Breaking up is as hard as you make it

elaborate potty seat
Or maybe they figured it spoke for itself.

I’ve had this Ry Cooder song in my head for days and it’s driving me crazy. “Little sister don’t you kiss me once or twice, say it’s very nice and then run/Oh, little sister don’t you do what your big sister done.” I didn’t know why it was in my head – maybe from my Saturday evening listening to Pandora while I painted the laundry room? It could have come up on my Steve Earle/Mark Knopfler station, or maybe on my Patty Griffin station. I painted late into the night, and now the more accurately named laundry nook is a detergent-friendly blend of Fancy Free (walls) and Surfin’ USA (trim).

But the next day on the dog walk I noticed once again a dirty bib that says “Little Sister,” hanging on a fence post for its owner to notice, and realized I had been seeing it the past few dog walks. I hoped this would make the song go away but no, it’s still there, playing the same two lines again in an overlapping loop, every time my mind is quiet enough to hear it. There have been a lot of signs in the neighborhood lately. The bib, and a sign written in chalk on someone’s front walk, “Small white dog found.” Also a post-it note stuck to a carefully wrapped object in the alley, “Car seat for free, in good shape.” Double underscore on the good.

The car seat note is one I’d write. I’d want to make sure that whoever saw it understood its precise value. I like to have as much control as possible over the things I discard, maybe because I don’t really want to part with anything. I had to write a breakup note to my meditation group – well, actually, I didn’t have to write a note, I could have just not gone back, or not gone as often, but because I need control, I had to write a note explaining in great detail, how much I loved the group and how difficult a decision this was, but how “the social butterfly in me” needed more time on Sunday mornings for brunch dates, and how “my heart” responds better to 15-minute meditations than to 60-minute ones. Dave read the note before I hit Send and said, “You can delete most of this.”

“Too much information?”

“You don’t need to apologize. You don’t need to explain yourself.”

“I thought about saying maybe I’d be back in the Fall, but then I don’t want to be committed. But I don’t know, maybe I’ll want to go back.”

“Just thank them and keep it short. You don’t have to weigh them down with your every thought.”

After more deliberation, I shortened the note to three lines. I realized that I was trying to leave the group and keep it too. Like when my parents sold the house we’d grown up in, and left post-it notes everywhere for the new owners, “Do not overload washing machine” and “This window sticks” and “Original doorknob from linen closet – spindle bad.” We try to hang on with our intentions, our words. Because if we don’t hang on, we’ve lost a set of choices, a possible future, possibly the road we should have taken.

“People can make things harder than they need to,” observed Kismet, to whom I’d confided my weeks of meditation deliberation. You can wrap a car seat in plastic and attach a note, hoping it will go to a good home, where the new owner will take good care of it. You don’t want it to get ruined, or too casually taken, or passed over because the new potential owner assumes it doesn’t work. Or you can just set out a carved wooden potty seat with TP roll and magazine rack in the alley, shut the gate, and move on to the next thing. We see it all on the morning dog walk. And those of us who need to hang on to everything have the pictures to prove it.

Healthy! Easy! Quick! Delicious!

pasta fagioli recipt
The secret is in the underscoring.

Baby Dumpling’s dad emailed, to tell me he and Mrs. Dumpling had found part of a recipe Mom had given them. They were cleaning out the Dumpling’s stroller, and stuck in the side were half the instructions for Mom’s pasta fazul. “We would love to make it, but it cuts off on the right margin,” he wrote.

The Dumpling is now two years old. His first summer, Mrs. Dumpling used to wheel the stroller to Mom’s every day on their walk. Mom’s last couple of months, she’d start the morning saying, “I’m too tired for the Dumpling today,” but by noon she’d be sitting out front, saying “Where’s Baby Dumpling?” as they came up the drive. She would never hold the Dumpling, because she didn’t want to give him her cancer germs, but she’d make faces and talk to him and celebrate every smile, every laugh she could get out of him.

Mr. Dumpling also wanted me to know they’d watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and who do you think was in the credits? Baby Dumpling! “It was the name of one of the Governor’s children,” he said. “We said that Phyllis must’ve been watching with us.”

Hearing from them made me realize I haven’t called Mom’s sister Marie in weeks. When Mom died, I thought I’d be on the phone with her every day, just like Mom had been, just like I had been with Mom. I love talking to Auntie Marie. I love the way she looks at life, I love her cooking tips, I love her voice. But the prospect of calling is awkward. I feel like I don’t really have a reason to get in touch. Now that my parents are gone, I feel like I’m not really connected to their relatives. But once we’re talking, that all goes out the window.

So I called Marie, and told her about the Baby Dumpling sighting, which made her laugh her magical laugh. She and my mom invented many names for people and things they loved, and Marie’s vision of Heaven can easily accommodate some form of Mom watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with her former neighbors.

Marie said she follows basically the same recipe for pasta fazul, which she pronounces correctly as pasta fagioli. I can picture right where the Dumplings’ copy probably cuts off. Mom always made multiple copies of her recipes using her inkjet printer and creamy yellow paper she thought made things easier to read. Usually she was copying recipes she had already typed up or printed and then annotated in pen. Here’s the completed recipe.

Italian Bean Soup (Pasta Fagioli)
Saute approx 1/2 cup celery (diced) with about 1/2 onion (diced) and a clove of minced garlic in olive oil.

Add salt and pepper and a bit of red pepper flakes (optional).
Add: Small can of Hunt’s tomato paste (8 oz size) AND 3 CANS OF WATER.
Tiny pinch of sugar and simmer 1/2 hour.
Add: 1 can NORTHERN beans (Joan of Arc or similar) and simmer another 1/2 hour.
Add: 1/3 cup of uncooked spaghetti broken into small pieces and add during last 15 minutes.
Simple but very tasty, especially if you serve with a little parm.

Auntie Marie usually uses two cloves of garlic instead of one. Also, she adds some lemon. “You don’t actually taste the lemon,” she explained, “but it brings out the flavor of everything else.”


stolen flowers

Last night I ran into a friend in front of her condo building. She pointed to an area beside the entrance and said, “Our plants have been stolen.”


“Yep. The ones you’re looking at are replacements. The first ones got stolen.”

“How? When?”

“I don’t know. Everyone’s emailing about it.” Just then another condo resident walked by with her dog. I figured she’d planted them, since she’s a gardener and works at a garden center, but no! It was in fact a different condo owner who did the planting, and then replanting. However, the gardening expert had happened to walk by at the exact moment when the non-gardening expert was doing the planting! “They looked lovely,” she noted. “Then, an hour later, I came back and they were gone. Just like that.”

We all shook our heads. “I tried to tell myself it was just some kid wanting to bring flowers to Mommy,” said the gardening expert, “but these were whole plants, roots and all.” So someone was watching, waiting for their chance. Waiting for the non-gardening expert to finish. They brought their box or bag, dug out the plants, and fled the scene.

Why would you steal plants? You can’t sell them. You can’t eat them. It seems like either you’re someone who loves flowers and doesn’t steal, or you’re someone who steals and doesn’t give a shit about flowers. Yet there is a third category, someone who loves flowers and steals them. How many people are in this category? Two percent? Fifty percent? Where have I been?

This morning I walked past the crime scene. The woman who’d done the planting was just parking out in front. “Oh my God, I heard about your flowers!” I yelled as she got out of her car.

“Yeah,” she smiled, “I’m happy.”


“Oh yes. I’m lucky I had these ones left over. They’re pretty, too.”

“Yeah, they’re very nice.” I admired the new, modest, rather sparsely planted flowers. “But still, someone stealing your flowers, oh my God!”

“Oh, the ones I put first were too pretty,” she said. “They looked like that.” The thieves had left exactly one of the old flowers. Actually it didn’t look that special to me, but maybe it was the runt. “You can’t plant things that pretty,” she added. “I like these ones. I’m happy with how it looks.”

The non-gardening expert went back to re-park her car. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t upset. Double mystery!

Back in

squirrel tail in the grass
But then again, at least someone didn't bite your tail off and eat you for breakfast.

My neighbor is back in the hospital. I saw her Friday and she seemed okay. For her. For where she’s at lately. Thin and weak and overwhelmed by the mountain of infirmities she’s been living under for the past few years, but able to smile; you know, okay.

When I first met her at the dog park, seven or eight years ago, my neighbor was a sprightly 80-year old with a rambunctious border collie mix that loved to eat garbage, sticks, rocks, anything that came into its path. My neighbor would laugh and shrug her shoulders, and tell us how gentle the dog was at home. Even then, she seemed impossibly thin and ageless; the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park. She volunteered and recommended great restaurants and worked in her yard, cheerfully complaining about how little she seemed to get done. Eighty seemed like an arbitrary number.

But problems started to add up faster than she could recover. Colds into bronchitis into pneumonia and back again. Doctor visits multiplied, and medications, and new complications. “I don’t seem to recover like I used to,” she said a few years ago, when I met her walking in the neighborhood, the dog snuffling in the parkway for garbage. “When I do get better, I seem to have lost a little ground.”

This is an old story. If you live to into your eighties and nothing immediately catastrophic occurs, it just happens. You go from weeding the front parkway in a cute denim hat to trying to do something called interviewing a caregiver when you’re so tired all you want to do is take a nap while they make you a sandwich. You have to learn how to gracefully accept help from friends and neighbors. You’ve always been the one doing little things for people and now you’re the one saying thank you, thank you, thank you. And yes, that’s a good thing, that there are so many people who love you and want to help, but still, when even your personality gets taken over by your infirmities, it’s hard to find yourself.

Do you hold on to who you were? Do you float along and try to be a good patient? Do you give up? The Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park just kept seeming a little surprised. More and more, over the past few years, as she saw parts of her old self slipping away, slowly, the gardening and the dog walks and the concerts. One day she realized she hadn’t chatted with a neighbor over the fence for weeks, or was it months? Because it had at some point become too difficult to stand in the yard. It’s not a big deal, chatting with a neighbor, but when you realize you haven’t done it for months, you also realize that simple act is part of who you are, and that part of you is gone.

When it happens gradually, over a period of years, I wonder if it’s harder or easier to lose pieces of yourself. Maybe it gives you more time to replace them with something else, or to realize the deeper truths of yourself. Maybe it’s a blessing. Or maybe it’s a slow-motion nightmare, like trying to run in a dream. You see the monster coming closer and closer but you just can’t seem to want to move your feet.

We don’t get to choose, so I guess there’s no point in thinking about it. But the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park gave me her little denim cap, a while ago, when I going on a trip. She said it was the best hat, because it’s so cute and it’s great for either rain or sun. It’s a little too small, but perhaps in time, my head will shrink. That happens, right? Or maybe everyone else keeps growing, full of expanding plans and personalities, and you just stay the same, the nice little old lady who always has a smile.

A Sudden Display of Patriotism

empty flagpole
"We just sure like looking out the window and seein' it."

Yesterday I met the neighbor on the other side, Ralph. He was passing through his yard from the garage while I was standing outside. For some reason I found myself behaving like a Stepford wife. He said, “We were just wonderin’ if you were going to put the flag back up,” and instead of saying, Yeah, we’ll get to it at some point, I was like, “Oh yes! We’ve purchased a new one. The old flag was so torn and faded we didn’t feel it was right to fly it.”

“Was it?” He scrunched up his eyes. “We never noticed. We just sure like looking out the window and seein’ it.”

“Oh, yes!” I said. “It’s terribly torn up. We’ve wrapped it up and have it sitting on a shelf. We’re not sure of the proper thing to do with it.”

“I guess maybe they burn them,” offered Ralph, “but we’re sure glad you’re putting the flag back up.”

“Oh, yes,” I said again, like I couldn’t imagine a yard without a flag.