Sunday, March 22, 2009

Grandma's Story - Chapter 3 Part 2

Chapter 3, Part 2

My best friend when I was 13 was Ellen B., who was in my class. Ellen had those 50’s style glasses with blue plastic frames; she had bunny teeth and straight hair with bangs. Ellen was a great writer, loved Elvis Presley (I didn’t) and in the early days of TV, we both loved “Captain Video”, a program about space. Even then, I was destined to be a Trekkie! Ellen’s family had a bungalow in Rockaway Beach for the summer. We would write each other long (20 pages!) letters during the summer. I would write her all the episodes of Captain Video that she missed since she had no TV set at the beach.

During Lent, Ellen and I went to daily Mass and then we would walk up and down Linden Street talking. We talked about school and boys and deeper things. Like God and life and growing up things. Ellen became a nun, a Sister of Mercy. After many years, she left the convent and was going to write a book about her adventures there.

We also liked to read Nancy Drew books. The first book I read was my Mom’s. You probably know that Carolyn Keene, the author of Nancy Drew, wrote way into her 90’s. Ellen and I also play acted Nancy Drew. I was Nancy, Ellen was George, Aunt Kathy was Carolyn Keene, and our friend Mary was Bess.

Mary W. was another good friend who lived on our block. She was Kathy’s friend first. Mary was Protestant and went to public school. Her Mom and Dad were divorced, which was very unusual in those days and her Mom had to work (also unusual) cleaning house for the S. family. Mr. S. was our druggist. His wife was great at getting things out of your eye and taking out splinters. By the way, Kathy and I are friends with Mary to this day and still write to her.

Finally the BIG day was coming. A week before graduation, my Mom went to the hospital to give birth to my brother Jeffrey. She vowed she would be at my graduation no matter what! And she was. I did win lots of prizes at graduation plus surprise gifts for winning the essay contest and the scholarship. I had to carry them in both hands walking down the aisle. I tried hard not to feel proud but I was proud. My face broke into a wide open mouthed grin as I bit back the happy tears. It was a wonderful day and a great start to being a teenager.

May 2006

Friday, March 20, 2009

Grandma's Story - Chapter 3, Part 1

Now that I’ve finished my Italy blogs, I want to continue with blogging “Grandma’s Story”, the ongoing saga of my life that I am writing for my 6 grandkids, in "grandkid" language. Chapter 3: Grandma the Teenager was written for Marina almost 3 years ago when she turned 13. And it is about my 13th year. To see the other chapters, go to the sidebar under "Grandma's Story".


Grandma the Teenager

For Marina, Age 13

Being a teenager in my time was very different (but not really different) from the way the world is for you.

It was 1954 when I turned 13 and I was in my final term at St. B.’s School, the grammar school where I had spent eight years of my life. I was looking forward to graduation the next January. In those days, Catholic schools had graduation twice a year; they changed it when I was in high school, which is why I graduated from high school in three and a half years at age 16. But that’s another story.

Graduation was a big deal to me and my family. Since I was the “smartest in the class”, I figured I would get lots of prizes at graduation. It was hard being top of the class and I’m not only talking about the pressure to study and get high marks on tests. Some of the kids didn’t like “smart” kids. Maybe they were jealous. Or maybe I acted a bit “stuck up”. Whatever. Although I had friends, I was definitely not Miss Popular. I used to wish that God had made me “dumb” so the other kids would like me and my parents and teachers wouldn’t expect so much from me. Passing was good enough for most students but I was supposed to get 100%! Once when I got 99% in average on my report card, my Dad asked what happened to the other point. Can you imagine! No wonder I became Miss Perfect. It was a hard burden.

But it had its rewards too. In my last term, the Holy Name Society held an essay contest for the whole diocese. The topic was “What the Marian Year Means to Me”. 1954 was a year dedicated to Mary by Pope Pius XII. Sister Mary Fides (we called her “Fido”) was my 8th grade teacher. She would pick an essay from the class to enter into the contest. First time around, my friend Margaret R.’s essay was best but Sister said it was not good enough to win. So she gave us some pointers and told us to re-write. This time mine was the best. Sister sent me out of the class so she could explain to them why she would choose my essay and not Margaret’s. She was a wise teacher. And I won the whole contest! I got a huge statue of the Blessed Mother that sat on my dresser for many years.

Of all the prizes at graduation, the one I wanted most was “Perfect Attendance”. There was a scholarship test at McAuley H.S. that Fall. If we went to take the test, we were marked present. I felt so sick that day, but went to take the test because I didn’t want to mess up my perfect attendance. I just rushed through, putting down the first answers that came into my throbbing head. I didn’t care about the scholarship; I just wanted to finish, go home and go to bed. As a result, I did not outsmart myself by over-analyzing the questions. One morning my grandmother’s phone rang (my family didn’t have a phone.) It was the principal. I had won the scholarship! It really helped my family not to have to pay tuition - $12.50 a month. I told you that times were different. With four kids and one on the way, money was spread thin.

I was very happy to go to McAuley High. The same nuns, Sisters of Mercy taught there. And I liked their uniforms: maroon jumpers and gold blouses, with saddle shoes. Plus the McAuley girls were very sweet to me when I was a little kid in 2nd or 3rd grade on a class trip to their bazaar. I had spent all my money and hadn’t won a thing. So I was sitting at a table looking sad and hungry. The “big” high school girls came over and asked what was wrong. They brought me hot dogs and soda and made me feel so much better. I still remember their kindness more than 50 years later.

I also began to love Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” when I won that scholarship because it set me off on such a different path, never to turn back. If I had not wanted “Perfect Attendance” and stayed home, I would have gone to another school and maybe would never have wound up in Catholic Charities, where I met “Buelo”. And you wouldn’t be here to read this story! I am so glad I took the test.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Trip to Italy - The Last Days

The last days – Spoleto and home

On Wednesday after we left Assisi, we stopped at a ceramics factory and picked up last minute unusual and authentic Umbrian souvenirs: pottery, pasta seasoning, olive oil and chocolate. Then a stop in medieval Spoleto; unfortunately our climb to an ancient Roman aqueduct found it closed. We learned that the aqueduct still works – ah, those Romans could really build! Driving back along the autostrada, drinking in the tiny towns atop the mountains and the lush patchwork hillsides, I knew I would really miss Italy. It was hard to say goodbye to Andreas, our superb bus driver. I felt so safe with him, even on the mountain roads in the snow. I feel that my friendship with Sister Pat has deepened on this trip and I treasure the Florentine mini-ceramic picture she gave me, which remind me of our good times together.

On our last night, the hotel outside of Rome appeared to be the most luxurious so far. That should have been my red alert. Despite “adjustments” to the heater, it was the coldest sleep of all. In my clothes under the blankets, I was counting layers instead of sheep and finally got up onto the icy floor to get my snow jacket and hood – it was like a comforter. I think I will only come to Europe during warm seasons.

We arose very early on Thursday and drove through traffic (Rome’s LIE?) to the airport. Margaret, our good shepherd, was there until the last girl got through security. Marina and I exchanged e-mail addresses with our new friends. Finally we were flying home. It was hard to imagine that our adventure was over. Bouncing around in turbulence like a ship in choppy seas, as Marina observed. I am extremely grateful that I made this trip. Marina is the perfect traveling companion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My Trip to Italy - Days 6 and 7 - San Marino and Assisi

Day 6 and 7 – San Marino and Assisi

When we left Venice on Tuesday we traveled through the Apennine Mountains – it was exhilarating! The twisted beauty of these mountains, pushed and pulled by earthquakes and geological forces, remind me a little of California’s landscape. But in Italy you see medieval towns atop and spilling down the hillsides, a castle tower here, an ancient basilica there. I will miss this wonderful country with its bright green fields and tall cypress trees. And I love tunneling through the mountains.

We visited the republic of San Marino atop Mt. Titano; a country within a country, it dates back to Roman times. It has its own government, stamps, taxes, flag, etc. Very medieval with hills that challenge, twisty alleys, cobbled streets and wonderful shops. We ate at a cave-like cafĂ© where Marina tried the local cuisine, a rondido – sort of a panini. Oh, I must mention the glorious cioccolatta falda I had in Venice. It was melted chocolate heaven!

We arrived in Assisi after dark. Now it was really cold – we had driven through some brief snow showers. The Hotel Giotto, located in the middle of Assisi atop a hill, treated us to a view of the new town in the valley and its twinkling lights. It took me back 50 years to a college retreat I made at Mt. Alvernia Monastery in Duchess county; I remember a similar view from that hilltop. The Franciscans chose their site well. Back to the hotel: all our hotels have had their good points and their lows. This one had excellent food, lovely rooms, fluffy towels (so welcome after the “kitchen” towels in most bathrooms)….But no heat! I slept in my clothes and a sweater plus 2 blankets but it was not a restful night.

Next morning we rose early to go to Mass and found snow outside our door. After a wrong turn– these medieval towns are hard to figure out in the dark – we found the Basilica of St. Francis. The monks were chanting the morning office in the lower church at the tomb of St. Francis. What a blessed way to end a special trip! I thanked God for such a joyful journey in Italy and prayed for all my family and friends at the resting place of this beloved saint, who lived 800 years ago.

After Mass, the cobbled streets had turned icy so we picked our way very carefully back to the hotel. With the group we returned to the Cathedral to meet our guide, Roger. He was very special, like all the guides, natives of the towns and cities they led us through, all of them so knowledgeable and passionate about their hometowns. But Roger was spiritual as well, a true son of Assisi, a blessed town. The basilica, restored and re-built after the earthquake of 1997, dates back to the 13th or 14th century. Its special features are the frescoes, especially those by Giotto depicting the life of Christ and the life of Francis. I love the Byzantine-like decoration along the gothic arches. How different these Italian gothic cathedrals are from those in France and Germany. Then a tour of the town and the very square, in front of a Roman temple turned church, where Francis stripped naked and cut off his ties to his earthly father.

We saw the cathedral built to honor St. Clare, founder of the Poor Clares, the feminine branch of the Franciscans, and heard the remarkable story of this wise, beautiful, intelligent and deeply spiritual saint. A strong woman, with excellent administrative and organizational skills (could be my patrona), she got what she wanted from the powerful rulers of her day, including popes. We saw on display the original rules of her order, the first written rules of a religious order by a woman. The cathedral also had the original San Damiano cross. Even in the chilling cold, this was a very worthwhile experience. I would love to return to Assisi for a retreat.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Trip to Italy - Day 6 - Venice

Day 6 – Venice

On Monday we were off via bus to the pier, where we joined other EF Tours on the ferry to Venezia! We sat with another group that turned out to be from Harrison HS in Westchester. One girl even attends the same church as Marina. It’s a small world after all …

I love Venice. No cars or bikes on the cobbled streets to run you down. Many romantic bridges to cross over the canals – we actually walked over 7 of the 118 islands that make up Venice. And perfect weather: sunny and cold and dry, no flooding in Piazza San Marco today. We had a tour of Venice with Carlo, who pointed out a palazzo that his grandfather had once lived in but missed an opportunity to purchase. It was lovely with its Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance features: windows, columns, etc. It is so expensive to live in Venice that the population of residents has decreased from 160,000 to 60,000 in a few decades. But there are hundreds – thousands during Carnevale – of tourists that flood Venice, a city rich in culture, history, art and fun. I liked the Venetians – of all ages – dressed in costume and masks, strolling through the streets and squares, and posing serenely for photos. The costumes were gorgeous (you can see pictures on “my daughter’s blog”) and couples were color coordinated. Even some silvery prehistoric “birds” or raptors on stilts came by to delight us.

Of course, the main feature of Piazza San Marco is the basilica of San Marco, the apostle Mark; his bones supposedly reside there. A tall column with his symbolic winged lion atop is at the entrance to the piazza. The basilica is beautiful with mosaics on the exterior and dozens of columns to show off Venetian conquests throughout the ages. We shopped for masks – so many to choose from, some are works of art. We saw a glass blowing demonstration at the Murano glass works and got genuine Murano glass souvenirs, with certificates of authenticity.

Then a highlight of our day – Marina and I took a gondola ride. It is so peaceful, quietly gliding along narrow canals, under arched bridges, reflecting the glimmering light of the water. You can see the high water erosion of the walls. Most of these buildings have peeling facades; you see the bricks peeking out. Then you emerge into the Grand Canal. Wow! But the decay is real and Venice is sinking. They have plans – the Moses project – to stop the flooding. But who knows? Venice, a proud, powerful state for many centuries and contributor to so much of civilization: glass, shipbuilding, government, commerce, etc. Who knows if one day it may disappear to the bottom of the lagoon. How lucky I am to be able to experience this city.

In the afternoon we toured the Doge’s Palace. We had plenty of time to view the extraordinary art work – the golden staircase, paintings, a Titian fresco of St. Christopher. And the institutional halls which housed the councils and senate that ruled Venice in its glory days. At the end of the tour, a visit to the prisons, or should I say dungeons, where Casanova was once interred. Before we left Venice, Marina had a chance to call her Mom and Dad and tell them about her adventures. Wish we could call home every day but most hotel phones would not accept our calling cards. The next morning Marina and I walked to the beach and saw the Adriatic. I hope that one day she will have a chance to return to Venice – in the summer!

My Trip to Italy - Day 5 - Traveling through Tuscany

Day 5 – Traveling through Tuscany

Sunday, February 15th was a travel day – restful and rewarding. It is lovely, even in winter, traveling through Tuscany with its stately cypress trees, villas and olive groves. Then suddenly you see the Alps on the horizon and soon you have these ancient snow capped mountains as a traveling companion. A surprise stop in Verona, a cute little town with narrow streets and alleys, a large town square surrounded by medieval and renaissance buildings and an arena, dating back to Roman times, though smaller than the Colosseum. The big attraction here is Juliet’s balcony. Under the arch leading to the small square with her statue and balcony, hundreds of lovers have left their names, with felt tipped pens. Similar to Florence near the Ponte Vecchio, where they leave locks on a chain and throw the key in the Arno to “lock up their love forever”.

We arrived at our hotel, located on a seaside Adriatic Beach. Our hotels have all had their pluses and minuses. This one was a 4 floor walk up to our room. It was hard even with Marina’s help. No tub, just a shower stall. No soap, lucky I brought my own. But it was warm! And this hotel had the best restaurant so far; I enjoyed the dinners with fresh salads and green beans! The next day we would be off to Venice.

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Trip to Italy - Day 4 - Pisa

Day 4 – Pisa

Good news - the new room was warm and toasty. I love the deep European tubs – what a treat to take a relaxing soak. Another delightful day, with bright blue skies and crisp cool air for our short ride to Pisa – on the west coast. Our guide Luisa showed us the field of miracles, the cathedral, bapistry, cemetery, and of course, the famous bell tower, the leaning tower of Pisa. All of these structures date back to the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Unfortunately, most were destroyed by fire or bombed and much of the original art was lost. However, out of suffering comes blessing. When the frescoes in the cemetery building were destroyed in World War II, they removed them and discovered original sinope – sketches by the artists, not their students.

We also got a science lesson on why the tower leans: first it is too heavy – all these structures are built of marble; columns, stairs, walls. Second, the ground, near a river, is too soft. They actually straightened the tower by 36 cm a few years back. It is rather impressive and great fun. (See Marina’s pictures on “my daughter’s blog). The cathedral was so beautiful; I loved the baroque ceiling, which the Medicis donated after the fire. Actually, they conquered Pisa and took responsibility for restoring the cathedral.

The gypsies in Pisa were especially troubling. One came up to me and when I ignored her, she grabbed my arm and my pocketbook. Luckily I have my New York smarts. We’ve discovered, with Margaret’s guidance, cafeterias where there are delicious choices (veggies and zuppa) for lunch.

After Pisa, we returned to Florence and visited the Academie des Fines Artes, where we saw Michelangelo’s David, the real thing! This exquisite work of art, with its beauty, hugeness and detail, was overwhelming. I felt grateful for the gift of such genius (despite his cantankerous personality), and that so many artists and architects were able to use their gifts to create such masterpieces. And now, I have the opportunity to appreciate their work and to grow from the experience. It is humbling.

I do feel rested, restored and relaxed here in Florence. We went to Mass in the Duomo and I had another chance to soak in the wonder of this magnificent cathedral – inside and out. The angels around the portals have expressions of such terror. The trimmings are curly and scallop-like but just a delight. Even the columns are decorated this way. All the space is covered with marble decorations, coats of arms, stylized flowers, etc. Superb. Loved Florence and felt so fortunate to have come on this trip, and especially to share it with Marina. And with my good friend, Sister Pat.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My Trip to Italy - Day 3 - Florence

On Friday the 13th we left Rome and began our journey to Firenze, Florence: city of flowers, city of the Medici’s, Michelangelo, Puccini, Da Vinci, Giotto, Galileo and so many other geniuses of art, literature, music and science. It was a lovely ride on our new bus, passing medieval towns on hilltops, savoring the beauty of Tuscany, even in winter repose. Florence is a gorgeous city on the Arno River. It gives one a sense of calm and tranquility, especially after the immense grandeur and bustle of Rome. The river was smooth under a bright blue sky. A view from the Ponte Vecchio disclosed mountains in the background and cream and rust colored terra cotta homes on the banks. All buildings must be painted in earth colors and it gives a perception of comforting order and security, not to mention being aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

We began our tour at the Piazza della Signoria, site of the famous clock tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and Galleria degli Uffizi, an art museum to end all museums, home of the great Renaissance masterpieces. And this is the downside of a tour – no time to explore a treasure like the Uffizi. Some day … Also in the piazza were brilliant sculptures: the Neptune Fountain (no matter what Michelangelo thought, to me it was awesome), Roman statues, Perseus with the head of Medusa, etc. Then on the way to lunch, a young man invited us to a cafeteria, where we enjoyed a nutritious lunch (I was missing my veggies!) and a pleasant chat with him about New York. A local tour guide took us to the Duomo. I am in awe of this cathedral. So simple inside but look up at the dome (designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 14th century) with its frescoes! Wow! But outside is another story. I have not seen a cathedral so decorated on the exterior – like a decorated cake. I loved the colorful exterior and the terra cotta color of the dome, so different from other cathedrals.

Next we witnessed a leather demonstration at the Leonardo Leather Works. Florence is noted for a leather jewel box given to Caterina de Medici for her wedding. Marina and I got some souvenirs there. We wandered along the river as she took hundreds of photos, which you can see on “My daughter’s blog” (link on sidebar). Seeing the modern day artisans at work seemed so right in this city. We are connecting with the Cathedral HS girls, who are great fun and today attracted some local Italian teens in the piazza for giggles and a photo op. At dinner Marina usually joins the teens, especially Charlene and Maria, and I sit with Sister Pat, Margaret, Kathy and Sr. Eileen – new friends for me. Our room at a nearby hotel was big and lovely but COLD! Woke up freezing, despite 2 blankets, a heavy sweater and the spread. Couldn’t work the Italian shower either and it was cold in the bathroom. So we spoiled Americans changed rooms, hoping that the heat works better in #116. Anyway, I slept well in the cold and had some very vivid dreams. I end this account waiting to leave for Pisa. It seems the brand new bus broke down. Ah, adventure.