October 31, 2018
October 24, 2018
My mother slapped me across the face. She thought it would make things go back to the way they were before I went down for a nap. I was four years old and awoke with jumbled vision. I saw everything in doubles.
Thus began my saga of Bonni being cross-eyed and having double vision. It’s called strabismus. This is an abnormality of the neuromuscle causing a weakness, or misalignment. Poor eye muscle control causes the eye to turn in. Unlike most people, my eyes don’t fuse the image. I see double. Treatment for strabismus, or crossed-eye, may include eyeglasses, prisms, and vision therapy or eye muscle surgery. In my lifetime, I’ve tried them all.
When I was six years old, I wore a black eye patch. When I was on line for popsicles at the pool one summer afternoon, a girl behind me said, “Look at the pirate!”
I turned around and said, “You know, I can’t help that I’m cross-eyed. Do you really think I want to look like this?”
I felt like saying, “SHUT UP, you big, fat bully!” but a) we were taught to never say “Shut up” and b) I felt sorry for her for calling me a pirate.
When I recounted later what happened that day at the pool, my father thought of a perfect remedy. On my next visit to the ophthalmologist with my mother, she asked for a beige eye patch. My father turned it into a work of art. He cut out a monarch butterfly and glued it to the patch. Then, for extra good measure, he lovingly coated it with clear nail polish. No one ever called me a pirate again.
A few years later, when I was in first grade, we tried a new technique. While most kids were beginning sports, I was picked up after school for eye training. It was in a basement-like office. Maybe I think of it as basement, because there was so much darkness. I walked through a fluorescent-lit office to the inner-sanctum of eye training. There were stations in the dark. In an effort to strengthen my eye muscles, I sat there, hunched over, watching a spirogram spin in front of me. This black and white geometric roulette of curves tested my focus.
I would then move to the next station and the next task: watch the red fox jump over the white fence. Then it would flip: watch the white fox jump over a red fence. Then they took away the foxes and the fences and there was nothing. Blank. Black. My brain was supposed to remember what it saw and actually replay the red fox jumping a white fence. Or was it the white fox jumping over a red fence?
It was like working out for the Ocular Olympics. I could feel both eyes getting stronger, more robust. Three of the twelve cranial nerves responsible for eye movement were no longer palsied. The superior oblique eye muscles were really getting into shape. My brain was fusing the images so that there was now only one. It was working!
Next, we went to Dr. Bass in New York City. He was a strabismus specialist recommended by someone in my family.
Dr. Bass was a gentle man. He had thinning white hair and blue eyes. When he spoke, he held his hands together as if he was a yoga teacher giving the Namaste. He suggested surgery. At Columbia-Presbyterian.
“When should we do it?” asked my mother. Meanwhile, I sat there quietly in the ophthalmic chair, seeing blurry. He had put drops in my eyes that erased the definition of all objects and made everything look like a big blob.
Dr. Bass went to his desk. “I have an opening in my schedule tomorrow. Shall I tell them Bonni will take the spot? You would have to leave for the hospital right now so they can get her prepped for surgery in the morning.”
With no hesitation, my mother said yes. I didn’t even have a nightie! We took a cab to B. Altman and Company on 34th Street and Madison. In a big rush, I got a flowered nightie and a doll with extremely long legs. She was wearing a pink dress and had large open eyes. She was stark opposite from my squatter and chubbier Chatty-Cathy, but I supposed she could keep me good company while I was in the hospital.
We checked into the pediatric unit of the hospital. Nurses in white dresses and nurse’s caps showed me my “room,” which wasn’t a room at all. It was a grey metal single bed with curtains for walls. A small metal chest and one metal chair were next to the bed. It was a far cry from my cozy room with red, pink and green flowered wallpaper and green shag rug at home.
When it was time for my mother to leave, she kissed and hugged me. This would be the very first time I had been away from my parents in this kind of setting. I felt abandoned and inconsolable. At dinnertime in the pediatric wing, all of the children sat around a table. I was still crying. A nurse tried to comfort me by saying my parents would be there tomorrow. I still couldn’t eat the string beans. They got stuck in my throat.
Dinner was taken away and we all played cards at the same table. But it was not a distraction. My feelings of sadness and being alone did not go away, especially when I played Go-Fish with a girl named Helen. She had a thick, white bandage over one eye. A nurse scooted me away suddenly when blood began to drip from under the bandage. (When I was much older, my mother told me that Helen died of eye cancer.)
It was still light. Pediatrics was close to a parking lot. I went to a window and looked out over it. People were going to their cars after work. They’d walk to their cars and drive away. Soon the parking lot was empty. I wanted to remind myself to feel free when I was outside the hospital. I hugged my doll tightly. I also thought it was funny: her long legs and exaggerated big eyes wasn’t the look of a doll I usually fell in love with. But this unnamed doll was a good stand-in.
That night, the sounds of the city were never-ending. Horns blaring. Traffic whirring by. A siren in the distance. This was the first time I slept in New York City. It was true: the city never slept.
Early the next morning, a nurse came into my curtain-divided room with a needle filled with ether. She asked for my right leg, held up the needle, and shot it with this liquid that would put me to sleep for hours.
When I awoke, I was dizzy and “bummed it,” as the nurse called throwing up. When she picked up my head to put a towel underneath it, I noticed a round, multi-colored tin of hard candy balls next to my bed. It was a gift from my father.
After the operation, my eyeballs were a fierce, bright red from popped vessels. I needed to keep them out of the sun. I was given round sunglasses in a clear frame. I thought they made me look like Helen Keller. The operation turned out to be just cosmetic. It straightened my eyes so that they didn’t turn in. Alas, I still had double vision.
I always wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t woken up that afternoon when I was little. My brother wouldn’t have called me a “Four-Eyed Freak.” I wouldn’t have worn those great pearl, cat-eyed glass frames that reflected a flashbulb whenever I was in a picture. Or those huge frames that I dared to wear in Paris when I worked as a secretary.
The goal of every ophthalmologist or optician I see is to merge the two images I see with double vision. But it hasn’t worked. I see two images where most people see one. Or I see a solid image with a ghost-after-image. It would make most people dizzy. But I’m used to it. It gives me a view with a double-perspective.
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October 5, 2018
Take a trip to Macy's fabric floor in 1966. Here you'll find my mother prepped to select patterns, zippers, threads and buttons as she begins her annual mission to hand-sew our childhood wardrobe.
I am pleased to announce that my new piece -- "Fall 1966: The Cool and Groovy Look" -- was invited to appear on the Hudson Valley Writers Center website.
October 3, 2018
When I was growing up, my mother sewed everything my sister and I wore. Dresses. Skirts. Blouses. Bathing suits. Coats. Everything but our underwear.
And by early August, my mother was already planning what we would wear on the first day of school. It was time to make our pilgrimage to the sewing floor of Macy’s department store.
My little sister, older brother and I were like three little ducklings following my mother into the city (we called it the “city” and not “Manhattan” because we thought they were two different places). Since it was a day of walking the fabric floor, my mother wore sensible shoes: woven leather low heels that reminded me of two little baskets on her feet.
We began the journey from our home on Curtiss Place, in Maplewood, New Jersey, and took the Erie-Lackawanna railroad. The train had honey-colored straw seats that could flip around depending on whether you were going to or coming from the city. As the conductor walked up the aisle, he pushed the seats, making sure they were facing the right direction for the next load of commuters.
There was no direct train at the time. Once we reached Hoboken, we had to catch the PATH to 34th Street. The sprint between the two trains was a panic until my legs were long enough to keep up with my mother.
The underground PATH in August was hot and steamy. It took us right to 34th Street, where Macy’s was at the top of the stairs. Before heading up though, we would grab lunch at Nedick’s, which was on the corner of 34th and Broadway. There we’d order hot dogs and orange soda. They also had a nut bread-and-cream cheese sandwich, which I was always tempted to try but thought it would make ordering more complicated. It was a fast-food luncheonette, after all. I stuck with my mother’s order: “Four hot dogs and four orange sodas, please.”
We finished lunch quickly. We had a big day in front of us.
Macy’s had grand revolving doors. Mom always went in first, and I remember the welcome blast of cold air as I emerged into the lobby. The scent of Chanel 5 infused the air. We had arrived.
The four of us took flight after flight of wood-slatted escalator steps to the seventh floor, which was filled with bolts of fabric in all shades of solids and different patterns of stripes and plaids. I knew Mom was in “work mode” when she went for the corduroys and wools. She was looking ahead to colder weather, but the thought of wearing fabrics like those on such a searing day was beyond my imagination.
My sister and I helped our mother peruse the pattern books, which were huge and filled with sweeping renderings of “The Look” for that fall. This was the era of Twiggy, and I hoped there was a pattern for a dress that would make me look exactly like her.
“How’s this?” Mom would ask us. “Can’t you see it in a nice plaid?” I squinted to try and picture it, but I trusted my mom. She had a great eye for putting “The Look” together.
My mom then requested the patterns – those tissue-paper-y sheaths that would be the start of our new wardrobes. With the packets in hand, we headed over to fabric. I was really excited. I could have a say on what I would wear the first day of school. Or even what I would wear for Photo Day. In fifth grade, it was a blue corduroy dress that was short enough to have coordinating blue corduroy shorts (that showed). Looking back, I will admit I was quite the standout in the front row of Miss Smith’s class picture.
“This would look good in a bold print,” my mother said, as she held up the pattern for a Go-Go shift. I could see it clearly: this dress and windowpane stockings.
Or, “Do you think this jumper would be better in a solid or print?” Often she would combine the two: printed jumper with solid pockets. The one I remember most was a black, red, white and yellow print with yellow corduroy pockets. Once you had the pattern, you could make zillions of the same dress. So my mother always made this dress with solid pockets that picked up a prominent color from the jumper fabric.
Throughout the day my sister and I had one charge: who could make the biggest thread ball. As we walked the floor and passed the bolts, we grabbed hanging threads and wrapped them around our ever-growing, multicolored balls.
The outing took hours: after picking patterns and fabrics, there were still zippers, buttons and threads to be found. When my siblings and I got bored, we played “Train” under the big tables carrying the pattern books. My brother was the conductor, my sister and I were the passengers. I was glad to be a part of the game; I wore glasses and was usually not invited to play with them. “Too fragile,” people thought. “Too weird,” was my brother’s reaction. He called me a “Four-Eyed Freak.” So playing “Train,” I was right in step for being groovy.
When we returned home to Maplewood, my sister and I compared our thread balls. Soon, Mom was in her yellow sewing room in the attic. We would hear the rumble of the machine start and then stop. She would adjust the needle, or straighten a piece of cloth, and then start again.
My mother is now 87-years old. During one of our daily phone calls, I asked her about being a sewing savant and her technique for finishing a seam.
“You have to direct the fabric,” she said. “You push it either straight or curved. Then you go back and forth, back and forth, for a quarter of an inch, to make sure the stitches don’t unravel.”
“It was hot as hell up in that attic,” she continued. “I would have wool on my lap on the third floor, in an un-air-conditioned room, in August. Oh gawddd, it was horrible.”
“I wanted to set an example and let my children know that you didn’t have to go to the store for everything. Often you could make it yourself.”
My brother, I must add, was just along for the ride. The day didn’t hold much for him. The only thing my mother could sew for her son was pajamas. As the ringmaster on clothes, though, she insisted he always wear store-bought corduroys, a button-down shirt and a V-neck sweater. He absolutely hated his look.
My brother told me recently that he remembers hardly anything about our annual summer pattern- and fabric-finding mission to Macy’s.
Then he said, “In retrospect, Mom did an incredible job. Who sews anymore? Some of the outfits were really adorable. Like remember the shot of you two on the steps at Curtiss Place?”
I do remember that outfit. The dress was red, and over it was a coat with a big white collar and a red grosgrain ribbon tied into a bow. This was paired with black patent Maryjanes, gloves and a round black patent purse (with nothing but a plastic comb and Lifesavers inside), and topped with wide-brimmed red bowler. My sister had the exact same outfit. We were twins!
The chapter of proudly wearing my mother’s hand-sewn clothes came to an end when girls started to wear pants to school. We begged, telling Mom it wasn’t cool anymore to wear clothes made by hand.
She eventually gave in. My sister and I were allowed to wear pants twice a week. This time, store-bought pants. From where? Macy’s.
September 5, 2018
My daughter (the doctor-to-be) drove us up to the Vineyard. As we were driving, I pulled out the tomatoes I brought as a pre-repast at Wendy's.
"Would you like a tomato?" I asked. I popped one in my mouth.
"Did you wash them?"
"No," I responded while popping another in my mouth. (She could have been more gracious since I was sharing them.)
I rolled a third one around in my mouth before biting into it. So delectable!
"You should have washed them," my daughter said. "Did you know that there could be Listeria Monocytogenes on them?"
"Nooo, but ..." I spit that third one out into my hand.
"Or Salmonella? They could also be covered in Shigella. You really shouldn't eat them, Mom, before washing them."
"I'm not," I said, trying to wipe off the seeded goo from my chin.
"Good," she continued. "Because you wouldn't want a case of Campylobacter Jejuni either."
Med school, it appeared, was paying off.