Another One Bites the Dust

 

I embrace technology with reluctance. Answering machine? I swore I’d never buy one in college wondering, why can’t people just call back? Eventually, I caught up with the idea but just shy of voicemail coming into the picture. If I could still be using my childhood black rotary phone, believe me I would. There was nothing like carefully dialing a boy’s number, heart pounding, finger releasing at the silver half-moon watching the disc circle back hoping my finger didn’t stutter a second dial on the way up. You had to be paying attention. Last I knew that black phone was in my brother Adam’s attic. His then young son had lifted it out of a box and asked, “Dad, What’s this?”

On a recent trip to San Francisco, my friend who works for Apple remarked that my cell phone was antique. “It’s only a year old,” I said. “You should have seen my last one.”  When I went to trade my Ericsson up, the AT&T clerk turned it around in his hands like a rare fossil.  Please. Let’s not exaggerate, I wanted to say. It’s not like I passed in a Michael Douglas 1980s cell phone from Wall Street.

It’s not that I don’t like technological advances. (I have an ipod that was given to me.) I’m just slow on the uptake. Why throw away what still works? I donated my mint condition VHS player when I moved in June. And you know what? I regret it. How am I going to watch my rare Peace Corps video vignettes from Eritrea, Africa that fellow volunteer Colin taped in 1995? If I know Colin, he’s already converted it to DVD. I must have thought this thought when I packed up the player (in its original box) as I loaded up the car for Goodwill. Otherwise, poof it’s gone. If anyone wonders whether I am my mother’s daughter, you needn’t look for further proof.

At least I don’t put plastic on the lampshades.

I’m more of use it into the ground kind of person. Enjoy it while you got it is my motto.

My mother used her Maytag for 40 years. It saw so much use, the dial was completely worn to white with only the slightest blue flecks as evidence that numbers once existed. She knowingly turned it to the click, like an expert safe-cracker. This proved to be a great excuse for my not being able to do laundry. It had its curbside exit after a few visits from the repair man who finally had to break it to my mother.

All this came up because today I was thinking about our family stereo. The wide console one with the smoky quartz colored plastic hood. I so clearly remember it in the “Big Room”- our fancy room. The Christmas tree room. The one with an ornate chandelier and crystal filled credenza. It’s also the room that for a time in the late 70s and early 80s got blocked off at the threshold with white chenille bedspread to conserve heat in the house.

I am not joking when I say, that my brothers and I would slip into our snowsuits, carefully slink past the tasseled bedspread just so we could listen to the stereo.  Winter 1980. I am eight years old. Adam had newly acquired Queen The Game album. I remember his careful, no thumb prints handling and the way he put the needle down and moved back from the turntable, palms down in a careful-do-not-disturb way. John and I would dance a jig to “Another One Bite’s the Dust”. Our dancing was a cross between the Peanuts Gang head wagging and some crazy ass kids in snowsuits trying to stay warm. On some nights we could see our own breath.  The crystals on the chandelier were in gentle percussion with our steps. If we bounced too much, Adam still in lotus in front of the stereo would yell, “HEY! Don’t make it skip.” He’d resume his watchful eye, palms at-the-ready to lift the needle up.

We’d read liner notes and learned lyrics.

We listened to one side and then flipped to the other. We studied the album, understanding somehow that it was a work of art. A concept. A poem. Something to be experienced as a whole especially because you saved up to buy it with a special trip to Record Lane or RRRecords.  At some point was it that year? Or later? Adam showed me how to put the needle down with my thumb.

And you know what? You can’t do that with an ipod.

——————-Let me tell you about my Victrola… That baby can pump out some SOUND!

 

Innocence Revisited

 

When do you grow up according to your parents? Maybe never.  When I go home to visit, I find I’m 16 again, even though I’m approaching 40.  High school revisited.

But this now, what was then?

The start of maturity can be awkward.

In high school all the girls I knew shopped at Victoria’s Secrets.  Buying expensive underwear was like announcing you were President of your own fan club.  And in high school, you know how important that is…My mother didn’t quite understand the lure of paying 3 times the amount for a pair of cotton underwear with the store name written around and around on the elastic waistband.

“But Mom,” I argued, “It’s a NAME BRAND.”

“Who cares?” she replied, “Who’s going to be looking at your Gloria’s Secret?”

“VICTORIA’S!”

“Oh. Victoria’s”

That winter I came home with a life-size Christmas stocking that my boyfriend filled with every imaginable present I could want. This was the stocking of all stockings!   It included one of my most favorite gifts ever given to me- a pair of Reebok sneakers.  My favorite, because he knew I wanted a pair. My favorite, because he got my size right without asking. What can I say about these practical sneakers except that I felt loved. I re-opened every goodie box to show my mom his generosity.

In my haste and excitement, I opened the Victoria Secret’s box too. “And he got me this…” I said, pulling out the see-through peach lace bodysuit.

 I held it up and I looked at my mother through it.

Me looking at my mother. My mother looking at me.

Both of us just blinking.

Tactical Operations

Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia is an expert in tactical operations involving basement mice, squirrels eating bird food and woodchuck infiltration. No rodent too big. No rodent too smart. She will find its weakness. She will persist.

I bought my father a birdfeeder for Christmas a few years back for the new ranch house they bought. In the winter, it replaces the potted plant that hangs on a free-standing hooked stake in the backyard.

“Give the poor birds some food, will you?” Dad said when it was running low and I was over for a visit. I followed the narrow footpath in the snow and poured the seeds from the top until they gently started to spill over the lip. As soon as I left, a squirrel started pecking at the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Within minutes, it had shimmied up the pole and then hung upside down on the hook like a miniature acrobat. It swung towards the birdfeeder and knocked the seeds onto the ground.

Taking in the scene through the kitchen table window, Ciocia muttered, Skurczy Byk! Shriveled Bull! Not a swear word exactly, but not a phrase for polite company either. It can also be translated as Crouching Bull! Either way, I think you know what you could insert there in English.

The squirrel came back again and again. It was the same one. We knew that because it had an unusual white tipped tail. 

Also not their actual squirrel

 

The window banging started again.

“Can we try to act a little normal in this house?” I asked. Dad shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the paper.

When I came back home the next time, I heard about Felicia’s offensive.

She greased the base of the hook with Olive oil. I imagine that she stood by the window like a patient sniper waiting for her target to approach. And because the story was recounted so many times, I can tell you that the little fury acrobat started up with gusto and then promptly slid down the pole.

In my mind there were sound effects.

On the scoreboard of Ciocia vs. squirrel, she finally scored one for the team. Then I think the squirrel bought some Isotoner gloves because it managed to grip its way back up the pole again.

So our #1 Rodent General took the birdfeeder off the hook and ran a thin thread between the hook and the small flowering tree. The feeder bowed slightly in between. Ciocia was convinced this was better because she had picked an especially strong but thin thread. A thread that was too thin for the squirrel’s body to balance on. That turned out to be true, but the squirrel realized that instead of trying to walk on the line, it would flip upside down and grip the line from underneath like some scene from Mission Impossible.

It got to the seed again. Felicia got back to planning again.

This is the little dance that goes on between them.

Why bring up the woodchuck and squirrel stories? Because it occurred to me that this is what we must do.

You have to die trying.

Operation Scare the Woodchuck

A refresher for those of you just tuning in: Ciocia means Auntie in Polish. It’s pronounced Chuh-Chuh. My sister-in-law, in the family for 18 years, was so dreadfully afraid she was mispronouncing it like Spanish swear word that she refrained from using it. She just mastered it a few years ago. So don’t worry, you still have time to practice.

 

This is the view outside the kitchen table window where my parents and Ciocia Felicia (she lives with them by the way) enjoy the backyard view. The window also serves as an observation tower from which they strategically plot against two enemies: the squirrels and the woodchucks.

My family members are live and let live people but when the squirrels started eating the bird seed in the winter and the woodchucks decimated Ciocia’s tomato plants in the summer, lines were drawn. Mom and Ciocia began their daily surveillance. This involved mid-sweep pauses as they cleaned the kitchen to watch for movement outside the window. If they had access to infrared goggles, there would have been a night shift.

not their actual woodchuck

During the day, Mom kept one eye out over the sink window while she washed dishes. If she noticed a woodchuck she’d plunk the dish down and start muttering things that shouldn’t be repeated. Felicia would already be slipping on her flip flops to run outside. I think she was hoping for some hand to hand combat to settle this once and for all. After all, they ate all her tomatoes that year.

When Mom and Ciocia realized that the woodchucks had an acute sense of hearing, they started banging on the windows. It saved them from running outside each time they appeared. That got old pretty fast. When the banging stopped scaring the woodchucks off, Mom and Ciocia started making their own sounds to make things louder.

To an outsider, it may have looked like my mom and Ciocia were trying to be let out of their own house.

The woodchucks started multiplying. Started getting bolder. One blatantly sunned itself on the stone wall. It was all my mom could take.
They started going back outside to scare them.

And then…

My mom started barking.

Let me just say, that pretending to bark in Polish sounds different than in English. If you don’t believe me make your bark sound right now and then tap the next foreign person you meet and ask them to bark for you. I’m just saying. It is its own translation. My mother’s sounds something like a cross between a lonely wolf and someone walking on hot coals.

Her barking had no effect on our pudgy brown woodchucks at first. So she persisted barking in the back yard louder and louder. Until the next door neighbor who had been sitting on his back deck, stood up and looked over the tall hedge separating the yard and said,
“Everything okay Halina?”

My mother laughed so hard when she told us, she moved herself into a coughing fit.

“Oh my god Mom, did you tell him why you were out there?” I asked, wondering if I should start wearing a hat and dark sunglasses when I drove onto their street.

“I tell him. We havin’ good laugh.”

The barking stopped because the have-a-heart-traps came in…and eventually foxes.

When winter came and the squirrels moved in on the bird feeder, that’s when Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia really started proving her mettle.
To be Continued…

Home Is Where the Objects Are

Yes, home is where the heart is but more so, home is where the objects are. Take any one of these items out of my parents’ house and put them and me in the jungle in Borneo and I would cry ‘Home!’

Exhibit A

The Glass Percolator: It replaced the other glass percolator that cracked when Ciocia Felicia left it on the burner and got distracted in the cellar. The broken one had been a replacement for the two other burned out metal tea kettles before it.
      *I have burned through one tea pot so far. Is this genetic?    

 

Exhibit B

Dad’s Mug – Perhaps the most sacred dishware in the house. No one can say exactly when Dad starting using it, only that it has surpassed 30 years for certain, if not more. Many have let out a gasp letting it slip from their hands into the sink and sometimes the floor, yet it remains whole. I fear that my Dad will give up drinking coffee and tea altogether if it breaks.
He claims this one holds the heat.

 

Exhibit C

The Stray Paper Towel – A gently used paper towel left on the counter for second use. This used to drive me crazy, until I found myself doing it recently too. Just like freezing bread and burning through tea pots, I am genetically programmed to saving a stray paper towel. Said paper towel is usuallysharing counter space near an apple, tomato or onion.

 

Exhibit D     

THE TV

 
Either on loud or not at all

• Home Shopping Network- My mother and Ciocia Fela cannot get enough of the jewelry. Hours of it. If Home Shopping Network is crack then Mom and Ciocia like to free-base.

• The Spanish Channel- watched most by Ciocia who speaks the least English in the house. When I pointed out that she doesn’t speak Spanish she shrugged and said, “They sing nice.”
     *I watched a little bit of Bourne Identity on the Telemundo channel the other day and thought her.

 

 

Exhibit E


The Thermometer– So vital to the house’s bio dome operations, we have two of them, one outside and one inside. I don’t know why, but like wanting to have our clocks set to Greenwich Mean Time, my father needs to know the temperature.

 When I visit my parents, I expect to see these things. Though I wonder if the percolator’s days are numbered. While it’s my family I come home to visit, these objects let me know I’m home.

Special Thanks to my brother Adam who went on a mission to my parents house yesterday morning to take some photos for me. It was good for me that it was a too windy fishing day for him.

Lawrence Welk: My Baby Aspirin, My Sedation

I watched The Lawrence Welk Show with my parents when TV’s still had legs and a knob to walk up to. (Insert loud Godzilla sounds and gnashing teeth here.) My brothers and I used to annoy my father by twisting the channel dial as if we were trying to spin a top. Tickticktick. Tickticktick. I’m not so sure what we were hoping to accomplish with the speed of the rotation with only three channels at our disposal, but we made it our job.I think this may have increased my father’s smoking at the time. His Marlboro’s were on the maroon velvet arm rest, with the orange plastic ashtray balanced carefully on the wooden edge extension. When I was 6th grade and he was in the midst of quitting, my mother often came down stairs in her nightgown and stood at the living room door sniffing, eyes in a squint.

But I digress. The Lawrence Welk Show was quiet time. Just out of the bath time. Family time without vocabulary to define it as such. The Johnson and Johnson’s baby shampoo scent sprang from my brushed-out hair like the potted lilies we had in the kitchen at Easter. When I wasn’t getting my hair coiled in pin curls, I was lying on the scratchy carpet and letting out a once a year scream when I saw a silver millipede scuttle across the room. “It came from the cellar!” I would scream and felt even more reasons to love my footie pajamas.

By the time I was in high school, my parents would be in the kitchen instead of in front of the TV. Pots slid over the electric burners, tea cups hit saucers and spoons caressed the edges of porcelain cups. Their voices were a quiet murmur. I would fall asleep on the sofa. Lawrence Welk on the TV. I feigned indifference to dinner, to the TV as I felt the blanket over the back of the couch get pulled over on me.

I can’t ever remember a time when Lawrence Welk was not on my parents TV. It has been on forever. Even now in 2011, I can still walk into their house and watch an old episode. It’s usually part of some PBS telethon and my mother will take a moment to shush me when I’m in the middle of talking over a Lennon Sisters number. She still says’ Champagne Lady’ in a tone like she’s referring to someone from the Royal Family. She can tell me which Welk Show artists are dead, divorced, remarried, and whose off-spring has gone into the business. All with a little sigh like she’s telling me- look what time did. I can hardly keep track. I only remember Lawrence, Joe Feeney, Myron the accordion guy, the Lennon Sisters, the Champagne Lady and the guy who inspired me to take Tap Dance. Who can forget the mustard polyester, powder blue floor length gowns and Geritol?

I realized when I had the bubonic plague last year, and lay dying on my couch alone, I stumbled across The Lawrence Welk Show. I said Ohmygod out loud and put the volume at the perfect level for someone suffering and fell deep into a comforting sleep.

It’s like I could still hear the dishes, the spoons swirling. The murmuring.

(special thanks to tvcollector71 on youtube from whom I borrowed this link. Check out his other great LWS clips.)