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Friday, July 22, 2016

Tough Guy

by Darryl Graff

The sign-in book at The Hamilton Arms nursing home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was filled with my signature: “Darryl Graff … Visitor … Jules Graff … Resident.” Sometimes, I would look through the pages of the sign- in book at the names of the other residents. They had so many visitors. My father only had me and my wife, Regina. It broke my heart, and my father… well, I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My brother, his first- born son, was too busy being a yuppie to see his own father dying in diapers, in a nursing home. Regina and I came every Sunday. An eight-hour round-trip train ride from Manhattan.

As had become my habit, I kissed my father on his head; it was soft, bald, and wrinkled.

“How you doing, tough guy?” I asked.

I started calling him “tough guy” when he first went into the nursing home. It was my way of making him feel stronger. I know a lot of things, about a lot of things; I know that once you hit that nursing home bed, if you don’t get out of that bed and walk around the room, the bed is going to get you. After a month, I could see the bed was going to win, but if anyone could get out of the bed and walk this thing off, it would be my father. I only remember him being sick one day in my entire life. He went to work every day to provide for his family, and he drank heavily every night for seventy years. I called him tough guy because, well, he was a tough eighty-nine-year-old guy.

“How’s your job?” he asked in a faint whisper.

The man who taught me how to cook was lying there with a feeding tube pumping liquid into his stomach.

I started to tell him details of the job, but that’s what I do six days a week. Details, everything is details. Everything has to be exact. I stopped talking about work. It was pretty clear to me he had no idea what I was saying anyway. So I decided to save the details for the job. Instead, he wished out loud for an adult scooter. So he could just get on the road and start driving, and not stop until he was far away from this place. Before he could get on the highway, he wanted to buy Regina and me lunch at the nursing home restaurant that didn’t exist.

When I was a kid, sometimes my father would have Chinese food delivered from the place on First Avenue. We’d shut off the lights and eat Chinese food by candlelight. Now, I was sitting under hot fluorescent lights next to my father’s bed. I held his hand; the feeding tube made a gurgling noise. This was my only day off. Some day off.

Thank God for Q’s Duke Bar on Liberty Street, a sad little bar. Mostly biker wannabes and long-ago burnt-out townie factory workers.

Regina and I went there every Sunday before catching the train back to New York City. How did my Jewish New York City father wind up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country? Well, it had to do with a woman. It usually does. If the Q’s Duke Bar had a sign-in book, I would have signed it every Sunday.

We got to Penn Station at 8:30 a.m. for the 9:15 to Lancaster. It was Christmas day. My father would be dead in a few weeks. We got in line at the Zabar’s in Penn Station and waited, in a slow, jerky line of tourists and junkies. I got some beer and Regina took care of the sandwiches for the trip. At the cash register, there was one lonely looking box of Christmas cookies. I threw them in the bag with the beer and the sandwiches—a little something for the women who worked at the nursing home.

After chain-smoking a few cigarettes on Eighth Avenue, Regina and I ran down the escalator and onto the 9:15 train to Pennsylvania. A half hour outside of Philadelphia, it started snowing, and kept snowing, and snowing. When we got to Lancaster, the city was shut down by the biggest blizzard in years.

“We’re never going to get a cab. How are we going to see your father?” Regina asked.

“I’ll flag down a car and explain, it’s Christmas day. My father’s dying in a nursing home. Somebody’s got to give us a ride.”

Regina waited in the train station. I stood on the street corner in knee-deep snow for an hour and never did see a car. We walked into the Q’s Duke Bar, wet, cold, and defeated. Dark, crowded, loud, Led Zeppelin, NASCAR racing, whores, tattoos, a pool table, and next to the pool table, a small buffet table. It was Christmas dinner at the bar. Ham in a crockpot, hot dog buns, potato salad, and paper plates.

“Merry Christmas!” some biker babe yelled as we sat down in front of a large-screen TV.

“Have some ham.” And we did.

We wound up sharing the Christmas cookies for the nurses with the whores and speed-freak bikers. “Merry Christmas!” they yelled as we left to catch the last train back to New York City.

The Biltmore Theater restoration project I was working on lasted nine months. My father’s nursing home project lasted five months. On February 14, 2004, at the Hamilton Arms Nursing home, I didn’t have to sign in. Instead, I had to fill out a personal items form. It wasn’t much, just a gold wrist watch. Forty years of dedicated service.

The Groff Funeral Home on Main Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was only six blocks from the Q’s Duke Bar. It was a very professional place. The “grief counselor,” or cashier, seemed nervous that we didn’t have a car in the parking lot.

“I’m from New York City,” I explained to her. “I don’t drive. I don’t have a car.”

She couldn’t give me my cremated father’s remains fast enough. I handed her a check. She gave me a small box in a paper bag. We walked to the Q’s Duke Bar and sat at a table. I went up to the bar and got two drinks.

“Get an extra glass. We’ll have a toast,” Regina said.

I poured some beer into Jules’ glass. Regina and I clinked glasses.

“To Jules!”

Back in New York City, it was freezing cold in Central Park.  We kept walking until we came to the right spot, a big oak tree overlooking the Conservatory Pond.

I could sit for hours and watch those remote control ships go around and around the pond. One guy even had a remote-controlled submarine.

It was the 1960’s. Anything was possible. I wanted a remote-controlled boat badly. At the Gramercy Pharmacy on First Avenue and Twentieth Street, in the back was a single spinning rack of toys. One day, I saw a little plastic boat; it was orange and white. My mother bought it for me, and my father took me up to Central Park. He had rigged up the boat with a string wrapped around a stick, and told me it was a remote-controlled boat. I set my boat in the pond and let the string out. It was my maiden voyage. I passed the Mayflower, the Santa Maria, and the submarine. There I was, finally a sea captain. After about four minutes my ship took on water. It listed to the left and sank straight to the bottom. The string was tangled; I pulled and pulled, then gave up.

We spread Jules’ ashes on the hill overlooking the pond, under a big old oak tree.

“Rest in peace, tough guy,” were my last words.

I finished the Biltmore Theater. My boss, Josh Gray, gave me a $5,000 bonus.
“Thank you, Darryl.  You did a great job,” he said. “I know it was especially hard for you, with your dad dying and all.”

Two months later, he laid me off.

Darryl Graff is a New York City construction worker and writer. His essays written about life in the city, have been published in Akashic Books, Heart & Mind Zine, Fat City Review, The Flexible Persona, Hippocampus, and Gravel. “Tough Guy” is an excerpt from his nonfiction narrative The Local, about a union construction worker who inadvertently lands in the middle of hostile Union takeover.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fanning the Flames

by Shira Sebban

“How are you, Saba?”

“I? I am old.”

This question and answer routine would be repeated each morning like a familiar ritual when we would ring to check on the “Old Boy” as he was affectionately known, who still lived alone in a flat nearby.

I assume he appreciated our concern, although he never said so. Still we need not have worried … not then. Relishing the solitude that enabled him to read, think and write—so long as it was interspersed with alternate dinners at his son’s and daughter’s homes each evening—he was keen to preserve his autonomy for as long as possible.

Until well into his eighties, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) would continue his exercise and diet regime, doing daily sit-ups and stretches, taking afternoon naps, munching on carrot and celery sticks, and preserving prunes in jars, which took up almost all-available bench space in his kitchen, be it at home in Melbourne, Australia, or wherever he was living overseas. I can still recall our family kitchen in London, filled to overflowing with my grandfather’s preserves, his snores emanating from the tiny bedroom next to the one I shared with my sister.

Not to say, however, that he lacked a sweet tooth. He could whip up a mean trifle and revelled in long smorgasbord lunches at fancy hotels, where he would indulge in chocolate éclairs and other treats, acknowledging his diabetes by popping a sweetener into the habitual tea with lemon he drank after every meal.

Lemons were so important to him that when he was asked to look after us as teenagers while our parents were overseas, he would dutifully arrive each evening for dinner and promptly disappear outside to water the lemon tree, which he believed would prevent the fruit’s skin from thickening. In the morning, he would depart for the peace and quiet of his apartment again, where he could spend the day in undisturbed contemplation.

Classical music was his constant companion, be it tapes he had made himself or the local classical music public radio station, with which he had a love-hate relationship, railing against the “moaning and groaning of illiterate so-called contemporary composers.” In one letter to the station, he urged such composers to test their claim to have popular support within the open market rather than “bludge on the public purse and coerce the people to listen to their incompetent noise-making.”

He was also partial to international melodramas, often joining the family in front of the television after dinner, when he would walk around jangling keys and loose change in his pockets during particularly tense moments. Keen to avoid confrontation whenever possible, he would burst into song—usually the old Russian folk tune Ochi chyomye (“Dark Eyes”)—whenever a family disagreement arose, which did not involve him.

Every so often, craving intellectual companionship, Saba would pack a bag, sling it over his shoulder, and head off overseas to Europe, his old home in Israel, or the United States, where cousins, who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, were scattered. He would visit each in turn, and they would host family dinners in his honor and write him letters in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish when he was back in Melbourne, sharing how they had delighted in his company.

During these trips, which could last several months or sometimes even years, he would commune with philosophers and historians at academic institutions in London, Boston, or Tel Aviv or on long walks through the Austrian Alps, even though he himself had not had a formal secular education and, to the envy of his grandchildren, had never even sat an exam.

He strove to cultivate a personal relationship with us from a young age too, asking for letters from each of his six grandchildren while he was overseas. If we were remiss in writing, he would remind our parents that we owed him a letter, and he liked nothing better than to respond to our questions, the more philosophical the better. I revelled in his attention—especially on the rare occasions when I was fortunate enough to join him on his travels—and placed him on a pedestal: my wise Saba could do no wrong.

Blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge, and a photographic memory, he would peruse erudite tomes on a wealth of subjects in second-hand bookstores, sending crates of books back home, where he would autograph and catalogue them as part of his own library or distribute them as gifts to family and friends. As he explained in a letter to his daughter, “I will at least leave an inheritance, not in diamonds and jade, but in books, which were costly to me not only in money but in time and effort.”

I treasure that inheritance today, my study’s shelves arrayed with books my Saba gave me. The one I value most is his personal copy of The Book of Jewish Knowledge, an encyclopaedia of Jewish learning from the 1960s, which he presented to my husband and me during his last visit to our home, scraps of paper still marking the pages most important to him.

When bestowing a book as a gift, he would always include an inscription, ranging from a birthday wish or expression of love to an elaborate desire for social cohesion. The dedication on our last gift reads: “Wishing you success and a humane understanding of the kindness and social variety of others. Best wishes from an old octogenarian. Saba.” For he strongly believed that everyday human relations should be conducted with empathy, truth, and love.

During his travels, he would occasionally purchase a work of art for himself or as a gift. He thought that while art appreciation is subject to individual taste and values, “striving to enjoy art in all its forms” helps “a civilized person to cultivate a taste for aesthetics and so foster an understanding of beauty.”

As he wrote to my parents after buying them an antique Tibetan Buddha in Spain, “Art objects should serve as a means to inspire the most lofty thoughts. But should a collection serve only as an accumulation of wealth or to show off, to my mind it is wrong.”

The patriarch of the family, Saba would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. I recall many festive dinners where the extended family would gather around the long dining room table with my grandfather at the head expounding his views. No two dinners were alike, as he could be relied upon to present his
arguments from multiple angles.

Fundamentally, he believed we all face a personal choice between leading an autonomous life of rationality, integrity, and dignity in the human world of ideas or a life of emotion, imitation, and subservience in what he termed “the domesticated animal kingdom.” As he wrote to a friend, “Does a man act out of rational argument or is man an animal whose elected shepherds know best what is good for him?”

Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of Galileo Galilei, or the writings of Bertrand Russell, to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read, or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein’s essays, which he had happened to pick up at the Sydney airport.

Anyone brave enough to attempt an answer to what Saba meant as a rhetorical question would usually be met with a resounding “no” or, far less frequently, an “oh” in agreement (both words pronounced with a short ‘o’ sound) and a lengthy, passionate exposition of his views. Yet he did not lack for sparring partners.

“How do you know that you know?” “What do you mean by God?” Influenced by the late eminent philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, whose seminars Saba attended at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and who later became a life-long friend, Saba emphasized the importance of having a skeptical outlook on life and of continuously questioning one’s premises.

In contrast to his own childhood experience within an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Poland, he argued that parents do not have the right to impose religious beliefs on their children, as such convictions are open to doubt and “It is up to parents to guide the young ones with unquestionable honesty.” At the same time, he believed that an agnostic is still free to maintain traditions as an expression of cultural and communal adherence. He continued to attend synagogue fairly regularly into old age, always ensuring he had a book to read discretely during the rabbi’s sermons.

He vigorously opposed the use of force in disciplining children, arguing that physical punishment may “influence the child to look at the world as a society where reason is not a way of life, only force is the language of grownups. The child does not accept the beating as a consequence of being wrong, but rather reflects that grownups beat children because children are weak and cannot fend for themselves.” He was speaking from personal experience, his own father having used force against him. I never recall Saba raising a hand against anyone. For him, the power of persuasion depended on one’s choice of words.

Self-deprecating and able to converse with young and old alike, he cultivated a multitude of friends around the world. Academics and thinkers enjoyed the free exchange of ideas in his company, while students wrote him letters of appreciation for helping to clarify their thinking or correct their theses. People generously opened their homes to him and upon his departure, would write, requesting another visit. He maintained a rich correspondence with many who broadly admired his values and ideas, as well as the freedom of his chosen lifestyle, which he described as that of “a man divorced of daily responsibilities.”

Nevertheless, Saba always considered himself an outsider, and although his vocabulary was highly sophisticated, he was particularly unsure of his written English expression, writing drafts of important letters and texts, which were often corrected by his daughter.

He advised those around him to do our best to enrich our lives with, what he termed, “mental-spiritual interests.” As he wrote to my teenage sister and me: “Very soon, your holidays start and you have a swimming pool, books, a piano, cello and violin, what a rich life in front of you!” Whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as Science or Philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence. He set an example by striving to learn mathematics at the University of Illinois in his fifties.

Yet, he remained highly critical of academia, which he considered to have largely degenerated into “coercive systems of education,” staffed by incompetent “charlatans” who felt immune from scrutiny. Careers were not as important to him as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasized the need to work, which he averred to have learned from his father. In later life, he would often tell stories of his father—the last Jew to have a full religious burial in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola—acknowledging that he had instilled in his children a love of Jewish learning, as well as an appreciation for the importance of being responsible for oneself and one’s actions. As Saba explained, “self-reliance and self-respect are important for self-fulfilment, which is the difference between man as a person and man as a domesticated animal.”

My grandfather always remained true to his principles—until, as he put it, he lost his “I”, Alzheimer’s disease ultimately robbing him of whom he was as a person. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a Rubik’s Cube around in his hands. Up to that time, however, he lived as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “Life is full of exciting curiosities, joy, and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries.” Integrity, autonomy, and family were among the values he held dear and are now those I strive to instil in my children.

Saba was my mentor and anchor, who showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it, and move on. My children may not have the privilege of growing up in his company, but they can still benefit from the rich and courageous legacy he left behind.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She has served on the board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including two terms as vice-president. Her work has appeared in online and print publications, including Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward, Australian Jewish News, Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and Online Opinion. She is currently working on a series of creative nonfiction stories based on her mother’s diary, which the family only discovered after her death. You can read more of her work at:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Met My Mother's Body at Loehmann's

by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

“Loehmann’s Closing Down After 94 Years”
                     —New York Times, January 24, 2014

I met my mother’s body for the first time at Loehmann’s. There she was in a girdle, with those tabs for beige stockings, a white bra and half slip, staring down at me, a child looking up into the expanse of her flesh, her curves, her midriff bulging over the top of the elastic band of the slip. I was a six or seven or eight years old, crouching down, peering up at a glade of women’s legs—some stalk thin, some stockinged, some pudgy at the calves. And gazing upward I saw their serviceable Playtex bras, a glimpse of them, as they tried on blouses, sweaters, and jackets. We were at the back of the store—there were no dressing rooms—and in front of me were the gilt circular staircase, the crystal chandelier, enormous diamonds of filigreed glass, refracting the little afternoon light in the room. At the entrance, the men sat and waited, hunched over their Times, or Herald Tribune, or New York Mirror, women’s pocketbooks dangling from their arms, eyes looking down, not daring that taboo glance to the back of the store.

The women became Circe, Dido, the Graces, preening in front of the mirror in cashmere or silk, or sleek black shirts, asking for approval first from the women and then from the men. They had beehive dyed blonde and brown hair, perfectly manicured white or pink nails, straight lines in their hose, and a hint of Arpege perfumed the air. After gazing with satisfaction at their profiles in the mirror, they praised each other for their keen eyes and instinct for the bargain, the cashmere coat originally 59.00 down to 29.00, the B. Altman’s blouse a steal for 6.95 down from 9.95. Their bodies, ready, girded for battle with a larger world, a world in which they wouldn’t be viewed as immigrants or imposters. They had the right clothes. And I, patient, sat cross-legged, staring into my future.

Loehmann’s remained a constant in my relationship with my mother—each time I returned home from college, from adult life teaching in Kentucky, from middle age boredom, my mother and I would go to the store, first on Flatbush Avenue and Duryea Place and then Sheepshead Bay. At that point we knew each other’s mode of being. I went for the turtlenecks and black pants, she for silk blouses and rayon stretch pants. And she always made me try on a bigger size. The tunic revealed too much of my breasts, or the shirt, she said, popped open at the buttons, or the blazer pulled across my back. My mother, jealous of my lithe body, hers so stocky and stout, unconsciously pulled me into her world by convincing me to go for the larger size—the sweaters wouldn’t fit under the coat, she would say, or you don’t want to reveal every bulge of flesh. But I wanted the knit tops that emphasized my figure or the blazer that created curves. Then we’d argue until I gave in, unsure of my desirability.

There also were the conversations that passed for intimacy in the dressing room or in the elevator between the racks of sportswear on the first floor and the second floor Back Room, Designer Showroom. “How are you doing?” she’d ask in a crowded elevator as the other women listened. And what could I say? “Oh fine.” She once questioned me during a particularly difficult period in my marriage, and I realized that the advice about clothing would have to pass for closeness. She really didn’t want to enter my inner world. The intimacy of the dressing room would have to be enough.

Later in her old age, I was the one pressing the creases of clothes in place, straightening out the crepe blouses, pulling up the rayon pants when she couldn’t bend down because of her arthritis. I was the one who helped her pull the cotton sweaters over her head, I was the one who heard her worries about dying as she tried on Kelly green silk blouses, and I was the one who saw the empty left sac of her cotton bra. We still had Loehmann’s—the ritual of dressing ourselves, the ritual of advice, the ritual of caring. 

Five years after my mother’s death, I am in a Loehmann’s in Boca Raton, Florida. The communal dressing room is empty. I try on a salmon pink silk shirt with pearl buttons. A shade that says, “Look at me.” I slowly close the buttons, swallowing hard, remembering too much of my past, looking around the dressing room for someone to ask for advice. Now I have some of my mother’s body—a slight paunch of a belly, thick upper arms. But I still am tall and fairly thin. I sashay this way and that, gazing at myself in the full length mirror, not sure of the blaring color. A young Russian girl, a Lolita-lookalike, comes in; she tries on a yellow bikini and a black net beach cover-up. I gaze at myself in the mirror.

“That looks nice.” She comments.


“Yes. It’s a good color for you. With the hair.”

I smooth down my silver hair.

“Buy it. The color is just right for you.”

Suddenly I miss my mother.

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz where she teaches composition, creative writing, American and Women’s Literature, creative nonfiction, memoir, and Holocaust literature. Her work has been published in many journals including The Cream City Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Home Planet News, Phoebe, Black Buzzard Review, The Chiron Review, and Wind. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize and she has had two volumes of poetry published, We Speak in Tongues and She had this memory in addition to two chapbooks, The Earth Was Still and Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time. She has co-edited two anthologies of women’s memoirs Women/Writing/Teaching and Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, and a prose anthology, A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. Her literature for composition anthology Legacies: Fiction Poetry Drama Nonfiction is now in its fifth edition.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drunks and Fools

by Alice Lowe

He’s Rocky,
Lost his Rudder,
Been too free with Sir Richard
Like a Rat in Trouble.
“A Man is Drunk” - Benjamin Franklin

Matty and I became close friends over the several years we lived next door to each other. We confided in one another about jobs, homes, families and friends during walks and over coffee. Matty was married and loved to hear about my ventures and misadventures as a thirty-something returned to the singles scene. She was apologetic about having only her marital woes to offer in return. Her son, Jaime, was a little younger than my daughter and liked to hang out at our house; he trailed Jennifer around like a pesky but adoring little brother. The holidays can fall a little flat for an only child with a single mother—turkey for two doesn’t spark joy—so we were happy to join Matty’s family for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners. Jennifer enjoyed the more festive familial atmosphere and Jaime’s companionship, while Matty’s pumpkin cheesecake and her mother’s cannoli are etched in my memory along with their kindness.
Matty’s husband, Frank, was a heavy drinker. I didn’t like him much even sober—he had that smug, know-it-all bravado that often masks insecurity and disillusionment. He would be on his best behavior at those holiday gatherings until later in the day or evening when the steady drinking brought out his worst. He was one of those mealy-mouthed drunks who get sappy and over-solicitous while thinking they’re being illuminating or entertaining.
I have an aversion to that syrupy manner—I’ve seen it in others too—it reminds me of my father. My dad was a solitary, secretive boozer. He never drank at home, so I would only see the after-effects. He used to put away any number of shots in the back room of his TV repair shop after closing up—“liquid courage” to help him face his family, or maybe himself. If he made it home for dinner, his attentions would be cloying, contrite like a dog that’s been rolling in shit: “How’s my sweet girl….” When he stumbled in late, I’d hear my mother yelling at him from behind my closed bedroom door: “If it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t put up with this….” He never raised his voice, never got ugly; he muttered feebly in response or withdrew into sullen silence. She was all talk—she would never leave him, and he knew it. His drinking tapered off some over the years, and they loped along together through her chronic illnesses until her death at sixty. He outlived her by thirty years and found a young second wife who doted on him and matched him drink for drink.
Unlike my dad, Matty’s husband would transition from silly or brooding to mean—critical, sarcastic, aiming for the jugular—as the evening wore on and his alcoholic intake kept pace. That’s when I would go home and play music or turn on the TV to avoid overhearing the shouting matches next door. Matty’s harangues were similar to those I heard from my bedroom as a child, but Frank wasn’t quiet or penitent; he got loud and belligerent. He often blamed his stepson and would lash out at him too, with little provocation. Jaime told Jennifer that Frank sometimes knocked him around when he was drunk. Matty and Frank fought about the boy, about money and who knows what else, but it usually came back to his drinking, and finally Matty said she’d had enough. She booted Frank out and told him he couldn’t come home until he sobered up, got into AA, and stayed on the wagon. Matty had gone through the worst of her pain and angst during the long buildup; once Frank was gone his absence didn’t leave much of a void. She and Jaime seemed happier on their own, at peace with life and each other.

They didn’t call them alcoholics when I was growing up, the workaday boozers who maintained jobs and relatively normal lives like my dad and Frank. Alcoholics were the dysfunctional, out-of-control drunks in “Days of Wine & Roses” and “Lost Weekend.” They were the derelicts on the street, drinking rotgut liquor sheathed in paper bags. We shook our heads and scurried past them, taking comfort in the adage that god protects or loves or suffers drunks and fools. When in my forties I saw a therapist about some emotional issues, she attributed the problems to my being an “ACA,” an adult child of an alcoholic. I didn’t find similarities to my situation in the literature she foisted on me, and I dismissed the simplistic (and trendy at the time) label. Hindsight doesn’t clarify whether my dad was an alcoholic or just an unhappy man, blotting out his despair with bourbon.

I started drinking in my early teens. A much-too-old boyfriend—nineteen to my fourteen—took me to drive-in movies, where we drank beer and made out. I exercised self-restraint and remained sufficiently sober and virginal throughout our brief summer fling; then he broke my heart by going back to a former girlfriend his own age. I hid my pain and found solace, or at least diversion, with a rowdy crowd of older kids. I drank to fit in, to be cool, to have fun. I retain murky booze-soaked memories of weekends that ran together in a swirl of parties, powering down too many rum and cokes, necking with too many guys, puking in bathrooms and back yards and out of car windows, driving home in a fog and living to tell about it through sheer luck, or maybe that divine protection extended to the undeserving (drunks and fools, perhaps one and the same).
After high school I moved into an apartment with friends, where the party life continued unabated, and I drank myself silly on weekends. I worked as a secretary at a fast-paced brokerage firm in La Jolla, back in the days of multi-martini lunches. For my twenty-first birthday some of the staff took me to the elite Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel and told the bartender to bring me a martini—Beefeaters on the rocks with a twist—for my first legal drink. I’d been drinking there for the past three years, and we laughed in complicity as the bartender blanched.
“You’re just twenty-one today?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m legal now.”
My husband and I met at a party. He wasn’t a big drinker, and I slowed down. We rarely drank at home after we married, but I invariably overindulged when we went out socially. I liked the feeling of being buzzed; I liked myself better and was less self-conscious, more outgoing. I wouldn’t dance when I was sober—too stiff and awkward—but after a few drinks I loosened up. One New Year’s Eve I got loaded and woke up with a miserable hangover the next day. Alcohol and cigarettes tasted wretched. I couldn’t face either for the next few weeks. It seemed like an excessive reaction, and I started to worry until the explanation dawned on me—I was pregnant. The risks of smoking and drinking during pregnancy weren’t on the public radar at the time, but my body was giving me a message. I stopped smoking and rarely drank from that time on.
I always saw myself as a social drinker, just having a good time. I never made a connection between my drinking and my father’s, never worried that I’d inherited his weakness or inclinations. The hereditary nature of alcoholism and addictive personality types weren’t talked-about issues then. I believe there’s a continuum of possible responses to each aspect of our upbringing, and we can land anywhere on it. We can adopt our parents’ behaviors out of habit, rebel and discard them, or do some of each. My mother had ulcers and cooked bland food—I might have followed suit, but I embraced spicy fare and creative seasoning when I started cooking for myself. I could have avoided liquor completely after observing my father’s drinking or I could have followed suit and become a serious boozer—I rejected both extremes. A liberal, artsy, pot-smoking friend once told me she worried that her daughter, needing something parental to rebel against, would become a right-wing religious businesswoman (she didn’t).

My husband was neither a drunk nor a fool, so the blanket of protection—the one that got me safely home in my teens—didn’t cover him. He didn’t drink much, and he couldn’t handle it when he did, a fact he refused to acknowledge (okay, just a bit of a fool). Once, coming home from a party he turned into a lane of oncoming traffic. I threatened to jump from the moving car if he didn’t pull over immediately and let me drive. There was no one close enough to get him in trouble that time, but a few years later, driving alone late at night, he careened head-on into a pickup truck, killing himself and a young woman driving the other vehicle. The tragic irony is that he’d been drinking with my dad that night—an amateur trying to keep up with the pro.
Addiction is a bona fide illness now, whether to alcohol or drugs, overeating, gambling, or sex, and we’re implored to have compassion for the afflicted. That stumbling drunk isn’t really an obnoxious or abusive beast—it’s the drink that makes him act that way. The devil is no longer responsible and nor is she; her addiction made her do it. Well, maybe, but I don’t accept that every lush is an alcoholic. And while I do understand the power of addiction, I’m inclined to believe it’s possible to rise above it, to battle and overcome the demons. I can cite examples, alcoholics who have been sober for years and years—they did it. I’ve been told that’s too simplistic a response to such a complicated issue. Well, maybe, but I’ll stick by my views.

My dad was a tippler to the end of his ninety years, always a little soppy when I saw him. I’d find him sipping watered-down vodka whatever the time of day, while his wife kept pace with Schaefer beer over ice, one after another.  An unhappy, taciturn, benign old sot—a steady infusion of drink seemed to be what got him through the days.
Frank was jolted into action when he realized what he stood to lose. He got sober, joined AA, went through a twelve-step program. After several months Matty let him move back home, but drunk or sober the damage was irreparable. Their marriage couldn’t be restored.
I’m zealous about health and fitness as I get older, so I limit myself to a glass of wine a night, two on the weekend ... a shared bottle of wine on special occasions … an infrequent margarita or Bloody Mary when I’m out. More is tempting—I still like the way liquor makes me feel—but I’m past any urge or risk of overindulging. I’ve seen the collateral damage.

Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, 1966, The Tishman Review, Upstreet, Hippocampus, and Lunch Ticket. She was a national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of an essay contest at Writing It Real. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wannabe Widows

by Susan Bonetto

I have had the great fortune of having four BFFs who have watched over and applauded my alternative life choices: Marrying a good-crazy, foreign born man eighteen years my senior, leaping off a professional career ladder in my early thirties to move to a Fijian island the size of a shopping mall, having our child when that staggering man, Oscar, was in his fifties and we lived simply in the ‘islands’, and moving internationally five times when Oscar’s whim or compass bearing changed course every few years.

These women followed more customary paths. Beth married young and never left our old northeast Milwaukee suburbs. She and Steve have had a solid caring relationship. Stacy moved to Chicago and then on to California for her husband, Jack’s, medical studies. Later, they settled in Madison. Heather, my best college friend, recently celebrated thirty-five sweet years married to Mark, moving up and down the West Coast, as his Finance jobs require. And finally there’s Anna who, like me, married a man many years older, but, unlike me, lives the American dream with Ben and their two young children in New York.

No matter where I went or what I did these past many years these four faithful souls and I kept in close touch via letters, e-mails, calls, and visits. Best friends provide love and support throughout a lifetime but never did I realize the depths of their backing until Oscar was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a big, bewildering word for terminal cancer. Each buttressed me in distinct ways during the three-and-a-half-years that he was ill—more frequent calls, surprise visits, cards, unnecessary offers of money, and guidance for me when I pretended to be a single parent to a developing teenage boy while his father’s presence faded.

When Oscar died they each threw out longer lifelines. Beth and her family met Alejandro and me at the Milwaukee airport when we travelled ‘home’ for a visit one-month post-death. They took us bowling and filled us with comfort foods and ice cream. During that same visit Stacy took time off from work to sit with me and let me cry while Jack whisked Alejandro off to the University of Wisconsin basketball finals. Some months later Heather accompanied me to Fiji so that I could have grieving time in the place where our son was born and magnificent memories live. Anna took us in for two months when life dealt another blow and my lovely son needed brain surgery.

A year of intense pain passed. I moved with and through it. I existed with no plans and a limited life. I focused on my son’s rehabilitation, bits of work and walks to my favorite caf√© in the company of my Boxer pup. Within the open wound, strangers, as well as men whom Oscar and I counted as friends, sometimes threw salt, asking me out without reading the signs that I was completely uninterested. But, a new dawn crept up and, after months of aloneness, one or two days appeared when I inadvertently found myself checking out a passing guy or returning a glance. My body pushed my mind towards something I’d had with my husband and always enjoyed—connections with men. And, so I gradually came to interact lightly with those delightful creatures again.

As this transition ensued I, of course, shared, my novel and odd thoughts and events with my friends. They knew everything—initially, how continually pissed off I was with most men who tried to engage me in conversations. Much later, long before I admitted or accepted it, they registered the days when seedlings sprouted under the snow, and my mind opened up to the warmth of an approaching new season. I related when I had a lengthy chat with someone at my sports club, shared a coffee, the time when I visited with the kind spirit seated next to me on a plane who then invited me to the VIP lounge during our joint layover, and the first evening when I went out for dinner with ‘just a friend’. They questioned me about how I felt before, during, and after, what I wore, what we discussed, if there was any glimmer of romance, and, most of all, if I was all right. For several months I kept them apprised of my feelings, sometimes wailing for what Oscar’s disappearance had caused, once pissed off at having wasted an evening with a jerk, occasionally hopeful of seeing someone again who appeared warm and thoughtful.

Though I felt tinges of enjoyment in my brief outings, my girlfriends oftentimes acted more eager for fuller experiences than I desired.  

“How’s it going? Is he a keeper?” Stacy texted, in the midst of my second coffee with Mike. To me, it was just a coffee visit with a pleasant guy.

Anna called as I left for a dinner out with the ‘just a friend’ and teasingly asked, ‘Do you have on your pretty, matching Victoria Secret bra and panties? Be sure to call me on your way home, regardless of the time!” I assured her it was ‘just dinner’ and I didn’t seek anything more.

Whenever I expressed doubt, confusion, or more anger at my new, undesired status, each friend encouraged me onward. Heather offered the adage “Live in the moment and just try to have fun.”

Beth listened to my fury one day and turned the conversation on its heels. “Listen to me, Susie! Oscar would want you to continue living life to its fullest.”

Anna continually encouraged “Just focus on some sexual adventures. You’ve said you would like some sex but nothing else. Go for it!”

At times I regretted allowing them access to the tiny advances my heart was taking as they were running faster than me. I felt like the teenage girl who matures more slowly than her best friend and the friend keeps encouraging her to go to second or third base with boys before she is prepared.

My friends apparently now wish they were me. They’ve moved beyond vicarious titillations. They discuss their lives and relationships monochromatically but then, when we move on to my life they light up, like it’s Christmas morning. I’m the starring role in their favorite romantic movie. Their eyes sparkle; their lips let out small explosive breaths as I speak about the man I am now seeing, Jose, and our beginning moments.

Beth asked with a coy smile, “Do you feel like you’re cheating on Oscar? You are so lucky in a way that you can have these experiences.”

Stacy shyly murmured, “How I wish for some ‘first-times’ again! First glance, first touch, first date. It must be mind-blowing!”

Anna wanted as many sexual details as I was willing to proffer: “Did you really stay up all night? And, was the first time great or were you nervous? Were the second and third times better?” Ben, who later heard the details from Anna, uttered “Wow! We need a night like that again. Or two!”
I adore these women. They are goddesses to me. But their notions leave me troubled and empty. Their spouses and partners are alive and healthy yet they mourn an existence they can still possess. My forever love suffered terribly for years and left our teenage son and me flailing. Have they forgotten that Oscar and I were still handholding devotees when he died? Don’t they remember how he adored me? That he was it for me? What’s happening at their hearths? Why aren’t they buoyantly living with their one and onlys? Why aren’t they celebrating the gift of extra time? They chose these men and have elected to stay in these partnerships. Are they letting things slide? Why aren’t they gushing with appreciation, if not rapture? I want them to understand that new romances and relationships do not replace a solid foundation laid twenty or more years back.

I do continue on. That’s what one does when there is no alternative. But, I live with a hollowness inside that no one will fill and I will mourn for Oscar for the remainder of my days. He died more than two years ago and, yet, my tears run as I write this story. Grief doesn’t end; it only changes into an ebb and flow. In one of those ebb tides happiness recently rediscovered me. It caught me unawares in my habitual cafe. Jose is another regular who, like me, is never without a book. Like all coffee shop regulars, we’d nodded our hellos for years. Recently he passed by and softly said that he bought my coffee that morning. And, I let him sit down. Anna, Heather, Stacy or Beth can tell you the rest. In great detail. Along with oohs and aahs.

I get that it makes them feel better to think of me coming round, maybe finding new love. They can worry less about their best friend now. But, they shouldn’t want to be me. To feel that I am fortunate? Wishing for widowhood? Thinking how special it would be to have my prospect at second chances?

Widowhood was not a choice and is not an opportunity. I don’t, but I want to advise them, “Be careful what you wannabe.”

Susan Bonetto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before moving to California where she met and married an extraordinary man, Oscar, who encouraged her to live abroad (with him) and travel as far and wide as possible. While living in Fiji, their now twenty-two-year old, son, Alejandro, was born. Susan has been fortunate to have lived in the U.S., Fiji, The Philippines, and Argentina and travelled to more than thirty countries. Now widowed, she continues to work as a global Human Resources Consultant. One of her Fiji stories, “Before We Lived Barefoot” won second place in’s 2014 Narrative Travel Writing Essay Contest, another was published here in 2014 and this year she was a finalist in the 40th New Millennium Writings Non-Fiction Literary contest.