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Archive for July, 2021

There is no final exit so demeaning as being nibbled to death by a duck.  Why might that be?  I may be on the verge of discovering the answer to that age-old question.  I seem to be haunted by ducks, mallard ducks specifically, and worry that when I die, my afterlife will continue to be the object of some specter duck’s incessant nattering haunt.

For me it all started when I was two and found an Easter duckling in my basket along with the colored eggs and jelly beans.  It was my daddy’s doing.  He loved me more than I deserved since I was a fountain of misbehavior if my mommy was to be believed.  I loved that duck.  It was soft and yellow, and very dear.  He was little; I was big.  I wanted to speak with him but was uncertain about how.  My animal books said that cows go moo, dogs go woof, and ducks go quack.  My duck wouldn’t quack.  He was a bad duck.  I determined to make him quack so he would be a good duck.  I worried about how best to influence him toward behaving properly.  When the answer came to me in a flash of glorious insight, I set the duck on the ground, put a board on top of him, and stood on the board.  He would surely quack.  But he didn’t.

That memory came charging back into consciousness yesterday when I locked horns with Melissa Shrimplin, the program manager at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) where I am spending my days learning how to be a happy healthy senior as I devolve into decrepitude.  There is much to be learned at the J, and I am determined to get it figured out, in spite of myself.

Things were going as well as could be expected, given my complex provenance, and Melissa’s creative programming efforts were exemplary.  Covid appeared to be at bay, and oldsters were returning as their confidence in vaccination status gave them the will to socialize.  That was when the ducks showed up—again.  It was a mother mallard trailing a clutch of cuties dressed in speckled down.  She, with her newly hatched brood, was trapped inside the atrium of the JCC and she wanted out.  She had flown in and could surely fly up and out, but the babies couldn’t.  It was time to lead those chicks to water, and the only available fluid was dyed green and pumped in an endless loop through a decorative vertical fountain.  The entire cadre was mounting an attack on the window glass surround, their frenzied barrage to absolutely no avail.  They repeatedly slammed feathered and fuzzied bodies against the invisible barrier.  They squawked, fluttered, righted themselves, and retreated to try yet again.

I muttered about the quandary and asked Melissa, the friendliest power figure in sight, to please get somebody to call the US Fish and Wildlife Service since they are empowered to resolve such situations.  She assured me that had been accomplished, and the babies would soon be relocated to a proper habitat.  I breathed with relief and proceeded with my senior day.

But many suns after that, finding myself in a pocket of time between activities, I wandered out into the atrium, remembering the ducks and glad they had found a forever home.  But as I strolled toward the far corner of the landscaped area admiring the healthy trees and bushes, what did I hear but a quack.  It was the mother duck—still there.  She quacked again—a reprise.  Then she flap-waddled out from beneath her cover, quacking to her brood to keep-the-quack-up-or- else.  I was aghast.  They were still stranded.  The only water was a concretized green puddle that offered no opportunities for teaching young how to dabble for food.  How could they grow up to be proper knowledgeable waterfowl?  Some kind JCC soul must have been feeding them or they would already have become dead ducks.

A normal response to this information would have been a mild exclamation of amazement, and on to other things.  But I have a history with this kind of poultry.  I remembered as a toddler killing my pet duckling out of human ignorance.  It is hard to be dumber than a duck, but I had qualified.  As I traversed all my many days, again and again I encountered ducks.  Shortly after moving to Boston, Massachusetts, a lovely blue sky day sent Mommy and me to Boston Commons where we enjoyed a ride on the famous Swan-Boats.  It was one of those never-to-be-forgotten kind of days.  Everywhere the boat putt-putted it was accompanied by swarms of mallards positioning themselves for gratuitous tidbits.  The fat torpedo shaped bodies glided smoothly across the water, stopping every few foot-paddles to pivot head-down/tail-up, browsing for underwater produce.  They seemed to prefer our bread crumbs though and always gladly forsook dabbling for begging.  Several mother hens had clutches of babies that followed with unerring loyalty.  It was impossible to witness their antics without smiling, making it a happy memory.

Months later the Christmas Fairy arranged for a new book to find its way under my family’s tree.  It was a 1941 first edition of Robert McKloskey’s book, “Make Way for Ducklings.”  It was a relief to find that my fowl murder hadn’t stunted the species.  Other ducklings had mother and father ducks who tried hard to keep them safe.  Even when the family made a mistake, humans were able to understand and help them move through danger to a perfect home beside the Charles River.  It was my perfect book, assuring me that mistakes could be forgiven, and everything could finally be OK.

Many years later my husband, Ken, and I made a home on Irvine, California’s Woodbridge Lake.  We chose the condo especially for its lake access, with a deck that allowed fishing from either the living room or from the dining room.  Such intimacy with the water was pure pleasure, and every night after dinner our favorite pastime was a holding-hands promenade around the lake.  Of course my mallards had made an appearance, though a continent away.  The mother birds understood that our deck was a safe place to hatch babies, and we enjoyed the annual parade of ducklings making their way down to try the water.

It was during that residence along the lakeshore that I learned about duck rape.  Ken and I observed on our evening walks that ducks don’t simply agree to mate.  Several drakes would surround a hen.  They would hold her head down on the ground, while one at a time other ducks would have at her.  It was scandalous.  I was discouraged to find that my cherished waterfowl were lacking in nobility.  I’m still hoping that it was just a California anomaly, and that species-wide such ignoble behavior is not a universal.

Nothing is ever perfect.  That was a good lesson to learn.  Expectations of perfection of myself, or of others, is foolish and sure to lead to disappointment.  We all manage to be pretty wonderful most of the time.  That applies to ducks, to JCC managers, and even to myself.  We could have enjoyed living into being McKlowsky heroes to our misplaced mallards, but I am the one with a duck issue.  To well-adjusted people they are just waterfowl.  The ducks are sure to understand and forgive.  So must I.

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Daddy

“I want my Daddy!” dreamtime-me cries to whatever enclosure encapsulates this happening.  It doesn’t answer.  Night terrors are interesting company but do not substitute for the real people we miss and want to revisit.  I am desperate to write about that larger than life man but procrastinate with every excuse imaginable.  I resist telling about his shadow side, not that it ever wished me ill or purposefully caused me harm.  Why then do I put this off?  I have written snippets of the whimsical father at home, sharing family fun, tutoring daughter determined to walk in his steps, later caring for aging mother.  That is easier than explaining how he forgot to divorce my own mother before he married, one after another, four other women.  Mommy and I were destitute.  She was stuck with a child to support, and no marketable skills beyond poetry and piano playing.  I was twisted into a love/hate dilemma with a Daddy who was long gone—fodder for night terrors.

But daytime memories are different. I open my front door and moan, “Just look at this mess.  There’s no way I’ll ever get it set to rights.  It’s impossible!”  That’s a lie we tell ourselves all too often when presented with a formidable task.  Of course a large and complex assignment is daunting.  Big jobs are like that.  They challenge; they intimidate; they terrorize— but they all have a secret weakness that is waiting to be exploited.  They can be subdivided into accessible units.  I learned this gem of wisdom from my inventor father, Kelsey, when during one joint endeavor I quailed at the prospect of turning a complex electronic schematic into a printed circuit board etch pattern.  “I’m not that smart,” I protested.  “It’s too complicated.”

“You’re smart enough,” Daddy insisted.  Anyway, you don’t have to be smart—just tricky.  He slid a pen from his always-at-the-ready pocket protector and began laying lines on the drawing.  When he was finished, the fraught circuit was understandable as several simpler, much less intimidating ones.  He labeled them for me so I could visualize how they interacted: Power Supply, Splitter, Invertor, Oscillator, Amplifier.  Suddenly I perceived the job as something doable.  Divide and conquer is more than an art of war.  It can focus energy to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks.

Back to the mess, detritus of a human family doing what it does so well.  As I dealt with the inherent mayhem of parenting three small children, I often reached back to access practical guidance remembered growing up in a tech-savvy family.  Daddy analyzed everything; only then he proceeded with what must be done, but he always gave it his own special twist. 

A typical example was fly-catching in the Martin household.  When the annoying drone of the buzzing invaders reached exasperation level, Kelsey Martin fly-tracker beyond compare donned his safari hat, plugged in the Hoover Vacuum with its extra-long extension tube and set out on a small-game safari.  He delighted in this creative play, experiencing the thrill of the hunt, the suspense of creeping up on an oblivious prey, and the final denouement of the kill, one more dastardly house-fly sucked into oblivion.  He would crow with triumph at every winged trophy pulled into and careening down the tube, through the hose, into the dust bag of history, consigned to non-existence as an entity that had lived for the sole purpose of annoying Kelsey Martin.

This escapade always attracted a following.  As Daddy prosecuted his war on flies, we kids trailed behind, a rowdy retinue, cheering, jeering, getting in the way, tripping over power cord and vacuum hose, wanting only to be part of this Pied Piper’s parade.  It didn’t matter that there was only one vacuum cleaner; and that it was only Daddy who wore the safari hat; our merry band followed, laughing all the way.

Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun.  Perhaps most memorable and long reaching was putting on his pants.  I would have learned the best way to insert legs into trousers long before I was fifteen had I not been living with my aunt and uncle in Texas.  Soon after arriving at my new Long Island home, Daddy enlightened me with respect to the art of putting on lower garments creatively.  “It’s an improved method,” he explained, “More efficient, easier on the low back, and fun to boot.”  He demonstrated: Sitting on the edge of the bed, positioning trousers waist agape, he folded knees to chest and leaned far, far back, as pants sailed aloft, thrusting both feet into their proper pant legs.  When he rolled forward into starting position, his pants were as good as on.  All that was needed was to stand, draw them up, button, zip, and buckle.  “There,” he exclaimed.  “That’s how it’s done.  It works the same for under-drawers or panties.  Leaning forward, while you’re lifting legs one at a time, can strain your back.  Not healthy”

OK.  I got the picture.  During the ensuing sixty-eight years, I have, every morning, put on my panties, bloomers, leggings, jeans, shorts, or slacks both legs at once.  It’s impossible to daily reenact this bit of whimsy without a smile, as I remember my dad earnestly explaining to a wide-eyed adolescent; how taking a creative approach to even the mundane chores of life can be the birthright of even a lost-and-found daughter.

All these many years later, I still despise housecleaning.  It’s boring.  It has to be done over and over again day after day after day—a quotidian quagmire.  No-one asks you to take a bow for how well you scrubbed the floor or folded diapers.  It’s a thankless task and not the least bit fun.  But then I invented “The Housecleaning Game.”  It changed everything.  Since it was a game, I convinced my children to play it with me, Tom Sawyer style.  That contrived to assure their cooperation, and it was easier and faster with extra hands helping.  I did learn from my Dad that work ought to be fun.  Any way a job can be structured to achieve that goal is worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.

So—I drew a floor plan layout of the entire house including furniture, and superimposed a grid over the entire drawing.  Next, I labelled each grid square.  Those labels, I copied onto paper squares, and loaded them into a tall, pottery jug, along with additional whimsical assignments such as: Eat five M&M’s; Take a 30 minute nap; Mop the kitchen floor; Sing a song; Run around the house twice; Have a spot of tea; Share three of your many blessings.

So far so good.  Each player must choose, eyes closed, a slip of paper from the dark interior of the jug.  There’s the possibility you may be instructed to munch sweets or perform calisthenics.  More likely you will get a grid square number.  This is the point at which you feel the weight of the impossible task lift from your shoulders.  You must address what is in your grid square and only that.  You may not do any work outside of that square.  Like an observant Jew savoring Sabbath rest, you are relieved of the guilt that naturally accrues to not performing the whole impossible task.  Even God rested on the seventh day.  Must you do more?  I remember the fun of carefully making up the lower right quadrant of the bed, carefully eschewing the remaining three quadrants, which must, in the benevolent order of things, await their turn.

Like Daddy repeatedly said, “Most things aren’t impossible, only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.”  But having an endless source of vision can be daunting, as night after night of dreams attests and revisits.  My job is to integrate both fathers—the one in my dreams, and the one in my nightmares—into what is right and real.  Then he can indeed rest in peace, and so can I.  Memorializing my Dad can surely be accomplished as long as I tell his story one complicated chapter at a time, and be sure to have fun doing it.

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