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Friday, February 6, 2015

Holy Matters

I wondered if holy water would still be holy after it thawed.
I recently received some holy water—a gift I fear I may not have properly appreciated—and having left the jug on our porch to freeze, I have begun to suspect that I might be suffering the consequences of some kind of sacrilege.

“What’s with that bubbly water?” my 4-year-old daughter asked the other day when she spied the plastic jug and its solid contents still standing near our front door.
“Not bubbly water. Holy water.”
“Oh yeah,” Jane said. “Well, what’s with it?”

What was with it, indeed, I wondered while recounting to my daughter for the fifth time the story of how I wandered into the Bala Cynwyd Post Office more than a week ago to mail belated holiday cards and spotted a bearded man in Crocs heaving an unwieldy box atop the scale.

“What’s in there?” the clerk asked, eyeing what was apparently registering at an unusually cumbersome weight. “You know you can’t send liquid.”
“It’s five gallons of holy water,” the gentleman replied, unperturbed, even after her warning that his package might be returned and handing over more than $60 for postage.

I, myself, was feeling a bit pinched for cash of late, after paying an obscene sum to exterminators to fight a losing battle against flying squirrels inhabiting our 110-year-old house. Furthermore, we had just found out that the last-ditch hope we had to get rid of the critters was to tear up our deck, let the exterminator seal up any holes he might find underneath and then rebuild the structure. An $11,000 quote for the work had arrived via email that morning. And our twins had celebrated their 8th birthday five days before Christmas, the price tags for the presents still glaring up at me from my unpaid credit card bill.

These financial worries were impeding my festive spirit, which might account for my procrastination in sending out our holiday greetings. As I stood at a counter despondently stamping my envelopes, the man’s talk of “holy water” had an appealing ring. And so I offered to help him load his precious case onto a dolly the postal clerk had wheeled out in order to save her own back.

“Where do you get holy water around here?” I inquired, eliciting a intricate tale that I had trouble following, one that as far as I could make out, involved a priest in Sri Lanka, a well in Texas and a faithful group of distributors somewhere in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. The gentleman added that he took the elixir for his kidney problems. But before I could ask any follow-up questions—such as why he was mailing gallons of it elsewhere—the fellow had bustled out to his car and in again, carrying a jug for me.

“You have to believe in something,” he said, hurrying back out before I, a longtime atheist, could utter sufficient thanks or ask exactly how I might use the mystical water.

“You never know what you’re going to get at the post office,” the clerk said.

Suddenly carried away with my good fortune, I excitedly texted a friend.

“Someone just gave me a gallon of holy water!”
“Save some for me!” she responded. “I could use some magical potion!”

And then, without further ceremony, I deposited my sacred cargo in my trunk and forgot about it until a few days later when I realized it was leaking all over my groceries. So I decided to leave the bottle on my front porch, not quite sure what else to do with it and feeling superstitious about throwing it away.

By then, circumstances at home had turned grimmer. The flying squirrels were keeping up their nighttime clamors inside our walls, while we were trying to figure out if we could remove sections of our deck without completely destroying it and still battling the exterminating company over payment for the unresolved situation.

My best friend in California was advising us to adopt some feral cats.

In the meantime, my 8-year-old son’s scalp had begun to itch so intensely that late Saturday evening I placed a panicked call to the Center for Lice Control after our pediatrician’s nurse had told me over the phone that he was most likely infested.

“I’m really scared!” Griffin wailed. “I don’t want bugs crawling on my head!”
“Stop being a baby!” his twin sister scolded, though she, too, was soon in tears when the woman from the center arrived and started picking through my children’s hair with her nit comb.

By some undeserved miracle, she declared us lice free, but Griffin still kept me up most of that night with his mysterious itching. And wrung out the following morning, I started to suspect that our trail of tribulations might have something to do with the frozen holy water on my front step.

I wondered whether holy water would still be holy after it had thawed, figuring I had nothing to lose by bringing in the jug and placing it in our kitchen sink. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to use it to anoint the roof and deck and possibly my son’s scalp.

And as I waited for it to return to its liquid form, I remembered that much graver problems plagued the world than flying squirrels and lice scares—silently sending out thanks to the anonymous man with failing kidneys, hoping that he had found succor in his holy waters—grateful for his generosity in sharing something he so cherished with me.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shine Bright, Holiday Lights

It was standing room only at the Macy's holiday light show.
A friend recently charmed me with a tale about wrapping up her Center City work day at the Macy’s Christmas Light Show, tipping her weary gaze up toward the enormous sparkling tree, rolling into the waves of sound streaming from the historic Wanamaker organ.

Although I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area for nearly 15 years, I, myself, have never witnessed this spectacle of more than 34,000 lights that has been dazzling viewers for nearly half a century. Nor have I seen the Mummers. I get claustrophobic in crowds and still haven’t recovered from getting stuck, hungover, in the middle of the Puerto Rican Day Parade as I was trying to cross Manhattan one sultry summer morning in 1996.

Needless to say, these intolerances tend to inhibit my enjoyment of the holiday season, especially when compounded by the lack of daylight, conspicuous consumption and insurmountable ideals of family togetherness this time of year brings.

My husband has remarked to me during more than one December that if he were rich, he would buy me an island to inhabit. By myself.

This winter, however, I made an early New Year’s resolution to try harder to embrace the festive mood. And seduced by my friend’s tale of yuletide peace found at the foot of Macy’s glittering tree, I decided late Saturday afternoon that my husband and I should spirit our three children downtown to take in the famous light show and Wanamaker Organ concert.

“Great idea,” Jeff said, surprised by my sudden interest in holiday kitsch, noting that we had just enough time to catch a train from Narberth to Jefferson Station.

Blissfully ignorant about an extended delay and immune to the frigid wind, our kids cavorted on the platform, peering down the tracks to see if the 4:57 was arriving—though it was now well after 5 p.m.—and stopping my heart each time they danced too close to the edge.

“Stay behind the yellow line!” I couldn’t keep from hollering, relieved when the jam-packed train finally pulled in more than 15 minutes late. We only found enough seats together in a “quiet” car, but because it was a Saturday night so close to the holidays, our fellow passengers seemed in high spirits and maybe some of them a little bit drunk—at any rate forgiving of our children’s chirping.

“Are we going to be late?” it finally dawned on our 7-year-old son, Griffin, to ask.
“Are we going over a bridge?” his twin sister, Georgia, wanted to know.
“I can see myself in the window,” Jane, 4, observed. “Scooch me in closer!”

“Come on kids!” Jeff said, grabbing our twins’ hands when we reached Jefferson Station. “We’re gonna’ make it!”

I scooped up Jane, and we emerged from the stale underground air into the brisk night, charging up Market Street and swooping through Macy’s doors into the crowd.

“Where do we go for the light show?” I asked a security guard who gave me a puzzled look. He must have considered me a dimwit, unschooled in this holiday orgy to which he was forced to bear witness several times a day from Nov. 28 through Dec. 31. But he directed us up.

“The third floor’s my favorite spot,” he said.

I started to wonder if the guard was having a joke at my expense as we crushed onto the escalator behind hefty men, cranky wives, runny-nosed toddlers and pierced teenagers, only to stumble off straight into the women’s lingerie department.

Too late to turn back, we continued to thrust our way through the throng of expectant viewers and racks of bras and underwear, trying to get close enough to the balcony to catch sight of the lights.

“There it is, kids!” I exclaimed to my now drooping children, pointing to a ribbon of red bulbs atop the tree, just visible over the tangle of hats, elbows and hair, hoping that my forced enthusiasm would become infectious.

“These spots are taken,” a woman growled as I tried to nudge our kids closer.

We finally found a corner amongst other people’s parkas and double-strollers when the organ cranked up and an oversized Nutcracker and ballerinas started blinking in time to the music. And we could actually see some of this miracle of LED lights if we tipped our heads back really, really far.

“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“Awesome!” Jeff agreed.

Clearly, my husband and I were more dazzled than our children.

“Scoot in,” I told Georgia, pointing toward an opening at the balcony covered in a sheet of safety plastic.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m too scared.”

I noticed that Jane was paying more attention to the nearby rows of Hello Kitty and Frozen underwear than she was to the spectacle glimmering above her.

“Can we go yet?” Griffin asked, resting his chin on his knee.

But I was not giving up. As reindeers and snowflakes flickered on and off, I inched forward to peer over the railing down at the Wanamaker Grand Organ and into a sea of mesmerized visitors sprawled across Macy’s main floor.

I had to carry Jane through the 17-minute shoving match back down the store’s now stalled three flights of escalator. We nearly lost Griffin in the fray and breathed a collective sigh of relief, and fresh air, once back out in the open on Market Street.

“I’d give it a five,” Griffin said, rating the experience only middling on his scale of one to 10.
“It was just to crowded and hectic for me,” Georgia added.
“I don’t want to go back,” Jane chimed in. “But can we still ride the trains?”

Instead of joining their chorus of complaints, much to my own surprise I realized that I had been bitten by the holiday bug. Next year, we would play it smarter. Next year, I decided we would return on a weekday afternoon and take in the four-story curtain of lights from the ground floor up—whether my kids liked it or not.

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Just Roll With It

This year we tried a new kind of family Turkey Bowl.
Having contracted a cold that our three kids had recently been battling, I felt even less enthusiastic than usual this Thanksgiving about an annual touch football game my husband had been playing in for more than 20 years.

This Turkey Day match typically stretched through the morning at the fields of a local high school and into the dimly lit afternoon at a Haverford Township bar—one that a Yahoo reviewer characterized as “a total dump full of no-accounts and drunks”—a dive where Jeff and his middle-aged buddies liked to swill cheap beer and recount the day’s highlights.

This year, I was afraid that my husband might be named the “Schwantago” for a third time, a dubious honor awarded to the least valuable player and accompanied by a Pepto-Bismol pink toilet seat to adorn the recipient’s mantle for the next 12 months. Plus, I was exhausted.

So Jeff agreed to hang up his cleats, at least for now. And instead of heading out to the chilly turf, we met some friends at Ardmore’s Wynnewood Lanes to begin what I hoped might become a new kind of Turkey Bowl tradition for our family.

I started to question my judgment, however, at about 5 o’clock Thanksgiving morning when our 4-year-old barged into our bedroom to tell me her throat hurt. I read Jane books until she fell back to sleep. Then I sat in our cold kitchen, soothing my own sore throat with tea and wondering how I was going to get turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes on the table, all hot at the same time, later that afternoon.

Popping two Extra Strength Tylenols, I hoped that our upcoming trip to Wynnewood Lanes, despite its sticky outer space-themed carpet and stale pizza stench, would buoy my spirits. And my optimism mounted as we climbed the frigid staircase into the bowling alley from the subterranean garage and heard Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” one of my husband’s favorite songs, piping over the sound system.

“How long have they been coming here on Thanksgiving?” I asked the potbellied proprietor, pointing to several lanes teeming with bowlers.

These motley revelers held Solo cups and hoagies and grooved to their own hired DJ’s jams in between strikes.

“Oh, at least 20 years,” the manager said as he handed us shoes—one of my pair missing its tongue—and directed us to the opposite side of the room.

Soon joined by two more families, bringing our total to eight kids ranging in age from under 2 to 7, we started raising our own kind of ruckus.

Squabbles erupted over a Mickey Mouse ball. The 22-month-old in our group guarded it with her thin arms in between frames. My husband and I and the other parents darted amongst the racks, offering various alternatives to our bowlers in an attempt to keep the Thanksgiving peace.

“How about an orange ball?” I asked Jane. “Or a pink one? Here’s pink!”

In the meantime, another diminutive member of our crew ducked into the next lane and stuffed a pumpkin muffin from a neighboring family’s tray into his mouth.

“It’s totally fine,” the mother responded, full of Thanksgiving spirit and the hot toddies I had jealously watched her consume.

She said that her group had been bowling here on Turkey Day ever since she was young. But before I could hear the rest of her story, my 7-year-old son interrupted to complain about his twin sister’s spares.

“Georgia’s cheering too much!” Griffin lamented.
“You gotta’ roll with it, bud,” I said. “Get it?”

My son, however, grasped neither my lame joke nor its message. And sensing a general downturn in the mood, I decided to whip out a handful of prize receipts a teenager had given me before her family left to feast.

But try as I might, I couldn’t get the outdated toy machine to suck in the crumpled tickets and regurgitate its cheap trinkets into the claws of our now howling brood. So I gave my husband the “giddyup” signal and started grabbing coats and hats.

“Come again next Thanksgiving!” the proprietor called after us as we trudged back to the minivan.

Once inside, I Purelled our kids’ hands and told them to change their socks as soon as we reached the house.

“I didn’t think bowling was supposed to be so stressful,” my husband said.

“Neither did I,” I agreed, deciding that maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all if Jeff came home a little drunk and late next Thanksgiving, lugging a pink toilet seat.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Getting Squirrelly

This poor guy got his nose stuck in one of our mousetraps.
A friend recently told me that if she had to choose an animal for extinction, she would definitely pick squirrels.

After our recent, and what most likely appears to be second, infestation of these rodents in our 110-year-old home, I would have to agree—especially after hearing my husband’s terrified call from downstairs around 11 o’clock Friday night.

“We have some kind of creature in the house!” he screamed, miraculously rousing me but not our three children.

Despite my instinctive realization that responding would ill suit my nerves, I found myself thrusting off the bedcovers and charging downstairs. Jeff hovered near the entrance to our living room, peering at the fireplace and clutching our children’s emptied LEGO box in his hands.

“You see it right there? Right there?” my husband demanded, stabbing the air with the LEGO box lid. “That’s its eye, glaring at us.”

Almost hoping that Jeff was experiencing a psychotic break instead of the possibility that a rodent was actually perching on our mantle, I quickly spotted the intruder—a beast neither Jeff nor I could identify in terms of species but one that we both agreed should not be there.

My husband then related how, as he sat on the couch, tapping away on his laptop, the creature had popped out of a hole in the masonry, skittered across the stone work and frozen, surveying the room with its glinting eye.

Terror clutched me as I began to understand that this late-night fiasco offered no satisfactory resolution—for us or for the rodent—especially after Jeff finally harnessed the courage to lunge at the fireplace with the LEGO box in a failed attempt to trap it.

The intruder flashed back inside its nook. Jeff and I stood stunned and heaving, as if we had just finished a sprint, reasoning, hoping that the clawing we now heard was the creature retreating up and out of our chimney.

At a loss about what now to do, Jeff soothed himself with Google, trying to match his memory of what looked like a pregnant mouse with a long tail and the nearly indecipherable image he caught on his iPhone of its glinting eye, with pictures he pulled up in the search engine. The deeper he delved into the repellent world of bats and other nocturnal vermin, the harder I found it to resist texting our exterminator, whose cell phone number I had managed to obtain during an infestation of grey squirrels in our eaves several years ago.

In those days, I would groggily awake each morning, our third baby, now 4, on my hip, and try to ignore the scratching sounds in the ceiling of our kitchen as I sipped my coffee. Only after I started to hear those same noises in the walls of my infant’s room did we shake ourselves into action.

A kindly exterminator set an exit-only trap through which the squirrels left and could not return, and I weaseled the man’s mobile phone number out of him for future emergencies.

This, clearly, was one.

“So sorry to text at this time, but we just had what we think is a squirrel come out of the stone façade of our fireplace,” I wrote. “Can you come out tomorrow?”

“Not likely a squirrel,” he answered, to my amazement, at 11:32 p.m., but without quite addressing my question. “Maybe a flying squirrel. Regular squirrels are sound asleep.”

“A flying squirrel!” I hissed at Jeff, who starting scrolling through harrowing images of the winged rodents and sharing disturbing trivia with me, such as the fact that flying squirrels live in colonies, chew through wires causing house fires and are misnamed since the animals merely use the “parachute-like membranes connecting their forelegs and hind legs on each side” to “glide.”

“Advice?” I texted the exterminator, who had lapsed into unresponsiveness.
“Leave door open. Have to let it out. They will sense the air.”

As helpful as he had been in the past, the exterminator’s counsel now felt highly unsatisfactory and frankly somewhat suspect. Was he drunk?

I was supposed to leave our front entrance gaping to the 31-degree November night and sit for however long it took until the nasty creature decided to glide out?

My husband and I abandoned that chilly plan after 42 minutes. We shut up the house, cranked up the thermostat and closed the French doors to the living room, stuffing towels under the cracks for good measure.

At 9:01 the next morning, feeling only mildly disloyal, I arranged a date with a new exterminator for that afternoon and then related my tale of flying squirrel woe, via text, to a couple of friends.

“I thought those were only in the Amazon!” one wrote back. “Panic attack!!”

Matters failed to brighten when the new exterminator climbed atop our treacherous roof with the aid of several ladders, confirmed that we were probably harboring a colony of flying squirrels and said that it would cost approximately $700 for him to trap them.

“Do what you have to do,” Jeff said.
“If it was your house, would you keep the den sealed off?” I anxiously inquired.
“I’m an exterminator,” the man laughed. “I sleep with snakes in my room.”

He headed back up our roof, this time armed with several sinister-looking cages that we would have to check daily until they stopped filling with vermin.

“I really enjoyed talking to that guy,” Jeff later declared, to my amazement.

I, on the other hand, was determined not to fall so quickly this time. I decided to withhold judgment until our squirrels had flown the coop and until I had ascertained the quality of our new exterminator’s responsiveness to midnight texts.

And I'm going to keep stuffing the living room door cracks with towels in the meantime.

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