Zest

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It’s not my usual pattern, but two nights ago, I took a shower before going to bed.  (In case you are worried that I do not bathe, I’ll tell you I generally shower in the morning.) Eric had added a fancy new bar of soap to the other 97 shampoos, conditioners, exfoliants and body washes that comprise our bathtub.  I picked up the soap, lathered it.  I liked the smell, it reminded me of something, but it took me a second to place it.

I love soap.  I mean, it’s nice that it cleans a person, but it also can leave behind a pleasant fragrance.  For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, a lot of memories are tied to fragrances.  Like rose water always makes me think of my high school friend Missy. Both chlorine and suntan lotion remind me of long ago summer afternoons spent at the Riverside Park Municipal Pool.  Night blooming jasmine makes me think of those months when I first moved to Los Angeles.  Dolce and Gabbanna cologne makes me think of my first big love, the one I took so many years to get over.

It took me a second, but I realized this soap reminded me of the soap my grandfather always had in his house, something called Zest. Remember Zest? I mean, I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am. It was Zest, Zest in the kitchen, Zest at the bathroom faucet, Zest in the bathtub. Always Zest.

In the house where I grew up with my parents, I remember using a lot of soaps: Irish Spring, Dove, Dial, Ivory and sometimes Zest. If I begged enough, my Mom would buy me Coast. Coast was my favorite. I don’t know why I loved Coast so much, I just imagined that it was what people who spent a lot of time on yachts smelled like. I did not love Zest, nor did I hate it. Zest just was. And like I said, Zest is what always was at my grandpa’s house.

I really only knew two grandparents growing up. My mom’s father died when she was a baby and my dad’s mother died when I was not yet two. And while I always felt a kinship to my mom’s mom, Grandma Sue, a bond over Scrabble and books and reading and writing letters, my Grandpa was always a mystery.

He was a farmer. When we’d visit, he’d let me go out to the garden with him. He’d pull up young carrots and wipe them off and let me eat them fresh from the garden. I’d ask him how the watermelons were doing since they were my favorite fruit but it seemed we always had to wait almost until the end of summer before the watermelons would be ready to eat. I used to have a tomato scented candle and I loved it because it smelled like my grandfather’s garden.

In the years before I was 7, when we moved from Kansas City to Independence, in part so my Dad could be closer to Grandpa, we would drive down to the farm for weekend visits. I remember my Grandpa would fry us hamburgers for supper and on Sundays, my aunts and uncles and cousins would convene at Grandpa’s for a roast beef dinner. Tuesday night, after my shower, as I was trying to fall asleep, I wondered who prepared the roasts for those feasts. Was it Grandpa or did Aunt Kay leave church early to get a head start on the meal? I don’t know, I just remember running around in the yard, climbing the septic tank and after eating, all the men (and boys) going fishing.

If my math is right, my Grandpa was about 64 when my Grandma Avis died. When he died, more than once, I heard my Dad say that he didn’t think he ever got over losing Grandma. He never remarried, never started a new life with another woman. Tuesday night, as I lay in bed, I wondered if I had solved the mystery of the Zest. My first thought was that he bought it because that’s what she always bought. And then I went just a bit further, maybe he always used Zest because it reminded him of the good times, when the children were young, before Avis got sick.

When I looked up the definition for zest, the first one I came across was “great enthusiasm or energy.” Of my grandfather’s 7 grandchildren, I am the only one too young to not remember him in the years before he was a widower. While I only remember a stoic, serious man, maybe in his life before, enthusiastic and energetic could have described him. I don’t know.

I do think energetic and enthusiastic are words that could be used to describe me. It’s part of my undiagnosed mania. My life is always either wonderful or terrible, nothing in between. I’ve never been called stoic even once in my 46 years. Sometimes, I think, oh man, I’d KILL to be stoic, which, you know, is a very unstoic thing to think or say.

Last night, I lay in bed, still thinking about my Grandpa Carl and my Grandma Avis, their love story. When I was little my Dad would always say the best fried chicken he’d ever had was his Mom’s. If it bothered my Mom that he would say that while we were eating her fried chicken, she gave no indication. These were the handful of years right after Avis had died and I suppose it was my Dad’s way of saying, “Boy, I miss my Mom” without having to actually say it. My Dad inherited more than a little of his father’s stoicism.

I wonder what my Grandpa would say if I told him that modern version of Zest in my bathtub cost $20 a bar. (In its defense, it’s a big bar.)

There is something of my grandfather in me. I hope so, anyway. He’s been gone for nearly 25 years now, all I have is old pictures and memories and the stories my older relatives share with me. I try to make the connections.

I mentioned briefly an ex I had that, once we broke up, it took me years to get over him. There was a point when I truly thought that I never would. But I did, eventually.

I know that in the culture we live in, there is a lot of value placed on moving forward, starting anew, evolving. I suppose that is for the best, all things considered.

But I have to say there is something beautiful and touching, albeit, heartbreaking about how my grandfather never started anew. My Grandma was a ghost who was always there in that house, a ghost who always clung to my Grandpa. She was never far away. Every hymnal in the pews of the country church our family attended bore the inscription, “Provided by the family of Avis Barnhart, in loving memory.” She was everywhere. When I was 12, my parents and I went to Hawaii with my Grandpa and although he had a good time, it was said and it was understood, this was a trip he should have made with Avis. And it was also understood that, in a way, she was there with us.

When I smell anything gardenia fragranced, whether it be a soap or a perfume or a candle, I remember my two trips to Hawaii. It’s always so bittersweet because a fragrance can bring back some wonderful memories and also make you ache for what is no more. But I like the idea, and really, I know it’s just an idea, but I like to think that that Zest might have kept the memory of Avis alive to Carl. That on days after working hard on the farm, he’d come inside, lather up with his Zest and momentarily at least, get whisked away to the happiest days of his life. And when his hands were clean, all the dirt washed down the drain, he’d go about fixing a hamburger or two for himself. And trust me when I tell you, those hamburgers were the best hamburgers I’ve ever had. I can smell them now.

For Whom The Bell Tolls

bell-tower-viewIf the rumors are true, there is a woman dying in my building. She is neither an old lady or a young girl, rather a woman roughly my own age. She has been ill for a while and, from what Eric heard, is being attended to by hospice. For the sake of this story, I will call her Callie.

Callie was here when I moved into this building. She introduced herself in my first few weeks, nearly 17 years ago. She was a constant presence in the building, often doing laundry in one of the building’s two washing machines, often smoking cigarettes on the stairway, her smoke emanating throughout the building. She always had a hello, even if it was followed by a complaint about other tenants. Callie was a modern day Gladys Kravitz and I should know, it takes one to know one.

If Callie and I were friendly, we never became friends. I have thought so much about her in the last few weeks. She is too young to die; she is my age. What haunts me, I guess, is how, we have lived steps away from each other for the last 17 years, saw each other daily or weekly, known certain details about each other’s lives, and yet, there was not much of a connection. If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that I didn’t like Callie very much. I do feel guilty about admitting this, but it is part of the story, it even adds an extra layer of sadness to it all.

I will say this about Callie. She loved my first two dogs Lucy and Mandy. When both of them passed away, within a few months of each other, she offered condolences about each and I didn’t doubt that she meant them. My current two, Millie and Ricky, are not as friendly to people in the building as Lucy and Mandy were and I sometimes wonder if it’s related to the fact that I don’t like most of the people in my building either, now.

One of my first blog posts was about my building, this big, old brick building with hallways like the hotel in The Shining. Before I moved in, I dreamed of living here every time I drove down the street. And I felt so lucky when my friend Ted, who lived in our friend Russell’s old apartment, told me there was a vacancy. And then I got the apartment and then I adopted Lucy and then I moved to a bigger apartment, with french doors in the bed room and views of my historic street. And then I adopted Mandy. And the three of us would go for leisurely, amiable walks, we had leisurely, amiable relationships with all our neighbors. Some of my best friends were people in this building, maybe you are reading this now and you know I am talking about you.

But, for many, Los Angeles is a transitory town. Apartments are by nature transitory too. People move away, people die. In the last few weeks, I made a rough count of the number of people who lived in this building who have passed away before their time, and it’s been jarring, haunting actually.

And speaking of haunting, when I first moved in, I was told by several sources to be on the look out for ghosts. One neighbor once told me that she woke up in the middle of the night to the feeling of someone sitting on her chest, attempting to strangle her and that when she came to, there was no one there. For 17 years, I have been waiting for my ghost moment or moments.

As I said, people move away, people die. Also, though, some people move away, and then they die. My friend Ted, who is the reason I am here, passed away after an illness several years ago. I know it was several years ago, because I remember waking to the phone ringing in my old studio apartment and answering it and one of our mutual friends calling to say that Ted had died. And I remember him telling me that the thing about folks being at peace at the end is really not always the case, that even in his last moments, Ted was clawing and screaming for more life. Which makes me sad, but a little comforted too, that that is how much he still wanted to be here.

It’s silly, but I’ve been tempted in the last few days to run up to Callie’s apartment and knock on the door and ask if I can come in, to spend a bit of time with her. Maybe thank her for always being nice to Lucy and Mandy and patient with Ricky and Millie, to acknowledge what we shared. We lived, not identical, but parallel lives, for 17 years. Of course, I will not and should not do that. I would only be an imposition, an annoyance.

I wish I weren’t so narcissistic. You don’t have to be a therapist to know that part of the reason Callie’s illness has burrowed into me is that I am eternally cognizant of my own mortality. I know that Callie had more things she wanted to see, do, accomplish, as do I. This town is full of people who transition from renting apartments to owning homes. Did Callie dream of a house, with or without picket fence? Is there something wrong with me, is it my failure, if I live in an apartment for the rest of my life?

I do wish Callie peace in her transition from this world to whatever is on the other side. I know she loved her family, she loved her friends and I know that she was loved in return. I hope that love is a comfort to her and to them.

As for myself, I don’t know why I say that I’ve never experienced ghosts in this building because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The dead are still with me, the friends I made here who’ve only moved away to just below Pico or a house in Echo Park, are still with me too. Lucy, Mandy, Ted, I think of you three every day. Every day. You are all my ghosts, you all haunt me. But I want you to know that while there is sadness in your absences, there is a grace, a solace in knowing that how lucky we were to, for a time, at least, roam these halls together.

Guest Blogger, Theresa Barnhart: Reunions

484332_3040530627217_533674844_nThe family on my Mother’s side has a big reunion coming up in a few weeks. It’s the first reunion that won’t be attended by my Uncle Sam, a larger than life personality who from the time he was a teenager and his own Father died, had been the acting patriarch of his family. Sam Petramala passed away on March 29, 2014. This reunion will not be the same without him and I know that my Mother is one of the people who will feel his absence the most. A quick story: at another reunion a few years back, my Mother became suddenly ill and we had to take her to the emergency room, where we spent a good portion of one of the days. That evening, when my Uncle saw my Mom as we came back into the hotel, he burst into tears once he saw her. He was a 70-something year old man who wept at the thought of one of his baby sisters being in pain. He always was her protector and I believe, from his current vantage point, he still is. All this is to say that I know my Mom misses her brother and I thought that if I asked her to write about reunions, it would give her a chance to share a little about the brother who was like a father. He was a dear man and this family reunion will not be the same without him.

Reunions

Ray asked if I would write about a family reunion we are going to this month. Webster’s Dictionary said reunion is reuniting, the coming together of a group which has been separated for a period of time. I checked the Thesaurus and added these words: rejoining, reconciliation, homecoming, get together. The more I think about reunions, I realize there are many reunions. The military person returning home to his/her family. The excitement of seeing the smiling faces and shouts of children saying “daddy I missed you!” The family dog greets them with kisses (licks) on the face. What a happy reunion and wonderful day. Another reunion which has a bittersweet homecoming is the person who died serving his country, the casket draped with the American Flag. Just recently a service man from this area came home to his final resting place. 62 years he was separated from his family and friends. He casket was met at the airport in Tulsa and escorted home to Caney, Kansas. He was honored by so many people who never knew him just respected and appreciated what he did for his country.

Another bittersweet homecoming is to come together to celebrate the life of a person who has departed from us. It is said a funeral is for the living. I believe this. It’s a time when people come together to remember and celebrate the life of this person. We gather together to support each other as we mourn for this person. In our family, we recently came together to honor and celebrate the life of my brother Sam. He struggled the last three years of his life so we could make more memories with him. Now he is at his eternal home. Rest in peace, my brother. We all love and miss you so very much.

This month we will have a family reunion. It is an event which happens every two years. If I remember right it was started by a group of family who came together for a funeral. They decided we needed to meet for a happy occasion. Family will come from Canada, Utah, Colorado, and many more states to numerous to mention. It is a big event for us! It is a time to greet each other and renew our hearts and minds. There will be great food, (Italians always have food) games, a banquet, did I mention food, and on Sunday a family picnic with lots of food! We will play games, and recognized the oldest family member and the youngest family member. Lastly during this weekend we will share stories, pictures and we will remember those who went before us to their eternal home and they will greet us when we go to our final reunion.

Olive Bread, or What Will Your Friends Remember

olivebread1_550A few days ago, I went to the memorial service of a person I had never met.  He was a friend of Eric’s, an artist, specifically, a neon artist.  It was a beautiful service, not without its sadnesses, naturally.  Also, it was not without its laughs.  It was a short service, moderated by a long time friend, wrapped up with a piano medley of Yesterday, Hey Jude, and Bridge over Troubled Water.  All three of those songs were among my favorites when I was a dreamy eyed, vintage cardigan wearing misfit of a Kansas teenager, but I had not listened, really listened to them in awhile. 

When you attend the funeral or memorial of a person you never knew, you get a picture of them, completely accurate or not, from the stories that are told about the deceased.  I’ve thought about this man, and those stories, several times this week.  And I’m not saying that the story I am sharing is the one the most defines him, this artist, but it’s the story that I thought about most, the stickiest story.

A woman got up to share the story of her friendship with the man we were honoring.  She touched on what they had in common.  They were both neon artists, about the same age, he from Japan, she from China.  They lived near each other in Southern California.   She shared that Kunio was the person who introduced olive bread to her. We all laughed when she said it, that hungry laugh of funerals where, between tears, we can chuckle and breathe, remind ourselves that we are still living.  She had never had it before he served her some on a visit to his house.  And she loved it and she introduced it to her husband and he loved it too. And she said that, even before Kunio’s passing, she thought about him every time she ate olive bread, even more so in the months since his passing.

I sat there wondering what Kunio would have thought about that anecdote.  We live our lives trying to accomplish things, climb every mountain, make a difference, give it the old freshman try, be aggressive, make every moment count, and when we’re gone, we’re remembered for olive bread.  And not even for making it, just for liking it.  Well, for liking it and for sharing it.

Sharing a few slices of olive bread with a good friend on a sunny California afternoon. There’s so much more, there’s always so much more, but that’s really not such a bad way to be remembered, either.

Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?

52757c19ca8b4226d18dc1939940ea5bThis is not a review of last week’s American Horror Story.  I will merely offer that the best moment of the episode was Stevie Nicks’ haunting ballad she sang at the end, just her by the piano singing to Jessica Lange’s character, Fiona Goode.  I did not remember hearing the song before, so I did a little Google search and I found this video of her singing it at one of the most, pardon my pun, magical concert venues I know of, Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver.  On Youtube, in the comments someone left the background about the song which I’d also never heard.  The man she is talking about is Joe Walsh, of The Eagles.

Apparently, the following was in the liner notes of her 1985 album, Rock a Little

“I guess in a very few rare cases, some people find someone that they fall in love with the very first time they see them… from across the room, from a million miles away. Some people call it love at first sight, and of course, I never believed in that until that night I walked into a party after a gig at the hotel, and from across the room, without my glasses, I saw this man and I walked straight to him. He held out his hands to me, and I walked straight into them. I remember thinking, I can never be far from this person again… he is my soul. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, though hid it well. But finally, a few days later, (we were in Denver), he rented a jeep and drove me up into the snow covered hills of Colorado… for about 2 hours. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but he did tell me a story of a little daughter that he had lost. To Joe, she was much more than a child. She was three and a half, and she could relate to him.

“I guess I had been complaining about a lot of things going on on the road, and he decided to make me aware of how unimportant my problems were if they were compared to worse sorrows. So he told me that he had taken his little girl to this magic park whenever he could, and the only thing she EVER complained about was that she was too little to reach up to the drinking fountain. As we drove up to this beautiful park, (it was snowing a little bit), he came around to open my door and help me down, and when I looked up, I saw the park… his baby’s park, and I burst into tears saying, ‘You built a drinking fountain here for her, didn’t you?’ I was right, under a huge beautiful hanging tree, was a tiny silver drinking fountain. I left Joe to get to it, and on it, it said, dedicated to HER and all the others who were too small to get a drink.

“So he wrote a song for her, and I wrote a song for him… ‘This is your song, ‘ I said to the people, but it was Joe’s song. Thank you, Joe, for the most committed song I ever wrote. But more than that, thank you for inspiring me in so may ways. Nothing in my life ever seems as dark anymore, since we took that drive.”

What a Wonderful World

griffith-observatory-llEric’s Dad passed away last night. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease several years ago, he’d been in poor health for the last few months. His passing was not a surprise, and while there is a relief that he is no longer in pain, there is an obvious sense of loss and sadness.

Eric and his Mom and I were eating at a restaurant tonight. While there were a few tears, it felt right, to me, anyway, that the laughs by far outweighed the tears. His Mom told several stories about their over 50 years together: courtship, last minute road trips to Vegas, early married life, Sundays spent with the family in Griffith Park, their 40’s, their golden years. She told me that 45 was her favorite age and since that is my current age, it made me feel good. There are many things that I love about my life right now. I feel like I understand me better than I’ve ever understood me before.

While we were sitting there in the restaurant, the only family in the place, “What a Wonderful World” started playing. It was a quiet moment in our evening and I was struck by the juxtaposition of how sad and yet hopeful, even positive the song is. I thought about all of the sweet things people had said about Eric’s Dad in the last few days. Is it luck to be so beloved? Probably not, it’s probably an indication of how one lived his life, what he gave to those who came into his path.

This song really is metaphor for life. It is sad and hopeful, a dirge and an anthem. It’s the sad times that help us value the good. It’s the suffering that Eric’s Dad is out of that eases the pain of the loss.

So, if you happen to click the link below and listen to this gorgeous song. Please spend a few moments honoring a man named Doug. You may not have know him, but he was very, very loved.