Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Painting Furniture

The coffee table will be painted Sapphire Blue. Chris will also put a coat of Lime Ricky Green on the kitchen table. Although their manufacturer, Sherwin-Williams, calls these colors Number 6963 and 6717, I prefer their more fanciful descriptions.

I need all of the "fanciful" I can get. Once my house is sold, these two pieces of furniture, which will be jazzed up to disguise their scuff marks and worn spots, will accompany me to my eventual apartment. I figure the bright palette will add a bit of fun to smaller rooms.

Like judges in some weird beauty contest, my friend Karen, the interior designer, and Chris, the decorative painter, have joined me at my three-bedroom house to decide which pieces will fit in a very down-sized space.

When I move out, and bring with the Sapphire Blue and Lime Ricky Green tables, the furniture I'm leaving behind will be part of a modest estate sale. Because I will gain some needed income, and buyers seeking bargains will benefit, the ache I’m feeling during the furniture competition is lessened.

As we tour, I wonder, do the pieces not making the cut feel wounded, like the two Room & Board living room couches that face each other? "Humph," I imagine them saying, "the measly coffee table she takes, but us she leaves behind."

To soothe the duo, who I picture with their upholstered arms crossed in defiance, I send a silent message: "Listen, dears, Tommy and I absolutely loved you. But, you're too big, you'd overwhelm the room. Even just one of you -- and you know I could never split you up -- wouldn't fit."

I feel better when the Secretary Desk is among the finalists. Not my style, but brought with by my husband 16 years ago when he moved in with me. "Nice, honey," I recall myself saying. As I ran my hands over the embossed design on the desk's front, I thought, "Where can I put this? It doesn't match anything else in the house."

The quaint desk did win a spot in our guest bedroom, and that is where I once tucked myself away to write. I imitated a Victorian novelist, and lowered the desk's panel to reveal tiny cubby holes and shelves that I filled with lined yellow pads, a variety of pens and pencils, books on “How to Write,” and draft after draft of heartfelt attempts.

"No paint," our trio of judges conclude as we eye the Secretary Desk. "It looks nice as is." It will go in my new bedroom next to a window, and I will use the fold-down desk to hold a MacBook Air.

Alas, the various pieces of country-style furniture Tommy and I bought for our one-year experiment in Geneva, IL., will remain for the house sale. Did we really believe that the lovely home on one acre in picturesque Fox Valley would suit a couple who had lived their entire lives in the city? Perhaps my husband, a gardener who immediately started planting, believed that. As for me, I discovered I could convince myself of anything, for a time.

Oh, if our furniture could tattle! The dining room table, with its one leaf extension, would tell of the evening my daughters Faith and Jill and their families, my ex-husband, and various friends and relatives, joined us for a Passover dinner.

Tragically, three of those at the table have since died. Surprisingly, two partners have been exchanged for new ones. And shockingly, one member has undergone a complete transformation. We knew none of that back then as we sat at the stretched-out table, laughing as the youngest guests performed in a Passover play. Would the table remember this rare, beautiful moment when my entire family was all in one place? Will it forgive me for not bringing it along?

One box spring and mattress, of three sets, will make the cut. Likely not the one Tommy and I slept in as it is deepened on his side, and indented on mine. Our Crate & Barrel dresser and one smaller bureau -- both in their original wood finish -- will move to the apartment.

The chest of drawers on my husband's side, which still holds his exercise clothing, practice golf balls, broken alarm clock, and other items with his imprint, will be sold. First, though, I will remove all, and pack into a special box that will go with me. Perhaps Chris will paint it. Sherwin-Williams, Number 6911, also known as Confident Yellow, sounds about right.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


"You go here, and you go here." I am talking to my laundry.

At my feet are two baskets. As I draw clothing from the laundry chute, where it has landed after being tossed down from the second floor, I alert my blue jeans they are being dropped into "colors" and Tommy's undershirts -- that I have taken as my own -- are learning they are joining "whites."

Four month's after my husband's death, I find myself talking out loud. Not only in the privacy of my house where there's no one around to declare me loony, but also on the street. Listen to this recent conversation: "Good girl! That was clever to keep the drugstore receipt so you could exchange the blue nail polish that was crap."

Fortunately, passersby assumed I had a Bluetooth stuck in my ear, and there was someone else on the other side of the wireless. Naw, it was just me, enjoying the sound of my voice.

There are several reasons I've become a chatterbox in my rookie widow state: First, because I work out of my home, and there is no longer a dog or husband to benefit from my cooing, instructions, or revelations, I could possibly go an entire day without speaking. I doubt that’s good for my vocal cords or mental health.

When Tommy was alive, I was a big talker. He suffered from Primary Progressive Aphasia, and over the course of three years, went from having trouble finding words to being unable to speak at all. We communicated through post-it notes he wrote for me, thumbs up -- his gesture for everything's okay, thumbs down -- for the opposite, or simulations of the parlor game Charade.

If I couldn't figure out what he was trying to tell me, I'd do my shtick: "Are you asking me a question? Are you telling me something? Does it have to do with a television show? A woman? A man?" and so on.  Sometimes, our back-and-forth would take quite a bit of time. But, I refused to give up until I'd get the correct answer. And when I did, I'd give my spouse a happy kiss. Perhaps it should've been Tommy bussing me, but I always believed he deserved the reward because of his spirited efforts.

Even though my husband couldn't hold a conversation, that didn't stop me from talking to him. He could understand everything I said, and had no problem with memory, so I made sure to keep him in the loop of my daily trivialities.

"You'd never believe what happened today," I might say. And then, I'd relate some stupid story that was likely boring, but he was game to behave as if it was absorbing. If the tale made me a winner, Tommy would smile and give me a thumbs up. But, if it was my folly I was confessing, he’d shake his head and return to the T.V. Either reaction satisfied me.

After he died, there was no need to keep up the chatter since he wasn't around to hear it. So, I kept quiet. And eventually, the absence of voice overwhelmed the house. It sunk into the curtains, was absorbed in the carpet, leeched onto the walls.

That's when I started talking. Not only to myself, but to inanimate objects. "Good morning, Herman," I'll say to the stone hippo Tommy bought at a crafts show. It's a heavy and odd piece of art, but my husband liked it. It sits on a bathroom sill and gets a stroke on its smooth surface along with my words.

Not only objects de art are privy to my babble, but the early-mentioned laundry, a teapot, my iMac, various stuffed animals, bouquets of flowers, and I have been known to thank a jug of milk for not spoiling on its sell-date. There’s also the well-known questions you may share, but may not utter aloud: “Why did I walk into the kitchen? What did I intend to do here?”

Of course, I talk to Tommy often. I figure he's still interested in my minutia, so his framed photo on my bedside table gets an earful. "You'll never believe what I did today, honey," I’ll say. Behind the glass, he is permanently smiling. Two thumbs up, I imagine. Good enough for me.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Carless in Chicago

I am in a window seat on the CTA Red Line that is traveling towards Howard. When I reach that stop, I will transfer to the Purple Line that will take me to Main. From there, I will walk about six short blocks to my friend Ruth's house.

As I look out the window at the high rise buildings and landscapes skimming by, I contemplate my new role as someone without a car. I do not feel deprived. In fact, I am enjoying a new sense of calm, relief.

Being carless is a fresh experience for me, for I have been a licensed driver since the age of 16. With learner's permit in hand, my dad took me for my first lesson. I don't remember the exact details, but I can easily see me in the driver's seat of his Buick, propped up on at least two cushions to have a view over the steering wheel. My dad, Irving, is in the passenger's seat. A Camel he is smoking is dropping ashes on his shirt, but he is unperturbed. He brushes them to the car's floor with his left hand, while his right maintains steady drags on the cigarette.

"You're going too slow!" he is shouting at me. I am cautious, because Dad was the opposite. I had no intention of emulating his speed, or his habit of weaving in and out of cars like a NASCAR competitor.

We both survived those early lessons, and I emerged with his perfect method for parallel parking. It is a skill I taught my daughters, my recently deceased husband, and my grandson.

I'm enjoying this musing as an El train passenger. "It's my meditation," I had told my daughter after the first of my carless trips. She worries about my anxiety level, certain it will topple me one day.  "I study the view, the people entering and exiting. I eavesdrop on conversations. I can feel my blood pressure dropping."

"Okay," she says, mollified for the moment. My child is worried that I gave up my Honda Fit hastily.

"Couldn't you have held onto it until you moved downtown?" she had asked. "Why now, when you're still in your house?"

I knew my explanation would just reinforce her picture of me sizzling like someone receiving electroshock therapy. But, I gave it a shot: "I had an entire year left on my car lease,” I said. “If I couldn't return it to a dealer, I'd owe $3,000. The only way to get a manager to accept it was to be sure it was in perfect condition."

I revealed how my rides in the Fit had turned into episodes of angst. I was terrified backing out of supermarket lots, certain I would ding a fender. I was convinced my bumper would become a victim at a yellow light when I’ve stopped and the cabbie behind me doesn't.

"Okay, I understand that," she said. "But, what about grocery shopping? I don't see you shlepping paper bags on the bus."

"Peapod home delivery!" I said. "They shop at Mariano's, the produce and groceries are terrific, they carry the Intelligentsia coffee I love, and they even have the Alstroemeria flowers I've been using to perk up the house for showings."

"Sounds like you've got it covered, Mom."  

"Just think of it," I went on. "I'm reducing my expenses, getting exercise by walking stairs to the platform, and protecting the environment." As I recited these benefits, I was heroic, altruistic, deserving of a medal.

“Good for you, Mom,” she said.

My reflection of this mother-daughter conversation was coming to an end as I alighted from the Purple Line at my Evanston stop and walked to Ruth’s house.

“You made it,” my friend said as she stood at her open door. She led me in and waited as I unzipped my boots and removed each layer of my wardrobe.

“No problem.” I said, dropping into the nearest arm chair. “Water, please.”

Ruth looked at me, and from her seat on a facing couch, said, “Marshall will drive you home later.”

Although I’m certain I would’ve rallied and successfully tip-toed the treacherous icy blocks to the Purple Line stop. And, heavily layered, I could have handled waiting on the windy platform for the Red Line. Knowing me, after carefully descending the slippery steps at Sheridan, I would’ve been fine sharing seats or aisles with bulky-coated rush hour passengers. But, I didn’t want to be rude.

“If you insist,” I said.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Un-couching The Potato

After I hit the "Submit" button, I felt as proud as if I had just earned a degree. My accomplishment certainly can’t compare to matriculating, but for me, promising -- via a paid-for ticket -- to go out to an evening event, was nearly as daunting.

It all started with a demand from one of my longtime friends. "Now that Tommy is gone,” she said, “you've got to get off your couch and go out in the evenings." She is a persuasive woman, someone who easily wins any debate.

She pressed on, "I remember you used to love going to plays."

"I have to go to bed at eight so I can get up at four and start my work,” I said. I assumed she’d applaud my entrepreneurial spirit, but instead she countered:

"That's nuts."  I have heard that diagnosis from many others.

I once could use my husband as an excuse for staying in. There was a time when he and I were frequent theatre-goers, and there were many evenings when we joined friends for dinner. But as his brain degeneration worsened, and his aphasia left him unable to speak one word, we discarded those pastimes.

"It just wasn't fun anymore," I told her. She’s a very empathetic person, so I thought this tack might get her to go easy on me. "Tommy couldn't join in on conversations at a restaurant,” I continued, “and at the theatre, I'd worry if he went to the men's room on his own. He refused to let me stand outside the door, but I was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back to our seats."

My poignant story did slow her down, but it was temporary. "So, now?" she asked.

"I love T.V.," I admitted. "For me, a perfect evening is bringing a dinner tray to the couch and watching one of the shows I taped the night before." I felt my heart lighten as I conjured the scene. Bliss for me; evidently a horror story for my friend, who was wrinkling her nose as if my laptop meal had gone sour.

"That's awful," she said.

I ignored her disdain and for a moment, continued my meditation. Except for the dinner tray, that was how my husband and I spent our evenings. We stretched out on couches that faced each other. But instead of chatting across the coffee table, our focus was on a procedural drama, such as the entire "Law and Order" franchise that was playing out on the screen.

Amazingly, for two people so different from each other, we enjoyed the very same television shows and routine. There were no disputes coming from our dual couches; it was simply a scroll through "My Recordings" to decide on the one we'd watch for the evening.

"That's why our marriage has lasted as long as it has," I often told friends. We were nearing our 15-year anniversary, which I considered a record for the second-time around and for such a mismatched pair. I'd further explain: "Tommy's Gentile; I'm Jewish. He has no kids; I've got two and grandchildren. I have a master's degree; Tommy never went to college. He lived on a budget; I was married to a doctor. But, we both love staying home and watching the same television programs."

In fact, our passion for our couch potato lifestyle was so strong that we came to begrudge invitations for evenings out. "We're hosting Passover dinner," another very longtime friend had said, "but I know you don't want to come." Sweetly, the invitations continued despite her anticipating my response.

But now, with Tommy gone, without my head wrapped around his caregiving, my nights on the couch are starting to fray. I'm getting lonely. I admit that evenings out to theatre, to dinner, to the event I just ordered tickets for, are becoming more appealing.

I'm even managing my dislike for nighttime driving by using taxicabs. And, I'm adjusting to getting gussied up as the sky darkens. To prevent head- and eye-droops as the evening wears on, I take catnaps. Slowly, one event at a time, one limb at a time, I’m peeling this small and stubborn body off the couch.