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I Don’t Have To Say I Love You (But Dusty, I Do!)

Dusty 2I’ve been listening pretty obsessively to the Dusty Springfield station on my Pandora app lately. It plays a lot of Stan Getz, Bobby Darin, and of course, Aretha Franklin, to whom she’s often compared.

I love Aretha. With a voice at once like a piano and a trombone, few performers are as worthy of their icon status. And Aretha tells a marvelous story. I’m with her, standing at the kitchen sink and gazing out the window when she’s looking out onto the morning rain, reflecting on how she used to feel so uninspired. Just as when the chorus swells and she sings about feeling like a natural woman, it makes me want to take my husband in a close embrace, touch my forehead to his, sway to a song only he and I can hear.

There aren’t many singers who can bring you into a story like that. Who can take you on a three minute journey, leaving you wistful, with an emotional hangover worthy of a novel.

Yet time and again I find myself gravitating more towards the Dusty tunes.

Musically, Dusty and Aretha are pretty close cousins – at least when you compare Dusty’s soul period to Aretha’s body of work. And it’s not just because they were from the same era and shared back up singers. There’s a very strong and bluesy, gospel-infused similarity to the way they approach a song. At times, Dusty, can seem like Aretha’s sister from another mister – a fellow outlier with something inside her that can’t be contained. Less a light, than a full-out solar flare.

Dusty 3

But what I like most about Dusty Springfield is that she was always changing, evolving, trying on a new costume. She moved from early sixties “Gidget-style” bop, to smarmy-sexy Burt Bacharach tunes, and then, yes, to Aretha-laced soul like “Son of a Preacher Man.” All with equal elan. And with a preternatural Dusty-ness.

Aretha was always Aretha, which is damned amazing. But I struggle to imagine her belting out a Eurythmics song, for instance. And I suspect Dusty could knock that one out of the park. She could do a cool and artsy “Sweet Dreams,” or a mournful, but electrified “Who’s That Girl.” All without losing her essence.

I bet Dusty could put a whole new spin on Madonna.
Taylor Swift.
Meghan Trainor.
Loretta Lynn.
Nancy Sinatra.
Sheryl Crow.
Hell, she might even pull off a Celine Dion, but without the cringe factor.

Dusty’s “Heart Will Go On” might’ve implied a bit of violence – a drunken night, bitter words, rough sex. Even her most syrupy ballads had an undercurrent of love gone wrong. You could imagine her as the girl who was left crying in the dark, mascara running down her face after her lover left, slamming the door behind him. Or the woman who’d had too much sex with too many men. She wanted to be wanted more than she craved the actual wild thing, but got sucked in again and again. Maybe he would call this time? If not? Pass her a drink.

Her heart would go on.

And Dusty could do a killer Aretha – a feat not many white women, or black women for that matter have been able to accomplish with such casual grace. As a working class British lesbian, she could embody the voice of a black American preacher’s daughter.

Downright transcendental.

I love the versatility, the audacity of Dusty’s easy switch from British to American to pop to soul to disco to 80s British reinvasion. Collaborating with The Pet Shop Boys, then showing up on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack helped her stay relevant in a way few performers were able. The sixties, for most, were such a hard act to follow, but Dusty was on the charts until only a few years before her death from breast cancer in 1999.

Dusty 4

She is to me the definition of true, multifaceted talent.

But what do I know? I’m a writer. And I approach music like a writer, which many music lovers might object to. A true aficionado might say Aretha is the superior talent because she can only be Aretha. She is the epitome of style – a very specific style. A woman like Dusty Springfield dabbles too much. Like Eva Cassidy. She’s neither here nor there, but everywhere. She’s an actress more than a singer. And yeah, ok, story’s important in a song, but it’s not everything. There’s some great music out there that makes no sense at all and completely ignores a basic three-act structure, a true tunehead might say. Just look at Ornette Coleman. Thelonious Monk. David Byrne. The B-52s. House music.

All true. I’m not above grooving to a nonsensical song. Or even one that tells a bad story but has a catchy beat. I’ve got Duran Duran and The Best of Disco on my iPod, after all.

But unlike the men Dusty sings about, I love her best of all.

What’s in a Name?

Victoria's Secret

Victoria’s Secret “Angel”

My name is Victoria and it has never felt right to me.

Not when I was a kid and my friends called me Vic or Vicki, nor when my family called me Vikinka or Viktorka or any derivative of my more formal moniker.

Right around when I hit college, people stopped calling me by nicknames entirely and Victoria was settled on for good. While it was definitely more consistent, it still felt neither here nor there.

It’s funny, even after the long-form “Victoria” became pretty much the only version of my name people used, there was a whole cadre of people who just always got my name wrong. For reasons I can’t explain, a lot of folks have simply called me Veronica – even after I’ve corrected them numerous times.

They say, “Right, right, it’s Victoria – of course. I’m sorry Veronica.”

Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake


Or maybe not so much.

About a year ago, my mother made an illuminating admission to me. She told me how much she hadn’t wanted to name me Victoria at all. How after I was born, she could hardly even say my name. And when she did, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many ways – Vic-toria, Vic-tor-i-a, Vic-tor-ia – the name always tripped out over her tongue tinged with a note of bitterness.

I’d had a brother named Victor, you see. He’d died of the flu the year before I was born. So, back when I was a baby, and my mom’s suffering was still so fresh, my name was simply too painful for her to say.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

It may seem strange that my mom gave me the name Victoria in the first place – that perhaps it was some form of masochism on her part. Because really, couldn’t she have given me another name?

My mother said she’d wanted to give me an Italian name, actually. After fleeing communist Czechoslovakia, she’d spent several months in an Italian refugee camp. Her belly felt my first kick in the countryside near Positano, and my other brother, John – eight years old at the time, had his baptism in Rome. She made many friends there while she waited for permission to come to America. Italy was the first place that made my mom smile after Victor’s death.

And Italy was her stepping stone to America.

My mother had spent most of her life dreaming about a life in America. But not merely for the usual reasons – freedom of speech and expression, freedom to travel, social mobility, freedom from random imprisonment and other forms of persecution, etc. My mother’s reasons were more personal.

America was where my mother’s parents, Bedriska and Victor lived. They’d fled Czechoslovakia when my mom was only six and my mother had spent twenty years pining for them. She’d risked her life and her surviving children’s – mine (in utero) and John’s – to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

My mother wanted desperately to have a relationship with her parents. They had loomed so large, for so long in her imagination. She had envisaged what it would be like baking kolacky with her mother, shopping for a dress, just being held by her.

She wondered what her father’s muscular hands might look like opening a difficult jar of pickles, or feel like if he were to stroke her hair. Both of my grandparents were physically imposing – my grandfather, an Olympic hockey player, was built like a Sherman tank. Victor was a name that suited him very well. My grandmother, tall and beautiful, could have been Greta Garbo’s sister. Bedriska – Fredericka in English – was a name she owned.

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo

In those first few, heady months they were back together, my mother was starstruck by her parents. Everything they said held tremendous weight. My mother had come from a communist country and out of fear had hidden her opinions all of her life. And here, in this new, free country, her parents had opinions about everything and shared them willy-nilly. They talked about which politicians they preferred, their plans for the future, things they liked and didn’t like about their adopted country…

And the names they wanted my mother to bestow upon her unborn child.

My grandparents were determined that my mom should name me after her sisters, Victoria (named after my grandfather) and Helen. At the time, Victoria and Helen were still stuck behind the Iron Curtain, and my grandparents – perhaps – felt an homage to them was in order. My grandmother and grandfather had never met my deceased brother and I don’t think it occurred to them that the similarities between Victor and Victoria would cause my mom such grief.

And at the time, my mother didn’t have it in her to speak up for herself. So, reluctantly, with a forced smile, she agreed to name me Victoria Helen.

Victoria and David Beckham

Victoria and David Beckham

My mom’s story of how I came to be “Victoria” explains a lot, especially in terms of my own ambivalence towards my name. Honestly, even now when people ask me how I prefer to be addressed – whether by Victoria or Vic or Vicki – my inner voice always answers, “I don’t really care – pick one.” Then I say out loud, “Victoria is fine.”

And while name issues have played a pretty insignificant role in my life, I do find it interesting how my mother’s unspoken feelings about my name seem to have affected my own perceptions about what I am called. Victoria has always felt like a name that was thrust upon me instead of given me.

And I think about how differently I feel about the names of people who are dear to me. My husband, Jack, my children.

I remember seeing my babies’ names for the first time, written down on an official document at the hospital shortly after I gave birth. It was a powerful experience to behold their names in black and white. It made them real. I remember my husband running his fingers over our son’s name and saying it aloud with tears in his eyes.

Our daughters’ names felt no less significant. We’d spent months going back and forth about what to call them. With each of our children, we waited until they were born and we’d looked into their murky eyes before deciding which name to give them. Naturally, we’d narrowed it down to two possibilities for each sex, but we wanted to see our babies first – just to make sure we were making the right choice.

And each time it was so clear.


They could have had no other names.

It just makes me ache that my mother was denied that experience. That my name is a forever reminder of her greatest heartbreak – my brother’s death, instead of her greatest triumph – her courageous escape from Czechoslovakia.

And I hope that being able to choose her own American name – even if it was a direct translation of her Czech name – was in some way a consolation. Georgiana is her American name. And she does love it. Jirina, her Czech name, only exists for her now in the old country, on her old documents, on a list of Czech political prisoners from the 1950s and 60s. It endures in the abstract for my mother, like an old address.

As for my name, I still don’t really care much. It means something, I suppose, when I see Victoria Dougherty written on the cover of my novel, but I might use a different name when I publish in the Young Adult category next year.

If I do, perhaps I should ask my mother to give me a nom de plume. Something Italian.

Sophia Loren, Italian goddess

Sophia Loren, Italian goddess

Interview With a Pacifist (An Emergency Post for the Fabulous MCV Egan)

Catlina fotoMy friend Catalina – who I just adore – is offering her wonderful book, The Bridge of Deaths, for FREE August 14-18 and I just had to write this emergency post to get the word out.

Here on Cold, she’s also offering us an exclusive (sort of) interview with her main character, a naive, twenty-four year-old pacifist named Maggie.

But first, here’s a summary of The Bridge of Deaths – you know, just to whet your appetite:

In the winter of 2009-2010 a young executive, Bill is promoted and transferred to London for a major International firm. He has struggled for the better part of his life with nightmares and phobias, which only seem to worsen in London. As he seeks the help of a therapist he accepts that his issues may well be related to a ‘past-life trauma’.

Through love, curiosity, archives and the information superhighway of the 21st century Bill travels through knowledge and time to uncover the story of the 1939 plane crash.

The Bridge of Deaths is a love story and a mystery. Fictional characters travel through the world of past life regressions and information acquired from psychics as well as archives and historical sources to solve “One of those mysteries that never get solved” is based on true events and real people, it is the culmination of 18 years of sifting through sources in Denmark, England and the United States, it finds a way to help the reader feel that he /she is also sifting through data and forming their own conclusions.

The journey takes the reader to well-known and little known events leading up to the Second World War, both in Europe and America. The journey also takes the reader to the possibility of finding oneself in this lifetime by exploring past lives.

“An unusual yet much recommended read.” – The Midwest Book Review

Catalina BOD

An Interview With a Pacifist:

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not saving (the world, clients, your mate)?

I have to choose one favorite thing? There is so much in life that is simply magical, thrilling and important. I belong to a Peace activist group in the London area and we are not shy to express our complete distaste for all violence. My life is however not in any way limited to being a Peacenik and if there is a good party or fun weekend trip with friends, I have been known to miss a protest or two. I am only twenty-four and as much as I am sure we live many lives, I am not about to waste any good fun to be had in this one. Ah my mate, Bill does need a lot of saving doesn’t he? I really thought he’d be just a fun time when we met, I did not expect to feel so complete with him, not that I would have imagined or designed him that way as ‘the perfect mate’ mind you. I had dated a few foreign blokes before, but not from across the pond, he is lovely though.

john and yoko

What is it about Bill that makes you crazy in a good way?

There is so much that is frustrating and endearing. He keeps his thoughts so hermetically sealed, that I have to dig and pry to get answers don’t I? After all he is the one with the nightmares and the phobias, but I get to do all the digging. No room to be the saved damsel in distress here, I get to grab Bill by the hand and guide him kicking and screaming to meet his fate, well I exaggerate, perhaps not screaming but a bit of kicking.

Do you sometimes want to strangle your writer? Thrash her to within an inch of her life? Make them do the stupid crap they makes you do?

I certainly do not want to give any spoilers here for the end of the book, but well, yes I would have liked my freedom and adventure to last a bit longer. And I did drink quite a lot of Sauvignon Blanc didn’t I , so yes for every hangover let’s trash M.C.V.

bad night

Favorite food?

I love Scandinavian fare because of my mom. Danish food and desserts are the best.

Tell me a little bit about your world. What are your greatest challenges in that world?

London is a great town, we have so many good museums and restaurants. I love how alive and quiet it can be. When I walk in certain areas I can tap into so much and I do not mean just history, but the fun stuff, like scenes from great films or knowing that musicians I love lived in certain places, and got the very ideas for the songs I love right there in Soho. Like Cat Stevens or as Bill would immediately point out Yusuf Islam; I mean when I go to Soho and walk down Denmark Street and Charing Cross road, right by where I met Bill at Foyles I can imagine how Cat Stevens drew from all that to write the songs that I love so much. See it is not just in history where a suspect mind and discernment is important, Bill was so sure that Cat Stevens was a militant aggressive person and he is actually the absolute opposite, but of course the media distorted his comments during the whole Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses thing and when the counter statements were made it was not in the front pages, but rather the back ones. When I showed Bill how something so relatively recent could be so distorted I think it really helped open his mind to all we were investigating from 1939 and the plane crash.

Catalina 2

Describe yourself in four words.

Cautiously Optimistic, happy, hopeful and discerning.

What do you do for a living?

I counsel teenagers, I help them look into themselves for that feeling of security and sense of self rather than to be outwardly influenced by others. I work with very typical teens, nothing heavy just growing issues you know. I am such a free spirit (perhaps that should have been one of my words above) that the powers that be know I would not be strict enough with certain cases, got into a bit of a mess a few years ago… well that is neither here nor there, no sense in giving it any more energy, just help them choose classes and such a Guidance Counselor, I don’t like labels and I believe they have all the answers inside themselves, they just need to tap into them.

What do you fear the most?

War, actually the apparent inevitability of many horrible wars. If only we were clever enough to learn from the past right? But I guess that would be every pacifist’s worst fear wouldn’t it?

woman crying with gun

Sundays With Merle

Merle 8Years ago, my Aunt Viki and Uncle George owned a small, cheerful retirement home near Tampa, Florida. It was called Park Manor and was made up of mostly middle class old folks who more often than not felt some connection to my family’s Czech heritage.

Viki and George, although only in their early forties at the time, were like Mom and Dad at this place – and they got to know each and every one of the people who chose to make their lovely, little assisted living facility their home.

As you can imagine, there were a lot of unforgettable characters at Park Manor: The octogenarian former beauty queen who slinked around in low-cut party dresses by day and transparent negligees by night. She had a huge crush on my then twenty-two year-old brother and used to invite him to her, ahem, room. Then, there were the warring Czech brides. Fifty years earlier, one had run off with the other one’s husband, and they hadn’t seen each other since. In the kind of twist of fate that proves God really does have a sense of humor, these ladies were made roommates at Park Manor. Ignorant of their past, my aunt figured that since they both spoke Czech, they’d make fast friends. Instead, they had to be placed in opposite wings, or else be found rolling on the floor, pulling each other’s hair out.

But of all the love birds, the wicked witches, the playboys, the card sharks, the war heroes, the comedians, and the master bakers, none was more memorable than Merle.

Merle 3

At one hundred and one years-old, Merle stood slender and erect, with only the help of a hand-carved cane. Short gray hair, equally gray eyes that twinkled like deep water on an overcast day. Neat, comfortable clothes, no make up other than lipstick – “You can’t forget you’re a woman,” she’d say.

Merle had been married twice and widowed twice. Always ready for a laugh at her own expense, she displayed on her night table a come hither picture of herself – taken by her second husband, on her second wedding night. In it, she was seventy-five years of age, and looked pretty darned good in a long, black, silky nightgown with her hair swept up.

She always had a story, and I never heard a single negative word come out of her mouth on any of my visits. And this was a woman who’d lived through World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, Segregation, The Cold War, Vietnam – Jimmy Carter, for goodness sake, she used to say (alhtough always in good humor).

But the most extraordinary thing about Merle was expressed on Sunday afternoons.

Sundays at Park Manor were by far the most popular visiting days, as many families chose to stop in for lunch after church. By mid-afternoon or so, many visitors would start to take their leave. There were dinners to be made, and old folks get tired.

But at Merle’s, the party was just getting started.

new year party

Nearly every single Sunday, Merle’s room was so filled with visitors, that many had to linger in the hall and take turns going in. Boisterous laughter, children’s squeals and just about any style of music – Ragtime, Swing, Rock-n-Roll – echoed throughout Merle’s wing. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from her first marriage were there, but so were her second husband’s children. Although she couldn’t have met them until they were well into middle age themselves, she’d made inroads into their hearts and counted her second husband’s grandchildren as hers, too.

And everyone stayed up to the minute when visiting hours ended.

I guess I paid such close attention to Merle because of the wasted love I’d seen in my own family. I’d watched too many loved ones give away the ties that bind like they were 25 cent raffle tickets. They ran from their mistakes in their young lives, and kept running throughout midlife and even beyond. It seemed to work for them. By and large, they were free to live lives unencumbered by the inconveniences that true emotional responsibility can visit upon a life.

And they remained free of the benefits as well, always appearing vaguely uncomfortable when faced with the gush of a happy child’s love, or a chance view of a tender kiss stolen between a husband and wife at a crowded family gathering.

And sooner or later, they simply ended up.

I remember my aunt telling me that her experience at Park Manor had taught her that most people who ended up alone on Sunday after Sunday had earned it. I found that to be a devastating revelation.

Merle 5

Shortly after Merle finally died, my aunt and uncle got an offer they couldn’t refuse. It was from a large convalescent home chain, and sowed up their own hard-earned retirement. It was tough for them to let go because my aunt and uncle really cared about the people at Park Manor and had looked out for their dignity, their quality of life. On their last day, the place was filled with house-made chocolate pudding and tears.

Later, my aunt admitted to me that she could have never sold the place while Merle was still alive.

That Merle. Considering I only met her a handful of times, she’s had a pretty disproportionate effect on the way I view my life. When I find myself wallowing over my usual litany of complaints – undoubtedly revolving around childcare, work, and a lack of ME time – Merle often pops into my mind.


I’m sure I romanticize her to some extent, and that there are people out there who might tell a whole different story about the way she conducted her life – one that reveals her human foibles. Like if she got piss-drunk before the school play, then heckled the entire 7th Grade cast of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, or called her Aunt June a whore during Thanksgiving dinner, or threatened to leave her husband for their son’s history teacher, perhaps.

But even if all those things were true, I’d still hold her up as a gold standard. The way I want to end up.

Merle’s example has served as a lifelong reminder to me that the benefits of love accrue. Even when we mess up spectacularly, it’s worth going back for more, trying to right what we’ve done wrong. Merle’s life seemed to exemplify that. How could she not have given so much more than she got, seeing the devotion she inspired, long after her family had stopped needing her, after all?

Merle seemed to embrace the sad and wonderful truth about the human family. That the people under your roof are not happier when you’re more fulfilled, when your time is respected. They’re happier when you go out of your way for them. When you drop what you’re doing to have a laugh and a kiss.

mom with stress

The same way I’ll be happier if my children set aside their Sundays for me when I’m in my own version of Park Manor – one that hopefully includes a travel club, Barre classes and rabid boxing fans. Maybe a couple of dance halls and a Tiki bar. A cowboy or two.

Because even if my son and daughters are crazy busy and have cupcakes to make for a bake sale, or a big presentation at work due early that Monday morning, I want them in my room – laughing, talking, listening to music. Fighting to take their turn from the hallway.

The (Ghost) Stories We Tell

crows talkingWhen Michele Gwynn and Jami Brumfield asked me to come on their Blog Talk Radio program, Cover to Cover, I figured I was in for a good time – a thought-provoking, interesting, eminently bloggable time.

Case in point, Michele writes about murders, angels, aliens, ghosts and a German dominatrix who changes careers and becomes an officer in the State Police (dream job for an aging whippersnapper – badum ching!).

Jami is a passionate paranormalist (Is that even a word? Don’t know, but it fits) and hypnotherapist, no less, who writes fun and suspenseful novels about witches, vampires, ghosts, werewolves and forbidden love.

Pull me up a chair.

We talked about all sorts of things. History, and our love of it, visiting concentration camps, Germany as a seriously underrated vacation destination, and our admittedly genre-bending fiction. Not surprisingly, the conversation got a little bit woo-woo when Michele asked me about the paranormal elements in my own work.

ghost on tracks

It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a paranormal writer at all, and I think if you go strictly by genre rules, I’m not. I’m a Historical Fiction kind of girl, who weaves some pretty significant Thriller elements into my stories. But more often than not, a certain degree of magical realism does enter into the way I spin a yarn. My characters can have visions – religious or otherwise, divine love (albeit wrongly) from some pretty sadistic acts, and see the occasional ghost. One of my characters even becomes the Angel of Death after his own untimely demise. I suppose that is a bit divergent from, say, a Philippa Gregory or Ken Follett story – even if the latter, like me, tends to have a taste for the world of cloaks and daggers.

So, I guess a bit of enchantment is somewhat unusual for Historical Fiction, a genre which focuses on, as Ms. Gregory points out, “the animation and recreation of a life, of fleshing out historical bones.”

But is it unusual in history, this blending of fact and hocus-pocus? History is filled with leaders who feel they were communing with God or being guided by spirits. Just ask Joan of Arc, the Egyptians, or any number of Native American tribesmen and women – especially ones from days past.

Nor is a paranormal element unusual in historical writing. Homer comes to mind. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Macbeth witches

In my own life, I’ve always felt a co-existence with the “other.” From niggling feelings that end up being prophetic – foreshadowing the death of a loved one, or a turn in luck. Perhaps a paralyzing wave of deja vu.

To simply answered prayers.

And I know a thing or two about living with the dead. Breathing life into a pile of bones, all while relishing the nitty-gritty of uncovering the very facts of a time and place – the ones that make that skeleton dance.

dancing bones

Like any self-respecting history buff, I live in a house that was built while Thomas Jefferson was still among the living, for heaven’s sake. A place ripe for otherworldly shenanigans.

While I’ve heard only a handful of whispers in the night during the dozen or so years we’ve lived there, those incidents have been as palpable as sexual attraction. They provoked a physical reaction, an electric charge of anticipation and fear, a thrill.

So, I can’t imagine telling a story that doesn’t acknowledge at least the potential for belief in the existence of other worlds, of souls, of an overlap in space and time that even Einstein allowed for. He did, after all, speak of reality as an illusion, of love as something outside the constraints of the natural world, of mystery as the most beautiful thing we can experience – the source of all true art and science.

Because really, does any one of us – no matter how rational or literal – know a single someone out there who hasn’t felt the hair on his neck stand up? Who doesn’t have a ghost story to tell?

campfire ghost stories 3

And here’s the link to the program:

The Never-Ending Surprise Party

4186-16854I was cooking dinner when my husband called. He’d already been gone for ten days on this punishing, potato sack race of an international business trip and still had another week to go. So, I just couldn’t contain myself when his number came up on my phone. I mean, really, I jumped up and down.

I always look forward to hearing his quirky stories and cranky observations, especially when he’s far, far away. Since having children, I’ve become mostly an armchair traveler, so his musings about foreign countries I know – Ireland, England, Germany –  and don’t know – Russia – were not only going to be a fun distraction for me, but a chance for us to connect and have a laugh, help me miss him less.

“What are you cookin’?” he asked.

“Chicken with lemon rice.” It’s a family favorite.

“Yes!” he said. “You slow-roasted the chicken, right? I mean, you didn’t cheat?”

Of course I cheated. I’m single-parenting until next Saturday and don’t have time to baste a chicken for three hours. “Cheat? Me?”

“Because my day took an unexpected turn this morning,” he continued. “And I’m going to be home in an hour.”

I got all verklempt.

“Are you crying?” he asked me.

Honestly, since having children I cry watching cat commercials, but I really was so happy that he was on his way home. And I love that he kept it from me until the last minute. That our son’s jaw was going to drop, then morph into a grin like a fat orange slice when he saw his dad come waltzing in. That our daughters would squeal. Well, one of them anyway. The other one gets all pre-teen and says mushy things like, “Hey, dad.”

As a family, we have always celebrated surprises. We take spur of the moment trips to podunk towns that do or do not turn out to be fun, we reach out to new neighbors, we move, we buy old houses, dream up schemes and stories, have more kids than we planned, don’t want to know the sex of our babies until they’re born, take on too many projects and surrender to rotten, good-for-nothing luck, not just in the hopes of surviving it, but with the belief that in the end something special will come out of our long, dark journey. Like a new best friend or a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or maybe just some wisdom and empathy.

All, not most, of the best things in my life have come from surprises, so I’m not just being a Pollyanna here. The Berlin Wall coming down was a huge surprise, as was my decision to move to Prague shortly after. Falling in love with my husband came so far out of left field that I still find myself humming that Talking Heads song,

“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?”

over the threshold

Every facet of having children has been surprising – from finding myself obsessed with their interests and emotions to a pitying degree, to how much and how little they are like me. People tell you a lot of things about becoming a parent, but nobody tells you that children will be a mirror held up to your soul – exposing the best and the worst of you, making you desperate to fix your own flaws for their sake. Selfishness, vanity, any sense of moral equivalency or ambiguity – at least in regard to their welfare – don’t get thrown out the window, necessarily, but are definitely thrown a curve ball.

And no, sister, you can’t have it all. You get so much more than having it all.

Plunging into the role of wife and mother has been a one-way ticket to being a better person for me. More than the accomplishments I craved like street drugs when I was growing up, more than therapy, more than seeking enlightenment. Not to beat a dead horse here, but that’s been kind of surprising. It’s been a one-way ticket in coach, mind you, on a train that often smells of perspiration, spilled cognac, cigarettes and live roosters, but damn, it takes you to the most unexpected, often glorious places.



And lately, I’ve been surprised at the daughter I’m becoming.

Although we always loved each other tremendously, my mom and I weren’t actually close until my late thirties, when my youngest was born so sick. Without missing a beat, my mom kicked into overdrive. Her heroic efforts to ease our burden – taking the night shift at the hospital so that we could be with our other kids, massaging my feet after a shattering day, standing in for me at field trips and class parties – helped us both see each other anew. Since then I have slowly, sometimes painfully – in a cut and bleed, stitches and Band-aids kind of way – become a daughter.

It has been a narrow and bumpy road.

I’ve had to surrender some of my prized independence, care for my mother without taking on a condescending or bossy air, and accept the fact as lovingly and graciously as I can, that my littlest loves my mom more than anyone in the world.

More than she loves me.

Against everything that my younger self would have thought possible, I’m endeavoring to guide my mom through the twilight of her life – from the death of her husband to the change from her role as mistress of her own household, to being a part of mine. And I’m learning that I welcome and relish the challenge – most of the time. Even when I lose my temper and get it all wrong – which is often.

No surprise there.

surprise disaster

I’m sharing my kitchen – which is huge for me – letting my mom rearrange things, throw out perfectly good mops in favor of her own, over-stuff my pantry, and serve us her “Chinese” food with a French baguette instead of rice.

“Mmm,” I say, hoping she won’t trot out her other “ethnic” dishes. Like spaghetti and meatballs served with a sauce of Campbell’s tomato soup cut with milk. My mom spent seven months in an Italian refugee camp after fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia and is the only person I know who loved everything about Italy, except for the food.

But while her forays into international cuisine are dubious, she’s actually a wonderful cook – when she’s cooking Czech food. Her goulash, potato dumplings, schnitzel and sweet and sour cabbage are a welcome shake-up of our family dinners. I can’t wait to cook Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with her for the first time in years. Goose, mushrooms, fruit tarts, spaetzle.

surprise goose

And the best surprise of all is that I’m once again finding myself falling deeper in love with the man I married. A guy who is not only welcoming his mother-in-law into his home, but is creating two lovely smoking lounges for her on our front and back porches. A man who isn’t afraid to be the bad guy when he needs to be – setting boundaries and confronting very real issues. Like when my mom contradicts our parenting, either behind our backs or right in front of the kids. From “Oh, come on, she can have another ice cream,” (Not after chocolate chip cookies and and a full bag of gummi worms she can’t!) to “If mama won’t buy you phone, I will,” (What the @#$%&*!??)

“It’ll take some adjustment,” my husband says. “But we’ll get to go away alone now, too – have overnight dates.”

I’ll get to tag along on business trips and expand my own career universe without feeling guilty for leaving for a couple of days.

“Most of all, it’s a chance to grow,” my husband reminds me.

A surprise always offers that chance – to those who are willing to embrace it.

Well, Go Ahead and Blow Out Those 239 Candles!

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

American Coldsters – go out and watch the fireworks. Eat barbecue, drink beer and really listen to the lyrics of our national anthem.

Non-American Coldsters – please raise a glass for us today and know that you’re always welcome at our table.

Happy, Happy Birthday, America. I love you with unabashed sentiment.

4th post 5


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