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Sunday, December 19, 2010

How I Met Santa Claus

I was born at the end of the baby bust, so when I was little, for a time, before the Dad’s coming home from the war boom began, I was aware of being "special." Kids were admired, and my cousin and I were no exceptions. We lived in a pleasant Ohio town which boasted a fine liberal arts college, but which had also been home to our families since long before the Depression. My cousin's parents had a nice cape cod house just 4 blocks from where Mom and Dad and I lived. We were down by the creek, on Cemetery Street. My cousin's parents had a Cadillac, even if it was a hand-me-down one from my Uncle’s Mom and Dad, who bought a new car every two years. I mention this because they had the wherewithal and liked to “do things up right.” At Christmas, this meant engaging a Santa Claus who would visit their son--and me.

I suspected he just might be the real deal. For one thing, I was quite small the first time I saw him, not yet five.

The night before Christmas I was getting the whole “you better watch out, you better not cry,” treatment from my parents. There were canned peas for dinner, and I remember forcing the rubbery pills down, focusing on the Christmas cards hung on butcher’s twine beneath the cabinets so I wouldn’t gag.

In those days, children went to bed before their parents—-long before. Right after dinner, there was a story, a wash-up, and straight to bed. Tonight, however, in the middle of the story, I heard sleigh bells outside. My parents wondered aloud who that could be. I wanted to see, but was told to sit still. Daddy would open the door.

When he did, in came the most perfect Miracle on 34th Street kind of Santa. He was chubby and had a real long white beard, a round face, a clean red suit and shiny black patent leather belt and boots. He was even carrying a sack. My father was grinning in a way that usually meant I was being snookered, so after I croaked out a hello, I asked after his reindeer.

“Oh, Santa said, “they’re up on the roof—and you don’t have a chimney, so I knocked on the door.” Well, this seemed plausible, and from somewhere outside, I could hear sleigh bells, just every once in a while, as if the deer were tossing their heads.

Suspicion somewhat allayed, I watched him take the seat my mother offered. Next Dad picked me up and put me down on Santa’s knee. Santa was authentically cold all over, his clothes, his face, his beard, and he had a good vibe, smelling pleasantly, as older men often did in those days--of whiskey. This was a polite, low-key Santa. His “ho-ho-ho” delivered as if he meant it.

He asked me what I wanted most for Christmas, so I told him, about the “drink-wet” baby doll and the teddy bear I coveted. Outside the door, sleigh bells rang softly. It was pretty amazing, there in the light of our Christmas tree, with bright packages piled up underneath.

Then he said “Merry Christmas, Judy Lee,” and said he’d be back later. As he left, there was a blast of cold and the sound of departing bells. Again I wanted to peep out the window, but my Dad had picked me up again.
“So, J.L. What did you think of that?”

“Was that really Santa?”

Over his shoulder, I could see him trying not to smile.

Still, I was left to wonder because “Seeing is believing.” My Santa had been nice, jolly and bearded--convincing in many ways--even if I hadn’t seen him fly away. Being the kind of person I am, I really wanted to see his reindeer very much. After a little more thought, a doubt entered. It had been pretty clear that I wasn’t supposed to see him go.

My cousin was even younger than I, so about the most I learned from him was that he too had had a visit from “Santa,” and he too had heard the bells. I decided this cheerful visitor might or might not be Santa, but it wouldn’t hurt to act as if he was.

http://www.Juliet Waldron.com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Met at the Movies

Spent an afternoon at Met at the Movies, a bright new idea by the venerable Metropolitan Opera to cast their net over a wider audience by transmitting their Saturday afternoon matinees into movie theaters around the world. I’ve been going to these ever since I found out about them, three years ago. At our Regal Theater, we’re also able to see a repeat on the Wednesday night following the Saturday afternoon broadcast.

Opera lovers are an odd, and, for the most part, elderly subset of the population, but they are thick enough upon the ground to fill a theater here in Central Pennsylvania. Seats are first come, first serve, so you’ll see the old folks coming early, especially the wheel-chair bound and the oxygen toting group, also carrying in their sandwiches and bottles of water semi-surreptitiously in their totes. At $22 a ticket per Senior, the theater staff has (so far) graciously looked the other way at this otherwise frowned-upon practice. I brought water and a sliced apple to carry me through the recent performance of Don Carlo by Verdi, as it was to last 4 ½ hours.

Young people are arriving more frequently at these performances, brought in by local colleges as part of their musical or humanities education. I’ve been glad to see them attending, and hope that a few of these become converts to this most peculiar Western art form.

I’ve never seen "Don Carlo" before, although I’ve heard it on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts. It’s dark, even for Verdi, with the usual repressed and emotionally abused heroine—in this case a princess, a pawn played both by father and husband. There is also an on-stage burning of heretics, (a gruesome depiction of fanatical cruelty), betrayals of friendship, and backstabbing, all culminating in the murder of a prince condoned by his kingly father. Lawlessness and violence committed by The Church and by Society are enduring themes in Verdi operas; his music carries the despairing message even more powerfully than his story lines. I usually leave such operas emotionally drained, and Don Carlo was no exception.

It’s interesting to attend these events, for besides the spectacle there are small conversations to be had while waiting for the show to begin. We opera goers have stories to share that can only be appreciated by others of our kind, for instance, reading the Milton Cross Complete Guide to the Stories of the Opera. We talk about listening to the Met Broadcasts on the radio as part of our childhood experience, and perhaps reminisce a little about the person who introduced us to the art. I can still see my mother, lounging on a pink tufted Chenille bed spread, her blonde cocker spaniel tucked beside her. With cigarettes, matches, ash tray, lying on her side with a mostly unread book, she’d have the radio on, listening to Grand Opera from New York City. Oddly, at our house, near Syracuse, we received our Metropolitan Saturday Afternoon performance from a station in Toronto. Through the ether, across Lake Ontario from Canada, Great Art arrived at our snow-bound house in the Finger Lakes. It’s always gray outside that remembered window, and always snowing. The music is the brightest color in the room, especially if I’m lying on the braided wool rug with my toys, being a "good girl" which meant not bothering her by talking, just quietly imagining.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Currier and Ives, A Story

Just got our 2011 (Ye Gods and Little Fishes!) calendar from our friendly insurance company, but am still admiring 2010's December's page. (As my mother used to say, “Another year, shot to hell.”) Anyhow, this particular calendar has been a household staple since the ‘60’s. It always features pictures by Currier & Ives. We have grown fond of these Victorian scenes, even the ones awkwardly rendered, in a style now officially dubbed “primitive.” This month’s scene isn't as carefree as usual. It's a humble creek- side home with a lean-to covered in straw before and a tacked-on shed behind. A woman and child stand out front, apparently watching a neighbor family coming to visit. Over a rickety bridge they march, a family of five, the mother carrying a baby in her arms. Everyone else is carrying wood. The oldest child has a bundle in his arms; the smallest, accompanied by a bouncing black dog, drags a fallen branch. The man is bent beneath a heavy load of neatly sized firewood.

There’s a Christmas theme here, but not one too many modern consumers with charge cards burning in their pockets would immediately recognize. We see no man at the house, and my husband and I, melancholy by nature, have decided that he has died. We imagine these visitors are bringing not only their company, but a plain necessity, wood to feed the little home’s winter hungry fire. Tellingly, there are no cows or pigs in the farmyard, only a few ducks floating in the still unfrozen creek. Perhaps this woman has had to sell her livestock. No one in the picture looks prosperous, but it seems those that have a little are sharing with a friend on the brink of losing everything. Things are tough at that creek side house, but at least there are neighbors who care and who are willing to help out.

Christmas is the time of year to celebrate, and in the last 100 years it's become about corporate balance sheets and "shop till you drop." To me, this scene is a reminder that it's also a time to remember the old folk song about “there but for fortune…” or, if you prefer, the more modern admonition to "Put a little love in your heart..."

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I know, the time of year for this has passed—or has it? Zombies today are season-less, rather like basic black, especially to what used to be called “the youth of today.” I haven’t met a kid out of diapers who doesn’t know what a Zombie is, but back in the ‘50’s, this wasn’t so.

Although it might seem amazing to today’s sophisticated mini-consumers of entertainment, Zombies were something I lived without until I was nine. My parents took us on a trip to Bermuda that April, when it was still snowing relentlessly in Upstate NY where we lived. In this vacation spot, I met lots of little city slickers from New York, sophisticated in the darker things, who told me all about Zombies. I think they had more exotic TV in the city, and had perhaps been treated to a Saturday afternoon showing of the Hollywood classic, I Walked with a Zombie, which, beyond the black and white horror film aspect, is a pretty good compendium of basic Zombie lore.

After they’d filled my head with these stories, I had an awful time going to sleep. In those days, some emotion or new concept would get into my head, and I’d experience a freezing, terrifying something akin to a panic attack. I was extremely glad we were on the third floor in that hotel. From what I’d just learned, Zombies weren’t too bright, and so I reasoned they would probably find enough prey to sate their unnatural needs on the two floors below mine.

I was glad I had learned about Zombies when my parents began to travel even farther afield, pretty far, actually for the 1950’s. The winter we spent in Grenada—the stated reason was that my mother had chronic bronchitis—we stayed in a guest house on a point overlooking the bay. There were kids living there with their hotelier parents, a family of four. We played when they got home from school every day. Being proper little West Indians, they knew all about Zombies. I might have lost face worse than I did otherwise if I hadn’t known about them. The creatures the little Grenadians were surprised I’d never heard of were werewolves, which they called Loupe Garou. (I think this is a Haitian expression.) At any rate, they believed that Loupe Garou had first appeared on Haiti, along with the Zombie. It was from that dark birthplace that they’d spread all over the world.

Undeadness is the Zombie’s most repulsive, hackles-raising attribute. As omnivores we should probably forgive their fondness for brains, which are a great source of nutrition. Americans don’t eat them much, but our frugal ancestors did, and most carnivorous animals certainly do. Whenever our well-fed Katter Bob catches a mouse or whatever unlucky rodent, he always begins at the head.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pumpkins, etc.

Pumpkins—it’s that time of year again. I’ve been carving them since I was pretty little. In those days, the Mom’s job was to fuss about stuff like learning to use knives, but the Dad usually was the one who showed you how to do it in the typical early 20th Century brusque guy way. I appreciated it though. Instead of lots of cautions, I was told to hold the knife this way—NOT LIKE THAT—After an admonition to “be careful” when pumpkin guts made the handle slippery, I was on my own, out on the porch steps in a chilly upstate New York afternoon. I remember finally gripping the pumpkin between my denim clad knees, as the best way to hold it still.

These days getting the kids ready to pumpkin carve can resemble the planning of an expedition to the North Pole. You must use ‘specially scary store-bought patterns, and you certainly must employ one-use carving knives, bought from the Halloween displays in the mega-mart or supermarket. Of course, cutting pumpkins is still big fun, and gives expression to the desire to create something charmingly gruesome—my particular favorite being the one in which the pumpkin appears to be vomiting its own guts. Artistry and/or marketing aside, as a child, the test of getting acquainted with my own hands and that lethally sharp old meat knife, and to experience a large squashes’ slimy sticky insides up close and personal, to inhale that acid-sweet big squash fragrance, couldn’t be beat.

I don’t have any grandkids handy to have fun with, but sometimes I still get a knife out and attack one of my pumpkins. I always buy them, even this year, when we had so many squirrels that I couldn’t display them on our porch. As soon as I tried, some fat, lazy tree rat of other would try nibbling away a patch of orange skin. So for the last 4 weeks, my beautiful, carefully chosen pumpkins have been on display only for me and my husband, sitting in the fireplace.

By the way, B0B doesn’t seem as inclined to catch such dangerous prey as squirrels now that he has a reliable, comfortable crash pad. He did bring me three tails this summer—he lays his trophies, like scalps, out on the porch—but that was nowhere near sufficient to stem the tide. If we were a little farther out in the country, I swear we’d be regularly eating Brunswick stew!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Getting Old is NOT for Sissies

Years ago I first saw the saying: “Getting Old Is Not For Sissies” on a hallway wall at my mother’s nursing home. It impressed me then, but Time has proved it far truer than I once imagined.

A few years back, I had life-changing surgery which put an end to years of suffering with ulcerative colitis. That’s one of those “down there” diseases, like colon cancer, recently out of the closet of unmentionable ailments. One of the worst things about UC—besides the pain–was becoming virtually housebound whenever the disease was active. Surgery left me with an ostomy, but brought about positive changes, freeing me from the burden of various now ruined body parts. Once again I could travel, go out to eat, go to the movies, or even just out to the mall. I could ride my bike to the farmer’s market and load the bags with groceries, or hop onto the back of my husband’s motorcycle and go out to admire the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside for hours, a pastime we both enjoy very much.

I’d been feeling stronger every month for the last three and a half years. I could lug sacks of mulch around the yard, pull tough weeds and interloping maples that were hoping to settle in my gardens. I was going to the 50+ classes at the gym, planning a trip back East and generally enjoying life.

Unfortunately post-surgical patients of my kind are digestive Rube Goldberg machines. Lots of things can (and do) go wrong. I considered myself well-educated about possible problems re-engineering might create, but I missed the early signals of adhesions, which are not uncommon after this surgery. Mine formed a total intestinal blockage. I’m just emerging from a long hospitalization followed by a longer convalescence, crestfallen and weak. It’s much, much harder to imagine a nice seamless (literally!) future.

I’ve got to suck it up, though, and head “onward, into the fog.” The joy of the right- now-moment, from a phone call from a beloved grandchild to the flight of a late summer butterfly has to take precedence over fears and “what if’s”. Certainly, life has always required this, but it has never been so clear or so imperative as it is to me today.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

(I first thought of calling this “Let Me Tell You About My Grandchildren,” but figured everyone would simply turn and run like hell.)

I’ve just returned to cyberspace from a) a trip to the great sprawl of Atlanta where my kids and grandkids live and b) a major computer crash. Both experiences are somewhat out of the norm for this screen-and-home bound senior. I treasure my visits south, getting to see the changes that have occurred up close and personal. My oldest son is always engaged in his workshop/basement, tearing old computers apart, studying academic papers posted on arcane post doc websites and building new software. He’s the 45 year old version of the little boy I caught sticking a hair pin into an electrical socket, because “I knew there was electricity in there, and I HAD to get it out.” His one and only child is just finishing her second year in college, so there are no little feet pattering in this house. When our son was small, it was the days of “Mork from Ork” and we sometimes imagined our gifted boy was from another planet. (Would he start seeing through walls or something?) Neither of his parents are as intelligent as grounded or focused as he has grown to be.

In the home of my younger son, things are far less geek-monastic. There are two daughters, one eleven and one nine, and lots of colors, clothes, dolls and a Wii, and all the other trappings of modern childhood. The youngest girl in this house also lives on another planet, but her other-worldliness is a prison. She is autistic, and appears to be pretty firmly stuck there, although, when she was small, we were given the hope that she’d be one of the lucky ones and “come out of it” because sometimes girls on the spectrum do. So little is understood about this modern epidemic of disabled children. Like every autistic child, PJ is a unique world unto herself. It’s tough to have a grandchild who does not appear to know who you are, and who does not meet your eyes. In short, unless PJ needs you to perform a task for her–make supper or get milk from the locked fridge–you might as well be invisible. This apparent lack of empathy, of the warm social bond normal between people, makes life hard for both her parents and for her big sister.

If PJ appears to love anything, it’s the computer–her Daddy has set up one for her, with appropriate links, so she can obsess on whatever kid’s show she currently enjoys. While I was there, she was interested in running the television, because she’s deep in Ponyo, an entirely hand-drawn, fabulously beautiful piece of animation from the Japanese master, Miyazaki. PJ drives the remote like a champ, finding the scenes she likes best and repeating them without difficulty. She can replay for hours, so grandmother simply sat down and watched her watching. Ponyo is a mermaid story. The fish daughter of an undersea magician wants to become human because of her love for the little boy who rescued her. Sitting there, watching, I thought the appropriate age group for the film was probably rather young, as the protagonists are very young–perhaps about 5 or 6.

PJ’s favorite scene concerns Ponyo’s accidental release of her father’s potent magic, which sets off a chain reaction of wild creation. Enormous schools of fish leap from the sea, almost drowning ships; a tsunami roars in upon the land. Ponyo, riding the leaping fish, grows feet, hands, a belly button, hair and teeth. Hurled upon the land by a great wave, she becomes a “real girl.” This climactic scene, with triumphant Wagnerian music–she’s a connoisseur of music–was PJ’s favorite. Sitting on the couch in the dim room, I experienced the rush of transformation in the visuals and in the grand and celebratory music.

It wasn’t until later, back home, that it occurred to me that this latest “obsession” was an expression of hope, a prayer from a child so locked inside herself, so unable to reach out to others, to belong to family or make friends. For a few minutes, PJ saw herself as Ponyo, riding the giant fish, leaping upward toward the sun, surfing a wave onto the land, growing the feet and hands–and the all important ability to speak–of a “real girl.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Groundhog Ruminations

The groundhog festival seems to get bigger every year here in PA. I remember when there were only a few members of the “inner circle” with top hats, Victorian black coats and silly, fake aboriginal names like “Thunder Maker” and “Cloud Rider” up on that stage. This thing has really taken off since the “Groundhog Day” movie in 1993. The ever-growing numbers in the “inner circle” and yearly attendees prove that.

The custom comes here from German settlers, who, in the old country, may have looked for bears to awaken as a sign of spring. In southeastern PA, you can still find a few “Grundsow” Lodges, where for that morning only Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken. The dawn festival involves speeches, skits and traditional foods. Traditionally, the attendees waited at the groundhog’s burrow to see if he’d emerge. If he was awake and came out, the weather had probably been warm, and an early spring—a signal to get ready for planting--could be predicted.

Phil is now, according to Punxsutawney legend, 120 years old, but anyone can see he’s been recently replaced. His newest incarnation is a slender young groundhog who first appeared on stage a few years back. (He had a runny nose yesterday, so I'm a bit worried about his health!)
He replaced an earlier, massively obese old fellow who probably came to the end of his decade-in-captivity life span. The older groundhog was far less human friendly, and did wonderfully entertaining things, like peeing on his handlers and sometimes chewing on their gloved hands. To me these acts of defiance were an important part of the show. After all, they’d dragged the poor critter out of his nice warm cage in town and brought him out in the middle of fireworks, flashing cameras, TV lights and a host of enthusiastic people (many of them, I’m sorry to report, drunk) screaming at the top of their lungs: “Phil-Phil-Phil!”
Heck, such treatment would unnerve anybody, not to mention a poor, overweight groundhog. Of course, not being eaten after being dragged out of your warm burrow is a definite improvement over the treatment many groundhogs received in the protein-starved winter past.

February 2 is also Candlemas on the Christian calendar, a/k/a the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Besides that, in medieval times it was one of the “cross-quarter” days on which bills were paid, workers hired and contracts drawn, important in every long ago market town. Both the religious observance and the business deals go back even further, into pagan times. Even the most casual observer can see that the days are growing longer now, and of course, the ancients, who were formidable astronomers, had noticed. February 2, known as Imbolc in the Celtic calendar, was sacred to the red-haired Mother Goddess Bridget, who tended a magical cauldron, and was patroness of poetry, music, dance and all the “arts of civilization.” Weather prediction was part of her festival, too, as the time of the spring planting was of vital importance.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

One Cat Over the Line, Sweet Jesus!

Like the 70’s song, I fear, our house has reached capacity. In fact, as of Thanksgiving, we’ve got one too many cats.

This all began when our beloved resident ex-stray and tough guy, Bob, disappeared in wintry weather. Four days passed. It was very cold, and he did not return. I’d rather keep him in like the others, but there was no way Bob would submit to being a full time housecat, so my husband and I had made the best of his wandering. Now we mourned for him, thinking that even his superior street smarts hadn’t kept him safe. In fact, I was so worried I checked in at the township police station, even though I knew a wandering cat was “in violation of township regulation” and subject to a fine.

Into this emotional turmoil came my best buddy, Patti, who feeds a few of the local strays. Onto her porch, in the twilight, had come a starving orange kitten, attracted by the dish of Purina she put out every night. She could count every rib, every bump in her little kitty spine. The kitten looked up at her with golden eyes and chirruped sweetly. Patti knew she had to rescue her.

The next day, Patti came to me with this sad little creature in a carrier. She was, Patti said, to fill the hole in our house left by the death of Bob. My husband wasn’t thrilled, but Patti bravely offered to pay all the vet bills, and to get her tested for all the kitty plagues. The first thing was to flea treat her because she was polluted. I made a place for her in one room, with box, food, bedding and water. I sat down cross-legged, and the kitten promptly climbed onto my knee, purring. She proved to not only have fleas, but a host of dog ticks which had to be removed. Later I’d discover an infected wound on her left flank. When my other cats looked in at her, she hissed and growled, imitating, I think, the meanest cat she knew, the one who had bitten her. Integration of this fierce little mite into the existing peaceful feline kingdom inside our home was going to be difficult.

As people with a multi-cat household know, behavior problems erupt if there are changes of any kind, particularly at the introduction of a new cat. Hissing and fighting—even between cats that were friends—happens. It’s “the new baby” problem in spades, with jealous “siblings” and the added difficulty of interspecies communication. (I try, but sometimes I just can’t think like they do.) Now I had the new kitty—a semi-feral survivor with a septic wound and PTS who needed lots of special handling—as well as the other three who were undergoing an emotional adjustment to the new reality in the house.

Of course, you can guess what happened next. One day after the arrival of the kitten, I opened the front door and Bob walked in, with his customary loud “MA-WOW, MA-WOW.” He rubbed against my legs, and then headed toward the communal food dish. As I watched his striped backside recede, I spoke aloud. “You didn’t call. You didn’t write. WHERE the hell have you been?”

Of course, I’ll never get an answer, but I’m too darn glad to see him to be cross. I sat down beside him and patted him while he chowed noisily, dropping food all over the floor and purring like mad. I figure he lost some lives, and I sincerely hope he will be more careful of –whatever—in future!
So things continue here with one more cat than I can easily handle. The kitten has been very sick, and to the vet for surgery. She’s begun to grow nicely, but she’s still paranoid and hissing. My days are full. I’m a little old lady cat patter, vet tech, and feline psychiatrist. The patting I’ve got down pretty well. That’s a pleasure. The rest takes time. The refrain of the old song goes round and round in my head while I scrub water bowls and cat boxes. We’re “one cat over the line.”