Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Over the River, Through the Woods...

You may remember, from an earlier post, I wrote about a job I once held as a medical transcriptionist for an orthopedic surgeon's office in Syracuse, NY. One day while I was there, a former administrative assistant dropped by to say hello with her cute little two year old boy in tow. Everyone crowded around the woman, getting caught-up and waiting patiently for our office manager, Judie, to release the toddler so the REST of us could see him! After a short time, she declared it was time to go and hugged everyone goodbye. As she knelt in front of her sweet son, zipping up his coat, she excitedly asked him, "Are you ready to go to Grandma's house?" Those simple words, spoken innocently to a two year old, hit me like a punch to the gut. Truth is, no one had asked ME that question in years, and I'd have given everything I own to be "going to Grandma's house" in Bedford, Ohio that day!

Grandma Simmons' house was always a magical place, but at Christmastime it literally sparkled! Underneath her aluminum tree was displayed an entire Christmas village. This was long before "Department 56" and the collectible, expensive communities you can purchase today. Grandma's houses had been expertly hand-crafted several years before by her brother, and she added dyed-green sawdust for grass, simple dollhouse figurines for townspeople, and toy plastic animals to fill her "zoo." The animals were "caged" in upside-down green plastic baskets, formerly holding strawberries from the supermarket.

In her fourier/hallway hung a string of large plastic lights in the shape of gigantic jingle bells. Each one twinkled on and off intermittently, giving a short "ping" when it illuminated again. Also in her fourier was a shelving unit which held her radio, tuned to the station playing Christmas carols, and a modest nativity scene. Actually, her nativity set was displayed year-round. I asked her once, in May, why she hadn't packed it away with the rest of her Christmas decorations. She replied matter-of-factly, "Oh, Jesus is welcome in my home ANY time of the year." Completely covering her front door was a panel depicting Santa, seeming to be opening the door to greet you. I LOVED that panel! Santa was fat, rosy-cheeked, and smiling broadly. He gestured for you to come in, barely revealing a roaring fireplace and Christmas tree in the room behind him.

I think we spent just about every weekend of December at Grandma's magical Christmas house. Looking back, I realize she was actually babysitting us while Mom was out toy shopping for five children. But at the time, I was under the impression that we were sent to Grandma's to endow her with all of our Christmas cheer! During those years, my Grandma's age was probably around 50+. I'm forty-five right now, and I can't imagine entertaining five children, all of them under the age of ten, for several hours each Saturday, grandkids or not! We didn't have VCR's back then, but nobody would've blamed Grandma if she had decided to plunk us all down in front of the TV, supplied a few rounds of Kool-Aid, and simply checked-in on us from time to time.

But that just wasn't my Grandma Simmons' style. We worked on many different Christmas projects over the month, including stenciling her windows and making ornaments for her tree, but the first Saturday was always reserved for baking and decorating Christmas cookies. Her large, round dining room table, covered with several protective tablecloths, served as our "cookie workbench." She'd already have the made-from-scratch sugar cookie dough chilling in her fridge when we arrived. After we had all donned our aprons (mine had yellow flowers on it!), we'd take our places at the table. Each of us had our own rolling pin and flour sifter. In the corner, Perry Como crooned away his Christmas selections on her portable blue plastic record player. In the middle of the table sat her precious red plastic cookie cutters, in the shapes of a Christmas tree, wreath, stocking, toy soldier, and holly, among others. My personal favorite was the one of Santa's jolly head.

Grandma, already sweating underneath her babushka, would bring in her bowl of dough and divide it up amongst the five of us. We began our rolling, flouring, and cutting, depositing our "artwork" on the provided cookie sheets. Grandma never sat down. She was in constant motion, running from our table to the kitchen, taking away and replenishing the cookie sheets, making more dough, helping us master our rolling pins, and "unsticking" dough from under-floured cutters. She also saw to it that each of our cups of Pepsi remained nice and full so we could efficiently wash down all the raw dough we were consuming (My sweet husband, the restaurant man/health code expert, saw me lick a beater when I was baking once. He scolded me, warning me of the dangers of salmonella. I recalled the gallons of raw dough I had consumed at Grandma's over the years, and laughed in his poor face!).

After our artwork had properly baked, Phase Two began. Grandma would bring to our table the cookies, along with several small bowls of her homemade icing. We added to each bowl a different food color; red, yellow, green and blue (one was kept white), then began our decorating. Along with the icing, of course, were several choices of sprinkles, along with my personal favorite, a jar of maraschino cherries. My first decorated cookie was always that Santa head, because I LOVED to place one of those cherries on his nose (Brilliant, I know! Grandma taught me THAT one!).

Several hours later, when Perry Como had sung "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" for the billionth time, and we had all slipped into cookie dough/sugar icing comas, we'd drift away from the table and head to the living room to watch the color wheel illuminate her aluminum tree and village beneath, officially done for another year. I can't even begin to imagine the mess that was left behind, along with several dozen undecorated cookies. Grandma would finish them up on her own and have everything neat and clean when Mom came to collect us that evening. To this day, I have no idea how the woman managed to remain standing, but she'd still wrap us up in her arms and give us kisses goodbye as we exited her home at day's end.

Like all children, we never appreciated the enormous amount of time and effort that went into that day of baking at her house. Looking back, I know that she enjoyed our time together immensely and she knew she was creating some profoundly lovely, timeless memories. But today, when I recall those beautiful Saturdays in December, I'm completely overwhelmed by the thought of how exhausting it all must have been for her. She never let the fatigue show. Ever.

After Grandma's death, my siblings and I spent an unbearably sad day with my mother going through her house, dividing-up her belongings. When we got to those red plastic cookie cutters, we decided there were more than enough for each of us to take a few for our own. That following Christmas, I pulled-out my portion, ready to whip up a batch of santa heads and wreaths. But I couldn't do it. Somehow, it didn't seem right to be using those cutters anywhere but at that large dining room table, wrapped in a yellow floral apron, surrounded by my siblings, listening to Perry Como. I put them all away and postponed the baking for another year, then another and another.

So this year, in my new home with some extra time on my hands, I've been thinking about pulling out those long-retired red plastic treasures and putting them to use. All these years later, it's still going to be difficult. Missing Grandma Simmons, I've learned, is a constant. My grief's sharp edges have rounded a bit over the years, but there remains a dull ache that intensifies just a tick during Christmastime. Still, I think she would tell me it was time. Just like she welcomed the baby Jesus into her home all year long, I know she is residing in HIS home these days, FINALLY getting a much-deserved rest, and wants me to be happy. So, I'm going to download that terrible Perry Como Christmas album on my ipod, dust off my rolling pin, and honor a memory that's been patiently waiting for my return. Anybody know which aisle of the grocery store you can find a jar of maraschino cherries?

Merry Christmas, Grandma Simmons. Miss you.

Thanks for reading!!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"It's Been Done."

There is a great story that is told regarding the late, great Judy Garland. Everyone remembers Judy most prominently from her legendary portrayal of Dorothy Gale in the classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." In it, Judy performed the haunting ballad, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," instantly making it an enormous hit. The tune immediately became Judy's signature song. She was asked to perform "Rainbow" every time she appeared on radio programs, in her concerts, and even in the living rooms of homes where she was an invited guest.

Judy's daughter, Liza Minnelli, inherited her mother's awesome singing ability and quickly became an outright star on her own. Several years after Judy's death, Liza was performing her act to a standing-room-only crowd when an admirer in the audience yelled up to her, "Do 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow!'" The audience broke into thunderous, encouraging applause, pleading with the singer to perform her mother's signature song. The story goes that Liza waited patiently for the clapping and cheering to subside, paused, and looked down at the floor. Then she brought the microphone to her lips and uttered three words: "It's been done."

Say what you want about Ms. Minnelli, she's had her struggles with drug abuse, and no one would covet her husband-choosing skills, but the lady's got some class. I've heard that she's been asked to sing that song countless times by audiences all over the world. She always responds with those three words. It would be so easy for her to make a quick buck doing exactly the opposite, recording "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" along with her mother's other hits, labeling it a "Tribute Album" and watching as the cash flowed in. But Liza, wisely in my opinion, decided that the greatest tribute she could pay her mother was to let Judy Garland's work stand on it's own. Judy's version is simple, beautiful, and perfect. It needs no improvement. It's been done.

I think about Liza's words every time Christmas rolls around and we see another pop star and/or former American Idol contestant produce their own Christmas album. Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic, and I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from contributing to overall holiday merriness. But instead of writing new, crisp Christmas songs for their own generation, I find that the majority of them simply (and lazily, in my opinion) record the old standards like "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," and "The Christmas Song." Most of them don't even attempt to make a snappy new arrangement. It sounds like they've picked-up the sheet music, performed it like everyone else over the last fifty years, and called it a day. I've always wondered, do they actually believe their version is somehow different, or for that matter, better than all of those before them?

So, with that in mind, I hope you'll indulge me as I shoot-out the following open letter to every single new performer in the recording industry. This just really needs to be said...

Dear Every Single New Performer in the Recording Industry:

First off, congratulations!! You've made it to the big time! Good for you! This means you've obviously started making plans for your first Christmas album. How exciting for you!! On behalf of everyone in the real world who will be listening to your Christmas recordings, whether over our own stereos or out of the speakers of the food court at the mall, may I offer a few suggestions? Let's start with the "Don't List," shall we?

DON'T record "White Christmas." I know the idea is tempting, it's such a perfect, beautiful song. It's actually my favorite Christmas song of all time, which is why I must insist that you avoid it. It was written in 1940 by Irving Berlin and was made famous when Bing Crosby sang it in the movie, "Holiday Inn." You may not know Bing Crosby, he was a horrific father and husband, but an absolutely awesome, ridiculously talented, velvet-voiced crooner. He recorded "White Christmas" on archaic equipment that was just a tiny bit more advanced than a soup can with a string on the end -- and it's still far, far better than anyone's version since. So, if you happen to hear Bing's recording and get the urge to attempt to outdo his "voice of butter," stop. Just stop. "It's been done."

DON'T record "The Christmas Song." I know, I know, it's so PERFECT. It's practically TEXTBOOK "First Christmas Album" must-record for a new artist. But don't. Have you ever heard Nat King Cole's version of this song? It's pretty breathtaking. Nat's natural phrasing ability and unique vocal quality make it impossible for anyone to try to match. "A Christmas Song" was actually written by another great singer, Mel Torme. Mel's unfortunately passed away, but I bet if you were to ask him today to record his timeless, classic song, his exact words would be the following: "It's been done." Nat is King. His version rules. Period.

DON'T record "Merry Christmas, Darling." This is pretty much a no-brainer, since the rich, deep voice of Karen Carpenter could never be duplicated, nor it's quality surpassed by any human being on the planet. Actually, maybe you could find inspiration in Karen's singing of this song. She and her brother are a great example of people who created their OWN Christmas classic. Richard wrote the song, she recorded it, and the world now wants to hear only their sweet, clear version. Why? Oh, you know! Say it with me, "It's been done!" Yes!!

OK, so, that wasn't too bad, right? Here's the good news: there is a whole PLETHORA of songs that haven't yet been taken! So, if you don't posses the drive and/or talent to write and perform your own, original Christmas songs, feel free to "knock yourself out" with the following "DO List:"

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
Jingle Bells
Jingle Bell Rock
Sleigh Ride
Winter Wonderland
Let it Snow
And all of the others!!!

I'm sure that YOUR version of these songs won't be ANYTHING like those of the hundreds of teen sensations that have recorded them before you. Yours, unlike ALL of theirs, will be unique and SPECIAL!!

Well, that's all I had to say. I know you value the advice of an opinionated, middle-aged, former actress who never got anywhere CLOSE to achieving the level of show-biz success that you're enjoying. There's no need to thank me! If I can be any further help, please don't hesitate to ask! I'd love to chat sometime about your ass-crack revealing pants and your make up that makes you look like a whore, but that's for another time!!

Good luck, go get 'em, and...

Thanks for Reading!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Phyllis' Christmas Treasures

Meals on Wheels is a fantastic organization serving countless communities in states all across the country. It's premise is simple: providing hot meals to senior citizens and shut-ins who are unable to afford and/or prepare the meals for themselves. During the time that Trixie and I were involved with our nursing home visits, organized through the SPCA of Central Florida, an urgent call came through from the Meals on Wheels people.

Apparently, there was a growing concern that many of their clients were not consuming the delivered meals themselves. They were going hungry because they were feeding their rations to their own pets instead. They couldn't afford dog or cat food, so they were giving what they had to their precious companions. The organization asked if there was anything the SPCA could do to help them.

I'll always be so proud of how quickly and efficiently the president of the SPCA of Central Florida, Barbara Wetzler, responded. Within just a few weeks, she had convinced Tupperware to donate dozens of large containers, sent out word that dog and cat food donations were being accepted, got a list of names of clients and their mapped-out locations, and rounded up a core of volunteers to make the deliveries. There is a special place in heaven for Barbara Wetzler!

When word was sent out about the need for delivery people, I signed up without hesitation. I'm always looking for ways to honor the memory of my sweet Grandma Simmons, and I knew she'd love the idea of taking care of senior citizens' pets this way. At the orientation, the rules were pretty cut and dried: each driver would receive three names with a corresponding map. On the day of your delivery, you simply dropped by the SPCA, dropped off your empty bins, picked up new, filled ones, and set out. They asked you to call each client in advance each month, as many would be hesitant to answer the door if they didn't already know you were coming by. They also advised letting the phone ring several times, old bones take a little longer getting out of chairs and walking to the phone!

I was eager to get started and set out as soon as I left orientation. My first two deliveries were very similar. The clients greeted me, let me pat their dog or cat's head from my place on their front stoop, then waved a cheery "good-bye" and quickly shut the door. My last stop was at a tiny house in a poor neighborhood. It looked like it might have been a nice, family community at one point, but that time had long passed. Now the surrounding houses were in disrepair and in great need of new roofs and paint jobs. The house on my list had a decent sized yard surrounded by an ugly chain link fence. I glanced down at the name on my list: "Phyllis -- cat." I grabbed the bin of cat food and lifted the latch on the gate, then proceeded up the front steps and knocked on Phyllis' door.

After several minutes, I heard the deadbolt turn and watched as the door moved inward. There in the doorway stood a tiny woman with long, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a house dress identical to my Grandma's, and large, thick coke bottle-lensed glasses. Tight around her neck was the type of apparatus found on patients that have undergone a tracheotomy. She smiled and placed a finger over the front hole to speak in a breathy voice, "You must be Joan! You look just like I knew you would when I heard your voice on the phone! Come on in!"

Phyllis led me to her neat, cozy kitchen, sporting wooden cupboards with black hinges and knobs. She told me to just set the cat food under the sink and have a seat with her at the table. On her table sat a large tray containing several prescription bottles. In the course of our conversation that first day, she told me about her many ailments: the tracheotomy, diabetes for which she gave herself daily injections, poor eyesight and hearing (her phone had one of those blinking light attachments that alerted her when a call was coming in), severe arthritis, and some brushes with cancer. It was funny, though, how her "malady listing" didn't come across at all like complaining. Phyllis seemed to accept the fact that her body was wearing down, but was also truly fascinated with the modern medical procedures being employed to keep her going. I found myself recalling all of the Alzheimer's patients Trixie and I had visited at the nursing home. Many of them, despite their severe mental limitations, were otherwise physically healthy as horses. Phyllis was exactly the opposite. Her poor body was breaking down, but her mind remained sharp as a tack. She remembered exact dates when telling stories, often beginning, "In June of 1962...no, excuse me, it was JULY of 1963..."

Phyllis became my favorite delivery stop. I'd always save hers for last because I knew she'd expect me to come in and "sit a spell." When I was picking up her cat food, I decided I wanted to bring my new friend a treat as well. I knew with all of her diet restrictions that a food item was out. Then I was at the Hallmark store and spotted a small stuffed animal cat. I had seen similar ones on the shelf of her living room, so I decided maybe she'd like another.

I entered her kitchen as always that day, placed the cat food bin under her sink, then handed her the gift bag. "Just a silly little nothing for you," I told her. She unwrapped the tissue and held the little cat up close to her weak eyes. She turned to me, gave me a huge smile, and hugged it to her face, cradling it like a doll. I became addicted to that smile. I couldn't get enough of it. So, every month I arrived with a new gift, usually of the stuffed variety. That beautiful, sweet smile was my payment, and she always gave it generously.

I should've realized that I was over-doing it with the gift giving, however, because I soon learned that Phyllis felt the need to reciprocate. I arrived one day to find a large cardboard box sitting at my place on her kitchen table. "Have a seat," she instructed me. She explained that she'd been going through some things and came across this box of her Christmas decorations. She said she wasn't going to be putting them out anymore, and she'd like for me to have them (she'd been noticing my holiday sweaters!). I told her I'd be happy to help her adorn her home with the decorations if she'd like, she didn't need to get rid of them. She waved my suggestion away with a wrinkled hand and reached in to pull out her first treasure. It was a six inch soft plastic reindeer. At least that's what I think it was. The paint was very faded and the tip of it's tail was broken off. There was a hole on the underside of it's belly where you could place a small light bulb to illuminate it, but that was long gone. She turned it around in her hand and looked at it with dreamy eyes, then placed it on the table. Then she reached in the box and pulled out the next item, a plastic, faded snowman. She brought out item after worthless item, unwrapping each from it's paper towel, placing it on her table with the delicacy usually reserved for Faberge eggs. She never offered a story to go with any one object. She just smiled while she silently held each of them up to her face, then set it back down again.

When all the items had been unwrapped, she turned to me and asked, "Well, what do you think? Would you like them?" I told her that I really thought she should hang on to them. "Nonsense!" she quipped, "I'm too old to be messing with them anymore. If you don't take them, I'll just donate them to the poor." I told Phyllis I would take them, thanked her for her generosity, and promptly placed them in my attic when I got home.

Phyllis' health continued to deteriorate. I arrived one month and she greeted me at the door, clearly distracted about something. After a little prodding, I got her to tell me. She had been losing so much weight that her doctor had surgically inserted a feeding tube into her stomach. She now "fed" herself twice a day with a bag provided by the hospital, and was no longer a candidate for Meals on Wheels. She was terrified that this also meant she would no longer be receiving cat food. I grabbed my friend's sweet, leather hand and told her that as LONG as she needed it, I would be bringing her cat food.

The next month I dialed Phyllis' number to tell her I'd be by that day. The phone rang and rang. No answer. "Probably just at one of her doctor appointments," I told myself, trying not to think about the alternative. When no one answered later that day, I knew I had to do something. I found the number of her social worker, Mary, who had been providing her general care and rides to the doctor's. She confirmed my worst fears, Phyllis had died. Mary told me that she'd arrived at Phyllis' home one morning and found her still in her bed, no sign of struggle. Phyllis had died peacefully in her sleep.

When someone like Phyllis passes away, someone who had no family and so many physical ailments, we tend to feel relief that they're no longer in pain and now hopefully reunited with their loved ones in the hereafter. But truthfully, I missed my friend and her beautiful smile.

I was packing up the house in Orlando last year in preparation for the big move to Pennsylvania when I came across that box of Phyllis' decorations. Such silly, worthless trinkets, but so dear to one. I wished I had prodded her more about the stories behind each of those pieces. We were in the process of some major downsizing for the move, and I knew I couldn't take the box with me, but I also didn't have the heart to throw them away. I decided to honor Phyllis' second wish and take them to "The Poor." I don't know if Goodwill would find any use for a box of faded Christmas trinkets, but I'd like to think that someone found them as beautiful and special as Phyllis did, and have them displayed on their table this Christmas.

As I write this, I look around my living room at my own decorations. As much as I cherish them and the Christmas memories they invoke, none of my felt santas or folk art angels posses any monetary value, that's for sure. I'm sure someday, after I'm gone, my worthless treasures will all be boxed up and taken to Goodwill. I just hope "The Poor" truly appreciates the intense awesomeness of a fabric moose wearing a "noel" sweater, or a snowman wearing a stocking cap on snow skis!!

Merry Christmas, sweet Phyllis.

Thanks for reading!!