Obama Saved Me

Deirdre & Ben's wedding, Saturday Sept. 13, 2014. in Mill Valley CA.  (Photo/Douglas Healey

M at her sister’s wedding, Saturday Sept. 13, 2014. in Mill Valley CA.
(Photo/Douglas Healey)

September 24, 2008 my daughter M was hit by a truck as she returned to her dorm after a cross-country workout. She had been at her college for just a few weeks, and was by her account happy for the first time in her life. She nearly died from a traumatic brain injury which left her in a coma for a month. She had deep brain bleeds, shearing in her brain stem and severe bruising to her right frontal lobe where her skull had been fractured. It was hideous.

When we transferred her to NYC for her in-patient rehab, in the first attempts to orient her, therapists asked, “who is the president?”  Not knowing how long she had been unconscious, upon hearing that it was Bush my poor child was bereft, thinking that he somehow managed a putsch. When she discovered that the election was yet to be held she was relieved and excited to cast her first presidential vote. When we filled out her absentee ballot for Obama, it was the first time she wrote her own name after her injury six weeks before.

After the election M wrote Obama a letter telling her story. It was written by hand in many colors and embellished with drawings. She asked him to do something to help the many Iraq veterans who were returning with TBI’s. It was charming and compelling. He wrote her a gracious reply that was her most prized possession. I had it framed with a transcript of the letter she had sent him on the back. She took it with her when she returned to Swarthmore in the fall.

Three years later when I sold our house, she hadn’t taken it to the dorm with her. She reminded me that I had to be sure to bring it with me. Whatever I did with it, I cannot find it. I’ve searched repeatedly. There were so many things that didn’t make the move either by design or happenstance. I had to deal with the belongings of five people’s lives single-handedly. It was December, I was sick. Yes, I understand how this could have happened; but more so I understand M’s complete furor that it did. One object of the hundreds, thousands I was responsible for! I’ve sadly said my goodbyes to the porcelain ginger jar I had brought from Japan for my parents which housed my father’s ashes before we spread them with my mother’s. It was too bad about that crystal mantel clock that was left behind!  And yet I have my mother’s wedding gown and her first Holy Communion veil. But not the Obama letter.

Every time it comes up, it causes fresh anger for M and pain and guilt for me. When I packed up again a few months ago, I hoped that I would find it but I didn’t. I spoke to my congresswoman’s chief of staff who recommended that I write and ask for a copy. When I arrived here in Pittsburgh I did. I reported to POTUS that with enormous effort M had graduated in seven semesters rather than the usual eight; that she was thriving in NYC. I told him that of the many changes that were put into motion that awful September afternoon, if I could have a copy of his letter it would allow me to attend to one aspect of our altered lives.

Today I received two envelopes in the mail from the White House. The letter addressed to me expresses President Obama’s relief in M’s recovery, encouraging words to me and, most compellingly, empathy as a parent for the pain of watching a child suffer. The other is for M; I will forward it to her unopened. Will it be the same letter he wrote six years ago? Will there be a different one reflecting the coda of her recovery and courage? We are both hoping that it is a replica of his first, kind letter. Whatever the letter contains, it brings with it a measure of relief and gratitude that I cannot fully express.

I am also certain that it will be perfect. The letter to me was dated June 26th in the midst of what has been called Obama’s greatest week: Obama care upheld, marriage equity became the law of the land and he delivered his soaring eulogy for Charleston murder victim Clementa Pickney. At the same time, whoever authored the messages to M and me, President Obama took his pen to paper to sign a message of personal support and concern.

M and her siblings asked what I had said in my letter to the president and each expressed surprise at some of the details I included when I read it to them. What I was guided by was the deep desire to make clear just how much his effort had meant to us. It was important to me that he see how brave and successful M has been negotiating every day before and since her letter to him. In retrospect, it was confessional: I told the leader of free world that I made an enormous error and needed his help to rectify it. He did.

Charleston

Before Thursday, Charleston, S.C. was mostly a city that I visited on my honeymoon exactly 35 years ago. Its beauty was undeniable, the food was great; every white person dressed in pastels and nearly everyone who served us was black. And of course, Spoleto had come a couple of years before, so clearly it was cultured.

Then there was that awful murder by cop several weeks ago.

And now I am struggling to find a way to deal with the mass murders. I am too embarrassed to make some claim on this tragedy. I am a white atheist, so I have at least one thing in common with the murderer. I am a woman, which tilts me closer to the six females who were killed. I have found that it is getting harder to negotiate this event as time goes on rather than easier. People box out their positions calling Roof a terrorist, madman, racist, psychopath.

He most certainly was a racist. That is the most central point.

The extraordinary grace shown by his victims’ survivors yesterday actually has contributed to my unease. The essential beauty of their forgiveness robs me of my right to hate and uncouples hate from any legitimate action, at least for me as a white woman. This has provoked a challenge for how to then react. Silence seems a decent option when the air is filled. Stupid, defensive talk vies with wise and thoughtful words by people who know this phenomenon in a real way. Banal calls for understanding and empathy fill in the rest of the discussion.

I know this in my core: too many are comfortable in their easy bigotry. This young man spewed his racism freely before he shot up that church and it raised no alarms. He lived in a world where this was not considered aberrant. How many of us engage with people who express bigotry in phrases that might be cloaked in different language? Prejudice is deft at finding new ways to communicate despicable ideas — it is one of its greatest tools for perpetuating its ugly intentions.

My only right to comment on this is the American humanity that I share with both the killer and the killed. We should all focus on what differentiates and aligns us with both sides of this event. No one wants to see themselves in Dylann Roof, but he is a son of our nation and thus ours. I cannot see myself as one the prayerful dead and I cannot lay claim to the glory of their relatives’ view of redemption. All of this has left me lost and miserable.

A time for Four Seasons

I just read that the Four Seasons, the inimitable shrine to modernism and fine dining in midtown Manhattan is going to move. The news awoke deep and joyous memories and, like far too many things lately, brought tears to my eyes. I’ve had a fair share of meals there — celebratory dinners, business lunches. I was never among those who sat powerfully in the grill room, and preferred sitting in the luxe pool room watching the air roil the chain curtains on the massive windows. We toasted a friend’s long-awaited graduation there as an errant champagne cork popped into the pool, and marked birthdays and anniversaries nibbling rolls from their cunning bread trays.

What sprung most quickly to mind, though, was my first meal there. Our mother came from Pittsburgh to celebrate her birthday with her daughters. Over the previous years we all had migrated to the City and it was the first time all four of us had lived in the same town in more than a decade. Mummy came alone, leaving Daddy behind. She, and we, wanted the Four Seasons for dinner.

It was the mid-70’s, I was younger than my oldest child now, and my mother was about my  current age. I was working in the printing business and living in the 47th St. Diamond District. My oldest sister was still committed to her radical politics, my two other sisters were involved in an evolving spiritual cult. It was a time when it was impossible to overdress for something like this, but I only remember that Mummy was wearing a gorgeous green Chinese brocade sheath.

Our reservation was a bit early, since we did not have the cache to secure a prime 8:00 seating. As we entered the pool room on that warm August night, I was transported to the Manhattan I had read about, to the city I had dreamed of living in. It really did seem as if nothing bad could happen here, to quote Capote about another meal in a different institution. While the captain did haughtily correct my sister’s pronunciation of truite bleu,  the rest of the meal was seemlessly presented and beautifully paced. I’m sure we had a birthday desert, but that recollection, too, has escaped me.

As the meal was finished, my sisters talked about the commitments they had to return to — child, husband, boyfriend, housemates. I had nothing that required me, and I was frankly annoyed that they were running off so early in the evening. Mummy had insisted on paying for dinner, and I felt strongly that she should not return to her hotel to digest it.  She had come to New York, we had to do something!

My relationship with my mother was fraught, more so than many less so than some, but it was complicated and often dicey. I was, however, determined that she, who ventured here alone to celebrate with her girls, was going to have a good time. I hadn’t been here that long and wasn’t quite sure where we should go to accomplish this. I opted for after dinner drinks at Sardi’s. It was someplace she knew of & it always held a sort of louche appeal for me. We went to the upstairs bar, ordered our cocktails and Vince Sardi chatted with us. The place filled up during surrounding theater intermissions and afterwards when we asked Sardi where we should go, he suggested  Jimmy Ryan’s one of the only remaining jazz venues in midtown, where Roy Eldridge led the house band.

Eldridge, known as “Little Jazz”, was a virtuosic trumpeter from Pittsburgh. My mother was an admirer. We again parked ourselves at the bar. When I stopped by the stage to leave a tip and ask if he would dedicate a song to my mother, he willingly obliged and his next tune was for “Lady Grace, from Pittsburgh.” During his break, he joined us for drinks and he & my mum talked about old jazz joints in Pittsburgh. He was flirty and charming and he left us both in a swoon. We stayed for the last set and stumbled out into the summer night giddy and laughing.

Neither of us wanted the night to end. We went back to the Pierre and happily found the little bar there still open. After last call, we headed to the ladies room. Upon exiting, we discovered we were locked in a hallway that led to the locked bar. We found this hilarious in the way that only drunken people can, and our shrieks of laughter alerted someone from the silent lobby who came and rescued us. It was the perfect ending to a perfect night.

It is unlikely that one of the best nights I had in NYC was with my mother. It serves as a virtual time capsule of a time and place;  a uniquely NY evening marked by world class dining, great music and kindnesses in unexpected places. It deeply saddens me that the Four Seasons will join so many other places in living on only in memory, but I am thrilled to have this one.

Roost-less

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One of the biggest issues for me in leaving the place I called home for many decades is being cutoff from what had been my core identities. I had several over the years and most were jettisoned for different reasons —  I was a printer who left the business to raise a family. I was an elected official, known for having taken on an entrenched incumbent and setting off a storm of legal controversy; I left that behind in order to focus on being a mother to a gravely injured child. I was a realtor until I needed the security of a monthly paycheck and health insurance for my kids and me. I was a homeowner until I had to sell my house. I was a wife until there was no marriage that required one. The most basic and important of these roles for me was being a mother. I didn’t turn the noun into a verb. I didn’t sanctify the job or ballyhoo it as heroic, but did acknowledge it as the most difficult job I ever had. I took it seriously, embraced its deep pleasures even as I bemoaned the frequent moments of loneliness and depletion. The days when my kids talked to me endlessly, I reminded myself that there would be a time when I would welcome the sound of their voices. As they pulled at me I worked at focusing on the tactile pleasures of their warm, soft skin. While tending their lavations I took pleasure in the beauty of their young limbs and torsos. Certainly there were many times when those moments were not held close but provoked annoyance and frustration. But for the most part, I have taken great joy and pleasure from my kids. I found as they grew older and the challenges greater, the rewards and pleasures deepened. I am now inhabiting a world that has not seen me much as a mother. While I have the privilege of being an old and loved friend or cousin, I am not known as the parent to my three remarkable children. No one here knows them for their bravery, beauty or skills. There isn’t anyone who is grateful for their loyalty to their own child or for their humor and generosity. Since I seem to belong here in so many ways, it is not readily apparent that I feel as if a huge chunk of me is missing. Surely there is an inevitability to continuing one’s life without your children being the central focus of your time and energies. One can actually gauge a measure of success as a parent by one’s children’s abilities to negotiate the world successfully and independently. It is also common to experience some level of discomfort in addressing the “empty nest”. I feel like my nest has been stolen from me, and them. Like much of my sense of dislocation, it is exacerbated by the absence of the things that make one feel at home. I did have an inking this might happen as I packed up. I left packing my vanity until the last minute which in addition to its expected contents also held most of the kids’ legal documents. I shoveled most of the stuff into a carton that I would take with me — the nail care bag, passports, magnifying mirror, birth certificates. I knew that it would be best not to have those items somewhere in the labyrinth of the storage facility. What I also added to the box was a framed photograph of the three kids and me taken over 20 years ago in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. The other day feeling particularly lost, I unwrapped that photo. The sounds of the carousel; the lush cushion of the grass beneath us; the moist, sweet smells rising from their hair as we posed for their dad to snap the picture now come back to me from the kitchen counter where the photo sits, just above the sight line behind my computer. You never stop being a mother, so you must keep finding your pleasures where you can find them. This picture will do for now.

Dive Bar

20150414_212919y   I think there is no better example of the remarkable changes between the neighborhood that I left and the one to which I’ve returned than the two linear blocks surrounding the Duquesne Heights Incline. I described earlier the active and necessary businesses that thrived there when I was a child. Things started to change when I was in high school as more people had cars and went to supermarkets instead of the small purveyors of specific needs like meat, fish, thread or prescriptions. Interestingly, the bookie joint with the ancient mayonnaise jar in the window was an early closure, gone not long after my uncles’ pharmacy became a hair styling place. It was to this area that my father decamped after being justifiably thrust out of our house for truly terrible behavior. My fear of being stuck between two warring parents, like a much less telegenic version of the original Parent Trap, informed my miserable reaction to this change in our household. In reality, it was quite wonderful in many ways because Daddy was mere blocks away, visited us at whim and didn’t stay to torture Mummy at every juncture. I also had a place that sometimes served as respite, which was more welcome as I grew into adolescence. He moved to a row house a few doors up from the fascinating and historic incline. There were many distinctive characteristics of his location, the most noteworthy that it was 9-1/2 ft. wide… from the outside! Lord knows what sorry circumstances brought someone to erect the building, but when he moved there, one walked into a narrow alley and entered the side door into the first floor. Daddy’s apartment was on the second floor. It could have been called a railroad flat to give it a cache that it didn’t deserve, and I know old railroad flats! To call another comparison, the front held a bed/sit. There was the hall, full bath and at the other end, a large kitchen with sitting area and access to the roof and one of the great downtown Pittsburgh views. The supremely odd, and to the young me off-putting, part was that the stairway that went through the middle of each floor was completely open with no doors providing privacy. This offered a colorful backdrop for my encounters with the changing array of upstairs neighbors. They were a fragrant lot, as Daddy would say. There was the wild father of a wild friend who was nearly always accompanied by women as his son would soon be. There was an older cousin who was battling the same demons that killed his father and bedeviled my own. A newly minted Viet Nam vet who took me riding on his Harley passed through as well as others less distinct in my memory. The anchor of this neighborhood for my father wasn’t the transportation or the dry cleaner, but that other necessity: the local bar, the perfectly named Hut. My mother became a denizen also, frequenting the back room, reached through a side “ladies entrance.” It was verboten in the 1960’s that any female would either want to or be permitted to drink at the bar accessed through the kind of swinging doors usually seen in westerns of the era. Of course,those doors did swing the other way & the men from the bar would come back and visit with the distaff patrons. It occurs to me as I write this, my parents probably spent the most time within close proximity at The Hut in those years. Certainly not always in communication, but it was at least the site of the greatest propinquity accompanied by the least conflict between them. When I was in college, I went into the bar at The Hut, which satisfied a decade long curiosity and appalled Mummy. I returned several times when I would visit. Here is my favorite Hut story: Once a notorious local sot bought me a drink. This was, indeed, unusual, for I had bought him drinks on several occasions. Upon hearing this, my father was astounded, not being able to cite a precedent for the event in said sot’s 40-odd years of drinking. A few weeks later, Daddy called to report that my benefactor had died. “And, kid,” he said, “I know what he died from. Remorse for buying that drink.”

Over the decades, the sites with views gave over to restaurants, the shops on the other side of the street were torn down and a few high rise apartment buildings took their place. And there, stubbornly, sits The Hut; a bedraggled two story building alone in a small prairie of parking lots. The owner, heroically to some, foolishly to others, waited for his price. And it didn’t come. So as valets swished past, parking the cars of patrons of the swankier neighbors this place  carried on. I’m sure there have been students from surrounding colleges who found this dump romantic. I myself had enjoyed quarter beers at longshoreman’s bars in NYC’s far west side. But when I walked in one late night a few years ago, and it was so unchanged, so completely charmless that I turned right around and walked out. Word was out a few months ago that the place had sold. My response was not exactly “good-bye to bad rubbish,” but more along the lines of “finally!”

What brought this all to mind was my visit the other night to a new,elegant restaurant down the street from my dad’s old digs, between his place and The Hut. From there with their fancy cocktails and their lime and coconut hot popcorn bar snacks, I looked at the view that I had shared with Daddy on hot summer nights. Certainly not the same view, but a nearly identical perspective on downtown Pittsburgh. It’s not exactly the same because the narrow place that housed my father for nearly a decade has been removed along with a half dozen others, saved from tumbling over the cliff by demolition. They were built atop defunct coal caves older than the former business district and nearly anything else in the history of this neighborhood.

I looked out and was awash in satisfaction at how beautiful my city looked on a glorious, long-awaited early spring night. As I walked out I noticed that the neon bar signs for Iron City were lit at The Hut, which had been shuttered for a few months. I am surely not without misplaced nostalgia; but I walked past, refusing to enter, as I continued to bask in Pittsburgh’s 21st century beauty.

Rainbow

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Thanks to Legends of Pittsburgh for the image of the rainbow 4/6/2015.

I saw a rainbow yesterday afternoon. The soft colorful arcs are one of the few biblical symbols that I still embrace. I was taught that they were a sign of hope. In the context of the end of the 40 days and nights of rain that lifted only Noah and his ark to safety the rainbow promised that it would never happen again. It is very hard to see a rainbow and not feel promised something. Now to break it down and ask who is making the promise and how could it be delivered is to press logic onto feelings, an unsteady amalgam. I merely allow myself to feel good upon seeing one as I did yesterday.

Bear in mind that I am no idle rainbow sighter. For some, encountering a rainbow is a thing of serendipity. Knowing that rainbows are a meteorological phenomena does nothing to diminish their charm for me. When there is a sun shower I dash outside and scour the horizon for a rainbow. I’d say I run about 60/40 on catching one. I also have a broad definition of a rainbow. I count those that have two imperfect or partial arcs as a double rainbow. If I can see most of the spectrum, however slightly hued, I count that as a rainbow.

So it was yesterday. I was parking my car at the market, when it started raining with the sun shining brightly. I quickly put the car back in gear and headed towards the clouded part of the sky to the aptly named Grandview Avenue. It provides a panorama of much of Pittsburgh — its three rivers, downtown and all of the ‘burgh to the north. And there it was, a sweet, barely nascent, but wide, crescent of colors. It grew into a more tangible rainbow, if there could be such a thing, and slowly a second one bloomed above the first.

I’ve written elsewhere of the challenges this move has provided me, and when I watched those colors arise out of drops of water and sunshine I felt reassured about everything. It was nearly 70 degrees, something that seemed distant and unlikely only a week ago  The city glimmered beneath its partial corona, damp, warm and welcoming. I was basking in the vision with a clutch of tourists and youngsters still on vacation. In those few minutes all of us with our disparate expectations and world views became a community through science in action. It was lovely.

What’s the big deal?

Over the last few months I have said my good byes to many people, places and things. It started with my determined watch of each sunset out the windows of my beloved apartment. I had a tearful moment with my daughter, M, at MOMA saying adieu to some of my favorite paintings there by Rousseau, Mondrian and Monet. I hugged the postal worker from my former village. I visited my attorney for a final chat. I dined with warm, kind and loving friends. I spent as many hours as I could with M who remains in NYC, for whom Pittsburgh is a distant unknown.

The last day I hung out with my oldest NY friend, whom I met the day I moved to NYC, a former roommate of my sister and of mine. That was perfect, not only for the symmetry it gave the occasion, but because he provided enormous help in clearing out everything from my apartment. We ate a lunch his wife had packed us sitting in his van looking out at the mighty, frozen Hudson.

The biggest intellectual problem I’ve had during this time, is taming the urge to see everything in symbolic and metaphoric terms. When I left Westchester with but one key for my car, the impulse to view this as emblematic of my nomadic (not to say homeless) status was huge. I tried to address this by joking, “do you need a key ring if you only have one key?”

The confirmation of my divorce which came in the mail the other day brought far too many temptations to see that event as an affirmation, or at least confirmation, of the break from one life to another. The inability for Spring to arrive, the loss of any number of things in this latest move, those items that I should have brought and sit in storage; all these and more dance in my head in capital letters as some sort of small-bore manifestations of the greater changes in my life.

Now I am sleeping across the street from the house I grew up in. I can look out the window in my bedroom and see the tiny two-bedroom house where I lived from the time I was born until I left for college. Unlike many things from childhood, it does not look smaller. It always was small, certainly too much so for the six of us who once lived there.

I like to think that I am not someone who sees my life in dramatic ways, but as I lay in bed this morning, I realized not only my proximity to my childhood home, but that I was actually sleeping in my mother’s bed! This does require at least an exclamation point if not capital letters. I can’t actually assign this enormous meaning, but it surely is damned strange! Upon reflection this is much like the time has been for me since I returned to Pittsburgh: familiar and strange.

My absent hostess and first friend, J, reminded me shortly after I arrived that the bed had been Mummy’s so I did have knowledge if not cognition. When we sold the house across the street, we didn’t move most of the furniture with our mum into her assisted living apartment. Each of us laid claim to some things and there was a great deal that none of us wanted, or maybe wanted but had no place for. The bed was in the former category. It wasn’t something that we had grown up with. Mum had bought the bed late in life, after Daddy died. We were happy that J wanted it, because she had been so kind to our mother. So it made the trip across the street, just as I have. Its journey was more direct than my own. And so when I arrived on St.Patrick’s Day I made that bed and every night I lie in it. Hell, there’s a metaphor right there, and I didn’t even create it!