Though you’d never know it from my silence, this has been an event filled week. After finishing the scones, yes, all the scones, last Thursday, I escorted Jimmie to his surgical procedure and home the same day, quite a feat for the 91-nearly-92-set, and we settled into the recovery period over the weekend.
Though the surgery had gone well, the dreaded C words still prevail – cancer in the biopsy, and catheter in the “leg” as Jimmie said to his sister Kate when we called her this weekend to wish her a happy belated 84th birthday. I could tell from his expression and from reading the handy captions on our phone, Kate wasn’t getting it. I leaned over and mouthed
It wasn’t in your leg, dear, it was in your penis. That’s where a catheter is.
Which of course cracked us both up.
We weren’t cracking up last Thursday when we got home from the hospital. I had sent this photo of him to our family, taken in the recovery room, showing him beaming in his lilac paper hospital gown, not yet un-numbing from the epidural he’d had. He repeatedly was asking me why we were in the hospital? What happened?
Every time he woke up, I told him again why we were there and what he’d had done. He just wanted to go home. And so we did by about 4:30 that day.
The next four days were painful, dulled only by the heavy doses of Extra Strength Tylenol. This was the darkest time. There’s little worse than seeing your partner in pain, and it started me on a sober accounting:
is the pain related to an advance of the cancer or just the catheter?
how to be with him as much as possible
when to take time off
how to notify family and friends
how to organize visits so they wouldn’t tire him out
the effects of stronger pain medications on his lovely presence and our quality of life
how much longer do we have
I really went there. I don’t think Jimmie was thinking about it that much, but was just hunkering down with the pain. He was completely distracted and therefore absent, which of course made me worry more. These issues are familiar, having gone through the loss of two other loved ones to cancer, and participating in their final days. But it’s different with your partner than your parent.
Finally, on Tuesday, the fifth day of watching Jimmie suffering in pain, I called his doctor and said we needed something stronger. We went in and much to our surprise, he said he could also remove the catheter. He also gave us a prescription for heavier pain meds; mercifully, we still haven’t had to fill that.
And then, within a day or two, the pain was gone. A miracle. No more Tylenol, the notebook where we’d been recording all the medication sitting on the table untouched now for five days. To say that we won’t resume at some point would be naive, but for now we are out of the woods.
Which brings me to the real reason I started this post. We’ve resumed our lives, the absence of pain and the catheter constantly reassuring. Last night we watched the film Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day Lewis and Vickey Krieps. IMDB summarizes the plot of the movie this way:
Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it is about so much more than that. For me, the title is a tidy metaphor for Jimmie’s short term memory loss.
We were having dinner tonight- some strange pesto chicken patties I’d gotten at Whole Foods, and sautéed zucchini, an orzo feta salad – when I made an offhanded remark about the texture of the chicken patties. They bordered on pre-chewed, but then I joked about Alma’s cooking from the movie.
Jimmie looked at me and said what movie?
You know, the movie about the couturier who lived in the big house with all the women working there to sew his dresses……..
I then went on to describe the rather bizarre turn the movie took. Aren’t I good to not spoil it for you?
Jimmie: Blank look.
Els: You don’t remember anything about the movie do you?
No, he said, calmly eating his zucchini.
What I love about Jimmie is that he doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed about his loss of short term memory. He is always so present so you could give a fig about whether you have to repeat a story. It used to bother me that when I came home he couldn’t remember what happened in Trumpville that day, but I can easily get caught up with about 10 minutes of CNN. And what a blessing for him that he doesn’t carry this toxic mental waste around like the rest of us have to.
My favorite of his new expressions is “In one head and out the other.”
Els: It doesn’t seem to bother you that you can’t remember details. That’s wonderful that it isn’t causing you worry.
Jimmie: I just feel sorry for you that I don’t remember.
Els: What are you kidding? I can repeat myself endlessly and you never get the least bit bored about what I’m saying. You don’t put your head down on the table and say, For crying out loud, that’s the sixth time you’ve told me that story!
He smiled across the table at me, and we resumed our companionable silence as we ate the rubbery patties. And now I’m worried that I have become Alma…
This week, unfortunately, I stumbled across a recipe for scones in the New York Times. I don’t know how I could have gotten to the ripe old age of fifty-hand-over-mouth-mumble without knowing how ridiculously easy scones are to make. And now that I’ve lost the illusion of them as something only English people (who seem ever so much more clever than we) can whip up, Lord help me. And you, if you’ve clicked on the link above. Curse you, Susan Guerrero!
Today I made two batches, telling myself that I would share them with others; when Jimmie eschewed a hot fresh scone for a Thomas’ English Muffin this morning, I knew I was really in the danger zone.
And yet, that wasn’t the first good idea I had this week. Yesterday, at the end of the work week, Jimmie and I scootered over to the park for a half hour, happening upon a flash-mob of toddlers all under 3 playing with their parents in a postage stamp of green grass in the center of the park. It was adorable. A diverse group of parents, from the nearly neglectful rockers languishing on a bench as their tow-haired two-year-old dashed madly around the grass, to the maniacally kiss-crazy mom chasing behind her son chortling, “Good job, Joey!” every two seconds. It seemed to be the only thing she could come up with to say, but her adoring offspring suffered her kisses with a delighted smile, giggling into the falling tendrils of his mother’s hair. Meanwhile, his father stood nearby waiting for the two of them to notice he was there. A pair of doting grandparents sat on a bench reading, watching their late twenties daughter tossed a ball with her Boden-clad daughter, sparking the question, “Who wears a skirt to the park to play?” Such a mean-girls thought seemed inhospitable in the midst of “the children’s hour.”
There must have been 13 under-threes in the group. I wondered whether they were a club. They all seemed to know each other, and there were companionable grownup chats happening around the perimeter of the grass at benches such as ours. It was only when I saw a caravan of strollers forming, winding away from us toward the playground area that I remembered seeing the film crew breaking down their setup as we’d entered the park. I noted that the yellow caution tape had been removed from the perimeter of the playground. So, yes, they did know each other because they all shared the same playground at the same time of day. Mystery solved.
Jimmie and I remained in companionable togetherness on our bench, chatting about an idea for a play I’d just had. I hasten to add that this idea comes from the same hare-brained place that the idea to make three batches of scones in as many days comes from, but here it is.
Spin-Cycle: The play takes place in two acts featuring the early morning denizens of a gym to the rumpled, linty late night hijinks of a laundromat. Producers, don’t despair! You could utilize the same cast members, because god knows the morning people make dirty clothes apace. Tag line: What goes around comes around.
Brilliant, right? No, Els, it is not.
These are the idle meanderings of someone whose brain is task-saturated. And that’s my home life. Last week, Jimmie and I careened from doctor’s office to doctor’s office to lab to X-Ray, in preparation for his procedure next Thursday, the same day Brett Kavanaugh most likely becomes the next member of the Supreme Court. Despite that inauspicious coincidence, I have no reason to believe our procedure won’t go well and Jimmie will thrive afterwards. But I’ve become dizzy with details for managing his pain and prep. Simple screwups like the fact that it turns out I’d been overdosing him with Motrin for several weeks.
And so, I’m baking. Never a good sign; since I do spend so much time “researching my first play” at the gym, baking is a self-sabotaging act of dietary regression, and I can see it’s resulting bulges through my sweaty togs. On the other hand, I rediscovered the fascination of cooking good food as well, when Jimmie’s great niece, Niki, came through last weekend, demonstrating the beauty of well-cooked greens and delicately grilled cumin-flavored potatoes with swordfish. This morning I cut the beet greens off the beets I’d bought and made a lovely chopped beet and onion sauté to go with my brown rice and scrambled egg breakfast. Which I promptly followed with a maple walnut scone chaser. Slathered in Earth Balance…
So hit me up if you want a tin of scones or some good play ideas. I clearly have plenty of both.
In honor of my 34th Anniversary to the love of my life, I thought it would be worth pushing past the first phrase in this long standing wedding vow because recent posts have lingered far too long on it. This one’s for me, so I apologize I don’t have a more universal framework than the memories of the love we’ve shared.
Over the course of our thirty-four years together, we’ve lived in at least one month together in seven different locations, eight if you count the Magic Hotel in Hollywood during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Hartford Theatre on Vine St.
When we lived in New York, we mastered the busses on the Upper Westside, and sometimes just walked from the heart of Broadway to our little fourth story apartment in a brownstone on 70th Street. I would walk down with our dog Jasper, a regal, intelligent german shepherd, who was well-enough behaved to be allowed to sit in the aisle of whatever Broadway theatre Jimmie was currently rehearsing in. Then, the three of us would pad home to our apartment where Nini and Flicka, our two cats waited patiently for us, lounging on window sills, or amusing themselves by tearing around the apartment in mad games of tag. Pity the poor house guest who slept on the fold-out sofa bed when the mother and daughter got it in their heads to play.
Our walks together through the years took us through Central Park at all times of day and night, North Hollywood Park, parks in Hartford Connecticut, Chatham, Los Osos. Jasper accompanied us to Watts Towers, when we moved to Los Angeles and explored our new home.
Where was my fitbit then! In New York, we had our special “gin joints”where we hung out, Palsson’s on 72nd St. where we shared countless nights after the evening performances laughing with friends and Jimmie’s manager, Yvette, a raspy raconteur of sobriety, on whose lap I once rode back into the city from the McCarter Theatre after a performance of Play Memory, the play where Jimmie and I first met. And, coincidentally, Palsson’s where we had our wedding reception up in the cabaret above the main restaurant.
About two years we moved to Los Angeles to shoot The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, NBC cancelled the show. In one of life’s more poignant ironies, Lifetime picked it up, and resumed shooting in NYC. Jimmie and I had the heady romance of separation and sweet reunions every other week or so when he returned home.
There’ve been so many baseball games in our lives together. Shared from the sanctity of our sofa via our MLB subscription, to the hot, sunny bliss of baseball games with friends.
We’ve traveled together, zigzagging across the country with Jasper in the back seat of the navy blue Bonneville I’d just inherited from my grandmother, seeing the Grand Canyon, and spending ridiculous nights in flea-bag motels.
We’ve spent long, langorous summers in Montana, with our friends at the Alpine Theatre Project, going rafting and hiking and dining al fresco in some of the most beautiful scenery our great country has to offer. Oh, and doing a fair number of shows in the interim. We’ve journeyed multiple times to the elbow of Cape Cod, spending weeks with Jimmie’s sister, Kate, and feasting on Fried Clams and ice cream together and with friends.
I promise our son chose to cage himself.
Together we’ve watched the sun rise over Mt. Haleakala on Maui, cruised to the Canary Islands, and Mexico, and floated in the Dead Sea. If you want to read about that episode, where Jimmie lost his brand new wedding ring, click here.
And the theatre we’ve seen together over the years. Hundreds of plays we’ve seen together, and separately, watching each others’ careers develop. We’ve had the chance to work together rarely, but those times have been sweet.
I’ve remodeled about 4 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, painted two houses (okay, so it’s an admitted addiction) all around the most accommodating and patient man who loathes to have his space invaded by strangers, but who ultimately appreciates the end result, a more beautiful living space.
But of course, our proudest accomplishment has been raising together our beautiful son, Chris, not of our own making initially, but whose achievements of integrity and leadership and good sense selection of his beautiful partner, Whitney, have resulted in one of the greatest joys of our shared 34 years, our granddaughter.
Together we’ve watched countless hockey games, first watching our son play, and now watching him coach. We invested in his skill building, only to see it pay off in his inherent coaching capabilities. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your child find his creative and intellectual home.
All of which is not too bad when considering …and in health….
Recently, Jimmie and I had dinner out at our favorite CPK downtown at 7th and Fig. We are fixtures there, having had a long habit of going there for “strike pizza” after the closing of shows at USC. I’d finish the strike, jump in the car and pick up Jimmie to head out for pizza on a Sunday night. We are highly ritualistic people, and this was one of our favorite outings. The last time we were there, we were greeted at our table by a former student, who told us that she had been working at an Escape Room in downtown LA.
We laughed about the coincidence that two recent graduates from the School of Dramatic Arts had gone into E.R. work, and yet they hadn’t know each other while at USC. I guess it’s to be expected that theatre designers/scenic painters/costumers would find this kind of work engaging and profitable. And that they would have success in it.
My 91 year old husband has developed an affinity for E.R.s this week. You won’t find our favorite E.R. on any list of Immersive Escape Rooms. It’s the E.R. at Good Samaritan, in downtown LA, where we are now on a first name basis with much of the staff. For the record, I’d rank it as very difficult, but so far with a 100% survival rate.
We come in, fill out the paperwork and have a brief wait in the lobby. When we arrived Tuesday night, our first visit this week, the lobby was surprisingly empty, and we were swept in with the speed of a couple with reservations at WP24.
The thing about E.R.s is that they are pretty easy to get into. When you are 91 with a plumbing issue, you rise straight to the top, like the cream on the frosty bottle of whole milk in the milk box.
(Some rurally raised Boomers will get that reference. For the millennials, one used to have milk delivered to your home (even as late as the early 1970s) where they left it in an insulated square box sitting outside your door in the early dewy mornings before school.)
But, as usual, I digress.
Tuesday night, we went in to the Good Sam Escape Room at 6:30pm, and we walked out at 9:30pm, new plumbing features in tact. Our “plumber” had just finished his day of surgeries and is such a wonderful man that he dropped in to assist with the necessary fittings which the competent but overwhelmed nurses were unable to install. Good thing he came along when he did. It was uncomfortable, God-and-anyone-within-range-of-Room-6-knows, but he got the job done and we were home by the 10 o’clock news.
Full Disclosure: I’ve never been to an actual Immersive Escape Room, but found this helpful video on the site of our former student, Madison Rhoades’ Cross Roads Escape Games to get educated about them.
Here are some parallels and differences between Maddy’s carefully curated experience and Good Sam’s (GS):
We enter as a team. Unlike the Hex Room experience, we weren’t separated at any time, except when the plumber insisted I leave the room. And that was okay with me.
You’re isolated in a room and left to your own devices. (CR and GS)
Unlike the Hex Room, there are no magic buttons to push to get a clue about how to get out, and seemingly no puzzles you can do to advance in the line for service. Tuesday night I read the Sunday NY Times Magazine article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “GOOP” Empire. Friday night, I did two crossword puzzles. No Exit.
It’s a triage system at GS, and judging from Friday night’s line up, we were definitely not high on the priority list. (which, of course, is both good news and bad news). Last night, Nurse Tim resolved our issue quickly, and then left us to languish for about five hours while they dealt with two coronary attacks and a stroke.
At GS, they have players who are helpful and encouraging in furthering your attempts to get out. Last night, Friday, when we returned to play again at 8:40pm, a woman dressed as a kindly nurse’s aid ushered us back into Room 6.
Aide: I just made up this room, knowing that Mr. Nolan would be back in tonight! (cooing) And who are you?
Els: (flatly) I’m his wife.
Aide: Oooh! What a beautiful wife you have Mr. Nolan. (Leaning in conspiratorially, whispers) You take good care of your beautiful wife! (She exits. Jimmie turns to me)
Jimmie: What did she say?
Els: (loudly) She said, You better take good care of your BW! Hey, how did she know our pet name?
In spite of the flattery and kindness of the support players, Jimmie became impatient more than once. I now know that I would be a terrible participant in an actual immersive Escape Room situation. When abandoned in the ER, I become placid and accepting. Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing I can do by having a tantrum that can’t better be done by excessive groveling whenever the support staff enters the room. So our door remained closed, and Jimmie shivered under his sheet for three of those five hours of captivity before I got up my courage to emerge and request a blanket.
Later, I joked with Jimmie that there was a door right behind where I was sitting that opened into the main hallway. Why didn’t we just leave?
Jimmie’s eyes brightened, and he gathered himself to stand up.
Els: No! That would be like running out on your restaurant check. We have to wait until they walk in with the paperwork to sign and then we’ll know you’ve been discharged.
Hours later, I turned to Jimmie and made like we should leave through that door.
Jimmi: No, Els! (patronizing, instructive tone) Don’t you know, we have to wait to be discharged!
Hours later, well after midnight, the beleaguered doctor came in, apologizing for their seeming neglect. We quickly updated her on the successful features of our visit, with strong hints that we should be going home soon. She agreed, and told Jimmie he could get dressed again. That’s when I took the this picture.
Still, it took another thirty minutes for Nurse Tim’s return with the necessary paper to sign. He then turned, slid the bed to the wall, and at 1:30AM, opened the tantalizing door to the outside hall.
It will be much easier for you to go out this way. There’s a lot going on the other direction.
I think I will advocate the Cross Roads Escape Games next time Jimmie gets bored.
Last November, my gym of 3 years standing folded. Days before Thanksgiving, without any warning, all of the inhabitants of that (insert old gym’s name here) community were rather unceremoniously kicked to the curb. I walked by the still-empty storefront the other day, and rather than feeling the familiar ire about the situation, I felt the curiosity of potential for that space. But those thoughts drifted away like the soft whispy clouds of a late summer’s afternoon as soon as I had walked past.
Transitions are hard. Change is hard. Change is good. Transitions are good.
Working out has become as important to my sustainability as, well, breathing. Dropping my five workouts a week because my gym closed, wasn’t an option. I rely on the cardio workout to reset my brain, my psyche, my attitude. If I go for several days without working out, I find myself grumpier, more prone to look at the dark side of things, just not as even keeled as my life requires that I be.
As a result of having lost my workout home, I began exploring other options. I investigated Pilates, SpeedPlay, Sync Yoga and Spin, and eventually accepted an invitation from one of my favorite sweat-sisters, Allyzon, to try out her new spot, Sanctuary Fitness. Their logo is Peace through perspiration. Couldn’t have said it better.
There were a lot of reasons I shouldn’t like it. My old gym had been right around the corner, about 200 steps from my bed. I had to get in my car to get to this new gym, but of course, at 5:30, there’s not a lot of traffic. I had to feed the meter, but that proved to not be too big an impediment. And after a few mornings of the new ritual, it became comfortable.
I love the physical plant of Sanctuary Fitness. There is a spacious foyer with friendly folks personning the front desk. They give you towels to use, though for some reason I still bring my graying (insert old gym’s name here) towels to sweat into. It’s a little Linus-like, I suppose, my last link to familiarity.
And sure enough, most likely due to the power of my sister in sweat, Allyzon, I noticed familiar faces from (insert old gym’s name here) showing up. The bikes are better. There are weights, and sometimes elastic bands to work the upper body while you are riding. The bike shows metrics with average watts, rpms, calories, miles, etc. It’s accountability at it’s best. And by the time I get home to make a second cup of tea, I have the results waiting for me in an email.
In addition to spin, they have High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes, which I sprinkle twice throughout the week just to remind me that I’m twice as old as almost everyone in the class but my body still works (more or less). The instructors are encouraging, as in encouraging us all away from the comfort of our beds, our comfort zones, our patterns.
For me, fitness is my sanctuary. I’m in much better shape now than I was in my forties, or possibly my thirties. The ritual of getting up, going to the gym, making some time for me, seeing my friends every morning (because I now go 7 days a week, btw), is critical to my hanging in there for another day of whatever life brings me. I appreciate this need for ritual because many of the other things that are ritualized for me are not as personally satisfying and a little more grueling than the forty-five minutes of sweat equity I get at Sanctuary.
So thank you to all the trainers, Allyzon T., Brandon H., Kevin, Reed, and all my workout buddies for the Sanctuary respite that I need and for kicking my butt.
It’s been a rough week. Sometimes biology, anatomy, aging and the logistics of bodily fluids management conspire to create hellish circumstances. And so it’s been this week for my first husband and me. Before you put me or him on the pyre for sacrilege, let me assure you that this term has been vetted as completely ironic by the two people it most directly concerns. In fact, when we latched onto it sometime in the course of our dinner last night, it took us both several minutes to recover from the giggles. In the furtherance of medical clowning research, I promise to persist in using it at every appropriate opportunity.
Once we’d recovered, we started riffing on the application process for the next Mr. Collins, and the questions that would be on the application for the position.
Can you list your medications on less than two pages?
Do you sleep through the night? If not, why? Please list these reasons in excruciating detail. NB: I promise, no facts are too small to include here.
Do you ambulate?
Do you use a toy* to ambulate? (*toys are herewith defined as canes, walkers, scooters)
When was the last time you played tennis?
When was the last time you went skiing?
Do you like to travel?
We got really carried away. By now, the only thing distracting us from our ghoulish game was the not-distant-enough and relentless sound of a building’s fire alarm going off. I know it well, because we have the same sound in one of our theatres at work, and when I hear it, I suffer the same heart-clenching panic as the sophomore stage managers who’ve had to evacuate the house because of overzealous haze usage. I walked over to the patio, slid the door open, and looked over the balcony, to find the front steps of the Ralph’s market populated with onlookers and the sound blaring across the street to the balcony. And soon, sure enough, in came the firetrucks.
So we did what any self-respecting hearing impaired couple would do. We chose to have our dessert pudding on the patio overlooking the event. Yes, we rubbernecked with the best of them. In fact, we decided to continue our game playing with a good old-fashioned game of outdoor Scrabble®. Meanwhile, the poor onlookers waited on the steps of the store with amazing patience. I imagined 25 carts half-filled with the makings for dinner, ice cream puddling under the carts eventually because they were there for the longest time. And on and on and on it went.
On our side, things were going rather well on the Scrabble® front. I drew the lowest tile and started off with a few zingers, zit for 24 points followed immediately by buxom for 32 points. I was feeling pretty cocky, until things started to go downhill for me.
Eventually, I recovered, and took the game by a score of 240 to 182, after donating my U tile to Jimmie because I hadn’t seen the Q appear yet. He finished with Quo. (Yes, we play that way).
Anyway, all of these ghoulish games keep us amused and on track even when other things conspire to derail us.
Recently, my cousin Connie sent me an envelope stuffed with photographs, the one above included, as she had recently done a “big purge.” I so appreciated reviving the memories, with photos of my nuclear family at points along our development. It seemed appropriate to focus this week on my Dad, who remains the anchor to our diminishing nuclear family.
I never write about my Dad, though Jimmie says I should, because he is such an interesting man. I don’t know anyone like him, with his memory for details about people’s lives and fortunes and misfortunes. At 87 he only occasionally grasps for the tendrils of a story, (far less often than I do thirty years his junior), but tells them with such conviction that I believe them whether they are true or not. I suspect they are largely true. They are always colorful and a bit dangerous, like the one below which he shared with my brothers and me via email. I hope he will forgive my sharing here.
August 31, 1999
A Short History of Brass Knuckles, by Donald A. Collins
This “pair” of brass knuckles (why is this single, ominous looking instrument of cast brass referred to as a “pair”?) belonged to Alexander Tichnor Collins, born Louisville, KY in 1873, son of Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, a minor politician and local water company employee and Sarah Collins, who died when young Alex was under 10. Alex was a latch key kid at 12 (e.g. pretty much on his own, coming and going with his own key to the home of his father and the father’s new wife, the latter being someone with whom he did not get along). He went to work for the Louisville Street Railway Co at 16 and became their paymaster by 18, known because of his young age, Kid Collins. Jerry’s brother, Hubbie Collins, was then a star infielder for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, soon renamed Brooklyn Dodgers, and Alex, partly emulating his uncle Hubbie, became an outstanding semi pro player in Louisville.
The knuckles were part of his paymaster equipment, as Saturday paydays could be occasions for trouble. The story most told by my father about Alex, my grandfather, whom I called “Buddy” was about a payday when a robber came into the street railway car used as a payroll car, with windows blocked out and the payor, Alex, sitting at one end, with his bodyguard. The man threatened Alex with a weapon, either gun or knife, but when he got to the desk, the guard took out his Bowie knife, stepped close into the robber and slit the intruder from stomach through breast bone. The guard left town quickly and no charges were pursued in the incident. Justice was a bit quicker in those days.
I was given two of Hubbie’s bats and leather bat case inscribed with his name by my grandfather. In the early days of baseball, the bats were shaped like bottles, not the slim handled beauties of today. Reason: The balls then had less bounce and a solid hit was needed to get the ball going. Hubbie was known for his solid line drives and his base stealing. His club record for runs scored in a single season for the Dodgers in 1991 (148) I believe still stands. Unfortunately, his bats and case were lost in a fire that swept my room and almost burned down our house after a lightening strike on June 1, 1950 in Greensburg.
Hubbie’s lifetime batting average was in the 280s. His team won 2 pennants while he lived. He died of scarlet fever at 26 in 1893 after only 8 professional seasons. His stats are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Buddy married Irene Shupe of Mt. Pleasant, PA, the daughter of one of the town’s leading citizens, after a whirlwind 10 day courtship, the newly weds went to her home town where Alex became manager of the Oliver P. Shupe Flour Mill, owned by his father in law. Shortly, two sons arrived, my dad, Oliver Shupe Collins (1901), and Alexander T. Collins, Jr. (1909).
Alex, a handsome, personable man with a good sense of humor and an ability to speak in public, was twice elected Burgess (e.g. Mayor) of Mt. Pleasant, then a booming mining town and coking center, where 99 open, polluting coke ovens burned constantly, making huge illuminations against the night sky. Having 100 ovens together incurred a special tax, something their clever owner, the famous H.C. Frick, avoided.
There as in Louisville the Saturday night miners could get a bit drunk and Alex often carried a small “blue” steel pistol for protection as his life was threatened several times by the celebrants who ended in jails overnight. Alex sold the mill in 1942 during WWII, having earlier moved his family to Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, as he was elected County Treasurer twice, beginning in 1936. He retired just as WWII began, hastened perhaps by the premature death in 1941 of his beloved wife of uterine cancer mis-diagnosed by a local quack.
During WWII, my Buddy and I got very close; he was bored and we would go to the movies often and sit in the front row. Or play gin rummy for hours in my house or that of his other son where he had an apartment. Often in the Summer, he would drive me to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Forbes Field, some 30 miles distant. I became an avid baseball fan, despite the fact that the team in those years had weak ownership and players were even worse than most of those sad wartime teams. After WWII, I went off to college and he continued to live with his younger son, AT Collins and his wife Sarah Steel Collins until shortly before his death in 1958. However, the brass knuckles, which I now use as a paper weight on my desk, and those bottle bats, though long gone, remind me of my Buddy often.
The occasion above was my Dad’s 87th birthday and his most recent trip to Los Angeles to visit with us. He’s always been good about journeying to see us, even from the days of Jimmie’s and my early marriage, when we were ensconced in the Magic Castle Hotel during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Theatre in Hollywood in 1985. Initially quite skeptical of our relationship and the difference in our ages, he has come to appreciate my husband as “the older brother I’ve never had.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more generous man than my father, both financially and with sharing his opinions, which he does on almost a daily basis through essay writing. Generally, he and I don’t see eye to eye on many of the topics about which he writes, but he continues to write and enjoys it.
The photos that Connie sent tell the story of our happy childhood, much of the summer days spent in the pool behind my mom’s parents’ house in northeastern PA.
This photo captures us frozen in time, me age 7, Larry to my right, age 9, and Don to my left, age 11. Dad would have been a young father of three at 34. He and my mom had just finished building their home in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the base of the hill where my dad’s parents lived. The young plants around the door are just a fraction of the massive planting spree we did over the next five years or so, on our 1/2 acre plot.
When we were home, we had his parents hosting Sunday suppers on the screened in porch up on the hill, and probably about every month or so, we’d head to Wilkes-Barre to visit mom’s parents and her sister’s family who lived nearby.
I’ve learned so many things from my father. That hard work and building relationships are critical to one’s success. He taught us about the value of money and the relationship of money to work, paying us a penny per fly for swatting flies in the summer, and a dollar for every A we brought home on our report cards. You might now call that bribery, but it was motivating, at least until they bought a bug zapper for the back porch. He was a fierce disciplinarian. I won’t soon forget the moment when he discovered a pack of cigarettes under my bed when I was about 14. Or when I lied about pulling and breaking the light cord in the basement during a squeal-inducing game of tag with the Latchaw children. I also won’t ever forget how he and my mother shaped my future by giving me the educational opportunities that I had.
As an adult, he has taught me about getting my affairs in order, living with integrity, how to pick up the check at dinner, and how to speak truth to power. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated as a daughter. Though he lives across the country, we have a standing date every Saturday or Sunday morning to chat via FaceTime. I wish we could see each other more often in person, but this works really well as a substitute.
Recently he underwent a knee replacement which is no small feat at 87. We were all relieved it went so well. I’ve seen way too much of the progress of healing (I tend toward queasiness whenever blood or stitches is involved). But I hope he’ll soon be able to get back to the golf course and do his 9 holes daily. This, too, he’s schooled us on: the value of daily exercise and good eating.
So, on the occasion of Father’s Day, thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done to make our lives so rich. Here’s to many more!
I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.
My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.
But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.
The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce, returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.
The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.
Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.
Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.
The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:
1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.
2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.
3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.
4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.
Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.
I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.
The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.
We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.
Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:
C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.
Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion, I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.
The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.
It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.
A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.
In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.
That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.
The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.
Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.
And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom. Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.
So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.
The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.
April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here. This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.
Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.
The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square. She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.
Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.
Jono Eiland facilitates a discussion between cast member Stephanie and her Stranger
Stephanie and her Stranger talk through Aubree Lynn’s set piece
Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd set the stage
I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.
Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.
Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.
The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.
Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?
With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.
When I was in college, I spent a summer in San Francisco, working for the Field Polling organization, lived with my Dad and his wife in their Nob Hill Victorian flat. That summer I developed two fondnesses which have stayed with me over the years, both related to bed.
The front guest room overlooked a stretch of Chestnut Street just south of the Art Institute in North Beach as well as the island of Alcatraz; on the twin beds there were comforters, which my stepmother, Joan, called ‘doonas’, clad in vibrant orange, yellow and white striped Marimekko fabric. I liked nothing better then or now than to burrow into those cocoons of slumber after a long day at my job.
That was also the summer that I learned to value the morning newspaper, a cup of warm caffeine, and the ritual of reading up on contemporary events and planning outings to movies and plays. On a student budget, I attended many more movies than plays, but each morning, I’d peruse the SF Chronicle’s “pink section” for the distinctive clapping man icons, (designed by Warren Goodrich in the 1940s) to guide me to critically popular films. (Thanks to Austin Kleon for his great post about the origination and interpretation of the Little Man). That summer, I also read the daily installment of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” which my college buddies, Bob and Bill and I discussed avidly while we roller bladed in the inventory aisles of Macy’s that summer. Three Princeton students assembling and collating training manuals for bored Macy’s employees. And I’d finish by reading Herb Caen’s column about all that was politically topical in San Francisco.
Recently the Little Man has returned to my life. Except now I think of him as the Anxious Man. Somewhere between Chair 2 and Chair 3 is the posture I frequently find Jimmie in when I come home from work. Leaning forward, elbows braced on his knees, brow furrowed. This pose is also frequently caused not only by anxiety, but by an arctic chill that he just can’t shake, even when I supply him with a warm cup of tea or coffee. I’ll sometimes get a phone call mid afternoon after he’s awoken from a nap and needs to hear my voice to bring him back to a less anxious place.
We seem to have entered a new phase. Jimmie’s memory frays at the edges like the fringes of my denim shorts when I was a teen, except his fringe is unintentionally extended, whereas I’d obsessively pull the threads to make my fringe longer, the shorts shorter. I cherish our shared memories and strive to minimize the devastation or importance of the loss. Ever helpful, Jimmie puts the dishes away from the drainboard while I’m at work. The other night when I opened the cupboard where we store our glassware, I discovered two coffee mugs. I laughed until I realized that his mistake was actually intuitive – that cupboard is directly over the coffee maker. Doh!
His memory isn’t consistently rocky. Sometimes he greets my questions about the events of the day with a quizzical expression. I don’t know, he says with the blissful nonchalance of someone whose day actually isn’t polluted by the toxicity of the current political climate. It engenders in me both envy and sadness, because of the loss of depth in our discourse. And then sometimes he’s completely present, working his crossword puzzles in the familiar pen as he’s always done.
If you see us together, don’t be surprised. I had arranged for a caregiver this Tuesday, when I had tech, but when she arrived, the Anxious Man returned, shoulders hunched, fingers intertwined, sometimes even with his forehead cradled in his hands. The well-meaning woman came closer, making reassuring looks at me. But when she started speaking, her sugary voice lilted as she said “What are some of your favorite things to do? Do you want to take a walk?”
I had to take her aside after a few minutes of condescending chatter. Jimmie looked up at me, rolling his eyes, and I felt him getting even more anxious. Within 10 minutes, he asked me five times when I was leaving, and it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to be able to leave.
This happened once the week before, when I was to assist with house management for the final dress of our spring musical; so we went together. Tuesday night we ended up going to tech together. Jimmie sat quietly tucked into the corner by the door and I popped back and forth between talking to him and listening as the stage manager ran the tech.
The caregivers who come don’t always cue the return of the Anxious Man. We had a lovely woman a few months ago who was easy to be with and inspired confidence in both Jimmie and me. She’s disappeared from the roster, unfortunately.
This week, I think we’re helping the agency break in some new employees. The past two days, we’ve had a couple who surprised us. We were expecting Mrs. Wang, but when I opened the door, Mr. Wang was right behind her. He had come along to “help with translating.” You like to think that the agency has sent someone that your hearing-impaired loved one will have no trouble communicating with in the first place. Now, he had ridiculous exchanges such as “May I have some crackers and cheese?” resulting in a bowl of crackers….. What does Jimmie do? He picks up the phone and calls me at work.
Els, I just want some crackers and cheese. They brought me a plate of just crackers.
Put Mr. Wang on the phone with me, Jimmie.
(As the phone passes, I can hear Jimmie desperately asking Mrs. Wang for water with ice.)
Mr. Wang, Jimmie would like some brie. It’s in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
Oh, brie, okay, says Mr. Wang brightly.
Can I please speak again with Jimmie? Phone passes to Jimmie.
Jimmie, you need to be a little patient. The Wangs don’t know how our kitchen is laid out.
When I got home, Jimmie looked drained. I asked him if he eventually got his cheese. He started gesticulating with his hands, making little chopping cube like shapes in the air in front of his chest. Reminded me of Veronica the other day interrupting me while I explained clearly how Jimmie liked his hotdogs with baked beans and applesauce. (Okay, I’m not proud of the menu, but it’s a 5-7 minute prep time, friends, and it’s all about speed and simplicity.)
Applesauce for dessert?
No, just on the same plate with the beans and franks. (she looks repulsed)
Has he ever tried hotdogs wrapped in bacon?
(Stifling my nausea)
No, Jimmie just likes his hotdogs plain. With some dijon mustard. No bacon!
I went into the kitchen tonight and opened the dishwasher to put some things away, and to check to see if The Wangs had followed my request to put the dishes away. They had!
Now I’m the first one to acknowledge that no one loads a dishwasher the same way, and that I have OCD. But when I flipped the door down, there were three spoons lying on their side on top of the silverware drawer, and the plates and bowls were facing the wrong way. My ridiculous outrage was enormous. So big that I actually made my 91-year-old husband get up off the sofa and roll his walker into the kitchen to come look at how the Wangs had loaded the dishwasher.
I just had them unload the dishwasher, so they saw how I like it!
Jimmie looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I think I actually may have lost my mind. The first day the Wangs arrived, as I was leaving, I texted our son that Mrs. Wang showed up with her husband who is very nice but that’s a lot of company. To which he responded OMG. This is a pilot in the making.
Maybe that’s what Jimmie should be doing. Writing that pilot.
Taking it one day at a time, friends, one day at a time. Anxious me and my Anxious Man.