Living in The Other White House and Other Childhood Memories

Photo White House

Until the age of ten, I was very proud to say that my first few years were spent living in the White House. I then realized that it was the other white house; a white brick apartment building in Washington Heights, a section of New York City. My parents and grandparents would reminisce about that time with such reverence. They both lived in the same building and now that I think back, the stories of their escapades were less presidential and more Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel.

Once when I was a baby, my dad was playing with me and pressed a toy attached to a suction cup onto his forehead, much to my delight, only to find that it would not come off. The more he pulled, the tighter the hold.

Of course, the whole family had to accompany him to the hospital emergency department. My grandmother thought quickly and outfitted her son with a turban-style headdress. As is typical of New Yorkers, no one gave a second glance to the protruding appendage or the stifled giggles of the accompanying group during the entire subway ride.

As not to alter his dapper image, my dad went to work each day feigning surprise when any of his customers commented about the perfect, brightly colored circle in the middle of his forehead, which changed to every color of the rainbow before finally departing for good.

My grandmother had perfected the return of merchandise to an art form. Send her to any type of store with any kind of merchandise and she would exit victorious. Many rumors existed as to just what went on between this diminutive woman with a Spanish accent and the sales staff, but since she worked alone, it was only speculation. Many surmised that it had to do with her dark piercing eyes, which sparkled when she was happy and burned a hole into you when she was not.

There is still talk of her many New York City reimbursement exploits: my sister’s dead frog to a pet shop, her friend’s used lipstick to Henri Bendel, my aunt’s ripped, two-year old dress to Lord & Taylor, another friend’s dining room table missing a leg to Macy’s, but the most famous was the bedding story.

Never mind that the sheets were not quite new, they were not her accepted level of quality, so back they went. When the patronizing saleslady at B. Altman & Company on Fifth Avenue did not understand her, my grandmother responded, in a rather loud voice, her version of the word “sheets” which came out “s***s”. This caused a stir at the chic establishment, causing both security and the store manager to intervene. The rest is history, as not only apologies ensued, but two sets of more expensive sheets, a store credit for the ones returned and lunch at their famous Charleston Garden Restaurant. My grandmother had her heart set on dining on the second-floor terrace. How the hostess patiently explained to her that it was really just trompe l’ oeil is another story in itself.

Life isn’t always an episode of “I Love Lucy”, but hiding in between all the seriousness, might just be some wonderful memories that will tickle you every time you let them. Hopefully inheriting some of that lighthearted spirit, my funny bone and I have made a pact to continue to remember not to forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Visiting Bryan/College Station: Trendy with a Texas Twang

Photo Bryan Coll Sta

I’m feeling a bit confused. I’m still not sure how I went from wishing for a place the four of us (Mr. Wiz*, Big A*, JC*and I) could go over the July Fourth holiday that was not in the $500 – $700 per night price range and landing at The Stella Hotel, a five star, Preferred Hotel with Frette sheets for a little over $100 a night. I think it was a combination of my positive thinking and JC’s suggestion that we take the lead from a recent Austin Monthly article and visit Bryan/College Station.

The home of Texas A&M University, over 66,000 students swell the city’s population during the school year. We wondered why these two neighboring cities were all of a sudden exploding with all types of development; why now? Apparently, social media had opened the doors to all of the campus sporting events and the general public accepted its invitation. Lucky for us, we were visiting offseason.

The Stella Hotel just opened in April and still smells new. The décor has that wow factor. The mixed use of materials, the textures and the interesting touches (saddle bags and iron I-beams mounted on the walls) all send out a sophisticated, yet edgy vibe. We were greeted by the sports jacket and jean clad staff who all had names like Parker and Morgan (no need to apply here if your name is Joe or Sue), who worked from their iPads, rather than standing behind the usual counter; very cool.

Outside was a man-made lake, two swimming pools, a golf course and a series of paths that led to a residential development of mega homes. The sprawling lawn was so welcoming, set up with assorted games, a fire pit, chairs and tables. Complimentary bicycles and paddle boards awaited our use at the front entrance.

JC acted as the official judge, as we filled our afternoons with pool races and seeing who could do the best hand stand in the water (some things never change). In preparation for the Scrabble championship (with a money prize to make it more interesting) and paddle board competition that I had planned, I tried to psych out Big A by boasting that I had trained on a paddle board while reading a dictionary. It didn’t work; he was the big winner of both contests.

In between, we visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and the Messina Hof Winery. Though the Campfire Restaurant at the hotel was in the running, we all agreed that our favorite dinner was at Christopher’s World Grille. The renovated historic home was rated one of the top 100 romantic restaurants in the U. S. by Trip Advisor. The next day, the fans and misters kept us cool as we listened to live music on the porch of the Hullabaloo Diner, a transplanted 1940s New York diner. As we waited for our table, we agreed that this was what Sundays were made for.

I’m not sure what Texas’ secret is; it could be the warm weather or everyone’s laid back style, but it has a way of reminding you to slow down. It gave our little family the chance to enjoy each others company and regroup. We all left feeling relaxed and pampered. I felt a bit more hip and happy to have another family adventure to tuck into my memory belt.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

The Life He Chose: A Father’s Day Tribute in Prose

Photo Fathers Day

Oh, what a novel your life would be
Filled with drama, intrigue and romance
An instant best seller you couldn’t put down
About dreams, daring and chance

Our swashbuckling hero is born in Hell’s Kitchen
Where only the strong can stand the heat
Tough and daring, devil may-caring
His education was life on the street

He scrapped and fought, sold on streets what he’d bought
Living hard, playing hard with his money
‘Til a war came upon us, this Latin Adonis
Joined the army to be all he could be

The lessons learned here; cold, raw, full of fear
Shaped the spirited boy into a man
In an Infantry Irish with only one wish
To make it home and create a plan

The man of the hour, filled with rage, but no power
Was in search of who he was in his life
Who’d think that by chance, after asking her to dance
That beautiful blonde would become his wife

So, now full of dreams (the hero with schemes)
The couple set forth together
She provides inspiration, he- sheer determination
There’s no port in the storm they can’t weather

With street education and blind dedication
His goal not to follow, but lead
Oh, wonderful joy; three girls and a boy
Now, his ego and six mouths to feed!

From your soul way down deep, when you can’t sleep
Comes a voice of both terror and power
Telling you to pursue it, you know you can do it
This is your shining hour

He had no choice, he succumbed to that voice
And our leading man went from rags to riches
But, it’s that lost Latin boy that’s brought others such joy
Helping others to achieve their wishes

 

Tea for Two and Other Heart Warming Rituals

Photo Tea

A lamp chop, a cup of tea and the sound of a tea kettle all have a kind of Pavlovian effect on me.

Beginning at age 4, I would spend time with my grandmother, enjoying my favorite lunch: a baby lamb chop, tiny baked potato and spinach sautéed with garlic (no PB&J for the first- born child). Then, at around 3pm, she would take out the good china tea cups (I had a special tiny size all my own) and make us a cup of tea. Sometimes she would take the time to serve from a teapot. We would sit across from each other at her dining room table and chat. It always made me feel very grown up and very elegant.

The ritual has continued to this day. My tea partners (you know who you are) and I enjoy a special closeness over that steaming cup. The kettle is filled, our favorite cups are chosen, the tea bag (still always Lipton) enters the cup and we eagerly anticipate the screeching of the kettle. The brew steeps for 3 minutes (yes, I time it). Milk or sugar? I add just enough milk to produce a caramel color and a dot of sugar that is similar to the waving of a bottle of Vermouth over a martini. Now, we can choose where we’ll sit and delight in each other’s company.

So, what is the difference between a habit, a custom, a ritual and a tradition? My grandmother began the daily routine of enjoying a cup of tea each afternoon (a habit). Soon, it became a practice (a custom). Once it was observed and repeated regularly, it graduated to a ritual. Passing it on to subsequent generations made it a tradition.

Here are some of my family rituals that I’m hoping will someday find their way to becoming traditions:

– The secret handshake, created after watching a late-night movie whereby the heroine suffered amnesia, was unrecognizable after an accident and her family was unsure if it was truly her.

– Spanish buzz words for “chill out”, and “not now”.

– Scrabble games.

– The morning shower message: a special occasion is immortalized in words, written on the shower wall with shaving cream (until the water is turned on).

– Preparing our favorite Latin foods at holiday time: Paella (chicken and shellfish with rice flavored with chicken broth, seafood broth and saffron), Arroz con Gandules (spareribs and garbanzo beans with rice flavored with beef broth and saffron) and Pasteles (pork-stuffed dough made from plantains and root vegetables). The youngest helper always adds the green olive to the finished product and the least culinary-capable is relegated to cutting the string that ties up the finished product.Te

There’s something very comforting about repeating an act (or series of acts) in a set, precise manner. I particularly enjoy the accuracy and the detail of the process. Looking forward to these little ceremonies of life can be so uplifting.

Our lives are full, time flies by and family and friends may not live close, but we can delight in the fact that we took the time to create one special moment. Each time it is celebrated, we’ll know that we were the ones that gathered up a small portion of our lives, held it close and wrapped it into an extraordinary gift that can be reopened over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Mother’s Day Bouquet of Insights

Photo Mothers Day

Dear Mom,

I realized that you were smart when I was unsure of Santa Claus and you sat me down and asked me if I truly believed that the entire U.S. Postal Service had time to pretend (still has me thinking).

I realized you were savvy when you said you loved avocadoes at my 6th grade Home Economics Mexican Luncheon (back then, no one knew what they were).

I realized you were cosmopolitan when, in high school, you took me to New York City and knew your way around. We went to Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side and I remember deciding that day that I would be an “uptown girl” rather than a hippie.

I realized you were my mentor when, much to the dismay of my great aunts, you suggested that a career in business, rather than teaching, better suited my personality. That one suggestion changed my life.

I realized you were fashionable when I’d see you looking great each day, dressed up and make up on, even when you were going out to do errands. You always told me “…If you’ve got it, flaunt it…”

I realized that you were sophisticated when I noticed that you could initiate a conversation with anyone you were introduced to. You are aware of everything around you and have a sense of adventure, a love of travel and that spark, that spunk that makes people want to be around you.

I realized that you were my hero when I would see you direct our family with a wonderful sense of humor and grace through life’s ups and downs. Knowing all there is to know about each of us, you have a way of gently suggesting, rather than pushing or scolding.

I realized that you were a great mother when I became a mother myself and could see just what it took to help a child develop, learn and grow.

I realized that you were my best girlfriend when I knew that you were someone that I really loved spending time with.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Laugh and the Family Laughs With You

Injecting a sense of humor into everyday tasks threw my family off just enough so that before they realized it, my goals were accomplished and happiness prevailed.

When Big A* was too young to get a job, but old enough to become a consumer, I would say “Go check the frig!” There, he would find jobs posted, along with details and the fee paid:

  • “Go Where No Man has Gone Before”: vacuum under the sofa cushions.
  • “Wanted: Mountain Climbing Experience”: use step ladder to dust book shelves.
  • “Spa Day for Legos”: fill up bath tub with bubbles, wash Legos, dry on towels.
  • “Shoe Biz”: polish our shoes.

To lift spirits in the morning, I created the shower note. On special occasions, the event was immortalized (until the water was turned on) on the shower wall, spelled out in shaving cream.

Once, when houseguests were almost upon us, I had to think quickly as to how to get the ceiling repaired. Mr. Wiz* kept procrastinating. Rather than nag (also can be effective, just takes longer), I wrote a poem and left it on his dresser:
If you want to get that feeling
That will really leave you reeling
And you know with whom you’re dealing
Come on, and fix that ceiling!

Ten minutes later, I heard Mr. Wiz chuckle and then noticed him brush the dust off his tool kit and get to work.

After that, I was a one-woman comedy show, introducing new material with abandon: serving hot dog shaped hamburgers in hot dog rolls, leaving notes on bananas. You never knew what to expect next. I was Lucille Ball meets Martha Stewart and we were a laughing, well-oiled machine.

It’s a busy world out there and your to-do list is not going anywhere, so loosen up, uncover your sense of humor and take your show on the road.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.