Tag Archives: love

Who Actually Makes These Rules Up, Anyway?

Avto was a postman from Georgia.

“Zee country, not zee state,” he explained—immediately upon meeting my nephew Dave and me, one winter morning in Estonia—just in case the thick accent wasn’t clarification enough.

Avto spoke many languages, presumably, all with a similar poetic license that left his English understandable, although not necessarily in any rational way.

Since Avto pronounced my name Holy, the nickname he gave me was Hole. I intended—from his first mention of my new nickname—to nudge him away from it. But he said it with such endearment, like he’d bestowed me with something heartfelt and personal … So I postponed voicing my opposition.

“Your need is fresh air, exercise and light, every day. But present you have no zis,” Avto announced, shortly after our first meeting. He then added, clapping his hands, as though this thought had just surfaced from nowhere, ”Oh my God! I can solve you zis only problem you has, Hole.”

“Um … about that name … never-mind, we’ll talk later;  just how will you solve this problem, I didn’t know I had?” I asked.

“I vill let you walk wis me on my mail route when I deliver every day post and pension money one time in month. And sometimes I help zese old people wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us … .”

Looking back, there was an uncharacteristic heave-ho to caution, followed by a gigantic leap of faith, that led me to even consider this proposal. But Avto’s simple approach to life and complete lack of malice were apparent in every gesture and intonation.

So I surrendered, almost immediately to his plan, after all I had no real plans of my own: I had no roadmap in this strange new life I was creating after my husband’s death; no role models …  My life in Estonia was, at times, confusing and frightening, but it was also supremely exhilarating. I was writing a new book—as opposed to a new chapter—in my life. What better vehicle to begin a new journey, than my feet? And what better co-traveller in those early years, than The Postman?

Estonian sunrise, in late November, is said to occur between 8:00 and 8:30 AM. My experience was, however, while there may have been a glimmer of daylight at that hour, to call it sunrise was wishful thinking.


Getting out from under my woollen blankets, at 6 AM, in -30 degree Celsius (-22 F) temperatures, so that I could meander through the streets of Souptown, helping deliver Avto’s post, in the dark, pretty much shattered my middle class American comfort zone. In spite of the discomfort, however, I donned as many layers of clothing as would fit beneath my bulky arctic jacket, pulled on my warm LL Bean boots, and a hat my mother gave me, ignored my frequently frozen eyelashes and numb appendages, and silently made my way up and down the streets of Souptown almost every morning the winter of ’97.

Avto was born and spent his youth in Georgia. He’d come to Estonia to attend university. During his time in University, the Soviet Union collapsed and he was now, more or less stuck in Estonia. He longed to go back to his motherland, it’s sweet wine, warm weather and gregarious culture; his emotional life was a mixed bag. While he frequently referred to Estonia as “Zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” it was very much a love/hate relationship. He loved the  all night sun of summer, the saunas, and the calm, peaceful nature of the Estonian people. He did however, complain almost daily in the winter; “One day, zese balls in my pants vill freeze off! People vill say, ‘Oh look! Vhat that is lying in ze snow over zere? Oh never-mind; zey is just zee balls of zat underpaid postman.”

Avto and I began our mornings on a specified corner, after he had collected his post, organised his pouch and begun his route.

We had followed this same routine for about a month when, one morning, Avto failed to show up on our designated corner. I went from annoyed to worried after ½ hour or so of waiting in the cold. I walked through Souptown on my way home but there was no sign of my missing postman. I waited to hear from him; or perhaps the police …

On one of my future visits to the States, an elderly fundamentalist pastor would ask me if the Estonian people were religious. Not knowing one Estonian who professed a belief in God, let alone one who had probably ever seen the inside of a church, I would say, “No, they aren’t,” But then feel compelled to add: “But I’ve never lived in a more spiritually attuned society.”

Later that evening, Avto showed up at my flat, looking exhausted and 10 years older.

“I’m apologising and sad for my late self …” he began.

“I can only assume there was a reason that I stood on that corner alone and froze,” I interrupted.

Avto began his explanation slowly, as though the energy it took to speak was being borrowed, from somewhere outside of himself, a word at a time. “When I was early walking street zis morning, wisout you, a grandmother came running to me wis tears. She say her husband he died in zis night. She was alone and crying all night …  alone wis zee body of her man. All night …” he repeated.

“What did you do?” I asked, my tone transformed.

“I say, ‘Babushka, vhat  I can do for you?’ and I hold her cold hands. When such terrible sings happen, hands are wery cold,” he explained, in case I didn’t know what shock was. Then, “Also it vas -25 degrees in zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” he added, in case I hadn’t noticed.

“So what did she ask for?” I could barely speak.

Avto then explained that the old woman had tried to clean her husband’s body, herself, but had “wery old hurting bones” and lacked the strength …  So he, The Postman, had gone into her home, made tea, and spent the next several hours helping the grieving widow clean and prepare her husband’s body for his funeral.

When he’d earlier claimed  “I sometimes I help zese old people wis life,” I’d not understood what that meant. How could I have understood, when my life had never included most of the day to day experiences that lived in my new world?

I looked at My Postman, in fact my world, differently after that day.

“Hole, I is so sorry you poor little feet froze off, waiting for me.”

“My feet are not little and you have no need to apologise. I admire you so much,” I said.

Avto looked at me inquisitively. “Huh?”

“What you did today, was so beautiful and so loving … so sacred. What you did was what religion tries to instil in people … .” I stopped; words failed me.

He continued looking at me with his compassionate, exhausted, still puzzled, face.

Suddenly I wanted to offer something useful. And expensive. The best I could do, when someone was in crisis, was offer something of material value; it was how I supported people; the more expensive the better. “Hey, I think I’ll give you my LL Bean Boots. Your boots are shot and I have another pair I can wear.”

I instantly felt better for having offered.

“Um, zose boots are wery not cool …” he said sheepishly. “I did not tell you but you embarrassing me in zose boots.”

Huh! I thought. So my do-gooder self is out-a-luck, today,  since My Postman has a fashion sense that doesn’t allow for pricey LL Bean boots because they’re uncool. Interesting!

“It doesn’t matter, Avi,” I said. “I made soup; do you want some?”

“Oh Hole, you know I do! You is zee soup master!”

It was about this time that I realised: I was in the process of a rebirth. And, so, actually a new name was called for; even if it was Hole.

The Day Shit Got Real …

If there were ever a competition for a natural born bully, Kenny would have won the blue ribbon. Hands down.

In the mid 1950’s Kenny was about eight years old. He was already the puppet master of our neighbourhood; terror being his only strings. This was when my family moved into his small Hatboro neighbourhood, near Philadelphia.

I was five, my brother Timmy was two-and-a-half and our older sister, Jeannine was eleven. Heather—who would later become the baby of our family—had a few years left to hang out in the ethers.

At two-and-a-half Timmy had a limited vocabulary and even more limited ability to pronounce the few words he knew. When he slipped and knocked his two front teeth out, just shy of his third birthday, what were slowly becoming coherent language skills, instantly slipped back into Timmy’s own language.

“Ah na peeny peeny pelly pelly thitch, ” Timmy said sweetly, to our next-door neighbour, Marlene, one day.

After politely asking him to repeat himself, several times, Marlene looked at me blankly and whispered, “What is he trying to say?”

To this day I recall wondering why Marlene couldn’t understand him. “He’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, “ I repeated. “But he forgot to say please.”

“Say please,” I said, looking sternly at my brother.

“Peath,” he said. Marlene chuckled as she made him a PB&J and, from then on, she always referred to them as peeny peeny pelly pellies when Timmy and I were around.

For the most part I loved our Hatboro neighbourhood.

Fortunately, I had completely mastered my brother’s language and so, I became his interpreter within the family and the community. This, and the fact that I was not yet in school, made me an extension of my brother—or him of me …

Timmy had one other constant companion: A small stuffed doll with a plastic freckled face, called Johnny Appleseed. Johnny had a shock of red hair peeking from beneath his green cap that matched the rest of his attire. After losing his front teeth, Timmy called his stuffed companion Chonny Appletheed. Although pretty much lacking compassion at that age, even I thought that was slightly pathetic …

Generally, however, I simply considered my brother to be an unavoidable nuisance. Timmy was my duty and responsibility; I don’t recall any warm fuzzy feelings for him … until the day Kenny stole Johnny Appleseed from my brother’s arms and beat the doll mercilessly while yelling things like, “What kinda sissy boy carries around a doll? Oh yeah, that’s right: The kind of sissy who lets his sister talk for him!” Kenny laughed maniacally.

I stood there helplessly, holding my sobbing, snotty-nosed baby brother, while Kenny brutally beat Johnny Appleseed to within an inch of his little cotton stuffed life; crushing his plastic face into the sidewalk while scraping it back and forth. There was nothing to be done. It was Kenny’s neighbourhood. We played by Kenny’s rules.

When the bully had tired of this latest cruelty, and walked away, I picked Johnny Appleseed up from the sidewalk and turned him over. “Look!” I exclaimed to my quietly sobbing brother, “Johnny is still smiling. He’s not hurt one bit … Wow! I guess he showed Kenny a thing or two.”

There was something strangely comforting about Johnny’s face—scratched and dirty—still smiling up at us. I’m not sure if, perhaps, I believed, just a little, that Johnny had shown Kenny up for what he really was, or not. I’m actually not even sure Timmy bought it. But we both (at least) pretended to believe Johnny Appleseed was the victor in that encounter, as we trudged up the street, with our heads hung low, to the safety of our home.

I learned something valuable that day: I actually loved that little nuisance of a brother, who prior to that event, had been more like a Vestigial organ: something that you just accept because, useless as it is, you have no choice. On that day, however, my little lisping appendix of a brother became a caring, feeling, tiny human being—sobbing and terrified. And I’d have done almost anything to see that he never experienced anything like that again.

Timmy (right), Heather (middle) and me (left), several years later.

Slight Digression:My father was a bible-thumping Christian. He was also a pacifist. He taught us to turn the other cheek and use words instead of weapons. We were to lead by Christian example; we were to let our little lights shine … Ironically, my father was also a stern, believer in spare the rod and spoil the child and I feared him nearly as much as I feared Kenny. My father, however, was easier to live with: Do as you were told and as the bible taught and you were pretty much okay. Otherwise say hello to Mr Switch.

Yep, there were a lot of mixed messages living in our house …

Now back to Kenny …

Kenny taught me a lot in that first year. He taught me that when my knees were kicked out from beneath me from behind, and I was suddenly thrown down on the pavement, slamming my head onto its hard surface, I could actually see real live, brilliantly flashing stars, just like in cartoons. He also taught me how quickly a wagon full of little kids could be capsized, by one sharp turn of the wagon handle and a hard kick.

But, It was a beautiful Sunday in the autumn of 1957—the year I would turn 6 in October—that some real learning was about to happen. Shit was about to get real for Kenny. As a matter of fact, there was about to be a paradigm shift for me, as well.

A small group of children—including myself—were playing on my best friend, Kathy’s, swing set, when Kenny unexpectedly rounded the corner of her house.

“Give me a swing!” he shouted, as he approached us.

Immediately the other children leapt from their swings. I wish I could say it was bravery that kept me swinging; that I’d had just about enough of Kenny … But factually, I was simply swinging too high to disembark swiftly. I did, however, (much to my terror) instantly realize that swinging was not high on Kenny’s list of priorities and my failure to promptly offer my swing did not bode for a happy ending to this story.

“But I wanted that swing,” Kenny predictably barked, pointing at my swing. And before I could even apologize for having been born, Kenny grabbed my feet and yanked me to the ground; almost instantly the swing seat slammed into the back of my head with a terrible thud.

And then something quite unexplainable—some might say miraculous— happened. I suddenly found myself sitting on Kenny’s chest, with his arms pinned beneath my knees, pummelling the living daylights out of him, without ever having had a conscious thought of doing it.

A few slugs in and I happened to glance across the street where my dad had been washing the car in our driveway, but was now staring at his normally quiet, compliant little girl, as she appeared possessed. My first thought was, “Oh man, hello Mr Switch!”

My second thought was, “There is no way of backing out of this, and seeings as I have Kenny all pinned down and he’s probably going to kill me first chance he gets, I’ve got a job to finish.”

And so I punched away. I punched for every little kid dumped out of a wagon that year and for every star that flashed before my semi-conscious eyes. I punched for every dog and cat that had met Kenny’s big black boots and I punched for Johnny Appleseed’s silly little smile. I punched for my brother Timmy’s muffled sobs and snotty baby nose. I punched for the collective dignity  of every kid in our neighbourhood.

Kenny was bleeding and sobbing, by the time I completed my task and let him up. To my surprise he didn’t even turn around and make an attempt on my life; he just ambled off in the direction of his house.

I walked towards my waiting father; his arms crossed over his chest and wearing his stern lips.

“Go inside and get cleaned up,” he said, very quietly. I looked down at myself and for the first time, realized that I was grass stained, covered in dirt and wearing a fair share of Kenny’s bodily fluids.

I silently walked into the house and up to the bath.

I’m not sure if I knew the expression Waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I certainly knew the sensation, in the pit of my stomach, associated with that expression. I felt it all afternoon and into the evening as I waited for the switch.

The hours ticked by without even a mention of my unforgiveable behaviour and by dinnertime, I fleetingly thought perhaps I was only going to get a lecture.

As I climbed the stairs to go to bed, my father called out to me.

“Holly, come here,” he said.

I walked back down the stairs and stood next to my father, waiting, almost afraid to breathe.

“When you were punching Kenny today,” Oh man, here we go I thought …

“How were you making your fist?” he asked.

What? I wondered; had my father lost his marbles?

I said nothing, but clenched my fists, holding my thumbs tightly against my palms.

“Right,” my father said. He then opened my fingers and before closing them again he placed my thumb on the outside of my fist.

“I hope you never, in your life, need to make another fist, but if you do, remember: Don’t ever clench your thumb inside of your hand. You can easily break a thumb that way.”

Huh? No whooping … Not even a lecture … Just a tutorial on how to make a proper fist, a hug and goodnight and we were sorted?

My father had been a brick wall of harsh unyielding ideologies and inflexible rules, in my eyes, prior to that evening. He had been someone to avoid and fear for the most part. But a veil lifted that night and he was suddenly a father who wanted, in his own way, to say that he understood how confusing and fluid life could be. He was giving me permission to step beyond iron-clad rules when it was absolutely necessary. But he still taught, above all, The Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do to you. He still firmly believed it was supremely important to let your little light shine, set a loving and compassionate example, whenever possible … and never value violence over negotiation.

Oh yeah, but, if all else fails, don’t clench your thumbs …


Grandpa Joe and the Little Brown Bike That Flew

Grandpa Joe was a country boy long before it was cool—many years before John Denver sang about it… Truth be told, being country was more a part of his bones than it was an identity.

Joe tapped maple trees, collecting their sap and furnishing our family with a continuous supply of maple syrup and sugar; he also made knives, carving the handles out of old bones and antlers that he’d collected. I think he loved the peace and tranquillity that his hobbies afforded him.

My parents said that Grandpa Joe was shortening his life with his cigarettes and alcohol. More importantly, however, he would surely never get into heaven with his behaviour.

I always felt that my parents’ harsh judgment of Joe was probably more than matched by his disregard for their opinion—in fact anyone’s opinion— of him.

Joe could roll a cigarette with one hand; a feat that mesmerized me. And although I never saw him drink or even smelled alcohol on him, he had quite a reputation … I wonder, now, if his drinking was mostly confined to his youth and if those days were accurately portrayed or grossly exaggerated when those observations and memories were filtered through the eyes of prohibition children. Either way, my grandfather didn’t seem to give a lick about anyone’s opinion; as an approval-seeking child, I loved that. Although Joe never rubbed anyone’s nose in his own opinions, that I recall, or even outwardly disrespected them: He simply didn’t give one shit what people thought or said about anything.

He was a man of very few words. But he had eyes that twinkled whenever he looked at me and I always felt that I had a special place in his heart.

I suspect all of his grandchildren felt exactly the same way.

When conversations got too grim for him, Joe would mumble, “I’m going down the grove and check on the maple taps,” or, “I’m going out ta the porch for air.”

Joe had a crooked smile that looked like he was either constantly amused or housing a pinch of chaw behind his lower lip. Probably both.

He called me Old Crow; sometimes shortened to Crow. When I asked him why he called me that, he said it was because I had the blackest hair he’d ever seen. “And I have a fondness for crows,” he smiled and added. That was as close as my grandfather ever got to expressing his love for me, in words.

It was autumn in Potter County—probably 1956 or ‘57—and we were spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents. As I recall, it was out of the blue that Grandpa decided it was time I learned how to ride a two-wheeler, although it’s entirely possible that he thought the conversation in the house was just too grim for both of us.

“Absolutely not!” my mother insisted. “She’s too little and a driveway like yours is no place for a child to learn to ride a bike.” I’m pretty sure my mother thought the conversation was over, as her father headed off quietly to the barn.

When he returned, he was wheeling the most beautiful small brown bicycle I’d ever seen, by his side. Closer inspection proved that the bike had once been blue before rust devoured almost all of its paint … I didn’t care. I still thought it was gorgeous and I had that distinct feeling, in the pit of my stomach, that this was going to be a red-letter day! “I cleaned her all up and oiled her for you, down the barn,” he said quietly.

Looking back I can’t imagine what she looked like prior to being all cleaned up.

As I mounted the bike, Joe explained that he would hold onto the seat, thus not allowing me to fall, until I could balance on my own.

“But how do I do that?” I asked.

“You don’t do anything; just let it happen,” he replied. “It’s like a bird learning to fly; you’ll just do it after a bunch of tries.” I nodded knowingly, silently wondering what in the world he meant.

My mother wrung her hands in despair, saying things like, “Daddy, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had and I absolutely forbid it,” as Grandpa Joe walked with me, perched proudly on the little brown bike, through the yard and down to the long rough, dirt and gravel driveway.

For what seemed like hours, we went up and down the drive, from the house to the road, and then back again… . To this day I can remember the joy I felt as I silently relished that beautiful day spent with my grandfather.

Since our staunch Christian home—and 1950’s society in general— seemed to house an overabundance of rules, attention was generally given with words: Either explaining a rule, or reprimanding us for not following one. As an extremely shy middle child, I lived quite contentedly receiving little attention.

That day, however, I felt warm and whole, bathed in the golden autumn sunlight while receiving the full—yet silent—attention of my grandfather, as we wordlessly accompanied one another up and down the driveway: My grandfather, huffing and puffing, and me grinning and pretending like I was doing whatever was expected of me—having no idea what that actually was.

I’m not certain that this is an accurate recollection, but when I remember that autumn afternoon in Potter County, it feels like one of my first meditations: Although it seemed like hours, it also seemed timeless … So was it our 10th time or our 30th time travelling that bumpy dirt driveway? I have no idea and never will. But on that final run from the road back to the house, I turned—as I had almost every other minute since we began this project—to ensure that Grandpa Joe had a firm grip on my seat. And suddenly something magical happened: as I fell heavily to the ground, skidding across the dirt, stones and grass, scraping my left leg and arm raw, I simultaneously saw my grandfather—grinning from ear to ear—with his arms raised joyously towards the heavens, 20 or more feet behind me in the driveway.

I had done it. I had balanced on the bike without ever knowing how and without a word of explanation. There were no rules or  restrictions and no conscious learning … I had simply flown, on my own!

My precious grandfather many years after he taught me to ride a bike, but still with that twinkle in his eyes.

My precious grandfather many years after he taught me to ride a bike, but still with that twinkle in his eyes. And note the hand-rolled cigarette he’s holding.

It was quite possibly the beginning of my understanding that sometimes, just the desire to do something and the will to stick with it, are all we need to accomplish the impossible: like building a house from the ground up with almost no skills, or moving to unknown parts of the world with children and no support system, or reinventing oneself almost entirely in those golden years… .

My grandfather and I walked silently back to the house, me trickling blood down my arm and leg, and both of us smiling like victorious generals returning from war.

I sat on the side of the bathtub as my mother and grandmother cleaned me up.

Angry statements like, “That Joe is such a stubborn mule,” and, “Daddy is the most infuriating man I know,” were muttered by the women as they dramatically bandaged my scrapes and cuts. Oddly I don’t remember any pain or even discomfort. I do, however, remember Grandpa Joe sticking his head in the bathroom doorway and saying, “Crows need to fly, don’t they?” It was more of a statement than question. He looked at me with his eyes twinkling and I’m pretty sure it was not tobacco tucked beneath his lip that gave him his amused expression.

Flash Forward Many Years

It was a warm autumn day that a middle-aged woman sat down next to me on a park bench here in London. I was resting from my bicycling route, which I do several times a week.

My Beautiful Park

My Beautiful Park Where I Fly Several Times A Week.

“I want to learn to bicycle but my husband says I’m too old,” she said.

“Well you’re never too old,” I replied. “But I think everyone takes a spill of two when learning and those spills are more painful as we get older.”

“I watch you here in the park and you always have a smile. You look like you’re flying!” she said, “This makes me want to learn to fly, too.”

In that moment I remembered my Grandfather. In a childhood filled with duck and cover drills and religious rules and regulations, my grandfather gave me his love of tranquillity as well as the gift of not only his silent attention, but also the gift of flight.

My Blue Bike

To This Day My Blue Bike is One of My Most Prized Possessions.

With the cool breezes and sun in my face I have always been able to pedal myself above almost all earthly stresses and horrors; and I’ve known a few. Bicycling has always been so much more than transportation or relaxation; it’s been a magical key to my inner freedom; it’s my meditation.

I’ve come to think that heaven is a place in our minds and souls. But I’m sure of one thing: If there actually is such a place as heaven, in spite of his smoking and drinking and not giving one shit about what people thought of him, my Grandpa Joe—just a simple country boy—will be there with bells on, if for no other reason, than his love of tranquillity. Oh yeah … and that entire afternoon of his life that he spent silently teaching a little Crow to fly …