someone say.
Wearing Nancy's sun visor. I'm afraid my head is bigger than Nancy's.

    “It’s the end of an era,” someone else said. (People say that a lot in Key West.)
    I put on my visor but it hurt my head. I took it off and checked the label, expecting something fancy like Saks or Henri Bendel. The label said “NO Headaches.” It really did. But it gave me a headache.
    We went home and researched Nancy Friday on the Internet. She is divorced from the fabulously successful journalist/editor Norman Pearlstine, ten years her junior, the man she married after Bill. She is 78 years old now, but surely not alone—not with her professed skill at looking, talking and behaving the way a woman should, to attract and seduce interesting men.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sea Change

Sea Change:  A marked change; transformation. 

A rough night in Sebring, Florida. That's us -- at the bottom edge of Irma's red rage. 

My journal entry dated July 22, 2017: "We moved to Sebring for good, July 21, 2017.  We live here now." This entry is followed by many blank pages. I think I was in shock. If you have moved a tree, dug it out of one location in the earth and buried its roots in another different place, you know transplanting is a perilous business. Roots don't always find new ground hospitable. They sometimes falter. 
     Moving our lives from Key West into a very different sort of town, Sebring, feels something like that. Difficult, delicate, awkward. Of course we are not trees. We are relatively sturdy people, with medications to keep our hearts from breaking and oatmeal to keep us from becoming too full of ourselves. You can buy that stuff anywhere. And in central Florida we are closer to the miracles modern medicine has to offer to those who can afford them. Now that we are seniors, we qualify.
     Still, there are adjustments to be made. Moving to Sebring, away from the dangerous coasts, gave us what sadly proved to be a false sense of hurricane security. Hurricanes don't come to the center of the state. Right?  Wrong. In September we watched TV weather reports of Irma's stealthy progress as it barreled toward the Keys and then - well, anyone's guess. East Coast? West Coast? Right up the middle? I had tense conversations with my son, Miguel, wherein I begged him to move himself to higher ground and out of the path of Irma. Her reputation was growing more sinister by the hour. Like the true Conch he is he refused to budge from his island home, come what might. 
     "Stop doing this," he implored.  "You're scaring Mia." (His sensible -- or so I thought -- girlfriend.)
Rob Eggers (escaped from Key West with his family) and Michael Keith, in Sebring, the day before Irma.
     Irma hit Key West on a Sunday morning and and blew into Sebring some 12 hours later.  And just like in "The Wizard of Oz" we watched as carport roofs and road signs flew past our windows. Some welcome wagon!  We lost power. Everybody did. On the morning after Irma there was not a hot coffee to be had in all of Sebring. So we made instant coffee at home, on an ancient portable BBQ grill. Yummy. Fun! Like camping out!
Live TV tells no lies!
     As usually happens after a hurricane, there were sketchy news reports full of terrible and dire reports of damage to Key West. The bridges are all washed out! All 42 of them! Ninety percent of Keys homes are destroyed! We could not get a phone call through to Key West for nearly 24 hours. Meanwhile we received calls from long lost friends and relatives in faraway places, anxious to know we were OK. We were. And no property damage, we guiltily reported. On Monday afternoon Miguel was able to get a 20-second phone call through to say he was safe. In fact, Key West was in pretty good shape, too. Not so the other Keys. 
     In a conversation with Miguel a few days after the drama had dropped a few notches, I spoke of some breaking political news. Miguel advised me to think twice about believing television news. As a quasi-journalist, this really blew my mind.
     "News is real, Son!" I cried.  "News can't lie!" 
     "Mom," he said. "There were news reports after the hurricane that said 90% of Keys homes were destroyed. That was in no way true. Do you have any idea what those kind of rumors do to people?" 
     He is right! Much as I dread the growing distrust of the media that has lately seriously permeated our society, I have to recognize how this kind of fake news -- and it really was fake -- poisons the pot and gives clear-headed thinkers like my son reason to dismiss any and all news as maybe true, maybe not. Who reported that in the first place? I think rumor mongers on Facebook. And in defense of journalism, that's not news!
Saturday night in our Key West neighborhood.  How did they do that?  Nobody knows. The driver didn't speak English.
     Here’s some good news about Sebring. We buy good tomatoes here. Ripe mangoes, too. I think it's because we are closer to places where those things grow. There are farm stands. There are golf carts which people drive around and around the neighborhood just for the pleasure of it. Someone is always mowing a lawn or trimming a hedge. Weekends there are dozens of yard sales. We rarely hear a siren or the sickening sound of screeching brakes. We can see, from the comfort of our living room, a vast and spacious sky, clouds and lots and lots of leafy greenery. There is a screened porch, about the size of half our Key West house. It faces East. At sunrise the birds go nuts, singing and chirping each to each. The other day, just before sunset, I was walking and saw a flock of honking geese cruise by.  On some nights the temperature drops to 50 degrees! That’s quilt weather!
     Last night I asked Siri, my i-Phone pal: "How cold will it be in Sebring tonight?"
     "It's 62 degrees," she replied. "I don’t think that’s particularly cold."
Can we really live here? Testing the waters; visiting Sebring. Christmas, 2016 with Tina Kaupe. 
     In a matter of weeks our pastoral peace will be shattered with the arrival of our neighbors who live up north but for the 3 or 4 worst months of winter, when they live here. The roads and the restaurants and Publix will be crowded -- but only for a few months -- totally tolerable when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, by which I mean the spring at the end of the winter, and the departure of the snowbirds back to their northern nests. 
     Sebring is ready for the snowbirds and the happy influx of their snowbird dollars. The last piles of branches and debris have been removed from the sides of the street. Two days ago they came though our neighborhood and scooped them up with little Caterpillar tractors. My neighbor came out of her house to survey the ruts left in her yard after the trash was gone.
     "Just look what they've done to my lawn," she said.
     "Oh dear," I said, commiserating. 
     “What a mess,” she said. 
     “Yeah,” I said. 
     "If they're going to hire someone to clean this mess up why not hire someone who will do the job right?" she asked, rhetorically.
     "Yeah, really," I said, again trying to be agreeable as I am the new neighbor and want to make a good impression 
     "Well," my neighbor said, "they aren't going to fix it. That's gonna be my problem." 
     I decided to change tactics. 
     "BASTARDS" I yelled in outrage.
     The neighbor lady picked up her head and peered over at me, as I sat on my screened porch, sipping coffee. I think she was making sure she'd heard me correctly.
     "They did come and clean it up," she said defensively. "At least they came." 
     So there you have it. People are people wherever you go. And wherever you go, there you are. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams

Michael Keith and his daughters in search of Tennessee Williams.
 Recently my husband and his three grown daughters found themselves in St. Louis for the funeral of Michael's brother, David. The girls' beloved Uncle David was a much-respected theologian and professor, as well as a fine musician.  David played tuba in a symphony, and in the last decade of his life created the Clyde Pickens bluegrass band, named for his father Clyde and the county where he grew up, Pickens, South Carolina. David was 79-years-old when he died and we can all agree that living to the ripe old age of nearly 80 years is yet another accomplishment in a life well-lived.  A funeral is never a pleasant event,  but, as funerals often do, it brought together many far-flung members of a family, and a surprise reunion for Michael and his beloved daughters.
    No one in the group knew much about St. Louis, but Michael recalled that Tennessee Williams was buried there. Somewhere. The beautiful daughters agreed that finding the grave of America's greatest playwright was a perfect way to spend a sunny day in St. Louis. Out came the phones and consultations with Siri, the magical know-it-all who speaks from within the portable phones of the techno-savvy. 
Fifty years ago Michael made his first trip to 
St. Louis for the wedding of his brother David to Sue
David with his axe, the tuba
    This Siri business is quite remarkable to Michael, a guy who refuses to even consider the convenience of carrying a cell phone himself. Instead, he suggests that I recruit Siri on my cell phone and share the convenience with him. This is a real bone of contention in our marriage.  Don't get me started . . .  
Tennessee Williams with author Gore Vidal, among others, in a Manhattan garden in 1948 as his fateful adventure with fame began
 In his book, "Memoirs" Tennessee Williams says he'd specified in his will that he wanted to be cremated and buried at sea in the Gulf of Mexico near the probable location of the bones of Hart Crane. Crane was a favorite poet of Williams who died young (32) by jumping to his death from a boat sailing between Mexico and New York.  Crane took his own life on a day after he'd made sexual advances to a sailor on the boat.  The sailor was offended and beat the poet badly.  This sort of thing happened often enough to Williams, too, and he, no doubt, understood the shame related to being homosexual. But instead of jumping ship, as his favorite poet did, metaphorically that is, Williams saw the voyage through. He persevered, he wrote plays and more plays, and in 1944, "The Glass Menagerie" met with huge acclaim. He was 33-years-old. Overnight the lonely and depressive unknown playwright found fame and fortune. He entered the world of the famous and lived out his life plagued by what he called "the tragedy of success."
Tennessee Williams house. 1431 Duncan Street, Key West
Tennessee, happy, at his home on Duncan Street, circa 1965
   Tennessee Williams had an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Dakin.  Rose was lobotomized in 1937, when lobotomy was used to treat mental illness. She was dependent on full-time care, financed by Tennessee, for the remainder of her life. Dakin, who was 8 years younger, was an attorney who came to his infamous brother's aid in 1969, by having him hospitalized for alcoholism in St. Louis. Dakin also had Tennessee christened in St. Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Key West, as repentance for his sins of blatant homosexuality and generally debauched lifestyle.  Dakin loved the name of the church and Tennessee thought it a great title for a play.
      After Tennessee's death Dakin claimed that the playwright had been murdered. The hows and whys of this intrigue were never quite clear, but Dakin traveled with bodyguards when he attended New Orleans' annual Tennessee Williams Festival, celebrated around the March 26 birthdate of Tennessee Williams. And Dakin always enjoyed being the last link to understanding the playwright's life. He relished the role and claimed himself to be a  "professional brother."  Toward the end of his life Dakin created a bizarre one-man show in which he dressed in drag to portray Blanche Dubois. The show went through various versions, but always ended with the final speech from "Glass Menagerie." 
      In spite of Tennessee's stated wishes, upon his death Dakin had his brother's body transported from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri. There the body laid in state for two days and was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Tennessee's body lies eternally next to his mother, Edwina, and his sister, Rose.  When questioned on the matter, Dakin claimed that his brother's will contained no provision for a burial at sea. He added that he would have ignored it if it had.
Williams family plot in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
     "Tennessee is such a literary personality that his grave should be where people can visit it," Dakin said. "They would have a hard time finding his ashes in the ocean."
     And so, on an unseasonably warm and sunny St. Louis afternoon, the group set out to find the graves of Tennessee Williams and his invalid sister Rose.  Both had once lived on the island of Key West in the not so distant past, a past that seems ever more hazy as this world speeds into a future where the genius of Tennessee Williams sometimes seems all but forgotten.

     And Dakin? He's there too, with Tennessee, Rose, and their mother Edwina.  But there are no words carved into a stone for Dakin, no way of knowing which grave is his. When you enter the Calvary Cemetery and they give you a map with red circles around the more notable denizens, Dakin's grave is not among them.  Why isn't Dakin's gravestone marked? Who can tell us? Maybe someone should ask Siri.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Put Me In Coach

Merle Miller, on left, performing with Bette Midler and the Harlettes
My friend Merle was a back-up singer for Bette Midler.  Bette's trio of singing and dancing dolls was called the Harlettes and as they rehearsed for their first big show, with Bette's piano man and arranger Barry Manilow, Merle, who had never heard Bette, found herself not particularly impressed with the Divine Miss M. She admired the talents and the beauty of her fellow Harlettes, but the singer, this so-called diva destined for stardom, this Bette Midler, was another story. Yes, she was good. Yes, she had good moves.  But, as Merle tells it, "she wasn't all that."  Then came the first concert. It was at Carnegie Hall and the place was packed.  That's when Merle finally understood just what, exactly, she'd become part of.
     "Bette blew the roof off the house," Merle says. "I was so shocked I almost fell over. I realized she didn't use her full voice to rehearse. She only used it to perform. And what a voice it is!" 
    I think Merle was using that story as an analogy -- something about not showing off everything you've got at the first opportunity, or the wisdom of playing your cards close to your vest. Merle was sharing some of her hard-won wisdom with me. But I wasn't hearing that. I was only hearing about Bette Midler and stories of the Harlettes.
    The tales of the great divas resonate for me. I've always wanted to sing, and I have. I played the flute, too. In the 60's, I was the girl who jumped up on stage to sing "Angel Baby" or "Me and Bobby McGee".  In the 70's  I sang Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life" in various saloons around New York.  For a very short time I sang with a band but never got to sing a solo.  Just choruses and a couple of flute riffs. Once I answered an ad for a singer for a band in New York City and came upon a hopeful group of musicians who handed me the sheet music to Van Morris's "Moon Dance" and suggested we start there.  I had never heard the song, certainly had no idea how to sing it -- it was jazz and I was a rocker. The audition was over before I even got my flute out of the case. You try singing "Moon Dance", cold. 
    Then came love. Then came marriage. Then came June with a baby carriage and the happiest, little boy imaginable.
A happy litter drummer boy who grew up to be my darling Miguel.

Miguel, still following the beat
Miguel, a Montessori teacher, rocking with kids and friends
The Band, now disbanded. No back up singers . . . big mistake? Miguel on left looking rock 'n roll-y
Miguel with the beautiful Mia and diva wanna-be mom, June
 He loved music, too!  My son's brain, heart and soul are surely tattooed with the music he fell asleep to, the music he awakened to, and the music we played all day, every day, in the house were he grew up.  We parents were thrilled that we'd received a baby who slept blissfully at any noise level.  When our baby was 4 months old we took him with us to the Opera House in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and snuggled in his little carry-around bed, he slept like a lamb.
    Later, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came on MTV, Miguel would call us to the TV and we dropped whatever we were doing to watch the performance. And later still, when Miguel was too old for the bedtime story, I put a cassette player next to his bed and at bedtime he listened to soft jazz and rock. When the clink of the player sounded, and the music was over, Miguel was asleep. We also frequently listened to "Peter and the Wolf" and Miguel learned to identify the various instruments in the orchestra.
    I once told Miguel that although I didn't like spending my hard-earned money on faddish toys that were quickly tossed aside, I would never deny him a book or a CD. It was a vow my son never forgot. And when he got his first job, he bought me a gift with his first paycheck.  It was the Prince album, "1999".  I remember saying to him "Oh my! This was $20!" and Miguel said to me, "Mom, you're worth it."  A cherished memory.
    It comes as no surprise that Miguel has become a musician/performer.  Music is his passion, his mistress and his reason for getting out of bed every day. At the beginning of his stage career I tried often to show up.  Now, the performances are far too many for me to keep up with. But there's something else, too. When Miguel is singing those old songs, the ones I introduced him to, the Rolling Stones "Miss You", Lou Reed's  "Walk on the Wild Side" or the Temptations  "My Girl, " I want to be up there singing with him, just like in the old, old days of his childhood. Who was there for all those hours of background music and singing along to the radio, or the cassette player, in the car on a thousand miles of car rides?  His mama. That's who.
    One night Miguel and his guitar man Sweet Matthew were performing at Salute on the beach.  It was a breezy night, the air kissed with the familiar mingled scent of the beach and coconut oil. There was a crowd. I sat with friends, sharing antipasto and big chunks of chewy Italian bread when Miguel began to sing Elvis's  "Suspicious Minds," one of our favorites.  Suddenly he said "You know what? I'm gonna get a lady up here who knows all the words to this song."
    A shock of excitement went through my bones like a bolt of lightening. It's happening, I thought. I am going to share the stage with my son, this brilliant boy whose musical talents I have nurtured for over half of my life!  But what of the bread in my mouth and the tables and chairs between me and that coveted place on the stage, next to my own baby? I swallowed the bread and hastily wiped my mouth.  I quickly planned my route to the front of the room.  I sucked in my stomach and pushed out my chest, cleared my throat and prepared to make my move.
    "Jada," Miguel yelled. "Come on up here."
    A tall, lean, tanned blonde beauty hesitantly rose from a chair and tentatively made her way to the stage. Her friends, their friends, cheering her on. Meanwhile, my heart sank. It turned out Jada didn't know the words to the song and didn't even want to be up there. Everyone laughed as Jada mumbled something to Miguel and hurried back to her seat, covering her pretty face with her hands, shaking her head, feigning embarrassment.
    And that was the moment I knew that my role in my son's musical evolution was truly done. And so were my days on the stage and my visions of back-up singing. But I can still dream. And I do.  I so shooby shooby do.
I can do that! (Merle next to Bette, on stage)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sexual Abuse: Shame and what I wore

Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused? I do. I was in the fifth grade, at a ballroom dance class. I loved that class. The girls dressed in Sunday-best dresses, white anklets and patent leather shoes. The boys wore ties and sports jackets. Mr. Richards taught the basics of ballroom dancing, the box step, the fox trot, and then, my favorite, the cha cha. The class assembled in a circle in the gym, and every few minutes the music would stop and the boys would move on to the next girl in the circle. That way, everyone spent a few minutes ballroom dancing with everyone else.

One day my dance partner was Kenny Brown, a kid who was in the sixth grade but should have been in the seventh. He'd stayed back a grade and was older and bigger than the rest of us. We got into position,  Kenny's right hand on my back, his left hand in mine, and began following Mr. Richard's instructions.  But then Kenny moved his hand from around my back to my front. He rubbed circles on my chest, in the place where my breasts would eventually be, but were not yet.  There was nothing there but bone and ribs. This did not deter Kenny.

Stunned, I pretended not to know what was happening. I looked at Kenny's face for some sign of recognition from him, an explanation of what was going on.  Was I imagining this? Would he burst out laughing? No. I watched Kenny's eyes busily scanning the room, over the top of my head, darting from Mr. Richards to the couples around us, making sure no one saw what was he was doing.  No one did. Then Mr. Richards announced it was time to change partners and Kenny moved on to the next girl in the circle.

I did not tell anyone, but shame dogged me for weeks. I searched my mind a thousand ways, trying to understand my part in the thing, and even wondering whether or not it had truly happened.  I'd looked forward to the afternoons when my mom helped me get ready for dance class, made me as pretty as I could be. But then I felt guilt at making myself so pretty that Kenny had taken it as an invitation to run his hand all over my chest.

What haunted me the most throughout those two weeks until the next dance class was the thought of what I would do or say the next time Kenny was my dance partner. I dreaded that moment every night before I went to sleep. I thought of it when I woke up. I thought about it in school. I considered quitting dance class, but I knew if I did my parents would demand to know why. I had no idea how to tell them.  I feared they wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, I was afraid my father, who was Italian and a bit rougher than most other fathers I knew, would go after Kenny's father and there would be trouble. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to make trouble.

Kenny Brown never came to dance class again. I figured he'd quit. Or maybe he had fondled another girl with far more self-esteem than I, and she'd told her parents.

This all happened more than 50 years ago! Still I recall distinctly the moment when Kenny Brown robbed me of the girlish pleasure of being pretty in a pink party dress, and replaced that sunny innocence with shame. The memory still has the power to make me cry. 

Today, as the dark subject of sexual bullying has become front and center in this shameful and bleak political season that is the presidential race, I am remembering how much that first episode of sexual bullying -- yes, first, there were more to come as my life went on -- hurt me and even changed my feelings about myself, as well as my sense of who I was in relation to boys and men.

Yesterday I took a survey.  I asked every woman I saw: "Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused?" Their responses were nearly the same, every time I asked.  First surprise at the question. Then reflection. Then the answer. 

"Yes, I do."

"Did you tell anyone?" I asked.

"No," was the answer. Every time.

 "Why didn't you tell someone?" I asked.

"Because I thought no one would believe me."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Make Me Move!

Is there any more daunting challenge than placing your home on the market?  Finding a new owner for your house, your home, your shelter, your nurturing boards and batten, is surely at the top of the list of things that make your nerves feel like downed power lines, hissing and snapping wildly on a wet and windy and lonely street.   It feels like being on stage, in a bikini and high heels, in a beauty pageant, flashing a big, phony smile on your face.  It feels like trying to please a lover who is a complete stranger.  Would they like it this way? Or that way? White walls or green?  Blue towels or beige?

We property sellers are advised to wipe our houses clean of our personalities, so that potential buyers may envision themselves living here, with their own chairs and quilts and paintings.  Mementos of living, of children, of friends and many good things that have happened to us, are referred to as "clutter" and "stuff".

First we made many trips to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Then we simply put stuff out on the sidewalk, where it was gratefully carried off by passersby, to furnish their houses and dreams. And so we have stripped our house of anything evocative of our many years in Paradise.  Our house now resembles a hotel room. Practical. Easy in and out. Temporary. Sensible. Just the facts, Ma'am. At its stuffed and cluttered best, our house is warm, cozy and ever so sweet, so full of the riches of love and laughter and life it should sell for a billion dollars. But, though it feels as if we are, we are not selling our love stories.  We are selling a wooden house, a house built way before we were born, a house that will stand long after we are gone.
Pregnant with Miguel and a new house.
411 Truman down to her Dade County Pine bones.

Then. . .

Selling a house is hard on a marriage. Even the best marriages, therapists say, are prone to buckle under the weight of complicated fiduciary affairs.  Every high-impact window, every appliance, every tile in the bathroom has arrived only when we could afford it.  We have worked hard. None of it has come easy.  There is pride invested in this place. We did not swoop into this house and make it a home in a week or a month or even a year. Our home has evolved. And evolution is hard-won and very often painful. A wooden house is demanding.  Alive.  It has needs which must be met. It is old, and a bit crotchety. But with age comes enormous strength and fortitude. This is a sturdy house; safe and sane shelter from the storm.

In strictly practical terms, our greatest attribute, a feature not to be viewed lightly by potential buyers, is our off-street parking.  There is a driveway! Do you have any idea of the value of off-street parking in downtown Key West? It has occurred to us that we might put the driveway on the market and keep the house.

Our house has central air conditioning, making our lives much more than bearable. On the very occasional cold day, there is heat.  No more warming ourselves by sticking our feet into an open oven!  Our sweet haven is cool, calm, remarkably quiet and serene. What makes it all the more remarkable is the wonder of having Key West right outside our door.  Walk a block in any direction and you will find something worth seeing or doing or just being next to. Or sit on the porch and watch the whole world go by, on their way to the Hemingway House or Blue Heaven.  Planes fly overhead and we feel happy for the passengers, some coming home, some coming to visit, all about to bask in the special light that is Key West -- and only Key West.

There are ads for houses that state: "Make me move!"  I want to post an ad that says: "Help me move on!" It has been a long struggle to come to terms with the cold, hard facts about retiring in a town where everyone's biggest problem is finding a cozy place to live, and a place to park a car. 

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom's just another word for not having a  mortgage.  What we need now is freedom. 

Selling our house is like having an appointment with the dentist to have our wisdom teeth pulled. We are ready. We are scared, but we know it must be done. When it's over, we will be happy, and healthy, and comfortable. Let's just do it!

From our back deck I can see the tops of Hemingway's trees, swaying in the breeze, and sometimes, his ghost, snickering just above the tourists lining up, with their cameras and their guidebooks, to visit the house he once called his own.  When all is said and done, a house is just a house. Creating a story, living the dream, that's up to you.

For a virtual tour of the home click here: