Isabel

Photo Isabel

She was born with just right balance of moxie and elegance, which served her well throughout the years. As a little girl in the orphanage, she was always the one chosen to be dressed up in a pinafore with a big bow in her hair and displayed to the wealthy families who came to view the children for possible adoption. Even thought she would curtsy and smile just as she was taught, the little boys were always the first choice. It was Columbia, South America after all and the year was 1908.

It wasn’t a terrible life. The nuns were kind enough and even though they were too busy to pay individual attention to all their charges on a daily basis, they treated Isabel with a certain reverence. In her quiet, confident way, she seemed to stand out from the others and they sensed this. Mother Superior would always pat her on the head as she walked by and whisper “Eres una estrella brillante” (“You are a shining star”). Isabel treasured those words and would remember them for the rest of her life.

She had little choice where she was to go once she outgrew the orphanage. Mother Superior took special care to make sure that her placement fit her distinctive personality. She had her assigned to a positon as a maid in the home of a wealthy Spanish family who just happened to have a son close to her age. The rest would take care of itself, she surmised, as she smiled to herself and made the sign of the cross.

While Isabel felt fortunate to live with such luxury around her and absorbed the refinement and  gentility into her nature, the years were passing by and she had a gnawing feeling that there was more to life. While the family was kind to her, and their son, Manolo, was noticeably infatuated with her, once he left for college, she felt it was also time for her to move on.

She had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket by ship to New York and set her plan in motion. Jobs did not come easy then, but with much determination, she found herself reporting to work at the National Biscuit Company a week later. Convinced that her factory job of sorting and packing cookies would be short term, she did so with that same style and grace that she was now becoming known for.

She met Florence on her very first day of work. Both strong-minded and full of dreams, they soon became best friends. Together, they made up for their lack of formal education with their uncanny ability to charm their way in (or out) of any situation. They would pool their money and smile coyly as they greeted the owner of the fabric store and then ask for a discount. Isabel would design the dresses that Florence would sew. Now, they felt confident enough to attend a dance at one of the big New York clubs or take in a movie together. They held hands as they had their hair cut off into a bob, the flapper style that was considered a bit rebellious.

Isabel had originally chosen New York for two reasons: it’s allure and the fact that Manolo was attending college there. It did not take long for him to respond in person to the note, scented with her perfume that she hand-delivered to the school office. They married as soon as he graduated and settled on Long Island, a suburban area of New York City. Hers was a charmed life in a beautiful home with a loving, successful husband.

She remained best friends with Florence her entire life, which is where I come in. Florence was my grandmother and that is how I got to know Titi Isabel (an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Neither my parents nor my grandparents would dare make any decorating or fashion decisions without consulting her first. She was our very own Latin Coco Chanel.

I was used to the fact that my family did not allow sleepovers with minor exceptions; Titi Isabel and Manolo being one of them. As the oldest child in a household with a toddler and an infant, I was delighted to be invited to spend the weekend in such a sophisticated, adult world. Our scrambled eggs were prepared with just a dash of white wine. For lunch, we’d dine on buttered chicken sandwiches served on Pepperidge Farms bread (rather than the big loaf of no-name, sale white bread we’d have at home). Titi Isabel and I would dress together for our outings to New York City “Eres una estrella brillante” she would whisper to me as she’d dab some of her perfume behind my ear.

It was when Titi Isabel died that I was finally able to get my grandmother to divulge the name of her perfume. Just like her past, she wished to keep her scent a secret, hoping it would fade away with time. Likening her choice of fragrance to her elegant nature, my hunt, for the elusive product that now had a name, started at the most prestigious department stores. Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel; my search continued as I told myself that, in this instance, money was no object.

I cannot say that I was disappointed when I paid the cashier at Walgreens for the largest bottle of that perfume that I could find. It seemed a testament to a life well lived, made up of the top and the bottom, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. One woman’s choices made with an inherent confidence that could elevate nothing into something all because of who she was.

I dab that perfume behind my ears every day with a smile, hoping its bouquet will give me a whiff of who I might become if I let myself unfold just a bit more elegantly and mysteriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

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Why a Stranger Isn’t Strange to Me

Photo Strangers

First, we acknowledge each other as we pass by each day. Then, we smile and wish each other a good day. Next, we share a few comments about the weather, finally introduce ourselves and begin to make small talk. This is my how my relationships started with my walking friends; strangers that I’ve met while walking the same route each day.

First, there was the young woman who left the corporate world to become a dog walker (the same mother that left the room crying when she announced her career change, now introduces her as her successful entrepreneur daughter). It was the colorful set of keys hanging from her belt that sparked our initial conversation. Because she was out in all kinds of weather, she was tuned in to the National Weather Advisory 24/7 and became my personal weather forecaster.

Then, there was the striking, older couple who would take their morning constitutional; she, always wearing a stylish hat and he, looking like Santa Claus and sporting a carved cane (only for effect, his wife would say). After running into them at a couple of charity events throughout the city (including Big A’s* grammar school), I would instinctively look for a lovely hat whenever I’d enter a venue. I’d never know when they would pop into my life next, surprised to see him on a local TV station interview (turns out he was a famous Chicago area writer) or as Mr. Wiz’s* customer at the Mercedes Benz dealership.

Finally, the gentleman that would be up so early walking his dog was always so cheery that I’d find myself smiling and continuing on my route with a newfound spring in my step. One of his daughters was the same age as Big A, so we started comparing notes and swapping Millennial one liners. A chance meeting in our neighborhood with our spouses has since led to a wonderful friendship.

A stranger is just a person that you haven’t gotten to know yet; take Miss Rye Bread. Once, when Big A was a little boy, we were walking back from the grocery store and decided to stop at Woolworth’s. One of the cashiers, a young Filipino woman who seemed a bit stern, noticed our loaded cart and cheerfully said “…Why don’t you leave your cart here. Don’t worry, I’ll watch your rye bread…”, noticing the loaf balanced at the top. For years, we would say hello to Miss Rye Bread on the street, visit her in whatever area store she was working in and never failed to surprise her when we’d sing Happy Birthday to her on her special day.

Nowadays, it’s not that strange to interact with strangers. Thanks to the internet, we date them, room with them, vacation in their homes, stay in their spare bedrooms or on their sofas, rent their cars and pay them to host us for dinner, along with other guests (who are also strangers).

As a child, I remember being told never to get into a car with a stranger. Then, Uber came along and I became totally confused. Now, Uber is currently developing new technology whereby cars will drive themselves. That means that when you’re picked up, there won’t even be a stranger in the car with you. Now, that’s strange….

As a self-taught expert in “strangerology”, I have found that it’s the age of the passerby and not the size of the city that dictates the eye contact level. The younger the passerby, the more likelihood that they will be tuning out the world around them, either by wearing ear phones or by walking, head down, transfixed by some form of social media (the latter technique should not be attempted by amateurs).

Attempt this next exercise at your own risk. There’s no chance for a repeat relationship. It’s just the flash of a human connection, a one-time opportunity for a relationship, the gift of a personal link from one to another. Try it; smile at a stranger as you pass them by and see their countenance change as if by magic. It will change their day and it will make yours!

 

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