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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Sparkle

Christmas has never been my favorite holiday.  In fact, I pretend like it’s just another day. Other Bill and I have skipped the present giving tradition for years and instead run down to the local cinema, watch an early matinee, and, if we play our cards right, sneak into a second movie. We consider it our gift from the theater. Then we go to a Chinese restaurant and call it a day. It’s a nice traditional Jewish Christmas celebration without the gefelte fish and the kvetching.

When I was six and was starting to be the age where a kid really enjoys and remembers Christmas, my dad died, and Christmas from then on out became an ugly chore full of stress and tension.

For one thing, every Christmas either my sister or I came down with a cold, which would make my mother crazier. One year she decided that we must be allergic to Christmas trees. Therefore, in a pre-emptive strike, she moved the tree outside to the front porch. One day we came home and found the tree blown over and the majority of the ornaments smashed to smithereens.

For years my widowed mother always tried to economize at Christmas. She had a long list of people on her gift list. Most of them she only saw at Christmas when she packed the car full of home-made somethings and delivered the gifts to these non-friends in the style that could only be described as paperboyish. She always claimed that a heartfelt homemade gift was superior to something store bought, and to this day I concede she was wrong, because everything we made was either a disaster, or the preparation of it was met with hellish consequences. For example, one year in summer she decided she would create what was called “crocked fruit”, which was an enormous ceramic butter churn filled with rotting fruit and grain alcohol. And it was unrefrigerated. Every few weeks she would add more fruit and stir it. To an alcoholic like my mother, it tasted, layered on ice cream, like nectar from the gods. To an ordinary person, it tasted like super unleaded.

When that wasn’t a hit, she switched to the stove. Beginning in October, she would bake loaf after loaf of bread. My sister and I were delegated to the task of turning liquid sugar into fondant and rolling truffles into chocolate sprinkles.  Everything was frozen until delivery day, when they were retrieved from the rented cryogenic deep freeze, stale and freezer-burned.  After numerous complaints from recipients to the Better Christmas Bureau, she turned the reins over to me, and I made candles. This holiday tradition abruptly ended when I set a pot of paraffin on fire, melted the kitchen curtains, and turned our kitchen ceiling a permanent shade of black.

And there was the time she took back my sister’s cash present because she stuck her tongue out at her, effectively putting the kibosh on holiday cheer for all of us.

So let’s just say I steer clear of any kind of holiday celebration. My favorite holiday memory, which makes me love Other Bill all the more, was when after dark one night we heard voices and rustling in our bushes outside.

“What’s that?” he asked, with terror in his eyes.

The hair stood up on the back of my neck, “I don’t know,” I whispered.

Other Bill grabbed a knife and turned out the lights and crept to the front door. He peeked out the window into the darkness and saw movement and heard many voices. He was outnumbered, but he bravely opened the door and flicked on the porch light to reveal a handful of people carrying songbooks.

“Hark the Herald A—” sang they.

“JESUS CHRIST, YOU SCARED THE HELL OUT OF ME!” Shouted he, as the well-intentioned fundamentalist Christian carolers gasped, turned their backs and strolled unappreciated to the next house on the block.

One year I spent the holiday in Egypt, where everything was open, no one was out buying presents, and there wasn’t a Santa or a tree in sight. I went out to the pyramids near Giza, where some guy talked me into letting him take me down into a smelly dark hole in the ground where he shined the light on hieroglyphics. Very educational. Thank you, godless Egyptians!

So call me the champion of bah-humbug; I won’t dispute it, but for the record I would like to bring up a sour note of a disturbing trend I am finding associated with this holiday: glitter cards.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love getting Christmas cards. I am still a big supporter of envelope-and-stamp letter writing and actually enjoy the single-spaced typewritten bullet chart of annual accomplishments people send along with the cards.

But I would rather have the card without sparkles. Once you pull the card out of the envelope, you subject yourself to indefinite years of living with glitter. Glitter has a half-life roughly equivalent to plutonium-239. You can’t get rid of it with a vacuum, a sticky roller, a gas powered leaf blower or a pressure washer. Once you open that envelope, you commit yourself to a life with glitter, and I’m damned tired of it. I am lobbying Congress to pass a law that requires glitter card envelopes come with warning label, similar to what they have on packs of cigarettes: “WARNING: THE ENCLOSED GLITTER CARD WILL PROVOKE FRIENDS TO MAKE FUN OF YOU BECAUSE YOU WILL HAVE SPARKLES OVER YOUR EYEBROW FOR ETERNITY.”

I started taking Christmas cards outside to open them, but the glitter still blows off and gets on your clothes, and you track it inside. Now I open cards with a scalpel and wear rubber gloves and a disposable Tyvek hazmat suit. On the plus side, this has apparently spared me from contracting Ebola.

I haven’t figured out who is behind this trend, but I suspect these cards are of Chinese origin. China of course, is well versed in hiding their toxic waste in products they sell cheaply to Americans (e.g., children’s toys, drywall, and aren’t you even curious as to why the underpants you bought at glow in the dark?)

It’s time we put an end to this, so let’s cheese it with the glitter cards, folks. Otherwise I’m sending you a loaf of stale homemade bread and melted truffles with sprinkles.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Good Silver

When kids get married nowadays, do they still pick out a silverware pattern? The young people I know who have gotten married in the last decade or so are not so interested in owning sterling service for eight, as they were in my parents’ day. Judging from the advice columns, most people getting married these days are asking if it’s too tacky to ask people to give them money to pay off their exhaustive wedding costs, student loans, and therapy tab caused by my generation.

Back in my parents' day, people could afford to give a place setting as a wedding gift, and that's how they came in possession of The Good Silver, as it was called.  Our silver was wrapped up in velvet and hidden in a box and stowed in a built-in cabinet in our dining room. It would be paraded out when it was our turn to host Thanksgiving or the Wiley family reunion. Silverware was very high maintenance and labor intensive. It had to be polished, and after it was used, it had to be hand washed, and my sister and I knew that there would be hell to pay if even one salad fork was discovered in the dishwasher.

The Good Silver, I think now, is a bit of an anachronism. People who grew up in the Depression considered sterling service something regal, something vaguely Downton Abbeyish.  When you really wanted to be the envy of your world, you would trot out the Reed & Barton for a dinner, but  your peers, who probably had a similar set of eating utensils, weren’t that impressed.

The last time I ate from sterling forks was several years ago.  Other Bill’s Aunt Eleanor would frequently make us delicious meals. We would lift our matzo balls, cut our brisket, and stab our kugel with her sterling silverware, which she liked to use even if we were the only two she cooked for. Eleanor was a bang-up cook and frequently entertained, but ever since The Incident In Which A Spoon Came Up Missing (during which, fortunately, neither Other Bill nor I was present), no one left Eleanor’s apartment until the sterling was hand washed, dried, counted, and put away.

People of my mother’s and Eleanor’s generation, probably due to the Depression, held their silver in a somewhat paranoid high regard. It was always hidden somewhere in the house, and it wasn’t used for just anyone.

When I was a young squirt, my mother, in blatant disregard of child labor laws, would, days before a blessed event, sit my sister and me down at our kitchen booth. She passed out strips of ripped up, retired bed sheets and a jar of Wright’s Silver Cream. It was our job to massage all the tarnish out of the service for 9, and we weren’t released from the detail until our hands were black and dried and cracked from the chemical ingredients in the caustic cleaning agent. (Maybe this is an illusion, but I seem to remember running out of the polish, taking the jar up to my mother, who was probably baking bread, and sheepishly muttering, “Please, ma’am. I want some more.”)

Nice of Mr. Wright to call it “Cream”. That sounds so luxurious and harmless. It’s like something Madge would soak her manicure clients’ fingernails in.

(“Silver polish!? Are you fucking kidding me?”
 “Relax, it’s CREAM!”)

In reality, if you had any scratches on your hand, the polish would get in and burn the hell of it, and it also dried your skin out so that when you were done with the cleaning, you walked away with hands that felt like fresh saltines.

Wright’s Silver Cream also stank, and the smell was fortified when it hit the silver and turned black.

The silver pattern we had was very ornate and finely carved, so it took a lot of hand pressure to polish the tarnish out of the tiny crevasses. The more you rubbed it with a rag, the blacker your rag would get. We were instructed to polish the silver until the rags no longer turned black, but even when you thought you were done and the silver looked shiny enough, along came Mr. Bumble, I mean Mom, and she’d dip the rag in the cream and rub the serving spoon and say, “Still black. Do it again.”

And so my sister and I would waste the day away, kneading the damned eating utensils until they were migraine-inducingly bright and would reflect the sun enough to burn holes in your retinas. When we were dismissed, we dejectedly padded toward the bathroom and rubbed A and D Ointment, which also stank, into our cracked fingers and palms. On Thanksgiving or whenever the Blessed Good Silver Event took place, people wondered why our hands smelled so funny and we were bleeding profusely from our soda cracker appendages. I may be wrong, but while others ate turkey, my sister and I had half-filled bowls of gruel.

My mother, mercifully, stopped entertaining around the time that bourbon and amphetamines became more important to her than a nicely set table. Thank god for substance abuse.

So for decades, The Good China and The Good Silver sat unused in the dining room and was packed up and put in storage when Mom sold the house after her offspring moved away from home.

Being The Girl, my sister eventually got possession of The Good China, and the Good Silverware.  I got the antique rosewood needlepoint chairs, which I still trip over to this very day.

The Good China and Silver stayed stowed in my sister’s basement for a decade before she conceded that she wasn’t ever going to use it. Being a sap for nostalgia, I took possession of it and promptly stored it in my attic for another 15 years. Before I moved back to Florida, I sold the Good China, which was also called The Haviland. It was very fragile and prissy and covered in hand-painted, pink primroses. Yet I still held on to The Good Silver, and it has remained for the last 13 years, boxed up and unused.

Other Bill’s and my everyday flatware is a mishmash of silver plate crap I bought at an auction decades ago for ten bucks, and some old stainless that’s been following me around for so long I can no longer remember its origin. Recently I noticed that, in the tradition of Eleanor’s Incident, we were running out of teaspoons before the dishwasher got completely filled up. Being old and losing our attention spans, in the past few years I have found silverware basking in the compost pit in the back yard, so we are clearly the ones guilty of misplacing our own flatware. So I went online to see if I could find some cheap stainless spoons. Everything cheap looked cheesy and so flimsy you could bend it just by blowing on it.

So I thought, why should I buy new spoons, when there are nine spoons hidden in a forgotten location in the house?

I thought about it, but glanced at the jar of Wright’s Silver Cream that has sat under four different kitchen sinks for the last 35 years. No way, I thought.

And so, I figured, it’s long past time to get rid of The Good Silver. I looked on eBay and noticed that people were selling it for about ten cents on the dollar. Nobody wants the stuff anymore. You can’t give it away.

So I wrote to my friend Linden and told her I was thinking of taking it to one of those places that will pay you cash for precious metals that they just melt down and turn into silver brownies.

She wrote back and said, “Why don’t you just use it? Did you know you can clean it by just dropping it in a pan of boiling water that has baking soda and aluminum foil in it?”

I thought she was high. After all, we had baking soda and Reynolds Wrap in our house at the same time we had Wright’s Silver Cream when I was a kid, so why were we forced into indentured silverware servitude when we could have just dunked it into a pan with metallurgical, magical powers? Why didn’t we know this trick then?

So Saturday I decided to give it a shot. After tearing the house apart, I finally found The Good Silver. It was black with tarnish and was taunting me for a good rubbing of Wright’s.  Instead I cooked up a pan of water, baking soda and foil, and sure enough… no fuss, no muss. Instant sparkling silverware. I whispered curse words at my dead mother.

So I decided—screw it—the Gorham Strasbourg pattern is coming out of the closet. We’re here. We’re silver. Get used to it!  So I took the mishmash of silver plate and mixed-up stainless and tossed it in the box where The Good Silver had been stored for most of my life, and I put the sparkling good stuff in the silverware drawer in the kitchen.

And we’ll never run out of teaspoons, because Other Bill and I know that there’ll be hell to pay of a fork is ever found in the dishwasher. The silver is hand washed, dried, and put away after every meal.

So next time you come to our house, be prepared for a little bit of a delay before your departure. No one leaves the house until there we count 9 dinner forks, 9 knives, 9 spoons, 9 salad forks, and a serving spoon.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Remembering Pearle

On July 18, 2014, we lost the 102-year-old woman who had been our best buddy for the last four years. Pearle Shepard was a friend of my dad's from the 20's through the 40's, and they corresponded for years. She saved the hundreds of pages of letters that he wrote her and returned the letters after the end of WWII. These letters my father wrote had intimate details about his life growing up on a farm in southern Michigan in the 19-teens, a wonderful story about a month-long move from Michigan to Florida, and hundreds of paragraphs that enabled me to learn about my father's personality, morality, political and religious beliefs, and his favorite books and authors. Had she not been so generous as to return these letters, and had my parents not been so smart as to not save those letters for me to read, I would have never been able to learn my dad's history. Through the miracle of the Internet, I was able to meet her for the first time in April of 2010, when she was 98. Here is the remembrance I gave at her funeral on August 23, 2014.

Pearle Gay Shepard was a part of our family since the 1920’s. She and my father went to school together, traveled in the same circles in St. Petersburg, and corresponded with each other from two sides of the earth while my dad was in the army during WWII. She saved every letter my father had written her. These pages he wrote her from New Guinea became the autobiography that my dad didn’t live long enough to tell me about in person.

When I first heard about her when I was a kid, I asked my mother, “What happened to that Pearle lady?” She didn’t know. Nobody knew. No one even had a picture of her. She wasn’t in the phone book, and back then that was what our search options were limited to. Mom said, “I’m sure she got married and had a good life.” Well, she was half right.

The letters my father wrote her always started with, “Dear Pearle,” and the collection amounted to about 400 pages. Not all the letters were dated, so it was a big chore, five or six years ago, for me to try to put them in chronological order and then re-read them, start to finish, so I could make sense of the relationship the two of them had. In this pile of paper, there is one single undated page that just reads, “Dear Pearle, I love you, I love you, I love you.” That’s all it says. There is no explanation in any of the other letters as to why he wrote that.

Now I know that my dad wasn’t in love with Pearle, even though she probably had been with him.

Right before I found Pearle in 2010, I Googled “Pearle Shepard obituary” because I didn’t think there could be a chance that she was still alive. But I didn’t get a result until after I removed the word obituary, and then I was floored to see on my computer screen, “Pearle Gay Shepard, 98, West Palm Beach, Florida” and a phone number.

Initially I just figured this was a mistake. I waited a while before I picked up the phone, because I wondered: What is the likelihood that a 98-year-old woman would be healthy enough to take my call? And if she was, what if I told her who I was, and she had a heart attack? And frankly, what are the chances that this is the same Pearle Shepard, who wrote to my father from Tallahassee, Arizona, and California in the 1940’s? How is it possible that someone so well-traveled is living just an hour away from me? What are the chances she never married or took some man’s surname? I pondered all these realities, but I decided the risk of a wrong number was worth an amazing surprise. So I picked up the phone, and a strong voice answered hello.

“Hello, is this Pearle Shepard?” I asked.

“Who’s calling, please?” She snapped. She probably figured I was just a telemarketer.

“Uh, my name is Bill Wiley. Is this the Pearle Shepard who wrote my father in New Guinea during World War 2?”

There was a sustained silence. Then she said cautiously, “Maybe.”

I knew she had been a school teacher, but I had come to class unprepared for the pop quiz she then proceeded to task me with. She asked:
    Where did your father go to high school?
    What year did he graduate?
    Where was he born?
    How many siblings did he have, and what were       their names?
    What did he do for a living?

I think I got all the answers right, except maybe I was off on his graduation date by a year. She, on the other hand, knew all the answers. At 98.

This interaction, the first few things I heard Pearle say, defined exactly the person she was. She may have been ancient, but she was nobody’s fool, and she would never allow herself to be taken advantage of.

We continued talking, and as she realized that I was who I said I was, and I realized that I had found someone alive who not only knew my father, but who gave me the gift of learning all about my father’s history—we both became very excited, although both of us were a little freaked out with disbelief. The odds of this happening were just so miniscule.

During the call she told me that she didn’t go by Pearle anymore. She now went by Gay. I said, “Oh, your middle name.”

“How in the world did you know that?” she asked.

“It’s in the letters,” I said. It was all in the letters.

“What letters?” she asked.

“The letters he wrote you when he was in New Guinea.”

“You read those letters?”

“Yes!” I said. “I still have them.”

It was a little too much to absorb. For both of us.

One thing had been bothering me for years. In those hundreds of pages, there were a few letters from Gay, and it was very clear that she had much more than just a passing interest in my father. But there were a couple of letters from my dad which explained what everyone hates hearing: The “I only like you as a friend” line. So I asked Gay on the phone the question that had been eating at me for years.

“Did my father break your heart?”

She laughed for a second and said, “A little bit. But I got over it. I’ve had a very full life.”

And for the next few years, we did what we could to keep it full.

We read my dad’s old letters out loud and talked relentlessly. We went out to lunch. Delis. Chinese. Mexican. Burgers and sandwiches, salads and soups. Sometimes we cooked and ate in. Once we choked down a botched meatloaf that she relentlessly teased Bill about for months afterward. We had picnics and went swimming and grocery shopped and ran errands. And while we continued to do that, she wouldn’t let obstacles like hearing aids or new dentures stand in her way. Even after she retired her walker and was forced to use a wheelchair, we were still traveling to restaurants, parks, and movie theaters.

The last time we went out, which was Christmas of 2012, we wheeled her out on the floating dock on the Palm Beach waterfront. She was wrapped up in a sweater, and even though it was chilly, you could tell she was loving being outside in the fresh air, bobbing up and down with the rise and fall of the floating dock. The sun was shining and the wind blew her fine, white hair. And it was then I remembered the two-line letter that my father penned to her,

Dear Pearle,

I love you, I love you, I love you.

How could you not love this woman? Even though her vision and hearing were severely impaired, and even though she could no longer bring fork to mouth, she still maintained her sense of humor, her love of the outdoors, and her impenetrable compassion and devotion to her friends whom she made into her family. Even from her bed, and even after turning 100, she maintained her southern charm and protocol, dictating lovely, grateful letters of thanks, congratulations, birthday greetings and her annual Christmas letter. I’m sure everyone here has received a letter at one time or another from Gay, and although I don’t have 300 pages of letters from her, I am so very grateful for the ones I do have. They bring to me an even stronger bond with my father, whom I lost when I was just six.

I’m so grateful and honored that Gay allowed me to be a part of her life, even if it was for just a short time. She didn’t have to. She could have easily held a grudge against my family and not reopened a part of her life that was probably best left on the shelf. But Gay had such strong faith, such compassion, and such a forgiving nature, and I think that she saw that I needed her more than she needed me.

Thank you, Pearle Gay Shepard, for enriching my life. We love you, we love you, we love you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Famous Bushes

According to Snopes, the world’s largest pubic hair is 32 inches from the armpit and 28 inches from a vagina.

Neither belonged to Crystal Gayle.

Nor 1960’s Cher.

I think someone needs to rewrite Rapunzel.

Tell your friends, folks. I’m here all week.

Apparently this megabush is attached to the body of a South African woman named Manoi Vi. I don’t know if this is how she makes her living, but apparently she isn’t afraid to memorialize it in photographs. If you Google her, there it is, hanging down from her ladyparts like Spanish moss in a bayou bog.

What you don’t see  is a picture of her in her underpants. How does she pack all that in, underneath, say, a thong? Dredlocks, worn belted, maybe? When you stuff that much mass in a piece of fabric, what does that look like? A well-stuffed throw pillow? A hot air balloon?

Do they not have scissors in Cape Town? Why would anyone want to be running around with two Afghan hounds under their arms and Cousin It dragging on the floor between their legs? Honey, get that osprey nest under control! Here, try this Brylcreem.

According to Scientific American, evolutionary biologists believe one reason we have hair is for insulation; in other words, for retaining heat. So I guess Ms. Vi has given up her Hotpoint electric range, since she could easily bake a nice pan of lasagne right in her lap.

Pubic hair is supposed to reach a certain length and then fall out as it gets replaced by new hair. Hair in the scalp, however, can live for years without falling out. So apparently Manoi has four scalps: head, armpits, and, well, you know: down there. Good thing she was never in an early Western movie. Once the Native Americans finished scalping her, there’d be nothing left but a belly button.

I suppose that in the long run, it’s good that she isn’t male, because guys sometimes have strangulation issues. Hair can sometimes snake its way around a penis, making things a little awkward in our pants. Sometimes the hair can get pulled like two girls in a cat fight. One of the reasons that men get the sudden urge to adjust ourselves is because Helen Lawson and Neely O’Hara are having a little altercation in our crotches, and we need to manually separate them. Go to your corner, Neely, and you, Helen, go out the same way you came in.

You may be wondering why this topic is appearing in this blog. Recently I noticed what seemed to be an increase in the recurrence of my favorite Valley of the Dolls scene in my pants. So I went to Google to see if pubes get longer with age. To my disappointment, there wasn’t even an unreliable source to tell me that they do. Ergo, I have to assume than instead of the hair growing longer, something else is getting smaller. You know how men who gain weight jokingly say their pants are shrinking? Yeah, something like that, only true. Or maybe this new underwear I bought has teeth.

So I guess a little trim would make things a little less restless down there.

And I think a little landscaping would also make Manoi Vi a little less infamous.

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your mowers.

(photo credit:
Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.