STRAWBERRY JAM – Marilyn Armstrong

I was 46 years old when my homemade strawberry preserves jelled properly.

Probably what broke the barrier was overcoming a longstanding aversion to putting sufficient sugar in the mix. Alternatively, I could have solved the problem by adding tapioca starch or pectin, but I’m a bit of a food snob.

I wanted my preserves made of just fruit and sugar.

The day the preserves came out perfectly was the day my first husband finally died. He had been dying for a long time. It was a Friday, a rare brilliant spring day in New England.

Jeff had been sick for almost a year in what we politely called a coma, but which was actually a vegetative state. Now gone. I had not come to terms with it though I’d had plenty of time. Probably no amount of time would have been enough.

Other than Jeff’s dying, it was a good time for us. Garry and I were happy. We were good together, busy with career and friends.

Yet there was an underlying sadness we could not avoid, the knowledge that death was near.  Happiness and sadness don’t cancel each other out. The good things are not a balance against pain. Feelings aren’t an equation. You can’t add columns of positive and negatives in your life and come up with a number in the middle. In the real world, joy and misery cohabit. We live with both.

Emotions are messy.

My head was a wheel of memories, a slide show carousel. Faces, places, good years, bad. Bittersweet, sad, joyous, funny. Strawberry jam that never jelled.

I married Jeffrey at 18 and thought myself very mature. He was almost 30, but he thought me very mature too. Both of us were wrong.  We muddled through. We were hard triers. When we had no idea what to do, we faked it.

Eventually, we became the people we pretended to be and it turned out, not the people we needed to be.

1965 in the WVHC office

Though we went in different directions, we stayed friends. No matter where on Earth I was, I knew Jeffrey was there for me. We had a better divorce than most marriages.

Decades passed.

Jeff’s health deteriorated. He survived things that should have killed him, so what a shock he should die of the thing that was supposed to extend his life. The heart surgery should have given him years, maybe decades.  When Sue called late on an August evening it upended reality.  His body wasn’t dead, but his brain was. The future world would be without Jeff.

I would never call to tell him something funny that happened, hear his sarcastic, drawling response. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Someone rewrote the script when our backs were turned.

Fall passed and winter too. Jeff remained in a vegetative state. Someone who looked just like him was wearing his body and that shell remained alive through the seasons. We visited. I stayed for weeks to help care for him. Finally, as spring was nearly summer, the piper played. Now, the ashes were scattered.

Just the other day, Garry glimpsed someone in a crowd who looked exactly like Jeff.

HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY, JEFF – Marilyn Armstrong

I married Jeff in 1965. I was 18, he was 26. I was still finishing my B.A. Both Jeff and I needed to get out of our parent’s homes and make a life. It was a  classic “jailbreak” marriage and for a long time, it worked well.

But time marched on and I wanted to move on. He wanted everything to stay the same — and so we parted. I went to Israel and he stayed where he was.

Graphic Jeff, Studio A

When I was sad, Jeffrey used to sing to me. This is the song he sang.

For one birthday, I bought him a wind-up snow globe. It played “You Are My Sunshine” and had a big green frog on a lily pad in the water. When you wound it, it played that song. He kept the globe as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough.

Happy birthday, Jeff. You would have been 80 years old today and I wish you were alive so I could tease you about your age.

You should still be here.

NANA VIGNETTES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first mother-in-law, Dorothy, was a complex person with strong positive traits and equally strong negative ones. Despite all of her issues, she was beloved by her whole family. She babysat all of her grandchildren, even when it meant coming to New York from Florida to stay in our house while Larry and I went on a trip. She kept up with what everyone was doing and was always encouraging and proud of everyone’s accomplishments, however small.

She told everyone how much she loved them and made sweaters and needlepoints for her kids, grandkids, and in-laws. I was close with her before her stroke and loved her dearly. She was affectionately called ‘Nana’ by everyone.

1986 – The whole family wore the sweaters Nana had knitted for each of us

When we announced our engagement, my first husband, Larry, and I went down to Florida so I could meet his Mom. When we got there, Nana took out the family photo albums and started going through them with me. There were lots of pictures of kids but none that looked remotely like Larry. I patiently waited for her to get to the interesting photos of my betrothed.

Finally, I lost interest and patience and asked her to please show me some pictures of Larry. She was puzzled. “What are you talking about?“ she asked. “These all ARE Larry!” To this day, I don’t see even a trace of the Larry I know in his childhood photos, at least until he’s around fifteen!

Larry, me and Nana in the early 1980s

As I said, Nana could be a sweet, caring, giving and supportive person with a sense of humor and a silly streak. But when her husband of 33 years, Bert, left her, she was devastated and became consumed with anger and bitterness for many years. She had been a housewife and mother for most of her adult life and in return for her dedication and devotion, she had been verbally abused and cheated on. And now, to add insult to injury, she was abandoned! Yet in her endless rantings and ravings against Bert, it seemed that the worst thing he did to her was … he left her.

We tried to tell her that she couldn’t have it both ways. He was either a wonderful husband and it was a tragedy to lose him, or he was a lout and good riddance. But for the rest of her life, even after she had a sweet and loving man as a life partner, she trashed Bert for being an abusive cheater AND for leaving her.

She was particularly obsessed and hysterical about her recent separation when she met my parents. In their first encounter with Nana, Nana talked incessantly about how horrible Bert was and then added that Larry was just like him! Very disconcerting and alarming for my parents.

My parents

As we were planning the wedding, Nana started calling all the guests from Larry’s side, threatening she’d never talk to them again if they so much as spoke to Bert at the reception. This caused so much distress to Larry’s family and family friends we almost canceled the reception entirely. We eventually decided to have the wedding party and assigned a few of Nana’s close friends to shadow her and try to rein her in.

It didn’t work.

Nana spent the entire reception telling horror stories about Bert (who was also there) to anyone who would listen, even to my family and friends. People kept coming up to my mother offering condolences on the crazy, dysfunctional family I had married into.

Nana and Sarah as an infant (1985)

Nana also tried to turn her kids against their father. Larry refused to take sides and continued his relationship with both parents. But his sister acquiesced to her mother’s demands. She didn’t talk to her father for two years. During that time she had a baby. Her father didn’t see his second grandson until the child was more than two-years-old.

Nana was a very anxious and obsessive person and a neat freak. She lived across the street from the beach in Pompano Beach, Florida, but she didn’t like her grandchildren to go to the beach. Why not?

Because they might track sand into her apartment. Larry and I took our kids to the beach anyway when they were little.

Nana and David at the beach

But then Nana had a stroke in 1993 when Sarah was eight and David was thirteen. Nana’s speech was affected and she basically had to learn how to talk and read again. Her speech was never the same and from then on she struggled to find words, a constant frustration for her.

The stroke sent Nana’s OCD into the stratosphere. Now she had to leave the house at least a half hour earlier than necessary wherever she went to make sure she wouldn’t be late. She would literally get hysterical if everyone else wasn’t ready to leave on her schedule. She became convinced that no amount of showering in the pool area could wash all the sand off the grandchildren. From then on, we all stopped going to the beach and just spent time at the condo’s pool.

Nana with Sarah at around 1 1/2 years old

One Passover at her house, we were reading through the service in the Haggadah. Suddenly Nana got up and started vacuuming under and around the table because she saw some crumbs on the floor. We tried to get her to stop and sit down with us to finish the service, but we finally gave up. We just shouted our portions of the Haggadah we could be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

Another of Nana’s quirks was avoiding handprints on her walls. All four grandchildren remember constantly being yelled at, throughout their childhoods, “Don’t touch the walls!” When Nana died, David and I went down to Florida to help empty her condo and get her estate in order. We took pictures of David with his hands on the walls and sent them to the three other grandchildren!

Nana with Larry at her 75th birthday party

When she turned 75, Larry and I gave her a party and I wrote a poem for her, which she framed and kept prominently displayed along with the numerous family photos in her condo.

I still miss her unconditional love and her enthusiasm for everything I did. Her daughter and grandchildren also miss her and when we get together we fondly tell stories about her.

Despite her flaws, she left a legacy of love, affection and warm memories.

SHINING AGAIN – Marilyn Armstrong

I just read a really interesting post on Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo called: SHINEIn her final paragraphs she said:


Don’t we all wish to be loved and accepted for who we are in our entirety? Yet we hide the good, even from ourselves, behind a socially acceptable modesty while brandishing our flaws and frailties as if they alone define who we are. They do not. We define who we are. As much by how we choose to see ourselves as by anything else. If we see ourselves whole, perhaps others may too. They cannot until we do, as we project outward only a fragment of who we are. The saying ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ comes to mind. Maybe if we love our whole selves we can love others wholly too.

We are told that the very physical fabric of everything we know, including our own bodies, is made of the matter from which the stars were formed. Our physical forms exist because somewhere, aeons ago, a star died. If that is so, why should we not simply shine?


I realize the answer is really simple. We don’t shine because we need to work. We have to have a resume. We need to be “people-people.” No one wants to hire someone who shines. They want to hire people who fit in, people who won’t jolt the company “culture.”

I never figured out what company culture was, actually. Most of the places who exalted their company culture have long since gone bankrupt. Usually what company culture really meant is “we don’t want to work any harder than we absolutely have to.” These are places where mentioning deadlines were enough to get you out the door.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

They hired many more people than they needed to do the work because the people they hired couldn’t really do the work. More to the point, they didn’t do the work. They intentionally worked so slowly I found it hard to believe anyone could write that slowly. They thought THREE PAGES A DAY of technical material was plenty. I used to write between 20 and 50 and on a really good day, I could write half the book. Sure I’d have to go back and edit, add graphics, double check information, and test the document against the product.

But I got the work done. I got the basic draft put together quickly which left me time for serious rewrites and corrections once I’d Beta-tested the product.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I worked at Intel for a year. It was a good job. Good pay. Also, not far from home and I didn’t have to drive into Boston. I had to work a 10  hour day every day, but I only had about 45 minutes of work to do. I was so bored I thought it would kill me. Ten hours of sitting in front of a computer — with NOTHING to do.

Shine? I could barely keep my eyes open.

And then, I got sick, stopped working, and got old. I don’t have a resume anymore. I’m not working for anyone who pays me, so I don’t have to lie to anyone, fake anything, pretend anything I don’t feel. With all the physical problems I have, I can’t begin to tell you how deeply I enjoy being me all the time. I’m not sure how the rest of the world feels about it, but I’m happy.


Shining is best done by the rich and the retired. Shining is not an option for most of us who have to show up to work and smile.

NowI CAN shine.

A GRADUAL CONGREGATION – Marilyn Armstrong

It turns out, there are a lot of variations of congregate meaning “to get together, join together, group together, party hearty.”

With some fish, it also means collaboration to make baby fish. Or is that conjugation?

But there is no word which means “someone who congregates.” No congregator. Congregationalist? Congregationistic? Congruent?

 Way back when, in the days when I had energy, enthusiasm, and I liked most people, I was much more enthusiastic about “getting together.” I was considered sociable and I almost agreed with that.

I was never quite as sociable many thought. I was a party “edge person.” I would look for whoever was standing along at the edges of a party and engage them in conversation. I never like big groups of people in one place because you couldn’t have a conversation with anyone when everyone was trying to talk.

I made exceptions when I gave the party because if it was my party, I didn’t expect to engage in conversation. Party giving was more about flitting about and making sure everyone else was having a good time. I gave a few good parties through the decades (generations?), but mostly, I preferred having a friend or two or three — and a great conversation about everything.

Remember conversations that lasted until dawn? We covered philosophy, government, the meaning of life. Travel to the stars, reincarnation and the best books we’d read lately. No one was bored or left out.

Later, people got old. Died. Drifted into a world of their own, moved to senior housing “somewhere near their kids” which was always hundreds of miles from us. Others simply drifted.

What we had previously held in common — work — it was no longer relevant after we all had stopped working.

Those of us with functional marriages who really liked our partners have been lucky. Singleness is fine when you are active enough to travel and gadabout, but these days, it’s an abiding joy to have a partner whose hand you can hold while you watch old movies, cuddled by dogs with cold noses.

We’ve been talking lately about how few friends we have remaining. This isn’t unusual at our age. People leave and don’t come back. Many others don’t like traveling. Or driving any distance. More don’t like going to places with which they are unfamiliar. Everyone like their own bed.

If you have pets, it gets increasingly difficult to find someone to take care of them, especially as your pets get old, too.

We still have friends. They are old friends. Friends forever. Who knew the people we knew and share memories of the times through which we’ve lived. Have common political and philosophical beliefs — and hopefully enjoy the same movies.

So let us congregate to our greater enjoyment! Or try, anyhow.

ORGANIZING THE PAST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I just spent three weeks with my 34-year-old daughter, Sarah.

She lives 3000 miles away, in LA, so this was a rare treat. We have so many interests and views in common, we never run out of things to talk about, even when we spend 24 hours a day together for three weeks!

Sarah

Beyond great conversation, visiting with friends and family and watching TV and movies together, Sarah provided an invaluable service. She is a world-class organizer and loves going through the boxes and boxes of photos and memorabilia in the attic.

She organized our family photos going back to my grandparents from the early 1900s. Everything is now in plastic containers, organized by category, dates, properly labeled. We had a serious mouse problem so the plastic boxes with lids are life savers.

Organized boxes in my attic

We found wonderful treasures buried in the attic boxes.

We found the hospital bracelet I wore when I gave birth to my son in 1980. We found a large photo negative of the Surgical Army Hospital my ex-husband ran in Vietnam in 1970-1971.

Letters I wrote to my Mom from my first trip to Europe with friends in 1965 were a hoot to read. We also found a sterling silver cup with my name engraved on it – a gift to my mom in honor of my birth in 1949.

The oldest find was a series of love letters to my grandfather dated 1914. They were from someone who was clearly in love with him and equally clear was the fact that her feelings were not reciprocated.

Letter to my grandfather dated 1914

I was blown away by a particular set of writings from my early life. I had saved my teachers’ comments and evaluations (given in lieu of grades) from third grade through sixth grade. Most interesting was the fact that my basic personality has not changed much since then. I apparently had only a few close friends then, as now. I was considered a leader in small groups but faded into the background in large groups. Like now.

I was curious, inquisitive, creative and intelligent but lacked confidence. I seemed to have constantly sought the approval of adults. I’m better today but still lack confidence and undervalue my talents and accomplishments.

My senior thesis in college

The second category of writings we found, were papers I had written from grade school through college. I was thrilled that Sarah actually read some of these – my early evolution as a writer. She was impressed by my organization, persuasiveness, and writing style. I was impressed too. I was very sophisticated for my age, in writing and thinking.

Our exploration of our family history was gratifying. I’m very happy my daughter will keep our family treasures and pass on our stories. In fact, Sarah encouraged me to write about the many family stories from my grandparents down to my kids. I spent about a year writing and posting autobiographical blogs for Serendipity. I have over 330 pages of these blogs.

Sarah and my dogs

Sarah helped me put them in roughly chronological order, copy them, and put them into large three-ring binders. We added tabs to indicate stories from different people and periods of time.

For example, my life is divided into my early years, living with my first husband before kids, my kids’ childhoods, and life with my second husband.

My Family History with Tabs

I gave a copy of the Family History in Blogs to both my children, so we all have a collection of the most interesting stories about everyone in the family. I feel great that I’ve preserved in writing what the photo albums preserve in pictures. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments.

Binder I had customized for my Family History

And you, Serendipity readers, came along with me for this amazing ride. You gave me the motivation to write all these stories and sharing them with you has been fantastic.

Thank you for reading them and commenting on them. My children thank you too!

THERE’S NO REVENGE THAT BEATS GETTING RICH – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Revenge

Revenge is giving you cousin’s kids an ant farm for Christmas. Or maybe one of those big drums that will beat automatically when you turn a handle. Or, for any teenager, a small chainsaw and when someone objects, point out that we all need to learn to handle tools. Just a little chainsaw.

Or, as the old lady said to the congregation, there’s always outliving the bitches.

I don’t think about revenge. That would make me insane. I work on survival. That only make me a little less insane.