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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life and Death Mysteries

For many years, I have printed out or clipped and saved real-life stories that come under the heading of “strange but true.” I would sometimes repurpose these stories in educational materials that I created for kids. One of the first reading skills workbooks I worked on at Scholastic was entitled Strangely True. It featured, among other things, the story of a man named Joseph Figlock, who was walking in front of an apartment building in Detroit in the 1930s when a baby fell out of a high window and landed on Mr. Figlock, breaking the baby’s fall and saving his life. The next year, the same man was walking in front of the same building when the same baby fell out of the same window and once again landed on him. Another miraculous save! I ended my recounting of the story this way: “So far, it hasn’t happened s third time. Not yet, anyway.”

Now, some people might doubt that this story is factual, but I found the details in a book, and you can find it retold in several Internet websites, so it must be true!

I thought I would blog today about two other stories that I have recently added to my clipping collection. They involve unusual happenings involving the remains of two of the world’s most famous writers—Thomas Hardy and Dante Alighieri. This seems like an appropriate time to retell the stories because today marks the 695th anniversary of Dante’s death.

Dante did not live a peaceful life—which anyone reading the harrowing descriptions in the Inferno might guess. He became embroiled in political shenanigans and was exiled from his hometown of Florence around 1300. He passed some important years of his exile in Verona, which is where Audrey and I encountered an impressive statue erected in his honor. He finally died in Ravenna in northern Italy on September 13, 1321.
 
 
Dante stands proudly in Verona
with a bird perched on his head.

For nearly 600 years, even Dante's ashes were not welcome back in Florence, despite the poet’s fame. Then, in 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, an admirer in Ravenna reached into Dante’s tomb, gathered up a few handfuls of his ashes, placed them inside several small cloth sacks, and sent them anonymously to Florence to be part of the big birthday celebration. Fittingly, all but one of the bags were soon stolen or mislaid. Then, in 1929, even that last bag went missing. It would remain lost for 70 years, until workmen repairing bookshelves in the rare manuscripts area of the national central library in Florence found something even rarer—a small rectangular sack filled with Dante’s remains. Presumably, those ashes were then stored in a secure place, and Dante is finally resting in peace.

The story of Dante’s wandering ashes seems pretty tame when compared to the tale of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Hardy has long been one of my favorite writers, and we named our beloved Scottish terrier Tess after one of his main characters. When Hardy died in January 1928, his will called for burying him next to his deceased first wife Emma in a cemetery in rural England. But the literary establishment wanted him buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey in London instead. Well, they actually didn’t want his entire body buried there—that would take up too much space— just his ashes. A gruesome compromise was reached. Hardy’s doctor would remove his heart before cremating the rest of him. Then the heart would be buried in a small casket in the country and the ashes in another casket in the city.

This might all seem a little weird, but the really strange part was still to come. According to legend, the doctor removed the heart and left it wrapped in a towel inside Hardy’s house. Then he went to find a small tin in which to place the heart for burial. While the doctor was away, Hardy’s pet cat found the heart and ate all or part of it. What happened next is still up for debate. Either the actual heart was replaced by a pig’s heart, which was buried in the Dorchester grave. Or the cat, with part of Hardy inside him, was also killed and buried with what remained of Hardy’s heart. I leave it up to anyone reading this to decide which ending is true.
Does this large tomb house two hearts
or just one?
Upon finding the story of Hardy’s heart in a literature newsletter, I sent some of the details to my friend Louis Phillips, a much published and most talented writer, who always seems welcome to strangely true tales. Louis had not only heard the story but had even written a story of his own entitled “The Cat that Swallowed Thomas Hardy’s Heart.” In his story, Louis describes how the family cat, named Max, became a great celebrity after eating Hardy’s heart but literally couldn’t live with his newfound fame. The overwrought cat died and was given a memorial service that was even better attended than Hardy’s own funeral. Before the funeral, the cat’s owners decided to remove its heart to store in a special place. But the heart was stolen by an unknown thief. Where the organ is now remains at the heart of a new mystery.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Magical Life

Jane Kettering died quietly last week. Which is pretty ironic, because she didn’t live quietly. A pioneering movement therapist, Jane danced and clapped and shouted and talked and touched people’s outer and inner selves for most of her 97 years. She is quiet now, but the sound of her reverberates inside so many people.
More than 15 years ago, some of the people who circled in Jane’s orbit discussed writing a book about her life and her work. As far as I know, that book has never been written. But it should be. So I’m making a small start here.

I was not part of Jane’s “inner circle”; I knew her mostly from seeing her reflection in my wife and son. For them, she was a mixture of friend, earth mother, and life coach, someone who never made judgments but made it easier to feel good about yourself. That’s a pretty rare skill.
Members of the inner circle from New Jersey would often
travel to Colorado for a "Jane fix."
A few anecdotes:

The first time I met Jane was in her home in Plainfield, New Jersey, about a year before she returned to her birthplace in Buena Vista, Colorado, to touch a whole new set of lives. It was a Christmas party, and everyone was dancing together, with and around Jane in her big colorful house. They all looked so free in their movements—especially Audrey—which was not a way I was used to seeing her on a dance floor. Jane gave me a big hug and brought me into the circle. I didn’t come all the way inside, but I was right on the edge.
The next time I saw her was in Colorado, where we had come so Audrey could get a “Jane fix.” We met her in Delaney’s Depot, a small-town diner/restaurant where Jane appeared every morning. She didn’t come because she needed breakfast—Jane ate only toast and honey with her coffee most mornings—but because people could be certain to find her there if she was needed. She would fill the rest of her day in private or group therapy sessions and later on teaching dance to children or adults.

As we sat at the table, she gave me an intense look and said, “So what do you want to do with your life?” I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said, “Well, I’m hoping to get through this breakfast first.” She laughed, then we made an appointment for her to give me a neck massage later that day. A Jane neck massage was not something you would ever forget. She had me sit on the floor with my back to her between her knees as she set to work. She rested my forehead in one big powerful hand as she began digging into my neck with the other hand or with an elbow. At one point she put both hands around my face, tightened her grip and gave a quick twist. It was a bit of a shock, and I figured she had just removed my head from my neck and was going to toss it in the corner. But, luckily the head was still in place, and my neck did feel a little better. The tension I had been feeling was replaced with a mixture of surprise and relief. My first real Jane moment.
A Jane massage was often filled with surprise twists.
When our kids were about nine and six, we brought them out to Colorado to meet Jane and her husband Kett, who were actually building a huge log home near Buena Vista with their own hands. I can still see our kids helping carry heavy stones to be part of the house’s foundation. Later, we would all join in on one of Jane’s famous, or infamous, cookouts, depending on how much you were concerned with sanitary food preparation. You just couldn’t worry about such mundane things as germs when you were in Jane-land. You closed your eyes, chomped on the burgers or hotdogs, and joined in the lively sing-along that always accompanied the food.
Kett and Jane share hugs with Amanda, Brett, Audrey,
and our friend Lorri.
A few years later, we sent Brett out to stay with Jane for a month. At the time, he was pretty shy and insecure about himself. Jane cut through that right away, letting him find himself by being himself. There were not a lot of rules at Jane’s house, just the expectation that you would care about others and do your share of the work. The work that summer involved digging a new septic line for the log house, and Brett threw himself fully into the dirty labor. At the end of the month, Audrey flew out to take him home. She couldn’t find the boy beneath the dirt. It turned out that Jane had not required him to take baths, just let him decide on his own, and he didn’t decide to bathe or change his clothes too often. It took three baths to clean up his outside, but his inside was stronger and more complete for having spent the month with Jane. And he made a lot of friends with the unique characters who moved around Jane in Buena Vista. He also insisted on bringing home a medical supply bag containing several preserved cow hearts that he was given by Jane’s son Greg, the local veterinarian. Needless to say, the hearts didn’t stay long in our house in New Jersey.  

Audrey and Brett, and sometimes our whole family, made other visits to Colorado to be with Jane. I can remember a Pioneers Day parade and a day at a rodeo watching cowboys on bucking broncos and little kids riding on bucking lambs. I can also remember looking for 86-year-old Jane one day at her office/house in Buena Vista, only to discover her inside a crawlspace trying to repair a leaking pipe. She was strong and unflappable.

The last years of her life were not very Jane-like. Her strength began to ebb, and her mind began to lose some of its sharpness. Her daughter Jeri brought Jane from Buena Vista to her home more than an hour away, where Jane could finally slow down. Audrey and I visited her there a few years ago. We shared stories and she gave me another neck massage that was gentler and not nearly as exciting (or frightening) as the one I had been given many years before.

I can recall that last visit, but it’s not what I think about when I think about Jane Kettering. I think about watching her wrestling with Brett on her living room floor, where you could slap a couch cushion and see dust sail into the air and just laugh about the mess.
Jane and Brett in mid-tussle
And I remember dancing the two-step with Jane to a country band at a Buena Vista restaurant and then line dancing with her whole crew that night. And I remember her wearing hole-filled tights and teaching a group of young ballerinas at her cinder block studio that friends had helped her build but never chose to paint. Maybe they wanted it to be as natural as Jane. She seemed as young and energetic as the little girls that day, a mixture of mentor and friend.

When we bought our second Scottish terrier many years ago, we had to come up with a name. I suggested that we name him Buena Vista Guru in honor of Jane. But Audrey and Brett didn’t like that name or that characterization of Jane. Instead, he became Buena Vista Magic, or Buni for short. There was always some magic in the air when you were around Jane.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Our Birthday Adventure

 
Saturday night, our family and some close friends had dinner at a restaurant on City Island in the Bronx that is steeped in family history, though I don’t believe my children had ever been there before. Everyone enjoyed their meals, but we weren’t really there for the food. We were there for the history. We were celebrating a new moment in family history—my son’s 35th birthday—while recalling wonderful stories about Audrey’s mother (my children’s grandmother), who had died eight years ago but seemed very much alive on City Island this night.   

The Lobster Box is located near the tip of City Island, an incongruous seaside locale in the middle of New York, jutting out into Long Island Sound. Getting there can be an adventure by car, by train, or by bus. It is not on the beaten track. But the getting there is all part of the restaurant’s history and appeal for our family. My mother-in-law loved the Lobster Box and especially the adventure of getting there. She would come at least once each summer, accompanied by her cousin Lisa, and the cousins kept coming well into their 90s.
City Island isn't on the beaten track.
They were hardy and stubborn women who didn’t let advancing years persuade them to make the trip in an easier, less adventurous way. Neither woman believed in taxis or subways. Taxis were a waste of money, and subways required negotiating steps down and up. They insisted on public transportation that traveled at ground level, which meant buses. And there was no single bus that could take either woman from her home in upper Manhattan or in Riverdale in the Bronx. No, they would have to transfer once or twice to reach City Island. The trip could take almost three hours each way, but that was all part of the plan. They would each start out around noon in order to meet up and arrive at the Lobster Box before three in the afternoon. The timing was very important. The restaurant served from its lunch menu until three, and charged lunch prices for its large servings. After three, the dinner menu prices would take effect. The same seafood dinner could cost almost twice as much, which seemed both outrageous and extravagant to the two women.
Some people drive and park at the Lobster Box;
others are more adventurous.
After they finished their meals, they would walk to the nearby parking area that looked over the Sound and enjoy the view. Then they would start the return trip. It might take three hours again, but they weren’t in any hurry. They had set aside the entire afternoon for dining, visiting, and traveling to the seaside.

As you can imagine, stories of these time-consuming and economizing adventures took on a life of their own and especially amused my children, though I cannot, for the life of me, remember why we had never gone as a family with my mother-in-law to the Lobster Box. I know that Audrey and I went at least once with the two cousins, driving them and arriving at the dinner hour. (We were willing to bear the extravagance.) And I remember going once with my mother-in-law when Audrey and the children were away during a summer weekend. That time, she insisted on treating, and also insisted on our arriving before three. But why had we never taken the children there while my mother-in-law and her cousin were still alive? I wasn’t even sure that my kids remembered the stories about the place until Brett insisted that the Lobster Box was where he wanted to celebrate his birthday this year. Brett has always felt a special closeness to his grandmother, and I’m sure that impacted his choice.
Audrey, Amanda, Brett, and Janiya are all smiles---
and all bibs.
We had a great evening, traveling and eating. Brett and his friend Adam arrived by Uber from Queens. Brett’s friends Helene and Jon came with their children Janiya and baby Peter by car from Queens. We came over the GW Bridge from New Jersey, braving a rainstorm, and met Amanda in upper Manhattan for the ride to the Bronx. We drank, we ate, we told stories about family members there and absent. We shared Adam’s sumptuous and “over-the-top” German chocolate birthday cake. Then we separated and went home. It didn’t take any of us three hours to get home. But, then, we had made the trip to the Lobster Box mostly for the food and the celebration. We all admired my mother-in-law’s adventurousness. We just didn’t have the strength to emulate it.