Monday, December 31, 2012

Marielle: 1915-2012

My grandmother was a walking piece of history.  In our world of modern conveniences, it amazes me of all the things she had seen.  Her family was the first to own a car and when I look back on what must have been a monumental event in her life, I smile to think of her, years later, reading books on her Kindle with ease, flipping through channels on her satellite TV and connecting with loved ones via a laptop computer and Skype. 

She grew up during the Great Depression which formed a lot of whom she was.  She learned to do with less, avoid credit cards and to help family members and friends as she was able.

I would smile as she chastised my mother for buying new clothes and I immediately thought of her three large closets that were far from empty.  She would scrutinize, but never criticize, my collection of shoes.  Once in a while she would call me Imelda Marcos however, my love of shoes can be blamed solely on her.  I remember my favorite childhood hiding place in her house on Granite Street was in her closet among the glittering rows of shoes adorned with bows and other accessories.

She fell in love with a scrappy puppy during Mom’s Meals on Wheels route.  Needless to say, Grandma is the reason why my parents are still “fostering” this dog five years later.

I will miss my grandmother.  The most unusual color of her grey-green eyes, like the stormy New England sea.  I will miss holding her hand and taking an afternoon nap with her in her room.  I will miss her stories of days long gone.

Marielle Conon lived a full life and one of much success.  An essay by Bessie Anderson Stanley reminds me of her life story:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much.

Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children.

Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task.

Who has never lacked appreciation of the Earth’s beauty or failed to express it.

Who has left the world better than he found it.

Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul.

Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had.

Whose life was an inspiration.

Whose memory a benediction.

As we gather today, although we will miss my grandmother’s physical presence, let’s celebrate her life as it was fully lived.  Let’s share our memories so she continues to live in all of us.

(Read at her funeral on December 27, 2012; Peabody, Massachusetts)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bathing Beauties

The cottages lining the lake in Maine were on small lots.  It was easy to see into your neighbor’s home from the side living room window or even the attic.  My grandmother was not a full-time Maine resident but spent most of the summer months in the Pine Tree State away from the heat of Boston.  Phyllis and Bill Carson, the Polish couple in the Christmas red cottage, became her summer buddies.  Meals were shared, cards were played and Phyllis filled everyone in on the latest lakeside gossip.
One special ritual between my grandmother and Phyllis occurred each evening after supper.  The lake was empty of splashing children and all forms of boats.  The surface of the water was calm and glassy.  Grandma and Phyllis would snap on a garish rubber swim cap adorned with colorful floppy flowers and emerge from their respective homes decked out in one-piece skirted bathing suits.  Each would secure a life preserver belt around her plump waist and wade into the depths of the lake.  There they would simply float together, talking and laughing until they became pruned.

The only pictures I have are my memories of the two floating friends…the bathing beauties of Bauneg Beg and it makes me smile when I think of them.

(RIP Phyllis 12/19/2012 and Marielle 12/21/2012)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Open for Business

Every year, right after school let out for the summer, Mom and Dad would line the back of the station wagon with sleeping bags, blankets and pillows, tie down the luggage to the roof, add one gray and white cat, one excited family dog and two, still in their pajamas, sleeping kids to head for the family cottage in Maine. We would arrive in the morning, with the dog barking, huffing, puffing and whining the final ten miles until he was released to race down to the lake for his first summer swim.

Oftentimes, my cousins from New York would arrive within days. I know I shouldn’t have favorites but Steven was always my hero. Each year I would anxiously await his arrival and he would usually stay for a month. Because he lived in Long Island and I lived in New Jersey during the year, we didn’t get to see each other that much. Maine was our special place and we spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas to keep us busy during the long summer days. Most of our time was dedicated to getting his brother and my sister, Todd and Elizabeth, in trouble. This usually backfired. We also devoted a good amount of time devising ways to acquire their money. To us it seemed reasonable since all they ever spent their money on was candy. We were their dental hygiene super heroes. So, out of concern for our siblings’ pearly whites and our financial well-being, the greatest money-making scheme was born.

Steven and I spent an entire afternoon in the cellar of the cottage creating a restaurant. The summer kitchen was there on the off-chance that we had a heat wave. Using old construction paper and colored pencils, we painstakingly created multiple copies of our menu. Our enterprise was named “The Nickel and Dime” and the menus boasted items priced at five cents and ten cents. I was the chef because I could scramble eggs and make toast. My specialty was sliced hotdogs sautéed in a ketchup, mustard and brown sugar reduction. We were ready as our first customers came through the door. They were our parents who travelled from all the ways upstairs just to inform us that we could not charge for food since we did not purchase it. This was a major setback.

“I have an idea,” Steven announced as I sat dejected on a nearby chair. He emptied rusty nuts, bolts and nails from an ancient coffee can into a kitchen drawer and wrote “TIPS” across it in black magic marker. We placed the can near the door and were quick to point it out to our first real customers, Todd and Elizabeth.

Business went well for a week. Then, our cousins from Boston, Jennifer and Carolyn, arrived for a day visit. Their mother, Aunt Kathy, was the scariest person I knew. She was very strict and never smiled. Anything that was fun was too dangerous or had germs or was illegal. In hindsight, she was probably right. Carolyn and Jennifer saw our fine dining establishment and wanted their own business. Steven rented a corner of the cellar to them where they sold Styrofoam art. Todd and Elizabeth were still the only customers. Suddenly, the cellar door burst open and we saw the most terrifying sight: Aunt Kathy stood in the doorway, her hands pressed firmly against her hips. We were pretty sure she wasn’t a customer.

“If you kids don’t quiet down I’m going to give you each a good crack on your fannies,” she hollered, giving us the evil eye. The Wicked Witch of the West couldn’t have put it more clearly.

“But Aunt Kathy,” I ventured. “I already have a good crack”. The silence was broken and all of us laughed, except my aunt. She blushed and furiously retreated, slamming the door behind her. We were left alone for the remainder of the day and once again, we were open for business.

Sarah’s Secret Sautéed Weiners
3 hot dogs sliced into 1-inch pieces
½ cup of Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard
2 Tablespoons Brown Sugar

Mix all ingredients in a frying pan over medium high heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce has thickened (usually 5-8 minutes). Serve immediately.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Dollhouse

The first summer that Uncle Bob and Aunt Phyllis rented a house down the road from ours, I felt betrayed. They always stayed at our house. Just like Steven was always my cousin and Todd was always Elizabeth’s. These were the rules that were never broken. However, it soon became clear to me that having two houses in the family had its advantages.

Elizabeth, aka “Lizardbreath”, was always in Maine when her birthday rolled around in July. She never celebrated her birthday in New Jersey with her friends. Steven and I would throw a surprise birthday party for her each July and we would try to give her a great present. In the cellar of the rental house, in the creepy corner of junk, there was a pile of old wood that had been used in a previous renovation. In this cellar our greatest gift idea ever was formed: the dollhouse.

We raided the cellar of my house for a hammer, rusty hand saw, and an old mayonnaise jar filled with an eclectic assortment of nails. All of this we spirited back to the rental house via my old wooden row boat. It would have been faster to walk, but we ran the chance of discovery by my sister who had yet to master the oars of the rowboat. We decided that the water route, though ten minutes longer, was the more furtive route.

Back in the relative safety of the rental cellar, Steven carefully taped black construction paper to the windows and bolted the door. Protected from prying eyes, we began our construction project. The main structure of the dollhouse was easy to build. It had two stories with six rooms and a roof on top. It wasn’t fancy and we decorated it with sand glued to the roof and made use of small shells, pilfered plastic wrap and bits of tin foil. Once the top heavy house was completed, we began to work on the furniture. Further raids of my house produced useable scraps of wood and soon our furniture project was completed: a table, a couch and several beds. Leftover metal soda caps became bowls for the kitchen while toothpaste caps stolen from the bathrooms of both houses became cups. Our most ambitious project was the waterbed. Steven retrieved a Ziploc baggie and filled it with water. I made a lining for it using leftover material from my mother’s perpetual sewing projects. We left it overnight on the cellar floor to test its durability. The next morning, to our disappointment, the water had almost completely leaked out. So much for the company’s advertising campaign. The waterbed idea was scrapped.

The next phase of Operation Dollhouse was to find dolls to live in it. Steven and I, always ahead of our time in living green, collected cans and bottles from the side of the road and took them to the Camp Waban Country Store. Each soda can yielded five cents and each two liter bottle netted ten cents. That summer, the store had a display of mice dolls. Each doll was a small mouse dressed in fancy clothing. After careful scrutiny, we selected Miss Mouse America and Southern Belle Mouse. We raced the mile and a half back to the cellar and placed the mice inside the dollhouse. Our present was completed and just in time: the birthday party was the next day.

I met Steven early the next morning and we loaded the dollhouse into the rowboat. We covered it with towels and transported it back to my cellar, rowing carefully through the silent water.

I still don’t understand how the party could have been a surprise. It was on Elizabeth’s actual birthday and we held it every year without an exception. She was in the house the entire time and could clearly detect the scent of her favorite blueberry birthday cake floating from the oven. She was delighted, surprise or not and Steven and I eagerly waited for the moment when we could unveil our present for her. The expression on my sister’s face was worth all of our efforts. Operation Dollhouse was a success.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little Theater, Grand Ideas

Spending the entire summer at the cottage in Maine could be busy with the arrival of relatives and friends but there was only so much swimming, boating and playing in the sand that I could tolerate. The weather could be hot and unforgiving or damp and cold leaving us to quiet indoor activities.

The cellar was our escape from our parents and one summer, the occasional hot weather kitchen, the sometimes swimsuit changing room and the creepy corner of rusty tools was transformed into our personal theater.

The first production that was held in the cellar was the brainchild of my older cousin, Steven. He fashioned a curtain out of sailboat rope and a faded threadbare sheet, wrote a rudimentary script and cast his younger brother Todd and me into leading roles. He designed the set around the old kitchen table which was impossible to move and then created stadium seating for the audience using old cinder blocks and a series of beach chairs. Tickets were distributed to our fan base and playbills were hand written with colored pencils. Steven paid attention to every detail in his role of Director, Producer, Stage Manager, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Makeup Artist and Playwright.

The second production was designed by me after Steven had left for his home in New York. I enlisted the help of my sister, Elizabeth and a couple of the neighborhood kids. It was Elizabeth’s first and only musical entitled “The Genie in the Clothesbasket”. Elizabeth was the genie in the clothesbasket. I thought “Clothesbasket” sounded classier than “hamper”. Even at 9 years of age, my sister was tall and the clothesbasket was the only thing she could fit in. When someone rubbed the clothesbasket the right way, Elizabeth would spring from the depths and sing a jaunty tune that I wrote with the help of my flute:

I am the Genie
I am the Genie
I am the Genie
Of the Clothesbasket!

I believe my sister discovered her love of theater and performing arts in the cellar of our summer retreat. I have attended many of her plays, which are strangely non-musical, in South Carolina, Georgia and Connecticut and have noticed that she never once mentioned her childhood performances in Maine.

For myself, I am content to collect my monthly royalties for my one hit wonder and fondly remember one summer, over thirty years ago, where the gathering of many creative minds produced the littlest of little theater in the small lakeside community.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great Stuff

The overflow pipe in our pond was partially corroded and had broken away. The Englishman decided to fit a PVC pipe over the existing one in order to allow the pond to fill with more water. He decided to do this in July during a small pause in a thunderstorm.

The rain may have paused but the thunder and lightening continued as he dragged the metal rowboat to the edge of the dock. There was no water around the dock. Weeds and grass formed a small peninsula as the pond had receded away so severely. We looked around the edge of the pond for another alternative method for launching the boat. Balancing the boat precariously on two moldy and rotting wooden planks was the answer. I was the lucky passenger who was ordered to sit at the front of the boat while the Englishman heaved it nose first as slimy, murky water sloshed into the boat. He jumped into the back and paddled the boat onto an unexpected sand bar. I was handed a mildew covered bamboo pole and instructed to use it to push us off our newly discovered barrier island. After much effort, we freed our vessel and the Englishman paddled while I poled toward the rusty metal pipe on the opposite and deeper side of the pond.

We forgot the anchor so I was told to use the pole to hold the boat steady while the Englishman fitted the PVC pipe over the original one. He then opened his can of “Great Stuff”, an insulating foam sealant, and proceeded to fill in the gaps between the two pipes. The Englishman was finished filling in the gaps long before the can was empty. Big gobs of the foam were stuck to his hands and forearms. The can kept foaming and dripping. Great Stuff clumps spilled into the boat and the Englishman cursed and flapped his arms. I was now in charge of finding a path to the shore and I grasped the paddle and plowed through the algae. The Englishman sat at the front of the boat, his arms spread wide like Jesus blessing the fish, and had the audacity to complain about my boating skills. I examined the paddle in my hands and glared at the back of his head for a few moments before deciding that the pond was far too shallow to knock him overboard. He was dubious about my decision to return the boat to the rotting wooden planks; however I proved him wrong as I forcefully launched the boat with expert precision into one of the edges of the pond. He was able to climb onto the grass and he ran off waving his hands in the air as he shouted “Stay there!” as he tried to find something to wash his hands. I examined the tadpoles while I waited. Big raindrops began to fall and the Englishman finally returned. The gobs of foam had hardened and were stuck to his hands like lemon colored meringue. He caught the rope that I threw to him and pulled the boat to the planks. I climbed out of the boat and trudged back to the house in the rain.

The Englishman went to the kitchen sink and scrubbed his hand vigorously. Nothing. I handed him a massive bottle of nail polish remover. No change. I dumped baking soda on his hands just for fun. Nada. I eyed the candy-colored sprinkles in the kitchen cabinet and thought better of it so I looked up “How to remove Great Stuff from skin” on the internet. I looked at the Englishman. “It says you should wear gloves before using.” The Englishman let me know how helpful I was being. I continued to search. He didn’t want to try the flour method so he was left with waiting three days for it to fall off. I was stuck for three days listening to him whine and watch him pluck dried bits from his skin. Great Stuff.