Friday, January 26, 2018

My Mom, the Bathing Beauty

This coming Tuesday, my mother would be 98 years old. Sadly, we won’t be celebrating her birthday with her (she died nearly four years ago), but I will be thinking of her. And I’m writing about her now and about a big surprise she left behind.

My parents were not big on photo albums. Sure, there were a few pictures taken of my brother and me at birthday parties, high school graduations, and family gatherings. There is an adorable shot of my brother and me sitting uncomfortably atop a horse when I was about four and he was about nine, and even an embarrassing shot of me being sworn in as captain of the school safety patrol in sixth grade. But those pictures were mostly isolated shots, pinned onto bulletin boards around our house or set into inexpensive frames and hung onto walls.

So it was a big shock when my sister-in-law Sandy found a small, aging photo album tucked into a storage chest in the attic in my mother’s house, which she was clearing out after my mother moved from the house into an assisted-living facility late in her life.

And what an album it is! The album is labeled "Miami Beach, Florida, August 1939" and features a very happy gathering of young people enjoying the sun, beach, and each other’s company. Young women AND men, and one of them is my 19-year-old mom! She’s hugging young men I don’t know (and never met) and wearing some skimpy summer outfits. And she is smiling big time!

My Mom is at the top right surrounded by young men.

Hugging and smiling big time!
I’m not sure how most people would respond to finding a “bathing beauty” photo album of their mother as a teenager. On a scale from shocked to surprised, I’d like to think that I was closer to surprised. But my surprise quickly morphed into smiles as I looked through the album. There is a freedom and joy that I don’t think I saw often in my mother. After all, I first met her long after she was married and already the mother of a five-year-old. And I doubled her family responsibilities. Once I arrived, she had three lives to run besides her own—and that was just in our immediate family.

The Miami photos also surprise me because the mother I knew almost never went to the beach even though Tybee was just 18 miles from our Savannah home. She said she hated the beach “because it was dirty.” I’m sure she was joking when she said that, but only partially. She really didn’t like mess. Luckily, she still put up with me and my messy ways for the 18 years I lived full-time in the Savannah house that was her home for nearly 60 years.  

My Mom on a sandy beach-- now, that's a surprise!
I have lots of memories of my mom, but none of her as a bathing beauty until this album emerged from its hiding place. It’s nice that your mom can still surprise you and make you smile after all these years.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Coming Close

The sad (from my Georgian’s point of view) ending to last night’s college football championship game has left me thinking about winning, losing, and coming close to winning, and whether “coming close” is a synonym for “failure” … or not.
When our kids were younger, my good friend Bob and I spent many seasons coaching our respective kids’ sports teams. We had different approaches, especially when it came to the integral importance of winning. Bob explained that he wanted the kids to recognize the difference between winning and losing, to strive primarily to win, and to be disappointed if they lost. I think he wanted them to be more than just disappointed at losing, but I may be exaggerating a little. I followed more of the “every kid gets a trophy” approach.

My idea was to play everyone an almost equal amount during a game while teaching the fundamentals, without overemphasizing the victory aspect. This worked pretty well when my players were 8 or 9 years old; when they grew older, I probably should have pushed to build in a more competitive attitude. Looking back, I think I may have underdone things a little bit.

Amanda's and my softball team. She's at the bottom left; 
I'm on the top right. Perhaps it was 
symbolic that we were the Glen Rock Chiropractic Center.

I can remember one of Amanda’s softball games that ended when our team scored in the bottom of the last inning to pull out a victory. I called to one of our players who remained standing on second base after the winning run had scored to come in from the field.
“What happened?” she asked.
“The game is over,” I shouted back.
“Did we win?”

Perhaps I could have done more to light a competitive fire in her.

We want our kids to be good winners. But what about being good losers? My friend Bob would have challenged whether being a good loser was anything to aspire to. He may have been right.

Brett (far left) in his brief football days. His coach that year (not I) 
was determined to turn all of the nine-year-olds into "men."
Since most of us spend many moments of our lives being judged, it is important that we know how to perform well in judging situations and to recognize when we have done our best work. The being judged part can be difficult on our hearts and minds, however. Especially because for every one winner there are usually multiple competitors who “come close” without winning.
On Saturday night, Audrey and I went to a concert that featured two young folk singers, one male and one female. Both were excellent musicians and talented songwriters, though we did prefer one over the other. The performers had very different styles and very different levels of confidence that showed through as they played and sang. One of them just seemed happier than the other, and we responded more happily to her. 

They also presented very different autobiographical snippets as they introduced their songs to the audience. The male singer told about achieving a life-long ambition when he was chosen to participate in a folk music competition in Texas. Thirty-two singer/songwriters performed before a large audience and a panel of judges over a two-day period. From that group, six were named finalists. They were the big winners.

Our singer, who had not made the final cut, told how he called home to let his wife know the “sad” results. His wife then relayed the news to their young daughter. “My daughter asked my wife if I had won. When my wife said ‘No,’ my little girl asked if Daddy had cried. ‘Yes,’ my wife said.”

This story was a little depressing, but here’s the best part. The incident led the singer to write a special song for his special little girl. And that turned out to be the best song of his set. It was touching, and more sweet than bittersweet. I like to think that “coming close” was just as important as winning for this particular performer, though I’m sure he would have preferred being able to market his status as a festival finalist.

Looking back, I can still remember one judging experience from my youth. When I was around 14 and a Hebrew school student in Savannah, my hometown, I was pushed to compete in a National Bible Contest sponsored by a national synagogue council. The contest involved reading different parts of the Old Testament (which fittingly included the Book of Judges that year) and answering multiple-choice and short-answer questions about the text. Reading and answering questions—that was right in my wheelhouse. I made the top score of all participants from the Southeast and earned the right to go to New York for the national competition. My mother went along, and I am pretty sure that we went by train and not airplane at that time.

This was my first trip ever to New York, and I was pretty stoked. My mother and I spent a lot of time during our first two days staring up at the big buildings. We also saw the Rockettes at Radio City and a huge-screen presentation of “Bye, Bye Birdie.”

Then it was time for the competition. There were 22 of us pedantic teens, mumbling biblical stories to ourselves to psych-up. Then we were handed a written test. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I blanked out on a few questions and guessed at some others. Twenty minutes after the written test was over, the 10 finalists were announced. I wasn’t one of them.

Then the top 10 were asked to respond orally to questions, somewhat like the National Spelling Bee until a winner emerged. I was really annoyed when I noted that I could answer almost all of the oral questions. “So close,” I told myself. “So close.”

When I got home, people in Savannah asked how I had done. “I came in number 11,” I said without blinking, and happily accepted everyone’s congratulations.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hail and Farewell

It’s the last edition of CBS Sunday Morning of the year, and I am waiting eagerly (is that the right word?) for the “Hail and Farewell” segment. That’s when the host recalls and we react to many of the notables who died during the past year.

This year’s segment opens with a brief montage of Mary Tyler Moore before and during her spunky Minneapolis career woman days, then gives brief mention to other recently deceased actors, comedians, artists, and musicians, and even to some persons far outside of the pop realm (such as Medal of Honor winner Thomas Hudner, who crashed his own plane during the Korean War in an unsuccessful effort to rescue one of America’s first African American pilots. I didn’t remember him at all.)

MTM and the hat toss
I am not sure that I am a typical viewer, but I always find myself missing many of the persons noted, even though I have not thought of them for many years. Rose Marie from the Dick Van Dyke Show, for example, or Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It’s hard to believe, but both of them matter to me as Jane Pauley leads me to think of them again.

And this TV viewing comes just a few days after I spent part of a morning on a brief year-end visit to my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, placing stones upon the grave markers of my parents, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, a recently-deceased young cousin, the parents of childhood friends, and one special, much-missed childhood friend of my own. My most surprising find that day was the gravesite of a dentist who treated both of my parents long ago. His stone proudly includes his D.D.S. title after his name and notes that he was a “devoted husband, father, grandfather, and dentist” — a man who treasured both family and profession.

I don’t think I’m at all obsessed with death, but I am fascinated by cemeteries, particularly those that are homes to the graves of famous people. A few years ago, I dragged my wife and daughter through a persistent drizzle to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to view the “final resting places” of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, and 12th century lovers Heloise and Abelard. 

One unusual memory of that visit involved our being approached at the cemetery by a young woman speaking very rapid French. She wanted directions to a particular grave. (Since I was a poor student of French, at best, I didn’t really understand her request at the time, but I did some research after the fact.) It turns out that many young French women seek out the grave site of a noted 19th century journalist and lover killed in a duel as the result of an affair. The women rub themselves against one part of the statue’s anatomy in hopes of increasing their fertility. Could this happen anywhere besides Paris?

Note the location of a suspicious bright spot on the statue.
A few years before that, Audrey and I walked gingerly through the chaotic Jewish cemetery in Prague, where graves have been stacked atop each other for centuries and gravestones placed there many years apart lean heavily upon each other. We never found the grave of famed Czech Rabbi Judah Loew, who is reputed to have formed a Golem to protect Czech Jews from a series of pogroms in the 16th century. Rabbi Loew’s Golem has an important place in Jewish literature; it could have been useful in our later history, too.  

My photo of centuries of graves in the Prague Jewish Cemetery
So this is what I am thinking about on the last day of 2017. I am reacting to Hail and Farewell for a year many of us would like to ignore or forget.