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, since completing his year’s chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Disease, diagnosed in 1995, the year after his dad died of pancreatic cancer. 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 had died of 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

In this Year of Our Lord 2011, at the advanced age of 79,  I’m bravely launching a voyage into uncharted waters — the blogosphere.  Never knew this wide world was out there till my recent trip to Ireland, the magical, storied land of my ancestors, with my mini-poodle, Honey. (That’s us in the picture above.) Yes, she was allowed to accompany me in the Aer Lingus cabin as my “comfort companion” — first pet ever to have that perk —  sitting on the seat next to me, cooed at and fussed over by the flight attendants,  even sharing some of my meal.

Then, one lovely day we met a Dublin woman who, smitten with Honey, asked to take her picture (“Step aside, Eileen.”) and wrote about our chance encounter on her blog, “Just Add Attitude.” When I read it later, I knew that’s how I could tell my story. Besides, I thought I’d earned a memoir by now, even if just for family and friends — therapy for me, maybe helping someone else.  Have wanted to be a writer since reading “Little Women” by flashlight, under the covers, after bedtime. Short stories and poems sent off over the years returned rejected.

Grandma Moses was 79 when three of her colorful folk paintings were shown in an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art:  “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.”  Maybe there’s still hope for me.  Does a blog count?  I’ve got George Eliot’s: “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” taped to my refrigerator. (Though  gymnast might be a stretch?)

To begin at the beginning. . .When I was born, my parents lived in Highland Park,  a hilly area near my mom’s parents’ home in East New York, Brooklyn, next to the Queens County line.  According to family lore, an aunt lost hold of my carriage one day, chasing it as it ran down the sloping sidewalk — stopped by a gentleman before reaching  Hillside Avenue traffic. Napping and unaware, I’d been rescued from my first perilous predicament. There were more in store.

Since then, I’ve had my share of “dangers, toils and snares”  as we all do.  God’s bargain package deal for our amazing journey covers both blessings and trials.  And I’m eternally grateful to have come this far, only slightly scarred, in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. So I enjoy belting out my favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” at Sunday Mass, sometimes startling more subdued souls.

Some blessings: Happy childhood with loving parents and my younger sister and brother.  Some true friends. Tuition free Queens College degree.  Marriage to a good man — we were both 38 — before that was even trendy.  At almost 42, after tears, tests, surgery and prayers, the birth of our son, Kieran — “a perfect baby boy,” as the doctor reported. And at 52, decided what I wanted to be when I grew up — worked as a librarian for 21 years — lifetime pension and medical benefits.

Some trials: My dad’s illness and death when I was 11. Episodes of depression, two hospitalizations, since adolescence. Breast cancer, mastectomy, chemotherapy, poor prognosis 32 years ago. My husband among 1,000 downsized by American International Group in 1991.  His pancreatic cancer and death in 1994. Our son’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma the next year.

Painful family trauma after my mother died.  My sister and her husband upset that my mother had given me her engagement ring.  My brother’s messy divorce. Mom died of a heart attack the day after he gave her the news.  I cried and prayed a lot.  Thought taking classes would distract me — suddenly thought of going back to my beloved Queens College.  Mentioned to the children’s librarian in my local library that I’d started library school.  She asked: “Would you like to work here?

So there I was, a librarian trainee, six months after my mother’s death, in the building across the street from her apartment. Required courses for an M.L.S., Master’s in Library Science, are almost as boringly soporific as Education courses.  But I loved the job, and hung in there till I  earned the degree.  Worked in several other libraries, including a school library while my son was in high school.  Lots of material for a memoir.

Have been too busy clinging to the proverbial cliff to write any of it down till now. My working title: “The Perils of Eileen:  Still Hanging in There,” inspired by the heroine of the silent movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” first filmed in 1914, not that long before I appeared on the scene. Pauline, played by the actress, Pearl White, cleverly foiled her guardian’s dastardly schemes to kill her and collect her inheritance.

She’s 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 pernicious plots. But never fear. Brave, resourceful Pauline survived at the end of each episode, sometimes with the help of her fiance, handsome Harry. She’d be back again, ready and able for another adventure.

Cliffhangers came later, leaving the star in a petrifying predicament. Hanging on the edge over a chasm as the dirt crumbled away.  Tied with ropes, moving toward a buzzing circular saw.  Bound to a train track as the engine raced nearer. Come next week to see what happens.  I haven’t faced any of these calamities, yet. But, back in the ’60’s, I fell through one of the wide gaps between Long Island Railroad cars and platforms as the train was about to leave for New York’s Penn Station.

Picture the trailer:  Running late that winter morning, I dashed up the stairs of the Laurelton station, sprinted to an open doorway, started to step over the space, slipped on ice, and landed on the gravel bed, head not visible above the platform. Over 40 years later, in 2006, a young woman fell at the Woodside station and was killed. Long Island’s “Newsday” ran a series exposing many other accidents and lawsuits never before reported. (How I survived in an future post.  Hang in there.)

A friend once said: “Eileen, you could never be in a silent movie!”  But my son,  with degrees in Psychology and Communication, after his chemotherapy and radiation treatments, registered at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, aspiring to be a filmmaker. Or a stand-up comedian. Or both.  He featured me in an assignment, a silent film, “Lights Out for Grandma,” earning an A for his opus. Told me his classmates went “Aww” when I died dramatically — short of breath, trying to blow out trick candles on a birthday cake.  My face falling into the icing. More than one take.

After college, Kieran earned his living as a waiter in Pittsburgh restaurants.  I’d encouraged his hopes — it only mattered that he was alive and well again.  A bonus — he met his future wife, beautiful Bethany, at a Friday’s, working there while she went to college. Now she’s a Speech Therapist in a children’s hospital.  He’s an Occupational Therapist in a nursing home.  But he’s still writing movie scripts.

I haven’t given up hoping to be published, but I’ve had the thrill of seeing my name in print — if only in newspapers. “The New York Times” printed my terse letter on “W” Bush’s Iraq fiasco.  And “Newsday” printed two — one about the LIRR Woodside fatality — another about breast feeding’s probable protection against breast cancer.  A recent study  found pollution wasn’t a definite factor in Long Island’s alarming rate of the dreaded disease. I’ve wondered whether the reason it’s so hard to find the cause could be because there’s more than one.

To my delight, Santa Fe’s “Mothering” magazine accepted my article, “Missing Link:  Vital Connection” about nursing’s little known positive effect.  I’d researched the subject in medical journals, with the help of a librarian at The La Leche League, an advocate for breast feeding. It was to appear in an upcoming November issue, but was pulled before then. Talk about crushing disappointment!

Before I found my true calling, I’d had a motley career after college.  With a B.A. in English, minor in Philosophy — file clerk at TIME magazine’s Letters to the Editor.  Secretary at TIME’s “Sports Illustrated” magazine.  Secretary at the then celebrated navy doctor, Dr. Tom Dooley’s, MEDICO, founded to help the sick poor in Laos. Secretary, then correspondent in Stockholder Relations, at IBM Corp. Followed by a very brief stint as a third grade teacher in the South Bronx.  Seven years as secretary at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, Esqs. Retired six months into pregnancy, in danger of miscarriage.

As you’ve noticed, I’m hardly at a loss for words, being the latter of  two Irish types — private and closemouthed — outgoing and Talkative. In 1969, on my first visit to Ireland with my sister and cousin,  couldn’t miss the chance to kiss the Blarney Stone, a tradition said to bestow the gift of blarney, the ability to beguile and cajole. Smooching that stone may have polished my powers of persuasion — Aer Lingus allowed Honey to come with me this trip. And the doting flight attendants said she was the first pet ever allowed in the cabin.  She sat on the seat next to me like an experienced traveler.

Haven’t had a problem showing my feelings either — and had honed the ability in an NYU acting class one summer. When I’d called The Irish Department of Agriculture for permission to bring my dog to Ireland, I tearfully pleaded: At my age, this may be the last time I traveled to the land of my ancestors. And Honey was an emotional support animal, certified as my comfort companion for flights on Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.

By the way, kissing the Blarney Stone is a sly, wry way of pulling the leg.  Literally and figuratively. Back in 1969,  a jolly man grasped my ankles as I lay on my back on the castle floor, stretching my neck outside an opening in the wall to peck the special block of rock. Uncomfortable, but not dangerous —  a grating prevents plunging to the ground if the guide slips his grip.  My relatives looked down on the procedure. The custom was beneath their contempt. They’d never lower themselves to such an awkward position.

Ireland is the birthplace of my maternal grandparents and paternal great grandparents, and their known forbears.  My husband’s grandparents and great grandparents on both sides were born there, too. He didn’t need to ask if I’d mind going again 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 afternoon, wandering and lost 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, his wife and Honey were waiting. Rescued once more.  My guide, Barbara, smitten with Honey, took the picture and wrote a post: “The Road Not Taken,” titled after Robert Frost’s moving poem. Apparently, I’d taken exactly the right path that day.

This has gotten longer than I intended for my first outing, but I need to quote Herman Melville’s Ishmael here, as he observed:  “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.”

Those wise words didn’t make an impression when I first read “Moby Dick,” but struck me when Peg Bracken quoted them in her “I Hate to Housekeep Book,” a title that caught my eye as a newlywed.  Ms. Bracken recommended we not judge careless homemakers  — we don’t know what may be distracting them. In effect, we’re shipmates and need to be there for one other, have each other’s back in hard times.

Faith and endurance are rewarded. When a door closes, another does open.  Disturbed by an irritating grain of sand, an oyster spins a lustrous pearl around it. Stormy seas have made me change course, navigate to a safe harbor, mend my sails, chart a new route, then set forth again. Couldn’t resist. Got carried away on the tide.

To be continued.  God willing.


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