Kol Nidrei

theamom

To Thea

I feel you in the music of the clouds

When the rain keeps rhythm in my heart,

Or when my soul can’t breathe. You left me, sister,

Here under mother’s rueful gaze, her pain

A poison I no longer fear, now loathe.

Remember? You mocked me when I called you

Foe, your frailty my rival. I prayed

For illness, sought to suffer like you did

Knowing mother loved your infirmity

Resented my health, my robust, boy-like

Strength. I wanted all you had and were.

While mother wanted nothing more than you

And a son, the treasured son I cannot be.

You alone said, “Nonsense. You’ll be brilliant.

Just find a concerto of your own.”

Now you’re gone, and who will help me string my

Bow? Who will turn my pages, make me smile

Through Dvorak, Schumann, and the rest? No one.

My cello is buried here. My music was you.

charlottecello

Charlotte With Cello, by Borislav Bogdanovich (http://www.bogdanovichcollection.com/biography/)

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A Little Bit of Sycophancy

Before you read my review of All the Ways to Say I Love You, I would like to say a word about Judith Light.

When I was about to meet the actress in 2003, the prospect did not thrill me at all.

My writing and producing partner Daniel Fine had been invited by the Directors View Film Festival’s Executive Director Robert Kesten to create a tribute event for Arthur Penn, who was that year’s winner of the festival’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award.imgres-2

Dan and I read and watched Arthur’s vast body of films and fashioned a script from scenes we’d cobbled together for Daniel to direct as a tribute reading. We then invited actors, who had worked with the director onstage as well as in his films, to participate, and though we had no budget to pay the actors or to transport them from any further than New York City, we were able to come up with a formidable company of very talented, willing professionals. When I sent the list to Mr. Penn, he shot back that he was disappointed not to find Judith Light; we hadn’t called her because she was not named as anyone he had previously worked with. “She’s brilliant,” he said, “and I would love to see her. I know she’s back in NY. Why not get in touch? She should read the Gibson stuff,” he said, referring to the pieces from the plays he’d directed by William Gibson. “It’s all written for a tough, smart woman. That’s Judith Light.”

I was skeptical. I mean, all I knew of her was an electronic face I had seen at intervals when passing through the family room, attempting to get my children to turn off that ‘80s television sitcom, predominated by what seemed to me an automaton blonde. But Arthur Penn wanted her in, and who was I to doubt Arthur Penn?whos-boss

Well, Judith Light showed me how wrong I was about her.

She got the script a few hours before the reading, and we had one rehearsal.  But by the time the introductions were made, and the reading began, she had somehow managed to learn several lengthy monologues from the dense Gibson material she was assigned, and she easily swung from making Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mother (The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle) and Golda Meir (Golda), come alive. They were flawlessly believable. She disappeared first into the subtly Irish Sullivan, then into the patrician Southern gentlewoman and the Russian immigrant American Israeli Prime Minister with polished ease, as though she had been studying the roles her whole life, as though she had rehearsed them forever. imgres-1imgres

I became a fan and have since seen almost everything she has done on stage(she’s since won two Tonys and a host of other accolades) and on streaming video (Amazon’s Transparent, for which she won an Emmy); I am a grateful admirer of the nuanced older women she animates.light-in-transparent

Her Shel Pfefferman has taken her place alongside Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein (Grace and Frankie), my much-revered imaginary alter egos.

Which is why I knew she’d be great in All the Ways to Say I Love You.  (My review follows.)

What She Did For Love

Theater Review: All the Ways to Say I Love You
written by Neil Labute, directed by Leigh Silverman, starring Judith Light

As the house fades to darkness in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Judith Light seems to bring up the stage lights as she makes her entrance. She crosses down center and stands absolutely still for a moment. She is pensive, oblivious to the applause from the audience who, having not yet met the character, cheer for the star they recognize. She waits for a beat before she walks to Stage Left and slowly crosses back to Stage Right, each time stopping to scrutinize the first few rows of the audience, clearly looking for “someone” to talk to.  Judith Light disappears, and her character Mrs. Johnson launches  into the monolog that is All the Ways to Say I Love You.  The result is a 90-minute stream-of-consciousness outpouring, the unpacking of personal history and emotion by Mrs. Johnson, a woman who has lost herself in the jumbled morass of others’ expectations and her own passions.  

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Judith Light as Mrs. Johnson, in The MCC Theater Production of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 141 Christopher Street, NYC. (Photo by @JoanMarcus)

The experience of following the Mrs. Johnson’s narrative, deftly written by Neil LaBute,  is something like being on multiple amusements at a fun park, riding them in such quick succession that there is no way to regain composure.  Mrs. Johnson recounts her life, breathlessly purging herself in chilling, even sometimes disgustingly vivid detail, leaving the audience as winded as she is.  Even the silences, the long pregnant silences, don’t enable her to breathe.  She is thinking, feeling, processing, and the effort of it exhausts us as it seems to deplete her.  But then she rallies, and her energy seems boundless, as she drags us into yet another corner of Mrs. Johnson’s past.

Light’s commitment to her character is absolute, unflinching.  She introduces herself at the top of the play as a high school English and drama teacher doubling occasionally as a guidance counselor, who has perhaps given her life to her profession while withholding too much from her marriage.  Allowing herself some self-deprecation, she amuses herself with her witticisms, even as she reveals, in the first few moments, that this will be the story of her relationship to a whopper of a falsehood.

“What is the weight of a lie?” she says a student once asked her, and though she goes on to say that she was unable to answer the question then, there is no doubt that the play is about to provide one.  Over the next 90 minutes, in fact, she peels back the layers of linen that shroud her lie, laying all its harrowing consequences bare and judging herself guilty. She has sentenced herself to a life of misery.

LaBute’s writing draws the audience into the judgmentalism of the moment, so much so that they are left with a sense of a larger crime even than the one to which Mrs. Johnson admits.

“She’s a pedophile,” I heard a woman scoff as she jumped to her feet to join the standing ovation at play’s end.  “I don’t understand why I am so enthusiastic.  I’m applauding a blood-sucking pedophile.”

In truth, it’s a trap LaBute has set most effectively. From the start, Mrs. Johnson makes it clear that she has indeed broken the laws of all that is holy to any sentient being and has had a prolonged affair with a student, but she has repeatedly mitigated that pronouncement by emphasizing that she did so with “a second year senior,” meaning a 19- or 20-year-old, clearly someone past the age of consent.  There is no pedophilia.

“He’s a rapist,” says the woman’s companion.  “I should hate her.  Why don’t I?”  Perhaps, I think, because there is no rape.  Again, LaBute has muddied the waters with a shadow of doubt; Mrs. Johnson clearly states that it was the boy who made the first moves, that it was he who insinuated himself into her life before she chose to allow him access.  It’s a subtle nuance but critical to the character because her little loopholes are the devices that enable her to maintain a modicum of self-respect, and allow her to believe herself a good teacher, a wise counselor, a loving parent with less delusion.

I felt close to this character.  She has, like so many women in my generations, tried to shrink herself to fit the prefab molds she’s been required to fill.  She has sublimated herself to the work that now defines her, but she has received no rewards for her efforts.  And she has fallen into an abyss most sentient adults would have avoided at all cost, has lost herself to the delusion that, having given so much, she deserves to take something for herself.  It’s not entirely her fault, but we will blame her nonetheless. Her Fifteen years in the classroom, teaching English and directing the drama club like Mrs. Johnson, her story resonates in me.  I knew my share of bold boys, those who envisioned themselves men enough to seduce the teacher.  And I knew how tempting some of them could be.  Male entitlement has the potential to beguile and can be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Most of us realize that to give in is idiotic folly, and we never do, but for Mrs. Johnson, the stakes are complicated.

Her husband, a mixed race man, has suffered many hardships for standing out as different in their small town community.  Over and over, she tells us she loves him, she will do anything to save her marriage. He wants children. Desperately, she says.  But no matter how hard they try, they remain childless.  She wants him to excite her, and she longs for him to find her attractive; but as they try more arduously to make a baby, they lose interest in one another, all of which renders her as vulnerable as a woman can be.  That boy is insistent, and he has a hunger for her that is irresistible.

That hers is a terrible mistake, one predicated on a huge fabrication, is undeniable, and she will be punished. Endlessly.  Which, I suppose, is how the women were mollified and convinced not to lynch the actor at the end of the play.

Even as I found Mrs. Johnson a reliable narrator of her tale, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the story lives in the character’s head, how much is the dramatic story she fed herself during times when teaching was, as teaching can be, stultifying, when she felt her creativity drained, and all her efforts were on her students’ or her husband’s or her lover’s behalf.

The silences on stage enhanced my sense of the character inventing herself as she went along.  Long, pregnant silences orchestrate transitions of story, mood, tone; they are silences most actors and directors fear.  Light and Silverman plumb their depths, and in their deafening stillness, we see a woman growing older, fighting the urge to enlarge the truth while persistently diminishing realities. 

So, I am still not sure how much of what Mrs. Johnson remembers is the babbling of a woman descending into old age, seeking comfort in believing that once, even when it was totally inappropriate, she sacrificed herself to love.

I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other

 

An open letter to the last in a long line of youngsters who have written me rejection letters. . . .

 

Dear Young Person Who Just Wrote Me (yet) a(nother) Rejection Letter,

Thank you for taking the time to write me and tell me that the competition for this teaching job, a job, which, like the previous twenty for which I have applied, I could do with my eyes closed and my feet chained together, was so fierce that I just didn’t make the cut. I appreciate that you are sensitive enough to want to let me know that I am unqualified to join your ranks, and I know you mean well.  After all, you did refrain from telling me I am cute.  I should be grateful for small favors.

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Still, I would prefer if you would refrain from the obligatory condescension of telling me I am amazing. I know I am amazing, and I also know that, while you may be attempting to compliment me by saying so, you don’t believe that I am anything more than ridiculous.  You want the young, the brilliant, the beautiful kids with whom I cannot – because people like you won’t let me – compete with to work in your school.

Which is sad. I am a good teacher. Ask any of the people who were in my classroom or my theater groups over the years I put in.  Okay, there was the time in 1980, before I got my first Master’s Degree, when I let the students in the class for which I was substituting in Glendale, AZ, eat donuts while taking a T/F test, but I am over that now.  I promise never to do it again.

Did you notice the part on my CV where it tells you I taught creative writing and acting, coached high school seniors through college essays, guided hundreds of youngsters through reams of literature and directed them in plays?  I was elected Teacher of the Year a couple times, my kids got into great schools, my theater group won awards.  More recently, I have been published in a few periodicals, have an agent pedalling my first book, completed an MFA at Columbia University.  How is it that I am not up to your standards?

Ask me a question.  Any question.  I probably have an answer . . . or I can make one up.  I’m pretty smart, and thanks to my successful teaching career, I have a store of accrued wisdom and patience, a reputation for flexibility and a range of pedagogical techniques, and I have a deep capacity for mentoring.  Additionally, I have a peerless resume of expertise and experiences one can only garner over a long and productive life, through which I have learned to be an adept team player, who is wont to foster camaraderie and collaboration.  My presence would benefit your students in untold ways. Do I not fit your picture of what the ideal artist/teacher should be – a young person, with whom your budding high school geniuses can bond, in whom they can see themselves?   Pardon me for tooting my own horn, but  you clearly don’t realize how much you are depriving them of.

And me too.  How much you are depriving me of. I didn’t apply for this job as a lark. I am not looking to play at being a teacher. I support myself and another person, and I need the salary this job would have provided. Ironically, too, because I collect some Social Security and have a minor pension, the meager salary you offer is just about all I need to keep my rent paid. Unlike my younger counterparts, I wouldn’t have to juggle multiple jobs. My attention would be entirely focused on the youngsters in my care. But I’m guessing that looks are far more important than student-centered instruction.

If my credentials are, in your words, impressive, how is it I just don’t measure up?  Don’t you think it’s a bit backward that we older folks are consigned to the kind of  backbreaking service jobs  we really are too old for?  Isn’t it sad that if I want to draw a salary, I must stand for hours in a retail environment, stock heavy boxes on shelves, run errands for young executives or some such waste of all that I have become in the course of my storied careers as a writer, teacher, mother, mentor, wrangler of teenage actors, director of educational theater, and filmmaker? classroom creativity

Stop lying to me. Stop offering idiotic soporifics like, “You are truly uniquely qualified,” and tell me the truth. Tell me you think I’m too old to be trusted to lead your young charges. Tell me you are disgusted that I have reached this juncture in my life without the accolades you will have amassed by the time you are 40. You want me to be retired, to gratefully stay in my pasture counting the gold pieces my hard work has already accrued.  You don’t want to think you could end up like me, an old neophyte trying to reimagine herself as she was meant to be.  Admit it.  My choice to teach high school and to put motherhood ahead of professional development makes me look like a loser to you, and that somehow makes me toxic and dangerous. I can see that. It’s a veritable powder keg I’m offering you.

Believe me, I know you think you are being kind. Your kindness is killing me.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Carla Stockton

Why I Stand With Planned Parenthood

While I refuse to qualify the bizarre allegations levied by misogynistic fear mongerers against Planned Parenthood, I feel a need to make a small statement of support for an institution that I believe in, an institution our society cannot afford to lose.

First of all, I would like to go on record by saying that there is no reason for apologia where abortion services are concerned.  Abortion is legal in this country, and women have the legal right to choose whether their bodies may be receptacles of new life.  I don’t know anyone who is pro-abortion; I am not.  But I am pro-choice, including the difficult choice to terminate a pregnancy.  Choice deserves and requires protection.

What the critics chronically forget to mention is that Planned Parenthood does so much more than counsel women regarding their unwanted pregnancies.  They saves the lives of mothers and children.    Planned Parenthood is a safe haven the community cannot do without.

I don’t know anyone who loves going to the doctor for gynecological examinations, but all women need to do so in order to protect themselves against illnesses that attack the female organs. And having access to affordable care and to prevention and cure of feminine illnesses also deserves and requires protection.

Planned Parenthood provides choices, care and prevention that no other institution offers, preserving women’s lives in a variety of ways, and we must stand up for the good that they do lest it be lost in a hale of ignorance and misconception.  All pun intended.

IMG_4835-abortion rights

  1. Judy’s Story – Perilous Days Before Roe v. Wade

I was 18 when I met Judy. We were both employed by a large firm in New York whose specialty was writing employment manuals for employers. I was a proofreader; Judy was a typist, and she was 19, mere months away from reaching twenty.

Judy was ever so much more mature than I was in ways I never imagined myself becoming, and she intrigued me. I still lived in my aunt and uncle’s house, where no matter what, I was sheltered, fed, protected from the world. Judy lived on her own in a one-bedroom apartment in Bay Ridge, where she had to cover the rent, heat, food and clothing for herself and her 4-year-old daughter. On my meager salary, I had a hard time keeping up with the minimal contribution I made to household expenses and found it challenging to buy enough clothing often enough to get to work looking respectable. Judy made less than I did, and in addition to all her other expenses, she had to pay for whatever day care her friends were unable to provide.

Hoping always to find a man who would step up where her deadbeat ex-husband had failed her, Judy dated fairly frequently, and I was her go-to evening babysitter. I loved the solitude of being in her house after her daughter went to sleep; I marveled at her house, so clean, so bright and cheerful. She had curtains on the windows, rugs on the floor, pictures on the wall; her daughter’s bed was a frilly pink wonderland. How did she do it?

I loved Judy’s child, who was smart, funny, talented and spirited. We watched Sesame Street together in its first year, and I took her to meet my friend Northern, who played one of her favorite “real people” characters on the show. I was part of the family, intimately tied to them by an interdependence that suited us all.

Judy could not possibly hope to sustain any more of a burden than she was already managing. She often said to me, “Carla, I gotta be real careful, ya know? I mean I got knocked up the first time because I wasn’t payin’ close enough attention. I cannot afford to have another kid.”

But no matter how careful you were in the 60s, pregnancy was never altogether preventable. After seeing a prospective stepfather for several months, she stayed overnight with him, and despite her protestations that she took EVERY precaution, she became pregnant. In those days, many of my friends and relatives were victims of missed pills, defective condoms, miscalculated dates; Judy’s mishap was no surprise.

“I’m a good mother,” she moaned to me the day she got her test results. “I am. But dammit, Carla, what ’m I supposed to do? I got dreams for my kid. I want her to have a good education, do more with her life than I did. I can’t afford another one.”

I had no words of wisdom. There were no alternatives. The would-be stepfather dropped out of sight as soon as he became a prospective dad. Should the fetus in Judy’s belly grow to childhood, it faced a life of poverty that would also drag its older sister into an abyss, an underfed, underserved existence. Judy was despondent.

Then, for a time, we only saw each other at work . I don’t know how many nights she stewed without confiding her thoughts. But one night after midnight, my phone rang, and it was Judy; she was crying and sounded wrung out. “Carla. I need you to get here right away. Please.”

I lived in Bayside, Queens, a long way from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I took a bus to Flushing, where I got a subway to a transfer point in Manhattan and then, following Judy’s instructions, emerged somewhere in Brooklyn, where I hailed a cab. She was waiting for me with Norma, a co-worker with whom we often socialized, a slightly older woman who had brought with her her own 8-year-old daughter. I had been summoned to babysit. They left the minute I got there without explanation, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

Judy had no color in her face and could barely move. Norma had to carry Judy down the stairs, and I watched out the window as she lifted my nearly lifeless friend into the cab. I took both little girls with me to Judy’s bed, and we slept through the night. It was after noon before Norma returned. The girls and I were having breakfast.

“She’s going to be okay,” was all Norma told me. When the children moved closer to the television and engrossed themselves in Days of Our Lives, she explained.

“We decided not to tell you last night. If we got arrested, we wanted you to be clean so you could take care of the girls.”

Judy had had her pregnancy terminated by a local “Gypsy” woman. She nearly bled to death, willing to die rather than bring another child into the world. She was prepared to sacrifice her life rather than throw her daughter’s future away.

I was grateful she got away with it. Still am, as I am certain both she and her daughter are as well. That daughter is a prominent physician today.

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  1. Sally’s Tale  – In Need of A Safety Net

Sally works overseas, only gets to come back to the States once a year. In the country where she lives, she gets inexpensive insurance coverage that ensures that she has unlimited access to comprehensive health care. Whenever she visits home, she cites the high cost of health care as one reason she feels compelled to remain abroad.

Sally is nearing forty, and though her latest love affair, which lasted two years, ended in a break-up, she was delighted to learn that she was pregnant. Professionally secure and ensconced in a comfortable community in her adopted land, she was sure she could manage the challenge of single motherhood. After a visit to her local physician, who did an ultra sound, Sally left for her annual visit stateside confident that she was carrying a healthy fetus. She could not wait to share the news with her family.

By the time she left for her trip, Sally was feeling uneasy. There had been movement in her womb, but all movement had stopped. Since there were no other signs of trouble, however, she carried on with her plans and made her yearly pilgrimmage. But the discomfiture persisted, so she decided it would be a good idea to check in with an American doctor at an American hospital to make sure all was well.

A family friend, a physician himself, recommended a colleague who worked in a highly respected medical group, where fees would be less than exorbitant.

The news was devastating: the pregnancy had self-terminated. But before the gynocologist had confirmed that fact, he took blood tests and performed the sonogram, which cost Sally upwards of $1200. The doctor told Sally to come back for a D & C, but the costs were so astronomical that Sally was determined to let the miscarriage expel itself naturally over time, a choice, which, as anyone who has been there will tell you, was less than wise.

Over the next several days, Sally’s pain grew, and a deep despondency settled in. She had wanted to bear a child, and carrying this failed fetus exacerbated her physical pain. Finally, seeking advice online and a possible support group to join, she found Planned Parenthood.

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Sally conferred with a lifelong friend, who had been without health insurance for many years. The friend confirmed that Planned Parenthood, the only place she could get low-cost or no-cost cancer screenings and overall checkups, was a good choice. Sally made an appointment, and a day later, a kind nurse gently ushered Sally into a comfortable place where a coterie of empathetic women tended to her, prepared her, comforted her as she endured the actual procedure.

The entire experience cost her  less than $300.

No other institution in this country offered Sally so much life-affirming concern or treated her with such respect. And no one offered the service at a cost that was nearly as affordable.

 

Pictures on Exhibition at a Class Reunion – Fictionalized Nonfiction in Three Parts: Part III

Geriatric Tryst

 

I had a bad feeling about it all along, and yet I let it happen.

The minute the man flirted with me online, I should have shot it down. He was, after all, in New Mexico, and I in New York.  But I didn’t.

We had corresponded and talked on the telephone for two months before we met for the first time in Washington, DC. That first encounter was lovely though even then there were warning signs, but it was fun to be a tourist by day, holding hands, eating out, escaping the heat. Our downtown suite had adjoining rooms so we were able to give one another a good night kiss and retire to familiar aloneness. Thus the warning signs that were faintly appearing on the walls were easy to ignore.

One salient sign was that the man did not listen. He had been struck deaf by a childhood illness, and he had a well-tuned habit of allowing the batteries in his hearing aid to die, at which point he would just talk on without acknowledging the malfunction, appearing to listen when he was tuned out. It was impossible for me to know what he actually heard and what he chose to ignore. He would often nod in agreement as though we were on the same page, but I would realize later he had no idea what the conversation had been about.

Nevertheless, the Washington sojourn was successful enough that when he requested a second meeting, I suggested that he join me for the fiftieth year reunion of my small town high school in upstate New York. He was thrilled. After all, he had graduated the same year; he could not wait to share whatever he had in common with my classmates. I disregarded the blaring red flags. As the co-emcee at the main event banquet, I thought I needed an escort. Besides, I still believed in happily ever after. Even at 68.

However, knowing I would have a lot of prep work and would be meeting people I had not seen in fifty years, people who saw me every day of my life for the better part of my childhood, I strongly urged him to fly into Albany or Burlington on Saturday so he could arrive just in time to be with me at the banquet. “I’m not very nice when I’m stressed,” I said honestly. “I’m likely to be unaffectionate, downright prickly.”

“Don’t worry,” he laughed.   “I totally understand.

But he didn’t. Not really.

He confided that he felt intimidated by the east and asked me to guide him into the mountains. “I’ll just be a fly on the wall while you take care of business. You won’t even know I am there.” Furthermore, flights were cheapest into Newark, and besides, Newark was closer to Pennsylvania.

He had his own agenda. Based on our time in DC, he had booked a car rental and appointments to look at houses in the Wilkes-Barre, PA, area, halfway, he said, between his daughter and grandchildren in Ohio and me in NYC.

I met him Thursday morning at his motel in Newark, and as we drove north, he told me he was ready to make a purchase. I said, “I really hate PA.” Did he hear me? I couldn’t tell, as he went on telling me what a great house it was with a room that would be a perfect writer’s office.

Finally, I shook my head vigorously. “Listen,” I said. “I have family all over the desert states and California. Grandchildren in Westchester, a daughter in Hong Kong and cousins in Europe I will want to visit. Any meager travel time and money I have is theirs. I won’t be getting to Pennsylvania.”  He nodded, saying he understood.

But he didn’t. Not really.

We arrived in my home town and checked into the only motel that had had a room for us. We should have had separate rooms, but our reunion, a huge canoe race and the sixtieth reunion of the class that graduated a decade ahead of us had caused a shortage of available space. We had to share a bed, and it was not a great bed to begin with.

Though larger than king size, the mattress was lumpy, with springs that poked my sides, and from sitting in the car for over six hours, my arthritis areas were raw, and I hurt. There was no position in which to lie where something didn’t ache. I did not want to be touched.

Which, to be fair, had been part of our agreement. I had said categorically that while we were in this motel, an old one with flimsy sheetrock walls, I would likely be physically distant. Every sound we made – and he is a noisy man, as is the wont of most who are hard of hearing – would be audible to our neighbors on both sides of our room, men with whom I had gone to school from fourth grade through high school graduation, men with whom I would not be inclined to share my private moments. He said he was fine with that, that he understood.

But he didn’t. Not at all.

In truth, he was incapable of real arousal, so what he craved was touch. Holding hands seemed reasonable except that he insisted on kneading mine long after I asked him to stop. I suggested we cuddle, something I usually love to do, but his cpap, whining and wheezing to maintain continuous positive air pressure, blew percussively on the back of my neck and nipped any tendency toward relaxation in the bud. To complicate matters, he insisted on talking at me all night, but I could not reply without screaming because his hearing aids were on a table by the window.

By morning, as my exhaustion exacerbated my foul mood, things worsened.  At every turn, I did something to infuriate him, and he retaliated by promising me a night of more lecturing, less sleep than I had had the night before.

He, too, was tired, and that augmented the pervasive tension about him, the jealousy. Every time I hugged another classmate, every time I got on my computer or telephone to make another arrangement, he sulked or, worse, he paced. My fly on the wall had become the oversized, nasty aggressive kind, biting and buzzing, growing ever needier and more persistent.

On Friday night, instead of going with me to the Moose Club for the opening night dance, where we could at least have had some couples fun, he threw a temper tantrum, and we missed the party. I reminded him that the following night was the banquet, that I would be a far nicer person, that if I could just get some sleep, we could start over. He nodded and said he understood.

But. . . .

“What do you mean, ‘start over?’” He asked as I was crawling into bed. “I don’t get it.”

“Let’s talk about it in the morning.” He sat on the chair next to the bed shaking his head.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

I began a reply, an angry one, asking him to respect my request to get some sleep, but before I could finish my sentence, he stood up, took out his hearing aids and threw them on the floor.

“Yayayayaya,” he sang in a toddler voice. “I’m not listening to you.”

He was quiet, then, till 4 a.m., when he insisted we had to talk, or rather, that I listen to a litany of my transgressions. I was neglecting him, would rather be with these people than with him. I was ruining this vacation.  But for my neighbors, people who had been out drinking the night before, it was still the middle of the night, and we had their peace to consider.

“Let’s go for a drive,” I said. “ Get out of the motel.” I figured he could yell as much as he wanted to in the car on the highway. We found an open Dunkin Donuts with a safe parking lot and settled in for a real talk.

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I listened long and attentively to his plaintive song of Poor Me, and I said when he was finished, “Let’s put this away, okay? Let’s get through the day. I cannot go back and fix any of the things you say I broke, so let’s just get past the banquet tonight, and then we can begin again.”

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“Begin again. What are you saying?”

“We can start over.”

“What is that? What are you talking about?”

It seemed obvious to me, but I really wanted peace. Moreover, I really wanted to believe. . . .

“It was how I dealt with transgressions from my own kids or from my students. Whatever they did, would be dealt with and forgotten; to subvert all guilt and embarrassment, I would promise that we would begin the next day right back where we were before the drama. That way we could extinct all transgressions.”

“Oh,” he nodded. “That makes sense.”

“It really does,” I agreed, hoping this meant we were moving forward. “No one gets to say ‘I told you so,’ no one needs to stay angry. We just re-start.” He smiled. I was so sure he understood.

And we had a lovely day, which culminated in a glorious banquet, where he was ebullient, interacting with everyone there, helping with setup, and enjoying the meal I had ordered for him, a “delectable” salmon. The evening was a success, and everyone laughed, sang, frolicked and enjoyed being together. I was euphoric.

After striking our equipment and collecting our belongings, we headed to the Moose Club, where my classmates gathered around me and my co-emcee, congratulating us, telling us what a wonderful night it had been. I wanted to sit for a while, to bask, to smile effortlessly. To rest.

But he wanted to dance. The more I sat my ground, the more I could see anger gathering in his eyes. About a half-hour in, he came to me, looking like a cartoon bull with fury steaming from his ears, and said, “We are leaving. Now. I am tired. It’s time to go back to the room.”

What is it about me that succumbs to guilt even when guilt has less than zero legitimacy? I should have said “Good night; go back to the room by yourself.” But instead I left with him and drove in sullen silence back to the motel. By now it was well after 2 am, and coping skills were dead.

I threw myself into the bed, curled into a tight ball on the far side of our double king and told him to stay all the way over on his side. I ordered him to put the CPAP under the bed where some of the noise could be absorbed. I turned downright cruel when he propped himself up on his elbow and begun a new round of the familiar monologue that began with, “You could have. . . .” I put a pillow over his head and told him to shut up.

Before the sun came up again, he jumped out of bed and began to pack.

“I’m not putting up with this anymore,” he commanded. “Get ready to leave. Now.”

I tried to control the sound of relief in my voice. “Okay,” I said, getting up and beginning to put my own things into my suitcase. “But I’m not missing the farewell breakfast.”

We said our good byes and slinked off into the amber morning. I felt like a criminal, a usurper though I could not figure out why.

Then, on the muted drive back to Newark, I realized how much I had lost by taking this leap into old age romance. Maybe if I were a silly, sex-obsessed Betty White character, this would have worked out splendidly, where we both fulfilled one another’s fantasies; instead it robbed me of the only real vacation I would have had this year. I relinquished to him my one opportunity to visit places that make me feel peaceful, to stomp through my favorite season in my favorite landscape, to be home. I turned the fiftieth year reunion of my high school class into a drama about him.

Is this what late-in-life love affairs are really made of? Will I be willing to try again?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know one thing. Next time there’s a reunion, I’m going alone.