The Path of Totality

 

With all of America being in Solar Eclipse Fever, I was reminded of my own past luck to find myself in “the path of totality” for one of these. Austria, August 11th, 1999. My husband (of ten years at the time) and I decided to throw a garden party for the occasion.

It took me a while to locate these pictures in my many photo albums. I had started with the 2001 book because I was convinced that my elder daughter was a baby in attendance; I could picture the buggy standing in the shade and her sleeping peacefully inside. But it turns out that I must have conflated this party with my husband’s 40th birthday bash two years later – the one with the “End of the World” theme. I found those pictures in a later album and there was a baby in a buggy with shades on, it just wasn’t ours. And he had the sunglasses because of eye troubles, not because of an eclipse. While looking through those pictures, I couldn’t find the crazy invitation we had made for this party and started getting suspicious again . . .

More foraging through photo albums revealed that my memory was conflating this second party with his 50th Birthday Bash (also a garden party). That was the one that coincided with some religious prophecy about the coming of Judgment Day – May 21st, 2011. Our invitations for that party read:

(That party was a really good time!)

Now, after all sorts of rummaging through albums and the recesses of my brain, I have it all straightened out. So back to the Solar Eclipse Party . . .

We had a perfect cloudless day and as you can see, being in the shadow of the moon really makes day turn into night. The later pictures in the album show bright sunshine again. This being the days before digital cameras and the internet, I didn’t get a good shot of the ring, but I did look at it for a few seconds with my own eyes.

    

As I look at these pictures, the ugliness of our house and general lack of foliage in our garden at that time strikes me. It is also strange to realize my elder daughter wouldn’t be born until a full year later, and that, at this time, I had no idea we would even be adopting a child. Then I look at all the people in attendance and see her two godfathers. I see the two couples who I later helped with the paperwork so that they could secretly  get married in Las Vegas. One of these two also later asked for our advice about adopting and now are deliriously happy with their permanent foster daughter. I see another woman who would become my daughter’s singing teacher. She and her husband together celebrated their “100th” birthday just two days ago and I was in attendance. My daughter sang there. I see pictures of babies who will be graduating from high school this year, young kids who are now done with university. And of all these people, I see only a handful that I have lost contact with.

I had no idea at the time that these people would stay a big part of my life over the next two decades and most likely beyond. That they would be the same crowd pictured at that 40th bash and the 50th ten years later, and presumably the 60th just a few years from now.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t see the eclipse today because I was a third of the way around the world from the path of totality. Instead I took a jog down Memory Lane and then livestreamed NASA coverage via NPR. And because the experience wasn’t exactly action packed, I played some Solitaire at the same time while trying to get my head around time differences and where the sun was compared to here and why the moon path went from west to east:

  

 

I was lucky to get these screenshots  – right after the second one, my crappy wifi broke down and the stream was interrupted.

I got up and went out onto my porch just in time to catch the sunset. Ten seconds earlier I had been tracking the sun’s path over Oregon en route to my family and friends in Wisconsin. And here it was, by me, the way it always is.

Things suddenly reset and were back to normal. To the way they should be. There was a feeling. And I want to remember it.

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I’ve Missed You

I should probably start by apologizing for being unsupportive and absent to my blog bff’s (whom I love dearly and truly!) I could then follow it up with my reasons for neglecting you, which would really be excuses, which would then negate the sincerity of the original apology.

One of those excuses could be that I have been busy meeting up with old high school friends – another set of people that I have been absent from, neglectful of, unsupportive to, uncommunicative with, etc. etc. – and that for more than 37 years now (“Go Raiders! Yeay, Class of 1980!!”) And yet, every two years when I come home to Milwaukee, we somehow manage to meet up.

In the first few minutes of our biannual reunions, we peer intensely at one another to assess the advancement of our own aging process. This gets confusing because the one or the other looks exactly the same despite laugh wrinkles around the eyes and graying hair. Each time, we also suddenly panic about all the details we really should know but don’t, or have forgotten. (You had six siblings?! Did I ever know that? You lived in California?! Did I know that? You were an English major too?! Did I know that?) Slowly but surely, the skeletal frames of life highlights spanning the past 37 years are reconstructed. Marriages, kids, professional moves, travels, parental concerns . . .  We all silently vow to commit these facts to memory in preparation for the next reunion, but know somewhere inside that two years from now, the same conversations and surprises will happen again.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because with old friends, like old habits, once you pick them up again, you simply take off from where you left off. You tell and retell the same old stories that somehow seem familiar and new at the same time. Meanwhile, long neglected, dusty old details of your life as a teenager resurface in your mind. Names of classmates you have not had a second thought about in decades are suddenly accessible. You start sorting these names into categories like “popular” or “cool” or “dweeb” or “wild” – all with the understanding that it is your 16 year old selves doing the sorting because you gave up on this kind of immature labeling long ago. At the same time, it becomes clear to you why exactly these people and not ones with newly re-remembered names and labels are here around the table. You realize how much you share with these people and that it goes deep.

And you laugh a lot.

And you make plans for a longer, cooler reunion in 2019. Before saying goodbye and returning to your current life, you take pictures.

And then you post one of them on your blog.

And you say, “I’ve missed you.”

 

Tuesdays with Dafi

During a small family gathering today at my mother-in-law’s house, I got . . . scolded . . . admonished . . . reprimanded . . . by my sister-in-law.  And by my younger sister-in-law, no less. (A younger s-i-l who should actually be just a little in awe of me, a bit less uppity in my presence . . . I mean, if we were in China, I could boss her around and she’d just have to stay silent and take it.) What she scolded me for was how little I have been writing in my blog lately. Now that is a sweet thing to hear for any blogger – especially one who worries that certain friends and relatives are only reading out of a sense of obligation. I used to think this about her.

Every Tuesday, I take the train to the university to teach my course there. Two years ago, I got a new (old) lecture hall that had only one saving grace – it was right next door to my sister-in-law’s office. Once I realized this, I called her from the train one day and said “Hey Dafi! I’ve got a half hour to kill. What are you up to?” (She never let me forget that formulation.) What followed were weekly short get-togethers in which she gave me free coffee and all the latest family news that my husband forgot to tell me about. I’m not quite sure what she got out of these talks. Not only am I a terrible source for juicy gossip, but, once when I arrived at her office, I noticed my blog on her computer screen. “Oh no!” I thought, “she’s cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!”

One wonderful thing about Dafi is that when you think a thing like that, you can feel free to just go ahead and say it out loud to her too.

“Oh, no!” I said, and then asked her, “Are you cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!?”

She laughed and said no. I didn’t completely believe her.

All the more reason that today’s scolding made me feel good. Even if it came from a younger sister-in-law who has no business scolding her elder.

So, here’s a post dedicated to Dafi and a promise to everyone I have been neglecting on the reading/commenting side that summer is here, time for catching up is upon me, and I will be back. As I have warned many of you at times before  – “watch out for incoming!!”  And once the bombardment starts, you can all say:

“Thanks, Dafi! Thanks a lot.” (How you intone this is your own choice.)

______________________________________

A Note on the Name “Dafi”:
  1. it is pronounced “dah-fee”
  2. it is spelled d-a-f-i by me, d-a-f-f-i by my husband, d-a-f-f-y by others
  3. for years I thought it had something to do with Daffy Duck
  4. according to the husband, it comes from the movie “Some Like It Hot” and Jack Lemmon (in drag) as Daphne. (Pronounced in German “dahf-na” which turned into “dahf-nee”, which lost its “n” and became “dah-fee”, which is where I came into the family and took up the nickname and to this day, 30+ years later, still use it, even though no one else does anymore.)

 

Fritz the Sheep

My elder daughter broached the subject of when she should start her Driver’s Ed course. Boy, was that a mistake. Not only did it bring back my own memories of Austrian Driving School, but she was really jumping the gun here!

“You know I am going to be 18 next summer,” she said.

“No you’re not.”

Moooomm!

“You are NOT! At least not if I have anything to say about it!”

We quickly agreed that this license thing was a topic she should take up with her Papa.

 

18! My first baby is going to be 18 next year! And the way time has sped up since we’ve had her – this is going to feel like . . . next month!

I suddenly remembered a box of little treasures I kept upstairs in my closet, because I’d had a vague plan of giving it to her on her 18th birthday. I dragged it out and found the blanket she was wrapped in when I first held her, the first baby bottle we used, her baptism presents and dress, her first stuffed animal . . .

And then I found these:

During the adoption process, I was teaching the third of a four year course and had developed a close relationship with a lot of my students. They were aware of my situation and even a little emotionally involved. When we came home with Mitzi, a lot of them visited us with presents in hand.  That is how this little stuffed sheep – whom we named Fritz – became Mitzi’s Velveteen Rabbit for a while. Two other students later presented me with the book “Fritz the Sheep”. They had drawn all the pictures and written the text themselves. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful and good at gift-giving! (I’m not one of them.) I adored this book from the start and displayed it prominently in my house. Unfortunately, it suffered a little water damage once when a wild thunderstorm blew open the porch door and caused some minor flooding. And Fritz himself is also looking a bit forlorn. But both still qualify as priceless. So I’ve decided to share them.

Here’s the (translated summary of the) story:

Fritz the Sheep lives in a nice place outside a small village, but for some reason, he is a little sad and a little lonely. He decides to take a walkabout.

 

He meets Lisa the Cow and tells her about his travels. Lisa doesn’t really understand why he isn’t satisfied.

 

Fritz meets Pino the Woodpecker. (Let it be known here that “Pino” was the nickname of one of the authors.) Pino tells Fritz that what he is really looking for is happiness and tries to teach him to fly. It doesn’t work out well.

 

As Fritz wanders away, Pino decides he could still help. He brings Fritz to a birdhouse where they meet Gina the Cat. (Let it be known that our Cat One was named Gina.) Gina is nasty and makes fun of Fritz at first, but after Pino flatters her, she decides to help. And, deep down, she is wise and has a good heart.

 

Gina leads them to a house, telling Fritz that she spends a lot of time there.  (Just like our house at the time, there is a rocking chair on the front porch, a basketball stand and a blue car.) Fritz asks why they are there. Gina tells him to figure it out for himself and takes off.

 

Fritz is greeted by a barking gray woolly sheepdog named Whitney. (Long-time blog readers will know her as “Dog Two” – and if they look closely down the hallway, they will see “The Nemesis”.) Whitney makes it clear to Fritz that no one can come in here – unless, of course, they have a reason to . . . then it’s okay.

 

Fritz saunters into the house and then goes out to the terrace where he finds me reading to Mitzi – who doesn’t look at all sleepy. He has an idea.

 

Fritz starts jumping over the fence again and again until Maria gets tired and falls asleep. This makes Fritz happy and he decides to stay with this family till the end of his days.

 

(The End)

 

So, the plan was to give these things to Mitzi on her 18th birthday – that is what a thoughtful and great gift-giver would do. (Did I mention I am not one of them?) But I suddenly find myself having a little trouble with the thought of letting precious things go. Maybe she will just have to wait a bit longer – like . . . say . . . until she has her own first child (assuming that happens).

Serves her right for growing up so fast.

 

The World’s Costliest Ice Cubes

We have an ancient refrigerator that is too small and badly designed. With the freezer part on top, we often have to crouch down or even get on our knees to reach foods at the back of the bottom shelves. A few months ago, my husband decided he wanted to get a new one and, for some reason, he became enamored with the idea of a side-by-side design – and the bigger the better. My daughters and I got on board when he agreed to a model with an automatic ice-cube dispenser in the door.

But where to put it? Our narrow, over-stuffed kitchen has a lot of window and little wall space. We contemplated ways to rearrange, but the only viable options were either to take down part of the wall cabinets and shorten our one and only, already small counter space, or to put the fridge in the adjoining living room. Of course, that would mean no ice.

“I don’t want a living room with a grand piano and a fridge in it,” I said. “That would look stupid.”

“Maybe we should just redo the whole kitchen,” my husband suggested. “And while we are at this, we really should replace that picture window.” (We’d had it made 20 years earlier by a cheap Slovenian carpenter. It warped over the years and now, when a strong wind blows, we hear it whistling through the cracks.) “Of course, then we would have to replace the other kitchen window at the same time,” he added.

Who was I to argue?

Enter my husband’s frat pal, who happens to be an architect and then his running buddy who happens to sell kitchens, and then our neighbor’s brother, who happens to own a local window-making factory. The running buddy came up with a great plan, which unfortunately will require us to replace ALL of our other appliances – stovetop, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and, I assume, the TV which will have to be mounted on a wall. We also will need an electrician to relocate all the outlets and a plumber to move the water lines and radiator.

All this for easy access to ice cubes.

I looked around my kitchen today. My old antique hutch will be relocated, but all the rest of the furnishings will be tossed, (probably ending up in some Hungarian or Romanian kitchen). Of the appliances, I saw only two items that will stay in there: the coffeemaker and the toaster.

That’s when it hit me. This guy is going to have to go. This . . .  treasure. This old friend, so chock-full of sentimental value that I once wrote a whole post about it.  (Well, actually, I wrote the post to get some payback after Ly dissed me in her blog . . . )  If this guy goes, her ugly coffee mug will win!

 

Maybe I don’t need a new fridge after all.

Too late. It’s a done deal. Orders have been signed and the dates of different project stages are already entered into our calendar.  Three months from now, I will press my glass into the dispenser and listen to the clink of my first ice cubes dropping into it. If each cube gives me, let’s say, one Euro worth of satisfaction, and if I use, maybe, five cubes a day, then this fridge will have paid for itself in about 15 years.

Marketed to Death

I don’t know why we keep our landline telephone. It hardly ever rings, and nine times out of ten when it does, somebody aggressively tries to sell me something, or tries to trick me into subscribing to something, or asks me to participate in a marketing survey. In that last case, they begin by lying about how long it will take.

Back when I was teaching Business English, I used to say yes to these survey takers and even found it sort of fun. But then, one day, the Grocery Store Jingle Guy called. He said he would either play snippets or say slogans, and I should tell him what chain it was for. Why not? I thought. I don’t watch Austrian TV, but I do go shopping occasionally . . .

“I’m going to be really bad at this,” I warned Survey Guy nevertheless.

After answering “Not sure” to the first three questions, I interrupted him. “Would it be better if I just guessed when I’m not sure?” He said yes.

For the rest of the questions I just said whatever popped into my mind and then immediately thought “No. Wait . . . that wasn’t right.” Survey Guy’s pauses after each of my answers got a tiny bit longer . . .

Near the end, he asked if I lived in a village or town, and then if my village had a store, and then which one.

“Adeg,” I answered, and then thought “No. Wait . . . that’s not right.”

As always, the survey ended with a few questions about me – sex, age range, income range, education level . . .

I told him I had two university degrees.

“OH!” he said, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.

Despite this embarrassing performance, marketers kept calling regularly. I was clearly on some kind of list that gets passed around. It got annoying – all the more because I had only myself to blame for getting on such a list.

I should have known better.

Back in my college days, I once got on a very different sort of list – or at least my telephone number did – but that time it wasn’t my fault. Out of the blue, the phone in my apartment started ringing off the hook – I mean 10 or more times an hour – all men asking to speak to my roommate. A few of the dejected or confused callers mentioned the words “Hot Lips” (or something close to that – it was a long time ago). It turned out that one of my roommate’s friends pranked her by placing an ad offering telephone sex in the classified section (“Hot Lips”) of a men’s magazine, using her real first name and our shared telephone number. Nice. We had to put up with these calls for a month, until the next issue of the magazine came out. In the meantime, the phone stayed off the hook overnight and for long periods during the day.

Ginger Hot Lips

I confess we did have some fun with the situation. Sometimes when the phone rang, we would ask unsuspecting visitors “Could you get that please?” Some of our friends . . . “engaged” with this or that caller for a while. Sometimes we passed the phone on to the Gingerbread Man and let him deal with it. (For more on this little guy’s escapades, see “My Velveteen Rabbit.) And my roommate’s prankster friend?  When she came over, she always had to answer the phone as a condition of her forgiveness and continued visiting privileges. (By the way, in case you read the post linked to above, Prankster Friend and Lampshade Lady are one and the same.) Despite some fun, the constantly ringing phone and subsequent – short! – conversations got very, very annoying, just like the marketing calls now.

 

This morning our landline phone rang and I just stood there listening to the sound for a while. Experience has taught me to blow it off, but there was that little fleeting thought that it might be important. I started to slowly climb the stairs. The ringing stopped when I was halfway up.

We really should lose that device.

And it is not the only communication port around here that has lost its usefulness. I used to love checking the mailbox. There were times when I even waited impatiently for the mailman to come. But now that I have cancelled my last subscription and no one writes letters anymore, the mailbox has become nothing more than a depository for bills, advertisements and donation requests. Here is yesterday’s dump:

 

That’s all from just one day!

For a while, 99% of the contents of our mailbox never made it into the house. (Our paper recycling can is conveniently located halfway between.) But then my husband protested – he likes looking at this stuff. So now there are little piles of it all over the house requiring constant removal.

“Dealing with mail” and “answering the telephone” became two new additions to our household chores list. The first one has slowly shifted over to my husband’s column and the second to my daughter’s. She is getting really good at filtering. Now, when the phone rings, nine times out of ten I hear this:

(the sound of my daughter walking)

“Hello?”

(long silence)

“Um. I’m sorry, but my mom and dad aren’t here right now . . .”

Schokolade Tante

My husband knows a gazillion people. It has been hard for me at times to keep up with them all.

Take the day, let’s say, 25 years ago when I came home from work to find three light blond, virtually interchangeable little boys tearing around my house. I was then introduced to their father – a white-haired man who was there to discuss starting up a basketball program/team in our neighboring city. The first three players were currently exploring all the nooks and crannies of other rooms. There were occasional loud crashing noises.

Many friendships were born that evening. My husband became a basketball coach. I embarked on a 15 year odyssey of learning to tell those three little boys apart. It would be too embarrassing to admit how many times I called one of them by the wrong name, even after their father – that white-haired man – became the godfather of my first daughter. He then got so much support from his partner in his godparenting “duties” that she, too, became a part of my life. Through her, I met her sister who became a second co-godparent – my daughters called her their “Schokolade Tante” (“Auntie Chocolate”).

She had the most unusual gravelly voice which she didn’t use much. Unlike her more loquacious sister, Auntie Chocolate was a listener. She was a peaceful island in turbulent waters – whether at celebrations or during trying periods in her own family life. She was constant. I didn’t see her all that often – and then, mostly at big parties, but I always liked sitting next to her and not feeling obligated to make small talk.

She died this week. Totally unexpectedly. Complications from a seemingly normal operation ended her life. She was 62 years old.

Today was her funeral and there were hundreds of people there. Among them were her nephews – those three little blond boys who are now young men. I can tell them apart now and use the right names.

I watched them literally propping up their wailing grandmother at graveside and supporting all the other family members so stricken by their sudden and shocking loss of a grandma, a wife, a sister, a sister-in-law, a daughter . . . They will take on their lost aunt’s role and become the dependable constants. They will gather the shattered pieces of their family and glue them back together.

They will do it as a team.