He is known for his radiant smile, random acts of kindness, enthusiastic patronage of Huntington Village business establishments, and most especially, his ardent support of authors at Book Revue book signing events.
His name is Magnus Walsh, and now he has a story of his own to tell. Five O’Clock & All’s Well is Magnus’ compilation in book form of his own interactions with fellow Huntington residents, and the insightful take-aways he offers from those personal experiences. It is a quick and delightful read released in perfect time just before Christmas and Hanukkah to underscore the power and joy of goodwill toward others.
Magnus’ moment of inspiration occurred on January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 was successfully ditched in the Hudson River six minutes after takeoff after being disabled by a flock of Canada geese. “I was mesmerized by this event and overcome by emotion over its successful outcome. It exemplified to me that good things can come from bad,” Magnus recalled.
And so came the impetus that set Magnus on a quest to find ways to transform any bad or ordinary day, whether it be his own or another’s, into a good day. Magnus’ tools to kick the blues and bad moods include a big wide smile, a loud hearty laugh, a good deed, a positive attitude, and appreciation of nature and life’s simple pleasures. These are not especially tall demands for a fellow who possesses a clear joie de vivre and immense love for people. So much affection, in fact, Magnus refers to his new book as “a love letter to my readers.”
Much like a diary, each chapter of Magnus’ book chronicles a memorable day in his life interacting with neighbors, friends, local merchants or perfect strangers in and around Huntington. The brevity and simplicity of each entry gives me pause. In my own writing I work to draw out obscure or elusive themes connected to people and situations. Magnus doesn’t have to dig that deep to touch his readers. Through each vignette, Magnus shows us that most everything we need to know to bring joy to others or to ourselves is usually sitting right at the surface.
But even the jovial Magnus admits that at times he battles the blues and a few of them are chronicled in his book. “It’s completely natural to find yourself or others around you down in the dumps and there’s no shame in that,” Magnus told me. “My message is we all have the power to break those bad cycles if we only set our minds to it.” In one example, Magnus washes away the bitter taste of waiting too long at the Department of Motor Vehicles by chasing it down with a sweet bargain at nearby Marshalls.
Magnus loves to write and it shows. But as with most things in his life, Magnus brought this book to us with a little help from his friends known as the Magnus Book Planning Committee (or the “MBPC”). In his book, the author thanks the MBPC for their encouragement, review and good suggestions from start to finish. MBPC members include B. Hanson, Helen Crosson, Michael Fairchild, Walter Kolos, Pam Sherlock and Terry Walton.
Interestingly, Magnus told me that his new book is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As I ponder to make the connection between Fitzgerald’s entertaining yet ultimately tragic Roaring Twenties saga and Magnus’ opus, Magnus opens my eyes once again. He reminds me, “Jay Gatsby lived each day of his life as if it were his last, and he was never judgmental of people.” It’s no surprise that Magnus is also a huge fan of Mitch Albom, author of numerous mood lifting and bestselling books. Albom’s breakthrough book, Tuesdays with Morrie,remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 205 weeks.
So on fire with the release of his new book, Magnus is on a literary tear. His goal is to publish one book a year for the next ten years. He already knows the title of the next one will be Three O’Clock & All’s Well and it will feature vignettes associated with school aged children. After that, Magnus plans to write Gone to the Beach. And just like Five O’Clock & All’s Well, his next books will be available at his all-time favorite Huntington bookstore, Book Revue. For Magnus, this is the stuff of which dreams are made.
I have just received one of the very first copies of Magnus’ book. I am anxious to read it in between last minute Christmas shopping and holiday preparations. So off it goes with me to the nail salon where I now have one hand on the manicure table, and the other balancing Magnus’ book on my lap as I read. I am smiling as I learn about the grumpy waitress who wasn’t so grumpy after earning a big tip and how and why Magnus was Jewish for one day.
Suddenly, I am inspired. I realize that in all of the time I have been getting my manicure from Sandra, she rarely smiles. I look up a few times in an attempt to make eye contact and offer her a sincere smile. Sandra manages a half smile, but quickly returns to the important work of making my nails perfect for the holidays. She is a skilled and hard worker who deserves a good day. I am thinking to myself, now what would Magnus do?
And then it dawns to me. The answer is so simple! I offer Sandra a spectacular tip. As I hand the bill to Sandra the pleasure is all mine in watching the joy slowly register on her face that culminates in one of the most gracious smiles I have ever seen. She almost jumps across the manicure table to thank me. Sandra is happy because she’s had a good day.
But with the exhilaration I’m now feeling for having carried out a good deed, I know Sandra’s good day cannot possibly top mine.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved Lucy.
I didn’t follow sports, but rooted for Lucy like my life depended on it.
On more than one occasion I came to physical blows with my older brother to gain control of the TV to watch “my” show.
Brother Steve was a hard core Star Trek fan who always seemed to be deeply engrossed by Captain Kirk interacting with bizarre-looking outer space creatures just as I arrived to spend a half hour with the earthly Ricardo’s and Mertz’s. That wasn’t happening.
I could not get enough of watching this kooky housewife and her unflappable friend plan and hatch Lucy’s half-baked schemes. The resulting insanity always gave way to some important takeaway that I diligently filed away knowing someday it would come to good use.
After all, I never knew when I might have to wrestle a hefty Italian woman in a vat of grapes or land a television commercial gig lauding the benefits of a new health serum, and wanted to be prepared for such things.
Obvious humor aside, I believe I have acquired some serious life skills while logging all those hours with Lucy.
For example, from who else could I possibly learn how to convince my friends to trust and follow me blindly into my mission of the day, and then how to cleverly negotiate my way out should those best laid plans be upended by some unexpected hitch? These were not things you could expect to learn from your parents or teachers, or even your coolest friend or relative.
When some of my – let’s just say – more serious-minded friends learn of my early years’ fascination with “I Love Lucy” they roll their eyes in disbelief. Try as I may to get them to recognize the underlying genius of a bored 1950’s housewife running amok, and the trail of wisdom she leaves in her wake, they just don’t see it. I can’t be the only one who laughed at and learned from Lucy, can I?
So here my friends, I will outline simply and candidly for the record, the top ten things I learned from loving Lucy:
1. Headstrong, with a touch of wacky and unconventional, have a 95% success rate.
2. For the 5% of failures, it’s okay to cry and admit you’ve made a mistake.
3. I have no problem following my husband’s lead, provided it’s going my way.
4. I rely on forgiveness of my minor disobediences when they are motivated by unselfish or good intentions.
5. When said disobediences seem unforgivable with a simple explanation plan B is launched to make the aggravated either so confused or amused they forget why they were mad.
6. I am wary of going into business and traveling with friends, particularly if those friends are the Mertz’s.
7. I have learned there is a way to justify just about any impulse purchase to the point of it being nearly “medically necessary.”
8. I have learned to accept my deficiencies on the dance floor but nonetheless unabashedly move as if I belong on Broadway.
9. I know my place. You won’t ever see me trying to get into my husband’s (journalism) “act.” No sir-ee, not a written peep out of me.
10. I have learned that no matter what chaos I create for any of the above infractions, my husband will be there to affirm his love with a big smile and hug just before the credits roll.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that one billion people are actively using the social media tool he created in his Harvard dormitory room in 2004.
Zuckerberg’s October 4th post stated, “Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life.”
One billion. That’s a humongous number. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world’s population at 7.04 billion. That means approximately 1 in 7 people on Earth is using Facebook.
I am one in that billion who can attest to the power of Facebook in making important and meaningful, if not life changing, connections.
I recall my introduction to Facebook in early 2007, when it was mostly the sacred stomping ground of the youth of America. Our daughters signed on to interact with their high school peers, and later, Facebook helped them get to know their college roommates months before they even stepped foot into their dorm rooms.
In March of 2008 I decided to join the Facebook community to participate in the planning of our 30 year high school reunion. It did not take long to understand our daughters’ fascination with the site. Almost instantly, I was interacting with people I had not seen since high school. I particularly enjoyed seeing photos of our respective children, who looked remarkably like we did the last time we were together. Although we were scattered far and wide across America, on Facebook, the Huntington High School Class of 1979 could once again share the same space.
By far the most remarkable connection I owe to Mark Zuckerberg’s ingenuity came late one evening in 2010 as I was scanning my news feed. A private message arrived from Lutz Wolff, whom I realized bore the same name as my first cousin who lived near Berlin, Germany. For much of my life, Cold War geopolitical barriers had made it virtually impossible for my mother to visit or correspond with her brother and his family, so I never got to meet or know my Uncle Kuni, his wife and their four sons, Lutz among them. While my grandmother, mother and two uncles had survived WWII as refugees, Checkpoint Charlie and then later, the Berlin Wall, eventually closed in on Uncle Kuni, effectively cutting him off from his mother and brother who had lived in Frankfurt, and his sister, who had married and moved to the United States.
In the thirty years the Berlin Wall stood, this hideously conceived fortification had achieved its architects’ intent of sealing off its inhabitants from movement or interaction within the outside free world. That was made certain by the wall having been perfected over time to prevent a series of daring escape attempts by freedom seekers trapped in the former German Democratic Republic. The impassable wall definitely irked a few who summoned the courage to dig underground tunnels, drive through it, hide themselves in car engine compartments, construct hot air balloons, jump from buildings, or crawl through sewer pipes to free themselves on the other side. But for most, like my cousin Lutz’s family, it had become an accepted fact of life. Even when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 with the reunification of Germany, it continued to cast a long and dark shadow.
As a result there was very little I knew about Uncle Kuni and his family, who my mom had often explained to her inquiring children, “were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.” I did know, however, one important piece of information: my cousin Lutz and my brother shared the same birthday. Mom must have told the story a dozen or more times: On October 13, 1958 my grandmother in Frankfurt received word of the arrivals of her first two grandchildren: Lutz Wolff in the German Democratic Republic, and my brother in America.
Over fifty years later, Facebook offered Lutz the means to search for and make contact with his American family. He validated his family connection to me by sharing the same story of his and my brother’s shared birthdays (a story that had apparently been told to him as well), and noted the names of our maternal grandparents, and of his father, my Uncle Kuni.
I am unable to describe in words the feeling of euphoria that overwhelmed me as I wrote back to Lutz. I had lost hope in ever being able know this branch of my family after my mother had passed away.
Sometime later Lutz wrote to let me know that his two sons, Christian and Marcus, had planned to visit New York for the first time. In July 2011, once again via Facebook, Christian sent me a message that he and Marcus had arrived in New York, and we made plans for them to stay with us. My husband and I spent one wonderful week introducing these young men to Long Island, Manhattan and their newfound American family.
Mom used to become upset and angry whenever she saw the motto displayed on the license plates of New Hampshire cars that read: “Live Free or Die.” I now understand the motto was a chilling and painful reminder that her brother Kuni was not a free man, but in mom’s mind, that did not mean he should have to die. She missed him terribly.
Unfortunately, mom passed away the same year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. I cannot help but wonder what a joy and thrill it would have been for her to discover Facebook, as I did, as a means to connect with the family from whom she had been long separated.
What were the chances that my cousin Lutz and I would finally connect with so many obstacles preceding us, not the least of which once included the Berlin Wall?
To me, if feels like one in a billion.
My cousin Lutz’s sons Christian and Marcus with me at Jones Beach.
It was only a matter of time before William Dowdell Denson would make an appearance here at my blog.
It’s hard to know where to begin in telling you my story about Bill Denson. He was so many things to me: a colleague, a confidante, a mentor, and above all, one of my closest friends.
But as you are about to learn as I did back in 1990, Bill was so much more. And while this remarkable gentleman is no longer with us, he will forever remain a larger than life figure in our American/WWII history.
By the time I met Bill he was 77 years old and in the twilight of his distinguished legal career. I was 29. We would become an unlikely and somewhat inseparable duo. I was marketing director and Bill was of counsel to a prominent Nassau County law firm, Meltzer, Lippe et al, also known as MLG.
The managing partner of MLG had an avant-garde approach to marketing, so it was of no surprise to me when Lew asked me to develop a newsletter that would read more like People magazine than a stodgy corporate bulletin. I instantly latched on to the idea because the concept would enable me to employ my love of digging around for, and writing, good stories.
So began the process of me finding the compelling human interest story behind each lawyer in the firm’s “stable.” I decided to begin my interviews with questions or statements like: “what do you do, or who are you, when you’re not practicing law?” Or, “Tell me something no one knows about you, or your unique story.”
Now, asking a lawyer that kind of a question might seem pretty antithetical if your goal is to communicate and sell the collective legal prowess of a law firm. But, that line of questioning worked wonders in gaining entree to the provocative kind of content I needed to make our new newsletter InSights live up to its People magazine promise. And as it turned out, clients and potential clients responded with great interest and enthusiasm to the back stories of MLG lawyers. It enabled personal and very human connections to take place that broke the ice surrounding the complex legal problems that were often brought to the firm.
I soon discovered there were cantors, dancers, important art collectors, and even a young partner whose father was a renowned accordion artist who, among many incredible recording accomplishments, performed on the soundtrack of the Godfather, as well as appeared in the wedding scene of that same film.
And then I got to Bill.
Bill, was an Alabama-born, West Point, Harvard Law School-educated Atticus Finch-like lawyer who spoke with a charming southern drawl. All of those qualities had a mesmerizing effect that captivated me so I figured, this is going to be easy.
Actually, no, it was not.
Why do you want to know? Bill slowly and defiantly drawled out in response to my question, in a clear effort to make me defend and/or reconsider my plan. His pensive blue eyes were trained on me in wait of my answer. He did not reveal a shred of emotion to allow me to get a read on how I was doing, or where to go from there. (This, I later came to understand, was a great skill that Bill had mastered as a fierce litigator in his earlier courtroom days).
Suddenly, the little hot shot who sat before Bill was sufficiently reduced to her proper size.
I finally came up with an answer Bill evidently did not like.
“I want to use your story to market the law firm….you…and us,” I stammered, trying to make it clear I was on his side, being sufficiently intimidated of the alternative.
“You, do, do you? And what exactly do you hope to achieve by that?” Bill seemed to spit those words out at me in slow motion. He clearly reviled the idea of telling me his story for marketing or gratuitous purposes and wasn’t the slightest bit shy about making sure I knew that.
No, this was not going well at all. As I recall, the rest of the conversation continued something like this.
Me: Well, I’m your marketing director, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and was asked by Lew to do (as if mentioning the managing partner’s name would score me points). I probably sounded like a childish fool and Bill took no pity on me.
Bill: Well, young lady, I happen to come from an era of lawyers who do not see it proper to advertise themselves. In fact, I find the idea garish if not ethically abhorrent, and I therefore will not allow it or be part of it, no matter what anyone says.
Now, what I have neglected to tell you thus far is that Lew gave me an advance briefing of Bill’s illustrious legal background to prepare me for the blockbuster of all stories ever to be told by his firm.
Bill served, under General George Patton’s Third Army, as the Chief Prosecutor for the United States in four war crimes trials held in Germany following the Second World War. After that, his government service included a stint as the Chief of Litigation for the Atomic Energy Commission where he represented the Commission at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among so many more notable achievements and posts.
As Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the four WWII war crimes trials, Bill prosecuted 177 Nazis and sent 97 of them to the gallows. After the Dachau trials in Germany, Bill was later quoted: “I never tried an accused who I wasn’t personally willing to place the noose around his neck and pull the trap.”
This was no man to be messing with.
I decided to politely end my questioning for the day, and excused myself like a proper lady to return to my office and sulk.
The next day I heard a rap at my office door, and who of all people did I see standing there but the mighty Bill Denson. That charming voice spoke to me again.
Bill: May I come in?
Me: (uh oh?) No words. I nodded in the affirmative.
Bill: (in that sugary polite, charming southern drawl) May I sit down, if you pleeeease?
Me: Still silent, I patted my guest chair and took a long deep breath. I had no idea what was coming but prepared myself for the worst.
And then, a surprise.
Bill: I want to apologize if I came off a bit strong with you yesterday. I understand you have a job to do and I’ll see what I can do about helping you do that job, but I want you to know I have my limits.
Me: (now insulted and in the hubris of my youth also unafraid to speak my piece). Limits? What could you possibly mean by that? You can tell me whatever you want, or not, and I’ll be more than glad (relieved) to move on.
Bill: (With his eyes cast downward) You know, my dear old pappy, who was a very able lawyer and who taught me everything I know, was just about nearly disbarred for having the audacity to have the word “lawyer” engraved on the license plate of his car.
Bill articulated this to me in the hushed tones one uses to reveal a shameful family secret, and in that instant I understood exactly what yesterday’s flogging was all about.
Me: (with this reveal from Bill followed by a complete fascination by the prospect of peeling away the layers of this “onion”) How about we start out like this- nice and simple- you tell me your story, from the beginning, and I’ll keep my pen down and listen. I really want to hear it, if for no one else, but myself.
Bill seemed both amused and challenged by my offer, and with that, gave me a wide and sincere smile nodding in the affirmative. We shook hands on the deal and made plans to have our first lunch together.
After that, I visited Bill daily to hear installments of his story during lunchtime. After starting out on a light note by making me chuckle at his obvious disappointment or disgust over the items he begrudgingly pulled out of his lunch bag (items like yogurts or other fat-free products packed by his wife to guard against his heart condition) Bill started from the beginning to tell me the story of his life and his work.
There were nights I could not sleep after some of the particularly intense sessions we shared pouring over Bill’s experiences, that often included Bill sharing his U.S. Army photo collection depicting the gruesome conditions found in WWII concentration camps after liberation. These were the same images used as exhibits in the trials to depict the crimes.
At Dachau, Bill tried nearly 200 hardened war criminals who perpetrated unthinkable atrocities against innocent and helpless prisoners held in WWII concentration camps- many defiant until the very end, with one, actually saluting and proclaiming “Heil Hitler” in his final moments just before being hanged.
Now here in this blog I can tell you so much more about Bill’s remarkable legal achievements that have since been well documented in history. A Google search will easily take you to video interviews of Bill that are included in exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
But this story is about my personal journey with Bill, and how his incredible experiences, friendship and trust transformed my life in ways I never could have expected.
During one of our lunch sessions I shared with Bill that my mother had become a refugee as a teenager in Germany during the final years of WWII. Mom was forced to flee her home, along with her mother and younger brother, as a result of the constant bombings and killings of innocent German civilians during those final savage months before the war ended.
I told Bill that mom was later devastated to learn what her people had done, and it haunted and hurt her years after she emigrated to America after her marriage to my father, then a U.S. Army officer stationed in Berlin. There were so many times, as a child, that I would hear mom sobbing alone in her bedroom, and when I asked her why she would simply reply: “oh nothing, dear. Mommy is sad about the war.”
The war? What war? Didn’t that happen a long, long time ago, mommy? But for my mother, the pain and anguish she felt between 1943-45 was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
Bill was truly moved to hear that story, even wiping his own eyes in empathy, and in return, told me that his German-born wife, nicknamed Huschi (her birth name was Constance) was equally ashamed and appalled, as was her father, whose life tragically ended after that war. His own wife suffered in the same way my mom did.
You see, Bill, for most of his married life, was reluctant to share the full scope of emotions and details connected to his service in Germany in going after these murderous Nazis with a vengeance as to spare Huschi from any more shame than she had already known. After all, Bill was about fairness and justice, and his wife was surely at the top of his list of those most deserving.
Bill had no interest in sharing his experiences for personal glory. His goal was to teach anyone who would listen that these heinous acts at the camps did in fact happen, and could very well happen again in our human history if our civilized society did not take sufficient measures to guard against it, and those who condone such inhumanity.
In thinking about Bill today, I am tearful by the idea that his love and concern for his wife Huschi often caused him to gloss over his experiences in Germany. And yet, his heart and soul needed to purge, because for him, the trauma, as it had for my mom and for Huschi, endured.
Bill just didn’t know how or where to really begin; he was not of a generation that turned to therapists to unload such burdens. It was a constant internal struggle. And above all – fierce litigator aside – Bill was an absolute perfect gentleman at all times. He aimed to please his family, friends and colleagues, not bring them down by heavy conversation or look for sympathy.
And so, when I came along in 1990 and unknowingly forced that door open, it was like a spigot had been opened making way for a constant gush that didn’t stop until Bill took his last breath.
To witness Bill achieve what appeared to be some measure of peace and closure during his final years was as transformative for me as it was for him.
All those who appeared at Bill’s many lectures openly revered him and told him he was a hero, although that was never his intention. What warms my heart until this day is it turned out that nobody was more proud of Bill than Huschi and their grown children.
One of the most somber, but proud moments of my life occurred in the fall of 1998 when Huschi and Bill summoned me to their home in Lawrence. By that time I had left the law firm to start my own marketing/public relations practice, but remained in close contact with Bill and the Denson family.
Bill’s longtime heart condition was finally getting the best of him, and the Denson family knew his days were coming to an end. A very frail Bill took my hand that day and asked me to write his obituary, while Huschi asked me to be the family’s spokesperson to the media after he passed. It was a heartbreaking request, but naturally, I honored it. How could I begin to tell Bill, and Huschi, what they had meant to me? There was nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
So my final days with Bill were spent at his bedside going over the obituary I had written. There were a lot of tears between us and we treasured what we knew were our final moments together. Bill asked me to read what I wrote over and over again to him, as he also suffered from macular degeneration and had limited vision. Finally, when he was satisfied I put the work away, praying it would be a very long time before I had to release it, but knowing it couldn’t possibly be long. My friend was dying.
Huschi called me some weeks later on December 13, 1998, to tell me that her beloved husband had passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early that morning, just as he had wanted. And on that day, as I promised, the world found out that William Dowdell Denson was no longer with us. But it would not be long before his life and work would be recognized throughout the world.
In 2003, with Huschi’s cooperation and assistance from MLG, documentarian Joshua M. Greene authored a book, “Justice at Dachau” the cover of which appears here as my main photo.
Huschi followed Bill into the hands of the Good Lord on December 5, 2006. I will miss them both forever, and will always remain thankful to Bill and Huschi, as well as to their children, Yvonne, Will, Jr. and Olivia, for welcoming me, my husband and our two daughters, into their remarkable and memorable family.
Little did I know Bill was as soft and vulnerable on the inside as anyone else. But by giving me that “test” the first day we met, Bill made me earnmy way into his friendship and trust that makes me all the more grateful for the journey.
If Bill were here today to read this story and about the day we met, he would probably chuckle at my expense and say in his exceedingly charming southern drawl, “Brains” (his nickname for me) you know I was only joshin’ you that day.
Only I would know, he really wasn’t.
The story of my surprise weekend is set in a particularly bitter cold winter in 1993.
Our daughters were one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half-years old, and Greg and I were living the 24/7 marathon sprint of young parenthood alongside demanding careers-in-the-making.
We were caring for our daughters, with a little help from our parents, in alternating days and shifts.
It was Greg’s day to watch them, and my dear husband, either because he is incredibly thoughtful, or, because the toddler-twosome got the better of him that day, or both, decided it was time for a romantic interlude.
I still don’t know when this weekend getaway plan for two was hatched. I only know I was informed about it at T minus 1.
The scene went something like this:
I arrive home from the office on a Friday at approximately 6pm. I exit the car, and still on the driveway with briefcase in hand, I am approached by Greg. He is a combination of flustered and enthused, and I wonder what catastrophe awaits inside. As I near the house, Greg gestures for me to return to the car.
Me: What’s going on? Where are the girls? Is the house on fire?
Greg: Everything’s fine. I have cooked up a little surprise for you. We are off to the city for the weekend. There is no time for delay. I made hotel and dinner reservations and we need to get on the road.
Me: (slightly panicked) Wait! I don’t understand. We are staying overnight? How wonderful….but what about the girls? Where are they? And my things…I need to pack some things! I’m not prepared for this.
Greg cradles my elbow and gently escorts me toward the car.
Greg: (in a reassuring tone) Everything has been taken care of. Your mom has the girls for the weekend- they are going to have a wonderful time together- and I’ve already packed your bag.
Me: (smiling to hide the horror). You packed my bag? How do you know what things I like to…NEED to…bring? You picked my outfits too?
Greg: I’ve got it all covered. I’m your husband, of course I know what you would want to bring and it’s all in that bag. He confidently points to a small duffel that I instantly know can’t possibly hold all I need.
Now, this is one of those moments in a marriage when you have to throw caution to the wind and give your spouse the absolute benefit of the (many) doubt(s).
After all, the man has just orchestrated a weekend surprise getaway of monstrous logistical proportions. He not only packed his and my bags, but also our daughters’ bags which as anyone with toddlers well knows, encompasses a considerable undertaking and mass of belongings and equipment larger than the children themselves.
Who am I to poke holes in this plan?
I inhale deeply and put on a face that exudes joy and gratitude. At least I’d like to remember it that way.
Me: With eyes still fixed on the duffel bag that seems to shrink smaller by the minute, I swallow and reply weakly: of course you know what I need, honey. After all (I really hope) you know my morning routine, and (I hope even harder) you know my evening routine, which includes brushing my teeth and the use of lotions and products and whatnot, among other things, right? Trying to convince myself I add: And you know my favorite comfortable weekend outfits, and how much I love my soft cozy winter pjs…and they’re clean (flashing through my mind: dear God did I even do the laundry this week?) and they’re all neatly tucked away in that ever-so-minuscule-teeny-tiny bag, right? (My tone turns to pleading).
Greg: (undaunted) Everything you need is in that bag. It’s time to go!
My handsome date is now holding the car door open like a perfect husband and gentleman and I follow the cue like the (usually) obedient wife that I am.
I am now in the front passenger seat kicking off the well-heeled pumps I was looking to shed hours ago, massaging my poor tired and aching feet.
Me: Greg? Did you happen to pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes or boots for me to wear this weekend?
Greg: Oh (pause). You need another pair of shoes? What’s wrong with the shoes you’re wearing?
Me: Silence. I think to myself it will be best to refrain from further questions.
After a lovely dinner we check into a hotel Greg’s brother recommended. It’s a nice place, if you don’t mind a room that is scarcely large enough to fit the bed. I try to look on the bright side, it was literally only one step’s distance to the bathroom, which I was dying to get into to wash my face, brush my teeth and tame my hair that is now wild from the high winds.
The time was upon me to finally unzip that little duffel to extract my usual array of toiletries that are the tools of my bedtime ritual. I dig around in search of my toiletry bag and come up empty.
Me: Greg, darling? Where are my toiletries?
Greg: You mean your toothbrush and toothpaste? They’re in the side zipper compartment of the duffel bag.
Me: Ok, but what about the other stuff, like my cold cream, moisturizing lotions, deodorant, hairbrush, hair dryer?
No response. But I already know the answer. Greg is now fully consumed with scanning the television for news, sports and weather. The talking head is reporting snow and sleet for Saturday, and I wonder how those high heels and I will fare under these conditions. But for the moment, I am confronted with a different problem.
I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror, wondering how on earth to remove the mascara without my cold cream. In desperation I tear the wrapper off the tiny hotel soap, lather it up under the tap and douse my face with its bounty. Instead of removing the mascara, this vicious bar of soap grossly displaces the black stuff all around my eyes, which by the way are now stinging horribly from the insecticide-like scent that is making me tear, sneeze and gag all at once.
I am in trouble.
I return to the space that is called a hotel room and face Greg. He gasps and asks why I have been crying.
Me: I wasn’t crying. I’m fine.
Greg: Are you sure? Because your make up is badly smudged and your eyes are beet red.
I try not to think about how I look at that moment, although the gruesome image reflecting back at me from that tiny hotel bathroom mirror will haunt me forever. I am singularly focused on getting into my cozy pjs, stretching out on that bed and resting my now swollen and blistered feet.
With small and careful steps I shimmy around the bed, place my duffel on it and start digging for those pjs. I can’t find them. I dump the contents out onto the bed and discover an undergarment I have not seen or worn since the birth of our first daughter.
Me: What’s this doing in here?
Greg: (with a wicked little smile) Isn’t that your nighttime cami?
Me: (???) No dear. It’s a girdle I bought after childbirth to coax things back into place in the cruelest of ways.
I toss the suit of armor to the floor and collapse onto the bed partly from exhaustion and exasperation, and partly because there was no place else to go.
The next morning I find myself eyeing that girdle of steel with a vengeance because my latest discovery is that Greg has packed a pair of jeans that have not fit me since the 7th grade. It was either the skirt, blouse and blazer from the day before, or these Barbie-sized jeans and a tightly-fitting sweater.
Oh, and did I mention my sole choice of white gym socks to pair with my heeled pumps?
What a picture I was that inclement Saturday as we shivered and endlessly stood in line at the Broadway Tickets booth in Times Square.
Thankfully, my coat concealed the silly undersized costume beneath, but I could not hide my still make-up-stained face, wild hair, and the bulk of white gym-socked feet awkwardly crammed into black patent pumps.
Dealing with ridiculous-looking frozen aching feet and trying to protect my expensive shoes from the sleet and snow were now a low priority.
I pretty much felt and looked like a scary circus clown.
There is a bright side to this weekend tale of beauty and fashion trauma. I kept reminding myself we were in New York City where I fit right in. Also, miraculously there were few mirrors in which to catch my atrocious image. So all I could do was think about what a nice time I was having with the best husband in the world.
Turns out I learned a couple of things – along with some unexpected surprises – thanks to Greg and the impromptu weekend getaway he organized for us in 1993.
First, I suppose I should feel blessed that my husband thought I needed only a toothbrush and toothpaste to put myself together each morning and night- and that he really and truly believed I could comfortably fit into those Barbie-sized jeans.
And, just as important, I should always keep a bag packed and ready to go for the next “surprise weekend” that, by the way, I’m still waiting for.
Each year on June 13th I spend a few minutes recalling the events that led up to the moment mom slipped from this life into history.
It was the year 2004, and during that first week of June I was preoccupied with a bit of worry about mom after she revealed she was experiencing nausea and indigestion. I didn’t like the weakened sound of her voice.
I begged her to let me take her to the doctor, but mom dismissed the symptoms as nothing out of the ordinary. “I ate too many cherries,” she told me with a little embarrassed laughter.
But I was still troubled by what I was hearing. At 75 years old Mom was a heavy smoker and had been since she was a teen.
I made mom agree to a deal after she revealed to me for a second time in two days that she was not feeling well, yet continued to insist she was fine.
I called it the “three strikes and you’re out” rule and our deal was if she admitted to these same symptoms for a third time after I asked in as many days, we were off to either the doctor or the emergency room. She reluctantly agreed.
As it turned out, mom struck out on the third day.
She called me around noontime and said she hadn’t been feeling well all morning. I heard a little concern in her voice and asked if she was still feeling the same symptoms she described to me the prior two days that she insisted were nothing.
She issued the code red with just three words: “three strikes rule.”
I was in my car in an instant.
When I arrived to mom’s house her color was ashen. Within a half hour of arriving to the emergency room, she was forever silenced by a massive heart attack.
No doubt, mom’s heart attack was in the making for years before it finally perfected itself on that fateful Sunday. Heart disease is sneaky, particularly in women.
There were clear warning signs leading up to the day, and others, I am certain, she never told us about.
Mom was not the squeamish type, having survived WWII Germany as a teenager and refugee. She had a high threshold for physical and mental pain that defined her.
Mom was just emerging from the worst anguish of all when the heart attack claimed her. Dad had died just fifteen months earlier after complications from a stroke. His death was a devastating blow to mom from which we now know she would not recover.
Sure, mom’s smoking did her in at the age of 75. But paving the way to cardiovascular catastrophe was the fact that she was also suffering a broken heart.
Mom and dad were mutual intellects who challenged, entertained and aggravated each other in equal measure.
Observing them during their legendary exchanges about world history or current events was a thrilling experience. One could never guess which of the two would emerge the victor. They argued their respective positions like lawyers in a courtroom.
Dad was always a good sport when mom prevailed as the expert on any given subject, emitting a loud and loving laugh that instantly melted the ice that had accumulated during the squabble.
Mom relished her rightness, and she was right so much of the time even though dad made her work to earn it before he would concede.
Dad would issue the ultimate challenge by saying, “prove it!” and within minutes mom was able to produce supporting documentation to win her argument.
Because mom’s education was interrupted by war, she was inexhaustibly self-taught from a lifetime of devouring every history book, biography, magazine or newspaper she could get her hands on. Our home had a full set of Colliers encyclopedia, overfilled book cases in virtually every room and stacked books spilling out of corners.
Mom’s thirst for knowledge about world history was particularly insatiable. She could put history scholars, including her Ivy-League educated husband, to shame.
But all of those books and knowledge could do nothing to illuminate mom’s thinking about smoking. She was proud of how fit and active she was, and from all outward appearances, nobody could argue that.
Dad was among an era of doctors who smoked, but promptly quit in his early fifties after his patient pointed out the irony of the surgeon treating him for cancer, who was advising he quit to survive that cancer, himself smoked.
No doubt, dad was embarrassed enough by the revelation to quit smoking on the spot, and was ever thankful to that patient for the wake up call he needed.
Dad, in turn, sounded a wake up call for mom to stop smoking, too.
He threw out her cigarettes, scolded and cajoled her, with mom making endless excuses for her continued smoking, along with half-promises to quit.
Here I reveal a very personal and painful example of smart people doing, well, not so smart things.
Too many of us find it easy to convince ourselves that somehow we will be the ones to escape the perils of our bad habits, whatever they may be, and I of course include myself here, and that horrific diseases happen only to other, less fortunate souls who do not have the constitution we believe to possess.
Or, as was the case with mom, we convince ourselves that we are entitled to hang onto bad habits without consequence because surely we have met and exceeded our quota in life for pain or suffering.
Mom always justified her smoking as having started, and having been an absolute necessity, during the war because there was no food, but somehow, cigarettes were plentiful. She credited cigarettes for easing her hunger, soothing her anxiety, and, surviving war.
Those were some pretty compelling excuses for such a lousy habit.
But as we make those compelling excuses to ourselves or entertain thoughts of our own indestructibility, we look around and see family members, loved ones and friends who, in an instant, fall to their knees battling illnesses they never imagined.
And in those moments we are forced to face the truth. We are all vulnerable.
June 13, 2004.
The brilliant and bright light, exuberant and delightful lady I called mom who survived war-torn Germany and inspired so many by her intelligence, charm and beauty, disappeared in an instant without so much as a goodbye.
For some years after, I anguished over what could or should have been done to prevent the calamity that befell mom too soon in her life, and us.
I ultimately came into an acceptance that people make their own choices, and either live with them, or sometimes as is the case, die from them.
I and my siblings did all we could; dad did all he could, but in the end, it was just another another argument with mom he couldn’t win.
So instead of thinking of mom as having left us for a bad habit she refused to break, I choose to ponder another possible scenario.
Mom was every bit as smart as we knew her to be, and on that day it was time for her to admit to dad he was absolutely right– that he had won that smoking argument fair and square- because she damn well had the supporting evidence to prove it.
Sometime around 1953 a young German-born Pan American Stewardess was assigned to ensure the airline’s hospitality for a high profile passenger.
For much of that long flight from Berlin to New York City, the charming Gisela Wolff entertained the passenger with interesting and lively conversation, a skill at which she was particularly adept.
Ultimately the conversation touched on Gisela’s need to secure a sponsor for her planned visit to New York, where she was to meet her U.S Army Officer gentleman-friend’s parents for the first time. She had explained that U.S military rules prohibited officers from serving as sponsors for single women.
After the long flight, whose time was passed with delightful conversation and laughter, the weary but grateful passenger handed Gisela his business card and offered to act as her sponsor for that important trip to America. Gisela thanked the passenger and happily took him up on the offer.
Months later as Gisela was being processed for what would become her first momentous visit to New York, she dutifully presented her sponsorship credentials to a New York City airport official. The bewildered official stared at the young woman’s passport and sponsorship papers for few minutes before speaking. “Uh, Miss Wolff, am I correct in reading your U.S. sponsor’s name as James R. Hoffa- as in Jimmy Hoffa?”
“Why yes,” replied the polite stewardess, as if it were nothing at all. The official raised his eyebrows as he promptly stamped Gisela Wolff’s entrance papers, all at once making possible her debut in America.
And that is the story of how mom managed to land a sponsor to visit New York, during which time my lovestruck father proposed marriage to her, after she, of course, won over my grandparents, just as she apparently did, Jimmy Hoffa.
Mom never saw Hoffa again. And needless to say, after 1975, neither did anyone else.
In the early 1950s a young surgeon was called to a cruise ship’s infirmary to tend to an ill passenger.
When the doctor stepped into the examining room there waiting sat an illustrious businessman complaining of indigestion. Recognizing the world-famous patient the doctor asked, “What on earth put a man like you into such a state?”
Answered the patient, “Doc, that’s easy to answer. Every day I run into one headache after another on my construction project, and to top it off, I’m running up massive debt on it and worry if this venture is ever going to pay off.”
The patient was Walt Disney. He was referring to the construction of Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
The young doctor was Dr. Nicholas DeVito, my dad, substituting as the cruise ship physician for a friend on that voyage.
Dad told us this story only a handful of times during his life.
My takeaways: 1) even Mickey Mouse suffered bad days, and 2) big dreams take big money.
But thanks for dreaming big, Mr. Disney. Needless to say, your legendary brand of magic paid off.
What was also magic on that day is that you had dad there to tend to you with a little antacid and a large dose of encouragement and faith that dreamers with good plans and intentions ultimately succeed.
Dad dispensed that kind of wisdom to me too on a few occasions when I questioned the probability of attaining certain dreams.
Mr. Disney may not have realized how fortunate he was to cross paths with dad that day to get a little of his legendary good medicine.
But I do.
Have you ever wondered if your loved ones who have crossed over have found each other on the other side?
On this day fifteen years ago, September 17, 2005, my sister and I received a pretty remarkable sign that mom and dad were indeed together in the afterlife.
This “knowledge” came to us in a rather interesting way. I suppose it’s safe to assume that given the great communications divide between this world and the next, our deceased loved ones have to get pretty creative to deliver their messages.
Dad succumbed to complications following a stroke in March of 2003. And mom, just fifteen months later, followed him after suffering a fatal heart attack. The loss of our parents too soon in their lives, and occurring in such close proximity, was obviously devastating.
My only consolation in processing these sad events was to at least know that mom and dad were together, where ever they were. And, what better day to come into that knowledge than on what would have been the next wedding anniversary following their deaths.
Seemed reasonable to me anyway.
Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t just any anniversary, it would have been their 50th.
So, my story begins on the afternoon of September 17, 2005, when I headed over to St. Patrick’s Cemetery with a sound system in tow to commemorate mom and dad’s Golden anniversary.
A sound system you ask?
Well, yes. I imagined that if I played mom and dad’s wedding song “Until I Waltz Again With You” loud enough at their gravesite, I had a reasonably good chance of getting their attention.
My face flushed as I cranked the volume of Teresa Brewer’s fine vocals, recognizing this may not be in keeping with the quiet serenity of any final resting place.
But I was on a mission.
Well, it turned out that I got attention pretty quickly, but unfortunately, not the attention I was hoping for.
I found myself sheepishly explaining the reason for the temporary disturbance to the few souls paying respects to their loved ones at neighboring gravesites. They nodded, and even managed half smiles, in silent understanding.
“Until I Waltz Again With You” was a song I had grown to love over the years because it so well defined the courtship of my parents. It was fitting they had selected it for their wedding first dance.
During her life when mom played her wedding song she would revel in the happy memories it surfaced. She would describe her military wedding on the U.S. Army base in Berlin, and then show me the few photos she cherished from that day. Mom was a stunning bride and dad, handsome in dress military uniform.
During their courtship in Europe, mom and dad would meet up after time spent apart at one of the few remaining nightclubs unharmed in the still bomb-ravaged and divided City of Berlin during the Cold War.
It was a scene reminiscent of an old post WWII Hollywood movie: dad, a striking doctor and U.S. Army Officer then serving at U.S. Army Hospital in Berlin, and mom, a young beauty and stewardess for Pan American Airlines. They were a stunning pair, who, even in their later years, could elegantly glide across the dance floor, leaving spectators in awe.
My heart hurt, but also raced in hopeful anticipation of a sign, any sign, that mom and dad were together, as I meditated on that wedding scene fifty years later in the cemetery.
The tribute song trailed off, and silence was restored.
I waited, and waited.
I left the cemetery, slightly embarrassed and definitely defeated.
That evening my husband Greg and I had dinner plans with my sister Nola and her husband Bob, who were also married on September 17th.
We met up at Abel Conklin’s (one of mom and dad’s favorite Huntington haunts, and ours as well, that is sadly, no more) and we lifted our glasses to toast our parents’, and, Nola and Bob’s September 17 wedding anniversaries.
And that’s when I decided to share my sad and perhaps, silly, cemetery story.
My sister laughed and rolled her eyes over the idea of me disturbing the peace. I insisted that after such a thoughtful idea and loving music tribute, I surely deserved an answer to my very reasonable request.
Nola, Bob and Greg were definitely having a little fun at my expense.
And then, Nola got quiet and, very serious, deep in thought as she began processing information that was suddenly making sense to her.
Her silence was broken with a single question: “Uh, Joan, about what time were you at the cemetery this afternoon?”
“Around 4:00 p.m.” I answered.
“Oh my God,” she gasped. “Actually, something very strange happened to me around that same time today. And now, it all makes sense.”
Nola proceeded to share that toward the end of her workday, she left her office to pick up a few items at a little nearby food shop.
In processing the sale, the proprietor dug into his cash register to provide Nola the change due to her in that transaction.
“When he handed me my change,” Nola said, “he pressed it into the palm of my hand and then held it there in such a way that gave me pause. I buy items from this merchant often and never before had he done anything like that,” she noted.
The act was so unusual, in fact, that instead of tossing the change into her purse without looking at it as she normally did, Nola opened her hand to reveal and study the two coins that had been placed into her palm in that seemingly mystical moment.
“There were two old pennies in my hand,” she said.
Nola looked at the date of the first penny: 1955. Then at the second; it was also dated 1955.
Now, what were the chances that in 2005, a person could get not one, but two 1955 pennies handed to them in a single instant?
And, on of all dates, September 17th?
September 17, 1955, mom and dad’s wedding day, fifty years later.
Two 1955 pennies pressed into the palm of Nola’s hand, while some ten miles away, Teresa Brewer’s “Until I Waltz Again With You” was filling the crisp fall air at mom and dad’s resting place, with me praying my heart out for a sign that they were together.
Yes, it’s difficult to deny that was not a sign.
Two pennies from Heaven?
But for sure, mom and dad’s two cents.
Postscript: After I wrote this story I received the following message from my sister, along with a photo of the special pennies below: Joan! “I didn’t know you were writing the penny story. Here are the pennies I kept, still taped together, since I received them that day.” – Nola
Gisela Wolff DeVito, mom
I'm not a fan of labels, and yet there are a number of them attached to me.
Some of my labels and associations are self-assigned. I am a Democrat. I drive a VW Beetle.
And then there are the inescapable labels that come to me by birth. I'm first generation American-born. I'm Roman Catholic.
Do these labels tell you who I am? Obviously not. But there are a lot of people who might say they do.
That's a problem.
During a parade and fair in Huntington Station a young Salvadoran teen told a Newsday reporter that she felt it was important to attend the event to debunk the myth that all Latin American youth are gang members. While the statement impressed me for its spunk and honesty, it struck a somber chord. This is one young girl's reality, and very likely, will remain her reality for years to come.
My mom could not shake the labels associated with her German heritage. A cold-war bride, she met and married a U.S. Army Officer in Berlin. When dad was transferred to the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas U.S Army base mom was ushered into a new life in America. She was very excited at the prospect of becoming a citizen. After fleeing one town to the next to escape the constant bombings in WWII-torn Germany, mom was more than ready to leave that part of her life behind. Little did she know that 1943-1945 would not leave her.
Mom's grand entrance into mid 1950s America found her squarely in the middle of lingering tensions over what happened in Germany. Had she not opened her mouth to speak, mom might have passed as any American woman. But the unmistakable accent gave her up every time, and no matter how kind, charming, or beautiful she was, anti-German sentiment simmered just below the surface of post WWII American conversation.
Mom's German label continued to undermine her into the 1970s, when a neighbor threw a large pot of boiling water on our family's German shepherd as a hateful statement to mom and her German dog. It took months for the poor creature's massive third degree burns to heal. It was nearly a year before the dog's fur grew back to mask the grotesque assault. But the wound inflicted on my mom by this act would never heal.
Just like the Huntington Station teen trying to shake the connection of gangs with her Latin heritage, mom spent a lifetime trying to shake her own burdens of association. Throughout the rest of her life mom continued to be haunted by the horrors she witnessed as an impressionable and innocent teen during WWII- and remained deeply ashamed by what her people had done.
I am hoping for better for our young Salvadoran teen who came out proud and bold to represent the true face and nature of her people.
Two innocent women separated only by nationality, time and history, but who share an identical struggle to be recognized separate and apart from the labels they assumed at birth- labels to carry in their brave new world called America.