A very Merry Christmas to all of my WordPress followers. Thank you for your inspiration, your kind words, your advice. This blog was an early one, when I had only a handful of followers, who I hope won’t mind my re-blogging!

The Sandwich Lady

Each year we pull out the big plastic box in our basement that serves as our Museum of Family History. Within its many cardboard galleries are Christmas tree ornaments that serve as four-inch tour guides, speaking warmly, knowledgeably and nostalgically about our past. Each is an essay about moments in our history, years that were good and not so good, people who’ve come and gone.

I’ve never understood why people wanted a tree with matching ornaments. I remember being at relatives’ homes each Christmas and seeing their tinseled trees filled with ornaments that all looked the same. I looked in wonder because they were dazzling and showy – especially the all-aluminum trees with lights that kept changing color – but as cold as an icycle. I remember being at my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house, where our cousins would join us in stealing tinsel from the tree to lay…

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45 Seconds of Terror Onstage

Our son (with dagger drawn) positively killed in "Macbeth" last weekend. But an unscripted moment proved to be the most satisfying.

Our son (second from left, with dagger drawn) positively killed in “Macbeth” last weekend. But an unscripted moment proved to be the most satisfying.  Photo by Mike Rosenzweig/MDR Images.

Our son played a killer during his middle school’s recent production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” You might think I’m crazy but it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest and bloodiest play, Macbeth tells the story of how ambition drove a formerly respected Scottish general to murder and madness. He’s encouraged by his scheming wife and three scary witches, who tell him that the throne is his but just might also belong to his friend Banquo’s sons. It includes scenes of utmost terror, such as when Macbeth’s evil henchmen ambush and kill his rivals.

John played “Seyton,” Macbeth’s sinister right-hand man and one of those henchmen. So our 14-year-old got to dress in a scary black cloak, grease back his curls into a slimy hairdo, hollow out his cheeks with dark makeup and carry a (harmless) rubber dagger. His chilling lines included telling Macbeth: “My lord, safe in a ditch he lies…with 20 trenched gashes on his throat.” Check out the photo here; John’s the one with the raised dagger. Not your typical student of the month.

But yet…playing a badass was enormously freeing. The black villain’s cloak became a superman’s cape and enabled John to do something he had never done before.

A little about John: since he was a three-year-old he has always wanted everything carefully scripted. He does not like surprises. We remember play dates when he and a friend would be playing with action figures and John would be telling the friend exactly what to say for his part of the dialog. We always joked (and hoped) that he would grow up to be Steven Spielberg. His drama teacher once told us that he takes direction very easily because he is intent on knowing exactly where he needs to stand, what to say and what to do.

But he gets flustered and anxious when he’s surprised or when something doesn’t go according to the plan. As any parent of children or teens can imagine, this happens every day.

And that’s exactly what happened the opening night of Macbeth, when Seyton had a scene with Lady Macbeth, who missed her cue. For about 45 agonizing seconds John stood onstage and waited for her to arrive so that their scene could begin. He stood alone and looked out on an overflow crowd of about 800 students, parents and teachers.

The show had thrown John a curve ball, something that typically would upset and derail him. It didn’t take long for the audience to know that something was amiss; that John wasn’t supposed to be onstage by himself. More than 800 pairs of eyes were upon him, quickly wiring into his predicament, ready to be kind and offer polite reassurance. Even if he had become flustered he would have been OK.  They would have understood.

But something else happened this time. Staying in character, John mused aloud in his confident, stage voice: “My lady must be late. [seconds pass] I will wait for her here.” The audience, appreciating his quick-witted response, chuckled, then broke into applause just as Lady Macbeth arrived.

After the scene, John’s fellow cast members surrounded him backstage to congratulate him on his coolheadedness. A few even kowtowed. Several high school students — the drama club’s cool kids when John was in sixth grade — sent him adoring notes backstage. One wrote: “If that had been me, I would have sat down on the floor and cried — just cried.” Another wrote: “You, my friend, are a scene-stealer.”

What was different this time? How did he pull it off? I asked John afterwards if he was nervous and he said no. It seemed that he had thought quickly and surprised even himself. So I asked him what he learned from the experience and he said that he knew now that he could trust himself and improvise when things don’t go according to plan. What a breakthrough!

Under the gun, somehow John disconnected from his fears and broke through the electric fence of his perceived personal limits. I am grateful to the young actress who played Lady Macbeth — a good friend to John who was brilliant in her role — for giving him the opportunity to test himself.  Not sure I could have handled this with John’s aplomb, but we never know until it happens.

How about you? Have you ever faced a situation that forced you to transcend your limits at a moment’s notice and surprise yourself? Judging from John, who has been smiling a lot more since his famous ad-lib, it’s a transformative experience.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Dad doing his favorite activity.

Dad doing his favorite activity.

Today you would have been 87 years old. Wish you were still with us. While you’ve been gone nearly 15 years I can still hear your voice whenever a clear-headed, common-sense solution to whatever is troubling me pops into my head. You are with me whenever I bake your special bread; whenever I pick strawberries or apples with my family; whenever I get the urge to make meatballs. Notice that thoughts of you often accompany food!

You are with me when our son John plays the trombone, just like you did in high school. You would be proud of what he’s accomplished. In fifth grade he chose this instrument because – wisenheimer that he was – he had visions of Three Stooges-like episodes of hitting his fellow musicians in the head with his slider. And his first year or two was not easy as he discovered the trombone is a very physical instrument that demands much of you. He stuck with it because, like you, he doesn’t give up and finishes what he starts. A few days ago one of his music teachers told me that John has become an accomplished, more relaxed player. I hope that someday he will play the trombone with the same easy grace I saw in my favorite photo of you: as a 20-year-old, shirtless, in khakis, with tumbled brown curls and your trombone in hand.

Wish your other grandchildren could have shared more of their triumphs with you. They still remember the great times picking peaches with you, the “pop-pop bread” that showed up on our kitchen counter when you’d come to visit; watching the July 4 parade in front of your house. You are no doubt proud of how they turned out: Ryan (you once said, “He’s so smart he scares me”) has a great job in Europe with Kimberly-Clark and Rachel is now in dental hygiene school. Your grandchildren include engineers, a future doctor, a special education teacher and lots of very smart kids making their way through school. I’m sure you are on top of their accomplishments but I wish they had more years to learn from you.

I wish you could have gotten to know my husband better and that he could have spent more time with you. Bob is a lot like you…easy-going, always ready to see the good in people, friendly and hospitable, fiercely protective of those he loves. I think of you whenever he nags me about locking the door, keeping the dog on a leash or checking in whenever I’ve reached a destination. I think of you whenever he insists on watching our 14-year-old at the bus stop. We were married just a month after you died and you knew Bob well enough to know I would be in good hands.

As I get older I see more of you in myself, but not nearly enough. I’m a homebody who loves curling up on the couch with the family; a perfectionist in the kitchen; and good at following instruction manuals and doing household repairs if I’m not too tired. I remember all the hours we spent putting up drywall and molding around my old house, and the prosciutto sandwiches we’d enjoy afterwards. I feel closer to you whenever I have a screwdriver or hammer in my hand.

Yet unlike you, I struggle with being petty at times. I remember how outraged we all felt when people who barely knew you crashed your funeral luncheon and we didn’t have enough chairs and tables for relatives and friends. The only thing that kept us from tossing them out was the thought that you would want us to be gracious. So I keep praying that I can learn to live like you did, always ready to forgive and to see the best in people.

That’s it! I will think about you tonight, Dad, when I cook dinner for my family. Send me a message sometime, the usual way. Help me to be more like you. Love you!