Unfurling My Curls

Photo Unfurling My CurlsBeing a little girl with curly hair had its perks. I could launch into a medley of ShirleyTemple songs and tap dance my way to a later bedtime, but as I grew up I became tangled in its complexities.

My unruly curls and I were soon taken to my Titi Olga’s beauty salon for a consultation (Titi is an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Located in the basement of her home, it most probably was being run without a license. Possibly affected by the strong odor of the chemical solutions, JC* lost all control of the situation and the decision was made to trust the illegal professional to give me a permanent. I left there with a lollipop and a hair style that gave new meaning to Curly Top, one of Shirley Temple’s hit movies.

As a teenager, the Beach Boys music reminded me that my curls were interfering with my goal of long, blonde, straight hair and living in California. Luckily, I had read in a teen magazine that I could straighten my hair on my own. The project required an ironing board, an iron and one important item that I had forgotten about: the towel that goes between the iron and the hair. It was a miracle that JC walked into the laundry room just at the right moment and shrieked, saving me from a 911 experience that would, no doubt, still be the talk of the police locker room today.

There was another article in that same teen magazine (they went bankrupt soon after) that said to set your hair with juice cans, the larger diameter helping to straighten the hair. Though my younger siblings were apprehensive at first, the little entrepreneurs set up shop, charging their friends 25 cents to view their alien older sister in her native habitat. And, when I awoke one morning, screaming, as I discovered that you could read the word “Tropicana” in bold letters across my rolled hair, those little devils raised the admission price to 50 cents.

As if out of a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, I unexpectedly experienced life curl free when I became pregnant. It wasn’t pretty. My mind raced through the twists and turns of a life without those rowdy ringlets and I swore on my bubble hair dryer that if my curls somehow returned, I would never brush them off as an annoyance again.

In an ironic turn of events, Big A* was born with a bald little head and my curls miraculously returned, crowning my head, once again, with those wild twirls of hair that were and are the root of who I am.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The King of Queens

Photo King of Queens

Ask anyone and they will tell you that I was the one to coin that phrase years before the popular TV show. My dad not only owned a construction company in Queens, a borough of Manhattan, he spoke of it as if it were his magical kingdom.

Every morning (sometimes seven days a week), he would leave the house before we got up and regale us with fascinating facts and stories when he’d arrive home. The reason that the fruits and vegetables from Queens were larger than any we’d ever seen was because the vacant lots they were grown in contained special soil. While he couldn’t make his way around a country road, he knew of a network of back alleys which could magically transport him to any Queens destination in half the time.

Though he only stood 5 feet 6 inches, he lived life large. He had a powerful presence that was not lost on any of the Queens store or restaurant owners. When he walked into an establishment, there was always a ruffle of excitement as they welcomed Mr. Frank and he delighted in that.

Wonderful marketer that he was, he noticed that the demographics in his area were changing. Many of the Queens homeowners were now widows who were a bit fearful of dealing with rough, tough and possibly unscrupulous contractors. That gave him the idea to create the persona of “The Gentleman Roofer.” His new Yellow Pages ad and business cards featured a photo of him in a bowler hat and tuxedo. When customers would ask if the Gentleman Roofer would be wearing his hat, he started to carry plastic ones in his trunk.

The photo shoot for the new marketing campaign was created in my parent’s living room. Initially, an argument ensued when my dad, in a hurry, insisted on just wearing the tuxedo jacket along with his boxer shorts, reasoning that the photo would be taken from the waist up. With JC* as the photographer (and no experience in this field of endeavor), what happened next was another Lucy and Desi moment. For years, those outtakes were the highlight of every family get together. We’d laugh until we cried at the photos of my dad yelling in each photo as JC repeatedly took crooked images of him in his combination tuxedo/underwear outfit.

Once he visited your home to give you a quote was when the magic happened. In five minutes, he would size you up. If you lived alone, he would show you family photos, tell you about his voice lessons and leave you a tape of him singing Frank Sinatra tunes. If you were aggressive and started haggling about pricing, he would suggest another area contractor. They were not as good as his company, but there might be a better rapport. This usually led to that customer calling, begging for another chance (and paying more for the privilege)

For months after he died, I would call his company phone number at night just to hear his robust voice on the message and smile. I knew that the new owner would eventually update it, but I doubted that anyone could match his Christmas message. Recorded over 50 times until perfect, it featured JC singing “Jingle Bells” softly in the background (again, with no experience in this field of endeavor) and my dad reminding you that you will have a happier holiday if you call the Gentleman Roofer for an appointment.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

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

 

Sibling Revelry       

Photo Sibling Revelry

No one seemed to know why so much time had gone by since we were all together, but it didn’t matter. We were here, right now and from the first hugs, it seemed as if we just took up where we had left off. There’s a magic in that; it’s that fast-forward gear to life that glides right over the past with all its crevices and back alleys and propels you to the clear, open vistas of the present moment.

Fun loving matriarch that she is, it was JC* that brought us together. It’s hard not to be all in when you are invited to the warmth of Austin, Texas in March. This was not her first rodeo, but it would be her guests’ initial experience attending one. Everyone was urged to bring their inner cowboy and cowgirl and dress for the occasion.

There would be seven of us: my New York sister and her son (note to self: remember that inviting a younger person means smooth sailing with any possible technology questions and glitches), my brother and his wife (law, shmaw; a sister-in-law is just like a sister), JC, Mr. Wiz* and me. With JC doing the planning, Mr. Wiz doing the driving in the seven-passenger car we would rent and me, all too eager to get started on the spreadsheet that would document and guide us through each day’s plans, there was no doubt that a good time would be had by all.

The days went by much too quickly. Funny stories from childhoods past intermingled with present day discussions of our lives. We learned that we were all foodies, were very health conscious, worked hard to be physically fit and still had no concept of potlucks nor had any inclination to participate in one (not a thing in and around New York City where we grew up).

My sister brought a special guest and with much fanfare introduced Zippy the monkey. A popular stuffed animal at the time, we could not believe she still had him after all those years. His new clothes (complete with a cowboy hat just for the occasion) helped to hide his shopworn look. We agreed it was fortunate that he could not talk or many a childhood faux pas would have been unleashed.

Once the floodgates opened, we all shared our favorite stories about my dad. After passing away so many years ago, it was testament to our love and devotion to him that he would still be so admired and thought of daily. What better tribute than that?

Though we agreed that we don’t really look alike, we decided that my sister resembled my dad and we saw his strong personality in her (we laughed to think that she was my dad in a dress). Though my brother looked more like our grandfather, he had that strength and determination inherited from our dad. I looked more like JC, but was a composite of both parents, personality wise.

When it was time to say goodbye, it really didn’t feel like a farewell. It seemed as if we were just getting started, restarted and it was one of the happiest days of my life. We instinctively held hands for just a minute and that old feeling came back and overwhelmed me.

The sibling connection is a strong one. It can withstand anything that confronts it. It’s a private club with lifelong membership. It’s a connectedness to the past, present and the future. It’s a feeling that, wherever you go, whatever you do, there is a fan club out there with your name on it.

In time, we plan to include our children in our get-togethers and reintroduce them to the family that almost got away, but was saved by a spirited, loving mother, a rodeo and the strong bond that time could not destroy.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Living in The Other White House and Other Childhood Memories

Photo White House

Until the age of 10, 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, 2- 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 3 p.m., 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 three 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 others 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.