Archive for April, 2011


Honey Striking a Pose

Before I write anything else, and to give credit where it’s due, I wouldn’t be the almost well-adjusted person I am today without sweet, smart Honey, a mini-poodle I found in a pet store. I know it’s better to buy from a breeder, and I don’t know how Honey landed in East Rockaway’s Puppy Park, but it felt like she was waiting for me there.

A frisky, adorable little creature tumbling in a cage with two other puppies, her apricot color was unusual and she caught my eye right away. She was toy-size, they said, but she grew bigger to hold her big heart. We’ve been together 10 years now. And she’s helped me more than any doctor or pill ever could.

I’ve struggled with depression through my life, since I was only 11, when my father was dying of cancer. One afternoon when I came home from school he’d been taken to the hospital. I never saw him again — no children allowed to visit in those days. My mom went alone and came home crying every night for the next month until he died.

My Grandma Beatty had moved in with us a year before, and was frail now, but we couldn’t have managed without her. I was frightened — confused, foggy, shaky — this was what it was like to be crazy, I thought. When we drove by Creedmore, a now empty mental institution, I was sure I’d be there someday. I never told anyone how I felt and nobody seemed to notice.

There was a brief down time in high school, then again in college when my boyfriend suddenly started dating other girls, including a sorority sister. I was sad and disappointed, avoiding friends on campus, barely able to concentrate in classes. Then someone persuaded me to come to a fraternity party where the boy who became my second love asked me to dance. I saw the fickle one being held back by two friends from interrupting. Ah, Youth!

Over the years there were a few bumpy patches, but nothing serious until I was hospitalized for depression in 1990. I’d returned to Queens College in 1984 for a Master’s in Library Science at 52 years of age — after my mother’s heart attack and death opened a Pandora’s box of issues with my sister and brother. Not unusual in families, I’ve learned, but I was heartbroken, and school kept me occupied.

After two part-time librarian trainee jobs as I worked for my MLS, when I earned the degree in 1987 and was licensed as a NYS Civil Service Librarian and a School Media Specialist, I was appointed under the first license to a high school library — just as my son started high school. Perfect timing.

The senior librarian praised my work, and recommended hiring me as a School Media Specialist in my second year — with shorter hours and a higher salary. However, she ran a very tight ship, and seemed to enjoy torturing students and faculty, including me. My grip slipped in my third year. I spent a restful week in Mercy Hospital for depression, and returned to my job for further punishment. Will get around to details in a later post: “Double, double toil and trouble.”

In 2000 I was admitted to the hospital for depression again. Having retired from the East Meadow Public Library at 65, I’d kept working part-time, and had just resigned from the Baldwin Public Library after the director refused my request for a set schedule rather than one varying from several hours to about 20 a week — usually not notified till Sunday evening — too difficult to plan or budget bills.

Soon after I flew to Colorado for a family wedding,  then to nearby New Mexico where I had a brief flirtation with an artist in Santa Fe and visited “Mothering” magazine’s office there to bring revisions for my article: “Missing Link: Vital Connection” — the editor had told me it would  be published in the November issue.  A month later they decided not to print it.

I’d worked so hard writing the piece, researched with the help of a La Leche League librarian, having learned about breastfeeding’s protection against breast cancer, something rarely mentioned, particularly during October’s “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”  Which happens to be sponsored by Astra Zeneca, the makers of Tamoxifan.  But I believe my final tipping point was the November 2000 presidential election — the nightmare of Florida’s hanging chads and the Supreme Court’s handing George W. Bush the job!

This time in the hospital I was more depressed after a week than when I entered. Extremely disturbed patients were housed with milder cases, unlike my previous stay — government cut-backs on mental health care had made this necessary, I was told. One patient banged on a piano whenever she was in the mood. I shared a room with a schizophrenic patient who told me she heard voices commanding her to hurt herself.

We were awakened in the dark to stand in line for meds, though I was groggy after sleeping fitfully on an lumpy bed with holes in the sheets. Nurses conducted group sessions, but I never spoke with a doctor. Only visits from my wonderful Dr. Magun kept me fairly sane. Some of us played cards or walked in the hall to pass the time. Meal carts were the highlight of our day. We watched an old movie about alcoholism narrated by a young Patty Duke. We played bingo in the evenings.

My son had come home to be with me through the ordeal, but drove back to Pittsburgh where he studied filmmaking and worked as a waiter. He’d won second prize in a 1996 film contest for college students sponsored by The Christophers, a Judeo-Christian organization whose motto is the Asian saying: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

My son’s entry was a stop-motion clay animation on the homeless, an idea he’d gotten after he and a girlfriend spent evenings giving sandwiches to homeless people near Sloan Kettering while he was treated there. The Christophers showed the winning films on their television station. Ironically, the first prize went to a film about a boy who died from Hodgkin’s Disease.

Home from the hospital, I was very low, and my son drove back again with the perfect medicine — his beloved cat Yeti, a blue-eyed, pure white female — absence of color her only resemblance to the Abominable Snowman. She sat purring on my lap, gently vibrating, licking my hand. We took afternoon naps together, Yeti curled up next to me. A few weeks later my son visited again, this time with his second cat, Zorra, a female calico with a black mask, named for the dashing Zorro. Yeti and Zorra bonded immediately, grooming each other, sleeping entwined together.

My son hadn’t mentioned Zorra was in heat — which I soon discovered when Zorra sat sunning herself in a open window — and a stray male cat came from nowhere, jumped up, and hung by his claws from the screen. “Get the hose,” I yelled, thwarting any chance for romance. I offered to have Zorra spayed — my son was short of funds. And it seemed heartless to part Zorra and Yeti. So I got to keep them both. A happy sending to a kind of a shaggy cat story.

We were a contented threesome until the night I struggled to breathe, called 911, was carried on a stretcher to an ambulance, given oxygen, and taken to Mercy’s emergency room. My husband had died in 1994 and I’d often been lonely — but I never felt as alone as I did then. Diagnosed with my only asthma attack, injected with epinephrine, and admitting to two cats at home, I was told to give them back.

Rather than an allergy to cats, my illness may have been caused by the poor air quality even on Long Island not long after September 11, 2001 — the disastrous day the World Trade Center crumbled. I lived only about 30 miles from New York City. My son suffered with asthma as a child and seemed to recover when he grew older. But he had to use his inhaler as he left with the cats.

The house felt so empty without them. I wanted another pet — this time a small dog. But only big dogs were available at two shelters I visited — it hurt to pass them by. Then I heard of a pet store in nearby East Rockaway — and there at last saw Honey, an adorable ball of fluff — love at first sight. I held her, took her to a play area, rolled balls, squeaked toys, and hugged her. She felt just right. I paid a deposit.

My son and friends cautioned a dog would be too much trouble at 70 years of age, that I couldn’t travel much anymore. I visited the tiny dog several times, played with her, and knew we were meant for each other. She’d be freshly bathed with a pink bow in her hair when I came to pick her up on the appointed day, April 20, 2002.

That morning I started worrying the naysayers may be right and almost called to cancel — but my friend Eleanor, who still misses her golden retriever Lizzie, wanted to come with me. Ashamed to tell her I’d changed my mind, and picturing the puppy waiting, wearing a perky pink bow, we went together. So Honey and her Aunt Eleanor got acquainted while I signed papers and paid the balance. The best money I ever spent.

I travel more with Honey than I ever would by myself. We often stay at pet-friendly hotels and B&B’s I probably wouldn’t visit alone. We often fly to visit my son and his wife in Maryland. Last year, Honey was a big success with my niece Christine’s family in California — especially with my great nephews, Marley and Markos, who begged for turns walking her.

I’m hardly ever lonely when Honey’s around, at home or away. We sleep and eat together, too. In fact, she won’t start her dinner until she sees me taste mine — I’m the leader of her pack, I read somewhere. We enjoy the same foods: meat, fish, vegetables, rice, now and then some pasta — with a sprinkling of kibble on hers for crunch. I tasted kibble when she was a puppy and knew she deserved better. She’s good company at home, sitting on my lap while I read or watch TV, or nearby chewing a bone or playing with toys — her favorite is a stuffed, yellow duck that’s seen better days. Honey especially loves a belly rub — we call it tummy tickle — and lets me know she wants one by lying on her back, legs up, unladylike and irresistible.

Unlike many dogs, she enjoys going to the groomer. When I ask “Do you want a bath?” she jumps up and down, squeaking with happiness. She loves riding in the car, too. Even on long drives Honey rests her chin on her safety seat, her gaze fixed on me rather than the passing scenery, now and then napping. She chases squirrels in parks and sniffs interesting grass, bushes and trees. She’s friendly with other canines and doesn’t understand why cats don’t return her affection. She’s a people magnet, especially for children.

Honey and I had previously flown on Southwest and Jet Blue Airlines with a letter from a mental health professional about my need for a “comfort companion.”  And I somehow persuaded Aer Lingus and the Irish Department of Agriculture to let her be with me in the cabin after she had the required shots and ID chip — the first animal ever permitted that privilege.  She sat on a rear seat next to me, and the Irish flight attendants doted on her through the trip.  So we’re now international travelers.

My anxiety and depression have been relieved by medication and therapy, but Honey’s unconditional love and companionship have helped me better than any pill or counseling. God willing, we’ll have more adventures  before we have to part.

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Glendalough, Co. Wicklow Ireland

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow,  Ireland

This could have been a very short story. When I was born, my mother and father lived near Highland Park, a high plateau area between Queens and Brooklyn, close to my Beatty grandparents’ home in East New York.  Family legend has it that one day an aunt lost hold of my carriage, and it began to roll down a sloping sidewalk towards busy Hillside Avenue. Stopped in time by someone walking up.  My Guardian Angel?  There was more to come.

As we all do in time, I’ve faced my share of “dangers, toils and snares” along the way,  but am still here in my 80th year. In pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. Eternally grateful to have come this far, mostly intact, only slightly scarred. My rousing rendition of that grand old hymn, “Amazing Grace,” at Sunday Mass sometimes startles people nearby.

A while ago I began to to think I may have earned a memoir, even if just for family and friends. Therapy for me, maybe help someone else stay strong, not give up. Besides, picturing my plight in print diverted me from troubles. God’s bargain package deal for a  lifetime journey covers both blessings and trials. There’s no free ride.

Among my gifts:  Loving, caring parents.  Happy childhood in a comfortable home.  When my dad died at 45, a mom who courageously raised three children alone.  More than a few true friends.  Tuition free Queens College degree.  Before it was trendy — At 38, married a good man.  At almost 42, after prayers, tears, tests and surgery, gave birth to what the doctor pronounced “a perfect baby boy.”  At 52, decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, returned to Queens for an M.L.S., worked as a librarian for 21 years, pension and medical benefits for life.

Some of my challenges — Struggles with depression since adolescence, two adult hospitalizations. Breast cancer, mastectomy, chemotherapy, poor prognosis 32 years ago. My husband’s callous downsizing, then his sickness and death.  Our son’s cancer the next year.  Hurtful, even malicious, words and actions — some from loved ones — more painful than than bodily injury.

But I’ve been too busy hanging on for dear life, haven’t had time to do more than jot random notes now and then.  My working title: “The Perils of Eileen:  Still Hanging in There.”  My inspiration:  the intrepid heroine of the silent movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” first filmed in 1914, not long before I appeared on the scene.

Born in Brooklyn in 1931, I’m now the same age as Grandma Moses when three of her colorful folk paintings were included in an exhibit, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. George Eliot’s  inspirational line is taped to my refrigerator:  “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Though gymnast might be a stretch!?

Played by the actress, Pearl White, Pauline cleverly foiled her wicked guardian’s pernicious schemes to collect her inheritance by hastening her death.  She’s seen on a boat rigged with explosives. Held captive by sinister gypsies. High in the sky, drifting away in a runaway hot air balloon. Trapped in a burning building. Just a few of the evil villain’s dastardly plots. Never fear. Brave, resourceful Pauline always survived at the end, sometimes with the help of Handsome Harry, her faithful fiance. Not to worry. She’d be back again, ready and able for another adventure.

Later, what came to be called cliffhangers left the hero or heroine in a petrifying predicament, the audience in suspense till the following episode. Hanging from a cliff as the dirt crumbled away.  Tied down while  moving closer to a circular saw.  Bound to a railroad track as the train chugged nearer. Not rescued till the next chapter.  I haven’t encountered any of these calamities  so far. However, in the mid 1960’s, I fell through one of the infamous gaps between Long Island Railroad cars and platforms as the train was ready to leave  Laurelton for New York City’s Penn Station.

Imagine the trailer:  Running late that frigid winter morning, I dashed up the stairs, sprinted to an open, empty doorway — all other passengers had boarded — started to step over the space, slipped on a patch of ice, and dropped feet down to the gravel bed, head not visible above the platform. Over 40 years after my horrendous experience, a young woman was killed by a train in Woodside in 2006, after falling through the wide opening there. Long Island’s “Newsday” then ran a series of articles exposing the many accidents and lawsuits not disclosed till then. How I survived in a future post.  Hang in there.

A former friend, mocking my modelling Pauline, once sarcastically remarked:  “Eileen, you could never be in a silent movie!”  She was wrong. My son, after graduating with degrees in Psychology and Communication, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Disease completed, enrolled for classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.  At that time he aspired to be a movie maker, stand-up comedian, or both.  He starred me in an assignment, a silent film, and got an A for his opus “Lights Out for Grandma.” Told me his classmates chorused “Aww” when I died at the end, silently and dramatically.

While dreaming his dream, he toiled as a  waiter in several Pittsburgh restaurants, including a Friday’s where he met his future wife, working there part-time till she finished college.  Now she’s a Speech Therapist in a children’s hospital.  He’s an Occupational Therapist in a nursing home.  Who knows what they’ll decide to be when they grow up?

I loved being a librarian, but since childhood had wanted to be a writer, often reading treasured books — “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre” — by flashlight, under the covers, way past bedtime.  I’ve since written poems and children’s stories, timidly sending some to magazines and publishers.  None accepted.  Gave up trying. Unlike J.K. Rowling, determined to deliver Harry Potter, her brainchild, into the world.

But I do know a little of the thrill of publication. “The New York Times” printed my terse comment on W’s Iraq fiasco.  And “Newsday” accepted two letters, one about the LIRR Woodside fatality, and another about breastfeeding’s protection about breast cancer after a Long Island pollution study failed to find a definite association. And came close when Mothering” magazine first accepted, but then rejected my article:  “Missing Link:  Vital Connection” on the same subject.

I’ve had what can kindly be called A Motley Career.  Back in 1953, with my  B.A. in English i  hand,  TIME Inc. hired me as a file clerk in “Time Magazine’s” Letters to the Editor Department, where a tear or two sometimes plopped into a folder as I pondered: “Is this all there is?”  So I learned to type and take shorthand, and in 1954 transferred to the new “Sports Illustrated Magazine”as a secretary in the Advertising Department.  “Mad Men” got it right!

After seven itchy years, I found more meaningful work at Dr. Tom Dooley’s MEDICO Foundation. When he died the next year, at IBM Communications. Then, as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx, very briefly. Seven sensible years as a legal secretary at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, Esqs. Five blissful years as a full-time mother. My son safely launched in kindergarten, part-time jobs in the community. After my mother’s sudden death and the family drama that followed, I bravely boarded what in library school was pretentiously called Librarianship.

You’e noticed I’m hardly at a loss for words,  happen to be the latter of two Irish types. Private and closemouthed.  Outgoing and talkative. In  1969, on my first visit to Ireland with my sister and a cousin, I couldn’t miss the chance to kiss the famed Blarney Stone, a custom said to bestow the ability to speak the blarney,  the gift to beguile and cajole. It’s possible that smooching that stone polished my powers of persuasion, resulting in traveling with Honey this trip. The doting Aer Lingus attendants said she was the first pet ever allowed in the cabin.

I’ve never had a problem showing my feelings either, and had honed the facility in a summer acting class at NYU.  When I phoned The Irish Department of Agriculture about bringing my dog to Ireland, I tearfully pleaded my cause —  At my age, this may be the last time I traveled to the land of my ancestors. Honey was an emotional support animal, certified by a mental health professional as my necessary comfort companion for flights on Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.

Kissing the Blarney Stone is a sly, wry way of pulling the leg.  Literally and figuratively. Back in 1969,  a jolly man — he enjoyed his job — grasped my ankles as I lay on my back on the castle floor, stretching my neck outside a wall opening to peck the designated  block of rock. Somewhat uncomfortable, but not dangerous —  a grating underneath prevents plunging to the ground in case the guide slips his grip.  My kin looked down on the daffy procedure. The custom was beneath their contempt. They’d never lower themselves to such an awkward position. Puns intended.   Their loss.  Might have loosened them up a bit.

Fabled, beautiful Ireland is the birthplace of my maternal grandparents and paternal great grandparents, probably most of their forbears.  My husband’s grandparents and great grandparents on both sides were born there, too. He didn’t really need to ask if I’d mind going again the next year on our 1970 honeymoon.  This year Aer Lingus made another offer I couldn’t refuse, and several days after our arrival my son and daughter-in-law joined me and Honey in Dublin.

One gorgeous, sunny afternoon, wandering a long time by myself in lushly blooming Mount Usher Gardens, I saw a woman across a stream and called out: “How do I find my way out of here?”  She crossed over a small bridge, and led me to a refreshment pavilion where my son and his wife were waiting. We’d walked different ways. Barbara, a Dubliner, was much taken with Honey. No dogs permitted in the park!  Barbara took a picture of my pet, saying she would write about our chance meeting on her blog, “Just Add Attitude.”

When I read the post, Honey’s photo attached, I knew that’s how I could tell my story.  That day I’d been led to take exactly the right path.  Barbara cited Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” so I’ll return the favor and quote Herman Melville’s Ishmael as he wisely observes:  “I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right, that everybody is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is, and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each others’ shoulder-blades, and be content.”

These words didn’t make an impression when I first read “Moby Dick,” but struck me when Peg Bracken repeated it in her “I Hate to Housekeep Book,” a title that caught my attention as a newlywed.  Ms. Bracken was cautioning us not to judge careless homemakers  — we can’t know what worries may be distracting them. Melville was saying we should be there for one another, have our shipmates’ backs in stormy weather. To belabor the metaphor:  We’re all in the same boat.

I now know that faith and endurance are rewarded. When a door closes, anoone or more open.  Disturbed by an irritating grain of sand, an oyster covers it with a lustrous pearl that wouldn’t otherwise form. Troubled waters have sometimes made me change course, navigate to a safe harbor, mend my sails, chart a new route, then set to sea again. (Couldn’t resist. Slipped my moorings.  Got carried away on the tide.)

 To be continued, God willing.

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