Friday, February 27, 2015

Tribute to Mrs. B

Recently I have been re-watching Friends on Netflix. It was one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, ranking right up there with Cheers and Seinfeld.  

While I watched it when it originally aired in 1994, I hadn't watched every single episode in succession. Without commercial interruptions.

So I watched it all again. 

When the original series ended in 2004, I cried. I guess I identified with the characters on the show since I was only slightly older than they were. Of course, I didn’t have friends who lived across the hall who would burst into my apartment to exchange witty banter to a laugh track. But I recognized the closeness these fictitious characters shared – because I shared that same closeness with my own friends, many of whom I met in college at Ohio State.

I was sad when the series ended because it depicted how life moves on and how we change. Many of those changes are good – we grow up, we move for our careers or to start somewhere anew, we marry, we have children.  But sometimes those changes cause us to lose some of that closeness with those friends who, when we were younger, seemed to be “just across the hall” figuratively, if not literally. It was easier back then when we could drop everything to get together just to hang out for no reason at all or for special occasions like Halloween parties or ski weekends.

Nowadays, we get together less for “no reason at all” and more for things like weddings and funerals. The former is a happy reason, but the latter? Well, it may be the circle of life, but it’s still sad and difficult. And for some of us, it’s definitely a test of the strength of our waterproof mascara.

So yesterday I watched the Friends finale. And I still cried, even though I knew how it ended. After I turned off Netflix and dried my tears – all the while laughing at myself for being such a crybaby – I got to work on the everyday real life stuff: making dinner for my husband, throwing a load of whites in the washing machine and watering the ficus tree.

Then, a couple of hours later, I received a call from my friend Joe telling me that his mom had passed.

And the waterworks began again.

I have so many memories of the lady I always called “Mrs. B.” Not “Mrs. Bressler.” NEVER “Lilly.”  To Alex, Nick and Joe, she was “Mom.” And to all her grandchildren, she was “Nonna.”

And to her I was always, “Janie.”   

My husband Vince and I traveled to North Carolina a couple years ago to attend Joe and Leah’s wedding. Mrs. B was so happy to see us and, as usual, welcomed us like family. We took the requisite photos, of course, and at one point, I aimed the camera at her. She had been sitting on a stool in the kitchen, but when she saw me with the camera, she stood up, walked over to the stove, picked up a pot, leaned against the counter in a pose, and proudly said in her Italian accent, “You take my picture now, Janie. I’m da cook!”

Oh, but she was so much more than that.

Yes, she was a cook. And a seamstress. And a disciplinarian. And a quick wit. She loved Viareggio and her homeland and Italian heritage, but she loved being an American, too.

But mostly? Well, mostly, she was a wonderful friend. And whatever you called her, she was not someone you could ever forget.

For years, she worked at Fabians in Steubenville altering bridal gowns. I visited her there numerous times to see her tiny form covered in a big cloud of white as her nimble fingers added sequins by hand to a bridal gown. I’m guessing you could ask any bride whose wedding gown she altered – even if it was decades ago – and she’d remember Mrs. B. And she’d likely have some stories to share.

Anyone who ever met Mrs. B knows about the “boys from Youngstown.” She’d tell us to be good or she’d get the boys from Youngstown after us. And then she’d lift her finger and make a “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” sound like a tommy gun. Later, when she walked with a cane, she would lift the cane as a prop and make that sound. And then we’d all laugh, but no one harder or louder than Mrs. B.

Like any self-respecting Italian, food was a priority in the Bressler household.

I remember the first time I visited Nick and Joe in Steubenville and sat down for a meal at Mrs. B’s table. No one had warned me that the chicken she served was only the first course – and not the entire meal.

I know, I know. Rookie mistake.

I spent the rest of the meal trying to eat a respectable portion of all the courses without insulting her – or exploding. It was delicious. But it wasn’t easy.

When I moved to Steubenville in 1998 to work with Nick and Joe, I realized that Mrs. B was just as much a part of their company as they were. She was at every birthday gathering, office Christmas party and event. She sent food over weekly. She would have sent it daily if Nick and Joe had let her. I can still picture Nick or Joe with her big black purse slung over their shoulder, carefully guiding her up the steps to the office so she could regale us with her stories.

Once she learned my cell phone number, that was it. She’d call me several times a week. I’d answer the phone and hear, “Janie!” and I knew Mrs. B was on the other end of the line. “Come pick me up tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock,” she’d say. “I take you to breakfast.”

I soon learned the reasons behind these breakfasts were two-fold: 1) she needed a ride to work, and 2) she was on a fact-finding mission to get the scoop on her boys’ companies. She figured I was a soft touch and would spill the beans.

Usually I was able to divert her attention by asking to see some of her old photographs. Her eyes would light up and her hands would dig into that big black purse – and out would come a baggie filled with black and white photographs of days gone by. Photos of her as a young war bride. Photos of her in a bathing suit on the beach with her legs playfully crossed in a movie star pose. Pictures of her boys when they were little.

And always she had another story to share.

After I moved back to Columbus, Mrs. B frequently called me from her cell phone. It didn’t matter if I were in a meeting or in the middle of an eye exam. If I answered the phone, Mrs. B had license to talk. 

So she’d talk. And talk. Annnnd…talk. But once she was finished, she’d suddenly say, “Janie – I love you. You family.” And – boom! – she’d disconnect the call.

Sometimes she’d jokingly add, “You pick me up tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock? I take you to breakfast.” And then she’d laugh because she knew I wasn’t going to be able to drive from Columbus to Steubenville the next morning by 9 o’clock just to go to breakfast.

It was only in the last year or two that her calls became more infrequent. And then she stopped calling me altogether. And, oh, how I miss those telephone calls.

Seven years ago I first introduced Vince to my OSU friends for a milestone birthday party in Cleveland. He had to go through a rigorous screening process. And the toughest person on the jury was Mrs. B.

But before the weekend was over, she was calling him “Vincey” (a name even I don’t get to call him, by the way!), and he was given the Mrs. B Stamp of Approval.

It was an honor, then, a year later when she attended our wedding. I have many wonderful memories of that day, of course, but one of the best was when – at the urging of Mrs. B – our DJ played, Let Me Call You Sweetheart as the last song of the evening and we all gathered together to sing. The blurry phone camera photos we have of that moment are – to me – priceless. And Mrs. B, of course, was front and center in them all.

The last time I visited Mrs. B was in August with Nick, Beth and their girls. Nick played the piano and sang. Mrs. B looked at me, nodded at Nick and murmured, “beautiful.”

And whenever she spoke of – or looked at – her grandchildren, she’d smile and again mouth the word, “beautiful.”
Beyond the obvious, I think I knew what she meant. She meant that she’d raised three wonderful boys. They grew up, married and raised (and are still raising) beautiful families of their own. She was so very proud of them all.

The fact that they are the kindest, funniest, best friends I’ve ever known is testament to the fact that I think she did a beautiful job, too.

Mrs. B’s dressy occasion outfit was a pair of blue slacks, blue vest or jacket and a white ruffled blouse. Sometimes the blue would be replaced by black, but the white ruffled blouse was a constant. 
Now, whenever I see a white ruffled blouse – whether it’s on a model or on a grandmother – I think of Mrs. B. And whenever I see someone walking with a cane, irreverent as it is, I picture the user holding it up like a tommy gun and saying, “Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!”

And it makes me smile.

None of us lives forever. We all know that. But it’s still hard to say goodbye.

Mrs. B used to say, “I’m 90-and change” – so she lived a full, long, beautiful life. But she is going to miss her oldest granddaughter’s upcoming wedding. And she’s going to miss the birth of her newest grandchild. Life will go on without her. But she will always, always remain close in our hearts.

I love you, Mrs. B. You family. And I wish I could pick you up tomorrow at 9 o’clock. I would take you to breakfast.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Twinks and Jinx: True Creatures of Habit

I don’t think my cats, Twinks and Jinx, are markedly different than most other cats. They’re not purebred felines. They don’t possess any skills worthy of YouTube. And while I think they are adorable, their little faces aren’t expressive enough to become the next Big Thing à la the Grumpy Cat.

But they amuse me, nonetheless.

They have habits that are now absolute rules in the house. Like, for instance, I cannot get up first thing in the morning and stumble over to the Keurig to brew myself some eye-opening coffee. 

Instead, replenishing their food bowls is the first order of business. They act as if they haven't eaten for days - even if there is still food in their bowls. And God forbid  
there is a little circle of emptiness in the middle of the bowl. They will meow as if I’m purposely starving them.

The next thing I have to do is refill their water bowls with fresh water. They will saunter over to it, look at it and then look up at me with an almost disdainful look as if to say, "Hey, lady, what's with the day-old water, here? We need fresh water. Immediately! And don't give us any of that tap stuff, either!"
Once that task has been fulfilled, then – and only then – am I allowed to make myself a cup of coffee.

For the past year or so, I have been carrying my coffee to the living room where I sit on the loveseat and contemplate life. Well, mostly I contemplate the inside of my eyelids and wonder when the caffeine will finally hit my bloodstream. But this habit helps me become a little more civilized and ready for the day. Clearly, the Grumpy Cat and I have much in common first thing in the morning.

Eventually, Vince gets up, brews his own cup of coffee, and joins me for a few moments of quiet before we begin our day.

That is, until Twinks decided that having captive humans available to give her some kitty love was a great idea. She will leap up on the back of the couch and bonk her furry little head against Vince’s to let him know that the kitty petting is about to commence.

Then she climbs down to the arm of the loveseat and waits. Sure enough, Vince starts petting her and she starts purring. This only stops when either (a) Vince tries to move her to the seat of the couch in order to have easier access, which she doesn’t like because it wasn’t her idea or (b) she has had enough kitty attention and jumps down to the floor to give herself a bath.

I can’t decide if I’ve trained our cats – or our cats have trained me. I suspect the latter. Case in point: when we moved into our new house, I brought the treats canister and a bag of treats down to our lower level where the TV is. One night, after we turned off the news and before we headed upstairs to bed, I gave them a handful of treats.

It wasn’t long before they expected this habit to continue. And by “wasn’t long before,” I mean immediately. And by “expected,” I mean demanded.

Since then, the absolute second the television goes silent, they are on high alert meowing and squeaking to let me know it’s time for their treats. It doesn’t matter if we’re fast forwarding through the commercials or simply muting the television, whenever they hear silence, Twinks and Jinx will move to their assigned “spots” to await their treats.

The other day, the cats were on the floor taking their scheduled 6 p.m. kitty siesta and I was watching a program on TV. I accidentally hit the power button on the remote, which of course immediately silenced the TV. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cats snap awake. They swiveled their little heads to look at the TV and then – in unison, no less – swiveled back to look at me. And then they moved to their spots. Twinks meowed and Jinx squeaked to let me know it was Treat Time. It was like a well-choreographed routine.

I couldn’t help it – I started to laugh.

And, believe, me, I wanted to give them some treats for that stellar performance, but I resisted. Why?

Because I really don’t want to start the 6 p.m. Treat Time habit. This is partly because our Treats budget would go up exponentially.

But mostly it’s because I think they’ve got me trained enough already.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Right Star. Wrong Flick.

Last night Vince and I went to see a Kevin Costner film. We both thought it was the one where he is a teacher and coach in a small southern California town who forms a cross-country team of predominantly Latino students. These kids run really, really fast and end up winning lots of competitions. We had previously seen the preview and thought it might be a good movie.

Instead, we saw Kevin Costner as a grandfather of an adorable biracial little girl who is being raised by Costner’s character and his wife. The wife dies unexpectedly, though it’s not terribly sad as it happens at the beginning and we never actually meet her.  But the rest of the film involves a custody battle with the other grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer.

Yeah, this was the wrong flick.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Black or White. It had a good message and I think it was well done.  I even shed a tear or two at the end (proof in Jane’s Domain that it was a good movie).

It’s just that when you go to the theater, you sort of have an idea of what you’re going to see, don’t you? You gear up for an action film or a science fiction flick or a romantic comedy. And if it’s one of those weepy chick flick movies, you come prepared with a fistful of extra Kleenex.

Well, we walked in expecting to see a feel-good movie about a group of kids who become track stars. 

And for the first fifteen minutes or so, I waited for Kevin Costner to make a big change in his life after the death of his wife and move to a new town where he starts coaching.  Figured he’d just bring his little granddaughter along, although she was a surprise as I didn’t remember her in the preview.

Uh. Never happened.

At about the 20 minute mark, I had to readjust my thinking and settle in for an entirely different movie. This was not easy to do. Especially since I sensed Vince’s frustration as he is not a big fan of stories about custody battles.

So I learned my lesson. I had done so much research on the best theaters (the closest ones with the comfy recliners) and the best start times (which would allow us enough time for dinner beforehand, but not so much time that we’d get home late and have to immediately go to sleep), that I forgot to actually read the synopsis of the movie. Nor did I apparently pay much attention to the title of the film, as that is sort of a hint.

Yeah, apparently my research ended with the photo of Kevin Costner as the star.  But, c’mon. Who knew the man is still such a big star that he has two movies coming out in the first quarter of 2015?

Guess I shouldn’t make such assumptions, eh?  Vince would prefer it, I’m sure.
On the other hand, at least I didn't inadvertently drag Vince to a weepy chick flick. He would’ve walked out in protest and watched American Sniper for the second time.

Besides, I had no extra Kleenex for the weepy chick flick.

So, anyway. If you’re up for a movie in the next few days and you’re a fan of either Kevin Costner or Octavia Spencer, go see Black or White. I think you’ll like it.  But just know that there is no running in the movie.

Oh, and if you want to see a movie about cross country track stars? That one is called McFarland, USA – but it doesn’t open until February 20th.

You’re welcome.