Edith Zelman Eulogy – Doris Cahill, author

My mother passed away on February 6, 2016. On February 19th, we held a memorial service. My sister-in-law, Doris Cahill, was one of three to give a eulogy. Here are her words in honor of my mother.

Thank you Andrew my husband of 30 years for having me speak on your behalf. A very satisfied person, never raised her voice, never complained, nor criticized me for how I raised her grandchildren. Always welcoming. I often wish she was more noisy and disruptive like other members of my family. It was not her way. She was not bitter for things she did not have, nor did she compare herself to others. It was not her way to disparage others character. Its hard to recall a time she wanted anything material. Edith married in 1952 and very much wanted to have children. She experience no less than 3 or as many as 6 miscarriages, when after a medical procedure had Andrew in 1959. Edith gave me my husband and my two beautiful daughters; Sharon and Natalie, thank you… There is some debate on how many miscarriages with my Sister in Law Cindy, so I will agree to 3. Andrew’s memories are often about their first house on Bay Road, we brought a nice black and white picture for all to see. More often than not Andy insists we make the drive by his first house in Stoughton MA as if it were the first time and then get our ice cream and Crescent Ridge Dairy, just down the street. We still do that drive by and suspect we always will. Statuesque and beautiful, Edith kept herself meticulously.. Even in her final days barely a wrinkle or gray hair. It was only in the last years due to her battle with cancer she no longer came out to visit. She enjoyed a party, bright outfits and never missed her weekly hair appointment. At our wedding she wore a black beaded dress edged in gold beaded trim weighing 10 pounds. I did question who wears black to a wedding?….Edith smile emoticon. A lover of cats, my girls and I were often given cat motif gifts. Cat sweaters, cat music boxes, cat clocks, cat pins,,,,everything cat. Not a single visit to her home or our home was empty handed, she always came with our favorite dishes; Noodle Kugel and Sweet and Sour Meatballs. Edith celebrated the holidays and our children’s major life events. My youngest Natalie would try to get the recipe for sweet and sour meatballs and Edith would only say “a jar of jelly, a jar of chili sauce and its as much as it needs” Edith was most proud of her poetry. It was a great personal achievement when a few of her poems were published. She called our house with great pleasure, that her work was in print, she was so very excited. Never wanting of material things and soft spoken, I want to be like Edith, yes I want to be Edith. Allow me a moment and read the two poems written by Edith. (placing the cat music box on the podium)

“Pet Eulogy to Kitty,” by Edith Zelman

We once had a cat named Kitty

She was black and white, very pretty

Kitty was our reigning queen for over seventeen years

When her time came to leave us, we cried “crocodile tears”

She was smart as a whip

Wouldn’t take any lip

Although known notoriously to stage a sudden attack

We’d do anything in the world to have her back

Some may have found her offensive

She was merely being extremely defensive

Kitty may have caused a bit of havoc and harm

But in her own way she possessed elegant grace and magical charm

The Fears Gone By

by Edith Zelman

At twenty I was immature

By thirty I didn’t know much more

Forty was quite a shock!

It left me with a mental block

Fifty came and I felt blue

Now I was a real old shoe

Then came sixty and I was frightened

Would I ever be enlightened?

At seventy I’m still alive

I worry as to how much longer will I survive

With all my complaints and fear

I am thankful to the world that I am still here.

 

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Edith B. Zelman Eulogy by Rabbi Barbara Penzner

EDITH GOLDBERG ZELMAN

died February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776         buried February 19 / 10 Adar I

 

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

 

Today we take time to remember what a remarkable woman Edith Zelman was and celebrate her life today. Yet we know that her passing brings a time of mourning and sadness. We extend our deepest sympathies to those whose lives have been forever changed by her life and death.

 

Describing the death of a parent, the author Joan Didion shared this reflection about grief from her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:

“despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”

 

Our time today is for recollections. Today we honor Edith, of course. But it is also the beginning of a major shift in the lives of her children, a time for all kinds of memories to arise.  We extend our deepest sympathies to her loving son Andy Zelman and his wife Doris Cahill, and to her devoted daughter Cindy Zelman. Today you have entered a new stage of adulthood, as you become the oldest generation. Those of us who have crossed that threshold know how jarring that transition can be. All of us offer you comfort and strength to begin life without your Mom.

 

We also offer condolences to Edith’s beloved granddaughters Sharon Gassett and her husband Daniel, and Natalie Zelman and her friend Mike Drake. As you reach new milestones in your lives, we pray that you feel your grandmother’s loving presence with you. May you see her smile at your future celebrations and know how much she loved you.

Rabbi Alan Steinbach has written:

A shooting star across the sky

In golden flaming arc;

A muffled groan of fragile life

Surrendering to the dark.

 

No weeping if a shooting star

Will never glow again;

What loss one vanished satellite

Where myriads remain?

 

But when life’s somber firmament

Contains a single star,

What darkness when its light is quenched,

How deep, how deep the scar!

I’d like to call on Edith’s daughter-in-law Doris, and her daughter Cindy to share their distinct and cherished memories.

Doris speaks

Cindy speaks

As I listened to Cindy, Andy and Doris talk about Edith, I was moved by the love that infused their remembrances, a love that Edith surely shared with them in every aspect of their lives. Though I did not know her as you did, I was reminded of the following anonymously written definition of success, often falsely attributed to Emerson:

“To laugh often and love much; to win and hold the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of little children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and to endure without flinching the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty always, whether in earth’s creations or human handiwork; to have sought for and found the best in others, and to have given it oneself; to leave the world better than one found it, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a cheery letter, or a redeemed social condition; to have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exaltation; to go down to dust and dreams, knowing that the world is a wee bit better, and that even a single life breathes easier because we have lived well, this is to have succeeded.”

Edith’s success story began nearly 86 years ago in the unlikely town of Amesbury, Massachusetts. She was the only child of Sam and Mary Goldberg, who lived together in an old schoolhouse turned home. It was a simple place with no hot water, that had been passed down in the family. Edith, a bright straight-A student, curious about the world, could not wait to leave small-town life behind. When she turned 18, she took her first opportunity to head to the city, where she shared an apartment with her friend Doris and enrolled in Burdett College, a well-known business school for men and women in Boston. There Edith learned bookkeeping, a skill that suited her well and became her life-long career. Edith took her first job at the Fish Pier in Boston, where she worked for a fishery and for the Tabby Cat Food Company. Adult life had finally begun!

When Edith met Ben Zelman at a dance, her working years would come to an end. Ben was a city boy who grew up in Dorchester. She was attracted to his debonair looks in his camel-hair overcoat. But she was cautious. Ben pursued Edith until she married him in 1952. After Andrew was born, they moved from an apartment in Brookline to a single-family house in the suburbs on Bay Road in Stoughton. Then Cindy came along to complete the family. Ben provided for the growing family, adding a pool and an air conditioner for their comfort. But when Cindy was just 4 years old and Andy was 7, Edith and Ben separated. By 1970, they were divorced. Edith went back to work at the Route 138 Easton Motel, where she stayed for over 30 years, a single mom who worked hard for her children and for her independence.

Andy remembers that every Sunday they all went out to breakfast at the Pewter Pot in Cobb’s Corner. Afterward, Edith bought them a toy. Though she struggled as a single mother, she made sure they always had what they needed.

Cindy remembers how her mom generously supported her love of books. A voracious reader already in first and second grade, Cynthia got to choose as many as she wanted from the Scholastic Book Club. Thanks to Edith, while most of her friends bought a few select choices, Cindy brought home a pile of books.

Edith always got them ready for school in the morning and was there to pick them up after school. They ate the earliest dinners in history at 4 pm, so that Edith could go back to work or go out with friends in the evening. On Sundays, Edith prepared her finest recipes for Sunday dinner, so good, in fact, that often their father would join them for dinner.

When Cindy was a teenager, her friends always came over to the condo in Stoughton because Edith was “the cool mom.” She didn’t put on airs or criticize them, and everyone called her “Edie.” And she made such good food, friends would go home with stomach aches from eating too much lasagna.

Edith enjoyed her life. She was devoted to her job, made friends easily, and found fun every day, whether in the bowling league or mah jongg or going out dancing. She loved mystery novels and was always reading. She wrote poetry and took pride in having two poems published. Most important, she was happy with her life.

Cindy lived with Edith until her twenties, when she struck out on her own for a few years before returning home again. Eventually Edith moved in with Cindy and they haven’t been apart since. Because her mom was such a great cook, Cindy never learned how to cook. It was only in the last few years, when Edith wasn’t well, that Cindy took over in the kitchen. But learning to cook from Edith wasn’t easy. She had no recipes and loved to experiment. If you asked her, “How long do I cook it for?” she would answer “until it’s done.” And “how much salt should I put in?” – “as much as it needs.” Though people loved her recipes, it was nearly impossible to get them, unless you watched her cook yourself and took notes. And were willing to experiment.

Edith didn’t measure ingredients and she didn’t measure what she had or didn’t have in life. Andy remembers fondly that she never desired more than she had and never felt angry that she missed out on things. In fact, things simply weren’t important. Edith cared about people. Her parents, aunts, friends, parents of friends–from a young age, she was known for her compassion and kindness.

When the motel closed, Edith retired from work, but not from life. She continued to go out with her girlfriends, and always had a male admirer. An attractive woman all her life, Edith was always put-together. She loved to have a nice-looking guy on her arm.

Among her many companions, Edith always had cats around. As a child she played with the barn cats. One cat in particular went missing during the winter and Edith pined away, thinking he would never come back. But when spring came, the cat came back. When Cindy was in college, she brought her a black and white kitten who loved to chase and retrieve balls. That cat lived a good long cat life of 18 years.

Cats were a major theme, with cat decorations all over the house. Natalie and Sharon received cat clocks, cat sweaters, cat hats, and cat calendars for birthday gifts. They will always remember the birthdays and holiday dinners with Edith, especially when she brought kugel or sweet and sour meatballs.

The last major event when Edith was able to go out and celebrate was for Cindy’s graduation in 2010, when she received her MFA in creative writing. But the last ten years were increasingly difficult for her, and she was blessed to have Cindy there for company, to take over the financial responsibilities, to take care of the cats, and eventually, to be her caretaker. Once Edith was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, she stopped going out entirely. Because she was so meticulous about her looks, she simply didn’t want to be seen in that condition.

But in the end, you were all blessed to be able to see Edith in her final days and say goodbye. This was very hard for her, as undoubtedly it was for you as well. Yet you each made the effort to show her how much you loved her. Sharon made a special trip to visit her in the nursing home, and Natalie came with her parents to say goodbye as well. In fact, after Andy had said goodbye, the hospice nurse noticed how sad Edith had become. The nurse asked whether she was feeling bad that she would never see her son again. Miraculously, within an hour, Andy showed up again, and she got to see him one last time before she went into a coma.

The great artist Michelangelo once said,

“If we have been pleased with life, we should not be displeased with death,  since it comes from the hand of the same master.”

Despite challenges and setbacks throughout her life, Edith always remained pleased with life. Though she may not have been overly affectionate, and may not have said so often, she loved her children and grandchildren deeply. She always told her friends, “I have such great kids,” and she meant it. And it’s true. The love that she gave to you, you returned to her in hours, days, months and years of devoted care. You have been blessed with your mother’s undying love, a love that will remain with you long after today, a love that taught you to be kind and generous, to try new things, to believe in yourself, and most of all, to enjoy every day.

 

Yehi zichrona baruch—may her memory be a blessing.

 

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah

West Roxbury, MA

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Edith B. Zelman Eulogy by Cindy Zelman

My mother would have turned 86 on Friday, March 4th, 2016. Below is the eulogy I read at her funeral on February 19th.

My mother passed away on Saturday, February 6th, 2016 at the age of 85 years, 11 months, and two days. Today we honor her.

My mother possessed a quiet strength which I often misread as passivity because she was not direct  and bold as I am. My mother was very strong, however, right up to the end. So ill from cancer, unable to eat or drink, and then unresponsive, she continued to defy all predictions of her imminent demise, confounding every hospice nurse who visited.

“We expect her to be gone within 72 hours.”

But still she breathed.

“It could be this weekend; it could be today.”

But still she breathed.

“She will be gone in 24 – 36 hours.”

But still she breathed, and hospice stopped predicting.

Until she breathed no more, and on her own terms, she passed.

Many decades ago in the 1960s, when my brother and I were small children, my mother was a woman ahead of her time.  She had married my dad in the 1950s but by 1966, she knew her marriage would not be a happy one. She and my father separated.  My father tried to come back, but she wouldn’t have it. “It’s either you or Fran,” my father said in his inimitable style.

“I don’t feel as if I’ve lost a husband, Ben,” she said to my father, who loved large quantities of shoes and clothing. “I feel as if I’ve gained a closet.”

When my father was officially with my stepmom, Fran, he said to my mother, “Fran says we should get a neat, legal separation because of the kids.” To which my mother replied, “I don’t want a neat, legal separation,” and as my father’s eyes grew wide thinking my mom might want him back, she continued, “I want a neat, legal divorce.” She showed this strength for her own well-being before the Women’s Movement made it okay. My mom wanted what she wanted on her own terms. She was willing to be a single mom and a divorcee before society said it was okay.

She was strong.

My mother was kind. My mother lived a long life filled with kindness. She loved my dad, despite his difficult personality, which often expressed itself with verbal taunting. My mother could easily have been angry at Fran.  But my mom was too kind to be unfair.  My dad once “bragged” to my mother that Fran didn’t mind when he spoke to her poorly, to which my mother immediately replied, “You shouldn’t talk to Fran that way either!” Many of us would have found some measure of satisfaction in hearing that our ex-es significant other was now experiencing the same hell we had. But my mother was much too kind to feel vengeance.

In fact, she forgave my father for all of his infractions because she was kind, just as she always forgave me for mine.  I was not always as kind to her as I could have been, but she always forgave me with a mother’s unconditional love.

My mother was a much loved woman. In her senior years, before she became ill, I would take her out to shop at clothing stores or bed and bath stores or what have you, or we might go out to eat at a local restaurant. No matter where we went, people always came up to her and said “Hi, Edie!” with big smiles on their faces. I was very impressed.  Even at the nursing home, there were genuine tears when my  mother passed. “I loved your mom,” one nurse said, echoing the sentiments of several of the staff who cared for her at the end.  It’s quite an accomplishment to be so well-loved.

Some of you know me as a writer. Some of you know I have often written about my mother and my relationship with her in a light that is not flattering to her or to me. So today, as we honor her, I would like to read in public for the first time two short passages from my essays that do honor her.

The first is from a published essay called:

From A Smirnoff and Coke:

Once, my mother was a colorful figure of the night, showy in her dress, donning bright green-and-orange sweaters, or stark black-and-white dresses. Hitting all the singles clubs.  I remember giant-checkered skirts, and circle- and leopard-skin blouses. She wore wedge heels and bright pink lipstick. She was always tall at nearly five foot eight, with a well-developed bosom that LURED man after man to her side. She had thick dark hair that she wore in whatever style prevailed in a given decade. I remember the flip-up hairdos in the 1960s and the pictures of her from the late 1940s wearing banana curls, which she called “shit curls.” She turned heads in her day: Edie, the tall, thin Jewish girl with the big boobs and the jet black hair. More than once she has repeated what her mother-in-law said to her when she was dating my dad, “She can’t be Jewish, she’s too tall and too skinny!”  Imagine my grandmother saying it with derision and a Yiddish accent. Of course, my mother took it as a compliment – she was skinny and tall, as opposed to short and fat, like my grandmother.

From Paper Moon:

My mother was the first woman who took me on a date. I was eleven and she was forty-three and she asked, “Would you like to see a movie and then have dinner at the hotel across the street?”  She caught me pre-adolescence, young enough still to want to spend time with her whenever I could. She was home so little during my waking hours, maybe three hours a day, before she headed out the door for an evening of god knows what.

At age eleven, I said, “Yes, yes, let’s go to the movies.”

We saw Tatum O’Neil and her father, Ryan in “Paper Moon.”  

I recall sitting in the dark theater with her as the movie began to play.  I believe the movie was in black and white to visually capture the poverty of the Depression era.  Up on the big screen we watched Ryan and Tatum put on their con artist show for those of us sitting in the glow of the movie.  He was so handsome then; Tatum was so cute.  My mother sat next to me on a Saturday afternoon and then into early evening as we ate a mediocre meal at the hotel restaurant. She was disappointed with the food.

“I thought the food would be better,” she said as if to apologize. “We should have gone somewhere else to eat.”

“It’s fine,” I answered.

I sat in my chair and gazed at her. I thought: my beautiful mom, all to myself.

Pause.

I was lucky to have my mom in my life for nearly 54 years. Some people do not get that luxury. I was lucky to have such a kind and quietly strong mom whose love I never doubted.  I was lucky to have generous mom and a mom with a sense of humor. She was my mom and she was my best friend for my entire life. I miss her terribly but I hold on to the belief that I will see her again when it is my time.

Mom, we are all here for you today. I love you and will think of you always.

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2015 was a very shitty year

I know it’s nearly the end of January and a little late to be taking stock of 2015, but I’ve been busy. I work full-time, have a household to run, and my mother is in a nursing home dying from cancer. Other than coping, my accomplishments were few in 2015.

On the relatively positive side, I attended concerts filled with the classic rock and pop music of my youth: Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Madonna, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Beatles tribute bands, The Fab Faux and Rain, Chicago, The Indigo Girls, Led Zeppelin tribute band, Get the Led Out, and the actual, original Robert Plant.

Publications: Just one this year. Thank you to The Broken Plate for publishing my essay, “This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter.” If not for that, I would have published nothing in 2015.

Blog: Sadly, in 2015, I have had only four blog posts all year. My writing production was nearly non-existent in any form: essay, blog post, personal email, not even much activity on Facebook.

No good deed goes unpunished: For two years I tried to help a man escape the horrors of his life on the other side of the world, but I realized at the end of 2015 there is no way to end my involvement but to cruelly walk away. This man keeps after me, with every drama and life threatening situation imaginable. He is not lying, this is his life. You know who you are, and if you read this, LEAVE ME ALONE. Stop calling, stop texting, stop emailing, because I will no longer send you money. I can no longer fund your life or your death.

You see, I have limitations to my generosity, and I can be a mean person, just as Steven said I was. As I get older, I don’t care about being less generous or being mean. As life starts to wreck you, you disengage from humanity, and your existence becomes about survival, emotional or physical or both. As I continue to watch my mother die, I feel more wrecked, and I try to survive.

Purchases: I purchased a little inexpensive computer in the hope that I would start writing again. I purchased a cheap television and many concert tickets because I need some way to escape the horrors of 2015, and I have yet to take up drinking. I have learned that purchasing such unnecessary items does as much to help the poverty of the world as sending thousands of dollars directly to someone in need. In other words, neither activity helps at all. I would suggest never funding someone directly. I have learned you can’t solve any problems by throwing money at them, you can’t save anybody’s life. The experience will only leave you feeling guilty and angry when you have to say no. So buy yourself a TV instead.  It’s cheaper in the long run. Subscribe to Hulu. Watch the original Star Trek. Buy those Who tickets. Buy a car. Live your American dream. Find a reputable charity if you insist on throwing your money away.

Work: For the most part, work was fine. I am not a superstar at work, but hopefully, a steady player, a sixth man in basketball, a backup shortstop, a special teams player. I work with some brilliant people who are also my friends, so I am very lucky in that regard. My senior management is understanding and thoughtful, so I am grateful for that also. In my younger years, I would have needed to excel, to shine like a superstar. But now, in my fifties, I am happy to have a solid job that challenges my brain, provides a paycheck and benefits, and helps to allow me to live my life. That’s all that my poverty stricken man wants, to live his life, to have a job. What I take for granted, he will never have. He lives in a really shitty place that gives him no breaks, only obstacles, illness, deeply seated prejudice and pain on every physical and emotional level. I could have sent him every dollar in my  bank account and still he would be on the edge of crisis, or even have fallen into the abyss never to return.

Health: I believe I am healthy, despite the fact that I am working out less and my pure cardio workouts have ceased. My once lithe body is starting to get bulgy around the middle. My size 8 pants are getting tight around my thighs. I could easily solve this issue by increasing the frequency of my workouts and eating less sugar. Or I could start buying size 10 jeans.

This year I had my third colonoscopy in 10 years as I tend to be symptomatic, but I’m fine. If my friend, Bill, had had such a procedure a few years ago, he might still be alive today. Even in this country, with all its privilege, death grabs you and you succumb. Please take note.

I had a cyst removed from my scalp.  I tend to get such things, but so far, all has been benign.

Romance and Sex: None whatsoever in 2015. And I don’t miss either. I am becoming something less than human, I understand.

Life and Death.

A friend of mine died in February. She wasn’t my closest friend, but I had known her for most of my life. Our mothers have been best friends for nearly 50 years. Although Karen had many medical problems, I never expected her to die suddenly, as she did. I believe she died from a heart attack caused by a blood clot in her leg. Three weeks before her death, we attended a Fleetwood Mac concert in Providence. A week and a half before her death, she accompanied me to the dermatologist and waited while I had a cyst removed from my scalp.

“She’s a good friend,” the nurse said.

Yes, she was.

My mother is alive but dying. Today (January) she has slept the entire day, including the two and a half hours I’ve been sitting here. It could be the drugs or it could be the encroachment of death. It’s snowing outside her window. Winter is symbolic of death, isn’t it?

My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in the fall of 2013 and lived with me in my house until November 2015.  She first fell in May. She fell in the morning while I was at work and lay on the floor, peeing all over the white throw rug, for the next 10 hours. When I returned home, I could barely lift her onto the couch. I called hospice and a nurse arrived. “Forget about the bathroom, that’s over with,” she said. But she was wrong. Eventually, my mom gained enough strength to continue living in my house and using the bathroom.

Six month later, after her third fall in five weeks this autumn, I couldn’t let her stay.

I had her rushed to the hospital by ambulance, against her will, after finding her fallen beside her bed, sitting in her pee, for 10 hours (again.) She was extremely dehydrated, I would come to find out, and she could not think straight, nor had she the strength to lift herself up and onto the bed. Nor had I the strength. I called an ambulance.

I had her admitted to a nursing home, five days after her hospital stay, again, against her will. She acquiesced because she had no choice. I refused to take her home.

I had my mother sign a Power of Attorney five days before she went bonkers again from dehydration. She signed the document voluntarily with a notary public as witness.  I had access to her vast fortune which was just enough to pay for her funeral and two months in a nursing home.

I pre-paid my mother’s funeral and bought her a coffin for Chanukah, on December 7, which coincidentally was also the 10 year anniversary of my stepmother’s death.

I filled out a forty page application for Mass Health, which will start paying my mother’s nursing home expense, once her assets have been depleted. It’s early January and her assets have been depleted. I sent Mass Health another forty pages of supplemental information.

I don’t know how to end this post. My mother is still sleeping. They tell me she has been sleeping all day. I wonder how she will be tomorrow. I wonder how I will be. I wonder how 2016 will be.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Second Sexual Harassment Post: Mark doesn’t know what he’s doing (?)

Another inch closer and...

Another inch closer and…

Mark has no idea he is harassing me. I’m sure of it. I’m fairly sure of it. I think I’m sure of it. We have an awkward relationship.  

At work, I possess more power than he does, a better job, a bigger space on the floor; the floor is set up with hundreds of cubicles. I sit in a 12 X 12 cubicle and he sits in a 6 X 6. Cubicle size designates power in this environment.

Mark is a big man to be placed in such a small space. He is well over six feet and husky. I’m a small woman by comparison, 5’5”, and thin, sinewy. Female power, male lack of power — we turn the traditional power struggle on its head. Not that we think in those terms at the time. Such thoughts come years after knowing him, with reflection and age.

I don’t remember how my “friendship” with Mark starts. He’s  a gregarious guy, maybe he just struck up a conversation one day.We share smiles and hellos as we walk past each other in the aisles or as we stand in the elevator. We do small talk — Have you read XXX? No, I haven’t. You should. Thank you for the recommendation — he fashions himself  an intellectual, making it all the sadder that he is saddled with a shitty job in a small cubicle.  I fashion myself a writer, so I am equally pathetic. Just so you know I know. Our company is where people who can’t find creative work go — I have met fine arts painters, writers, teachers, intellectuals, poets, all sitting in these little fabric cubicle boxes doing work that we can’t explain to anyone outside of the company, because this work we do, this lingo we speak, makes no sense at all. 

By the time Mark crosses the line, it seems a year or more has passed since we met. Some small level of trust exists between us. I want him to beg off and back off because I have enjoyed his friendship for the most part. I don’t need this issue – should I turn him in or not turn him in? Sometimes we have lunch together and it’s been okay. For a time, I think he is gay, which makes it easier to befriend him, but it becomes apparent that his is heterosexual.

If it had been this blatant, it would have been simpler…

Somewhat surprised by Mark’s behavior, the harassment begins. For a week or more, Mark knocks on my cubicle wall each afternoon, and not wanting to be rude, I say, “Come on in.” Not only is my cubicle bigger than his, but it has six-foot walls and affords a measure of visual privacy. I’m not sure why Mark keeps visiting except to chit-chat on his break, although somewhere in my depths, I feel an escalation of something going on between us or emanating from him, more precisley. I can’t articulate this. I just watch the proceedings, feel something in my gut twinge, wonder what comes next.

And then “next” comes.

I sit at my desk and he moves closer. Closer and closer. Too close. I think. I’m not sure.

He isn’t talking about anything lewd. Maybe he is saying, “This weekend, I’m planning to…” or “Did you see that film, XXX?” and I’m nodding, and possibly a little bored by him when it happens. He places his hand on my leg, near my knee. This isn’t a sexual advance, I say to myself. Is it? He tells me, perhaps, “Today at lunch, I….” and his hand moves up a few inches to mid-thigh. His palm is touching my mid-thigh? Is this the region where it crosses a line?  “My brother says,” he continues, and his hand moves as close to the top of my thigh, and  as close to my crotch as possible, while it still remains minutely possible that he has not just crossed a line into sexual harassment.

I get up abruptly, say, “I need to get back to work.” Mark smiles an innocent, dumb smile, and says, “Okay.” This scenario is played out at least three more times over the next week.

I should turn him in. I should tell him to stop. I don’t know how to do either. That big, dumb smile makes me think he doesn’t realize he is crossing a line. Work is hard to come by, and I don’t want to be responsible for him losing his job. It’s strange, too, because I’m the one that is at the higher job level. This isn’t a boss harassing me. While he isn’t an underling either, he’s not quite a peer. Shouldn’t I know how to handle this? I’ve been though the sexual harassment training. Sexual harassment is subjective. If a person feels he or she is being harassed, then it’s usually considered harassment. A potentially innocent touch from Mark can be defined as harassment if it offends me or makes me uncomfortable. And this does make me uncomfortable. Technically, I have been sexually harassed.

I decide not to turn Mark in. Instead, I find a way to wiggle my way out of this situation and eventually, out of our friendship. The end of the friendship happens a few years later, actually, when I have left the division and he emails me to tell me he found a wonderful cleansing program for his colon, and all I can think of is Mark shitting all over the place. At that point I tell him I think he is being inappropriate, something I am never able to say to him when he touches me inappropriately. Instead I say,  “Mark, I think it’s not a great idea to visit me in my cubicle…You could get in trouble for spending so much time away from your desk,” never mind so much time so close to my crotch.

Eventually, Mark becomes the victim of a corporate layoff and so the problem solves itself, in a sense. I finally tell his former supervisor what happened a few years back and she says, “You should have told me!” Maybe I should have, but sexual harassment can be so confusing.

Although I have written this post in present tense as if it is a current event, this occurred a decade ago.  I remember mentioning the incident to my new girlfriend at the time, asking “Is this sexual harassment?” And she nodded her head vigorously and said, “Of course it is!” As with the first post on sexual harassment, I was not traumatized by this incident so I feel fortunate. Still, it was annoying and a more confusing incident than when I was 19, because I didn’t have someone walk right up to me and pin me against a wall. Could Mark have just meant to be friendly? I’ll never know. Yet, I would like to know your experiences, if any, that you care to share regarding sexual harassment, in the workplace or elsewhere.

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Working It: The First Sexual Harassment Post or “Yes, His Name Was Dick”

Yes, His Name Was Dick

When I was a student at Stonehill College in the early 1980s, I had a regular part-time job down the street. I was a cashier at the now defunct Fernandes Supermarket at the corner of Main and Washington.  The area is now a modern mini-plaza with a mini supermarket chain called Tedeschi’s, a mini restaurant called “The Fresh Catch,” some little boutique shops, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. But thirty years ago, the Fernandes Supermarket was the main attraction, and I was a one of their first line cashiers, working 25-30 hours a week. I attended college in mornings and early afternoons, and I worked late afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I always had a lot of cash in my pocket.

I was good at the job and became one of the “courtesy booth” workers. Given the fact that I can be so rude, it was ironic, me in a “courtesy” anything, but I did my best (most of the time) to provide customer service to those needing to buy postage stamps, play the lottery,  or laying down 12 items or less on the conveyor belt.

Tuesday nights were slow at Fernandes. I could literally stand in that courtesy booth for an hour with no customers. When May came around in 1982, and I was sophomore at Stonehill, I decided I would discreetly study for finals while I waited for customers. While studying a book wasn’t very professional of me, I was 19 years old and not very professional. Frankly I was bored and had big tests coming up. I opened a big hard cover book of something: English? Philosophy? Required science for non-science majors?  It was well into the evening, more than 30 years ago, and I don’t remember exactly what I studied that night.  But  I read, I underlined, I highlighted, on a slow Tuesday night, as I waited for customers.

Dick probably saw himself like this guy

Dick probably saw himself like this guy

We had many different front end managers. Mr. Reardon was our main store manager and at night, there was a rotation of men (all men). Tuesday night was Dick’s night. Dick was a tall, awkward, gawky guy, in his early 30s, I would guess, with light brown hair, a left over mustache from the hairy 1970s,  and with a mildly bucked tooth smile. Had he been a good guy, I might have considered his face pleasant. Because he was such an asshole, he impressed me as goofy verging on ugly. Of course, ugly or good looking don’t matter when someone harasses you.

His personality made him look more like this guy.

His personality made him look more like this guy.

“What are you doing with that book?” Dick asked.

“I’m studying for finals,” I said. Don’t think I was a nice, sweet girl trying to explain myself. I was 19 and full of sarcasm.

“Put the book away. You’re at work.” He wasn’t wrong.

“No. Why should I? There’s no one here, Dick, and no one can see the book, anyway, unless they come into the booth.” He’d come into the booth.

“Put it away.”

“No.” And so I didn’t.  Only a 19-year old who doesn’t really need a job could be that brazen. I felt I could speak to Dick that way because our relationship hadn’t been all bad. He’d admired the way I’d handled a difficult fellow employee when I told her, “What works for me is I pretend to be normal. I say normal things. I do normal things. Although I feel like I’m faking at first, eventually, I start to feel normal.”

“You should be a psychology major,” he’d said. I thought he liked me and was just giving me shit about studying in the courtesy booth.

I don’t know if it was that Tuesday night or another night when Dick was managing, but sometime after that incident, he managed to corner me in the fake “office” with no actual ceiling, just the supermarket ceiling so high above. Or maybe it did have a ceiling but for some reason, I remember it only as walls with the color green. We were the last two left in the store and I had just finished counting my drawer. I was preparing to leave. He walked toward me. I had no idea he was walking “at” me.

“I’ll see you next week,” I started to say, and all of a sudden, all 6 feet plus of his tall lanky body was pressing against mine and I had my back supported by the back wall of the makeshift office.

I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what he said. How I wish I did. I don’t remember a lot of fear, but a little of it. I didn’t believe he would really do anything more than what he was doing. Maybe he would try to kiss me. Maybe he would fondle my breasts or try to squeeze my ass. Maybe he did. It didn’t go too far because if it had I would have been traumatized. But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

At the time, I thought Dick did this because he found me attractive. I was only mildly attractive. I did understand when the fear started to creep in, when he didn’t let me go after the 1st or 2nd or 3rd request, that his actions were about power. Still, I thought it was about attraction AND power. All these decades later I know this was about anger and power. I had angered him when I defied him about closing my books. Perhaps on other occasions when I disrespected him, as we all did.

I also don’t remember how I got away, but I did. He didn’t keep me pinned for too long. Maybe he’d hoped I would respond in kind rather than indicate I wanted him to leave me alone. Maybe in his head, he was “coming on to me” and not harassing me. 

As a young worker in a supermarket, back in the day, I wasn’t aware of sexual harassment issues or laws. Several years later, I would become aware, and take mandatory training in the issues surrounding sexual harassment, after I finished college and eventually began a career working in corporate America.

Back then, I told Steve, another assistant manager, what had happened. Steve was a street smart guy, who treated us all with respect.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, or something to that effect. Perhaps I was more frightened than I recall. I must have been afraid to spend another Tuesday night as the last shift cashier with Dick.

“It will never happen again,” Steve promised. And indeed, it never happened again. I can only imagine Steve spoke with Dick. Dick probably denied doing anything wrong and Steve probably said, “I’ll break your fucking legs if I ever hear you laid another hand on Cindy or anyone.”

That is how we took care of sexual harassment at Fernandes in 1982,  by having a tougher guy talk to the other guy. Eventually, Dick was fired when it became known that each Tuesday night, he exited the supermarket with a cart full of unpaid groceries. 

If you have a sexual harassment story you are willing to share, please do. I realize for many, this is a traumatic experience, and in my own particular case here, I didn’t suffer trauma. I have been lucky in that the times I’ve experienced harassment (and there have been a few), it never went so far as to affect my life or career or my state of well-being. I know for others, the opposite is the case. 

Posted in 1980s, Harassment, Work | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Working it

The other day I was walking down the long aisle at work. I work in a cubicle environment capable of seating 300 people per floor. I can’t say how many cubicles are on the my floor, since it’s been years since anyone made me count them (yes, I once had a job that included counting and taking inventory of cubicles) but it’s daunting to look from one end of the floor to the other.

image

This is only about half the hallway. It’s at least twice as long.

I experience existential moments these days, as I traverse the long perimeter and wonder: What is the meaning of life? How did I get here? Do I really spend the best days and years of my life sitting in a square box made of wood and fabric, my ass plunked down in an ergonomic, high end plastic office chair, alongside 300 other people doing the same thing? I don’t mean doing the same jobs, but existing similarly in this cubicle environment?

This could have been me but I have no musical talent.

This could have been me but I have no musical talent.

Wasn’t I supposed to be a rock star? Remember when you were little, Cindy, singing into the handle of the Hoover vacuum, which reached your mouth perfectly as a fake microphone, belting out “It never rains in southern California, but girl, let me warn you, it pours, man it pours?”  Come on, I was eight. I even took up the guitar at age 11, but I kind of sucked. I was also aware that I couldn’t sing for shit. But I could fantasize.  Then I started to write in my teens and thought: I’ll be a famous writer! Oh, yes, yes, that one. I was a pretty good writer. But pretty good is a long way from GREAT, ASTOUNDING, ORIGINAL, BRILLIANT. I’m still a pretty good writer, even with a few publications to my credit, but not famous, not brilliant, etc.

This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.

This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.

A college professor? When I was younger, I thought, yes, the perfect marriage of my writing interests and my academic interests. But after that first master’s degree, I didn’t want to be broke for another 5 years getting a Ph.D. with no promise of a teaching job, so I sucked it up and began my career in “business.” I was 28. I’ve spent the last 25 years of my working life “doing things” in the cubicle-d world of business. 

I actually don’t mind the cubicles. I have had offices here and there throughout my years of working and have often felt isolated and depressed in them. I thrive on the activity of others around me. I think thriving in such an environment depends on temperament, what kind of job you are doing, how much you get paid, and whether your co-workers and bosses are good people or assholes. I’ve experienced all variations. Right now, I’m in a good place. I cannot mention where I work and would appreciate if you didn’t either as I want to keep a separate existence between my writing and my “paying” job.  However, when I talk about past jobs in future posts, I will name the places.

What I would like most is to hear from you. Tell me about your work experiences. And by work, I mean anything you consider work – past, present, future. You might work in an office or work at home or be a homemaker, a mother, a stay at home dad. I want to hear your stories. Please comment here and tell me.  Let’s talk! Thank you.

Posted in Fantasies, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments