Archive for ‘Family’

August 21, 2016

Forget the pillow-pack the Purell


My eldest child is about to go off to college this week, and I’m inching towards the date like I’m about to walk off a cliff – alternately excited for him, joking that I’ll appreciate a neater house, and secretly crying into the dishtowels.

So many memories are flooding my brain – like his first day of kindergarten, when I enthusiastically put him on the bus, dashed to my car, raced to school, and hid in the bushes, crying, as I watched him get off the bus and safely into the building.  Really.  I think of my mother, who cheerfully put me on a plane at Logan Airport, and now is gone, and can’t be asked what it was really like.  Will I say a peppy goodbye? Will I embarrass him and myself by sobbing into his shoulder (seven inches above mine)?

 I recently read a blog post called “All the Wrong Things To Say at College Drop Off” (from Flown and Grown) that captured my fears – I could see myself using those last precious minutes to “sputter advice at him like someone who has five minutes to blow up 50 balloons.”  Don’t forget to Purell!  Change your toothbrush when it’s splayed! Change your sheets every week!  I laughed through my tears as I read the post, and it has stuck with me this summer.  I’m sure he’ll be fine.  I’m reminded of the woman standing next to my parents all those years ago at Logan, fretting that the school might not provide pillows, and she hadn’t packed one.  My mother turned to her and said, “if your daughter can’t figure out how to buy a pillow at college, that’s the least of your problems.”  Still, I’m packing the Purell.

July 6, 2016

Remembering Bill Cunningham


My husband died on November 3, 1989. I was invited to the opening of Jenny Holzer’s landmark show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that December, and it was my first outing. I struggled to get there from the Berkshires. I ran out of gas driving to the Albany train station. On the train, I spilled my Coke and dissolved into tears (a kind train conductor saw what happened, and replaced the Coke, but that’s another story). It was the first time I put on lipstick in six weeks.

I wore a rust-colored Issey Miyake dress as big as a pumpkin, as flat as a pancake. There were slits for my arms and head. (It was the perfect dress a decade later when I was nine months pregnant.) I could hide in the trademark pleated swath fabric, which rolled up like a diploma when it sat on my shelf. I had no idea how to clean it, so vowed not to sit down.

I walked into the rotunda and saw someone I knew: Count Giuseppe Panza. I didn’t know a lot of fancy people, but he had been kind to those of us working on MASS MoCA in the early days, and he greeted me warmly. I chatted with him and his wife Giovanna, and suddenly Bill Cunningham was swarming around us like a bee, snapping away. Assuming that he wanted to photograph the Italian Count and Countess, I left them and headed up the ramp of the rotunda. To my surprise, Bill Cunningham followed me. He photographed me as I walked (pretty self-consciously) up the ramp. It was the dress, of course. People stared. I was embarrassed and flattered. And for a moment, just a moment, I was transported from my misery, my psychic confusion, my pain.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I do remember that Tom Krens, totally out of character, appeared and took my hand, engulfing my fingers in his large palm as he escorted me to dinner, his tuxedoed figure towering over mine as he seated me at the head table. It was a kind gesture I appreciate to this day. It was an evening that Bill Cunningham captured, and created. I remember it 27 years later.

March 14, 2016

Old Salts

herreschoffMen who love the sea inevitably work their way up to a serious boat, and my father’s first was a Herreshoff.

Though I was only four, I still remember it, a 21-foot Islander with a narrow beam and beautiful lines. He bought it with his friend Chuck Russell and they kept it in the Weymouth Back River at the South Shore Yacht Club.  Built in the UK in 1953, it was designed by Sidney Herreshoff, son of Captain Nathanael Herreshoff, from Bristol, Rhode Island, who started building boats in 1878 with his brother.  They went on to design and build racing sloops that won five America’s Cups, and Nat Herreshoff (“the wizard of Bristol”) is considered on of the greatest boat designers of all time.

Our boat was named Queequeg, after the cannibal harpooner full of derring-do in MOBY DICK, and my father won a slew of races in her just 20 miles from New Bedford, where Queequeg became fast friends with a wandering sailor who wanted to be called Ishmael.

Once my mother had a fight on the boat with my father’s friend Chuck (a sort of know-it-all physicist who did have some credibility given that he’d worked on the Manhattan Project), and she got so steamed up that she drew an imaginary line down the center of the boat, told him the port side was hers, the starboard was his, and not to cross the line.  My father ended up hooting with laughing so hard that she cracked up laughing, too, and they all made up. They were like that.

Thirty two boats later, my parents decided once they hit their 70s to give up sailing.  My mother in particular was worried that my father might fall overboard and she wouldn’t be able to save him.  After she passed away at age 73, my father decided oh what the heck and at age 76 decided to get another boat.  He chose a Herreshoff 12 1/2, a honey of a boat that had been designed by Nat Herreshoff in 1914 for the afternoon chop of Buzzards Bay.  Late on a summer afternoon my father could be seen bringing Felicity up single-handedly to the mooring (for it had no motor) in Mattapoisett Harbor on Buzzards Bay, just as he’d done years ago as a young man.

May 5, 2015

Our Guardian Angel


I always thought my mother’s mother was the closest thing I’d know to a saint.  Of course, kids have a limited perspective of adults, and there are many types of grandmothers — loving, adventurous, remote –and even the shrewdest of women can melt into a maternal dumpling when presented with a first grandchild.  But I was not alone in this opinion: everyone who knew Betty Burnett thought she was preternaturally patient, non-judgmental, and kind.

When my grandfather died from a stroke at age 73, we moved in with my grandmother.  It made sense all around: we’d just moved back East from Indianapolis, my father was starting a business, my mother was in graduate school, I was an only child in 8th grade, and my grandmother didn’t like living alone. Plus, none of us had much money.  A year later, when my aunt Natalie came down with cancer and decided to fight it the Christian Science way, my grandmother invited her to move in, too.  When one of my mother’s other sisters died, my cousin Sue moved in as well.  The household consisted of 5 women, a female dog, and my father.  He jokingly threatened to get an old male tomcat.

We cherished our grandmother.  She smelled like talcum powder, baked the best brownies, sewed our rising hemlines, and truly cared about all our victories and tribulations.  When we came home from school, she’d sit in the living room, overturned library book on her lap, legs crossed at the ankle, listening to Sue and me recount our days.  My cousin Sue, who wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of gal, would roll up her sleeve and have Grandma  run her fingers gently up and down the inside of her arm, stroking it in a way that Sue – who’d lost her mother at age 15 — found incredibly soothing.  We’d three sit in the late afternoon sun, talking, content as cats.  Grandma wore wool hounds tooth suits in the winter and cotton dresses cinched at the waist in the summer, pearls from Filene’s around her neck.   She hailed from stock that arrived from England in 1634 (her ancestor Nicholas Easton governed the Rhode Island Colony in 1672 after being banished as a rogue minister from Massachusetts Bay) but,  like many swamp Yankees, she was long on heritage and short on cash.  When she died, she left a few antiques, first edition books that you’d expect from someone who had graduated from college in 1913, and a moral compass that guided the ship of her six children, ten grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren who remain close to this day.

I still marvel that my father, grandmother, and I played Scrabble at least 3 nights a week.  My father loved her, and would joke that if he and my mother ever got divorced, they’d have to fight over custody of her.  In many ways my grandmother was the opposite of my mother, who while loving, smart, and attentive, never baked a dessert, couldn’t sew a stitch (she stapled the badges onto my Girl Scout sash), and liked to tell the story how, during World War II, after knitting socks for soldiers as part of the war effort, she was asked whose side she was on when she turned them in.

Unlike many in our family, Grandma didn’t have a nautical bone in her body.  She mistakenly referred to my father’s Herreshoff  Beverly Dinghy as his Beverly Dinghus, and he hooted with laughter when – after she overheard us discussing an upcoming sailing trip and making the tricky passage through Quick’s Hole to the Vineyard –later asked how our trip to Martha’s Hole turned out.

The only time I ever saw her perturbed –it was a subtle but angry pursing of lips – was right before her husband’s funeral.  My grandfather (an interior decorator who during the Depression resorted to selling Fuller Brushes door to door) had a business partner in his interior decorating business: Flora Porter, a coiffed older woman with brocade suits, rouged cheeks and heavy perfume.  When my grandmother said in a hushed tone that she didn’t want “that woman” at the funeral, her five daughters crowded around her like bees and shut us grandchildren out.  When years later I asked my mother – a direct straight-shooter who always answered my questions honestly – about it, she said, “Jenny, it’s just too painful for me to talk about.”

That was that.  We moved (she came with us), and just as we took care of her, she took care of us. She asked my father to take her canoeing on the Nemasket River (which he did forevermore every spring, she in the bow in her wool suit and stockings, our dog midship, he in the stern).  She was always being visited by her children and grandchildren, and, like a silent winking star, was the center of the constellation around which we spun.  With her deeds and traditions – Christmas together, summer family parties, making grape jelly in the fall – she had subtly stitched the fabric of our big multi-generational family.

When she died, I think it’s fair to say that we all thought a saint had died.  It wasn’t veneer; she had such nurturing kindness and love in her heart.  I adored my other grandmother, but she was so different – irreverent, proper, scotch & soda in hand, bracelets jingling at her wrist, travelling and making room for you when she could.  When I became a mother and tried to model Grandma Burnett’s behavior (falling short of course), I didn’t regret that I’d never see my grandmother again; rather, I considered myself lucky to have been blessed by her presence and example.

Years later, when my mother died one June after a lengthy illness from cancer, within six weeks my father was dating one of my mother’s good friends.  My mother had suggested it –my father had a frail ticker and she wanted him to be happy – and, as he said to me, at his age he had a shortened timeline.  I really liked Peg – she was kind, sensitive, and loving — but she wasn’t my mother, and both Sue and I had difficulty with the relationship at first, and we felt guilty about that, too – we could see my father was so happy, and there was absolutely nothing to dislike about Peg.  When he told me in October that he wanted to marry Peg, and asked what I thought (I so appreciated his doing so), I told him I just didn’t want him to marry in the year of mom’s death.  So he waited until January 2.

Peg is a marvelous baker.  My father would rave about her desserts, and though my brain knew my father had loved my mother, silently I’d grouse that he never raved about my mother’s cooking like that. They clearly were in love.  They kept both their houses (3 miles apart) and Sue’s daughter Lee and her young son moved into his house, continuing a bond our family has of taking care of one’s own.  I became so close to Lee that it felt as if she too were a sister- cousin.  The three of us – Lee, Sue, and I – wrapped ourselves around my father’s failing heart and Peg’s love like strands of a braid, intertwined with caring and concern.  They were the sisters I never had.  We hovered over my father as he got frailer and frailer from congestive heart failure and came to deeply appreciate how Peg took care of him, loved him, was loved by him, and kept him happy until the end.  I hated calling her my “step-mother” because the Cinderella connotation didn’t do justice to this warm, intelligent woman.  The mother of three sons, Peg joked she married my father and acquired three daughters.

Last month Sue learned she had kidney cancer.  Silently our minds zeroed in on the fact that Sue’s mother had died at age 43 of pancreatic cancer.  Two nights before Sue’s surgery, Peg, Lee, and I had dinner with her and reassured her and ourselves that she had caught it early, and the prognosis was good.  And it was.  Back in the Berkshires this week, I waited for the call, knowing that Lee and Peg were at the hospital during the 2 hours of prep, the 6 hours of surgery, the minor complications that resulted in them not seeing Sue until 9 pm.  I got the call from Lee that all was well – Sue is now cancer-free – at 10:30 pm.

In conversation, Lee told me that when Sue came out of surgery, Peg – age 90 – sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead gently, pushing the hair away from her brow.  When the heart monitor clip fell off her middle finger, Peg gently held Sue’s hand, reached over, and put it back on her middle finger. Peg’s hand lingered on Sue’s arm.  I felt so comforted by that.  I knew she’d be OK.

This morning it dawned on me that Peg is Grandma Burnett reincarnated.  We’ve been blessed with two saints in our lives. Two guardian angels.  How did we get so lucky?

April 3, 2014

Ode to Hobie


Hobie Alter died Saturday.

Known as the Henry Ford of surfboarding, he designed the Hobie Cat, the ultra-light fiberglass catamaran that put sailing on another plane.

I first sailed one in 1969. I was just a kid, but my older cousin Lynn (who drove a powder blue Mustang and was in college) let me sail her Hobie 14. It took off like lightning on the WeWeantic River where we summered, skimming the surface like a firefly. We all cracked up on the shore when she later took it out with her dog (a black lab mutt named Bufferin) and the webbing came loose on the trampoline-style deck and she and her startled dog fell through the canvas while the boat kept sailing on.

“Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, “this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Hobie was the first name of the guy who said he wanted to make a living without wearing hard-soled shoes, and whose philosophy of designing a new boat was to take it out in screaming 30+ knot winds, see what breaks, then fix it. Unlike the more august Hinckleys, Herreshoffs, or Bertrams, the right foot of the H on his logo underscored his first name with zeal. This was a rock n’ roller at the regatta.

It turns out my father, who knew his way around boats, once met Hobie Alter. An engineer, my father moved to Southern California in the late ‘40s, where he built kayaks in his spare time. He’d take them down to Laguna Beach to launch in the surf. Those were heady days, with other guys on the beach too who loved water and woodworking and were launching surfboards they’d built in their garages. One was Hobie, who built balsa boards for his friends. But then my dad got lucky that way – he once rode the train home to Boston and sat next to a guy who told him all about the polarizing technology he was developing – it was Edwin Land, working on his first Land Camera, which became the Polaroid.

Growing up, we lived by the sea and had more boats than family members, and when I eventually moved to New York City and then western Massachusetts, I mourned my land-bound lack of boats. The gravitational pull of clanking halyards and swells of the sea are strong. Then a dozen years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Minneapolis airport – of all places – and saw this spectacle that looked like a nautical bird on display, its sail flapping at the confluence of Terminals A and B. It was a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island: part kayak, part trimaran sailboat, part paddle boat. It could be loaded on top of a car and transported anywhere.

We bought it.

My father was skeptical (it was ridiculous looking) but it sailed like the wind. We can take our Hobie wherever there is a breeze – Shaftsbury Lake in Vermont, Somes Sound in Maine, Buzzard’s Bay in Southeastern Massachusetts. Slung low in the molded cockpit, inches from the waves, you feel free and fast as you skim across the water, your leeward ama chiseling into the water while the windward one goes airborne. You surf, you sail, you sing (well, I sing), you soar – you just can’t believe your good fortune to be out on the water, so close to the water, so influenced by the wind, on such a beautiful day.

It’s a blast.

Keep sailing on, Hobie.

March 20, 2014

The kindness of strangers


I have a friend with three young kids (two of whom she homeschools) who is undergoing treatment for 4th stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  It takes my breath away.  She maintains a stiff upper lip, and keeps her friends updated with funny, noble, self-deprecating posts.  “I try to keep things in perspective,” she wrote recently.  “I try to help my friends by leaving out the mundane and the pathetic.  I have focused so hard on appreciating all the good.”

Her idea of good?

“I can eat and I walk myself to the bathroom (albeit slowly and without dignity).”

Recently, she told us, she lost her balance.  It was a tough day – too many hurdles for one person while waiting for her next round of chemo and the doctors who would tell her the next phase of her plan.  She was offered acupuncture while waiting, and during the treatment, the acupuncturist looked at her and told her to just cry and let it all out.  She bawled for 20 minutes.

Sometimes what seems modest to the person offering assistance makes all the difference.  It’s a good lesson to remember.  I’m reminded of the time shortly after my first husband’s death. I was taking the train to New York – a simple task, but for me then, often feeling on the verge of coming unhinged, it was a huge deal to go to the city.  I walked to the café car, and bought a Coke (victory).  I found a seat, sat down, took a sip and started to read (another victory…reading is impossible when you are consumed with demons whenever your head is quiet).  Then the train hit a bump and my Coke spilled.  I watched it froth and disappear into the carpet. I started to cry, then sob, the tears spilling down my cheeks as I bowed my head in isolation.

About ten minutes later a Coke appeared on my tray – the ticket taker had seen what had happened and brought another one to me quietly.  I mouthed thank you.  No words were exchanged.  I was so grateful for that gesture of kindness…I remember it vividly 25 years later, and am as grateful for it today as I am for the woman who did my friend’s acupuncture.

Recently on the first Sunday of Lent, the Reverend Peter Elvin of St. John’s in Williamstown told his congregation that when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, he was ministered to by angels.  He went on to say that, when one is sick or suffering, there are angels.  We just don’t always see them.

May 21, 2013

Harry Potter was here

7588I got a call yesterday from my step-mother.  She was selling my father’s car and wanted to know if I wanted his license plate.

My father was named Harry Potter Trainer Jr., and his license plate was HPT.  After the Harry Potter books came out, he got tremendous mileage out of his name, especially with his young grandson.  He even had labels printed up, and when he was out and about in his 80s – to the doctor’s office in Boston, at the local barber, in his grandchildren’s bathroom  – he would leave behind a sticker announcing “Harry Potter was here.”

HPT was more than an acronym, though, for throughout my father’s life, words and letters (not to mention cars) were an opportunity for play and  humor.   Every word had the potential to be a pun.  Like a catcher at home plate, he’d wait and watch us (or any other unsuspecting pitcher) lob a word.  He’d watch the ball head for home plate, then at the last minute he’d crack some pun that sent it out of the park, leaving me groaning, my mother rolling her eyes, and my grandmother tittering delicately.  We knew he was about to lob a doozy when he’d sit silently, like a cat, not participating in the conversation.  When my uncles were around, the puns could go on for 20 or 30 sentences (especially if fish were mentioned.)  But I won’t carp on that.

Cars figured into the mix. When my father married my mother (a 9th generation Yankee) and moved her to Texas for a new job, his father-in-law called him, half-jokingly, “RHB.”  (I was told it stood for Red Headed Bum; it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned that my grandfather meant Red Headed Bastard.)  My father upped him by making RHB the license plates of his first sports car, a dandy cream-colored Fiat with lipstick red leather upholstery whose road worthiness was so questionable that when he first took me for the first spin at age 4, my passenger door swung open as we took a sharp curve heading to Handy’s Boat Yard for ice cream.

So in the annals of our family, my father became RHB, and he in turn named my mother FOB, which stood for Feisty Old Bitch.  My mother was indeed feisty, and he meant it in the most loving way.  Dad was restoring an old Model T Ford (he named it Henrietta), and I half thought he’d get FOB for the license plate when he put it on the road.  But he was also a swamp Yankee, and one doesn’t stick one’s neck out too far.

When my mother passed away at age 73, though, he had it inscribed on her tombstone amongst the morning glories and ivy.  She loved the water, so he also had it put in the corner of a brass plate on a bench in her memory at a small waterfront park.  We always thought it was our private joke.  When the bench fell apart, the local land trust told me they’d replace the plaque if I’d pay for it.  I squired my young children and nephew to the park in kayaks, hoping to make the installation of the plate (my father would have called it a screwing ceremony) a memorable moment.  Unfortunately, the wind blew up and I realized we’d never get home, since we’d have to paddle into the teeth of the wind.  The elderly gentleman from the land trust who was installing the plaque asked me quietly if I knew what FOB stood for, as he loaded our kayaks into his truck.  I could tell my family was of questionable character in his eyes, and to be caught in a momentary lapse of nautical judgment sealed my fate.  When dad died, I had RHB inscribed on his tombstone, which was next to mom’s.

Throughout my father’s life, he did keep one license plate number, 7588, and when he passed away I got into a tug-of-war with the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep it.  The license plate had been issued to my grandfather (the first Harry Potter Trainer) in 1905, two years after Massachusetts became the first state in the union to issue license plates.  My grandfather was 11 years old, 4’ 11” and I know this because my father saved everything, and I have a clipping of the Boston newspaper that ran the 1905 story: Eleven Year Old Boy Runs Big Auto.

“He can be seen guiding his big machine through the streets of Brookline,” wrote the reporter, calling him a ‘lad’ and including a photograph of my diminutive grandfather next to his father’s outsized Stevens-Duryea.   My father inherited the plate, and as we moved around a lot (we lived in three states by the time I was seven) he’d let a cousin use it until he returned to his beloved Massachusetts.

By the 1970s, low license plates were a sign of political favoritism and patronage (my father was offered $1000 for the plate in 1972) but Massachusetts license plates remained uncluttered by icons or slogans until Democratic Governor Dukakis succumbed to the slogan craze while governor in 1986.  Lighthouses, the Red Sox, and Cape Cod decorated plates as the Massachusetts Miracle went bust (remember Taxachusetts?) and one Republican pundit proposed a new license slogan: Stay and Pay.  Dukakis initiated a lucrative lottery system for low number plates in 1987, and began reeling them in, making it impossible for the political patronage to continue.  Last year I spent the better part of a day at the Department of Motor Vehicles in New Bedford with my step-mother, trying to explain the plate’s history and that we’d like to transfer it.  The attendant was clearly bored and suspicious.  She looked at her computer records.  “An Elinor Trainer owned it in 1972,” she noted.  “That’s my mother!” I exclaimed, unaware of the lottery system.  She was nonplussed. We went through all the hoops she threw at us –  3 notarized forms, a letter from my lawyer, a letter from my step-mother’s lawyer, two copies of the title.  Four hours later she gave up trying to wrestle the plate away from us.

The Fiat came and went, though other cars would take its place, including a ’57 Austin Healey that my father spent several years puttering over and meticulously restoring in his garage when he retired.  In his later years, as congestive heart failure took its toll, he had a hard time shifting and clutching.  So at age 80, he sold it.  Two days later he bought a BMW convertible, and put on the HPT plate.  After he died my 89 year old step-mother kept it, even though she needed a pillow to see over the wheel; last November she got pulled over for speeding while heading home from her son’s after Thanksgiving dinner.  When the cop peered into the window with his flashlight, he exclaimed, “It’s a little old lady driving the beemer!”

And now she was calling, telling me it was time to sell the beemer and did I want the HPT plate.  We laughed about the tussle we’d had at the DMV over the last plate.  I thought about it, and declined, explaining that it didn’t make sense for me – JTT – to have HPT plates, since that was his name.

“Oh, didn’t you know?” she said.  “Your father called it his High Priced Toy.”

I told my 15 year old son the story this morning, and he asked if we could transfer the plate.  I asked why.  “Because I may want to use it someday,” he replied.  And so it goes.