When Your ‘Baby’ Moves 3,000 Miles Away

Learned last week that my 24-year-old son Ryan will be starting a job with the UK headquarters of a major consumer products company. He’ll have a great salary and benefits, a mentor and a real path for career growth.

Any mom would be proud of this, as I am. But just a small touch of regret is mixed in there, too, and I wonder if any other parents have struggled with this. We work hard to raise independent children, so is it normal to feel conflicted when they are independent enough to settle 3,000 miles away? Do I feel this way because I am Italian, or a Catholic who remembers the biblical story about your children being like olive branches sitting around the table?

I was not surprised that Ryan landed this job. A born problem-solver, Ryan at age 3 figured all by himself that the claw end of a hammer could remove staples from plywood sub-flooring – after watching his father and me struggling with pliers.

“He’s so smart he scares me,” my own dad once said.

After graduating with honors in 2010, Ryan took a year to teach English to second graders in Madrid, then moved to London, where he lives today and works for a large department store. I could sense he was genuinely happy across the pond, but a (very small) part of me hoped that eventually his little European experiment would be over and he’d move back to the U.S. and start his real career here.

But Ryan fell in love with Europe – its worldliness, its de-emphasis on having lots of possessions, its relaxed attitudes towards many things that make Americans uptight. Something told me he would stay there permanently but I didn’t want to believe it.

So last week I learned he had been chosen for a “real job” that would commit him to a training program for at least two years and pretty much guarantee him a job with the company afterwards, most likely in Europe. I knew he wanted this job; I prayed that he’d get it; I had my St. Joseph statue facing out the window towards London (you Catholics will understand what I mean.) When those prayers were answered I felt so very proud.

I went to Ryan’s Facebook page and added my name to the dozens of “likes” and my congratulations to the dozens of comments…all of them sincere and genuinely thrilled for Ryan. And over the past day I’ve been thinking about what this means for me as his mom.

This is not unfamiliar territory. My daughter Rachel, who was always very independent, moved to California a few years ago – 3,000 miles in the other direction. That was a little easier because she was in the same country and just an hour away from her loving grandparents, uncle and aunt…but it was still hard. We keep in touch constantly via texting, email, chat and phone, so I feel connected. Still, I feel a tinge of regret mixed in with overwhelming pride when I see the life she has built for herself; the goals she has reached; the friendships she has made. Each milestone is a reason to celebrate this intelligent, successful, beautiful young woman, and also another pillar in the shiny new life she is building 3,000 miles away.

One of my very favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, once wrote a Mother’s Day column for the New York Times that spoke wistfully about how quickly the years fly.

“Every year, if we do our jobs right,” she wrote, “we move more and more to the sidelines of their lives.”

So now Ryan will live 3,000 miles east of here; Rachel 3,000 miles west.

As I was thinking about this yesterday, my friend Karen O’Neil happened to post this quote from Janell Burley Hofman, who wrote a column called “Ode to Adolescence,” on Facebook. It was if she knew I needed it:

“We are crossing over. You are my baby. But I cannot carry you now. You walk alone into a new world. I want you to linger here, but you constantly push. You will change. You will grow. You will stumble. You will rise. I will be soft and firm. I will guide and step aside. I will lean and I will pull. I will be lost and I will be certain. I will reach for you, and if you do not reach back, know that my heart remembers your heartbeat. And I will always be holding you there.”

Farewell to the Bagel Man

Great bagels are a transcendent experience.

Murray Lender, who brought bagels to the masses and made Lender’s Bagels into a national brand, died this week. What better time to reflect upon all the great Bagels We Have Known?

Murray Lender once presided over a ceremony featuring the World's Biggest Bagel. He would turn bagels into a food juggernaut by introducing it beyond the Jewish community.

Without Lender, we’d still be eating toast every morning. It was Lender who turned bagels from a strictly Jewish food enjoyed with lox into a breakfast staple — enjoyed by many millions of people of all ethnicities. He did this by freezing many of the bagels sold fresh at his dad’s New Haven bagel bakery and selling them at supermarkets. Lenders Bagels would eventually go national and introduce the treat to Gentiles everywhere. Without Lender there would be no Brueggers, Einstein’s Bagels, Manhattan Bagels, Finagle a Bagel and other national chains.

Those of us in midlife can surely remember those primitive years before the Great Bagel Awakening, when bagels were a rare specialty. When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mom would travel about 25 minutes from our home to the only bagel place we knew, Original Bagel, along City Line Avenue near Philadelphia. Fortunately, another bagel store opened in the 70s at the Bazaar of All Nations, a rundown department store about five minutes from us. A bag of piping hot bagels became the ultimate way to start to the morning.

In college at Penn State, a large bunch of us at the student newspaper staff enjoyed a bagel party one night after somebody brought back a hoard after a visit to a big city. Back then, in the days before digital photography, we had a photo dryer in the darkroom, which was perfect for toasting the bagels en masse. The newspaper staff’s late-night bagel feast, washed down by copious amounts of beer, inspired me to write a poem on the spot. Fortunately for you I can’t remember all of that beer-emboldened “Ode To A Bagel,” but it began this way: “O donut-shaped morsel, so tasty and chewy…without thee, what have we to see the night through-y?”

As a working girl in downtown Philadelphia, one of my favorite haunts was Bagel Nosh, located on Chestnut Street. That was the first time I had a bagel sandwich…my favorite was chicken salad and muenster cheese on a half-and-half bagel. Still, that was in the late 70s and bagels were by no means everywhere.

But as more people discovered bagels, the bagel chains would ultimately help spread what Lender began. Even after the food took off, Lender remained a cheerful evangelist for bagels for decades. He cashed out of his business in 1984 with a $90 million sale of Lenders Bagels to Kraft, but never stopped beating the drum for his products.

“I never met anyone who didn’t like bagels,” he said once.

I wonder what Lender thought of all the ways his signature product has been interpreted recently. Until bagels became a widespread commodity, one could buy them in only a few flavors: plain, poppy or sesame seed, onion, and sometimes cinnamon raisin.

Today it seems that the bagel has become any food that’s donut-shaped but not a donut. Even MacDonald’s sells them, although they are little more than Wonder Bread with a hole. Over time, Lenders’ many imitators would introduce abominations such as blueberry bagels, asiago cheese bagels and green bagels (for St. Patty’s Day). Perhaps these fusion bagels are an attempt to appeal to other ethnicities (Brueggers makes a wonderful rosemary and olive oil bagel, but is it really a bagel?) One can also buy salt bagels. Why not just twist the dough a few more times and call it a pretzel?

Brueggers even makes a square bagel. And our relatives on Long Island introduced us to “flagels,” which are flattened bagels. They are delicious but look like something that the Beverly Hillbillies would pick up from the road with a pitchfork.

Of course, bagels have joined the pantheon of bad foods for people who are eschewing carbs. My in-laws in California love going to a nearby bagel place, called I Love Bagels, and buying a hollowed-out bagel stuffed with chicken salad or another topping. I’ve tried it and liked it, but can’t help wondering: What’s the point?

A real traditional bagel, enjoyed in its full splendor, is a glorious experience…just the right resistance on its crust and the right density inside. Not soft like Wonder Bread, or hard like the “Jewish jawbreakers” that critics once called the early versions of bagels. A veteran bagelmaker once told the New York Times that “a real bagel fights with you.”

So in honor of Murray Lender, this weekend we are going down to our local family-run bagel joint, which owes Murray a debt because he made the bagel beloved everywhere. We will buy a bag of bagels, find some that are still warm from the oven, and eat them in the car.

Please comment about the bagels in your own lives!

How You Can Tell When Your Blog’s Bombed Like Hell

Poet laureates for regretful bloggers: Henry Wadsworth Longwinded, Ogden Nashmyteeth and (below right) William Butler Yikes!












It’s happened to me; it’s happened to you.

The blog post that makes you think “What did I do?”
How could I have written something so numb
That even the crickets are politely dumb?

It seemed so terrific as you worked at the screen,
You toiled over wording and set up the scene.
You chose the right keywords and said it’s a bet
That this blog would be your most popular yet.

William Butler Yikes!

But a few hours later, you check on your stats
And notice the bar is stuck in the flats.
WordPress says that your views total two,
You suspect that includes just your mother and you.

So where are your loyal followers lurking?
Maybe they’re busy, or maybe they’re working.
The weather’s been fair, so maybe they’re hiking
Or just maybe this post isn’t to their liking

You hit “refresh,” but it does no good
The bar doesn’t rise like you hoped it would.
But lo! In your inbox, a comment-reply!
Your heart soars with hope – “I’m redeemed!,” you cry.

You click on the link and joyfully wait
For the accolades that will say you’re top rate
But alas, your buoyancy soon gets the boot
With a one-word assessment that says “cute.”

While once you felt brave, you’re no longer smiling;
It’s the blogging equivalent of drinking and dialing.
This blog post has made you uncomfortably stressed
‘Cause it’s freshly excreted, not Freshly Pressed.

The Joy of Dust

My whole house looks like this now.

Dust has never had a good reputation.  It aggravates allergies, looks ugly, turns sofa cushions and mattresses into vile powder puffs.  It harbors mites that under a microscope look like horror movie nightmares.  It inspires random taggers to write “wash me.”

But over the past few week fighting dust has been a losing battle here.  Contractors have been ripping out our old stairway and installing new treads and railings, and a new floor upstairs.  The process has released clouds of dust into our home; much of it dwelled deep under the matted green carpeting that covered our stairway and hallway for more than 30 years.  The imprisoned dust, freed from Azkaban, has gleefully flown throughout our home, taking over every planed surface – floors, newer rugs, furniture, countertops.  Joining it was newer dust created by our contractor’s power saw.

Dust brings many unwelcome visitors, such as these dust mites (photo from dustmitemagic.com)

At first I relentlessly chased the invading dust army, vacuum cleaner and Pledge Grab-it in hand, trying to round up every speck.  But as new swarms of dust particles arose from the dead every day, I realized its fruitlessness soon enough and within a few days tolerated it.  And finally, I reveled in it.

It is incredibly freeing to give up on chasing dust and dirt and to realize that nothing that you can do will matter.   Once you reach this stage it is a small step to embrace other messy but soul-satisfying pursuits that you have avoided for fear of making a mess that you don’t want to clean up.

So over the past few weeks I’ve taken on sewing projects that cover the carpeting with a confetti of snipped threads; baked with copious amounts of flour, which sends up its own clouds of dust; and cooked meals that require several pots.  I’ve tracked dirt into the house and left shoes where I should not leave them.  Two days ago I blew my hair dry in the bathroom rather than my bedroom and admired every uprooted hair strand on the white tile.  Just yesterday, while admiring a wide swath of dust on my dark wood kitchen floor, I spied a few random Cheerios under the heating register and greeted them like old friends, just letting them be.  It felt so good to be a slob.

Within a day or two the guys installing our new stairs will vacuum up our front hallway, pack up their tools, collect their final check and drive away.  Where 30-year-old, matted, ugly, gray-green wall-to-wall carpeting once lay will be freshly varnished wood treads, a stately new post and bright white risers and spindles.

So why do I feel a touch of melancholy amid the thrill of beholding our beautiful new stairway?  Quite simply:  I will miss the dust and the messier and more creative me it unleashed.

Travels With My Aunts

Josephine Cipolla, who had both brains and beauty, died of tuberculosis at age 22. She and other members of our family endured poverty, illness and prejudice.

Decades ago, my Aunt Josephine, an Italian, was the top student in her predominantly Irish Catholic grade school, but the nuns didn’t want to make her the valedictorian.  “Couldn’t we find an Irish child?,” one of them asked the pastor.

Fortunately, the priest told the nuns that if Josephine Cipolla was the top student, then she deserved the honor.  But my grandparents were justifiably wary about the local Catholic school after that.

This story was one of the many shared by Josephine’s sisters – my Aunt Chickie and Aunt Theresa – last Saturday over a get-together at Chick’s house.   We were filming  them for an oral history of my dad’s side of the family.  Josephine, my dad, and three of his other siblings have died; Chickie, Theresa and Aunt Rita, who was in the hospital, are the three survivors of this family of eight children.

About a dozen of us sat in Aunt Chick’s cozy home, a place of many warm family gatherings in the past.  My sister Julie and cousins Barb, Wendy, Ann and Paul – all of us middle aged – listened raptly to their stories.  Chick, Theresa and my mom, Gloria, who knew the Cipolla family since she was five years old, searched back to their earliest memories.

Along with prejudice against Italians in the early 20th century, the Cipollas had many other things to overcome: poverty, illness, heartbreak.  Brainy Aunt Josephine died of tuberculosis at just 22. We learned that the 1918 flu epidemic claimed my first Uncle John when he was just 18 months old.  My grandmother was pregnant with another child then; when a boy was born she named him John, who became the Uncle John that we knew.  “It was like having my baby back,” Grandmom said at the time.

Aunt Chick remembers how her mother never went to church because her clothes were so shabby. She remembers when a freak summer hailstorm destroyed Grandpop’s garden, where he grew the vegetables that fed his family through the winter.  This tall, stoic man cried like a baby when he saw his ruined garden.  Theresa remembered how she and her siblings would get to pick out a free toy each Christmas from Mrs. Potts, a kindly neighbor, during the Great Depression.

They also told wonderful stories about how family pulled together.  Grandpop would go out early after a snowstorm to shovel a walkway so that his children could walk to school.  Despite hard times he would share the bounty from his garden with his neighbors.  Aunt Chick would use a hand saw to cut wood for Grandpop’s projects around the home; while the other aunts preferred the kitchen, Chick was a tomboy who loved being with her dad.  Theresa remembered when my dad’s pet duck was in peril when my Uncle Andy wanted to slaughter him for dinner; how Uncle John would scare her by pretending to be Frankenstein; and how she walked in on my grandparents during a moment of passion.  Here is a link to a (private) YouTube video with some of their memories.

Mom remembered how her future sisters-in-law dressed her as a bride when she was just five years old, complete with flowers and a curtain for a veil.  Sixteen years later Gloria would be a real bride, marry their brother “Tot,” and become their sister.

The afternoon went quickly and I was sorry when it ended.  It was a peek into the past before our own past, the experiences and values that set the stage for how my generation of Cipollas would be raised.  I came away from it with a new appreciation of my family’s many struggles, and renewed pride in their strength and values.

Mugs Full of Memories

Our favorite mugs. My go-to mug is the second from the left.

The inside of my favorite mug is not pretty and it's probably leaching lead into my brain.

One of my oldest and dearest friends is still pretty on the outside but dangerously cracked inside.  I’m wondering whether I should end the relationship but keep putting the thought out of my mind.

I’ve had this flowered coffee mug for at least two decades now.   I look inside it and see a spidery network of tiny cracks, resembling a parched riverbed after several seasons of drought.   No doubt the mug is leaching lead into my morning brew every day, and caffeine is pumping it efficiently into my brain.  But the cascade of coffee quickly hides the cracks and then I forget about the dangers.

Can’t remember who gave it to me.  It was not part of a set, but something passed on to me, once used by someone else. The mug and I bonded instantly.  I reached for it day after day and packaged it carefully when I moved to New England 14 years ago. Sometimes, even when bleary-eyed at 5:45 a.m.,  I bypass other clean mugs and wash this one because somehow the coffee tastes better in it.  This thick stoneware vessel is the perfect shape for holding coffee – with its wide and stable bottom, tapering top and sturdy handle.

Moreover, it has the name “Julia” inscribed in the bottom.  It’s probably the name of a series of dishes from Stonecrest, the company that made it.  Maybe it was the name of the dishware designer’s wife or daughter.  But Julia is also the name of my beloved sister, who lives five hours away.  So this mug is the next best thing to having her with me each morning for sharing secrets and gossip, skewering politicians and waxing poetic over food.

While sister Julia still looks gorgeous at midlife, Julia the mug is starting to show its age.  The handle has a hairline crack and another, wedge-shaped crack.   It is only one fall away from being shattered and useless.

Fortunately we have other mugs that we love.  Only a few of our mugs match and we like it that way.  Along with savoring our coffee we can savor the memories that each mug evokes.  Our mugs are a ragtag and faded lineup but we proudly use them when serving guests.  I  never understood matching sets of mugs.

My husband’s Penn State mug, which I gave him several years ago, is his favorite.  It’s big and blue and manly, and drinking from it feels like having Franco Harris deliver your coffee.  I never drink from it when Bob is home, but sometimes if he’s away on business I use that mug and it helps me feel like he is across the table from me.  Another mug, which is now 15 years old, has the peeling image of the Maryland Science Center on its face.  It’s a souvenir from a very special time at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with son Ryan, who is nearly 24 now.  The James Madison University mug was a gift from daughter Rachel eight years ago when she was a freshman there; the mug from California’s Diederich Coffee was a gift from Ben, 25; a newer mug features artwork from John, 13.   A much bigger mug – a gift from Bob and John for Mother’s Day – is exclusively for tea.

But Julia, my favorite…I can’t even remember how she came to me!  I vaguely remember another mug from the same manufacturer, perhaps a cousin, that looked somewhat like Julia but with straight sides.  The cousin broke a few years after I acquired it but it was never a real favorite anyway.  As long as she lasts, I’ll enjoy coffee every morning with Julia – the friend who asks for nothing but is always there for me.  When she shatters – and I know it will happen some day – I will mourn.

What’s your favorite mug? What makes it so special?  Please share your thoughts, and pix!

More Midlife Couples Pull the Plug on Marriage

This past week the New York Times reported that more couples in their 50s and 60s are deciding to divorce and spend their sunset years alone.  Here’s a link to the Times’ summary of the study from Bowling Green State University.  It revealed that a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970. (To read the full story the Times makes you set up an account, which is free.)

This phenomenon makes me feel sad. I can’t presume to judge but couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would jettison a longtime partner at midlife.  The couple is likely to have survived many of marriage’s big stressors:  money problems, building careers, raising kids, aging parents.   Doesn’t the experience of weathering life’s challenges together make a relationship stronger rather than weaker?  Perhaps not always.

Physical and emotional abuse, infidelity, dangerous addictions such as alcohol or gambling…these are real deal-breakers in a marriage, and few of us would question a partner who wants to break free of this, even if they put up with it for decades.

But the gray area – which the Times article alludes to – is the situation in which the couple simply grows apart as time goes on, or one of them simply prefers to be alone and free.  The decision can be heart-wrenching: one woman in the Times story spoke of how she wept throughout her divorce, but feels relieved now, even though she is living on the edge of poverty.

How many of us know a midlife couple who makes everyone wonder how on earth they’ve stayed together?  I know of one woman who looks forward to when her husband travels and breezily says her marriage would not survive if he were home all the time.  Another acquaintance stayed put in the family home when her husband took a job 1,000 miles away.  Ignoring his pleas to join him, she stayed where she was because of her career and her friends…until her husband took a mistress there and they divorced.  She was devastated and bitter when it happened.

How many of us know couples who stay together, yet openly disparage their mates in front of others, or (more often) complain incessantly about them behind their backs?  Who show their friends more respect and consideration than their spouses? Would these people be truer to themselves if they just called it quits?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to this, but my take is that people should not expect marriage alone to make them feel fulfilled.  Children, faith, careers, interests, friends…they also contribute to our sense of purpose and contentment.  Yet whether you are married for five years or 50, marriage has to be more than just two people sharing a roof.  Love and respect for each other, and shared interests and philosophies, go a long way towards strengthening the bond and keeping a marriage vibrant through old age.  And while personal fulfillment is an elusive Holy Grail, doesn’t hurt a marriage to put “we” ahead of “me.”


We’ll Miss You, Davy

The girls in my Catholic school class daydreamed about Davy Jones (second from right) when we were not learning our Beatitudes.

For millions of baby boomers, part of their tween years died yesterday with Davy Jones.

Davy and The Monkees helped set the stage for many acts that would follow over the next four decades.  As a manufactured rock band – hatched not in a garage or basement, but in a television studio seeking to capitalize on “A Hard Days Night” – The Monkees were pioneers, clearing the way for “Glee,” “Smash,” and other television shows where the music rather than the plot is the real star.  Davy and his mates were thrown together by television, rather than hanging out in real life, but somehow they coalesced as a band.  Their best songs came from other people – Carol King, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – but the Monkees made the songs catchy and shiny.

Unlike many other pop stars of the late 60s era, Davy occupied a unique place in our ‘tween girl psyches.  Elvis and Frankie Avalon were too old; Sir Paul was cute but already an icon rather than a flesh-and-blood guy; Mick was just too dangerous.  Davy could sing and he was famous, but somehow he seemed accessible and nice — like the older brother of the cutest boy in class, before he got shipped off to Vietnam.  He was The Beebs of the 1960s.  His cuteness quotient was off the charts.

The girls in my seventh-grade Catholic school class adored Davy.  We listened breathlessly for his voice in the Monkees’ songs – the “ba ba ba ba…ba ba ba ba” chorus of “Pleasant Valley Sunday;” his sweet English tenor on “Daydream Believer,” “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow,” and “When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door.”  Mary Joan Fricker, whose desk was across the aisle in Sister Mary Boniface’s class, had the lyrics from Davy’s songs scrawled on the brown paper cover of her Baltimore Catechism.  We shared Davy stories from the latest “Monkees” episodes and swooned over him.

Davy was our crush during that fleeting period when we had one foot in childhood and one in brooding adolescence. We still colored within the lines, memorized the Beatitudes and worked on our penmanship, but we’d hike up the hem of our school  uniforms when the nuns were not looking.  A few of us wore fishnets and lace-up granny shoes with our uniforms; sometimes we got away with it.  We listened to the Temptations, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and of course, The Monkees.

“More of the Monkees” was the first record album that I ever bought.  It cost $3.59 at the Bazaar of All Nations in my hometown, a down-at-the-heels department store that is no longer there.  Davy’s smiling face greeted me from the display rack set on the ragged linoleum at the record store doorway.  I rushed home to put it on the turntable and let Mickey and Davy sing to me.  Two doors down, the O’Toole family would host record hops in their basement for us neighborhood kids and Monkees songs would be in the same mix as The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and The McCoys.  My sister Julie and I listened the 45 of “Daydream Believer” thousands of times.

A few years later we were too cool for The Monkees — who were on their way out anyway —  and we began listening to Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly.   We switched from AM radio to the FM “underground” station.  The Monkees were packed away with the repressed memories of our awkward preteen years.  But new generations would discover them years later, and appreciate their tuneful ballads from a simpler time.   And we jaded music lovers would rediscover them as well.   RIP, Davy.