The Grab Box

In the Chronicle a month ago, Connie Schultz wrote a column about what five things she would grab if she had to flee her home. I hadn’t thought about it since 1991, when several friends lost everything in the East Bay Firestorm.

I remember taking a box of spare mixing bowls and cookbooks to a young single friend who lost her condo next to the Caldecott Tunnel. When I got home, I filled the empty box with family photo albums and put it by the front door of our Burbank Street bungalow.  After months of tripping over it I realized I couldn’t live day-to-day life in flight mode.

             When Sarah was home the other night, I told her about it. “If I packed a ‘grab’ box today,” I said, “I don’t think I would pack albums. I have digital pictures so losing an album would be sad, but not as devastating as it would have been back then.” We stared into the fire for a few minutes, each of us thinking about things we would put in a ‘grab’ box.

Our house is full of precious things. (Now, don’t go hiring someone to case the joint because my definition of ‘precious’ might differ from yours.) I have collections of petrified sand dollars, battered boat models, rusty vintage coffee cans, and countless Emily masterpieces from preschool on up. There’s a treasured yardstick stamped with the name of my grandfather’s wholesale paper company, and I could host tea for more women than our house could hold and serve each one from a delicate porcelain cup.

In the years following my mother’s death when the girls were little, one of them dropped a teacup, and I cried. “That belonged to your grandmother!” Seeing shards scattered across the hardwood floor felt like losing her all over again.

Something else broke a week or so later, and a third something days after that. From another room, I heard a very young Emily say to Sarah, “Uh oh… Was it Grandma’s?” Both girls were wide-eyed and heading toward tears. As I swept the pieces into the dustpan, I told them it was no big deal.

Things break. I made my daughters paranoid by overreacting to something as insignificant as broken china. In that moment, I realized my mother is gone and a teacup is just a teacup. Having it safe in a cupboard won’t bring her back, and I don’t lose her again if it breaks.

So I won’t grab the teacups if I flee.

            As we sat comparing thoughts (assuming that all the loved ones – two legged or four – were fully capable of unassisted fleeing) I realized the things that matter most to me are memories.

            “Sarah! What if it’s not objects, but memories? What if someone was stealing your memories and you could only save five?”

            She started with our trip to Hawaii years ago – thatched huts, bug-eating geckos in the rafters and stingrays flying through a dark blue cove under the moon. She said another favorite was her first date with Graeme, her true love. He took her wine tasting in the Napa Valley. (He knows people. From first hand experience, I can say it’s pretty cool…) They rode bikes through the vineyards, bought sandwiches from the Oakville Grocery, hung out at a local biker’s bar, and then biked back across the highway as the sun went down. The day went so well that he invited her to stay for dinner.

He said, “I need to warn you first – my family is here.” (Graeme lives in a caretaker’s cottage on his grandmother’s vineyard. On their first date, Sarah met not only Graeme’s doting grandmother, but his mother, aunts and an uncle to boot.) The good news is that it went swimmingly, and their evening ended under a starry Napa Valley sky.

I told Sarah she reminded me of my first date with her father, sitting in the weathered bleachers at an Oakland A’s game. I still remember the coarse cream-colored wool of his fisherman knit sweater as we sat beneath a plaid blanket drinking cheap red wine from a hand-me-down thermos. Not Napa Valley, but definitely romantic…

At this point, Si came into the living room to join us and put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders. He said, “I remember the day you were born. I walked out the doors of Alta Bates Hospital into the sunshine on Ashby Avenue, knowing I had just witnessed a miracle. I couldn’t believe that all the other people at that intersection were going about their days as if nothing extraordinary had happened. I couldn’t believe it! Still can’t…”

            My husband trumped me. I’ll have to spend more time on my memory list. It’s good that I plan to store family memories in virtual “grab” boxes. I won’t limit myself to just five. And when that thief comes to steal my best ones, at least our girls, and their girls, and theirs, will have a spare set stored in a cloud somewhere, to reread long after I’m gone.

            Want to know the best thing about inherited memories? They’re unbreakable.

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SNAIL MAIL

At the bottom of a musty box of family memorabilia, I found a letter written in fountain pen, ink fading between blue and black. It was dated September 21, 1965, sent from my maternal grandmother to my mother who was in Europe with my dad and eldest sister. Mom ‘abandoned’ (…my word…) my twin brothers and me at home in the care of distant older cousins and beloved housekeepers.

I was in kindergarten at the time, and my inner child still stands in the back of Mom’s closet, nose buried deep in a rack of hanging clothes, straining to get a whiff of Elizabeth Arden’s “Blue Grass” – her signature fragrance.

(But I am over it. Really.)

 3333 Pacific Avenue

San Francisco

September 21, 1965

 

Dear Traveling Trio -

             Received your very welcome letter – written in London and mailed in Paris. I hope Beth’s cold is better – it is so difficult to avoid sniffles when getting overtired.

            Now – News from your San Francisco home – I telephoned early this a.m. and talked to your youngest daughter. (…that would be me…) She was very excited about school. (That doesn’t sound much like me…) Today she gets her own desk! Pat, Townie and the Moses’ are carrying on beautifully so have no anxiety there. Kelly will be well behaved and trained when his beloved master and mistress have returned. (…I think Kelly was female but I’m not sure. I do know that Kelly bit the next-door neighbor’s boy, then eventually bit my mother in a tug of war over a chicken bone. Unfortunately, I don’t think that dog saw my mother as his/her beloved mistress…)

            Alice was over to see me and we made out the list for Thanksgiving. It was all her own idea and I hope will meet with the approval of all. When we had finished the menu, Alice rubbed her stomach and smacked her lips and said, “I can hardly wait – How long is it before Thanksgiving?” (…Now that sounds more like me! And it’s a safe bet that spooned corn bread with butter and syrup was on the menu…)

            Jim (…my older 1st cousin…) came in before returning to college and gave me a play by play description of his trip – how he is back at U.C. and studying business administration. He is not looking forward to it but “life is real and life is earnest,” n’est pas mes chéries? (Turns out Cousin Jim must have applied himself at Cal. He did quite well in his career…)

            The weather here is perfect – real Indian summer and in the a.m. flights of quail fly out of the tops of the cypress trees and forage among the weeds and dry grass for dainty morsels. (…Ok, this sentence made me fear that the art of letter writing is either dead or dying. I hope it inspires you to write a letter to a loved one – in cursive, maybe even in fountain pen. Make it poetic! Then put a “Forever” stamp on it and drop it in one of the few remaining blue metal boxes in your town. Maybe we can save poetic letter writing and Saturday delivery! Two quails with one pen!)

            I read in the papers that Mary Martin was not allowed to bring her company in “Hello Dolly” to Moscow so she went to Tokyo instead and made a great hit. Remember I am saving my two tickets for you November 3rd with the original Dolly. (Mom didn’t take me to see Mary Martin, but my sister and I did see Carol Channing play ‘Dolly’ at the Curran Theater several years ago. She waved at us from the stage as we cheered and waved back from our cheap seats up high in the ‘nosebleed’ section. Still makes me proud…)

            Alice’s “Night Night” has been rebound and needs washing. I wonder will that spoil the aroma… (…”Night Night” was my ‘go to’ security blanket, made by the loving hands of this very same woman. It had rows of bunnies with cream-colored pompon tails, web-footed paddling ducks, nubby baby lambs and a thumb-sucking satin border. My trademark technique was left thumb inserted in mouth with left index finger hooked over the bridge of my nose while right hand fingers stroked the cool silk binding. Currently, a shredded version of ‘Blanket-Formerly-Know-As-Night-Night’ remains in the dark abyss at the top of a ladder in our attic crawl space. Those women laundered him – yes, him – all my bedtime cuddly companions were of the masculine gender – too frequently. And, between you and me, Grandma did spoil the aroma…)

            The boys look so very smart in their Cathedral School outfits. (Ok – Watch for it, dearest brothers – It’s payback for all those years of teasing. She said you looked smart. You know that old line about judging book covers? Don’t let Grandma’s kind words go to those darling twin heads.)

            Of course I am not at all proud of my grandchildren! (Runaway pride runs rampant among grandparents. I know they are out there, but I have never heard a single grandparent say aloud that they are ashamed or embarrassed by their own grandchildren. Although I have no grandchildren – yet – don’t get me started about my grand-puppy, grand-bunnies and grand-chickens. I have pictures on my phone. Plenty. And I probably know where you live…)

            You have already been gone over one week and soon you will be flying homeward. It will be so good to see you and hear of your adventures. (My mother was gone for a total of three weeks, seemed like three years, and I missed her with the same intense inconsolable mourning as when I lost her for good almost 25 years later.)

            Hugs and kisses all round,

             Mother and Grandma

A mother, a grandmother, and family memories captured in blue-black ink on fragile yellowed letterhead. I will hold onto them as long as possible. Think about sending a letter to someone you love. If they keep it long enough, it will turn to gold.

Gma letter001

 

 

Sandy and Kris

Sandy&Kris3Our friends, Kris and Sandy, are on their way home from D.C. today and I bet they’re exhausted. I know it’s depleting most of my spare energy just keeping up with them on  Facebook and the news. This post is in their honor, and in honor of all couples across our nation fighting for their civil rights. Some of you might recognize the following from seeing it previously in one of my Middle Ground columns on Alameda Patch (http://alameda.patch.com/articles/wedding-season) because the times, they are “a-changing” fast:

Our friends, Kevin and Rick, were married at San Francisco’s City Hall on June 27, 2008. (For the record, they consider their true anniversary to be their first date, more than 22 years ago.) Their small family ceremony was beautiful and memorable, and we were honored to be included.

I spun in circles on the polished marble floor of the Rotunda, taking in the grand staircase, shining brass elevators and warm layers of early evening light in the carved dome high above our heads. Every City Hall cove, staircase and balcony was filled with other wedding parties — tight family clusters and close friends accompanied by either black-robed judges or city clerks shuffling pages of vows and marriage certificates.

Every so often spontaneous applause erupted as a ceremony ended and lights flashed from assorted cameras across the hall. A little girl twirled in pink silk, taffeta and brand new shiny patent leather shoes, swinging a basket of rose petals. (A cautionary sign near the glass door forbade her to throw them…) Two tall handsome men in dark suits smiled for a camera while struggling to hold a wiggly dark-skinned toddler in layers of petticoats. Tired and cranky, she had no idea how lucky she was that these men chose to make her part of their extraordinary family.

Up in our designated alcove, the ceremony began. Rick wore a jade green shirt with a blue silk tie, and Kevin wore a blue shirt with a green silk tie. Rick surprised Kevin with custom wedding rings in red boxes that snapped crisply open and shut. His sister brought a bouquet of stargazer lilies and hydrangeas wrapped in blue tissue and cellophane.

Rick’s father’s eyes were just like his son’s — the color of a lake twinkling blue in Sierra sunshine, the curved eyes of a painted German Christmas angel. They were moist at the edges as he watched his son marry a man who had become another son to them over time. Rick’s petite mother reached up to embrace me, and then thanked me for accepting them and being “good enough to come.”

Good enough? Even years later, I’m still unsure I was worthy.

What I really want to say is that everyone should have the right to take a shot at “happily ever after.” Everyone who wants one should have a beautiful and memorable wedding, surrounded by supportive family and friends.

And everyone who thinks that same sex marriage is a bad idea should get to know people like Kevin and Rick, or Sandy Stier and Kris Perry. And if they aren’t fortunate enough to know them, or someone like them, perhaps if they stood quietly in an alcove at City Hall for just a short time, surrounded by simultaneous weddings — love emanating from every shadowed corner, off every limestone balcony — they might just change their minds.

After over 30 years of marriage I can tell you that there’s a reason they make you take those vows — “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Being married can be damned hard, and no one is guaranteed a happy ending. As a matter of fact, it’s a long shot.

But everyone should have an equal chance for a shot at it. That’s all.

Howard

On Wednesday, January 30th I sat in a metal folding chair beside a wooden kitchen island, listening to my beloved carrot-topped cooking mentor, Weezie Mott, begin her evening class. “Before I start,” she said, “I need to let everyone know Howard is in the hospital. When he started acting strangely I thought he had suffered a stroke, but that wasn’t it. The doctors found a small tumor causing fluid on his brain. So please hold him in your thoughts. Now, onto the first recipe…”

I don’t know why it surprised me that Weezie carried on with the evening as if her almost 94-year-old husband was off at the dentist. When the phone rang part way through class recipe, she dropped her dishtowel and bolted from the kitchen.

We waited for heartbreaking news, glancing sideways at each other in apprehension. She returned in minutes with a broad smile and said, “Good news! Howard is alert and improving! All his nurses adore him.”

Of course they adored him. When you look up “adorable” in the dictionary it should read, “See Howard Mott.” Personable, charming and humorous, Howard was a clear favorite for a Best Husband in Alameda contest. He minced onions before we arrived, acted as sommelier for our wine, and scrubbed pots and pans after we headed home to bed. All of us agreed we could master any recipe with Howard by our side.

Howard wasn’t just model husband and charming host. Born in 1919, he was an Ensign in the Naval Reserve and survived a tour of duty in the Aleutian Islands in a patrol bombing squadron. In 1943, he served in the Central Pacific Ocean’s Marshall-Marianas Islands and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the US Air Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal along with several others.

When he returned stateside in 1945, he trained pilots in San Diego where he met Mary Louise (Weezie) Tully, a Navy nurse, at a Hotel Del Coronado tea dance. After a whirlwind courtship, they married. In their warm kitchen sixty-eight years later he still behaved like her smitten suitor.

After the war Howard served in D.C., Morocco, Italy, Greece and Turkey. He completed Naval Post Graduate School in Intelligence and German Language Training, followed by an assignment as a Liaison Officer for the Commander in Chief, European Forces attached to the Naval Attaché’s office for the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. The Motts came to Alameda when Howard became Staff Intelligence Officer with the Commander Fleet Air Pacific, then left again for D.C., then Italy, finally retiring with the rank of Commander.

Howard’s second career involved public safety emergency communications. He planned Walnut Creek’s 911 response system – basically unaltered ever since. He created a combined police/fire/local government radio system and dispatch center for Redwood City that became a model for many other communities. He retired a second time after 14 years of local government service.

For an intelligent and accomplished man accustomed to following orders, I don’t think he learned to obey the command, “Sit still.” For the next 18 years, the Motts spearheaded “Motoring with the Motts” – providing personalized food and wine tours in Italy, France, Greece, Spain and Turkey. When they decided to end the tours, Howard continued his post-retirement partnership with Weezie by keeping her cooking classes running smoothly.

In our  February 20th  class, Weezie said, “Before I begin, I need to let you know that Howard is in intensive care. The doctor reconnected him to life support because he wasn’t doing well on his own. Thank you for all your kind words and notes. Please continue to keep him in your thoughts. Now, on with the recipes…”

I swear, they made the USS Hornet from scrap Weezie steel. Her strength amazed us all.

A few days later, a friend called me to make sure I had heard the news. Howard James Mott passed away on Thursday, February 28th. He requested there be no services and donated his body to UCSF for research.

Weezie didn’t cancel our one remaining class. At the start of the evening she announced that she intended to make a donation to KQED in Howard’s memory on behalf of all her students. If we contributed we could take home one of the cookbooks laid out on her dining room table. When I asked her to select one for me, she gave me one on the origins of the “Slow Food” movement. It wasn’t a cookbook, but an almanac on a subject dear to them.

I am neither a “foodie” nor an accomplished chef. Quite frankly, I am an admitted “cooking class voyeur” – insecure in the kitchen. But I might just try a recipe or two from the 2013 Weezie Mott Cooking School winter series.

Knowing Howard’s spirit might be there by my side, it’s bound to turn out well.

Author’s note: For a sample of a Weezie evening, please read my piece published on Alameda Patch – Cooking with Weezie. http://alameda.patch.com/articles/cooking-with-weezie

Goal

Hi there, Loyal Reader – Did you call the Alameda Police to report me as a missing person? After hearing from several readers who wondered if they had an incorrect link to my new site, I’m back! I stalled, procrastinated, and even alphabetized Si’s Louis L’Amour paperback collection instead of writing.

But I’m back, and here’s what I want to say:

Friday March 8th, 2013 will remain in my retrievable memory long after I can recite on command what I had for breakfast or the last four digits of my social security number. After over five and a half years of Weight Watcher meetings, I made it to “goal.”

I stepped onto the scale that morning, squeezing my eyes shut. When I opened one slowly, I saw the digital number was almost half a pound lower than my 60-pound target – a weight in the healthy range for my height and less than what I weighed when I married at 21.

How many women can (honestly) say they weigh thirty pounds less than what’s printed on their driver’s license?

I grabbed the kind staff member by the shoulder and said, “I made it – Finally!” It took a few seconds for her to realize I meant that I reached goal. I started crying. She hugged me enthusiastically and turned to the adjacent weighing station to give our leader the news.

As word spread, members came up to hug, kiss, and “high five” me. Some cried, either having witnessed my persistence or understanding the difficulty of a constant battle. I stood up front for most of the meeting and thanked everyone for making Friday morning attendance a pleasure instead of an obligation. I believe that if it wasn’t for our leader’s charisma and the collective personality and spirit of our group, I might have given up long ago.

Late that afternoon I drove to Anthropologie in Berkeley to fulfill the self-made promise of a new outfit – something trendy and expensive. I tried on several things but purchased nothing. For once it wasn’t because I was too large for their racks. (One jacket was the wrong color and though the skinny jeans fit, I couldn’t bring myself to pay that much for jeans when I needed a new wardrobe.)

So the next morning my daughter and I hit TJ Maxx with a vengeance. I found a body hugging “little black dress” for a third of the cost of those jeans, along with several other pieces to replace larger sizes now banished from my closet.

I wore my new dress to a cocktail party in the City that night – a 60th birthday for a good friend. Every guest I knew complimented and congratulated me. One guy in particular should launch a charm school, teaching lessons on complimenting a woman so she hears it.

He said, “Alice – You look stunning!”

I smiled and said, “Thanks! I feel good.”

He shook his head and said, “No, what I meant to say is that you have always been pretty. But you transformed yourself. Now – You’re ravishing!”

Ravishing? The unfamiliar word “stunning” still rattled around in my head. In more than half a century I don’t remember ever hearing the word “stunning” and my name in the same sentence. But, ravishing? And the way he said it let me know he thought I was pretty all along.

That’s the lesson, guys. Turn down the corner of this virtual page and take out your bright yellow marker:

  • When someone loses a tremendous amount of weight, don’t say, “You look great now!” What a large woman hears is, “So glad you lost that weight, honey, because boy – were you one dumpy broad!”

After an hour of floating through the party on my inflated ego, I chatted with a couple who followed my Alameda Patch weekly column. They asked if and when I intended to get back to writing. I thanked them for the nag, admitting that I had difficulty honoring self-imposed deadlines. I promised to write and post something by today. As I made the promise, I knew I would break it.

Then a woman whose son attended preschool with our eldest joined us. When I asked about him, she said, “He works for Google, has published three books and is working on a fourth.”

My ego deflated faster than a pin-pricked birthday balloon. But it was exactly Imagewhat I needed to hear to get back to the keyboard. (Her son isn’t yet 29 and he is working on a fourth book. Thank you…)

You reach a goal and think you’re pretty hot stuff. Not so fast, sweetheart. Another highlighter worthy line here:

  • When you reach a goal, it’s time to set a new one.

I am attending a four-day writer’s workshop in May. If I don’t want to waste money and look like an idiot in front of complete strangers, it’s time to make writing a routine. You have permission to nag if you don’t see regular posts.  

And thank you for hanging in there. God knows, I missed you as much or more than you missed me.

A COLUMN LOST IN TRANSLATION (Plagiarism 101)

I’m back! Sorry for the delay… I was buried alive in the aftermath of Christmas. That, and I obey deadlines from others much better than my own. So with a gentle shove from my daughter, Sarah, and another my workout buddy,  Chris, here is one toe in the water – an essay submitted to Alameda Patch back in June of 2011. It never posted, so I figure the content still belongs to me:

After dinner a couple of weeks ago, my family and I were watching something on TV that caught only half my attention, so I started fiddling with my new laptop – “Googling” myself, then “Googling” past column titles to see if anyone outside of Alameda was reading, maybe some complete stranger who wasn’t a relative or didn’t even know or love me. I found a couple of my columns posted on websites in Georgia and North Carolina and started to get pretty excited.

How cool is the Internet?! I started to wonder if my work would go viral, or if some New York publisher would call to beg me for rights to my yet-to-be-written Great American Novel. (Saying I have an active imagination is the definition of understatement.)

Then I found an altered version of a column about my friend, Mrs. Drake, except for in the new version she was “Mr. Drake.”

My shriek uprooted the rest of the family from their spots on the couch. Throughout the plagiarized version, it was as if someone had run the piece through a thesaurus in a different language, changing a word here and there to mean the same thing but with a completely different end product. I didn’t know whether to be flattered, angry, or both.

Did I need a lawyer? This was uncharted territory.

My original text: “A few weeks ago, I went to visit a 93-year-old friend. Well, I shouldn’t say old friend. I should say good friend.” Altered text: “Some weeks ago, I went to visit a Ninety Three-year-old pal. Well, I shouldn’t state old pal. I have to state fine pal.”

Nothing out of the ordinary so far, but it’s not how I would say it. They spelled out the numbers, changed “friend” to “pal,” “good” to “fine.” They changed “living room” to “family area.” No big deal, other than the plagiarism thing.

As I read further in, it got worse. My text: “With sweaty palms in a living room packed with parents and fellow students my children’s ages, I played the heck out of that piece. All I can say is thank God for blood pressure medication.” Altered text: “With sweaty palms in a family area packed with ancestors and fellow students my youngsters’ ages, I played the heck out from that chunk. All I could state is thank God for hypertension cure.”

“Packed with ancestors?” That’s kind of creepy. Sounds more like a séance than a piano recital… And “played the heck out from that chunk?!” Permission to roll over, Mozart.

They changed “terrible, horrible, no-good lousy friend” to “awful, awful, no-fine awful Pal.” (I may be an awful, awful, no-fine pal, but I do try my best not to be repetitive.) They changed “I reunited with parents” to “I re-joined with ancestors.” (Believe you me – Although I miss them, I am in no big hurry to join my ancestors.) “Harry Snider, whom I’ve known all his life and didn’t recognize” became “Harry Snider, whom I’ve recognized all his life and didn’t understand.” (Ok, that’s true. The older you get, the harder it is to understand the younger generation…) Referring to “Mr.” Drake’s pneumonia, they wrote, “I might hear the liquid deep in her breast.” (Liquid breasts… Hmmm…)  They changed “Lady Diana Spencer” to “Female Diana Spencer”. At least they left Diana’s gender intact, unlike poor “Mr.” Drake.

Owners of local businesses should share my outrage. Kelly Kearney’s “Pacific Fine Foods Catering” was changed to “Pacific Fine Meals Catering.” “Lauren’s Closet” became “Lauren’s Utility Area.” Pamm Drake’s “Dance/10 Performing Art Center” became “Dance/10 Carrying Out Art Center.” (Hey Pamm - Excellent idea! If you can’t make enough money in this economy as a dance teacher, you can always open food take-out service in one of your spare studios.)

Our family business name morphed from “Hidden Connections” to “Obscure Links.” It scared the heck out of me when someone called the office and said, “Have I reached Obscure Links?” Turns out it was a friend who saw my Facebook post about the column theft. Got me, John!

I’m flattered someone found my work worthy of plagiarism. But I wish they had changed my byline. I may not have a Pulitzer Prize on the mantle - yet - but I am NOT an awful, awful no good writer. I am Alice S. Lewis, who moved whole lot of the way from San Francisco to Berkeley (Go Bears), and then to Alameda in 1986. I outlay weekdays in a dusty storehouse, working as office executive for Obscure Links – my family’s Alameda AV setup business. Evenings and weekends I watch way too much adverse* television with my spouse, Si, while eagerly expecting telephone calls from our grown daughters, Sarah and Emily.”

*PS – I had a hunch Si might occasionally watch adverse television after I fall asleep at night. Don’t ask, don’t tell is my policy.

You found me!

Happy Holidays! Hope you had an excellent Christmas and are enjoying the aftermath. If you want to receive my posts regularly, please click on “follow” in the lower right corner below and enter your email address to sign up. Thank you for taking the time to find me in my new space. I look forward to many good times together in the years to come.  Happy New Year!

With love,

Alice

findingalicelewis@gmail.com