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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Look Back and Other Forward Thinking Philosophies   

Photo Dont Look Back

Don’t let the title confuse you; the message here is a simple one. How can we exist in the present if we let ourselves dwell in the past?

Believe me, I know how hard it is. One lick of an ice cream cone can conjure up a childhood recollection. One photo can have you sitting on the sofa reliving a lost memory. One TV commercial can propel you into reviewing the history of all of your career choices.

Yoga can help to give you discipline to control your thoughts. For over 5000 years, this practice has brought peace and serenity to the world by providing a total mind/body workout. It’s the instructors who do not have it easy. Think of herding cats, but on a mat. Last week I watched my instructor gather up all her positive energy in order to try to counteract the negative forces of 20 students either still on their phones or curled up in a ball or actually napping before class. In 60 minutes, her challenge was to not only move the group through a series of poses, but help them to mindfully focus on the now.

One of the best instructors I ever had was part army sergeant. She would begin the class with a low, soothing voice, but when necessary bark out orders. We all needed that. I swear she knew the precise moment when my mind would wander and would give me a gentle tap on the shoulder as she walked around, observing the class.

We don’t have to achieve swami status, but we can take a few tips from this ancient practice and learn to be present:

  • When you lose focus or your mind starts racing, just shut your eyes for a few minutes and reboot.
  • Try to concentrate on the task at hand, whether it’s writing a report or washing a dish.
  • When your mind wanders off into the past, just acknowledge it and bring yourself back to the present.

There is nothing wrong with bringing a lovely thought to mind (in time, we can even learn to let the tender memory of a loved one travel from our head to our hearts). It’s when we use the past to cloud the present that is the concern. We need to remind ourselves that the path not taken is no longer an option, but it can serve as a valuable lesson and a guide to the new direction we’re following at the moment. Reliving prior events over and over again will not change their outcome, so what’s the point?

So, go ahead, reminisce, evoke feelings of a time gone by, but just remember to keep it healthy by making it the dessert and not the entrée. There are just so many hours in a day. Let’s use them wisely and give all our attention to shaping who and where we are right now.

 

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Mother, Daughter & A Soul Bearing Secret

Photo Teddy

It was Christmas morning and JC* was ten years old. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for children to expect only one gift awaiting them under the tree (how that exploded into the shopping and gift giving frenzy of today is a topic for another post). The fact that she was living with her grandmother since her parent’s divorce did not seem to impact her celebration. She was an independent, resilient child and Nana was always fun to be with.

Nana finally awoke and the celebration began. The fast process of unwrapping only meant that JC had more time to play with her gift: a beautiful, white teddy bear. It was love at first sight and for the next couple of days she spent day and night with her new friend. JC thought she was the luckiest little girl in the world to have only white teddy bear in the world. In part, she was correct; teddy bears, which were first produced in the early 1900’s, were named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt and were usually brown.

It was a day later that Nana mentioned that JC’s aunt and cousin were unexpectedly coming to visit for the day. …’’I don’t have a gift for your cousin, Ruthie. She’s about your age, so let’s just give her your teddy bear and I promise we’ll get another one for you tomorrow…”.

Before she could react, the doorbell rang and a few minutes later, her teddy bear was in the arms of Ruthie, a bratty little girl that she remembered not liking the last time she had met her. Prompted by her mom, Ruthie mumbled a quick thank you, threw teddy on the couch and ran outside to play. JC’s lips quivered as teddy left the house that day, being dragged on the ground and then thrown into the trunk of the car.

Nana kept her word and the next day they were up and dressed early to go teddy bear shopping, downtown. She always made outings special and this time announced they would first stop at the bakery for a sweet bun. Fortified, they traveled from store to store, only to find no white teddy bears in stock. Finally, Nana decided they needed to settle on a brown teddy bear and made the purchase. JC tried, but could never play with that brown teddy. The crushing feeling of disappointment left her with a lump in her throat and a pain in the pit of her stomach that never really went away.

All these years later, these memories would come to the surface and take hold of her. She found herself sharing this story with family and friends, as if re-telling it over and over would somehow free her. Why was there a white and a brown teddy bear all of a sudden sitting on JC’s bed? They looked out of place against the sleek sophistication of the modern décor. It happened they were recent gifts, lovely gestures- the white one from her daughter-in-law and the brown one from a male friend, who like Nana settled for a brown teddy when no white ones were available.

A couple of weeks later, after enjoying dinner together, JC all of a sudden, teared up and confided in me that the adorable duo were wreaking havoc on her emotions. Each time she entered her bedroom, she would go back in time and re-live her parent’s divorce, bouncing back and forth from her grandmother to her aunt’s homes, the quiet strength that she wore like armor. She couldn’t just give them away, but realized they had to go…, but where?

The answer came to me immediately. When I dropped her off that night, I brought the teddy bears home with me. Now named Blanca and Castaña (the words white and brown in Spanish), they are delicately wrapped up and awaiting their introduction to JC’s great- grandchildren, along with the story about their spunky, resilient great-grandmother who was tough enough to endure all of life’s heartbreaks and smart enough to know when it was time to bear her soul and let go of the past.

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