Saturday, December 30, 2006

I love the city

And I love my neighborhood. We went out for dinner tonight to celebrate the completion of my first ever book manuscript. I had a hankering for pasta with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, so we went to Anna Maria, which used to be a short walk from home but now is a short drive away. They haven't got a kids' menu, but they can make whatever you order (Ben wanted pasta with alfredo on one side, marinara on the other. And the desserts! Mr. Tangerine always gets the tiramisu, but was too full to finish it tonight. Ben and I shared the bomba al cioccolata, a blissfully light and airy, warm and moist square of cake, swimming in bittersweet chocolate sauce, with a dollop of whipped cream. It was all we could do not to lick the plate clean.

I love the area we live in because we're sequestered amid a zillion great restaurants, precious few of them part of mega-chains. Would have to drive a good 10 miles to the closest Olive Garden, but there are over a dozen Italian indies within a couple miles of us.

And I love the neighborhood because while we were at the restaurant tonight, there were five other tables with kids (this, at a place where the cheapest pasta dish costs $10.50). Three of the six families were of mixed races. One of the families had two dads. I like that none of these groups stick out as "other" here.

Sure, the city's noisy and congested, and snow turns black from exhaust along the roadway (although: hooray for it being 44 degrees on a late-December evening with no snow on the ground!), and real estate's small and pricy. But I wouldn't trade it for clean, peaceful, spacious homogeneity. I find homogeneity discomfiting.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The C-word

Mostly done with Christmas shopping, including buying my assigned ingredients to cook for Christmas Eve dinner at my sister's. Still not done with the book! Ha. Maybe I should work on that this afternoon.

Just wanted to report Ben's two finest remarks today:

• "Holy C-word!" (Because he's too genteel to use grown-up words and say "Holy crap.")

• "You know what's more fun than school?" he asked. "Christmas!" (Indeed.)

Mr. Tangerine and I are excited because my cousin's gonna give Ben the game of Operation—and we haven't played it in many a year! Man, I hope it's still fun. We'll find out tomorrow night what all Ben has in store for him from Santa—I've got all these toys and gifts sealed in shipping boxes and shopping bags, hiding in plain sight. Ben is none the wiser. But I don't really remember everything that's in those boxes. I hope Santa did a good job and Ben doesn't greet his goodies with disdain come Christmas morning...

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Apologies for all the non-posting of late—that book deadline is December 27 now, and I procrastinate madly, but have had either the discipline or laziness not to be blogging up a storm in the pursuit of procrastination.

I am compelled to report Ben's latest mash-up of idioms. Are all six-year-olds prone to combining words and phrases like this, or is it just Ben?

"Holy lord of gravy!" he exclaimed this morning. And no, there is no gravy in the house. Just a saying...or two...or three. He was having a blast looking through a stack of old kindergarten papers, artsy things from last year. One item was his rendering of a train trip with Mr. Tangerine. Now, they rode the Amtrak from points north. Various commuter trains to the suburbs are called the Metra. The mash-up boy declared that the drawing paid homage to the time he and Daddy rode the "Ametra train." Refuses to acknowledge ever riding on Amtrak—nope, it's all Ametra, all the time.

Still haven't sent out my holiday cards. Why? Because his school picture was so cute, I wanted to include it in all our cards. So Mr. Tangerine scanned it in (shh! don't tell!) and I ordered a zillion prints via Apple's iPhoto. Paid extra for FedEx shipping so I could get my cards in the mail sooner rather than later. Well, them bastards inadvertently forgot to use FedEx (but not before sending me an e-mail giving me a FedEx tracking number), and said, "So sorry, we'll credit you for the express shipping, the pictures will be coming via untraceable regular mail." Then they followed up a few days later to say, "You know what? The carrier might have lost those pictures. We'll refund everything, and you can reorder your prints." Ten days after originally placing my order, I haven't received anything. My theory? Not only was the package not FedExed, it was never sent by USPS either. So I'll be heading to Walgreens (I wish they'd use an apostrophe) or somewhere and using one of those kiosk dealios to print the danged pictures myself. Which is exactly what I was trying to avoid when I ordered the pictures online in the first place, you know? Holy lord of gravy.

I'm not quite done with Christmas shopping—there are a handful of nieces and nephews who may well be receiving Target gift cards, because my gift-idea machine is all tapped out. Mr. Tangerine and Ben are pretty much done shopping for me, without having done a thing—I've been shopping for myself and getting things I want, and then they can give them to me for Christmas. The boots couldn't wait for the 25th—I started wearing those a couple weeks ago. Toasty warm! (They're the boot version of Merrell's Primo Chill slides that nestle my tootsies so splendidly.) It may be deemed highly unsentimental to buy one's own gifts, but (a) Mr. Tangerine works long hours and (b) who knows what I want better than me? I have also bought some thoughtful things for him, but he's mainly excited about the plasma TV that's coming this week. It's really his birthday present from months ago—he just didn't get around to ordering it until now. I'm not too excited about having a 50-inch screen in my living room (which we'll have to start calling the Plasma Parlor), but elsewhere in the blogosphere, somebody remarked that her new plasma TV would come in handy for making Greg House's blue eyes that much bigger and bluer. She's right! Not to mention Jim on The Office! And when some crossword fellas I know appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show next month, it'll be groovy to see it on a bigger screen. (Degrees of separation from Oprah: Two! If that's how you count it. If you know someone who knows a third party, is that one degree of separation or two? I've never been clear on that.)

Probably I should be eating lunch, decorating the tree (just put it up yesterday, and thank the good lord of gravy that it's one of those pre-wired-with-lights fake ones—real ones drop needles, need watering, like to list to one side, and occasionally give me itchy eyes, plus you have to string the damn lights yourself, and I wish to never, ever do that task again), or, say, polishing that manuscript. All quiet on the house front, with Ben and his dad out playing football. See what I mean about the procrastinating? With 10 days to go until my deadline, and 8 days until all those Christmas presents need to be wrapped (not to mention acquired!), I have no business blogging right now. Oh, the sacrifices I make. (And oh, the rationalizations of a lifelong procrastinator. Jesus gravy!)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The N-word

Ben's hankering for an after-school snack. "Mom, can you get me some food? I want the N-word."

"No noodles!" I replied. He's had about five separate servings of ramen noodles, pasta, or mac-and-cheese in the past three days. N-nough is N-nough!

(If you're looking for perspective on Michael Richards' racist outburst, read Leonard Pitts' column in the Chicago Tribune, arguing against the use of that other N-word. Free registration required.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

June 29, 1912—December 1, 2006

Rest in Peace, Grandma

My grandmother died in her sleep early Friday morning. It took her 11 days of bouncing back and forth from death's door before she died. I spent several hours with her on Thursday, and she exhibited the agitation the hospice professionals often see when someone is near death. This agitation consisted of struggling mightily to get out of bed and "go"—looking back, I suppose she was convinced that heaven was just down the hallway, and she could go already if we'd only get out of her way. We couldn't, though—she didn't have the strength to walk unassisted, she was catheterized, and she would likely have fallen and caused herself physical pain. She was able to "go" about 12 hours later, resting peacefully with the aid of morphine and a sedative.

The old broad had a surprising amount of strength left that last day. This I know because she kept planting her feet against my legs and kicking, trying to dislodge me from the bedside so she could clamber out. I'll bet I'm the only one of her grandchildren she'd ever kicked—so yeah, special memories. (If I'm still alive at the age of 94, I hope I've got that much muscle tone and oomph left.)

Hospice volunteers assured me that I oughtn't take the kicking personally. It was a tremendous help to have a volunteer and the volunteer coordinator with us that afternoon. One of the nursing home's staff nurses (or a nurse's aide? not sure) showed amazing grace—holding Gram, comforting her, shushing her, nuzzling her—to help ease her out of the agitation. And this, despite a hot flash midway through! I hope she's there on Monday morning, when we return to the nursing home's chapel for the funeral service, because I'd like to thank her again in person. (Gram thought that was a huge selling point—"a place I can live that has a chapel where I can hold my own funeral? Sign me up!")

The Drama

Grandma's life had many dramatic highlights, from Day 1 to (roughly) Day 34,500. She always said she weighed a pound and a half when she was born, and was swaddled in a shoebox near the stove. I can't help but wonder about the accuracy of that measurement. Plus, she was born about 8 months after her parents married—perhaps she wasn't small and early, but they wanted to give the impression of premarital chastity? Or maybe she really was a preemie, and thrived despite the nonexistence of NICUs. She spent some of her childhood on an Indiana dairy farm, and her family later returned to Chicago.

During the 1918 flu epidemic, sickly-kid Gram escaped harm, but her healthy sister perished, leaving her an only child. When she was about 17, her father was getting dressed for work one morning and keeled over with a heart attack, leaving just two members of that family of four. (So sad!) He was only 40 or 41 years old—can you imagine?

As a young woman, she worked for a milliner (but wasn't too keen on hats later on life). She later married a man who became the sweetest grandpa in the world, but probably was a dreadful husband during the early decades. He was an alcoholic who once passed out in the street; someone came to the house to alert Gram. Eventually he pretty much stopped drinking, but I can't imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been to raise children with a husband like that.

She had a difficult delivery when her second child, my dad, was born. He was in a breech position, and he sustained a broken right arm and permanent nerve damage in the birth process. Gram and Grandpa used condoms in the years following this traumatic birth experience (which she told my sister about five years ago—she spoke so candidly in her last years); she must've been terrified when she became pregnant three years later. (Though there were no complications that time, fortunately.)

Grandma and Grandpa never owned their own house. Instead, until I was a teen, they lived in the upstairs of a two-flat owned by Grandma's stepfather, a cranky man whom she never cared for. Eventually my great-grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease, and Gram cared for her for as long as she could. Then the stepfamily whisked Nana off to a nursing home and opted for tube feeding. After her mother's death, my grandparents moved to a senior citizens' apartment building in the suburbs, where Gram was pleased not to have to answer to her stepfather/landlord.

Gram continued living there after Grandpa died about 14 years ago, and I think she appreciated having a place to herself finally. She had a live-in caregiver for five or six years, until about a year ago when she became too medically frail to live at home. She had five or six (or seven or eight) hospital visits over the past year, but enjoyed the nursing home she moved to. She could play bingo on the premises, and she could attend Mass any day she wished.

Her last hospitalization came a month ago, and the specialist physicians determined that there was nothing more they could do to improve her condition. They recommended that she enter a hospice program to receive palliative care, and I'm so glad that Gram agreed to it. (She was always remarkably pragmatic, though she definitely struggled with this tough emotional decision.) She lived only a few more weeks, but hospice arranged for palliative medications, and the staff and volunteers were so helpful to us family members, putting alarming things into their natural context within the end-of-life process. Gram hated the discomfort of IVs, so I know she was happy to avoid dying in a hospital, stuck with needles and hooked up to monitors.

Childhood Memories

I never liked the "clean plate club." When a grandma expects you to finish all the food on your plate, but she's cooked assorted Polish dishes and sauerkraut and you're a picky eater, it's just not happening. (I'm much more suited to my in-laws' tradition of "leave some on your plate for the spirits.") I preferred to focus on the lazy Susan in the center of the table.

Grandma knitted and crocheted, so we had cute little sweaters and ponchos (in the poncho's early-'70s heyday). She handcrafted Barbie clothes, which my sister still has. Did anyone else ever have a bra for their Barbie doll? Gram made one. She also crocheted a blue bikini; when crocheted bikinis came into vogue several years ago, I thought back to Barbie and Grandma's fashion prescience.

When I was young, Grandma enjoyed tending her collection of African violets, aloe vera (she'd snip off a piece as needed for medicinal purposes), and my favorite, the burro's tail.

In the basement of that two-flat, there was an old wringer washing machine. There were more treasures up in the dusty old attic. There were so many layers of enamel paint on the staircase up to the attic, the railings were smooth and shiny. (So much for preserving original woodwork!)

Eloquent Summary To Place It All in Perspective

We'll say our final goodbyes tomorrow morning. Grandma had a long life, but she liked to say, "I never thought I'd live this long." She raised three boys, and buried one of them five years ago. She got to see all six grandchildren grow to adulthood, and enjoyed her 12 great-grandchildren. I'm glad my son had the opportunity to know his last remaining great-grandparent, and to gain an understanding of death as a natural process. It was an honor for me to be able to share those last two weeks with my grandma, too. She was surrounded by her family during that period and received an outpouring of love before she died. And then when death finally came, it was peaceful and pain-free. Can't ask for more than that.