I got a manicure. And a pedicure. And a very expensive, much shorter haircut. I tried on every dress in my closet. Not that there are many, but I modeled each one. With different bras. With different shoes. With different Spanx.
Am I headed to the Met Costume Gala? Nope. That already happened. Without me. Do I have a date? Please. That’s another essay. None of the above. The event? My youngest graduates from college this weekend.
I sat in the relatively new, subterranean Amenity nail salon in downtown Westport, staring at small, square, white-grouted tiles of what looked like alternating pieces of crumpled gold and silver aluminum foil under glass, while gusts of forced air dried all twenty nails. And wondered why college graduation merited this level of vanity. I rarely get a mani/pedi (see my essay on Sun Reflexology). I just find it hard to justify the time and cost. I swore there was nothing anyone could do to my hair that would be worth what I paid. And none of the seemingly endless combinations of footwear and support garments seemed to make much of a difference.
And, most importantly, since I will not walk across the stage, will not receive a diploma, and will only appear a few photos from the knees up, who cares how I look? No one will see my toes. Why does my hair matter? And who will even notice the bra/Spanx/shoes under the dress that no one notices?
The weekend is about him. ALL about him. ONLY about him. His dad and I might have created and supported him, and his brothers and stepmom may have provided advice and encouragement, but he earned the diploma that he will receive on Mother’s Day. He did all the work, and gets all the literal and figurative credit.
I don’t want anybody focusing on, or even noticing me, really. So, then, why all the fuss? I realized that it’s more about wanting to feel good – to feel festive – about the weekend and feting him – thank looking good. About wanting to be just a little more clipped, coifed, and clothed than usual. To rise to the occasion of his big occasion. To have the outside match the level of excitement and pride that I feel for him inside. To be my best self for his best self.
So while my toes may remain hidden all weekend, I’ll wear my heart on all my dress sleeves.
Although I started out in the Bronx, and lived in Killeen, Texas while my dad was in the Army National Reserve (where my sister Suzanne was born in a military hospital), the first place that formed vivid early childhood memories was Howard Beach, Queens. Our parents bought a co-op there in Lindenwood. Apartment 5F. I imagine it was a real “we’re movin’ on up” moment for them. It was the suburbs compared to the small Bronx apartment we shared, in a Greek enclave near my father’s immigrant parents. Come to think of it, my mom must have been delighted to put some distance between her and our dour ya-ya, her mother-in-law.
I haven’t been back in the 45 years since we left for the real suburbs of Westfield, New Jersey, but Suzanne and I had been talking about a nostalgic trip back every year for the twenty that I’ve lived here.
“Wanna go get some Greek food in Astoria tomorrow and then go to Howard Beach?” she asked last Friday.
“Definitely. You must have read my mind,” I told her. “Flying in and out of JFK for Portland reminded me of how low the planes flew overhead when we lived there.”
So she, her husband Bruce, and I set out for the far away borough over the eternally clogged Whitestone and onto the perpetually congested Van Wyck in search of our past. New Yorkers endearingly never feel the need to say “bridge” or “expressway.” We just know.
We drove down 155th Avenue past the “garden apartments” where some of my friends lived – I so envied their small patches of grass – and pulled in to the same hairpin driveway where our dad would park our black VW Bug. Where the Good Humor truck pulled up in the summer. When we heard those bells ringing we pled like Pavlov’s dogs with our mother to throw down two quarters in a twist-tied baggie, and raced around from the playground in back to the driveway in front to catch him in time.
“Hello, Nancy!” He called all the girls Nancy. “What’ll it be today?” We’d order a Toasted Almond or Chocolate Éclair because we’d need $0.35 for the more deluxe chocolate-bar-in-the-middle Chocolate Fudge Bar.
I remember seeing him out of uniform in the Waldbaum’s once. Suzanne and I were dumbstruck. We thought he lived in that truck.
Our building, and the one directly across the driveway (where we attended nursery school in the basement before it was called Pre-K) looked much the same, if not better kept than I’d expected. But they looked shorter, too. I guess a six-story building looks taller to a six-year old thank to an admittedly short adult.
Back then the playground featured a surface of decidedly kid-unfriendly gnarled asphalt. It split my lip and chipped my front tooth when I slid down the steel sliding pond face first. My tooth is still yellow from that poor choice. It got so hot in the summer that it singed our already pre-sunscreen seared skin.
In those halcyon days, my sister, three years my junior, and I would play for hours unattended in that playground behind our building, or ride our bikes on the adjacent oval of rose-colored concrete that we affectionately called “the pink.” We could commiserate with Joni Mitchell over its having been paved over so they could “put up a parking lot.”
Our mom would hang out of the window now and then to check on us, or to alert us to an impending meal or bedtime. We’d argue futilely for a few moments before her voice rose to the decibel level that indicated nonnegotiability. Those twin buildings provided a gaggle of in situ friends, and an abundance of easily accessible Halloween candy.
We snapped a few photos, looked up at our bedroom window, and then drove down to our alma mater, P.S. 232. It, too, is in remarkably good shape. Suzanne and I sang our school song: Children, from P.S. 232, Children have lots of work to do, Working and then we’re playing, We’ll have lots of fun when work is done!
The mean Mrs. Martin picked relentlessly on Dennis Gibbons in third grade in that building, and I learned Spanish there with Mrs. Romano in the fourth. Back then, before the fear of predators kept kids on a short leash, Suzanne and I used to go across the street with $1 each from our mom (on the rare day she didn’t feel like making us PBJs) and sit on red vinyl swivel stools at the luncheonette counter and have a lunch of hamburger, French fries, and a Coke in a white paper cone sitting in a red hourglass-shaped plastic holder.
Through the miracle of Facebook, we have reconnected with many Howard Beach friends. It’s great to share memories like how our mothers would leave us, sleeping, with the front doors ajar, so they could listen for us (before baby monitors) while they played mah jongg in an adjacent apartment.
We didn’t stay long, and we didn’t do much besides touch the school building as if doing so would somehow reconnect us to that part of our history. It sufficed to be there and remember where we came from.
On the way home we watched a big papaya-colored sun dip behind the Manhattan skyline. It reminded me of The Cyrckle singing about the sun as “a red rubber ball.” I listened to Cousin Bruce, on WABC-AM, on a small transistor radio by the public pool. It reminded me of the pink Spalding ball we bounced on the playground: A my name is Annie and I come from Alabama, my husband’s name is Andy and we sell Apples, crossing a leg over the ball after every word starting with the letter “A.”
It seemed that just being back there, walking that same concrete path that we’d followed thousands of times, was enough to trigger a hit parade of memories. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right in saying You Can’t Go Home Again. But it was sure nice to visit.
Powell’s City of Books, established in 1971, is the largest independent bookseller in the world. Titles spread over a city block, arrayed in color-coded rooms. Blue for literature and poetry. Pearl for art and photography.
It’s poetry month, so all titles were 15% off. I love a sale, and took advantage and milked it as illicit permission to linger longer amongst the poets, including my crush, Shakespeare. I pored over selections ranging from brand-spanking new LGTBQ poems to rarer, older tomes wrapped in protective plastic. I passed a red Shakespeare t-shirt that read: “This shit writes itself,” but resisted the temptation to buy it, and snapped a photo instead.
It’s a readers’, writers’, and book lovers’ paradise, so big and so awesome that I visited twice on my first day in Portland. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so I checked out and shipped the first basketful of books off before I went to reload. Also, I had to stop for sustenance and to regroup mid visit. Fortunately, the World Cup coffee shop is located in the red room surrounded by erotica, anime, and manga.
The level of eclectic here is unrivaled on the Post Road. The metal hanging from one cashiers ears looked like replacement auto parts.
I felt self conscious because my hair is just brown and not some color of the ubiquitous rainbow. Portland is delightfully inclusive, and rainbow posters in many establishment windows proclaim that loud and proud.
A man sat close by crafting daffodils, calla lilies, and morning glories from napkins and straw wrappers. Between each creation he hand danced like an Olympic ribbon gymnast with his raw materials to music from his earbuds.
A Kathy Bates (circa “Misery”) look alike and her look alike husband sat, comfy and dumpy, hunched over a mountain of books and their lattes. It may have been Easter Sunday, but this was their church.
My seat at the wooden counter at the window allowed me to watch the world go by: Buffalo Vintage across the street was closed for the holiday, but Patagonia and Icebreaker Merino were bustling. The passing cars were small and disproportionately electric, and the bicycles plentiful. And by some stroke of fortune, so was the sunshine.
Checking back on the crowd inside the cafe, I watched a young woman with jet-black hair in pigtails that pointed up to the cosmos, like antennae looking for alien life, cross stitch a raven onto a gossamer piece of beige gingham. Her short sleeved shirt pattern blended seamlessly with her tattoo sleeves.
A young man with a voluptuous red beard and seemingly matching red plaid flannel shirt approached the paper sculptor. He wore a pussy hat composed of quilting squares, and had what looked to be a small Navajo rug safety-pinned to his back. Snug white kitty-clad tights covered his legs.
The man next to me watched Game of Thrones on his iPad.
Refreshed and refueled, I dove back into the volumes, wandering through all the colors.
After nearly three hours, I pondered exactly why this place felt like nirvana. What sway did those stacks hold over me?
In part, maybe because I write, I have an endless, insatiable fascination with the multitude of ways that others find to twist and tie a finite number of words together to create seemingly infinite quantities of delight. They hold the power to teach, transport, and titillate. I lament only the limited time to tackle these treasures.
Also, I think about my dad. He and I shared this passion. There was not a garage sale, bookstore, or street fair that he’d pass up if it featured books. They held his attention longer than almost anything, except maybe fishing on Highland Lake. We could indulge in this activity and be together without saying a word. We bonded silently in reverence for the written word. He bought me the first in my antique book collection, and contributed to it often. When he died 15 years ago, one of the hardest things for me was sorting through, and ultimately donating, many of the books we’d bought together. Maybe, I though, another father and daughter would peruse and select the collection together.
On my way out of Powell’s, a disembodied voice from the PA system announced “attention Powell’s shoppers. If you left your Tupperware in the ladies’ room please come to the information booth on that level. It’s waiting for you.”
And as I exited, red beard man stood pointing at Powell’s: “That’s a big bookstore! I’m a small bookstore, and he pointed at his chest. Several bundles of small square cards, which I realized were completed sudoku puzzles, hung from his neck from colorful ribbons. “I made these! They’re books!” I stepped closer to admire them. “Really nice,” I said. “My son makes books too. He’s taking a class on bookbinding now.”
“Cool,” said red beard as he smiled and nodded.
As I thanked him and turned to go, his handmade books flipped around. On the back of each is the word YES, writ large.
“Yes,” I think. Yes. Yes. Yes