My Father’s Hand

When I was growing up, I lived in the greatest country in the world, America!
It was an American’s footprint on the moon. It was in America that there was plenty to eat and plenty to invent. People came from all over the world to seek the American Dream. The generation before me grew up through the Great Depression. As teenagers, they saved the world from Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. They married during the fabulous fifties. Their children would redefine women’s rights and family life reaping the rewards of their parents victories against oppression, poverty and evil and taking it all apart again. Some good would emerge from this shake up, but some good would be left behind for future generations to rediscover. Some important truth can be lost in the shuffle of creating the future. There is much to be learned by remembering the history of those who came before.
I loved to hear about my parent’s lives. When I was a little girl, I would close my eyes and picture my mother as a little girl in Italy as she described how she played picking cherries and draping them over her ears like glamourous earrings. She told her children about what it felt like to have to go to school under the reign of Mussolini. The uniform she had to wear. How she had to hide the fact that she was American born during the war. How the family would hide her brother down a well so that he could not be recruited into Mussolini’s army. She told of the job she had helping the midwife, running one mother’s milk to another baby whose mother could not feed it. She carried the milk in a bottle quickly from one house to another. Then, there was the happy story of how my mother’s younger brother rang the church bells flying up and down on the ropes.
I would hang on her every word as she told me the stories her grandmother told her. Then, amazed by her courage as she traveled back home on a long ship ride across the ocean that was by no means a pleasure cruise. My mother was a great storyteller.

My father, however, was a mystery. There were only clues from his past. Many he wore on his hands. My father’s hand was the biggest hand in the world in my eyes. He worked hard and my time with him was scarce.  I remember every time I would sit with him before bedtime. Those were peaceful moments. My father simply sat beside me, watching television. I would snuggle up next to him and open up his hand. Then, I would measure my hand against his, palm to palm. The tips of my fingers would scarcely reach the edge of his palm. His fingernails were stained with motor oil from his job as a mechanic. There was his wedding ring, which he never took off. The skin below it was pale, but the rest of his hand was rough and dark. He had a scar that ran down his hand from his thumb to his wrist. When asked about it, he said he got it in the war. That was all he would tell. It was an amazing hand. When we walked into church on Sunday morning, my father held my hand. I felt very safe and very sure that I would not get lost as long as I had that great big hand to hold onto. When I had a fever, I felt such comfort from my mother’s gentle touch measuring the heat of my face through out the day. In the middle of the night, however, I would feel the sturdy and cool touch of my father’s hand on my forehead. I knew someone brave and strong was watching over me.

As the years went by, I became busy making my own mark on the world. I became a wife and a mother. The times of measuring my hand against my father’s hand became fewer and further between. When I did steal a moment by his side, I would quickly measure my grown hand against his, palm to palm. Still, it was the biggest hand in the world.
Now, those hands built trains and science experiments with my boys. My father pushed them on the swings, caught them at the end of the slide, and carried them bravely in to visit Santa Claus. Those hands repaired walls, installed motion detector lights and smoke alarms in my house.

Then, the time came when the biggest hand in the world lay still at his side in a dark hospital room. He was so fragile and strong at the same time as he withstood the beating his body took at the end of his life. In the last few quiet moments we had together on this earth, I picked up my father’s hand and measured mine against it, palm to palm. It was still the biggest hand in the world. I smiled when I thought about everything he had done in his life. I whispered to him,“Dad, this is a good night to go to Heaven. The stars are twinkling waiting for you to make sure they are installed properly.” He squeezed my hand gently and tried to smile. “You are of the great generation, Dad. Life did not beat you. I am proud to be your daughter. I love you.” 
As I left him to rest, I knew it was the last time I would hold that great hand again. I let go and immediately missed him. 

Time goes on and the business of life continues. My father had been living in a quiet place in my heart, since that night. 
One particularly busy day, I had been walking along with my son who had grown into his teen years and long since stopped taking my hand. I began to cross the street. Suddenly, a car turned the corner. 
I felt a strong grip take me by the hand and pull me back to safety. I looked down. There was my father’s hand.
It belonged to my son now. I stopped right where I was, opened up my son’s hand and looked. The same long thin fingers, the same sturdy palm. No motor oil, no scar, The skin was smooth and fresh like a clean page waiting to written on. A page in a story that has been writing itself for generations.I measured my hand against his, palm to palm. It was still bigger than mine.
I realized then, the greatest lesson my father ever taught me. Our lives are not just a single event. We leave a legacy with the lives we touch and share. One link in a chain. A chain of lives, a chain of love, we build together palm to palm, hand in hand.

The Day I Met an Angel

It happened a long time ago, but I still remember the date, December 4, 1984.
A very young 22 year old freshly out of design school, I was living a dream in the city that never sleeps. On that bitterly cold Sunday afternoon, I had been spending the day enjoying the Van Gogh at Arles exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a good friend of mine.

As we left the warmth of the museum, we instantly learned that it had become even colder outside! The product of youth, of course, was that we were both unprepared for the weather. More concerned about how we looked than how we needed to shield ourselves from the cold, we both had light coats on. No hats, no mittens, no scarves to protect us from the biting wind. Together, we huddled and briskly walked down Fifth Avenue in search of my friends car. He had come from New Rochelle in his not so gently used, white Volkswagon Rabbit.

Some may remember the Volkswagon Rabbit. It was more of a bunny in size, but we were happy to see it! That tiny car was our refuge from the freezing cold.
Our feelings of relief quickly turned to panic when we looked down to see a flat tire up against the icy curb. When my friend opened the trunk, those feelings of panic soared at what we did not see. Another product of youth, my friend had never gotten around to replacing a lug wrench and even worse, a spare tire!

This crazy twist of fate had left us stranded, no spare, no lug wrench, no ride home and the snow beginning to fall heavily. Quickly, we sprang into action. Every car that stopped at a red light or slowed down in traffic was met with the desperate face of my friend, Walter. Icicles were beginning to form in his long hair, his nose was running, his mouth was stiff and his cheeks were red and frozen as he ran up to car windows, banging on the glass and begging for a lift to a gas station.
Now, surprising as this may be, in New York City, when someone in that condition runs up to your car shouting and banging on the window, you don’t open it! Walter received quite a bit of rejection.
Then, an amazing thing happened. As I huddled against a building to escape the harsh bite of a gust of freezing wind, I saw a car stopped at a red light. It was a not so gently used, white Volkswagon Rabbit! It could have been a twin of the one with the flat tire, now covered with snow. I rushed up to the driver’s window. It was that moment that  I saw the face of an angel.

I merely pointed to our car and the driver, without a word, pulled up beside it. This alone was a feat accomplished only with the help of Divine Intervention, but then the angel stepped out of the car.

Angels have been depicted in art and described in literature, but none looked like the angel that stood before me. This angel stood about 6 feet tall, an African American man in his late fifties. He wore a huge, puffy, snow resistant parka. I saw only a bit of his face because the hood of the parka was thickly lined with fur and zipped up tightly around his face. What I did see was a pair of kind eyes behind some thick glasses and a gentle smile. My friend came rushing over huffing and puffing and gushing with relief. Then, we both watched as the angel expertly changed the tire using his own spare tire and lug wrench.

When he was finished, we both thanked him profusely and pulled out money to pay him for the tire. He put up his hand to stop us. With a smile, he said,”Just help someone else someday. You pay it back by paying it forward.”

Our paths did not cross again, but his words and his kindness stayed with me. Since that day, I donated to the poor and offered my help to others when I could, but it is often in very ordinary moments in the most ordinary of places that those true “angel” moments happen. Years later, there was one of those moments for me to take on angel powers in one of the least special places, a public restroom. A young mother had been changing her baby on a pull down changing table when I happened to pass by. In the time span of about one tenth of a second, four things happened at once. Freeze that tenth of a second and you would see a young mother screaming, a baby rolling off the table head first toward the hard tile floor, my hand catching that baby in the nick of time, and a pair of wings sprouting from my back, a halo over my head! Unfreeze the moment, and within a blink of an eye it was over. There was an exchange of a heartfelt ”thank you” from the mom and a ”your welcome” from me. Then, we went our separate ways.  Somehow, without a second to think, I was able to have the instinct to make that catch and I believe that mom and baby went on to help another ordinary person on an ordinary day.

I have met many angels since. One that appeared just at the right moment to pull our family out of a wrecked car after an accident. One that appeared to save my son’s life. One that arrived just in the nick of time to help my father with his journey out of this life. Some have simply been there to provide that quarter we do not have, or that seat on a bus, catching those elevator doors when we may be running late.
So, you see, I believe in angels because I have met a few. Just ordinary people, even I stepped up to the task whether I knew it or not. Some of you may have had your turn as an angel and it can happen again when you least expect it. A moment when you are there at the right time and the right place to wear the wings.

It might just be today.

The Native Floridian and the City Girl

Culture shock is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it lead me to many adventures. When I arrived in Florida in what feels like a lifetime ago, I pretty much knew my way around New York City where I was born and raised, but Florida was a new wilderness. There are many adventures that happen walking down those New York streets, but aside from urban myths about alligators in the subway, the only wildlife was of the human sort.

Florida has changed quite a bit in the 29 years or so I have lived here. Occasionally, there might be a turtle crossing the road and plenty of mosquitoes, lizards and even garden snakes. Nonetheless, to truly seek out a Florida nature experience, you may have to battle the traffic to find your way to a park or preserve. This is a tale of the day a Florida nature experience found me!

Only the third week of settling into life in Kissimmee, I had managed to find freelance work at Tupperware Convention Center. I made the transition to tropical living with my clothes, lighter and brighter. I felt like a new job would take care of the rest. In spite of the new look, I still had the New York state of mind. Still hustling and bustling along and accustomed to taking trains and buses, I had become inpatient with the slow bus schedule of my new town. I decided to walk! There I was strolling along a nicely maintained sidewalk until I reached the end of the corporate property. The sidewalk came to an abrupt end, but I just kept on going.

The grass grew taller and taller. The ground grew mushier and mushier. I found myself asking “What have I gotten myself into?” My question was answered.

Quite by accident, I had met for the first time, a true Native Floridian. There I stood, still as a statue. I held my breath as I looked at his small beady eyes, his long snout of a nose, and his coat of armor. He looked right back at me.

In that split second, we were both frozen. I had never seen anything like this creature before. Gripped with fear, I threw up my arms and screamed!

Now, there is an ancient Mayan legend that tells of the Mayan Sun God who wanted to teach a lesson to two unruly young gods. He sat the two gods down on a couple of benches and gave them a good reprimand. The benches suddenly turned into two armadillos that jumped straight up into the air dumping the two gods on their backsides in a very undignified manner. They were very humbled.

That is exactly what happened that warm summer evening in Kissimmee. As I screamed, the armadillo screamed. It jumped straight up into the air! Then it ran off as fast as its strange little legs would carry it.

As I made my way home on that adventurous night, I could not help but feel sorry for that armadillo. After all, it was I who was the intruder. The armadillo was simply walking the path it has always called home. I guess it just found a more hidden path to walk from then on. If the armadillo could speak, it would probably say about me,”I don’t know what that terrifying creature was, but I hope I never see it again!”

Ever since that time, I have a sort of fondness for armadillos. It was a rite of passage into my new life as a Floridian that has lasted a very long time. I hope the armadillo found a safe place away from those treacherous cars that its armor may not protect it from. I even hope I see an armadillo walking in the woods again—from a distance!

Just a Cookie

It was about the size of my hand. A golden brown shortbread cookie shaped like a mallard duck and filled with raspberry jam. Just a cookie, but as far as cookies go, it was extraordinary.

As I looked at the cookie I held, it seemed as if the relentlessly ticking clock on the wall held its breath with respect. As  delicious and exquisitely made as this small treat was, the truly remarkable ingredient of this cookie was the memories it held.

This was a signature duck cookie from the B-Line Diner at the Peabody Orlando Hotel. One of the last batches to be baked before the Peabody Orlando becomes a Hyatt.  Today seemed like a good day to watch the DuckMaster lead the ducks in their famous march into the lobby fountain one more time. Then, it was off to the B-line Diner for four duck cookies to bring home. One for each of the Griffin family.

As I took in the aroma of the raspberry filling, memories rushed into my mind.  Once again it was a stormy afternoon in the lobby. The rain pouring across the glass atrium, the boys, Tim and I sat very contentedly by the lobby fountain eating duck cookies while listening to the music of the piano that sometimes played all by itself. The boys watched the ducks swim in the fountain as the red carpet and steps were set up in preparation for the famous march back up to the Duck Palace.

With the first bite of delicious shortbread and raspberry, vivid moments by the wading pool enveloped me in a wave of precious memories. There we were, enjoying a picnic lunch at our own private table under a shady tree on the deck of the pool. The boys’ laughter as they played under the waterfall filled my ears. I could almost smell the mixture of  sunscreen and chlorine unique to those summer days. Those were the days we spent swimming and drinking cold lemonade in Peabody plastic cups and Mom and Dad joined us for espresso brought from home in a Thermos. Days filled with childhood. Those were the days where Forever lived. We accomplished nothing but being together, loving each other and enjoying the pure peaceful moments.

A few more bites, I was once again swimming in the clear blue water of the swimming pool with Tony in my arms floating on his back. I remember the feeling of his soft baby face against my cheek and neck. Above us, Tim was wildly launching Kevin into the air for a joyful jump into the pool. It was about the time he had stopped being afraid of the water. There were races from one end of the long  pool to the other.  Music and palm trees all around embracing us. The aroma of the powder from the locker room.

Suddenly, I noticed I had come to the last bite of the cookie. I realized it may be the very last bite of the last duck cookie of my life.  It’s just a cookie. The world is filled with cookies…delicious cookies. Life is filled with moments…wonderful, precious moments.  I swallowed the last amazing bite of that cookie.

I took a deep breath and smiled. I felt blessed and cheated at the same time.  I was so glad to have had it and to enjoy it all one more time, but could not help reprimanding myself  for not holding onto it and making it last a bit longer. The clock began to tick away again.

It was just a cookie. It was so good…and it was gone too quickly.

The Mysterious Inheritance

Human beings! We love to talk about ourselves. We just cannot seem to help it. Living out our lives inside these fragile bodies can go either way. On the good days, when our legs are strong and our minds are clear, the body feels invincible and beautiful. It is the perfect space suit inside which we feel safe and powerful. On even better days, and these are rare, we transcend out of our bodies and experience moments of total freedom, euphoria, and peace. You know…lying on your back looking up at the fluffy clouds on a beautiful day at the beach, walking through the woods early in the morning, the first kiss you share with the love of your life, holding your baby for the first time…just to name a few.

Then, there are the days when our bodies feel like prisons. Trapped inside a body that grows more frail and broken as each day passes. The inescapable burden of protecting, healing and nurturing hundreds of physical components. The mundane albatross of tooth brushing, hair washing, nail clipping, feeding and hydrating this cumbersome body holds us back from dancing all night, riding roller coasters, climbing trees. It cannot go nearly as far as imagination can take our spirits. Gold medals are awarded to the few who dedicate their lives to overcoming its limitations. The outside appearance lies about us. We can hide behind carefully constructed masks of arrogance or rebellion. Often, we beg each other to withhold judgement of what seems to be and see with the eyes of the heart.

Honestly, we are so much more than our jobs, grades, hobbies and cultural backgrounds. We are constantly surprised by what we feel and do. Every day, the mysteries of our lives unfold. It just does not always add up as it should. No matter who you are, rich or poor, beautiful or plain, self centered or altruistic, kind or nasty, makes no difference. You could go to church every Sunday and feed the homeless, or you could be the homeless, it would not matter. None of us completely know what makes us who we are. From the endless generations that preceded our individual lives we inherit both strength and weakness. An inheritance that can include a treasure of talent and good fortune as well as a consequence of misfortune, circumstances, and DNA stacked against you. We will each experience Heaven, Hell, and Limbo during the journey here. A journey creating itself through nature, accidents, and coincidences.

How do we keep going in the face of all of the unknown curves and dips on the road of our lives? Well, we just do not have a choice. So, we just hold on and ride it. There is, it seems, one real choice. Love or fear. We meet it at every curve and every dip. Ultimately, our inheritance holds more questions than answers. What next?

Which Words Do You Wear?

Here on the information highway, I find myself thumbing for a ride.

After all, this is where people from all over this planet are telling their stories. A good place for a storyteller to observe and share. It seems to me that this computer is a bit like one of those small airplanes used for skywriting. The pilot may not exactly know who if anyone is getting the message, but it is fun to fly just the same.

It has been said that when a person has lived, that person is written into the book of life. We are sometimes remembered for something special we have done. It can be surprising that the something special may be something very ordinary and hardly considered noticeable. For example, I remember going to the polls on Election day when I was only about five years old with my mother at our neighborhood public school, good old PS 48. My mother disappeared behind a curtain telling me to sit right where I was and wait. A teacher came to sit with me and offered me a brownie. Certainly, the brownie was pretty memorable because it was the first one I ever had, but I remember how nice he was and how pleased my mother was to see that he had kept me company.

I remember the first day of school for my older sister. I was the last kid still at home and I had to figure out how to play by myself. My mother, who had lots of work to do, stopped her work and came outside to swing on the swings with me. To think, such a small gesture, yet in that moment, my mother showed me what was important in life. With just a game and a rhyme on a swing, she taught me to notice those golden afternoons with my children and grab them before they were gone.

There was a time when I was a just out of college, ready to test my wings. The very first art director that I worked for asked me to stay in her apartment for a few weeks while she worked in the London office. I grabbed the opportunity eagerly. A glamourous Manhattan apartment on East End Ave.! I envisioned this swanky place, but found instead a roach infested room about the size of a  closet. To top it off, she had a door that had some kind of defect that resulted in the door being unable to stay in the unlocked position. The key had to be something you kept with you every second, even if you just stepped out into the hall to bring in a bag. I was feeling so independent, when I heard the SLAM! After trying to contact a locksmith in the late hours of the evening and then attempting to climb up the fire escape, I finally turned to the one person I knew I could count on. My Dad. I was sure that he would lecture me when he finally got into the city, way uptown no less. Instead, he just waited with me for the locksmith to come. We laughed about it. He actually told me that he was proud of how I tried to solve the problem. That was the day he taught me how important it is to laugh and when your child gets herself into a bind, remind her that she has the ability to get herself out of it.

Yes, I truly believe that is the real irony of our lives. We all strive to make our marks and follow our dreams. Some of us become famous, but we don’t all walk on the moon. Yet, surprisingly (even for the famous folks), we usually end up in a different place than we headed out for. Even more surprisingly, it is the small stuff that really defines who we are.

So, then, who are you? If in the book of life we are merely a few words, which words define you? Perhaps, it is not in a word but in a moment that is beyond words, just a hug or a moment of understanding that we find meaning in our lives.

This blog, just for fun, asks the question: “Where are those moments?” Those ordinary, insignificant, forgettable moments that we somehow seem to remember for the rest of our lives.

As a storyteller, I celebrate the art of the spoken word. It is one of my life’s missions to preserve the essence of human communication in a world that is becoming more anonymous and homogenized. When a story is shared, person to person, people connect on many levels. Eye contact, gesture, vocal tone, movement to name a few. Even in moments of silence, the energy that is exchanged can be very powerful in the famous “pregnant pause”.  Ironically, here I am reaching out into the very world of disembodied blogs and written thoughts to continue the quest of preserving the spoken word. A story can be a picture, a song, a dance as well as a written or orally told tale.

It is here that I will share personal tales and folktales in search of those unforgettable forgettable moments. So to that big publisher in the sky, I submit my manuscript to the Book of Life.

http://www.storieswithantoinette.com