The Cycle of Life


Now that VSCO girls are considered a little passé, my granddaughter—a young, relatively unsophisticated teen—has picked up on the fad and is using it to torment me on the first hot days of late spring. “Dalma (her name for me), are you trying to be a VSCO girl?” Ella smirked. “What is a VSCO girl?” I asked, not knowing whether to be offended. “Short shorts, long shirt, scrunchies . . . VSCO girl,” was her cryptic reply. I went to the internet and looked up the term.

The look we adopted in the early ‘60s involved wearing a trench coat over Bermuda shorts, and it didn’t have a snappy title. We just thought it cool to look like we were only wearing underwear or, perhaps more titillating, nothing at all under that short raincoat. The difference is that this new look has exploded into a viral marketing strategy, and someone is getting rich. No one got rich from our attempts to look seductive on campus in Miami sixty years ago. We didn’t have the internet, social media, memes, and mass marketing back then.

The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is quoted as saying, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” which translates as, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Alternatively, we can take heart in my mother’s practical advice:  Don’t throw away your old clothes; they will be fashionable again eventually!

Bat Mitzvah in the Time of COVID-19

Ella’s Torah and Hebrew studies began in earnest over a year ago, right after her twelfth birthday. There were the usual protests: too much work, not fun, why me? Eventually Ella resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have a Bat Mitzvah—neither her mother nor I, her grandmother, had had one, so she would have it for us as well. I didn’t have one because I couldn’t or wouldn’t learn Hebrew; and, because I was a girl, my dad wasn’t all that concerned with my lack of orthodoxy. His two sons had celebrated their entry into manhood in style, with big celebrations and fanfare. He was satisfied. Ella’s mom reached the age of thirteen at a time when religious participation was absent from our lives, the result of my two marriages to non-Jews and my open hostility towards organized religion.

Rabbi Jean, our hippie-ish Reformed religious leader, took on the role of preparing Ella for her big day, and Samantha dutifully took her to Saturday morning services at the synagogue—a treat for the few elders who attended faithfully, she provided a minyon, the required number to conduct a religious Sabbath service, and a young voice.

“I’m leaving,” Rabbi Jean told us early last fall. “My husband has taken a job in Florida, and I am going with him.” Consternation and betrayal were my daughter’s first reaction, but then understanding and resignation took over as she and Rabbi Jean planned to continue Ella’s studies using FaceTime to meet weekly. Novel, I thought—virtual Hebrew education. Given my own experience with the language, I was a bit leery. Undaunted, my daughter continued planning decorations and the menu with the temple’s sisterhood for the reception at the temple. I bought a lavender tallit (prayer shawl) and a matching kippah (skullcap) in a Judaic shop in Miami.

Then came the pandemic! Ella’s middle school classes became virtual, Saturday morning services were Zoomed from the temple, and studies with the rabbi took on a normalcy we had never anticipated. However, no matter how normal virtual studies had become, the necessity of social distancing and sheltering in place demanded that we rethink a June bat mitzvah. “We could postpone it till fall,” Samantha said. “What if we are still in this mess in the fall? Then what?” I countered. There was grimacing, hand wringing and, of course, Ella’s typical teenage pronouncement that she was perfectly happy not to be bat mitzvah-ed. Well, that wasn’t going to happen—but what would we do?

In the end, we sent out email announcements to family and friends. “It’s Bat Mitzvah time! Although we are moving forward with Ella’s Bat Mitzvah, due to COVID-19 and the continued need for social distancing, the service will be presented virtually. Please join us . . . on the B’nai Shalom YouTube channel.”

Since sending out the announcements, I have made twenty lavender masks for the few people who will be in the temple with Ella. We will be in the large sanctuary, with room for five-hundred people—plenty of space for social distancing. Rabbi Jean will be with Ella on a large screen, while the new rabbi stands on the bimah (raised platform). I will stumble through my aliyah, (being called up to the Torah reading); even when it’s written in Hebrew transliteration, reading the Hebrew blessing is a challenge for me. And in the end, we will be swept up in the currents and flow of tradition, and we will rejoice in the blessings of family, even in the time of COVID-19.

Running Away From Home

When we passed the dumpster behind the Cracker Barrel restaurant, the futility of trying to take a walk before we left for dinner took on a surreal intensity. The powder blue sky above was clear, the air had a slight crispness to it that only mountain air has in late June. Still, we were circumnavigating a restaurant parking lot.

“Really?” we said in unison and began to laugh at ourselves as we stood at the guard rail, gazing down on the streets and stores below and winding up across the hill to the standard US shopping mall. “Do you want to walk through TJMax?” Heidi asked a hint of sincerity in her voice. I hesitated for a minute before I said no, it was the very last thing she wanted to do and I didn’t want reinforce her belief that I was still addicted to shopping there.

“No, I don’t. Let’s go find a park to walk around. Morgantown must have parks.”

Running away from home when you only had a partial weekend to make your getaway and return in time to resume your responsibilities was not easy, not to mention finding a co-conspirator to share costs and a destination palatable to both. There were only two people who were possible candidates and I sent texts to each asking where they were now. One, Heidi, was home in Maryland, the other was tending to her grandson on her boat down on a lake in Kentucky. She was out. I dialed Heidi’s number.

“I’m running away for the weekend. Want to meet me halfway?”

To her credit Heidi didn’t ask for details. Instead I heard a long UH-OHH, and a “Yes. Send me the details.”

According to the map quest app, Morgantown, WV was the mid-way point between Ona WV and College Park Md., a totally boring three-hour highway trip in either direction unless you count the spectacular Appalachian Mountains in full leaf. Google supplied a nearby attraction to set as our destination—Arthurdale, otherwise known as Eleanor’s Little Village, a depression era WPA pet project of the First Lady.

“Let me get this straight . . . I am going on vacation to visit the projects! You know I hate poor people!” Heidi doesn’t really hate poor people, but she was once a poor person and she hates to be reminded of it.

I shuffled past Ella ensconced in the recliner, eyes glued to the television, shielding my bright orange overnight suitcase with my body, left a note for Tim to fix the dimmer switch in my kitchen on top of his coffee maker hoping he would notice it and respond, and snuck out of the house. The car clock said eight-thirty am. I backed down the driveway and left. For the next two and half hours I drove hashing out, half aloud, the argument I had with my daughter. It was one of those arguments—the ones you can’t win because you and she remember the past differently. It was my fault, her body image problems, her weight issues, and now I was doing it to my granddaughter. Her face was red, her eyes bulged, and she drew up her shoulders to their full height and then leaned her face down and hard into mine. Struck dumb, I turned on my heel and made a beeline for my apartment door, retreated down the stairs, slamming the door behind me. I spent the next couple of hours in a stew of anger and remorse, indignation and guilt. It was fight or flight. I choose flight.

I turned off at exit 146 and the trip became more like a small adventure. The road took me through the hilly West Virginia countryside, past farmhouses and trailers, Baptist Churches and small country stores. A pretty drive until I found myself making sharp turns and steep hilly curves on a severely narrow one-lane gravel road. Lost, I lucked into a mail carrier around a bend in the road. The mail jeep stopped about a dozen feet ahead of me and we faced each other like two bulls in heat. I slowly inched the car forward and to the very edge of the road and as I did, the jeep’s driver did the same. Hugging the roadside, we each crept forward until we were window to window.

“Hi,” I said as I rolled down my window.

“Hi,” she said through her open window.

“D’ya happen to know if I’m on the right road to Arthurdale.”

“Well, let’s see. Yep, you can get there from here. Just keep going straight about two miles till you get to a cross-roads, turn left and keep goin’ till you get to Arthurdale.”

“Is it far?”

“Nah, not far, about ten minutes.”

Sure enough ten more minutes and the Welcome to Arthurdale, population 802, metal sign was on my right—blink and you’ll miss it. The real town, Reedsville, population 563, the one with the grocery store, quilt shop, garden supply and coffee shop, and restaurant, was just past the stop sign from Arthurdale. A dozen cars and pick-ups parked haphazardly around the oval driveway fronted the three somewhat dilapidated white clapboard buildings shaded by a very old looking tree. Under its branches sat an assortment of older potbellied, bearded men smoking cigarettes and watching me pull in. The men and cars gave the impression that the little visitors center, the grange hall and the Appalachian craft shop was at least a popular destination; one with something more interesting than sparse vestiges of Arthurdale’s failed promise of hope for the families rescued from the depression era mining camps of nearby Scott’s Run coal fields. Regrettably, they were there for a family reunion and had stepped out of the grange hall to have a smoke.

Eleanor Roosevelt is a personal hero of mine. I often quoted her popular sayings like “No one can demean you without your permission.” The sparkling mountain air invited us to look over the rolling farmland, dotted with the renovated homesteads left from the original settlement. However, despite the glorious weather, Eleanor’s little village failed to live up to its on-line hype and Heidi was all too eager depart and find a place to eat. As far as she was concerned we had traveled into the never-never and everything we saw and anyone we met, bordered on the bizarre. The enormous coal-burning furnace, occupying a space at least as large as the kitchen in the little farm house, brought howls of laughter. We snickered at the docent, who with obvious pride identified her mother among the students in a photograph of Eleanor passing out diplomas at an early high school graduation. We stared dismissively at the two spindly chestnut saplings planted as part of a national chestnut tree re-growing campaign. However, I think we were both sobered to learn that over four billion chestnut trees had died of a disease in the past century. It was hard to make that fact a laughing matter.

“Where to now?” Heidi asked, still tiptoeing around a direct question about what triggered my escape from Ona. I took a big bite of my cheeseburger, another rebellion since I ate it with the bun and all, and shrugged my shoulders. Arthurdale was my big play, now I was dependent on Heidi and her google skills for what to do next. Running away is like that, not much time for planning. “Is there an art museum on WVU campus?” I asked.

Heidi went to work, fingers flying over her cell phone. “Yep, and it closes at five. Need to go now.” Soon we were rolling up and down the winding roads, me following closely behind Heidi’s car. Two U-turns and several more miles we came to the new art gallery, parked and rushed in hoping to make good use of the hour left before closing. We marched through the first of the two exhibition halls so fast—I don’t remember what was in it. Then we came to a Shepard Fairey exhibit, Work against the Clampdown.” The big posterized graphics thrilled my anti-Trump heart to its core. The exhibit depicted Capitalism, oil and coal as the evil giants robbing the American youth of its idealism. I chatted up the docent, a tall woman about my age who by my own comparison, made me feel short and ethnic, but who exuded liberal pheromones. We talked about the debate amongst museums as to whether political art, street art like Fairey’s, qualified as museum art. In solidarity we shook our heads and lamented the conservative approach to high art when Heidi, an anti-Trump republican, brushed past on her way out the gallery doors. “I don’t get all this anti-oil stuff. He’s using oil paint isn’t he?” she muttered as she went by.

A Marriott stood on a hilltop it shared with a Cracker Barrel, and overlooked several chain restaurants and across to an outdoor mall on an opposite hill top.

Nap time. At least I hoped it was naptime. The hamburger was lying in a pool of grease at the bottom of my stomach and I was tired from the early morning drive, but Heidi was now ready to learn the details of whatever drama led to my leaving home. More to the point, Heidi was ready to weigh in on my living arrangements, my relationship with my daughters, her unparalleled friendship with me, and my thinly disguised fraudulent compassion—none of which I was in the mood to hear about. An existentialist conversation on the meaning of my life was the price for Heidi’s complicity in my escape, but I was going to do my best to delay. That’s when we went for a walk around the Cracker Barrel.

“Next time we meet somewhere for one of your adventures, it will be in civilization so we can just leave your car and go in mine.” Heidi said as we settled down in her new Volkswagen Gulf. “Fine by me,” I said, “but we would have missed meeting in the middle.”  I heard a low what-the-frig just over the sound of the engine revving up.

We set out in search of a park, a place to walk off lunch and think about dinner. We agreed to avoid Olive Garden and Red Lobster even at the cost of no dinner. Instead of a park, we found ourselves driving through a cemetery strung out along two small hillsides, steep enough that we decided to drive through rather than walk. “That girl, the one in the photo that looks like a senior picture, isn’t even dead yet.” Heidi pointed out the stone in a row of three. The other two were relatives, perhaps parents, already gone and laid to rest. It struck us as odd, and then as funny. On the backside of the cemetery was a gravel road that looked at first as if it would take us back out to the gate. Instead, it dead-ended into a grassy field with several graves, marked only with plastic signs and an odd assortment of full whiskey bottles, plaster-of-paris angel heads, whirligigs, and dead potted plants. If the not-dead-yet girl’s photo made us laugh inappropriately, we were downright hysterical looking at the macabre gravesites. Try as we might to bring some gravitas and civility to the moment, we couldn’t. The day, the circumstances, the place had all conspired to make us a little bit mad.

“Shaken or stirred?” the bartender asked in a distinct Aussie accent. I looked around—double 007 must be somewhere nearby. After all, it was that kind of circa 1900’s hotel and bar, and most certainly that kind of day. No one had ever asked me before if I wanted my vodka martini shaken or stirred! Sitting out on the rooftop, watching the deepening sky turn from blue to magenta and finally to a depth-less black, tiny lights blossoming across the horizon, Heidi and I both relaxed, talked about nothing of importance, or personal. A mediocre, but not unpleasant, light rock singer crooned in the corner while I enjoyed the buzz of the vodka slowly dulling the sharp edges left in my psyche from the night before.

I woke up at six am, drank my two cups of instant hotel coffee in silence, dressed and left. I scribbled a short note on the hotel stationary; Call me when you are on the road. Thanks and thanks. Carole

Despite texts from my son-in-law encouraging me to stay away as long as I wanted, I was ready to return home. I passed the lengthy drive by looking for KFC’s on the way home, intending to remember the exits where they were. Not a chance in hell. The miles and hours passed as I imagined obsessively an original recipe fried chicken thigh, grease dripping from my lips, and spilling onto my jeans.

Pulling into the road leading to our house I stretched my neck to see if my daughter’s car was in the driveway. The urge to sneak in undetected overwhelmed me. Her car was parked in its usual spot and I saw her riding the lawn tractor up the hill on the far side of the house. She passed in front of me as I pulled in and we both made limp little waves in the other’s direction.

Ella bounced down the stairs to see if I was ready for our nightly ‘healthy living walk’.  “Just you and me?” I asked. “No, mom and dad are coming. They are waiting upstairs with Ginger,” Ella replied, giving me a slightly awkward smile. Kids know even if they don’t know.

As we went down the hill, I remembered of the scene of the Clinton’s walking to air force one during the Lewinski scandal, Chelsey between them to minimize the negative optics of the first lady’s rage at her husband’s infidelity. Samantha walked ahead holding Ella’s hand, Tim next, trying to keep Ginger out of the tall grass and ticks, and I trailed behind sensing the cool, awkwardness that enveloped us.

Monday dawned and I wondered if the cold war was still hot! Tim woke up with vertigo, chaos loomed and I was needed if Samantha was going to get to her office. She didn’t ask. I texted and said I would bring Tim to the doctors after I dropped Ella at art camp. If she needed me, I could retrieve him as well. “Thanks mom,” came her reply.

The cold war ended, Sam held my hand dragging me up the hill frowning and fretting as I caught my breath. As we walked, she lectured Ella on the importance of daily exercise and limiting the amount of food she ate at dinner. I didn’t say a word. I thought, thanks Heidi.

SHARING THOUGHTS: Two US disasters, the current pandemic and 911 – a decade apart; the world’s response – light years apart. No commentary required.

(AP Photo/Carmen Taylor)

“Dear Dr. Garrison, it seems not believable that such event could take place in US. I hope that while the historic twin towers of America could be collapsed, the freedom and democracy cannot fall down. The United States is still the main country that can spread the freedom and democracy to all around the world. At the end, I wish you and all Americans having happiness forever. Hopefully, good acts will win the sin.”

Sincerely, Nareth Phnom Penh, Cambodia. September 2011

“And if Trump wins a second term? Any nation can make a mistake once, elect a bad leader once. But if Americans choose Trump again, that will send a clear message: We are no longer a serious nation. We are as ignorant as our thoughtless, narcissistic, ignorant president is. Don’t be surprised if the rest of the world takes note of that, too. The Rest of the World Is Laughing at Trump. The president created a leadership vacuum. China intends to fill it.”

Anne Applebaum, Staff writer at The Atlantic. May 3, 2020

Death in the Time of the Pandemic

The day was somber. Heavy clouds scudded across an oyster-gray sky, and a chill north wind blew as friends, bid goodbye to their mother. The service was held virtually as social distancing precluded even the smallest funeral. After a brave, struggle with COVID19, Bertha was scheduled to be released. Instead, the virus, one so deadly that the CDC had no treatment, ravaged her organs, leaving her dead in three days. The irony was not lost on any of us who had followed her and her family’s journey of desperation and hope over these last many days.

The nurses came to her hospital room when they were free from their work with other patients, a loving but poor substitute for the family she loved and had spent caring for most of her life, Her family and friends were not assured that her last painful breath on earth would not be alone.

Death has freed Bertha from pain, and that comforts me. Her death is as inexplicable to me as her birth; both are part of the cycle that unites us all, makes us human, and should . . .  lead us to be better people in the time in between.

I’m sad that Bertha lost her struggle. I’m sad for all loss of life that seems so random, premature, and cruel. Bertha’s death reminded me of just how tragic these deaths from this pandemic are but also how so many more can be prevented by following the rules laid out by the medical experts, by effective and moral national leadership, by a healthcare system both prepared and equitable to all

Traveling in the time of Covid19

Upstairs, down and up the big hill behind our house, a quick trip to the local one-person post office, and a bit longer drive to the service window to get a mini Blizzard when it is just too hard to stay confined a second longer. No expensive airplane tickets, no souvenir shopping, hotel rooms or dinners out!  I have saved a bundle! I may have saved enough that if I survive the pandemic I can travel first class around the world—take the Siberian Express or the Orient Express. I probably won’t have the cash for a trip to outer space but if I’m going to dream big, than why not!

Instead, I have traveled inwards, journeying into my imagination. In addition to the more philosophical pursuits, I have traveled through decades of travel memories while rummaging through the long since stored boxes of photographs, or remembering major shopping trips as I try to cull my closet of more clothes than is decent to own.

Staying confined does not need to be confining…your borders are the limits of your imagination. I am flying free and far—to infinity and beyond.

Mother’s Day in the time of COVID 19

We sat together for a Mother’s Day cookout, my hamburger lay cooling on the platter. I like my meat rare and hot, they like theirs well done. My son in law takes mine off the grill first so that it does not overcook and so as in the past, I smile because a cold burger is a small price to pay for being with my grandchildren and my daughter and her husband. During this pandemic, I stay mostly isolated in my downstairs nanny unit. It is entirely self-contained and with rare exception my children stay away to protect me from catching the virus. So being with them was a rare treat.

We didn’t wear masks at dinner but there were no hugs, kisses or touching—an odd sign of the times. Love was there, a good contagious vibe in the air, but certainly sans physical affection, an unwelcome new normal.  We took photos after dinner, I returned to my solitary confinement and thanked the universe that I, and my family are still safe—and sincerely hope you are as well.


The starlings have moved on. Apparently even West Virginia is too hot for these raucous birds. The finches have claimed dominance over the bird feeders, sharing them with a few jays, mourning doves, and tiny woodpeckers. The grass has started to brown, and plants wilt from the unrelenting heat and sun. Is this a harbinger of things to come or just a normal variation within the seasons?

beach clouds dawn evening
Photo by Zukiman Mohamad on

I planted a wildflower garden to attract butterflies but have yet to see one—lots of bees but no butterflies. I’ve spotted a few hummingbirds, and hungry deer came up to my patio and ate the Portulaca down to their roots. All of this makes me nervous about climate change; it seems subtle and yet inevitable, like a rising tide that engulfs and drowns those who are not paying attention.Continue reading “THE STARLINGS HAVE MOVED ON”

Growing Old, Staying Relevant

Three quarters of a century old. Who among us thought, when we were angsting over turning thirty, that we would face the challenges of being seventy-five or older? When I turned thirty I got a guitar (that I never learned to play), an expensive sports car (that my ex wanted as part of our divorce settlement), and a tailor-made tennis outfit (even though I could never learn the game).
It’s embarrassing to remember how un-self-aware I was when both body and mind were young and agile. It’s not that I didn’t understand social causes. I joined with the African-American community to get out the black vote after MLK died, promoted breast feeding and natural childbirth, and generally was a good citizen. It’s just that most of my attention was squarely focused on me!Continue reading “Growing Old, Staying Relevant”

A Hard Rain

The rain was coming down like a giant rippling curtain, greying out the color of the trees and forcing the birds to take shelter among their branches and the bushes. It wasn’t like a summer thunderstorm, menacing and loud, but more like an ocean of water pouring down in a steady, expansive stream with hardly a sound. I finished my morning walk down the steep hill behind our house, made up my little single bed, and emptied the few dishes in the washer. There was not much to do except watch the rain and hope that the lightening sky meant the storm was passing . . . or be forced to think about the disturbing news I heard that morning on PBS.

“Which disturbing news?” you might ask. There is so much of it, both here and abroad, and I’m not numb to any of it. But this was almost unbearable and, perhaps as I think about it, it will become more unbearable.

President Trump’s approval rating has actually gone up this past week. Gone up despite ripping babies from their parents, lying continuously to the American public, and displaying his buffoonery to adoring crowds who are still chanting “lock her up!”Continue reading “A Hard Rain”