Thursday, June 27, 2013

No Room in the Closet

My guest room in my own house doesn't really belong to me. 

My niece Devon considers it her room. When she spends the night at my house, that's where she stays. 

She tells me she would like pictures of dogs hung on the walls so she can see them from her bed. 

She requests that I have her Paris glass filled with water on the table beside her bed in case she needs a drink in the middle of the night. 

She rearranges all the pillows in the room so her favorite with the vintage cat and dog is front and center on the rocker. 

And most of all, she does not like me to use my own guest closet for storage of any kind. 

I was downstairs when I heard her yelling and ran to see what the commotion was all about. "WHAT is this big suitcase doing in MY closet?" 

She was trying to move it, but it was too bulky for her to budge. She said there wasn’t enough room for her to unpack all of her stuffed dogs (about 27 of them that she brought over in two shopping bags) because I had put a suitcase in HER closet. 

During the school year, Devon made a poster about herself to share with her class. 

She said her favorite place was her aunt's house. 

When I asked her why, she said it's because she has her own room (although she has her own room at home), she has her own TV in her room, and she can eat chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. 

I suspect it’s mostly about the pancakes, though. 

I always had my own room growing up. My sister and I never had to share. 

I liked it that way. My room was my haven. 

My mother could never send me to my room as a punishment since that was where I liked to spend most of my time. 

I had shelves full of books and a radio tuned to every Pirates baseball game or sports talk show in Pittsburgh. 

But my sister always wanted to share a room with me. When she was little, she would sneak into my room during the night with her pillow and blanket and sleep on the floor next to my bed just to be with me. 

In the morning I would practically fall over her and complain to my mother that she was invading my privacy. My mother would tell me I wasn't being a very kind older sister. 

I still love having my own room. 

All to myself. And it's awfully nice. 

One of the perks of being single is not having to share. And that includes the closets. 

No clunky athletic shoes compete for space among my strappy high heels. 

The shelves hold a collection of purses for every season. 

The clothes I leave in disarray on the closet floor are all mine. 

I have stacks of books on the table beside my bed and another stack on the floor under the table. 

My room is all shades of dreamy pink, creamy vanilla and shimmery gold. 

Pictures of roses and silhouettes of vintage girls adorn my walls. 

The longer I live, the harder it is to imagine sharing any of my space. Especially any of my closet space. 

Unless I'm forced to by Devon. 

I cleared half of the closet so she has room for her stuffed animals and the doll-sized table and chairs they sit at. 

Until I can find some dog pictures, she'll have to look at pictures of vintage paper dolls and ballerinas on the walls. Her books are stacked on the table. 

There's Angelina Ballerina, Angelina Ice Skates, Little House books for young readers and a book about a dog who visits Paris. In the closet are the Nancy Drew books I read as a child. 

She knows they'll be hers as soon as she's old enough to read them. 

And since they practically belong to her, those are the only things of mine that she allows me to store in my guest room closet. 

Or maybe it's her closet. 

Depends on who you ask. 

Me or Devon. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

When Adventure Comes Calling

Adventure doesn't often call my name. 

Or if it does, maybe I don't listen. 

I can't imagine the courage it took to embark on an adventure to a new life in a new country, as all of my ancestors did. 

I wonder if I would have stayed behind in the familiar old country instead of stepping on that ship. 

I prefer reading about adventure rather than experiencing it. 

As a child, I loved reading about the adventures of the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, but I never really wanted to travel to a far-away land to find adventure of my own. 

Adventure is for people who are quick to think on their feet. Change course on a dime. Switch to plan B. 

Not me. I like to carefully follow plan A. I love it when the details unfold according to the original plan. 

It could be that I’m missing out on a lot. 

It’s very possible that I’m a borderline stick-in-the-mud. 

But I tend to think I’m playing it safe. 

Adventurous people end up in a lot of unexpected situations. Jams. Scrapes. Predicaments. 

I prefer to keep those to a minimum.

My friend Amanda was in town last week and she welcomes adventure with open arms. She is the most unconventional person I know. 

We’ve been friends for more than 20 years. She’s never in one place for very long. 

When adventure calls her name again, she’s off to experience the next great unknown. She travels the globe and has lived in more places than I can count. 

A few months ago she asked me to go with her to shop for an RV so she could hit the road and head out west. 

I’ve never been camping in my life. I’m not even sure I’ve been inside of an RV. I told her I couldn’t imagine how I could help her choose an RV. 

She said I had style that could lend itself to the world of recreational vehicles. I told her I’d rather stick a pen in my eye or pull out all of my eyelashes than go shopping for an RV. 

Besides I was a little afraid I’d be held partially responsible for the choice if she decided that she no longer wanted to see the world aboard a mammoth rolling vehicle. 

So she went without me and purchased what she affectionately calls “Big Mama.” She admits life with Big Mama was rough at first. There was a learning curve to driving it, fueling it, and repairing it. 

She had to learn how to clear out her own sewage lines and how to park it. She tows a tiny car behind it so she can drive around without Big Mama when she arrives at her destination.

Through the years, she has dragged me reluctantly along on her adventures. Early in our friendship, she thought it would be funny to tell people my name was Ella. She thought it was hysterical introducing me as Ella and since I didn't think it was so hilarious, she thought it was even funnier. 

For the past 20 years, she has left me voice mails yelled at the loudest possible decibel that say, “HELLO  E--L--L--A!” 

I always know it’s her and actually, I kind of like having an alternate identity. 

I've been her guest at a swanky party her dad hosted, where we bunked in her dad’s guesthouse. 

I’ve helped her DIY a cottage she rented, painting and laying new tiles on the kitchen floor. 

I’ve sat in the audience of an arena show she directed, as she handled sports stars and thousands of kids who wanted to see them. 

I've helped her friends throw a 30th birthday party for her at a NASCAR-themed restaurant, sped over the Orlando lakes in her ski boat, and ridden in her red sports car, slouched down in the seat, while she zipped along in the emergency lane on the interstate just because she didn’t want to wait in miles-long rush hour traffic. 

She has been telling me for years now that I’m missing all the fun on Facebook. She posts updates on her travels, her cats and Big Mama. 

Finally I caved. 

She was the first person I sent a friend request to and I received a response a few seconds after I sent it. 

“STOP THE PRESSES! I almost drove Big Mama off the road!” 

I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not responsible for the crashing of the recreational vehicle, but it was certainly nice to receive such a robust welcome to Facebook. 

Now that I am following her adventures on Facebook, just this weekend her escapades included catching a shark while she was fishing in the waters of South Florida. 

My life is off-the-chart boring compared to hers. But most of the time, it's all the adventure I can take. 

Besides she says she’s coming back to town soon with Big Mama. So I can spend a weekend RV-ing with her. 

Maybe I’ll be busy reading a book. 

Or cleaning my house. 

Or organizing my pantry. 

It's possible I may need to be elsewhere when Big Mama rolls into my neighborhood. 

But then, why would I want to miss out on the next great adventure? 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Founding Fathers

I come from a family of scissor-makers and laborers. 

At least that's what they told the census takers down through the years. It could have been that my forefathers were tool-sharpeners, painters or storekeepers, because those occupations are listed, too. 

My mother has been doing some research on our family on by combing through census reports and ship registries. It's strange to see their familiar names handwritten on a census. I feel like I have a rare glimpse of what their lives were like at that moment in time, just by reading the names of those living at the same address, their birth dates and occupations. 

My dad's grandfather sailed from Italy to New York in the late 1880s. Making it even more difficult to put a coherent family tree together is that in every census report, family members gave variant spellings of our name. 

There's Cisco, Sisco, Sisko, and Cisko.

Alexander Hamilton's home, the Grange, in New York City.
When I was in New York last month, two of my must-see places were the home of Alexander Hamilton in Harlem and his grave in Trinity Church on Wall Street. 

The lives of our country's founding fathers are fascinating to me, especially Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury under George Washington. The long subway ride to Harlem brought me to his home, the Grange, in the midst of modern apartment buildings in a busy neighborhood. 

I walked through his beautiful house thinking about the brilliant conversations that must have taken place there. 

I stood beside Hamilton’s grave in the historic cemetery of Trinity Church, now shadowed and surrounded by skyscrapers. 

Inside the church I studied George Washington's pew and imagined what church services must have been like throughout the years. 

Later that day as I strolled through Little Italy, I felt like I was among my own founding fathers -- my fellow Italians. 

I kind of liked how the smooth, suave restaurant hosts stood out on the street, exuberantly beckoning me to come in. Eat! Drink! Even if they call every woman beautiful as she walks by, they know how to make a girl feel good. 

The Italians approach life and food and family with such passion. My father is one hundred percent Italian. My grandparents grew up in a tight-knit Italian community in Pittsburgh. 

My dad and his sisters were the first generation of his family to grow up not speaking Italian. But so much of my dad's history is missing since his mother died so young. 

When I ask him questions about the family, he offers some details he heard his aunts talk about, but there's so much he doesn't know.

A rare photo of my dad as a child with his cousin, listening to his aunts talk.
He said that his aunts always switched to Italian when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. Just as the conversation got interesting, they started speaking Italian. 

His aunts were lively, gossipy, and shrewd until their very last days. As a young child at a few family gatherings, I remember hearing his aunts talk nonstop about people for hours. And you always knew when they didn’t like someone. 

They'd talk about poor so-and-so, she made a mess of her life, she was crazy, but God love her! That last phrase meant they sure couldn't stand her but God must. 

I tried to call his only living aunt a few years before she died and ask her about my grandmother. Still sharp well into her 90s, she told me, “Honey, I can’t remember all those details that happened so long ago and besides I have to go now. Someone’s knocking at my door to have tea with me.” 

I felt sure no one was at her door to have tea at that hour in the evening. I knew she just didn’t feel like talking and wanted to get off the phone.
The streets of Little Italy in New York City.
I want to know more about the stories of my own family’s founders. I'm sure there must be some part of my little-known grandmother in me, too. But I wonder what it is. 

Since I tend to make snap judgments and have strong opinions, maybe it's pretty obvious how I'm like her. But my dad's aunts were also generous, interesting, and willing to share their passion for food and family with those around them. 

I imagine there's much more to know about them. Armed with some details from, I have the names of a few distant cousins that might be able to add to my family's story. 

I'm pretty sure I won't find any of our country's founding fathers among my ancestors, but I'm going to keep hoping to uncover a distant relative's story that can add another page to our family's narrative. 

Especially if they had a penchant for sharpening tools. That's how I'll know they're part of my story, too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What it Takes to Make a Favorite

My favorite places include sunny beaches, sparkling blue water, and moonlit palm trees. 

My favorite desserts are glorious-looking, sumptuous pastries of creamy goodness. 

My list of favorite people changes from time to time. 

But sometimes that list can be kind of short. I tend to let the quirks and traits of people become annoyances and irritants. And soon that’s all I can think of. 

Over Memorial Day weekend, as I walked to the beach with my six-year-old niece Devon, she looked around at her grandparents, aunt, brother and parents and said, “I’m s-o-o-o lucky that all of my favorite people are here.”

I would like to aspire (my one word for 2013) to that frame of mind. And I could start with my neighbors. 

Since I live in a townhome, I share walls with my neighbors. Including the wall to my outdoor courtyard. 

Where I like to sit in the morning and drink my coffee. 

Where I like to sit in the evening and read. 

So I wasn’t very happy when my neighbor put up a trampoline on her courtyard. 

It soared over the dividing walls, blocking my view of the sky and made great clanking noises when the wind blew hard. I didn’t like it when the neighbor kids jumped on the trampoline, peering over at me sitting out on my courtyard as they scaled the wall in mid-jump. 

The kids threw a basketball onto my screen that stuck itself firmly in the middle where I was unable to remove it. When I asked my neighbor to retrieve her child’s ball, she was defensive and unfriendly. 

My neighbors two doors down have the messiest garage I’ve ever seen. Since it’s packed full, they are always standing outside of their garage peering at whoever drives or walks by. 

So since I wasn’t crazy about my neighbors, I decided to do something about it. 

I baked.

During the Christmas holidays, I put together little boxes of cookies and tiny gooey butter cakes, signed a card with my name (since I wasn’t even sure I knew their names) and delivered them to my neighbors. 

The neighbor with the trampoline seemed skeptical as I handed her the box and wished her happy holidays. 

The neighbor with the messy garage seemed overwhelmed as she introduced me to her four children. 

Now, she cheerily waves good morning to me and greets me by name as she walks the baby in the morning. My neighbors now make a point to chat with me. 

And they don’t bother me nearly as much as they once did. I discovered doing something for them actually did something for me. 

They didn’t change. But I did. 

One of my favorite movies is the 1940s musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” In one scene, the youngest daughter in the family, who is about five or six years old, is riding on the ice wagon and turns to the driver and says breathlessly, “St. Louis is my favorite city.” 

She reflects for a moment then says, “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?”

Maybe making a favorite is more about a person, place or thing I prefer. 

Maybe it's about making a connection with empathy, kindness and understanding. 

Waiting to hear the whispers of God to my heart instead of listening to my own inner voice that grumbles and grouches without much thought. 

And I realize it takes more to make a favorite than what I am naturally fond of. It’s more about my outlook and a willingness to reach out, open up, and enlarge the circle. 

With my arms, mind, and heart. 

And I discover that what I’m not too crazy about at first slowly, gradually becomes a favorite.

My neighbor with the trampoline moved out last weekend. And it took me two days to notice that the trampoline was gone. I will have a fresh chance to act on the whispers to my soul when my new neighbors move in. And the sooner I can do it, the sooner they will become a favorite.