Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Lobster Named Jim

It’s Memorial Day Weekend: A time to honor those who have served our country and given it all. It’s also an opportunity to thank the Veterans and their families who have served our country and provided us with the freedoms we enjoy, and take for granted, everyday. My thanks go out to all who have served, continue to serve and who are preparing to serve.

One of the many freedoms we enjoy is the freedom to travel freely and spend time with family. Memorial Day Weekend, for most of us, also signals the start of summer and we celebrate it with family gatherings often centered on food.
My family is no different.  As a kid I looked forward to the annual lobster feast each Memorial Day Weekend.  Lobster was an annual treat, not something my family could afford more than once each year.
The annual lobster feast was held at my Uncle Will’s house in a little town on Cape Ann Massachusetts called, “Manchester by the Sea”. Uncle Will’s house was located on a cliff overlooking Singing Beach. The back of his house had a large deck where we all gathered to enjoy the ocean breezes, the view and the lobster feast. From his deck you could go down the stairs, across a small lawn, down a path to the cliff staircase which would take you down to the beach. It was a spectacular spot.
My favorite tradition of the day was the lobster race. My uncle would dump the live lobsters that would be our feast onto the kitchen table and my brothers, sister and cousins would all pick out a lobster for the race. Winner of the race would get the biggest lobster to eat. The biggest lobster was not always the fastest, but it was a prize worth fighting for. Once we had all chosen a lobster, we’d place them on the starting line and my uncle would start the race with the typical, “On your mark, get set, GO!” He’d often fire off his imaginary finger gun, “Bang!”  The lobsters . . . would do nothing but wiggle around on the floor, often nipping at each other with their banded claws. We would all get down on the floor and poke our lobster’s tail attempting to coax it to the finish line. Sometimes it took awhile but eventually there would be a winner. We’d celebrate with great hoots, howls and cheers and then we’d take the lobsters to the big pot on the stove. Head first into the steaming pot they’d go.

The year that my cousin Tommy was eight he decided that his lobster was going to win. He grabbed his chosen lobster first off the table and then took it outside on the deck for training. He led his lobster through a variety of training exercises cheering it along as it crawled on the deck. He said he wanted it to recognize his voice and signals. He got quite attached to his little lobster during training and named him, “Jim”. When the time came for the big race, Tommy placed Jim on the line giving him last minute words of assurance. Uncle Will signaled the start of the race, and they were off. Twelve lobsters on the line nipping each other with banded claws and Jim was the clear winner. Tommy was ecstatic! He picked Jim up with great cheers and fanfare. As we all took our lobsters to the pot, Tommy moved to the back of the line. When he got to the pot he looked Jim in the eye and just couldn’t put him in.

He took Jim out of the house, onto the deck, down the stairs, across the lawn, down the narrow path and down the cliff staircase to the beach. He walked out into the surf and let his friend Jim go. When he arrived back to the house and told us what he’d done, my dad looked at him and said, “hope you took those bands off his claws.” Tommy’s eyes got really big as he looked at my dad. He knew instantly that Jim was in trouble. Tommy made the trip back down to the beach and spent an hour diving in the surf looking for Jim. But alas he never did find him.
When Tommy arrived back on the deck we were all seated and enjoying our lobster feast. Big chunks of tender lobster meat dipped in butter, yummy! Tommy made his rounds to each of us begging for a bite, but none of us, except my mother, would share even a single bite. And even mom didn’t share much!
The next year when the lobsters were dumped on the table, Tommy took his time choosing. When he finally picked, he announced with confidence that his lobster would be the clear winner and he’d be eating the biggest lobster of the day. When we asked him what his lobster’s name was, he answered, “dinner!”

To this day, I never eat a lobster without thinking of my cousin Tommy. The lobster race tradition continues in my family, but no one other than Tommy has ever named a lobster or set one free.

Happy Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Storms of Inspiration

Each of us has our moments of inner turmoil and we must find our way through those times without inflicting too much collateral damage on those who surround us. My father taught me long ago that nothing sooths the soul like time outside (“To the Trees!”). So today I headed to my favorite state park to tame the tigers wrestling in my thoughts. While enjoying a walk around the lake, the clouds rolled in, the sky got dark and I found myself in the midst of a storm. Slowly it dawned on me that life is full of storms. Some storms we see coming and others happen before we’ve had time to prepare.

I wrote about my mom last week for Mother’s Day and loved sharing her story. But after writing that story I got to thinking about my journey as a mother. It has been a journey full of storms and I often fear that I have been a better daughter than mother.
I remember years ago in the midst of a parenting storm, when feeling particularly inadequate as a mother, my oldest son over heard me say to my mom, “how come I’m not as good a mom as you?  He grabbed me when I hung up the phone and gave me a great big hug. He then looked at me and said, “Gramma has Pappa  . . . you deal with our craziness all by yourself.”
Wow! How did that boy get to be such a smart young man? He’s right. If parenthood is full of craziness and storms, then single parenthood is doubly so!
Several years ago I found myself in the delivery room of a thirteen year old girl as she was about to become a mother. She had called me in tears, crying “Ms. Martha, please come - I’m scared!”  When I walked into that room and saw that frightened little girl on the bed, my heart ripped wide open.  I could not imagine her fear. And yet in some ways I could relate.  Motherhood is a great unknown. I can’t imagine facing it at 13.
I was a grown woman when I became a mother for the first time and have felt inadequate, scared and confused more times than I can count. And then there are moments when my sons stun me with their wisdom and I can’t help swell with love and a bit of pride as I think “they learned that from me”.
My younger son, Joel, recently informed me in one of his raging moments that his anger wasn’t about me and he had no reason to be mad at me. I was just collateral damage. He was right and wise enough to understand himself.  It was another one of those moments when I had to smile to myself as my heart swelled with love and a touch of pride.
How often do we, in the midst of the storms in our life, deflect our turmoil onto an innocent bystander? Perhaps it’s a full on rage or maybe just a comment laced with sarcasm but we’ve all had moments when our personal storms have showered down at just the wrong time and in just the wrong place.
I now find myself on a new journey of motherhood. One in which I learn as much from my sons as I have taught them.  Life truly is a circle. Whatever storms lie ahead, I’m happy to be in the middle. I may have to spend a lot of time in the woods and parks in order to tame the tigers (and alligators) of my soul, but I’ll find the rainbows which always follow the storm.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lavender and Blue

Every woman must have in her wardrobe the perfect “little black dress”.  Every woman except my mother that is. In her closet you will not find a little black dress. What you will find is clothing in a rainbow of beautiful colors with two-thirds of the closet filled with shades of lavender and blue.  I love that there is no black dress in her closet. That would be ordinary. My mother is certainly not ordinary.

My life is filled with extra-ordinary events to which I can tie memories of the dresses my mother wore. In previous blog stories you may have seen the photos of the matching dresses she made for herself, my sister and me for the Easters of my childhood.

I also vividly remember the dress she wore on my wedding day. It really wasn’t a dress at all. It was a VERY expensive blue satin night gown from Italy. My sister had given the gown to my mother as a gift at the end of her semester abroad. However, even after four months in Italy Beth had not figured out the currency exchange. The cost of the beautiful blue satin gown was not $50.00 as my sister thought, but $500.00. My mother could not imagine sleeping in a $500.00 night gown and so with a few extra dollars and the help of a seamstress she turned that Italian night gown into a beautiful mother of the bride dress. I loved it! It was a dress with a story, not just any typical “mother of the bride” dress.

But the story of mom’s lavender dress is among my favorites. The lavender dress has been in her closet for over twenty years and just recently came out for a party with her “Red Hatter’s” group. The women were asked to pull something out of their closets they just couldn’t bear to part with.  My mother not only pulled the lavender dress out of the back of the closet, but wore it to the party. It was the second party that dress attended.

Twenty years ago my mother served as president of a feminist religious women’s organization and was asked to represent that organization to attend a birthday party in honor of Marie Wilson, editor of Ms. Magazine. The party was to be held at the Upper East Side apartment of Gloria Steinem – a BIG DEAL PARTY. Mom knew, in New York, most of the women at the party would be adorned in their little black dresses. She went shopping for just such a dress but came home with a beautiful lavender dress instead. She had an entire conversation with the lavender dress in the fitting room. “I know I should wear a black dress. But I love you and I want to wear you.” Her heart and her head began to war in that fitting room and ultimately her heart won. The lavender dress went home with her.

As she approached Ms. Steinem’s apartment the night of the BIG DEAL PARTY, she watched a sea of black dresses entering the building. She approached the crowded apartment and felt like a “crocus in the dirt” - “rich, productive dirt – but dirt none the less”. For an instant she questioned her choice. But as she squeezed into the crowd, she realized no one cared what she was wearing, and she loved her beautiful lavender dress.
As she stood in the corner of the room a young woman in one of the requisite little black dresses approached mom and asked, “Are you from New York?” My mother laughed and replied, “Obviously not.” The laughter connected those two souls in the corner of the room and conversation, an exchange of stories, began.
As is often the case when stories unfold, the world becomes smaller and more intimate. During that conversation my mother and her new friend realized that they had both grown up in Springfield, Massachusetts. And, as often happens when serendipity steps in, my mother soon came to realize that this new friend was the daughter of her high school crush.
On the day of her “Red Hatter” party mom told her friends the story of the day she confessed her love for Buzzy Wagner in the corner of Gloria Steinem’s apartment wearing her lavender dress in a sea of basic black.
I love that my mother has the spirit to be lavender in a sea of ordinary basic black. I love that she has the confidence, grace and ability to laugh at herself. And what I love most is that she can share her story and have others laugh with her.

Happy Mother’s Day,  Lavender Lady.



Sunday, May 5, 2013

Travels with Ted

A six word story that sums up my childhood summers . . .

"Please Mom, don't let Dad pack!"
Photo and packing by Ted Johnson
Summer vacation is coming, start planning for ways to embarrass your children. They'll thank you later!