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Hundred-Year-Old Heart

My mother would be 100 today. I’ve been thinking of her all week, wishing we could go on one of our miles-long traipses around Manhattan, that I could tell her I just reread Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter,” or show her a recent photo of Christopher, her only grandchild, swanning around Juan les Pins, France.

I’ll fasten this cloisonné heart around my neck, which I have done almost every day for nearly 50 years. The heart belonged to her, but I never saw her wear it. It’s a child’s piece of jewelry, brought for her from Paris when she was born in 1922 by her uncle Jack, who was living the frivolous life during les années folles.  She was idly going through her jewelry box one day when I was a teenager and said, “Here. Do you want this?” I did.

Wearing Mom’s heart in 1975

For someone who endured great heartache, the worst of which was my sister’s death, my mother maintained a certain regal bearing about her. And a black sense of humor, true to her Irish heritage. I’d love to be able to raise a Champagne toast to her today but will settle for lifting my cup of Earl Grey in salute. Cheers, Mom.

Another Missed Birthday, and a Sly Wedding Shot

My sister would be 68 today. This photo turned up when I sifted through what I called my boxes of grief in the attic last summer. Nothing is written on the back of the photo, but I’m guessing the scene was the 1980s, over-the-top, New York wedding of one of her friends or coworkers. I see something faintly Diana-esque about my sister in this picture, right down to her slightly furtive expression.

I can’t decide whether Mary would be amused at this shot—the hat! the cigarette! the wallpaper! the mirrored tile!—or want to wring my neck for posting it. I’m counting on the former and wishing, as always, she were here to laugh with me.

Missing Earrings, Landfill and What Can Never Be Lost

The story of James Howells struck a nerve. Howells accidentally chucked out a hard drive nine years ago containing what was then $8,000 in bitcoin. Today the bitcoin would be valued at $182 million, and Howells is now trying to convince the city leadership in Newport, Wales, to let him sift through the landfill using AI scanners and robot dogs. He’s sure the hard drive can be found.

This story resonated not because I have any bitcoin, but because somewhere in the landfill around Long Beach lies a pair of heirloom diamond earrings that had been in my family for over 100 years. I won’t tell the story of how and when they got flung out because a) it’s been nearly six years and gone is gone; b) I don’t have AI scanners or robot dogs at my disposal; and c) writing about it would make me feel sick to my stomach all over again and what would be the point?

Two weeks ago I lost another precious earring, accidentally knocking it off my ear when I took my face mask on and off multiple times so that my 92-year-old mother-in-law could see my lips move and understand me better. I had taken her to get her hair done, and it wasn’t until I had dropped her off and returned home that I realized one earring was gone. I called the beauty salon and the memory care facility where my mother-in-law lives; no luck. I combed the driveway and car, but the earring was nowhere to be found.

I felt heartbroken because the earrings were a gift from my dear friend Linda, one of many beautiful gifts she has given me over the years. They were one-of-a-kind, made of clay. Interestingly, my mother-in-law, who no longer notices details, would always remark on these earrings when I wore them, which was often. She would comment on how pretty they were and ask what they were made of. Clay, I would explain, and tell her they were a gift from a cherished friend. Because her memory is porous I would tell her this story many times, whenever she remarked on the earrings.

I emailed a photo of the lone remaining earring to Helene Fielder, the artist who made them, and told my sob story about losing one. Did she have a similar pair I could buy? Her response was prompt. No.

I do not know Helene nor have I ever purchased any of her art, a fact that makes her act of kindness even more astonishing. Unasked, she volunteered to make another pair, crafted replicas with lightning speed and mailed them to me. When I opened the package, I was as ecstatic as if I had received the Hope Diamond.

I will wear one of the replacement earrings Helene kindly made, as well as one from the original pair Linda gave me. When my mother-in-law mentions them next time, I’ll explain again that they are made of clay but tell a slightly different story—about a gift from a lifelong friend and a never-to-be-forgotten, spontaneous gesture from someone I don’t know that stunned and delighted me.

Everything Old Is New, Or Making Amends After 50 Years

This framed needlepoint has hung in my mother-in-law’s houses in San Gabriel and San Diego, then in a townhome in Sun City, next in an assisted living facility in Stanton, and now in a memory care unit where we moved her at age 92 three weeks ago. David’s grandmother, Lucy, stitched the piece, probably in the 60’s.

The frame was missing the glass, so we bought a new sheet of glass, carefully vacuumed the needlepoint to remove the accumulation of dust, polished the frame with lemon oil and did a general refurb instead of buying a new frame.

David confessed that the glass has been missing since he hosted an illegal, unsupervised party in the family home in San Gabriel when he was in high school. He is set to attend his 50-year reunion this fall, so you can do the math to figure out how long the crime has gone unsolved.

Evidently an exuberant partygoer knocked the frame from the wall and smashed the glass. David claims to have only hazy memory of how the shards got cleaned up and who hung the frame back on the wall where it sat, glassless, for the next five decades.

When we took the piece to her today, Bonnie recognized it and said, “My mother did that.” She told us her mother took a long time to painstakingly place the stitches and get the colors just so. She absolved David of the destruction brought about at his raucous party because she had no recollection of it.

Restitution, even delayed, still brings satisfaction. What have you made new recently?

Crimes On and Off the Road

Danny O’Keefe provided the impetus for our 12-day road trip through remote areas of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. You might remember his 1972 hit, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” Yes, that one, with the now richly ironic line: “You know my heart keeps telling me, you’re not a kid at 33.”

David, who keeps up with current music more than I do, discovered O’Keefe’s 2021 album about the sad history of the nomadic Nez Perce tribe, “Looking Glass and the Dreamers.” The album tells the haunting story of peaceful indigenous people driven from their homelands and chased over 1,100 miles by the U.S. Army in the 1860s and 1870s, before they finally surrendered at Chinook Montana, just miles from the Canadian border.

We followed portions of the Nez Perce trail, walking hushed paths, appreciating the gorgeousness, mindful of the treachery that took place there.

Without wanting to dis our neighbors to the north and east, we’ll observe that some people out there seem to be just the tiniest bit angry and combative. The Former Guy still holds sway, evidenced by the number outsized flags promoting him for 2024 and cursing President Biden.

Buddah, Allah, nor Adonai need not apply

We also found tolerance, activism, and humor:

A man in a Dodger hat walks into a church

Back in California, we dodged wild elk, hiked through glorious forests of redwood and driftwood and hugged a few trees — of course! — before slowly making our way back to Long Beach.

Collecting driftwood is permitted in some places. This piece wouldn’t fit in our Honda Civic.

I committed a crime on this trip as I walked the Heart of the Monster section of the Nez Perce trail, deep in reverie. I didn’t mean to, I swear! Somehow my hand stole out and plucked a wild lilac bloom. No excuses, but lilacs are one of my favorite flowers, and they don’t grow in southern California.

I’m going to blame the ghost of my mother for forcing my hand — she, too, loved lilacs. As I inhaled the rich scent David’s scandalized tone woke me from my dreamlike state: “We’re in a national park! You picked that?” I guiltily shoved the fragrant blossom in my pocket.

Perhaps the karma for my thievery is that someone hacked my credit card while we were away and ordered an extremely odd assortment of Amazon merchandise shipped to my address. Whoever you are, Mr. or Ms. Hacker, you will not be receiving your multiple institutional gray bedspreads, your bikini undies, your horrible mugs that are supposed to look like AR-15s, or your Snoop Dogg cookbook. I took everything to Goodwill this morning and donated it.

Mint Juleps and Long Shots

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This photo shows heavy, sterling silver mint julep cups in the background. I was born—not with a silver spoon in my mouth—but into a Kentucky family with engraved mint julep cups and the attendant alcoholism and wreckage that went along with those gorgeous, elegant vessels. The julep cups are gone, as are my father and sister.

My Kentucky heritage, often an embarrassment, always presents itself on Derby Day. Today 100,000 people converged on Churchill Downs to swill mint juleps and persist in nostalgically warbling the racist tune, “My Old Kentucky Home.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the song was sung again at the Derby given that The Former Guy held a fundraiser there today, with tickets at $75K a pop.

I’m still seeking hope. Kentucky gave us both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and today’s Derby winner was the 80-1 long shot, Rich Strike. This long shot symbolizes possibility for change and for upending the expected. Emily Bingham’s new book about “My Old Kentucky Home” and its author, Stephen Foster, uncovers the brutal history of the song. The book might come as a shock to the ladies who trilled the song today beneath their outsized hats. Let’s hope some of them read it. And in another hopeful development, Charles Booker has a chance to unseat Rand Paul for a Kentucky Senate Seat. If you have a few bucks to spare for his campaign, think about chipping in.

I recently finished Groundskeeping by Lee Cole, set in modern-day Kentucky. The writer Cynthia Carbone Ward, who I am also privileged to call my friend, recommended it to me. If you don’t yet have this marvelous book on your “to read” list, do add it. The Kentucky Cole describes in the novel differs starkly from the Kentucky of my childhood in some ways but disturbingly resembles it in others.

What long shot are you betting on for the future? I keep reading that midterms will be a disaster for the Democrats, but I’m persisting in working toward and hoping otherwise.

Candlelight, Fashion, and Peeps

Thinking of my mother today, who left this life on this date in 2004.

When churches began locking their doors in the off hours and replaced the soft flicker and glow of real tapers with little electric push-button lights, I began to borrow from the Jewish tradition of lighting a yahrzeit candle in my home, which burns for 24 hours, on the anniversary of my mother’s death. I love and respect this ritual, and hope that no one would consider it an improper appropriation.

As I’ve recently sifted through dozens of boxes of photos stored in my attic, I discovered this one of my mother at about age 22, ever stylish.

This photo of myself at around the same age also resurfaced, and I had to laugh at the drastic sartorial difference. At the time I thought I was oh-so-Bohemian in this one-dollar, thrift-store coat. My mother had a complete horror of it and disdainfully termed it my “rat fur coat.”

I like to eat one of my mother’s favorite foods on this day, chewy rye toast with tangy marmalade, Fig Newtons, or fragrant Earl Gray tea in a pretty cup. Today’s commemorative bite comes courtesy of my friend Ladan, who graciously procured yellow Peeps for me. This Easter delicacy can be hard to find at this time of year. Knock-off pink and blue bunnies abound but those simply won’t do. My mother and I often indulged in this guilty pleasure around Easter, and I’ll do so today.

Cheers to everyone, with wishes for a day that includes fashionable outfits and excellent snacks.

Boxes of Grief

Anyone have the faintest clue about what in the Sam Hill is going on in this photo?

I retrieved it this week from one of approximately 50 boxes we cleared out of the attic six months ago. I made the commitment to put nothing back, and to save only those mementos we could store in the garage. Most of the boxes are stuffed with letters, cards, photos, and journals, mine and those belonging to both my parents, my grandmother, my late sister, Mary, and my late husband, Mark.

I started out efficiently, quickly triaging decades’ worth of memories. I’m no longer a Facebook user, but the Buy Nothing page came in handy for finding new homes for kitchenware and Christopher’s toys. I’d held on to Mary’s heavy, thick high school yearbooks for ages, never sure of what to do with them but unable to just toss them out. The Facebook page for her high school class helped me locate classmates of hers who wanted her yearbooks either because they’d lost theirs or never had one. I happily shipped them off, sure she would approve.

I didn’t realize I had taken on death cleaning until I read this New York Times article. I thought I was simply addressing a long-overdue task, making space, and cleaning up. I knew the chore would be difficult but wasn’t prepared for the ambush of sorrow when I came across things like the last birthday card from my sister, written less than a month before she died in 1988. Her elaborate, curlicued script reads,

I would be lucky to have you as a friend. But to also have you as my sister, I really hit the jackpot!

I didn’t merit such effusiveness then nor do I now, but seeing those words again gave me such chest pain that I had to stop my sorting. Weeks went by, and I avoided the garage as if the boxes would detonate when I touched them again.

Christopher was here visiting last month. He viewed the stalled-out project in the garage and cheerfully and briskly suggested, “Call 1-800-JUNK.” When we first emptied the attic and transferred the stuff to the garage, David, who keep the space very tidy and organized, had a similarly practical, logical recommendation: “Why don’t you just throw it all away?” He has been remarkably tolerant of the mess and clutter I’ve left in the once-orderly area. I didn’t resort to 1-800-JUNK or toss everything in the dustbin, but it’s taken me until now to summon the fortitude to face the boxes again and vow to finish the job.

In our fraught, war-torn world, fretting about these boxes, these emblems of grief and loss, seems selfish, self-indulgent, and petty. That’s why finding this photo on Tuesday unexpectedly lifted my heart and made me laugh. On the right, my father doffs one of the silly-looking derby hats. He appears to wear — the horror! — a tan suit. Perhaps the paper he holds contains some prepared remarks on the occasion. Next to him, Mary, right knee skinned, dress smocked, suspiciously eyes the chained hound.

The back of the photo is stamped:


JUNE 17 ‘60


That tells me Mary was not quite 6 years old, and the fact that the photo appeared in the Herald Leader lets me know that this must have been an event my father attended in his role as mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. What was the fellow with the bullhorn hawking? What did the dollar donations support? Whose fancy Chevy Impala was that? With a magnifying glass, I tried to read the lettering on the little Colonel-Sanders–style tie the man behind my father is wearing, but can make out only “centennial.” Marking 100 years of what, I’ve no idea.

The dude on the left, eyes downcast, rifle at the ready, does concern me. No foppish derby for him — he’s the only one sporting a manly man coonskin cap. If you cut everything out except him and labeled the photo January 6, 2021, you’d swear you’d seen him among the mob of insurrectionists at the Capitol.

I haven’t decided what to do with this quirky photo — frame it and hang it in my home office? I can already hear David’s emphatic “No!” Maybe I’ll simply place it in one of the boxes we’ll mark “keep,” where it will languish in the garage until someone, probably Christopher, finds it years from now and pitches it.

I could pay to search the Herald Leader archives, read the photo caption, and reveal the story behind the picture. But I’d rather leave this as one of life’s great mysteries, right up there with other unfathomable secrets like how we survive our burdens and live with gratitude for all our miracles.

In a Book on War

“No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
To look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.”

Those lines are from “Forgetfulness,” a poem by Billy Collins. I’ve been rereading books on war for the last couple of weeks, plucking titles from my shelf that I hadn’t looked at in decades or, in one instance, requesting a book from the library that I hadn’t thought about in more than 50 years.

In The War by Marguerite Duras, she describes the unutterable terror of life in occupied Paris during World War II, the return of her husband, half dead, from Bergen-Belsen, her role in the Resistance, parrying with a Gestapo officer who was attracted to her, and living with daily knowledge of the imminence of her own death with one false step.

I opened my mother’s copy of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty last week. Welty, a quiet but fierce warrior, resisted the occupation of her homeland, the South, by white supremacists.

Do you remember Craig Badiali and Joan Fox, New Jersey 17-year-olds who died by suicide on Moratorium Day in 1969 as a protest against the Vietnam War? As a teenager, I followed this story with a certain horrified fascination. I reread Craig and Joan: Two Lives for Peace by Eliot Asinof last week after more than 50 years. Some details were still present in my memory with terrible clarity, but I didn’t fully register other aspects of the tragedy when I first read this book as a 15-year-old: the magnitude of their parents’ grief, the conservatism of many in their New Jersey town who condemned their act as disrespectful toward those serving in the armed forces , the callousness of a self-serving priest who, instead comforting the bereaved, aggrandized himself.

Our world is yet again torn asunder by war. We are awake, not to look up the names of battles but to agonize over the fate of people in Ukraine and the entire world. How are you coping? For me, these books on war have been an uneasy form of distraction.

Lost and Found

This vaguely unhappy, mysterious photo resurfaced as I sorted through the contents of my home office, which I’d moved into the garage while the room is being painted. I hadn’t seen the photo in quite some time and was worried I’d misplaced the strange tableau.

David doesn’t know the origin of the photo or who is pictured in it, but presumably it’s his father’s extended family on a picnic in Brainerd, Minnesota in the 1930s. He isn’t sure which of the boys might be his father—we have no other childhood photos of his father to compare. I’m speculating he might be the one on the right with his arms akimbo, a bit of an attitude showing.

Did the car in the background carry the lot of them to the picnic? It looks sizeable enough, driven straight onto the picnic grounds in a time that preceded organized spots with benches, tables, trash cans, and plastic food containers.

Some of the faces have almost a Dorothea Lange-like quality, yet the car and the plentiful picnic spread suggest that this family wasn’t impoverished. The hatchet-faced man at right slices through bread or maybe cake, the toddler on the left stares earnestly, while at least two of the children are too busy eating what looks like watermelon to mug for the camera. Whoever was wielding the camera didn’t ask the two children whose backs are turned to face front, or maybe they both squirmed at the last minute.

I wonder about the relationship between the two women on opposite corners of the picnic blanket. The woman with the white-collared dress looks serious, almost grim. The child on her lap appears to have a tea towel around his or her shoulders and holds a box of Blue Tip matches. The curly-haired figure to her right in the tank top appears fretful, gazing at something in the distance.

In contrast, the woman in the foreground on the left gives just a hint of a smile underneath her hat. Maybe she was having a better time that day, or perhaps she was removed from the group and didn’t have to involve herself in their lives. We can’t know whether the man hacking the cake was simmering with rage or whether the child with matches was a sign of recklessness. David’s father is long gone and there’s no one left to ask.

I placed the photo in the “keep” file along with books inscribed to me by my mother or sister, more family photos—although none quite as curious as this one—and some cherished letters and cards. What about you? Are you clearing anything out, literally or metaphorically and, if so, what are you discovering in the process?