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Missing Sophie,
glad to have known her

I  got the news from my co-worker in a text: "Sophie died Wednesday!"

"Oh no!" I wrote back.

Goodbye Sophie, I murmured to myself sadly. You finally got your wish.

Sophie had lived at the elderly housing complex where I worked. She was short and plump, wore neon yellow sneakers and cut her white hair in a boy's regular. She rarely used a bra ("I hate those restrainers," she would say. Large roomy sweatshirts made this a non-issue, thankfully). She had lost her husband and had no children. But, she told us, working in the maternity ward of the Anna Jaques Hospital as she had for many years allowed her be around the babies that she loved.

She visited us often in the management office. "You girls are my favorite landladies, except for my mother," she told us. "My mother was the first favorite landlady, and you are my second favorite." It didn't matter that she had expressed this same opinion only the day before, she said it with absolute sincerity every time.

She also had a wicked sense of humor. When two male residents from the South moved in down the hall from her, she sashayed around with delight. "I'm going to have a gentleman caller," she crowed. "I feel just like Scarlett O'Hara!"

She loved the building's newsletter, and was distraught when we made a decision to stop listing residents' birthdays.

"How am I going to know who to wish a happy birthday to?" she implored. "How am I going to give out my birthday cards?" We reinstated the birthday list the next month, and Sophie was ecstatic. Because she loved it so, I sometimes made her her own personal newsletter, complete with funny fonts and bright colors. She would thank me solemnly, assuring me that she wouldn't tell anyone else that she got her own special newsletter.

Sophie loved her apartment, and lived at peace with the other residents. But every so often there would be a clash with her neighbors over the volume of her television set, which had two settings: LOUD and LOUDER. Sophie was very hard of hearing. She wore a hearing aid, but it always seemed to be broken. She had a little money, and we urged her to spend whatever was needed to get the best hearing aid possible. Devices such as TV Ears and headphones didn't seem to help for long, or at all.

Television volume aside, however, it was nearly impossible not to love Sophie. One of my last memories of her at the building was her surprise birthday party, where she was surrounded by cake, presents, and many friends.

She started to fail some years ago. She took a fall and went to the hospital, coming back quieter and less mobile. She got a medic alert system. She gave up her car, missing it terribly, but realizing that it was necessary because of her declining health. When she fell again, she didn't immediately push the medic alert call button because, being Sophie, she wanted to get up by herself.

Sophie never came back to her apartment. She went to the hospital, then to a rehabilitation facility, and finally to a skilled nursing home. I visited her at all of these places. The Sophie who had laughed and smiled was gone. For a long time she cried hysterically every time she saw me. "If only I hadn't left my apartment," she sobbed. Gradually, she grew used to her surroundings, responding to the kindly care of the staff, but she never stopped missing her apartment.

I brought her sugar-free candy because she was diabetic, and a warm hat, because she taken to wearing a towel on her head. When I arrived she would (loudly) waylay her nurses and introduce me as her friend. But her hearing loss made communicating with her brutally difficult, so I mostly sat and held her hand and listened to her talk.

She didn't want to go on, and she said so repeatedly to anyone who would listen. She didn't want to sit there, in a wheelchair, bound to a body that didn't work any longer but wouldn't let her go.

"I just want to close my eyes," she moaned repeatedly. "I just want to see my husband again." I would nod and press her fragile hand a little tighter.

Sophie passed away about three years after her fall. When I drive by the nursing facility where she spent her final years and received such good care, I feel a complicated knot of emotions: relief that she is at peace, sorrow that she is no longer with us.

But mostly I feel blessed to have known her, this loving and joyful soul who took such pleasure in wishing others a happy birthday.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News,  March 2016.  Photo is stock image.

The odd things for which I'm grateful

My lack of common sense: Every day I'm thankful that I wasn't thinking straight back in 1984 when I got engaged to someone I had only known for a month. I'm also grateful that my husband David was suffering from a similar lack of good sense when he proposed to a near-stranger. Almost 35 years later we still laugh at the same jokes, and squash up next to each other on the couch when we watch television. Sometimes you have to be thankful for pure, out-and-out foolishness.

Dirty Diapers: And strained peas on the wall (and the floor and the high chair, and wait, how it could possibly have gotten there?) A kid who believed sleep was optional. A house that generally looked like a bomb struck it. 

 When your children are young there are moments when it seems too hard to be grateful, when the diapers and the peas and the tears are too much. But those days pass, and the older you get the more you realize that dirty diapers and peas on the wall are the negligible price you pay for the privilege of being a parent.   It's 's a price I would pay a thousand times over (but I draw the line at being grateful for Barney the purple dinosaur.  Even a mother's love has its limits).

Being able to push a shopping cart: Nothing has given me a greater appreciation for the everyday miracle of mobility more than losing it because of foot problems. Using the motorized shopping cart at the supermarket is a humbling experience for someone used to racing through the store like a maniac. So now that things are better, if not perfect, I am profoundly grateful for every chance I get to push a regular shopping cart around by myself and ponder whether I need more eggs or if the cat prefers chicken or tuna flavored Fancy Feast.

Rushing into things: I put an offer on the house we live in now after looking at it exactly one time. I didn't even request a second showing. That was lunacy, but something told me that this was the place where I was supposed to be. And now every morning when I watch the sun rise through the big window in my bedroom or read the paper at my comfy kitchen island I thank heaven that I acted impulsively and without any regard for the possibility of a leaking roof or a radon problem.

Mr. Blackington's 7th grade geography class: Mr. Blackington was a terrible teacher but if I hadn't been stuck in his class I wouldn't have met the girl who sat behind me and became my best friend. Ditto for being chairperson of my church Hospitality Committee, where I met my other best friend when I recruited her for the thankless task of signing up volunteers for coffee hour. I'm so lucky to have found her, not least because she is one of the few people I know who loves cake as much as I do. I'm not sure she's forgiven me for sticking her with that coffee hour job yet, though.

Husbands and wives. Children and friends. Our health. Our homes. These are the things that matter, the things for which we are thankful. Sometimes they show up when you least expect them. Sometimes there is a roadmap to find them, and sometimes the roadmap blows out of the car window and you just barrel on and take the first exit you find. You may end up somewhere that seems terrible, like Mr. Blackington's geography class.

But always remember to look behind you.  Someone to be grateful for could be sitting there.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, November, 2019

Love for Lyndells

How can I possibly choose?

 Is it the white frosting, thickly layered and smooth but with a hint of sugar crystals, that I like the best? Or is the cookie, a small cake really, soft and plump, redolent of vanilla? Or could it be the chocolate frosting, dark and complex, also with a touch of crust that hits your tongue like a piece of good fudge? I can't possibly choose. It's the delirious combination of the three, the whole being greater and far more delicious than the sum of its parts. Eating it becomes an exercise in choice. Do you eat the chocolate side and then the vanilla, enjoying each on its own merits, or do you burrow straight through middle, getting a bit of both in every bite, letting the combination create a new flavor and getting frosting all over your face?

I'm talking, of course, about a Lyndell's Moon. You may know them as black and whites but Lyndells call them Moons and I'm not going to argue. You don't know Lyndells? It's in Somerville and has been around since 1887. There was another one in the North End for a time, but foolish tourists must have preferred the greatly overrated Mike's Pastry, because that branch closed. According to its website, Birger C. Lindahl, was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in America in 1882, changed the spelling of his name to Lyndell, and proceeded to bake up a storm. The bakery has had just a few owners since it opened, each continuing the tradition of homemade deliciousness for many decades. Lyndell's makes a whole range of baked goods, breads, cakes and the like, but I am completely stuck on the Moons. They make six combinations, with vanilla and chocolate frosting and gold or chocolate cake. That's six times the awesome, as far as I'm concerned.

Why do I love Lyndells Moons so much? There are lots of bakeries around with fancier pastries. What is it about this determinedly old-school confection that makes it so special? For me, a Lyndell's Moon is a true Proustian experience, transcending the cake and frosting itself and transporting me back to back to my childhood.

Suddenly I am eight years old again and hand in hand with my mother. We are in Wakefield, walking through the parking lot of my favorite place in the world, the Holiday Bakery. Up the brick steps and through the jingling glass door, and then...magic. The smell of good bread and cake just out of the oven greets me. There's always a crowd, so it takes us a few minutes to get to the front of line. I'm small and can't see around the other customers, but that just makes the anticipation a little sweeter. Finally it is our turn. I take a breath. The glass cases stretch out on either side of me, filled with pastries and cookies, breads and cakes.

What will we get on this visit? Will it be Clown Cookies, big sugar cookies shaped like gingerbread men, with frosting buttons and colorful ruffs on their hands and feet and hard sugar faces? Maybe it will be the Petit Fours, dense little cake squares enrobed with white fondant icing and decorated with frosting flowers. Perhaps it will be the Radio Bars, the name probably a corruption of radial, as in tires. This is a rectangular bar of chocolate cake with a ribbon of vanilla icing on top, covered with dark chocolate icing and finished with another stripe of white frosting (radial...get it?) These are transcendent, inducing a kind of chocolate euphoria long before the tiresome concept of 'chocoholic' was invented.

Maybe-glory of glories-we will get a cake. Is it somebody's birthday? We can only hope. As a child I almost always chose vanilla cake with white frosting and pink flowers. One year for my birthday we had a circus cake, with plastic animals and a little tent held up by straws. It might have been smarter to remove the circus tent before lighting the candles, rather than after, however. I remember the flames reaching almost to the ceiling, and lots of shouting.

But the cake...sweet but not overwhelming, with a fine crumb and a delicious vanilla flavor. And the frosting...satiny white and smooth, with crusty little ridges especially where it is piped in decorative swags around the top and bottom edges of the cake. The cakes come in big cardboard boxes, not plastic shells, and they are wrapped with red and white string that the bakery ladies pull from an overhead dispenser which always fascinates me.

And this is why I love Lyndell's Moons. A consummate pleasure in and of themselves, they let me taste again a long-ago birthday cake, hear the jingle of a bakery door as it swings open, and feel my mother's hand in mine one more time. 

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, October 2015

My birds: talking with their mouths full

My addiction started with one feeder and a bag of birdseed. It all seemed so innocent. No one tells you it will be like this--adding feeder after feeder, trying different kinds of seed, pondering the various types of suet cakes. Now I understand the feelings of a women I know who, when she speaks of squirrels raiding her feeders, has a warrior gleam in her eyes. Now I get it.

I do my bird watching from the comfort of my dining room. The cats and I have comfy, front-row seats to all the colorful drama at my (four and counting) feeders. There are so many big personalities flying in and out that I can't help putting words in their mouths, er, beaks...

Northern cardinal, male: I am the true celebrity around here, never mind what you've heard from the other birds. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than my gorgeous red plumage? Anywhere I sit turns into an instant Christmas card. Watch me sit on this evergreen (sound of cameras snapping). Oh, this is even better (sits on birch, more sounds of cameras snapping). Told you!

Northern cardinal, female: (rolls eyes) I don't know if you've noticed, but you're not exactly unique. There's a lot of you around these days. Personally, I think my own khaki-colored feathers and orange beak are quite attractive, but I have to admit, we ladies are absolute suckers for your bright red coat.

American goldfinch (male): Excuse me, you guys, but you want to talk about breathtaking plumage? Take a look at us now that spring is here, despite the fact that it's currently snowing. Have you ever seen anything so traffic-stopping as my brilliant yellow body with the cool black accents? No, I don't think you have. Now would somebody mind filling my feeder with Nyger seed? Yes, I know my pals and I go through a lot of food, but we're worth it.

American goldfinch (female): This just shows the unfairness of life. The boys get to be all showy, while we girls have to settle for plumage a lot less inspired. I know it's all about attracting us gals and I should feel grateful that the males go to so much trouble, but just for once I'd like to wear the fancy clothes. That's it, I'm going to Marshalls. Anyone want to come with?

All the female goldfinches: Wait up!

Mourning doves: Coo-ah, coo coo coo. Everybody listen to us, everywhere and all the time. You cannot escape our song, even though you turn up your Spotify playlist to dangerous levels. We'll still be here when you're done. Don't mind us, we'll just hang out here in our unassuming way, pecking away at the ground under the feeders. Coo-ah, coo coo coo. Gets in your head, doesn't it?

Red-bellied woodpecker: The rest of you can argue amongst yourselves, but there is no doubt who is boss around here. I'm pretty big and I have the most spectacular red crown and black and white barred feathers. And stop calling me Red-headed woodpecker-that is an entirely different bird! I know it's confusing, but if everyone would just consult their field guides we wouldn't have these issues. Gotta go now, there's a suet cake with my name on it.

Eastern bluebird: (shows up out of nowhere, sits on a branch looking spectacularly blue and orange)

Other birds: Oh great, look who's here! If it isn't Mr. Celebrity! We're here, day after day, week after week. You show up once in a blue moon, pardon the pun, and everyone goes all gaga. The human put up a house JUST FOR YOU last year, and you never even went near it. Bet she runs out and buys mealworms now.

Me: (sees bluebird, has mild heart attack, runs out and buys mealworms)

Mealworm 1: (from a plastic container in the refrigerator): Our lot in life is not a good one. Let's start with our name--mealworms. That's right, our destiny is right there in our name. We're thinking of hiring a rebranding firm. Meanwhile, can you shut the refrigerator? You're letting all the cold air out.

Mealworm 2: Are you kidding? It's freezing in here!

Eastern bluebird: (leaves after 30 seconds, not seen again)

Mealworms: HA!

Black-capped chickadee: Hey, small is the new big. We're tiny and adorable, with our chunky black heads and teensy bodies. Did you know that we are the state bird of both Massachusetts and Maine, as well as the provincial bird of New Brunswick? Beat that, you bigger birds! Although to be honest, we feel the picture of us on those "Massachusetts Welcomes You" signs does not do us justice. Could someone please have a word with the governor?

So many birds, so little column space. I haven't even mentioned Tufted titmice or White-breasted nuthatches. Sorry, guys-next time. Now if you will excuse me, the feeders are empty (again) and it's time for another run to the bird store.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

House hunting from the comfort of my couch

If you are going to watch "House Hunters," "House Hunters International" "Beachfront Bargain Hunt," or any one of the multitude of real estate shows on HGTV or similar channels, there are three terms you must become familiar with:

-Price point

-En suite

-Subway tile

Price point: There are no prices anymore, there are only price points. Even when the word price would do perfectly well, everybody says price point: "What's the price point on this farmhouse style with the wraparound porch?" "Wow, that's a great price point!" or "Awww, that's way above our price point." There are no price ranges, there are only price points.

En suite: I thought bathrooms attached to master bedrooms were called master bathrooms but that just shows how much I know. Just as there are no prices, there are no master bathrooms, only en suites.

Subway tile: Everywhere, all the time.

To each his/her own: These shows follow buyers--sometimes an individual, usually couples, same or opposite sex--in search of a home, apartment, or vacation property. I love vicariously getting inside other people's houses and passing judgment on their awful taste in flooring or admiring their gorgous kitchen cabinets. I'm amazed that some people want to buy a (tacky) high-rise condo in Ocean City, Maryland, and jealous that others get a (stunning) beachfront property in Costa Rica. It's also fun to watch the transformation of shabby houses in the renovation shows, though I have to say I worry about what's going to happen when grey walls, giant clocks, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops become passé.

Opposites attract: I have yet to see an episode of "House Hunters" in which the partners actually want the same thing. Nearly every episode features one person who wants a modern house close to the "city center" (another important term) and one who wants to live somewhere they can have land and raise alpacas. One person loves hardwood floors and the other is obsessed with carpeting. One wants an open floor plan and one wants walls. And always, one wants to stick with the budget and one is willing to blow it for the right house.

How it works: The format is that, along with a real estate agent, our intrepid house hunter or couple looks at three to four properties. We assume that they must inspect things like the boiler and the foundation, but on the show it's all about light fixtures and "flow." Our hunters also say a lot of the same things. When they go out the back deck, one of them invariably remarks "I can see myself grilling on this." Well, no duh. If there is a balcony off the master bedroom, you will definitely hear "I can see myself having coffee here" (how often this actually happen in real life?) If there is a nice view "it doesn't get any better than this." And at the end, when all the properties have been viewed, everyone agrees that "they have a lot to talk about."

Price point, continued: When our house hunters exceed the budget it makes me nervous. "You said you had a strict price point of $450,000!" I shout at the television. "You just moved and you don't have a job yet! That house is $550,000--do you know what your real estate taxes are going to be?!" Sometimes they listen to me, but not always, and I worry.

Americans abroad--not always pretty: My favorite among these shows is "House Hunters International," where an individual or couple (usually American but not always) is moving abroad. This show is great for many reasons, including getting to see beautiful international locations. In addition, it's fascinating because Americans want it all, and many properties abroad don't have it all.

These couples, just like the ones in regular "House Hunters," always want something completely and utterly different. The poor real estate agents listen to the wildly differing wish lists with frozen smiles, no doubt questioning their own career choice and wondering why Americans are so impossible. These overseas real estate agents are also more likely than the American ones to voice their real feelings, though they do it very politely-- "I think the wife is, how to put it, very picky," said one German agent of her client-snipe! Also, they don't hesitate to roll their eyes when Americans voice dismay at tiny European washing machines.

And finally: Even when it seems impossible, even when our buyers are unable to agree on the mid-century modern vs. the vintage craftsmen, even when she hates the laundry room and he loathes the electric stove, somehow they end up compromising. They select one of the properties, while having yummy looking drinks, and three weeks or months later, are as happy as clams (although the couple who went way over their price point for the Italian villa looked a little nervous). Do they all truly live happily ever after? We'll never really know, but they have their subway tile and that counts for something.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo

Candy Wars

I ran over a Charleston Chew wrapper the other day when I was biking with my husband, and it seemed both surprising and absolutely appropriate.

Who eats Charleston Chews these days? How do they still exist? They were the worst candy in the Halloween bag, the one you couldn't trade for anything. "Remember how you were supposed to put them in the freezer?" David said over his shoulder.

"I know! So they could ruin your teeth even faster!" I yelled as I crunched over the wrapper. We were both laughing so hard we almost fell off our bikes.

But hold on a minute.

"I LOVED Charleston Chews," stated one of my best friends (her name is being kept secret for protection) when I asked her opinion about them. "They were one of the yummiest candies, and putting them in the freezer only made them better!"

So there you have it. Candy Wars. One person's reject is someone's else's favorite kind. Candy is freighted with meaning and memory; synonymous with enticement, temptation, reward. Are everyone's childhood memories as stuffed with candy as mine? Probably, unless their mother was some kind of carob-eating, sprout-growing Communist. I'm pretty sure mothers back in my day worried less about the candy their kids ate because they just worried less about their kids, period. Too busy drinking Martinis and smoking. Or maybe that was just my mother.

At least once a week during the summer my friends and I would ride our banana seat bikes for miles along narrow streets with no sidewalks to go to Houlihan's, a greengrocer in North Reading with the world's greatest candy selection. The candy was in tall glass cases, and the big draw was the rock candy, because Houlihan's was the only place we could get it. Scarcity made it precious. We loved the clear sugary crystals-it was like edible quartz, even though it was a little sickening when you ate it down to the string.

And speaking of sickening, remember candy buttons? Those multicolor little dabs of candy on the paper strips? Don't confuse them with Dots, the sticky gumdrops that were guaranteed to rip out your fillings. Candy buttons were bad-tasting little things that left your mouth full of paper after you peeled them off the strip and for some reason, ate them. Also sickening but incredibly alluring? Nik-L-Nips (I had to look up the spelling on that one). Nik-L-Nips were tiny wax bottles filled with colorful sugar water that we chugged like jello shots. They tasted awful, and the wax got in your teeth. Good times.

Tootsie rolls were everywhere in my childhood, and I don't know why because I never really liked them. I'm not sure people like them now either, because I certainly step over a lot of them after the West Newbury Memorial Day parade and candy-throwing extravaganza. Kids will hurl themselves in front of a fire engine for a Blow Pop, but for a Tootsie Roll, not so much. Tootsie Pops are better, especially the chocolate ones and the old television ad with the owl and turtle finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop is the GREATEST COMMERCIAL EVER. Just saying.

Herewith, a list of my personal candy winners and losers in no particular order:

Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies: Oh yeah. Delicious, caramel-y goodness that did very bad things to your teeth.

M & Ms: Obviously a yes. I didn't like the peanut kind until I got older; I was a dumb kid.

Milk Duds: Chocolate and caramel, meh (why did I eat so many, then? Ditto for Nestle's Crunch. I didn't even like them, but that never seemed to stop me)

Good & Plenty: Licorice coated in candy--Awk! Phoeey! WHY?

Wax lips: Again, why?

Bit-O-Honey, Squirrel Nut Zippers: The names are fantastic but I wasn't a fan of either

Turkish Taffy: Bad, but I ate plenty


Boston Baked Beans: Will someone explain this candy to me?

Candy cigarettes: Gasp. No story about candy from the sixties would be complete without candy cigarettes. They tasted terrible, but were fun to play with and pretend to, you know, smoke. Sorry, we couldn't resist the corporate control of our tiny minds. I read on Wikipedia that "candy cigarettes continue to be manufactured...and are now described as candy sticks, bubble gum, or candy." Candy described as candy... that makes about as much sense as real cigarettes.

These days I am not a huge candy eater. I prefer to invest my calories in homemade cookies or really good bread (no worries about gluten here, baby), and candy isn't a big temptation. The exception is Kit-Kats. I love eating them from the top down, layer by crunchy, chocolatey layer. One strip, I say. I'll just eat one. Okay, maybe two. Well now the whole bar's practically gone, so I might as well eat the third one...and the fourth.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo.