My Pandemic Perfect Birthday

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Last Thanksgiving my daughter suggested we do something big for my really big birthday that was coming up in June.  I won’t tell you how big of a birthday it was going to be, let’s just say it wasn’t my 21st.

My daughter loves to travel so she suggested we all go to France to celebrate in the small village where my grandmother was born – St. Etienne de Baigorry.  Located in the Pyrenees mountains at the border between France and Spain, Baigorry is a Basque town and a very special place for all of my extended Craviotto family.  Here’s Baigorry:

saint-etienne-baigorry-27603_w1000

After my grandmother – “Nanie” –  passed away in 1972, my grandfather – “Bobby” – decided that he wanted to take all of his grandchildren to France to show them where his wife, Jenny Ocafrain, had been born.  There were six grandchildren – I was the oldest at twenty-three and my cousin Eileen was the youngest at eleven.  Here’s a picture of Bobby and Eileen as we waited for the train in Bayonne:

Eileen and Bobbie

My brother Jim and our three cousins, Dan, John, and Cathleen, were in their teens.  Oh and my grandfather was 82.  The seven of us traveled for twenty-three days and nights across Europe and we spent a whole week in Baigorry, staying in the small inn that our great uncle had helped finance with the money he had made as a sheepherder in the Paso Robles area of California.  Here’s a photo of my sheepherder uncle, Uncle Jean (“Uncle Johnny” to us kids).

UncleJohnny

That trip was an amazing adventure (I might do a post about it one of these days) because we all fell in love with Baigorry.  Since that first trip, all of us have gone back – as a matter of fact, our family still owns 23 acres of land there and the 250-year-old stone house where my grandmother was born still stands on the land where our neighbor now pastures his sheep.  Every Basque house has a family name and this is ours,  the House of Magnanea:

Mananea House & Barn

My children are the only ones in our extended family who haven’t visited Baigorry, and so this year on June 25th all seven of us were going to fly into Paris and then take the train to Bayonne where we would rent two cars and drive into the beautiful Pyrenees to experience Pays Basque and Baigorry.

And then, the pandemic hit.

Not being able to go to Baigorry made me want to go there even more.  I started to think about all of the things I would miss by not being there: the beauty of the land, the delicious wines, the lovely flowers, the food, the people…The more I thought about it, the more items I added to my list and then, I got an idea.  Maybe I could recreate Baigorry and the French Basque experience for the day:  right there in my own home in California.

I turned to the internet for help: I entered “French Wine” into Google Search and Voilá! Wines.com appeared with its long list of French wines available for delivery.  I entered “French cheeses” into Google Search and Voilá! Fromages.com appeared with its variety of authentic French cheeses, many of them from the Pyrenees, delivered directly from France.  The more I kept searching on Google the more items I found that reminded me of Baigorry and traveling through France.  I could definitely create a French/Basque experience in my home:  the sights, the tastes, the smells, (French cheeses can be stinky!).  But the part of traveling to France I would miss the most, that I couldn’t order over the internet, would be the time spent with my family – with my son Josh and his wife Simone, and our four-year-old grandson Stokely, and our daughter Katie and our son-in-law Jason.  The experiences we would have shared in-person in France is what we would have valued the most from our trip. The challenge now would be how to have the same kind of experiences together while we physically had to stay apart.  But maybe there was a way – if we could be creative – to share our French experiences as a family – virtually – as we drank the same wines, ate the same cheeses, macarons, croissants…

I spent the whole month of June ordering three of everything – wines, cheeses, French tablecloths, Spanish cured ham, black cherry preserves from a little village twenty minutes from Baigorry…and hoping that everything arrived on time and in one piece.  There were a few glitches along the way: smashed macarons sent to the wrong city, frozen croissants that defrosted along the way and ended up in a large blob of dough.  Thank Goodness the wines all arrived safely!  We worked around any mistakes that happened and ordered locally for replacement items.  And on June 28th – my really BIG birthday – all three of our families gathered in front of our Facebook Portals and enjoyed a virtual French Basque pintxo (hors d’oeuvres) party.

I am still smiling.

Here are some pictures and a couple of little videos.

 

Dars 70th #3

(I hope that all of you are finding ways to stay connected with family and close friends as we navigate the challenges of these pandemic days.  You don’t necessarily have to be in the same space with another person to feel close, to feel connected.  Humans have been blessed with an imagination and through our imagination anything is possible.  Consider it your own personal virtual reality.  It can take you many places, beyond your home, beyond the restrictions we’re all feeling right now. Stay well. Be safe. Be creative. )

 

Fear Is A Four Letter Word

There are two times during the day when I don’t worry.

When I don’t fear for my own mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones. When I don’t worry that I will lose all my money and the only food I will have are the oranges growing in my backyard.  A litany of worries leaves me two times a day.

The first time is when I step outside our home – standing alone on the front lawn – and I take that first glorious deep breath of fresh air. I feel alive again and not afraid.  I feel safe for the first time in the day.  Until I see a person walking down our sidewalk heading towards our home and I start to tense up.  

Humans are the enemy in our world right now.  

Well, no that’s not entirely true.  Humans aren’t the real  enemy:  the coronavirus is the enemy. Humans are the vehicles that the virus hitches a ride on to get to the next human.  Without us, the virus dies, so to stop the spread we have to stop human connection: no reaching out to one another, no touching, no hugging, no people to populate our lives.

But humans need other humans.  

Research has shown that babies who aren’t touched or picked up stop growing, and if they aren’t ever hugged or held they eventually die.  That’s how important human touch is to us.  And now, we’re being asked to eliminate it from our lives. We’ve been sent to our rooms and told to isolate, separate from one another.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have a spouse, a roommate, or some children in our homes, overlook our current fear of intimacy and somehow find safety with the one(s) we’re locked up with.  

But even that we can’t be sure of.  

We’re not connected by the hip – before this quarantine we didn’t all go to the same places or have contact with the same people before we closed our door to the world.  In the beginning of our quarantine, we sweat that out, praying that we didn’t bring the virus home with us, as we sit and wait in dreadful anticipation: Will I get sick? Will my family get sick because of me?  And if sickness followed us inside of our home, how will we care for each other when caring involves connection and touch, and touching is no longer allowed?  We toughed it out during those anxious first couple of weeks and when we didn’t get sick we started to feel a little safer; bored, even.  At least the threat was outside our doorstep now and not within.  We settled in and tried to adjust.

Until it was time when we had to leave the house again.

We needed food, we needed supplies, medicine, toilet paper; we needed M&Ms or more importantly, alcohol.  We’re not the only ones; the rest of the world needed it too. We had to go back outside again and that meant more people, more human connection.  How could we navigate this new outside-our-door world and still stay away from people?  Figuring this out is what stresses us, exhausts us, pisses us off, makes us grumpy or depressed or filled with a hunger that no amount of Doritos, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or Dove bars can satisfy.  It doesn’t take one glass of wine or even two to deal with life now.  We’re at the leave- the-bottle-and-get-the-next-one-ready stage.

And this forced isolation has only just started.

We see one month end and learn that we will be indoors for the next month, too.  April looms long in front of us, and we hear of events being canceled all the way through June.  How will we do this?  Will we get used to it?  Will it start to feel easier?  Will we ever stop missing each other, and the human connection, that needed human touch that we all seem to live for?

The second time in my day when my worries slip away happens at bedtime. When I shower again to wash the day off of me, when I gargle with Listerine in the hopes of killing whatever germs or viruses might be thinking of settling there.  When I wash my hands for the hundredth time, and put bandaids on the tiny cuts on my skin from washing so much.  When I put on my hand lotion, knowing I won’t have to wash them again for eight hours, and I crawl into bed, finally done with my day.  Now, at last, I can rest.

Until tomorrow.

(How are you filling your days and what are you using to help you connect with loved ones who you can’t see in person?  Is the quarantine getting harder or easier for you with each passing day?)

IMG_1140

A Single Roll of Toilet Paper

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My son-in-law went on a toilet paper run yesterday.

That’s nothing out of the ordinary for a brisk spring day in the year of COVID-19

He texted me a photo of the parking lot where he was sitting in his truck before dawn.

Empty grocery store

The supermarket didn’t open until 8 a.m. but he was there before 7.  The parking lot was looking pretty empty, so the chances were good he’d score some rolls and maybe a few extra.  He was psyched and focused on his mission, sure that he’d be successful.

Jason's message

That’s what he wrote to me as he sat in the cold and waited for the store to open.I didn’t hear from him until an hour and fifteen minutes later – fifteen minutes after the official opening of the store.

Question Jason

I wasn’t surprised by his answer.

Nope

I didn’t have time to ask him what happened.  He sent me this photo right away:

People in Line

The size of the crowd didn’t surprise me, but what I questioned was his position in that line. How did a guy who came to the store first end up getting aced out by all those people?  And where did all those people come from, if Jason was there first?  My son-in-law is 6’ 5” and a talented athlete, a consummate competitor.  How did this swarm of old folks (judging by a lot of greying hair there in the photo)  get the top position over my son-in-law?  How come he ended up at the end of the line?

I Let the people go ahead of me

Tears don’t normally fill my eyes when I read texts, but they did now.

Mostly older

More tears. 

I couldn’t write a word to him. 

I was so paralyzed by the abundance of his kindness.

Jason is the original Mr. Good Guy, an educator, a champion for all, with a heart of amazing dimensions, a guy who is loyal, honest, and filled with soul.  In one word, the man is my hero. His superhero powers were at work again and I was stunned into silence.

But what he wrote next gave me pause.

All the people looked like they couldn't do anything

#humanity

My heart hurt for Jason.  Yes, it’s a blow not to be able to get what you need right now, and certainly toilet paper has taken on a whole new importance in our life.  But to lose your hope, your faith in humanity is a loss we cannot afford right now.  We especially can’t have our heros lose it.  Not just Jason, but every health care person who is on the front lines, every grocery store and big box retail worker, every policeman, fire fighter, and yes, every government official, who is still on the job when the rest of us are safely within our sanctuaries known as home; they all have to continue doing what all heroes do, and not lose hope.

This is a reminder for all the Jasons, and everyone doing their best right now, making sacrifices, and still reaching out to help, not only to their families, but to strangers who have never meant anything to them, strangers who stopped being strangers once we saw the hurt, the fear, and the need in their faces that we recognized as our own.  When someone shows you kindness, don’t just pay it forward.  Pay it back to the person who started it.  We need all the heros we can find right now.  And yes, that #humanity should stand for that.  For remembering that we must all be heros right now. 

Even if it means offering a single roll of toilet paper.

And saying thanks to the one who let us go first.

 

 

This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

One Very Lucky Dog & Doris Day

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Doris Day died yesterday and that’s why I’m writing this post.

I wasn’t a friend, or a member of her family; just like everybody else, I knew her from the movies.  I used to be a tour guide at Universal Studios, and I got to meet a lot of big movie stars there, from Lucille Ball (who hated it when the tour guides leaned on her Rolls Royce to talk with her) to Paul Newman (whose piercing blue eyes locked with mine one day at the studio commissary, and my knees have been weak ever since). I never had a chance to meet Doris Day on the Universal lot.  But one rainy night in Hollywood she was a good friend to me and a  beautiful Golden Retriever named, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Golden Retriever

It was long ago, when I was a member of a struggling group of actors who worked all day at the tours at Universal, so we could work all night (for free) performing plays at a little theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  Seven nights a week, one block down from the Weird Museum, above a toy store and Fredericks of Hollywood Sexy Lingerie, overlooking the stars of Ann Margret, Gene Barry, and James Cagney, we practiced our craft and shared the Hollywood dream.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

We returned to our lives at 11 p.m. every night, as we gathered up our cars in the parking lot off the Blvd. We seldom went for coffee, or rarely met for a drink; none of us had any money, and all of us had tourists at the studio to herd early the next morning.  But on one of these nights, after a torrential rainfall, we arrived at the parking lot to find a mud covered and frantic Golden Retriever running around wildly without a leash.  

Through the rain-slicked and mud-caked fur we could see the golden-red beauty underneath, and luckily she was a friendly canine, jumping up on us as if she immediately recognized us as the saviors she hoped us to be.

Obviously, she was lost.

Her tags were missing and so was her collar.  But she looked well-groomed, well-fed, and eager to be with people. It was late.  After 11 p.m., at a time when Hollywood Blvd. was not a place where man or beast wanted to be – all alone and with no home in sight. 

Some of us were more eager to help the dog than others, who quickly bailed into the dark of night.  But for those of us who remained (we had dwindled down to four) those heroes of that night shalled be named:  Debra Frank, Sandy Silverthorne, and Suzanne Ulett.  All four of us knew that something had to be done and we were the ones who had to do it.  

“I can’t take her home!” “i don’t have any room!” “I have a cat who will kill me!” 

We stood there as the rain started again, trying to find a way to help this poor creature, who went from actor to actor, sniffing us out, licking us, and nudging her head against our bodies as if to say, “Do something!”

It was when I reached out to pet her, and my hand came back covered in red, that I realized that all of our excuses were futile.

“She’s bleeding!” We all gasped.

There was a gash on the top of her head, and her fur was matted with blood.

Now, there was no time to discuss reasons for not getting involved. We had to do something. The dog was injured and needed to be seen by a vet.  But none of us had any money, or credit cards, for that matter.  Where would we find a vet who wouldn’t charge us?

I don’t remember who said it first, but we all agreed it was true:

“I heard that Doris Day loves animals”

Three of us were tour guides, and we probably heard that from someone at the studio.  This was in the 1970s, before animal activism had a movement named after it.  But we all knew that Doris Day would do anything to help save animals.  

We were desperate, and this dog needed help.  Just looking down into her deep brown eyes gave us the courage to do what we needed to do: We had to find Doris Day.

Never underestimate the power of out of work actors who are also tour guides.  We knew that Doris Day’s house was on the Grayline Hollywood Tours of Movie Star Homes, and a quick look at one of those Grayline tour maps showed us her address.

We were standing outside Doris Day’s gate before we knew it.  The four of us and the damsel in distress, our wounded Golden Retriever.

Beverly Hills mansions don’t let you anywhere near the front door. There are gates.  Large iron gates.  But next to those gates are little speaker boxes and a button you can push.  I pushed it.  Although I wasn’t sure what I would say.

“Yes?” squawked the box.

What words came next poured out from all of us.

“We’re a group of actors…” “We don’t have any money!” “We found this dog and she’s hurt!” “She’s bleeding!” “She’s needs a vet!” “We don’t have any money!” “We need help for this dog!”

“What?!” asked the speaker box, incredulously.

“This dog is really hurt!” “We don’t have any money.” “Can Doris Day help her?”

We just kept talking.  Hoping for help. I can’t tell you who was at the other end of that intercom system, but I’m sure whoever it was must have thought we were crazy.  Until maybe they looked out the window and saw the four of us standing outside the gate with the most beautiful dog in the world, all covered in mud.  

And then, it started to rain.

“Just a minute…” the voice said, sounding tired and a little put out by our late night visit.

We waited for what felt like forever, as the rain pelted down on us there in Beverly Hills proper. We were certain no one would ever come back and speak to us again, and that the cops were probably on their way to arrest us.

Still, we stood and waited.  Not for us.  But for our four-legged new-found friend. 

“Take the dog to the all-night veterinarian hospital on La Cienega,” the voice told us through the speaker.  She rattled off an address and the name of a vet working there. Then, she clicked off before we could even say thank you.  

We said it anyway.

The animal hospital wasn’t very far and we hurried inside, with the words tumbling out of us.

“Doris Day sent us!” we announced to the woman behind the glass window.

“What?” she answered, sounding as confused as the woman at Doris Day’s house.

We all rattled off at the same time, pointing to the dog, pointing to the caked blood on her fur, and adamantly insisting Doris Day wanted the dog to be helped.

And just like that: the vet saw the dog.

Well, it turned out that the wound on the dog’s head was only superficial.  The vet gave her a shot and told us she’d be fine. “And the bill?” we asked him.  He smiled and said, “Doris Day is covering it.”

By now, we knew we were fated to keep this dog until we found her owner, so we agreed we’d take turns with her until she could be back home again.  I got her that first night and I named her “Mary Hartman” after a t.v. show about a woman who always found herself in so many dramas she never knew what to do.  It seemed to fit this dog.  That night, after I cleaned the mud off her with towels, I laid down on the couch to watch t.v.  The dog climbed up on the couch next to me, laid down face-to-face, and put her paws around my shoulders, in a hug.  It was her way of thanking me.

The next day we placed an ad with a pet finders organization and it didn’t take many days to find Mary Hartman’s family.  They lived in West Hollywood and they told me that one night they went out for the evening, leaving the dog at home.  Their house was robbed while they were out and Mary Hartman must have been taken by the burglars.  That’s why she had no collar and no identification.  But something must have gone wrong during the robbery because the wound on her head was from a bullet that grazed her scalp.  She was indeed one very lucky dog.

Thanks to Doris Day.

Doris Day

Getting to Know Howard

I didn’t know my mother’s father.  

It’s always been hard to call him what he was to me: grandfather.  I guess that’s because I never really knew him – Howard Joseph Graham died nine years before I was born. He was always just a memory – my mother’s memory, and she didn’t share that memory with us a lot.

I knew how he died – a fall from scaffolding while painting the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus station at night.  Mom had just had dinner with him, with her brother, mother, and her Uncle Jody, who was on the same job with her father.  The accident must have happened soon in their shift because it seemed as though they had just said goodbye and headed downtown from Highland Park before there was a knock at the door, and Uncle Jody was back, in tears with the news.  Why they were painting at night, I never asked, so I guess I will never know that answer – my mother took that with her when she passed away a year ago today at the age of 93.  

Mom and I had a lot of years to talk about Howard Graham, and I guess I could have asked her that question, about why he was painting at night, in the dark, but she was always a little quiet about him, teary-eyed at his mention, with a catch in her throat if she did share a little bit here and there.  I knew not to ask her too many questions, because it made her sad, and now today I’m left with no answers and so many whys.

Here is everything I know about Howard Joseph Graham:

He liked to drink San Miguel beer and smoke cigarettes. When my mother had earaches (and she had a lot of them) he would blow smoke into her ear, and the warmth would comfort her.  Other times, he could be strict, and if Mom and her brother didn’t clean the dishes properly, and Howard came home from a night out and found them not to his liking, he’d wake up his two kids and make them clean the dishes all over again, no matter how late it was. Howard was a house painter. The family was poor – my mother used to have to spray pieces of cardboard black and slip them into her shoes to cover up the holes at the bottom of her soles so she could walk to her Catholic School, even in the rain.  She grew up during the Depression and maybe that’s why Howard was out of work so much. I don’t know much more about the man except he couldn’t eat mayonnaise – it made him sick just as it does me.  He was Irish, proud of being a Graham, and that his mother was a Quinn, his grandmother a Cassidy.  His Irish roots must have meant the world to him because they did to Mom.  There was no happier day for her than St. Patrick’s when she would dress up all in green, send Irish-themed Hallmark cards to all of our family, with her signature, “Molly Malone.” Irish music played non-stop on our stereo while the scent of corned beef boiling on the stove filled our house.  Mom’s love for all-things-Irish was so strong I always wondered if Howard was from Ireland.

“Canada,” my Mom said. “He was born in Kingston, Ontario.”

More than those few facts she never told me.

There are photographs, of course, but only a few. This is the one I like the most:

Howie in 1928 Crop

He’s laying in the sand at one of the beaches near Los Angeles.  There’s something sad and brooding about him, introspective; it’s not the kind of look you might expect to see someone wearing who’s at the beach.  It makes me think he might have been creative – like me, a brooder, always thinking, and I find a commonality there in this photo of a stranger who was my grandfather.  Maybe he was a painter, not just of houses and businesses, maybe he was a real artist. My grandmother used to paint, I have some of her watercolors. She’s the woman in this other photo with Howard – Ursula Maloney Graham. Also Irish.

Howie & Plenty

Howard looks like a famous movie director, or screenwriter, with his aviator sunglasses and open vest.  But he’s still not smiling. There’s an uncertainty lurking there – about his future, maybe?  Or is he just a man lost in an alien country, not yet a citizen, an immigrant, a foreigner in a strange place he now has to call his home.

Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “…the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed.”  

I read this passage in Orlean’s book the other night and it made me think of Howard Joseph Graham.  I underlined it because it hit me me so hard, such a bleak interpretation of what it means to be alive.  With no memories of my grandfather, how can I be sure that he ever made his “mark on the world”? Seemingly, he was an ordinary man, and how do those of us who live ordinary lives make any mark at all? And what exactly does it mean to make “our mark?”

If we’re lucky, maybe that mark means our children. They get to live on, and they take us with them, whether they like it or not.  You can’t fight DNA – in the line of an eyebrow, or the curve of lips, the color of our eyes, the shape of our body, or whether we can tolerate mayonnaise or not.  The memories of all those who lived before us are a part of us, ingrained somewhere deep inside or revealing themselves there on our face, even if we don’t recognize it; and those from the past, whether we have memories of them or not, become the future.  The future we will never see, except in our dreams, or if we’re lucky, in the faces of our grandchildren.

I know very little about who Howard Joseph Graham was, or who he wanted to be, but I still wonder. I still have questions. I still search. I’m curious and I want to learn more.  And maybe that curiosity and wanting to find answers is what my grandfather left me.

That’s his mark on the world.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Words Aren’t Enough

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I never finished college that first time after high school.

I was in too big of a hurry to start my adventures in the world. So I quit in the middle of my sophomore year at UCLA and started my life.

Years later I returned. Married, with a career on the wane, and two kids now grown and off on their own adventures, I became the oldest coed in all my classes. Everyone thought I was the professor and they stopped being nice to me when they found out that I wasn’t.  It was hard work and I started to question what the hell I was doing there. I had been in no hurry to go back, but I wanted to get a degree. I always felt a little bit less than all those college grads I kept meeting in my life. I thought that going back and finishing something that I had started might make me feel more confident, more sure of the knowledge that I’d already accumulated along the way. I never thought I’d learn anything new. I was an old dog incapable of learning new tricks.

But I was wrong.

I took a class in 2008 and learned some things I guess they forgot to teach me as I was growing up. It was unsettling, as learning some truths can always be. Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny?  Sometimes the myths we’re taught as kids aren’t meant for adulthood.

The particular myth I was learning about there in that lecture hall in 2008 unsettled me and made me question so many other truths I had been taught along the way. We had to write a paper, and I struggled with what to write.  Sometimes words just aren’t enough – film can do it better.  So instead of writing an essay, I made this little film, “American Dreams.”

I wish I could say that ten years later this film has lost its meaning.

But it hasn’t.

In many ways it’s more meaningful now than ever before.

And it saddens me to write that.

 

An American Latte

Old typewriter

“Hi! Can I take your order?!”

The barista was young – with more spring in his voice than ever was in my step. I really doubted that he shaved. Or even knew how.

“I’ll have a decaf latte,” I placed my order.

And then, feeling brave.

“Double shot of vanilla,” I added. And not the sugar-free.

“And your name?” he asked, poising the black marker at the top of the paper cup.

“Darlene,” I said, and then quickly added, not willing to risk another “Darling” scribbled on my order. “D-A-R…”

“I know that name!” he said proudly. And then, finished spelling it aloud as I did, “…L…E…N…E.”

Maybe he did know how to shave.

He took my stare of amazement as a challenge and explained.

“I have a cousin named Darlene,” he told me, with a victorious smile. “She’s 65.”

65? Really?! Who dragged age into this conversation? Of course, my grey hair sneaking out the sides of my son’s old baseball cap might have been a hint or two. Do I politely nod and let the subject drop? Not willing to “date” myself? Or do I keep the ball rolling, possibly revealing my own age?

Gulp.

Aw hell, I took the plunge.

“Your cousin’s probably named after “Darlene” from the Mickey Mouse Club. A lot of us with that name were named after her. So when you see a “Darlene,” we’re usually from around that same period of time.”

“It’s such a great name!!!” he said, scrawling the name on my cup.

I smiled. It wasn’t so bad admitting my age range. I mean, I’m sure he could tell I wasn’t twenty. Even though I must admit that in my heart I am still twenty, especially when a cute young man (guy? dude?) like this takes the time to even talk to me. And when they actually look you in the eyes and smile, well, there’s no difference now at 60-something and when I was really twenty. So yeah, I looked him in the eyes and I smiled my most fetching smile.

“I really love that name of “Darlene,” he murmured, softly. “It reminds me of Old America.”

Ohhh – Kay.

I must admit this made me pause.

I wasn’t aware there was an “Old America,” but I guess there is.

And I’m it.

I’m one of the Baby Boomers who was filled with idealism, hope, and promise. There were a lot of us, and we helped stop a war and impeach a President; we spoke out against injustice, worked for diversity and equity, and stepped up, when it was our time, to do our jobs, raise our families, and run the country. We didn’t always find our way; we might have stumbled trying to do so much, but we tried. And we believed that if we worked together – all of us, Americans – we could make anything better.

Old America.

That’s what the barista called it. Called those of us who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club and the new medium of television, long hair and the belief that love would bring us peace. And he said “Old America” with respect. He said it with longing. He said it like someone sitting on the edge of adulthood, looking back at that time of innocence when all questions were answered. When we felt safe and sure about the future, and we hoped our children and grandchildren felt the same way.  He said it like he missed that Old America.

I know what he means.

I miss it too.

Everyday People Doing Good Every Day

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holding-heart

(This is part of a series I’m starting here on the blog and I’m calling it, “Everyday People Doing Good Every Day.” There are a lot of folks feeling many different feelings right now.  This isn’t an easy time for many of us. But every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that makes me feel good again. It helps me remember how much goodness there is around us, and when I see this goodness I’ll post it here to share with everyone. Hopefully, it’ll inspire us to do good things ourselves in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)

Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. is an orthopedic surgeon.

He’s also my cousin and a very good man.

I don’t just say that because he’s my cousin. You can ask anyone in Santa Barbara who knows him and I’m sure you’ll hear the same.

I don’t get emails at midnight from my cousin Dan. So last night when my phone “dinged” at a little after 12, and I saw there was an email from him, I figured it was important. The guy has been getting up at 4 each morning to handle extra patients, and I hoped everything was okay.  Here is Dan’s email…

“He’s 95 now and still has that smile. I’ve known him for 20 years.  Operated on him twice. And always the same question: How’s Charlie?  You see he’s forgotten that my Uncle Charlie passed away quite a few years ago, but he still remembers him. They played basketball together in the 1930s and 1940s at the Rec Center on Carrillo Street.  It is when he asks how Charlie’s doing when I remember that my Uncle shared the story of how his good friend was sent away to a Japanese Internment Camp during WW II.  Uncle Charlie said he was a helluva nice guy and even at 95, even now I can see that.  Humble, soft spoken and always smiling.  My uncle, who served in WW II, took a flesh wound and saw his platoon decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, always said, “It’s the shits what they did to our Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps.” So my uncle’s friend – in spite of all the memories that he’s lost because of age – still remembers Charlie.  And for the first time today I tell him, “You know my uncle shared these stories with me about you.  About your family and the internment and how it wasn’t fair.  How you were such a good friend to him and how they carted you off.”And this man, with tears rolling down his eyes, but still with a smile on his face, just looked at me and said, “What were we to do?”  He reached his hand out and shook mine, told me he missed Charlie and my father, Danny, and he thanked me for taking care of him. What a sweet man.  Dignified. Full of grace. Always a kind word. I love that guy.”

Dad always felt badly that he couldn’t do anything to help his friend or his family.  “They lost everything,” Dad told us. “Their business, their house, their friendships.” In fact, Dad was the only friend who went to the train station to say goodbye to the whole family as they were being transported to the camps. No one else wanted anything to do with the family – a family that had lived in Santa Barbara for many years.

When Dad showed up at the train station, it meant the world to his friend. He gave him a gift, something he’d made at school:  a set of black ceramic coffee mugs. They were a parting gift of thanks to a good friend.

We never used those cups growing up; they were always hidden away. I think they were a reminder to my father of something terrible, something beyond understanding, a time that made him feel helpless.

One of those cups sits prominently on my desk.

I keep it there to honor the man who made it. And the friend who didn’t follow the crowd, but who still remained a friend.

Maybe my father couldn’t have done more.

But at least he did something.

dads-black-cup

Hello? Can You All Still Hear Me…?

It’s been three years since I’ve regularly posted here.

I’ll be honest with you — I’m not sure I remember how to do this.

I just finished writing 99,000 words, locked in the 1700s with characters who speak another language, live in another culture, and who are traveling on horses and mules 1500 miles to the promise land of California. I’ve just lived this amazing adventure, and I’m not sure how to come back here to my blog.

I’m having a hard time returning to the 21st Century.

But do you blame me?

This 21st Century isn’t easy to live in. There’s lead in the drinking water in Michigan. People are getting shot every day. There are hurricanes and Zika-bearing mosquitos in Florida, wild fires and earthquake warnings in California, 24 hour coverage of the nastiest political race that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime…and when I try to look away, to seek some solace in the words of my fellow 21st Century travelers on Facebook, Twitter, and in the blogs, I find sarcasm, snark, and insults. Sometimes even threats. It’s hard to stay positive with everything going on in the modern world around us. Harder still for a recovering agoraphobic to want to step out there into the middle of it all.

Some days I ask myself: Why aren’t there more agoraphobics in this 21st Century? After all, there’s nothing you can’t order online and have it delivered to your home. There’s no reason to go to the grocery store, the mall, the movie theater, or anywhere you need to purchase goods or content as long as you have the internet to do your shopping for you. There’s telecommuting for work, online courses for school and college, religious services, and dating. What’s the reason to ever step outside of our homes? To go out in the middle of such heartache and angst? Shouldn’t we all be hiding underneath our covers, cowering with fear and disgust? What pushes us out there every day? What gives us the faith to keep looking for the good in our world?

While writing this, I asked myself those questions. What makes me go out my front door every day, when I could stay warm and protected inside my house, with my imagination keeping me company, and without risking some unknown danger lurking outside?

The answer came easily – I didn’t have to look far.

Brown eyes.

These brown eyes…

stokely-headshot

This is my grandson, Stokely.

He was born in April, at the same hospital where my own son was born. It wasn’t planned that way – it was just one of those sweet quirks of Fate that make you smile and say, “Awwwww.”

If I stay hidden in my world, I will never have the chance to experience Stokely’s world. What I see when I look into those deep brown eyes are what make me forget about all the bad things that go bump in the night. This crazy-at-times 21st Century is his century too. Together, we have to navigate it. He knows no other century, no other world, and this crazy-by-my-terms 21st century is where he will be the most comfortable. Where I hope we can always make him feel comfortable. And above everything else—safe.

I’m working on that.

And that’s what gets me out the front door. Every. single. day.

What gets you out of your front door?