Number Four, Hold the Onions

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One of the small, unsung joys in working with people as I do, is that, maybe a few times a year, patients will get a little gleam in their eye and describe a moment in their life, perhaps from decades earlier, that was special, memorable in some way, or even just representative of a certain place, era, or quality of feeling. These moments don’t have to be big and brassy, or even significant in any traditional way – in fact they often aren’t – but nevertheless, for some reason they resonate with the person, down through the years; they persist in memory, fixed in the amber of emotion, despite all the new and maybe more flashy incidents that flood the river of experience.

And I listen carefully, feeling honored and privileged to be allowed ‘orchestra seats’ to these little-known playlets of memory, lit by the heart from within. There is something remarkable about a mere moment in time that, a lifetime later, can still glow with a quiet, eternal fire.

They’re usually not the ‘main topic’ of a session – far from it. When they arise at all, it’s only incidentally, and spontaneously, as the person is trying to make some other point, or discussing a particular time of life. They’re talking along, and then, suddenly, a change comes over their face – like I say, a warm, suffusing, faraway glow, followed by a little, inward smile, that makes me say to myself, “Hush – here comes something that matters.”

It can be a person:

I was standing on the subway platform in the Bronx, in 1965, I think it was, on the way to my cousin’s house in Brooklyn. It was cold – cold as hell – and I’m stamping my feet to stay warm, and bang, suddenly, out of the blue, I saw this girl – well, not really even a girl, more of a vision. She was so . . . well, there’s no real way to describe her, just that she was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, but even that isn’t really the point. It was more than that – more like a familiarity, if you know what I mean. Like when people say, “I felt like I’d known her all my life?” Well, it was like that – like she was an angel sent to earth, sent to me, for me to see once, and once was enough. Like a possibility, kind of. Something to shoot for, to aspire to, or to inspire me to believe in things, no matter if it’s cold, or life is hard, or I’m discouraged. And it’s funny, but there are times, when I’ve been really down in the dumps, or feeling like a loser, that I remember her, and it keeps me going, because if she could exist, then it’s like everything’s worthwhile, after all. I know all this doesn’t make any sense, but I wanted you to know.

It can be the mental snapshot of a time and place, like this woman in her fifties remembered:

I was sitting in my third-grade classroom – just a regular day in class. As always, I was sitting in the far-right side of the classroom, in the back, at one of those desks that curves around, and is hinged, so you can fold it up when you don’t need to write?

Well, I told myself, “Notice this exact moment. You’re going to get older, and lots of things are going to happen to you, and you’ll forget all this stuff, so that it’ll seem like it happened in another lifetime. But I’m going to make an agreement with myself: I’m going to look around carefully, and notice this exact moment, at this exact place, at this exact age in my life, and I’m never going to forget it, as long as I live.”

So this is what I remember: we had those blinds that you pull down, over the long, tall windows. And the blinds were pulled down about three-quarters of the way, and the windows were open in the uncovered parts. It was late afternoon, probably close to three o’clock, when school would be out, and you could see the afternoon sun behind the blinds, kind of glowing through the fabric. I was sitting next to Marilyn Brodsky, and she was wearing a green plaid dress with a white, Peter Pan collar. And on the other side was Robert Helling, this boy I always had a little crush on – in fact, I think he’s the reason I decided to memorize that moment, you know, to memorialize him, and how I felt about him. So Robert was there, in his t-shirt and blue jeans and these black grown-up-looking shoes he always wore, which to me, made him a ‘man,’ because none of the other boys ever wore shoes like that – almost like wing-tips or something, and he wasn’t embarrassed to wear something different; it almost made him cool to wear something different and not care. And the teacher was writing on the blackboard, something like maybe an addition problem – I know I wasn’t interested in it, but I memorized the feeling I had, that I still had to pay attention, because if she asked questions about it, and I didn’t know what she was talking about, I would be horribly embarrassed! 

And I also memorized the way it felt being my age – you know, like a little scared all the time, because the world seemed so big, and yet also more excited than I am now, because there was so much possibility in life still to come? So, the fear of the unknown, but also the excitement of the unknown, at the same time – and that’s about what it felt like for me to be an eight-year-old girl, that day in class.

I also memorized the smell: that classroom always had a special smell, composed of chalk dust, and the smell of the cloakroom, kind of a nice, musty smell, and the girl next to me had on maybe some kind of little-girl perfume, or toilet water, the kind of thing a girl would put on, thinking she was being mature, maybe something she got from an older sister or something.

Well, that’s it – that’s the moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life, and so far, I have!

As I listen, I tuck these moments away in my own personal psychotherapy hall of fame, so that they can glow for me, too. Sometimes, they help me, too, just like they helped the original person. And sometimes I can even use them to help that patient, like when Joe was very despondent one day, and I said,”Joe, don’t forget the girl on the subway platform,” and something seemed to shift inside of him, and he simply nodded quietly and said, “Thank you.”

Do you have moments from your life, that are fixed in your mind forever, like still photographs? Moments that maybe don’t ‘make sense,’ but are still there, forever and ever?

Well I do, and I’ll tell you about one of them, but first a little back-story.

Where I grew up, in North Hollywood, a suburb of L.A., everyone lived in tract houses that had been built after the War, on quiet, perfectly-laid-out little streets – nice little streets, row upon row of them, only distinguishable by the kind of tree that was planted next to the curb. We had liquid ambars, that had lots of bristly ‘cones,’ and leaves that turned spectacular colors with the seasons, so that you could almost imagine that we had real seasons.

Well, this particular day – it must have been Fall, because I remember the leaves on the ground – my Mom decided to take us on a little outing. I was a pre-schooler, probably three or so, that magical age when you’re old enough to know a few things, but not old enough to have to know anything. It was unusual to actually be ‘doing’ anything with my mother; most days I spent playing with the guys down the street, all day, and that was the pattern my whole childhood: get up, take off, and come home in time for dinner. But for some reason, today Mom had made plans: we were going to have a picnic at Victory-Vanowen Park – me, my Mom, my older sister, and Libby, the woman next door who had just adopted a baby.

Libby was different than Mom – it’s hard to say how, exactly, through the eyes of a three-year old, but she was somehow softer, more feminine, more girlish, maybe more wounded. Nowadays, I would say, “vulnerable,” but I didn’t know that word then, or need to.

Libby was younger than Mom (almost all the other mothers were, my Mom having had babies ‘late,’ hatching me at 35). But she wasn’t just younger chronologically: the story, as it was passed on to me in dribs and drabs over the years, was that Libby had been an only child, a quiet, sensitive girl who grew up alone. Her parents, whom I met on a few occasions when they came to visit next door, seemed like nice folks, straightforward country folks, no-nonsense and plain, maybe the kind of folks who wouldn’t exactly know what to do with a soft, forlorn little girl.

I remember her Mom, Theresa, a perfectly nice woman, but a woman who would tie a rag on her head, then barrel through Libby’s house, cleaning, mopping and vacuuming with a vengeance: definitely not the ‘woe is me,’ ‘meaning of life’ type, more the ‘please get out of my way, I have things to do’ type. Of course, I could be wrong, but even at my young age, I already had a primitive version of my ‘this is a bad child/parent personality match’ thesis, that would later be the explanation of so many visits to my office. Like I say, I could be wrong, but I felt strongly that Libby had had a rough childhood.

Well, Libby grew up and eventually met and married a guy, Dan, who was also an only child. But Dan was a big, bluff, outgoing guy, a typical salesman type, who traveled, selling, for a national paper bag company, as I remember. He was gone a lot, and when he was there, he expected it to be his castle, his big personality dwarfing Libby’s, as she bustled about to keep him happy, probably wondering, with silent dread, what he really ‘did’ on the road all that time.

So, the most obvious answer for Libby, the lonely, only child in a lonely marriage with a guy who was on the road all the time, was to have a child of her own. And she tried, and tried, and tried. But, as it turned out, she couldn’t have children. So she tried adopting, and it was a long haul, but finally, she got a child to have for her very own: a little boy, Rory. And Rory was a holy terror from the start, a kid we would probably recognize as AHDH today (with an emphasis on the ‘H’), maybe even bipolar, an “all-boy” type who ran Libby ragged, morn to night. Libby would have been an amazing mother to a sweet little girl, but with this kid, she was outgunned and outmanned, her home a battle zone, not the love nest she had hoped for.

I knew, from hearing little thises and thats, that Libby kind of idolized Mom, and our family: I’m sure to her it looked like exactly what she had always longed for, with two sweet kids and a nice husband who was home for dinner every night. I think Libby saw Mom as the perfect mother, an older woman she could look up to, and confide in, someone who knew the score and could understand her troubles.

Little did she know that Mom had a few troubles of her own – not that Mom would talk about them, even with Libby, of course: ‘we’ didn’t talk about our problems with anyone, ever. That was low-class, weak and common – a breach of the privacy that we maintained at all times, with all people.

But to be on the receiving end of Libby’s talking – well, that was alright.

Well, I have a feeling that the picnic might have been the result of one of those talks, an antidote to the humdrum of Libby’s life, an anodyne outing that could lift everyone’s spirits and ‘change the slide’, for one afternoon.

But it wasn’t going to be a ‘pack the potato salad’ kind of picnic: nope, we were going to the Orange Suzy, near Sears.

Ah bliss!

Ah joy!

If you’re old enough to remember those ubiquitous Orange Julius stands, well, the Orange Suzy was something like that, with those whipped-orange drinks, made maybe with eggs, that you could get all over the country at the time. But the drinks were the least of it, because they also had these wonderful, fantastic, amazing hot dogs, and hot pastrami sandwiches that would make the angels (the Jewish ones, at least) weep with envy.

And the secret?

Steam!

Everything was steamed in a special contraption that locked in the flavor and gave everything a moistness and density that couldn’t be matched by ‘conventional’ heating methods.

Now, that was something I was willing to forgo an afternoon with the guys for!

Well, I threw on my uniform – striped t-shirt, jeans and Keds, and we were off. Of course we drove – you always drive in L.A.: if I’m not mistaken, it’s a felony, there, to be caught walking further than the distance to your car.

First stop: the Orange Suzy. Though I was always torn, momentarily, between their great steamed hot dogs and the hot pastrami, I, of course, ordered the pastrami. I mean, put it this way: how could you possibly forgive yourself if you were killed later that day in an accident, and like a damn fool, you’d passed up your last chance to have a Suzy pastrami? You’d have no one but yourself to blame, as you died slowly, in shame, with chili dog on your breath.

If you ate there, everything came in those brightly-colored plastic baskets, but if you were taking out, as we were, the guy just wrapped it up in wax paper and put it in a paper bag (maybe sold to him by Dan?).

I don’t remember what everyone else ordered, but Mom always got “Number Four, hold the onions,” which was a chili dog with shredded cheddar cheese, on a bun, which ran a very respectable second-place on the Suzy sandwich menu to you-know-what.

Laden with our feast, we made our way to the park, which was just across the Sears parking lot from the Suzy. We finally settled down on the grass amid a copse of sycamores, their mottled trunks rising high over the park. Squirrels gamboled in the trees, going about their business with an admirable intensity of spirit.

I reached for my sandwich, wrapped in that yellow-orange wax paper that I don’t think they even make anymore. Then I opened up the paper and just took a moment of devotional grace, inhaling the glorious aroma of the bread, the meat, the pickle, even the mustard.

Like the girl who ‘memorized the moment’ in elementary school, I consciously fixed the scene in my memory: off to my left there was my mother and sister, setting out their food in preparation for our picnic; to my right there was Libby and her young son. I remember Libby’s face to this day, the skin creamy and soft, almost lustrous, like the girls in the Breck ads. And right in the middle of that creamy skin, for once, a small, contented smile.

And I saw, through my child’s eyes, the grass, the squirrels, and most of all, the stately sycamores.

The same sycamores that, five years later, would be the subject of one of my father’s Cub Scout ‘Nature’ merit badge talks, which would earn him the nickname Nature Boy, which would lead to his love of birds, which would lead to a lifetime of birding, and writing about birding. The same sycamores that, ten years later, would witness me running home, my arm a bloody mess, when I tried to sled down the paved ‘wash’ of the L.A. River on a piece of cardboard and ended up shredding my skin on the asphalt all the way down. The same sycamores that, fifteen years later, would be there as I sobbed my heart out to my sister, in shocked disbelief, when my first ‘real’ girlfriend dumped me.

But the day of the picnic, the day I memorized, all was magical: good company, good food, the woods, the squirrels, the rustle of the leaves on the trees, the crackle of the leaves on the grass, and the kindness that my mother had shown to Libby, to get her out of her house, and into that beatific smile, for a few precious moments.

And, looking back, I think that maybe, in my own little-boy way, I was proud of Mom that day. I think that maybe, because of her thoughtfulness, and her love for Libby – well, maybe I kind of felt loved-by-association, and proud-by-association, too.

All I know is that, for that one magic moment, time stood still, and life was good.

I hope that you, like my patients and I, have some magic moments squirreled away, too – some inner pictures that are there when you need to ‘go to the well’ and draw sustenance from it.

And I hope that, like those sycamores I treasure in memory, they stand eternal watch over you.

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.