It’s Halloween, and it sure gets lonely here

People like us — who live along a country road with no sidewalks or streetlights — on Halloween are like whaling widows from the 1700s, who keep the candle burning in the window night after night, waiting for their husbands who years ago were lost at sea.

Despite the fact that we live on Elm Street – an iconic name in horror movies — Halloween is a dud. No parent wants their child trick-or-treating on a winding road with no lights and plenty of blind turns; the type of road that Freddie Krueger would have relished.

Still, year after year we carve the pumpkins, buy bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups that end up in the freezer, and put on the lights, hoping that we will enjoy a classic Halloween, haunted by princesses, jedis, ninjas and ghouls. This year, as we gaze out the window at the chrysanthemums and corn stalks smothered by an early snow, does not look promising.

We can usually count on the three small children from the next house visiting early in the evening, before their parents drive them off to more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. And our son and his friends will load up on our candy before they too decamp for happier Halloween hunting grounds — where the homes are close together and a pillowcase can be filled in the time it takes to watch two episodes of Sponge Bob.

A few years ago was a banner year. We had a total of 12 trick-or-treaters: the three children from next door, then John and his pals. The doorbell did not ring for at least an hour, then lo! A half dozen teens appeared on our doorstep, all dressed as slashers. It was our friends’ son and his friends, They made pleasant conversation and helped themselves to some candy before getting down to business: inquiring politely if they could use our bathroom.

I guess we could just keep the lights off and not open up for Halloween. But I am still haunted by the memories of the Oldhams, the one household in my childhood neighborhood that did not open up. Their house and front path was spattered with burst eggs, which they’d hose off every Nov. 1. And old Eddie, may he rest in peace, would complain bitterly to my parents about “those G-D kids” and how “it’s a terrible world out there.”

Halloween is the only time I miss my former home in Pennsylvania, in a new development where everyone had small children. Back then I would make at least 80 candy bags and they would be gone within an hour. Neighborhood children would visit, and as they grew older they brought posses from other neighborhoods. We also had a spread for the adults accompanying the little ones: pumpkin bread, cheese and crackers and (most importantly) cider spiked with Laird’s Applejack. One of the dads, a school principal who always dressed in drag for Halloween, would down two glasses while the kids loaded up on candy; then took one for the road. Each year our home became more and more of a draw; I wonder why? 😉

But this year on Elm Street, where on any other day we’d savor the peace and the privacy, Halloween will be a lonely time. Still, we go through the motions and hope for the best.

Tonight we’ll carve the pumpkin like we always do. Tomorrow night we’ll find a used but still substantial candle and place it inside; then set the illuminated pumpkin on a rock by our driveway…in plain view of anyone who passes by. We’ll put on all the lights in front of the house, to make it look welcoming. And we’ll wait.

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Farewell to the Mom-Mobile

After 13 years of driving my practical van, there’s a new vehicle in my life. It’s a sleek sedan with a racy profile and metallic gray paint. A protrusion on the back of the roof looks like a small shark fin. The Michelin tires flash more chrome than rubber. Its technology system, which has a two-inch-thick manual that is too daunting to read, is so sophisticated that the car can practically drive itself. Its rear seats are heated. Despite a few nods to practicality – including a very roomy trunk — it is a sexy car.

Bob and I kept the 1999 Toyota van that once served as the “mom-mobile,” for trips to Lowe’s and in case one of our grown children needs it to move to a new apartment. But the old black warhorse, with numerous scratches and 186,000 miles under its belt, no longer has the pampered spot in our garage. The sexy car is parked in that spot now, and the unglamorous van is parked outside the house, next to the garage window, peering in like a jilted accountant spying forlornly on his ex and her personal trainer.

I don’t drive the van much any more – just enough to keep its battery turning over – but every so often I look through its windows, or sit in it and breathe in the old-car scent and the memories. When we brought home the van I was 44, newly remarried and newly relocated, with a blending family and a bonus baby. We brought John, now 13, to the apple orchard in the van when he was just a year old, running around the orchard with a half-eaten apple in each hand. The van brought our son Ben on his paper route during icy afternoons. Its front seat served as a psychologist’s couch during the years before the kids could drive themselves, when they’d (very) occasionally share their worries and ask our advice.

That car survived a rear-ender on a cold January night, when I had picked up my daughter Rachel and her friend from basketball practice and I foolishly changed lanes without signaling. Its rubber bumper still shows the bash from a parking lot hit-and-run in State College, PA. Our grown sons took the van to the Outer Banks six years ago, stopping at numerous souvenir shops selling hams and Confederate flags along the way, while we drove ahead in the sedan. Beach sand from Cape Cod to North Carolina still dwells deep in its battered car mats. Crumbs from a cookie baked in 2005; sliding doors sticky from spilled Juicy-Juice; stains on the gray velour seats from a preteen with motion sickness…they are all still there; badges of valor on a vehicle that did its job, year in and year out.

When I drive the van now my hand goes to the wrong place when I shift from park to reverse to drive. I feel a twinge of impatience when the van doesn’t accelerate as fast as I expect. The new car is fast becoming the regular car.

Old cars always make me feel wistful and a little melancholy. Every unloved car in the junkyard once made someone’s heart quicken. After a year or two new cars stop exciting us, and after a decade they become a problem, until we need to do the math to decide whether the cost of maintaining them is worth it.

But for now, the old van is our retired hero…no longer in active duty, but still venerated and appreciated. Its 186,000 miles are a symbol of how far we’ve come.

The Mom-Mobile's replacement.

The good cook’s curse

I admit first of all that I come from a family of culinary Olympians. My earliest memories entered my temporal lobes via the nose: my mom’s fragrant Sunday gravy cooking over the stove for hours; the fragrance of garlic sautéing in olive oil on meatless Fridays; the anise-scented biscotti that my Aunt Rita made, Aunt Chickie’s stuffed cabbages; Aunt Anna’s ricotta cheesecakes; Aunt Theresa’s pizza. All were crafted from scratch, sometimes requiring a day of effort, often with the help of a cheerful coterie of aproned aunts.

Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmom’s house was like an Olympic opening ceremony, with wave after wave of outstanding specimens. The salad, pasta with meatballs, the turkey itself with all the trimmings, the desserts that my aunts brought in. Even the simplest food was prepared with great brio and great love, and served in lavish amounts, one gold medal winner after another.

Bad cooking — involving something that came out of dented Ragu cans, an envelope of Spatini or a box with that awful Kraft logo — was something that non-Italians did. We Italians did things the right way, the way we learned from our mothers, with no shortcuts. Any event where the food was stingy or halfhearted was a flop, something to be whispered about afterwards. We avoided most dinners at Protestant churches for this reason.

As I grew older, and learned the basics of mixing meatballs and cooking pizzelli from my mom, I learned that cooking well is not only a way to show love; it also attracts admiration and attention, and puts people in your debt: neighbors, coworkers, boyfriends. This sounds very screwed up but it’s the truth. Anyone who is the least bit insecure can relate.

Yet, while I crave the attention that comes from the results, cooking for me has always been a solitary sport. While the meal is the performance, the actual process of cooking is both grueling and all-consuming, like practicing for hours at the barre before a ballet. I can be in the kitchen for most of the day and lose total track of the time. It is a way for me to lose myself, to tune out the world by disappearing into something all-consuming. That’s why I never answer yes when an anxious guest asks if I need any help, even though we’d probably all enjoy one another more if the meal were a group effort.

So even during my busiest times as a working woman, I always considered skillful cooking as a duty and a pleasure that could not be sacrificed. For my daughter Rachel’s third birthday, when I was heavily pregnant with son Ryan, we spent the day in Philadelphia visiting the old Please Touch Museum, but I still found time to make her a homemade cake in the shape of a train, replete with Oreo wheels, pretzel logs for the flatcar’s cargo, and a boxcar filled with M & Ms. When I coordinated one office Christmas party, I had it catered but still cooked for eight hours. When anybody visits us, whether it’s family or strangers, I feel like it’s a command performance in the kitchen. The command doesn’t come from my family and friends – who probably wish I would just relax — but internally.

But lately I have found myself envying people who’ve let it all go; who can spend the morning before a dinner party cross-country skiing, hiking with their families or reading a good book, or can just transfer some salad from a bag to a bowl and hand their spouse the hamburgers to barbecue for guests. Who can share the same kitchen with a box that has “Kraft” on it. Or who can – as one acquaintance, a well-heeled mother of eight – tell a hungry child at dinner to “just microwave a baked potato.”

Good cooking can be both pleasure and compulsion. It’s a hobby that borders on extreme sport. It’s so absorbing that I not only forget myself, but I also tune out everybody else.

A beautifully cooked meal from scratch is a gift, but nowadays it’s an impractical one. Many times Bob has suggested that we “just have a salad” for dinner but I never act on it. My in-laws, when they visit, beg me “not to fuss too much” but I can’t.

Lately, as I move through middle age and with only Bob and John and I left at home, I am trying to be more relaxed in the kitchen. I’ve given myself permission to top Price Chopper pasta with a jar of Barilla vodka sauce (with some fresh basil sprinkled over it all.) We’ve been making Kraft macaroni and cheese more often; Stouffers if people under 13 from outside the family are dining with us. We’ve discovered the wonders of frozen corn dogs and meals from a Trader Joe’s sack tossed into a hot skillet. Sometimes we even have sandwiches for dinner.

Somewhere in heaven my grandmother is thinking about staging an intervention.

So they’re moving out — should they take their furniture?

My friend Jane shared a funny story, one that I am sure will resonate with any middle-aged parents whose children have left the nest. She allowed me to share it with my readers in the hopes of stirring some discussion – and frankly, she and I would both like to hear some opinions from other parents of grown kids!

Her son Patrick, after a few years living at home post-college, was moving to Cambridge. Jane came home a few weeks ago to find Patrick and friends moving a bookcase from his bedroom into a waiting vehicle.

“Why are you taking that?” Jane asked.

“Well, it’s mine isn’t it?,” Patrick answered, very innocently.

“We did buy it for you, but it belongs to the house,” said Jane. Patrick answered that Jane and her husband Rich also bought him a laptop, and that the bookcase was in the same category.

Now Patrick is not a disrespectful kid whose had everything handed to him. He has studied hard and worked hard, graduated at the top of his class at a very competitive college, and has made his parents very proud. Still, you have to wonder how much of his bedroom is his by law and how much belongs to the house.

“You’re not taking any of the silverware with you, are you?” asked Jane, with mock suspicion. She let him take the bookcase.

Jane shared her story with a number of our friends, and all had different reactions. Some felt she was right; others felt that kids should be able to take their furniture with them when they move.

Our grown kids have taken plenty of old furniture, but only stuff that had been updated with something else. Since we are a blended family, we occasionally face ethical questions in this area. For example, my kids’ grandparents left them some fine old end tables, which are beautiful but very traditional. Neither of my kids wanted them but Bob’s kids were thrilled to have them. So we figured that my kids’ grandparents, who were good souls, wouldn’t have minded.

Our biggest problem is just the opposite from Jane’s: we wish our fledglings would take more from the nest. Our basement is filled with old posters with brass frames and cracked glass; class pictures from the early 1990s; flea-ridden Beanie Babies; a frame for a trundle bed that hasn’t been slept upon since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were popular. And lots of pole lamps, which Bob seems to collect. But I digress.

Patrick and his girlfriend Olivia hosted Jane and Rich at their apartment a few weeks ago. Patrick was regaling his folks with a story about each piece of furniture and where he found it. The bookcase, he said slyly, was a Craigslist find.

Would love to know where other parents stand. What should kids be allowed to take with them when they leave?  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that our son John has two bureaus in his bedroom that had been mine when I was five years old!  The scary thing is that I still remember when the furniture guys brought them into the old bedroom that I shared with my sister!

Tulle time: building a wedding dress, and a bond

Erin Lucien is among the most fearless men I have ever met. He hasn’t climbed steep mountain faces, taken up cliff diving or vacationed in the Amazon.
Instead, the Redwood City, CA-based home remodeler fulfilled a promise he made to his daughter more than 20 years ago: to make her wedding dress.

The daughter, Danielle, marched down the aisle a month ago today, and my story about it was published yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a link.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/10/09/LVMK1L3VRO.DTL

Erin Lucien is 56, and has never shied away from getting out of his comfort zone. But this one project was a giant leap for a man who had never sewn before. His daughter, a former tomboy who fished by his side when she was small, says it has strengthened their already-strong bond.

All of us in middle age can point to many times that we sacrificed for our children. We sacrificed our time, our money, our sleep, our careers when they were small. As they grow older and develop lives of their own, we can take pride in what we did for them and what they have done for themselves.

While the need for sacrifice hopefully goes away once they’re grown, so do the opportunities to strengthen the bond. We walk a line between treating them like the adults they are and wanting to delight them like we once did with homemade Halloween costumes, fanciful birthday cakes or custom-built dollhouses. To delight a grown young man or woman sometimes requires that we do some growing on our own. It means being willing to try something unfamiliar and challenging because it will give us one more cable to pull our grown kids closer.

The wedding dress took courage on Erin’s part and trust on Danielle’s part. Erin, who has rebuilt kitchens and bathrooms and invented a few whimsical household items, had to learn how to handle $100-a-yard silk. He read “Sewing for Dummies,” watched YouTube videos and visited local fabric stores to ask a lot of questions. He labored over the muslin prototype, fussed with three layers of skirt and fretted over the engineering of the straps. He wasn’t afraid to throw out things that didn’t work. The process took several months.

A number of people wondered whether Danielle was making a mistake. While she had another dress bookmarked in case something really went wrong,Danielle said she knew in her heart that her dad would come through. When she walked down the aisle last month, both she and Erin knew that they did the right thing.

Hours later, during the post-reception cleanup, one custodian complimented the bride’s dress, and Erin told him that he had made it himself. The man wordlessly and reverently extended his hand.

What Erin did for his daughter can inspire similar awe in any adult who has watched their grown children grow more independent, feeling both pride and regret. But it shows that the opportunities for truly delighting our children don’t go away as they age, if we are just willing to be fearless.

“More” and less: Why I canceled More magazine

Is there any other midlife woman out there who gets annoyed when she reads MORE magazine?
I canceled my subscription last year after their story about Nancy Pelosi. The story itself, by Lynn Scherr, was great…well-balanced, neither fawning nor trashing. What bugged me was the tease for it on the cover: “The most hated woman in America.”
Who are they talking about? I wondered, since the tease did not include a name. Is it the woman who drowned her kids? Ruth Madoff? Casey Anthony?
Instead, their “most hated woman” could indeed be the epitome of MORE’s target reader: middle-aged or older, impossibly well-coifed, impossibly well-dressed, well-spoken and rich. A woman who has everything except self-doubt.
And that’s what else bothered me, beyond MORE’s assumption that Pelosi is universally hated. MORE is more or less for older women who have the world figured out. Does that include you?
I’ll admit that MORE celebrates many successful older female role models with inspiring stories. Many have overcome early setbacks that would have destroyed a weaker or less talented person.
But those stories about those women who are so comfortable and secure with themselves are nearly buried in the pages upon pages of ads for Restylane, Botox and Juvederm. Even their editorial pages are replete with $300 Tory Burch shirts and other pricey accessories, affordable only if you’re Meg Whitman or a Texan’s kept woman.
The more I read, the more I thought that MORE was little better than Glamour for grandma. An aspirational magazine that offered a glimpse of what can be yours…as long as you are very wealthy, very skinny and genetically gifted.
It’s bad enough when younger-skewing magazines pitch that message to our daughters. But when a magazine pitches that message to an older audience, it’s disturbing for a different reason. The implication – to me at least — is not only that it can be yours, but that it oughta be by now. We had years to get there, ladies! And now we’re out of time.
Most older women are dealing with at least one of the following: health issues, divorce, aging parents, empty nests, lost jobs, ageism. We are also dealing with fine lines, sagging jowls, thinning hair, thickening waistlines.
I would love to see a magazine that celebrates middle-aged women who do the best with what’s been given them genetically, within reason and without plastic, $1000 hand bags and extreme dieting. Who are neither fashion plates nor frumps. Who are still vibrant and engaged in the world despite loss, hot flashes and years that have not been kind. But of course that doesn’t sell Botox.
Maybe the whole idea of a “woman’s magazine” sounds a little silly as we age. What kind of magazine does an older woman really need? And between all those trips to Neimann Marcus and the plastic surgeon, who has time?

How do we manage the end game?

Talked to my mom this morning, our usual Sunday morning ritual, and she shared a story that is troubling to any of us in middle age and worried about our aging parents. I’ll tell it here without any judgment and let you think for yourself.

Mom volunteers at a local school, and was going through her yearly orientation meeting when she a teacher whom I will call Anne. At 56, Anne is dealing with a series of interrelated tragedies, which she recounted to Mom. She has been caring for her mother-in-law, stricken with Alzheimer’s. Her father-in-law’s health also recently took a turn for the worse. Along with caring for her ailing in-laws, Anne also is dealing with severe storm damage to her home – including a flooded basement and uprooted trees — which her homeowners insurance will not cover.

Overwhelmed by these pressures, Anne and her husband Jack asked her sister-in-law Janine, an unmarried teacher in her 40s, to step in and take over the parents’ care. With no husband or family of her own, Janine had given her heart and soul to her career and to generations of students, and she loved teaching. Taking care of her ailing parents became a fulltime job, and Janine had to abandon the career that she loved. Depressed, she killed herself.

This story raises a lot of questions. Couldn’t the parents have gone into a nursing home? Didn’t they have a house that could have been sold to finance that? Couldn’t Jack and Janine contributed towards paying for someone else to step in and care for the aging couple at home? Would a more resilient person than Janine have toughed it out? If insurance had paid to fix the overwhelming problems in Ann and Jack’s home, would the couple have had more strength to be caretakers?

We always hope that we won’t have to face tragic circumstances like these, but the fact remains that many of us will as our parents age. I know of several middle-aged friends facing the anguish of watching a parent transformed by dementia or Alzheimer’s, and making difficult choices as to whether to care for them at home or institutionalize them. Some are empty nesters; others are still raising kids – including good friends of ours who are taking care of their three children and a woman with advanced Altzheimer’s in a very small home. Some are families with money; others are struggling. The choice doesn’t seem to be any easier.

In my family we tend to dance around the question of “what if?” My mom tells us to “Call in Dr. Kevorkian” if she ever gets that bad; never mind that he’s dead and we’d never think of doing it anyway. My mother-in-law, who is in robust health, has long-term care insurance; my father-in-law, whose health is worse, does not.

It’s easy to question why Anne’s family tragedy happened and offer suggestions on how it could have been prevented. It’s harder though to see your way clearly when it happens to you. Maybe we boomers need to spend more time planning for the end game, even if it means asking tough questions.