Sunday, December 16, 2012

Victorian Christmas

Every year or so during the Christmas season, I try to return to the small town of Mt. Tabor in northern New Jersey where I grew up.  Not only does it bring back memories from my childhood, but the town itself hasn't changed much since the Victorian era, so it’s like walking into a Victorian Christmas.
Mt. Tabor, NJ

Mt. Tabor was founded in 1869 by the Methodist church as one of two camp meeting grounds in New Jersey for outdoor summer religious retreats.  The Methodist faithful would pitch tents and camp out in either Mt. Tabor or Ocean Grove for the month of August to study the Bible, attend revival meetings, and hear sermons and religious lectures.  In time, the revelers built cottages on the 16’ x 25' tent lots and Mt. Tabor soon became a summer resort.  Eventually the cottages were winterized, which led to a year-round community.  Many of the original cottages still exist today.  Homes in the old section of town are covered with Victorian filigree, trim and railings and many are still painted with bold complementary colors true to the Victorian era.

Mt. Tabor is still a hilltop community of about 1,000 people with beautiful wooded streets, 15 MPH speed limits, its own nine-hole golf course—the former farm of Stephan Dickerson, who sold the property to the Methodists in 1869 and whose descendants still live in town—basketball courts, a playground, a baseball diamond and Mt. Tabor School, to which I walked across town as a child, as do the children today.  It was a special place, and still is.

But for most of us, the Christmas season was the most special.  Christmas decorations were a tradition in town; not the Santa Claus and reindeer variety, but white and multi-colored lights adorning the angular peaks, gingerbread and railings of the Victorian homes.  There was no rulebook that said you had to participate, but almost every household did its part to decorate the town.

In our family, trimming the outside of the house was as much an annual ritual as decorating the Christmas tree.  We’d march up to the attic and bring down all the lights, then crawl under the porch to drag out the ladder.  Dad would direct us to our stations, then climb the ladder and my three brothers and I would feed the strings of lights along like a bucket brigade, Paul, the youngest behind me, Jon ahead of me, and Mark, the oldest, a "big kid" with his feet two rungs up on the ladder.  By the time we got back inside hours later, the house was warm from the fire and Mom had Andy Williams, Burl Ives and Tony Bennett singing Christmas songs on the record player.  The house smelled like fireplace smoke, pine from the Christmas tree, and cinnamon and cloves from the hot mulled cider Mom had ready for us.  After a snack and Christmas cookies with the hot cider, we'd tackle decorating the Christmas tree.

I'm sure it didn't snow for some Christmases, although my memory is a blank for those, as I always remember walking around town on snow-covered streets with my family to take in the lights, and to participate in groups of Christmas carolers performing for the neighbors.  It had an aura of something from Charles Dickens’ era: the crunch of snow underfoot, Oh Come All Ye Faithful wafting from a few blocks away from another group of carolers, and our noses and fingers stinging from the cold air.  I always half expected to see Scrooge, after his evening transformation by the ghosts, with Tiny Tim beside him, walk around the corner.

On those caroling evenings we were frequently invited inside for hot chocolate by the neighbors.  Maybe people would think that's corny today, but it still goes on.

Another tradition was sledding (we called it “sleigh riding”) and tobogganing on the golf course.  The fourth green, sacred ground that couldn’t be tread upon by kids in summer, was always made available to us in winter as a perfect launching pad for our rides.  You could even find Chas Fouquet, the most obsessive golfer in town, helping to give our sleds that initial push across the expanse of the green to build up speed for a breathtaking run down the hill to the long slope of the third fairway.  There was also a rite of passage at about the fifth or sixth grade that advanced you to taking runs down "Bloody Guts", the 45-degree bone-crushing hill from the tee down to the sixth green over rocks, nasty tree stumps and a stream bed that would eat you alive if you didn't properly negotiate the four-foot-wide bridge across it.

As I write this I've decided I'm going back to Mt. Tabor this year to walk around town to take in the Christmas lights.  Hopefully snow will cover the streets, as it should.  Most things in our lives change, but Mt. Tabor will always hold, for those of us who grew up there, the ability to transport us into the past by virtue of its retention of the traditions of old.  I wish you all happy holidays with the hope you have an opportunity to revisit some of your own traditions of the season, and that your memories of former holidays are as precious as mine.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

To Janet V. Lender, Departed

That’s Mom at left in her last photo, taken just days before she passed away about two years ago.  She was 90.  I haven’t blogged about her yet, because my memories of her as an elderly woman were most prominent in my mind.  That was troubling to me, because I wanted to remember her for who she truly was, as the younger woman I knew as our Mom growing up.

I’ve gotten over it.

Dad died five years before Mom, and almost immediately afterward she said she wanted to move out of their condo in the assisted living community Dad had moved them into about seven years beforehand.  He’d arranged their move largely because he wanted Mom to be in a facility where she’d be cared for in case he went first.  Mom said she never wanted to move out of Mt. Tabor, where they’d lived for over 33 years, and admitted she’d wished she’d pushed back to Dad about it.  She said the assisted living place was too depressing: somebody she knew died each month.  She also said that after Dad died she didn’t have any privacy, couldn’t even eat alone in the dining room if she wanted to.  She wanted her own place and independence again.

We moved her to an apartment in Bergen County, about five minutes from Manette’s and my house.  Once or twice a week I’d go over if I didn’t otherwise see her for dinner or a visit to our house.  I’d check out the new scrapes in the bumper of her ’98 Ford Taurus, make sure she had everything she needed, help her with her finances and have tea or a snack.  Periodically she’d appear on our back patio (a mile walk from her apartment), gazing off at the woods.  She wouldn’t ring the bell because she’d insist she didn’t want to disturb us.  I’d come out to make sure she was okay.  “Oh, yes, dear,” she’d say.  “I’m just resting before I walk back home.”  She’d accept a glass of water but always refuse a ride.

She drove almost until the end.  She’d get lost on the way back from Shop-Rite once in a while, and find her way home by asking someone walking by the side of the road how to get to Prospect Avenue.  After being injured in falls when she was 88 and 89, she insisted she was only taking a hiatus from driving until she’d healed.  I’d go over and start up the Taurus every week or two, drive it around, maybe take it to the car wash.  Then I’d report to her that everything was in fine working order for when she could resume driving.

She lived with Manette and me for about a month after her first fall (I started referring to her as “the old girl” around that time, never to her face, of course).  The doctors never figured out what caused it, but wanted to put her on anti-seizure medication anyhow.  Even before I could protest, Mom said no way.  She wasn’t about to get dumbed-down into a zombie by some drug.  We have a big house; I asked Mom if she thought she’d be better off living with us.  She wouldn't hear of it.  I was at least able to impose the condition that she let me get her a Life Alert emergency service when she returned to her apartment.

Her second fall was more serious.  She wasn’t wearing her Life Alert emergency buzzer around her neck, and it took her a half hour to crawl to the phone with a broken hip to call for help.  She had a partial hip replacement, rehab, then another surgery and full hip replacement.  She lived with Manette and me again for about five months after she finished her second rehab.

She progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, exercising up and down the driveway, forbidden from the sidewalk and streets.  We’d find acorns, leaves and little pieces of bark in her pockets that she’d pick up and examine.  Once our neighbor, Venus, brought Mom home after finding her 100 yards down Summit Avenue—Mom would make a break for it down the sidewalk if she sensed I wasn’t watching.  Venus said Mom had fallen; Mom said, no, she’d bent over to pick up an interesting leaf and just slipped.

Mom was an accomplished artist all her life, working in watercolors, acrylics and pencil and charcoal.  Manette and I bought her sketch pads and pencils while she was living with us.  She never used them.  But on my birthday that year she sketched me with a ballpoint pen on our kitchen notepad and presented it to me with her birthday wishes.  I think it’s the last sketch she ever did.

That Christmas she asked for help in buying gifts for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—she was “Grandmother,” declaring from the outset she wasn’t “grandma,” “nannie” or “granny,” and “GG” to her great-grandchildren.  We made a list.  I dusted off her wheelchair and took her to Target.  While we searched the aisles for what Mom wanted, she invariably stopped me and pointed at something the kids would like better.  Mission accomplished.  That year Mom used our return address when she mailed her Christmas cards.  She made sure everyone (and I) knew she’d be returning to her apartment by jotting beneath our address: “Temporary.”

One night Manette and I dared to go out to dinner.  Mom set off the smoke alarm while cooking dinner and the fire department was summoned to our house.  After that we hired a live-in health aid.

Mom moved back to her apartment six months before she died, this time with her live-in health aid.  By then she was getting around fine with a cane.  She went through a bad patch a month before she died, and one morning her health aid called me over.  Mom’s breathing was labored, so I called an ambulance.  I stayed beside her gurney in the emergency room, watching the monitors and talking with her.  She kept apologizing for inconveniencing me, right up until five minutes before she took her last breath.

While I was outside calling my brothers, one of the nurses came out to me, apologizing for interrupting.  She wanted to know what kind of pacemaker Mom had, because they couldn’t shut it off.  The old girl just wouldn’t give up.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mark Knopfler, Rüdiger and Me

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I recently wrote a short story called Rudiger.  I titled it and created the main character, John Rudiger, based on emotions evoked by a song called "Rüdiger" by Mark Knopfler.   For those of you who don’t know him by name, Mark Knopfler is better recognized as the front man, guitarist and creative force behind the now disbanded rock group, Dire Straits.  "Rüdiger" is from Knopfler’s first solo album, Golden Heart.  "Rüdiger" has a haunting melody and soft backing instruments and vocals behind Knopfler’s trademark lead guitar and gravelly voice with lyrics that linger.

A link to Knopfler performing the song on YouTube in 1996, when it was released, is here:

The melody and pace of the song always called to mind the image of someone skulking around with something to hide.  For years I’ve thought of writing a story about a crook hiding out in the Caribbean from the authorities, and every time I thought about it the song, "Rüdiger," played in my head.  So, I wrote the story.

In it, John Rudiger is a fugitive financier living under an alias in the Caribbean, because he ran off with close to $100 million from his hedge fund ten years ago.  He's now down to his last $2 million.  Katie Dolan, a lawyer with the US Attorney's Office in New York, is sent to Antigua to try to get enough evidence to extradite Rudiger back to the US to stand trial.  Rudiger recruits her to help him retrieve $50 million of stolen bearer bonds he can’t get otherwise get out of a safe deposit box in New York.

Katie is no dope, and neither is Rudiger, and each one has to figure out who's scamming who as they work their plan to sneak the bonds out from under the nose of Charlie Holden, Katie's boss, the Assistant US Attorney in New York (a character reprised from my Wall Street novel, Bull Street), who's wise to both of them.

I enjoyed the characters and writing the story so much that I’m creating a series out of it, called the White Collar Crime Series.  Rudiger and Katie will be back, and other shady types will be introduced as well.  I hope you’ll give Rudiger a try.

Update: since I wrote this post I introduced a new short story about Rudiger, Rudiger Comes Alive. It's the prequel to Rudiger, about how Walter Conklin, wunderkind hedge fund manager who runs a $1 billion technology fund, gets stuck between his CFO cooking the books to draw in more investors, Charlie Holden on his trail to arrest him, and his wife Angela, who's never at a loss for (sharp) words. Leaving the country begins to seem like a viable option to him.
Click cover to buy on Amazon

Rudiger is a 10,000 word short story.

Read an excerpt from Rudiger

Now Rudiger's subsequent adventures are available in the collection, Rudiger Stories.  And a Rudiger novel, Spin Move, takes Rudiger and Katie on a new jaunt from the Caribbean to Africa, Continental Europe and the UK.  I hope you'll give them a try as well.

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Buy Rudiger StoriesBuy US  Buy UK

Click cover to buy on Amazon

Monday, February 20, 2012

To John Glenn and Mrs. Slocum

Today was the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbit of the earth, the first by an American. It was also the 50th anniversary of the first story I recall ever writing. Mrs. Slocum, my fifth grade teacher at Mt. Tabor School, gave us the assignment to write an essay about Glenn’s historic spaceflight on that day. She wasn’t more specific than that—it just had to be about Glenn’s spaceflight. I remember pondering over what to write for a while without coming up with an idea, then started writing when Mrs. Slocum said we had 15 minutes left, putting down the only thing that came to mind.

It was a story about seeing Glenn sitting on the steps of the Mercury capsule, looking dejected (I’m sure I didn’t use that word). I asked him what was wrong and he told me he’d locked himself out of the space capsule and had no way to get back in, and no way to get home again. I told him not to worry and tossed him a skeleton key. He thanked me, unlocked the door to the capsule and went in. He waved to me through the window as he continued on his way, orbiting the earth and finally splashing down safely.

I remember walking home that afternoon with second thoughts about my “essay,” afraid I’d get in trouble. The Glenn flight seemed to be the only thing anybody talked about on the way home from school, all we talked about at dinner and the only thing on television that evening. I couldn’t get away from it, and kept thinking about Mrs. Slocum sitting in front of the TV watching Glenn on the news, reading our essays, getting to mine and saying to herself, “What’s this? This isn’t an essay.” I had visions of getting my story back the next day with a “C” (that was the worst I could imagine, never having gotten one that I can recall up to that point). I went to sleep thinking, “Oh, man. A ‘C,’ Mom and Dad are going to be mad.”

When I got to school the next day I was still anxious.  Mrs. Slocum went about our lessons the usual way, never referring to the essay on Glenn.  It wasn’t until after lunch that she handed them out.  I sat about halfway back in my row, and the wait was excruciating as the kids in front of me passed them back. When it arrived I was thrilled: an ‘A.’ Mrs. Slocum even mentioned my story to the class, saying she thought it was a clever approach or something like that. I took it home and proudly showed it to my Mom, who also thought it was great.

Mom saved it for years, every once in a while showing it to a neighbor.  Mrs. Hutchinson, as I recall, pretended not to have read the story when Mom showed it to her the second time. It got to the point that I started to cringe whenever Mom brought it up with one of the neighbors around. Even so, as I write this I remember thinking back to that story many times over the years as the first evidence that I might have the inclination to be a writer one day.