Today is March 1st and it’s snowing. We’re stuck in a weather pattern that seems unwilling to let go of its hold on us. The thermometer read minus five yesterday morning when I crawled out of bed and headed to the gym for a 7AM spin class. This is my mission- to get ready to ride around the lake on my bike when all the ice melts. I always choose a spin bike in the back row and stuff my big sneakers into the upper clamps on the pedals. As I slowly warm-up before the start of class I look at the shoes of the other class members. Almost everyone has expensive spin shoes with cleats that allow them to lock into the pedal. I recently learned that the spin shoe gives you a better workout . It provides muscle balance, increased power and more comfort but I haven’t made the purchase in part because I’m waiting to see if this spin thing takes. The same way I’m waiting for spring.

It’s strange riding in place at the back of the pack in a cold room with a teacher shouting instructions through a head set over loud music that is intended to inspire you. When we’re simulating an easy ride along a flat road it helps if I close my eyes and remember my childhood in Illinois. Bikes were always at the ready as we hopped on and took off in a moment’s notice. We met friends at the park or in front of Petranek’s Pharmacy and leaned our bikes up against the long glass store front before we went inside for an ice cream at the still operational soda fountain.

Petranek's Pharmacy

Petranek’s Pharmacy

When we’re imitating a climb in class I imagine ascending the hills around my lake house on a warm spring day. Each of these hills vary in intensity and in every  fantasy I never have to get off and push the bike to the top.

Our winding and hilly road is so narrow it runs as a one way strip past our house, so if you forget anything you have to drive all the way around the lake again to retrieve it which can easily take over ten minutes. As a driver you have to creep along at 20 MPH to avoid hitting pedestrians walking their dogs or the occasional jogger. Most drivers are slow and careful and almost everyone waves as they pass you. The road has seven hills in total which can be challenging. For this reason, the hardest thing to do here is ride your bike.

Raising children on Lake Drive didn’t offer a lot of opportunities for bike riding. We have a small flat portion of road that runs about an eighth of a mile just in front of the house. Because the house is set below the street we had to haul the bikes uphill to reach the road, so the image of children running outside and jumping on their bikes for a quick spin to visit a friend never happened.

Jackson learned to ride a two wheeler bike before we moved here but Quinn arrived without that ability. As a parent this always bothered me, that I had somehow failed to provide her with this simple and basic skill. Another mother once announced to me that she had done her duty as a parent and the rest was up to the child.

“She can read, swim and ride a bike,” she proclaimed. “Now she’s ready for life.”

We had the reading and swimming part down but the bike part alluded us. I’m also not entirely sure Quinn held great ambitions about bike riding. She owned a variety of bikes over the years that we lugged to the street, loaded into the car and then drove off to a flat area so she could learn. These experiences never went well and they exhausted me so I stopped initiating them. There was always a small voice whispering in my ear that said, “Yes, of course Quinn will learn to ride a bike.” She was fairly athletic, taught herself to dive and was eager to try new things but riding bikes wasn’t among them. It was hard to reconcile since her paternal grandfather had been a champion bicycle racer.

Then, during the summer before eighth grade we noticed an old Schwinn chained up outside Herb’s Auto & Bicycle Store. We pulled over and got out of the car to take a closer look. The bike only had pedal brakes and it was heavy with big tires and a wide cushioned seat. The cross bar was low so it was easy to climb on. Quinn instantly loved it like an old friend.vintage-schwinn-bicycles

For fifty dollars we toted it home and set it up on the kick stand in the gravel drive. Quinn sat on the wall and looked at it for bit then climbed on. “I’m ready to learn,” she announced. All my failings as a parent were about to be mended and erased with time. I procured a helmet and the instructions commenced right in front of the house.

She steadied herself with me holding her seat and we practiced using pedal brakes and tipping to one side to stop with her feet. This concept alone reassured her that safety was just a step away. Back and forth along the allotted eighth of a mile she pedaled. She rode one way turned around and rode back. She did this activity for three days. She had it, but I wanted more. I wanted her to ride around the lake or even part way around. She needed to feel the freedom bike riding could offer, after all hills are a part of life.

quinn bike1I briefly reflected on the time I tried to ride around the lake with Jackson shortly after we moved in. He had a new bike and as we took off down the hill he steered himself and his bike into a neighbor’s hedge with his legs sticking out one side and his head and hands out the other. Lots of people came running over including the hedge owner who was in her yard talking on the phone.

“I have to hang up, a boy just crashed through my bushes.”

As she helped me free him I repeatedly apologized but she stopped me.

“I hate these bushes, I’m going to cut them down.” Which she did about a year later.

I decided Quinn and I  would go the other direction and take on some smaller hills first. Before starting out I drilled her again on the use of her brakes.

“When we come to a hill don’t pedal, just coast and when it starts to feel too fast push back on the brakes to slow yourself.”

“Okay,” she said as if she wanted to please me.

“You can do it!” I said.

“Okay,” she said again.

Off we went slowly and steadily coasting down a slight slope before leveling off. “You did it,” I sang out. Quinn forced a weak smile and we pedaled on and then climbed up another incline. When we reached the top we stopped our bikes and looked down.

“I’m not so sure,” she said frowning.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I assured her. “Just remember to brake as you gain speed.”

“Can I put my foot down?”

“Well you have to stop to do that,” I explained. “We’re coasting to the bottom and that gives you momentum to ride up the next hill.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’ll be right beside you.”

She looked straight ahead saying nothing. I took that as a sign and started pedaling slowly as she followed me. The time between that launch and her crash was mere seconds but I always see that fall in slow motion. I watched the panic set in as she lost confidence and her bare knees and palms skidded across the asphalt. I was powerless to stop the thing that I had started.

Once again another neighbor woman sitting on her porch ran to the rescue. She helped me drag Quinn to the curb and offered some damp paper towels to quell the bleeding then she went to call our house. Rob glared at me as he shepherded a crying Quinn into the car and he became the good cop. I was the bad cop who rode my bicycle home alone.

Quinn limped along for weeks with bandaged and scabbed legs. She wasn’t having any part of the old back in the saddle adage. The bike was stored in the crawl space and languished for years. Her brother asked to bring it to college but Quinn insisted she would one day use it. Eventually some friends brought her to a park and taught her all over again. Eventually she wanted the Schwinn at college and we pulled it out but now it needed new tires and we couldn’t locate the proper size in any store so it went back underground. For one whole year- Order Quinn’s tires– sat at the top of Rob’s to do list. She occasionally reminded him and then forgot about it. I mean if she really wanted the tires she could have looked for them herself.

Sort of like me riding in the back of the spin class staring at all the other people’s spin shoes, wondering if this is a hobby that will take or if spring will ever come.

photo by Robert Forlini

photo by Robert Forlini


simpsonIf I had in my possession all the money I ever spent eating out in restaurants I would be a rich woman but I don’t regret most of it. My biggest regret in life is the money I’ve spent eating out in bad restaurants. Little did I know that moving to Putnam County I would be embarking on an epicurean’s wasteland. As two parents working fulltime jobs with a healthy commute and other time spent shuttling our charges to one lesson, rehearsal or activity after another we invariably threw up our hands in desperation and headed out to eat. Living where we live this is much easier said than done. When we moved into the lake house there wasn’t a single restaurant in our actual town- just delis and they almost all sold pizza.

The seller of our house told us the best pizza was located in a tiny strip mall across from the roundabout about a mile out of town. It was called Al Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza. He said it should not be confused with Forno III Pizza which was closer. Neither should be confused with The Original Al Forno which packed up and moved to a town further south. At some point all three owners of the Al Forno Pizza parlors worked in the same place but some bad blood passed between them and they splintered into three separate feuding restaurants.


Both places claimed to make pizza like “The Bronx” whatever that is and in the end both places were pretty bad. If you went into either one the owner went into a ten minute diatribe about how the other Al Forno’s owner was a crook and couldn’t make pizza. Now normal house buyers would not put a lot of stock into which pizza was superior when buying a house but we listened to the seller and for a while the one by the roundabout was the spot.

The four corners of main street had a car repair shop on one side, an historic house that failed as a restaurant on the opposite, a hair salon called Untamed on the third corner and Maria’s Deli on the fourth. Maria was a super grouchy woman who spoke with a thick Italian accent and supported her large family from the proceeds of the deli. She made her own Italian bread. It was a bit cakey and had a very distinctive taste but she often sold it warm and we occasionally bought it. Based upon the success of her bread she decided to expand into a full scale bakery inside the deli. She made fancy cakes and cookies and displayed them under a glass counter in the back of the store.

“That’s beautiful,” I said one afternoon admiring a small decorated cake.

“You want it?” she barked at me.

“Weeell…” I demurred. “We do have a birthday coming up.”

“You want the cake?” she snapped.


“This is a great cake.” She said.

“Okay.” Something about Maria’s crankiness made me want her to like me even more.

After dinner I surprised the family with the cake. As I served it I explained that Maria was going to launch a full line of baked goods.

“So now we have a bakery in town which is something we actually need…what?” I asked looking at Rob’s face. “It’s no good?”

“It tastes just like her Italian bread except with sugar.”

I took a bite. “It does.”

“Does she just have a one size fits all dough recipe?” he asked. We avoided Maria’s for a while. Not surprisingly the bakery idea died. Maria decided to start making pizza. She expanded her deli as they pushed through to the closed up flower shop next door and installed a large pizza oven. When you went in to buy milk or a sandwich she told you about her pizza business that was coming soon. In addition to the fighting Fornos the town had a smattering of small delis servicing each lake community and each of those delis sold pizza.Mama_Celeste

Maria seemed almost pleasant for a brief period anticipating her new venture until the historic house across from the repair shop reopened as a…you guessed it, a pizza parlor called Pizza and Pasta.

This pizza parlor had something all the other places didn’t have, tables. Not to be outdone, Maria charged forward with her plans and by the time she opened up she had set up some plastic tables in the front of the deli but more people went to Pizza and Pasta.

After the first week of Pizza and Pasta, Forno III put a banner out offering free Pepsi with each pie. Then Maria hung a sign in her window that offered two pies for the price of one. Around this same time Al Forno’s Brick Oven near the roundabout started to look very grubby and we stopped going altogether.

Pizza and Pasta made a sign that said, BYOB and free salads with each pie. So Maria upped her offer to include two pizzas and two liters of soda for fifteen dollars. Then another small deli about two miles before the main corner decided to start selling pizza and they offered one large pie with two liters of soda for ten dollars and they delivered for free. They weren’t on the same block as the other three but they did start to siphon off customers who lived closer to their store.

“That certainly smells good.” I offered when I stopped inside Maria’s one afternoon. You can see I never learned to keep my mouth shut. The result was the same. Pizza that tasted like her bread and cake dough. It was as if she flattened out the bread into a pie pan and put tomato sauce on top.

So we went to the restaurant with table service, free salads and our own wine. Until the time we ordered a Marguerita pie which consisted of a can of crushed tomatoes spread over the dough with a sprinkling of basil on top. When we questioned the waitress she explained that it was the chef’s personal version.

“It’s a can of crushed tomatoes on dough,” we said.

“Yes,” she agreed.

Pizza and Pasta closed within a year for lack of business.

Apparently most people didn’t like pizza that tasted like cake batter either because Maria closed up the pizza portion of her business a few weeks later and the feuding Fornos went back to life as normal. During this period a bagel shop opened across the parking lot from Marias and they siphoned off the A.M. buttered roll crowd. Now less people had a reason to put up with a crotchety Maria. Eventually she closed her deli altogether and moved away.


As for us we stopped eating pizza and most bread products about this time and maybe other people did too. Or maybe they crossed the county line and ate pizza at any number of other available pizza options. We went from a glut of pizza choices to very few when they ran each other out of business. Forno III closed up and remains an empty shop because they owed the landlord back rent. Forno’s Brick Oven Pizza was sold and now has a glowing neon sign in the window that says WINGS. Maria’s Deli turned into a small grocery store that doesn’t sell pizza and the bagel shop closed last year as well. A bar opened up where the restaurant was but as far as I know they don’t serve pizza. The service station closed because the owner owed the county eight hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. The town supervisor has tried in vain to get a developer to move in and open a brew pub. I could be wrong but I don’t think that will ever happen.

On Friday nights driving north to a childless house I never think about pizza anymore. Then last week I passed by the empty store where the bagel shop stood and saw a sign; Coming Soon Nonna’s Pizza.IMG_1499




At Christmas time I move through stores on autopilot always hoping something will jump out and say, “Buy me!” I want the object to make me feel like I have to purchase it. For a long time there were a lot of products telling me to buy them for Quinn.

Going into my downstairs bathroom I am reminded of one of these earlier purchases. There in the corner of the soap rack, a rubber, pink bath-robed Hello Kitty toy hangs on. It’s covered in years of soap film and I periodically wash her down and prop her back up into position. When we had the bathroom renovated about eight years ago she was the first thing we bought for the new bathroom. She originally fit snugly over the top of some pink shampoo. The plumber polishing the grout off the tiles asked me about her.


“Who’s that?”

“Hello Kitty.”

“What kitty?”

“No, Hello Kitty,” I said more slowly. “It’s a brand. Well, she’s a cat and they make a lot of products with her picture on it. Quinn loves Hello Kitty.”

He scratched his head and continued polishing. “Well I never heard of her. I’ll have to ask my daughter if she has.”

“I bet she has,” I added, knowing his daughter and mine were only a year apart.

Before he left for the day he checked in with what was left on the job and said he would return the next day to finish up. Then he said, “Hello Kitty right?”

“Right, Hello Kitty.”

“And you say I can find her on lots of things.”


The truth is once you start looking for Hello Kitty items you can’t stop finding them. Which was good because Quinn loved Hello Kitty. She had acquired several t-shirts emblazoned with the squat little cat, lunch boxes, lamps, jewelry, socks, backpacks, pencil cases, tissue boxes, hair clips, and dozens of toys.

When Quinn was less than three we happened upon a Sanrio exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Quinn came face to face with a live Hello Kitty and fearlessly plunged into her arms. This cemented the beginning of a long and loving relationship.IMG_1399 Initially Hello Kitty products were harder to find. We used to travel to Chinatown and visit the Sanrio store on Mott Street. One of us would distract a young Quinn while the other purchased a special item for Christmas like a Hello Kitty suitcase. When we found anything to do with Hello Kitty we bought it because we believed it was special.

Just as Quinn’s fondness mushroomed, Hello Kitty’s popularity soared nationwide and she was available for the taking. Oddly, Quinn was largely alone in her fascination for the white cat among her immediate friends. Which might explain why the plumber with a young daughter had never heard of the character. When Quinn had a birthday party you could be sure that the majority of the gifts from her friends had something to do with Hello Kitty. To know Quinn was to know her love of this character.

When we first moved to the lake house, McDonalds was having a Hello Kitty Happy Meal promotion. For eight weeks they handed out a different Hello Kitty keychain. It was the only time in memory we ate there. We ordered a Happy Meal and ate the fries but threw the burger away so we could have the key chain. A friend explained to us on the third week, “you don’t have to buy the meal, just buy the toy.”

She had DVD’s which told of animated exploits of the little animal and featured her twin sister, Mimmy. The only distinguishable feature between the two was Hello Kitty had a red bow and Mimmy had a yellow bow. Kitty was an extrovert and Mimmy was an introvert. In one story Kitty convinces herself that her mother doesn’t love her and runs away only to discover nothing could be further from the truth. The episode was title “Mommy really loves me after all.” However, whenever Quinn was mad at me it was often referred to as, “Mommy doesn’t love me after all.”kitty-and-mimmy

According to Sanrio, Hello Kitty yields over six hundred million dollars in revenue from over 80,000 different Hello Kitty branded products in more than 60 countries. That’s a lot of Hello Kitty. Maybe if we had known this, we might have stopped buying Hello Kitty products and accepted that our quest was futile. Sometime around 2003 when Quinn was ten she really owned enough but nobody took much notice, including her.

The products continued to pour into her small bedroom. When she was in the eighth grade Rob took Jackson to Miami to sing in an honors choir. Rob had a lot of hours to fill while Jackson was rehearsing, and besides photographing he shopped and returned home with a large plastic Hello Kitty alarm clock.kitty

As he was setting up the clock, Rob said, “I knew when I saw it, Quinn had to have it.” Hello Kitty was coming out of an enormous teacup and a slice of lemon lit up when the alarm went off. It took up most of the available space on her on her nightstand.

She was thirteen and still liked toys, but I think I detected a bit of the flame for Hello Kitty starting to dim with the arrival of the clock. On the following birthday her best friend gave her a large Hello Kitty lamp which we immediately set up, but she made no future mention of it. It went on this way for a while. Each time someone in our circle saw a new Hello Kitty product they thought of Quinn and bought it for her. The next year we bought her a fancy Hello Kitty watch. I think she wore it half a dozen times. I languished in a drawer before I took it over and started wearing to work. Some of my middle school students fawned over it and wished they owned one. I soon stopped wearing it as well.

The following Christmas we went to a Kay Jewelry store to buy a Hello Kitty pendant necklace. It was cute and small and we believed represented a more grown-up version of the character. We discovered the cost was over a hundred and fifty dollars and left without buying it. I decided to feel Quinn out.

“Oh look at this pretty necklace,” I said, pointing out the object in a sales flyer.

“Please don’t buy that for me,” she said.



On her next birthday her cousin dropped off a large stuffed Build-A-Bear Hello Kitty that talked. “Is she kidding?” Quinn complained rolling her eyes. She never took it out of the box.21948Alt1LR

I had to admit it was an odd gift for a sixteen-year-old but in all fairness Quinn had never announced the infatuation was over. It had been over for a few years but maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell anyone. She had long stopped asking for these items, but people assumed once in love always in love. And they were so damn easy to find now.

When she cleaned out her room all of the Hello Kitty items were piled into a box and sold at a tag sale or given away. The small items were brought into my classroom and placed inside my prize box.

“You have an awful lot of Hello Kitty things in here,” a sixth grade girl remarked as she picked over her choices.

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “Do you like Hello Kitty?”

“Not really,” she said.

Lots of people have childhood attachments to characters and retain a few of those things into adulthood. Rob’s niece loved the character Snoopy as a little girl and still appreciates receiving birthday cards with his image on them. Not Quinn. The shampoo cap is the only thing that remains because I can’t bring myself to toss it. I still have to stop Rob from buying anything Hello Kitty. He see’s one and say’s “Oh look,” and then stops himself. We remind ourselves that Hello Kitty is no longer part of our lives and we move on. They still talk to us but we’re trying really hard not to listen.









“Wasn’t that our turn?” Rob shrieked, as we sped past our exit and drove into the unknown darkened superhighway.

Tossing the map aside I scanned the large green signs above me in hopes of getting us back on the right path.

“Well?” He asked impatiently.

“Don’t talk,” I said, “it makes me nervous.”

“Not knowing where we’re going is even more nerve-racking!”

I’m sorry to say this is an all too common occurrence.


I have never understood maps. I love them, I find them attractive, but I can’t read them; even the ones decorated with pictures of little 3-D buildings. I get lost in the pictures and can’t find my way to where I need to go.

In elementary school I struggled to understand geography lessons. My eyes would focus on the icons decorating the map: corn in the Midwest, cotton in the South. I would daydream about who might live in this spot. Did the girls play with dolls? Did they eat fried bananas for breakfast? I would make up a story about a family and when the teacher called on me I would always have to answer. “I don’t know.” I promised myself I would do better next time but it was pretty pointless.


In college I took a cartography course which was almost laughable. The instructor, an adjunct (in a time when they were less common) painstakingly showed me, yet again, what I was doing wrong.

“Your drawings are well…beautiful,” he would say. “But they’re all wrong.” He paused thinking he had hurt my feelings. “Does that make sense? Does any of this make any sense?”

I only wanted to take the class because a friend of a friend had a clear box of cartography pens on his desk. I had never seen pens like those. They were filled with loose ink that dripped down into tiny needle points.

The instructor probably thought that teaching an evening class to college students would be a nice break from toiling away for long hours, alone, at his drafting table. I sometimes wonder how this group of highly trained draftsmen transitioned over to modern technology and gave up their pens. Such beautiful pens.


When I am driving alone to a place I have never been, a certain panic sets in. I can follow line by line directions much better than visual ones. That’s interesting to me because I have great spatial reasoning skills when something is right in front of me, when it’s physical. But hand me a two dimensional line drawing that points the way and I’m hopeless.

So when GPS came along it felt like a match made in heaven. Until it wasn’t. Same two dimensional map, but now it’s smaller. Tiny really, and you can’t get a lay of the land which is the only thing about paper maps that worked for me. You can only see a little bit in front of where you are and it’s moving. This fact makes it hard to look backwards.

“Is the blue dot on the green line?” Rob asked in complete frustration.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t find the blue dot.”

“I can’t drive and navigate!”

Then there’s “the lady”; that is, the lady in the phone who tells you where to go. Until she stops talking which can happen more than you’d think. Or she never shuts up and repeats the information six times over and you turn her off thinking, you so “got this,” and then you don’t.

When Jackson was graduating from college I left my family at the school to drive to the airport to pick up my sister, Susan. Her flight was getting in an hour before the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. We had plenty of time and Rob had given me a Garmin GPS for Mother’s Day the week before.

“The clerk in the store said this was the best one on the market.”

“Great, “ I said ripping it out of the package like it was the thing that was going to change my life forever.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty to throw that away,” Rob said picking up the directions. “You better read this instruction manual all the way through.”

Reading instruction manuals is something Rob does, not me. He also only seems to get lost with me in the car. My feeling is that if the manufacturers really wanted you to understand what they made, they would put it down in neat, bulleted points that fit on one sheet of paper creating something one possibly could understand.

So with Susan in tow I punched in the coordinates for the college and off we went. The Garmin voice told us to turn, drive and turn. The voice decided for some arbitrary reason to take us off the highway and even though I knew better, I listened. After all she was the authority.

“This must be some sort of shortcut,” I assured Susan.


We drove on. We meandered into odd neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, rich gated neighborhoods and industrial districts where we passed numerous body shops that didn’t sell gas. All the while the Garmin voice kept telling us, “Turn here and here.” And with each turn she added on the number of minutes it would take us to get to our destination.

“Look it’s five minutes longer than it was ten minutes ago and we’ve been driving the whole time,” I screamed.

We hit every red light imaginable between the airport and the college. At each stop the time until our arrival increased.

Susan stayed calm and tried to make the whole situation seem funny. “It’s very hard to argue with her,” she said. Our father used to say there was something funny in every situation, even someone’s death. I wasn’t laughing.

We arrived in time to hear the President of the college propose a toast to the inductees and then make a hasty retreat. I learned about the ceremony weeks later from the pictures Rob had taken.

“I want to get a hammer and smash the Garmin.”

“You didn’t read the instructions,” Rob said.

“No, it doesn’t work. I hate it and I don’t want it. I’d rather be lost.”

The Garmin went back to the store and we carried on as before. If our destination was difficult and we were together I drove and Rob navigated.

Then two years ago I bought an iPhone. I didn’t buy one to text or read my mail or take photos. I bought one because of the GPS. It seemed they had gotten most of the bugs out of the system. I would plug in the address from my current location and off I’d drive, carelessly listening to music while the voice interrupted occasionally to ensure I was on the right path. All was right with the world. Until it wasn’t.

Early in the Fall we were driving home from New Jersey and Rob asked me to plug the directions home into the phone.

As we headed towards the George Washington Bridge he asked me to check the traffic and compare the upper and lower levels.

“It’s not showing up.” I said.

“Well, find out. I need to know if I go left or right.”

It still wasn’t working and he had to make a guess. As we were crossing the bridge he asked me which way to go. Again it wasn’t working.

“You’re doing something wrong,” he shouted.

“I can’t help it,” I cried.

“What am I supposed to do?” he exclaimed.

I thought about it for a second and said, “Didn’t you grow up here? Don’t you know the way home? What if we didn’t have a GPS, what would you do?”

He laughed a good long laugh. “You’re right,” he laughed again. It was as if he had been hit by lightening. I shut off the phone. Rob’s strong sense of direction kicked in and he navigated us home GPS free. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments. We were using it even when we didn’t really need it.


Two nights ago I punched in the address for a bowling alley in a town I had never been to. I was driving along and the voice kept repeating, “You have arrived, your destination is on the left,” but I couldn’t see a bowling alley. It was hidden down a long drive I hadn’t noticed. I drove back and forth past the entrance. The lady in the phone never got excited and never wavered she just repeatedly told me to turn around. I pulled over, looked at the map on the tiny screen and saw my mistake. But unlike most people I had to study the map for several minutes to understand that unnerving question: Where am I?

When I arrived at the bowling alley I saw one of my friends and told her how hard it was to find the place.

“Oh I agree,” she said. “I got lost too.”

“Did your GPS forget to tell you to turn left into the service road?”

“No, I didn’t use one. I just pulled over and asked someone for directions.”


Raising Quinn meant that November 1st was always just the beginning of costumes. The point of Halloween for her had never been about candy, although she liked it, the point was always to become someone else. A lot of people like dressing up but she retained her costumes or parts of her costumes and wore them into the year. For Quinn almost anything had the potential to become a costume. Once she donned the outfit they were no longer costumes but alter egos. She had many.

Quinn dressed up to turn a chore into an alternate reality. On more than one occasion when I had sent her into the basement to sort the laundry on a Saturday morning I’d discover her dressed in an old dress of mine with her head covered in a scarf, wrapped in a makeshift shawl and kneeling on the cold basement floor, the laundry still unsorted.

“What are you doing?” I would ask wondering why this simple task was taking so long.

“A crust of bread for a poor old washer woman?” she’d plead, as she slowly lifted an article of dirty clothing from one basket to the next. The gesture implied that she didn’t have the strength to carry on.

“Oh for goodness sake,” I’d say. “Just finish up. It’s cold down here.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” she’d croak in an old lady voice. “This is where I live.”

Sitting and reading the Sunday paper you might look up and find her decked out in an outfit that resembled an Italian troubadour, mustache and all. She’d dance a bit and sing old fashioned ditties while twirling a cane and never coming out of character. The character went away when she was good and ready to change.IMG_1336

She’d show up at the dock ready for a swim as Jackie O. complete with glamour glasses, a head scarf and a handbag waiting for the swimmers to look up and notice.

When she was very small she was usually some type of fairy. She wore wings but she rarely flew. She liked to crawl into small places and make them her home: the crawl space, the deck trunk or under a desk. Whenever we traveled and went into a public restroom I could gauge the quality of the bathroom by Quinn’s reaction. If it was nice she would say, “This is our house.”

“That’s your room,” she would say pointing to my stall,“and this is mine.” When we were washing our hands she would add, “This is the kitchen.” If the bathroom was luxurious it was often hard to get her out. She would lounge on one of the couches which represented the living room. I’d have to remind her that Rob and Jackson were waiting for us at the table. When we left the bathroom it instantly ended.

Her characters were never limited to our personal lives but expanded into the larger world. For her ninth birthday all she wanted was an authentic Gryffindor robe. The four of us traveled to Abracadabra on West 21st Street to make the purchase. This in itself isn’t so unusual but Quinn threw away the package before we left the store.

“Oh, you’re not going to wear that?” Jackson protested.

She ignored him and attached the clasp as the long black robe draped over her slight frame and engulfed her. For an added effect she pulled on the hood.

“You’re honestly not going to let her walk around like that,” Jackson said imploringly to Rob and I.

“It is a bit warm,” I suggested.

“Oh what do you care?” Rob asked both of us snapping Quinn’s picture and on we went.

It was a warm September afternoon and she walked the streets and rode the subway as a character from Harry Potter but also looking something like a Druid. It was Manhattan-no one noticed.

Another time she went to Thanksgiving at Rob’s sister’s house dressed as a pilgrim wearing a bonnet, a gray, floor-length dress and a long, white apron. I can only imagine it took some effort to transcend the actual situation and pretend she was in Salem instead of a room full of loud Italians eating lasagna.

As a family we loved to go to Old Sturbridge Village. We liked to stroll the dirt roads through the living museum and talk to the interpreters stationed along the way. We stopped in each building and listened to the actors talk about their day in old New England. The interpreters dress in period costumes and make the 1830’s come alive for the visitor. As interpretive villages go they do a pretty good job. The docents do everything from killing and cooking chickens over an open fire to firing muskets and working as the local tinsmith. Some stay in character and some speak as historians. Tourists snap their picture as they explain the operations of grinding corn in an authentic gristmill or how banks used to function. Visitors often ask the interpreters to pose for a snapshot.

Quinn spent parts of these visits quiet and pensive as she detached herself and imagined living in this village. On one trip she spied a girl’s dress from the era inside the expansive gift shop. I remember it was pretty expensive, so it was going to be a Christmas present. She wore it a lot and liked to trudge across the frozen lake alone with a basket in hand because the conditions were often tough for a young pioneer girl.

The following summer on our now almost annual trip to Old Sturbridge Village, Quinn packed the dress, a prairie bonnet, small handmade basket, a pair of ankle moccasins and her American Girl doll dressed in a similar outfit. In the morning while we were distracted with showers and camera bags she dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder or something close to it. She asked me to braid her hair and then gently placed the old fashioned bonnet over her head.

“I am not walking around with her,” Jackson cried as we were getting ready to leave for the museum.

She looked so happy all we could do was tell him to get over it.

“Well don’t walk anywhere near me,” he declared. But after an hour or so she was getting a lot of positive attention and he stopped thinking about it as a bad thing.

At the end of our second day we walked through the covered bridge dodging the horse dung and began the slow shaded climb up from the lake towards the visitors center and gift shop. A woman with two young daughters going in the opposite direction stopped Quinn.

“Can my daughters take a photo with you?”

Quinn had spent the last two days in a sweet dream, living in another era. This woman was validating her authenticity.

“Of course,” she said.

Quinn posed politely framed by a girl on each side of her while their mother said, “Say cheese.”

“Thank you so much, “ the woman gushed. “How long have you been working here?”

“I don’t,” Quinn said.

“Really?” the woman said a little disappointed.

“Sorry,” I jumped in and then added. “But you made her day.”

“Well you fooled me,” she said before thanking us and moving on.

“Do you think she’ll still want the pictures?” Quinn asked as we walked away.

“Absolutely,” I assured her. “She can say anything she wants about those pictures, you’re the real deal.”

Quinn smiled and walked a bit a part from us the rest of the way. There were still a few more minutes left to be of another time. Her family who looked like three clumsy tourists hitching a ride to her wagon shouldn’t ruin it.



Ben Cooper costume illustration

When I was growing up we had a go-to dress up box that was pulled out every time we put on a play or marched in a parade and on Halloween. My mother was a master of making simple original costumes that didn’t come out of a package. She created jewelry-laden gypsies, downtrodden hobos with bandana sacks at the end of their sticks, Paul Revere and Peter Pan, all from scratch.

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

My favorite costume was in second grade when she made me into a Brownie spirit. She sewed brown felt over an old pair of sneakers that drew into a point at the toes and fully dressed me in brown. She topped it off with a refashioned stocking cap.

Our town had at least two costume parades each year and we loved them. During the annual Frontier Days celebration my mother used the thin white cardboard that arrived inside our father’s dry cleaned shirts and made prairie bonnets for me and my sisters and the next door neighbor girls. My brother had a raccoon skin cap and she helped dress the neighbor’s boy as Davy Crocket, an outfit my brother had worn previously. We all wore long skirts with aprons and carried baskets and were the most authentic looking early pioneers marching along the main street. At the end of each parade they held a costume contest and we never won. The children who did win were never better dressed than us so we wrote off our loss to poor judgment. The last parade I walked in I was alone without sisters or neighbors. It was the Fourth of July parade and I went as Lady Justice. My mother fashioned a toga with white sheets and draped a wide ribbon diagonally across my chest with “Justice” written over it. She placed two eye slits through another ribbon for my blindfold then laid a wreath of leaves on my head. I held a sword in one hand and a small scales of justice in the other. She instructed me how to march. The winner of the best costume was a young girl dressed as a bride. The girl’s mother kept apologizing to my mom for the award.

“Your costume is so terrific, I don’t why they chose my daughter. She was a bride… because it was all we had,” the woman said with a nervous laugh.

My mother shrugged it off feeling that everything she did in our town was like casting pearls before swine. It only bothered me.


Years later when it was time to dress our son for his first trick or treat Halloween, Rob was surprised to learn that I had never heard of Ben Cooper. He talked about Ben Cooper like he was a real person or better yet, a member of the family but I knew the type of costume he meant: the one with a plastic mask held on by an elastic string in the back and a polyester one piece suit that was screen painted to look something like the character you were representing. You stepped into it and held it on with two strings attached at the neck. Ben Cooper always put the face of the mask on the suit. Just in case you don’t recognize my face, I have an extra face painted on my stomach. I was having none of it. As an art teacher I knew there was no excuse; I needed to uphold my mother’s costume tradition.

For my son’s first costume I capitalized on his red hair and made him a leprechaun creating green elf shoes after my mother’s sneaker and felt model. We put gold chocolate coins inside a plastic cauldron for his treat bag representing his pot of gold. When we knocked on the neighbors’ doors he handed them a coin. He was an instant celebrity.

jack as goucho marx

The following year it poured and we skipped trick or treating and went to the local town celebration held inside the high school gymnasium. We hadn’t anticipated that there would be a costume contest yet Jackson won first place overall and received twenty-five dollars for being a wizard. Rob was now fully on board. Whatever I decided I was going to turn Jack and Quinn into, Rob prowled the stores for props to enhance my handmade costumes.jack as penguin_0003

The next year Jackson went as a young King Tut and won first prize again. I didn’t notice all the losers crying in his wake because I had a forty-year-old score to settle. I mean if you want to compete don’t put on a Ben Cooper Costume for goodness sake.

I would laugh it off to friends and strangers alike who complemented the costume as I casually fanned the prize envelope around.

“Oh it’s just a silly competition,” I would say.

It wasn’t the money it was the “First Place” written on the outside of the envelope that I needed.

The next time Jackson went as Rip Van Winkle. He was called old man of the mountain by the teenage judges, but of no consequence since we grabbed the top honor once again. Quinn went as a witch so she was pretty much overlooked in a sea of little witches and being two she didn’t seem terribly fazed by the fact she was never really in contention.jack as goucho marx_0001

The subsequent year I was working during lunch on Jackson’s costume when a colleague stopped in my art room and asked what I was doing. I was painting skeleton bones on black leggings and a sweat shirt with glow in the dark paint.

“Wow, that’s a lot of work,” she said. “I bring my daughter to the store and tell her she can be anything she wants. It takes about fifteen minutes.”

“Ben Cooper?” I asked.

“Or something like it.”

“Well I really like to do this, “ I said continuing to paint bones.

“You must, “ she said.

A few days later she returned and found me sewing the skull part of the costume to the sweat shirt.

“Still at it?” she asked sitting down.

“It does take time,” I said.

“Does Jackson appreciate it?”

“Of course he does,” I said a little too defensively.

“That’s good,” she said. “Because it’s his costume.”

The morning of Halloween as I was applying the white pancake make-up to Jackson’s face before school he started to cry. “I don’t want to wear this on my face,” he exclaimed.

“You have to,” I said. “You won’t look like a skeleton without it.”

“I don’t want to be a skeleton!”

“Of course you do. This is my best costume yet!”


“You’re sure to win first place tonight.”I assured him.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

“Which part, the costume or the winning?”


Quinn was happily flitting around us as a fairy casting good spells with her wand. Some of her magic must have landed on me. It was Halloween and there was no time to get another costume or improvise one since I had to get to work. I knew the time to change my ways was at least a year away. So I did what all people do when they’re in a pinch with a first grader; compromise.

No make-up was applied for the school costume parade and we skipped the entire town event that evening and let someone else win. He agreed to wear the make-up for trick or treating and the four of us went out for about an hour and called it a night.jack as penguin_0005

The next summer while walking through the New York Aquarium gift shop he discovered a plastic penguin mask held on by an elastic.

“This is what I want to be for Halloween,” he exclaimed waving a black and white mask that projected a three dimensional beak.

“Oh, I can make you a great penguin,” I said. “You don’t need a mask.”

“No I want to wear this!” he said slipping it over his head and waddling around in a circle.

“No you don’t,” I said with a laugh.

“I think he knows what he wants,” Rob said.jack as penguin_0004

With that simple purchase on a hot July day in Coney Island I passed the baton to a new generation. Although I still played a hands on role in their creations and Rob continued to be prop master they started driving the bus and the costumes became their own. When we moved to the lake house Jackson went to the school Halloween dance dressed as Phantom of the Opera. It wasn’t a big hit among his friends since he had to keep explaining to people who he was supposed to be. The next year he was in sixth grade and he dressed himself up as Groucho Marx. Rob suggested a pith helmet which we owned.

“Groucho wore one as Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers,” he explained.

Jackson donned the helmet and a plastic cigar and set off for the dance. Jackson walked around tapping his cigar and doing a great Groucho impression. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.”

A girl at the dance stopped him and asked, “Who are you supposed to be?”

“Groucho Marx.”

“Who’s that?”

“A comedian.”

“What’s a comedian?”

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

That’s a story that’s had a lot of play in our house over the years. Fortunately the teachers had heard of Groucho since Jackson again unexpectedly came home with first place in the costume competition.

Hopefully my involvement in their early costumes continued to inform their choices about how to make a great costume just as my mother’s had influenced me. Their love of costumes has been sustained to this day. Jackson dressed up for Halloween each year in college and continued to win contests. I’m happy to report none of the other contestants cried.

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

The original A-Team

The original A-Team

Please revisit my Halloween Post from last October: PUMPKIN LOVE


Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Our lake is located in the hamlet of a larger town. “Hamlet” is a quaint word to use to distinguish our district from the rest of the town. As to whether it is quaint or not is in the eye of the beholder. The hamlet itself has five businesses: a post office, funeral home, florist, landscaper, an auto repair shop that doesn’t sell gas and a deli. To get anything else you have to drive into the main town’s business district which is a mile down the road. The town itself is an expansive area spreading from one end of the county border to the other, occupying a sixth of the total county. But as I mentioned in the last post, there isn’t very much there and what we have is shrinking. The highway department spends a lot of time before every holiday driving around the county and putting up signs that say Shop Putnam First. They have signs decorated with George Washington’s silhouette, Christmas images, Labor Day icons, veteran’s day icons, Fourth of July fireworks, a Thanksgiving turkey and American flags for any occasion.

“Where?” Rob asks each time we pass a sign. “Where do they want us to shop first?”

When new businesses do open in our town we generally take bets on how long they will last. Mema’s Bakery took over ten years to open (you can’t make this stuff up) but they didn’t bake anything on the premises. They ordered baked goods and had them delivered. They also served terrible coffee and French fries. They shuttered less than a year later. We had a plant store that was terribly cute; they opened in October and closed just after the New Year. A beading store started to pack their boxes last week after opening on Valentine’s Day last year. I guess everyone who wanted to string beads had strung enough.

We had a liquor store that was run so poorly that it was inevitable it would close. You would think that if one thing could survive in a small town it would be a liquor store with no competition. Actually it was a wine store but the owner didn’t know anything about wine and the distributer panned a lot of reject vintages off on him. He rarely carried anything anyone had ever heard of.

“I drink orange-flavored vodka myself,” he boasted in a voice reminiscent of Yogi Bear. “But they say that’s pretty good stuff.” He would point at a vertical case of high priced bottles with maybe one missing.

The wine was never any good. After a few recommendations we stopped going there and preferred to do without if it was close to dinner time and we had a fleeting thought of buying wine.

“Uh, water’s fine,” one of us would say. We went out of our way to avoid Yogi, which is what we called him. Apparently everyone else in town avoided him too. Before long there wasn’t much on the shelves and he blamed the state of the town on his bad business.

“The town’s dead,” he said to anyone who bothered to walk in. He had a point.

A pet grooming salon has now opened in the old liquor store but they’re only open by appointment.

Next to the liquor store was a mom and pop hardware store which was a hard business to like.It was a long running family business that carried loose screws and replaced rake handles on request, but it came with the price of a cranky staff that shouted at you when you came inside. Like a lot of old time hardware stores it was probably run out of business because of Home Depot a little over four miles away.

hardware store 2

But the all-time winner for new occupants was A Few Good Men. They were a motorcycle club that rented one of the abandoned shops on the main street-if you can even call it that. They placed a large grill on the front steps leading into the shop and then roped off the entryway with caution tape so nobody would look in the windows. Club members entered from the back door. A few members gathered everyday to drink a beer or take apart someone’s motorcycle engine and put it back together, but they chose Wednesday nights as their official meeting night and all the “good men” would gather. They lined their motorcycles up in neat rows around the building. The barbeque was stoked and hamburger and hot dog smells wafted across the parking lot towards the hardware store. ZZ Top music blared out from the second floor windows. In warmer weather the men got restless inside the small store and spilled out onto the street. They sat on their motorcycles and revved the engines while drinking beer and leered at the townspeople who leered back at them as we passed. I think the sheriff was afraid of them or he had a brother-in-law in the club because they could do pretty much what they wanted.

During our annual Fourth of July celebration we had a parade that mostly included Fire and EMS trucks. The local Girl and Boy Scouts marched along with a tilted banner followed by the chamber of commerce sitting in a typical parade convertible. We stood on the sidelines and clapped waiting for the Town Supervisor who was wielding a bullhorn from the top of a flat bed truck decorated in red, white and blue bunting.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

But before he could speak A Few Good Men roared into the parade. Their presence in the parade was a public relations attempt on their part to cull favor with the town. It was their misplaced effort to ingratiate themselves because of the townspeople’s grumbling. Somehow they felt they could be seen in a better light if they rode behind the Boy Scouts.

parade 2_0002

Photo by Robert Forlini


Photo by Robert Forlini

The Supervisor’s voice was no match for their endless roaring engines as they hooted at the crowd shouting, “We’re one of you! We’re one of you!” A line of unfamiliar woman lined the street in front of their clubhouse cheering loudly as the bearded men rolled by on their Harleys.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“A few good women?” Rob answered.

Later that year apparently two of them died and they posted a large sign in the window that read “Reefer and Boomer RIP”. It was decorated with a skull and cross bones. From the car window Jackson studied it each time we were waiting at the traffic light.

“That sign is a t-shirt,” he reported.

This prompted Rob to say, “Oh I want one!”

“Me too!” Jackson agreed. But they never had the nerve to ask or else it was just a ruse so they could joke about the missing men Reefer and Boomer. We suspected all of the Good Men had nicknames. It reminded me of Quinn’s experience in Girl Scout camp. Their tradition is to give every girl a camp name for the duration of the session like Squeaky or Chipmunk.

The complaints against the motorcycle club mounted as the Town Supervisor struggled to rid the community of the main attraction. He left office and we voted in a new Supervisor who set about to clean things up. The only way he could get rid of them was to close every business surrounding the main intersection on the premise that the town was going to build some new infrastructure and make a real main street. The recession hit and all we had was a lot of empty buildings. He also drove out the town mechanic where the flat bed truck sat for the parade and where we held the annual tree lighting. A grubby mechanic’s lot seemed an odd place to hold a tree lighting but the mechanic was footing the bill. However, the mechanic had failed to pay his taxes for the last ten years and the county seized the property. The Supervisor felt the shop would make a great brew pub.I suppose it could have if you had a lot of money and wanted to run a business in a town with high taxes and no other businesses. But on the plus side, A Few Good Men had to move somewhere else.

As for the people who live here we’re still waiting to Shop Putnam First.IMG_0406