Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I hadn't intended to sell my mother's jewelry. I'd wear what I could and keep the rest in a safety deposit box for . . . A daughter-in-law? A granddaughter?

My mom's taste is jewelry was, for the most part, big. She liked 14 karat gold with bold stones that begged attention. Her favorite set was a gold necklace with an amethyst the size of Rhode Island, a matching pinkie ring with a second amethyst, and, yes, a pair of earrings with an amethyst dangling from each. The whole shebang cost a mint; the replacement value was even higher.

Alas, I'm just not a gold, big stone kind of gal. I go for silver, subtle, unique.
Even so, as I planned what I hoped would be the last estate sale (I'd already used Internet ads, auctions, consignment shops) to finally sell the remainder of my parents' stuff, I didn't consider selling the jewelry. Maybe it was the sense that my mother wouldn't approve. Or that I was a ruthless daughter interested in money. Whatever the reasons, I didn't list jewelry in the estate sale ads.

People kept calling and asking if I had any jewelry to sell. Initially, I said "No." Then I went through my own collection, picked out what I no longer wore, and threw that into the mix. I sold a few items. Then I tossed in costume jewelry from the 50s and 60s. The response was lukewarm. And there wasn't much interest either in the items I really wanted to sell - the rugs, the set of four Henredon chairs, the custom media center with antique Japanese screen doors, the oak square table for four. If I didn't unload these things, I would have to give them away. The monthly storage fee was bleeding me dry.

Finally, I called one of the dealers who was looking for "better" jewelry. I knew he'd never pay close to what the jewelry was worth. But I'd taken it around to estate jewelers months before, only to be told that it wasn't their style. Or that they'd melt the pieces down for the gold. Now, that I'd never do.

"How much do you want for these?" he said, having put together a pile of my mother's finest jewels, including the amethyst set.

I had no idea. "Let me look at the insurance estimates," I said.

"I'm not interested in those. They're always much too high, and I'm not going to pay close to those amounts."

This guy was a pro. I picked up the red folder with the insurance estimates and started reading aloud the descriptions and estimated values.

"What do you want?" he said again.

I started adding numbers in my head. "How about $1000?"

"$800," he countered.

I hate bargaining. "$900, and that's my final price."

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and began handing me $100 bills. I thought of calling off the deal. My mother's going to kill me, I mumbled under my breath. "Sell these to women who will wear them proudly," I said loud enough so he could hear.

"What about these?" a second prospective buyer asked. She'd collected an array of less expensive pieces. Hardened by the first round of bargaining, I quoted her prices I was sure she wouldn't pay. I was surprised. She backed off of just one piece, an ornate silver necklace that looked Turkish or Indian. I vowed to wear the necklace sometime soon.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I missed my mom, wished I could call her and just shoot the breeze. Maybe she would have been practical about the jewelry thing and agreed that keeping it in a safety deposit box for years made no sense. Whatever her reaction, it would have been so good to hear her voice.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I had the best of intentions. I'd counted my points, danced, walked, even took a yoga class. But at the end of a week, the numbers of my scale hadn't budged. And I wasn't about to stand on that four-pound-over Weight Watcher scale and have some smug woman who'd lost 500 pounds in three months record my failure and ask what I might do to jump start my diet. I'd jump started it, all right, with the physical scars to show for it: a perpetually sore lower back, aching muscles, and a growling stomach that talks to me all day long.

So, I played hooky. And instead of devouring a sweet, gooey pastry or a stack of pancakes smothered in butter and syrup, I read a book. An entire book. A 300-page book. (Okay, the print is rather large.) I plopped my sorry body down on the back deck, tilted my baseball cap to shield my eyes from the bright sun, and read Brooke Newman's Jenniemae & James: A Memoir in Black & White.


Yes, I'm a reader. But I can't remember the last time I read a book in one sitting or, for that matter, had sex multiple times in one day. It's been a while. But this book about a brilliant mathematician and his friendship with an uneducated, illiterate African American maid held me in its clutches for 4 hours with one potty break, a quick stroll around the garden, and one annoying phone call.

As pedestrian as it may sound, finishing that book gave the day meaning and me a sense of accomplishment. Phasing into retirement, it's easy to fret away the time, convinced that you should be doing something significant - whatever that means. Make money. Publish an article. Make a stranger happy.

Today I made myself happy. I think I'll read my way through the week, substituting the prose of good writers for any temporary satisfaction I might get from eating one too many Weight Watchers' peanut butter bars.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gathering

In order to save money and make more room on my crowded bookshelves, I've weaned myself off of buying new books and, instead, begun to scan the shelves at my local library. This requires a good deal of patience, for libraries are behind the curve when it comes to current bestsellers. And when they do get these coveted books, there's usually a waiting list. Sure, some of the newbies make it to the "Grab it fast and read it quickly" section where I often find readers body-blocking entire rows of books so they can get first dibs. I find myself grabbing at titles I've never heard of just in case I might be interested. Usually, I'm not.

Last week I got a brilliant idea: I'd focus on past Booker Prize winners, books that have received Britain's counterpart to the Pulitzer. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger, one of my favorite all-time love stories and examples of one of those wondrous books in which events unfurl as the narrator recalls them, not in chronological order. So, why not get on the bandwagon and check out other British authors whose work has been singled out as the best?

That led me to Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Booker in 2007. The back cover blurb tells of "a moving, evocative portrait of a large Irish family haunted by the past." Well, I'm not Irish, but this is a Booker-prize winner after all. The blurb continues, "The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned at sea." I know about such gatherings only too well. We three surviving Mersky children gathered for the funeral of my brother, Robin, some thirty years ago.

I didn't read the remainder of the jacket blurb. I was sold.

And I wasn't disappointed. Enright's writing is poetic, her observations keen, and the parallels between her relationship with her brother and my relationship with mine are uncanny. Readers discover soon enough that Liam's drowning was intentional. He stuffed his pockets with stones and walked into the sea. My brother chose a different escape route: He stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I finished The Gathering two nights ago. I reached to turn off the reading lamp next to my bed and shivered, fearful that I might have bad dreams about my brother, gone now for thirty years.

Instead I thought about my mother. She was the one who found my brother, his bedroom walls splattered with blood and brain matter. By the time my father arrived home, the cleanup crew had left. While the smell of death was everywhere, there were no visual reminders.

My mother was left raw. I can only imagine the nightmares she suffered for years. Only after she died did a home nurse tell me that my mom talked often about "seeing" my brother again. Perhaps it was her anticipation of such a gathering that buoyed her spirit through the last difficult months of her life and underscored that, when all is said and done, it is, as she told me, love that makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yikes! Retirement!

For us Baby Boomers, retirement can last 30 or more years - one-third of our lives. Now, there's an exciting (uh, scary) thought.

As someone in the midst of reinventing herself - or, at least, trying to figure out what's next - I must admit that it ain't easy. I realize some Baby Boomers can't wait to break the chains of an unsatisfying full-time job that has stymied their happiness and self-worth for decades. Just the thought of doing "nothing" - well, maybe playing some golf or tennis or hanging out at the local coffee shop - keeps them slogging toward the "finish line." On the other hand, others like myself have managed to craft a career that has offered a lot of freedom and independence (but rarely a regular paycheck).

Ah, but hold your horses. The Recession from which we are slowly recovering and the go-get-em' spirit of Boomers have prompted a majority (8 in 10 according to an AARP analysis) to plan to work at least part-time or start their own business instead of settling for a lawn chair in Florida. A staggering half of households headed by 50-to-59-year-olds have $10,000 or less in their 401(k) accounts, making holding down some kind of job more attractive than scrimping and saving. The National Council on the Aging estimates that by 2015 20% of the work force will be over 55.

Remember staring at the old guy or gal bagging groceries at your local supermarket and feeling blessed that you'd never have to do that! Hmmmm . . . . To avoid such a fate, millions of us are scrambling, trying to figure out how we're going to maintain something of the lifestyle to which we've become accustomed. And just when no one is hiring younger folks, let alone old farts.

Career coaches and therapists are quick to underscore the possibilities of following our bliss. Perhaps for the first time since we were young kids, we won't have to listen to what parents, peers, or society in general expect of us. We have a blank slate in front of us and can go to town joyously filling it in with piano or painting lessons, worldwide travel, volunteering for all those causes to which we've been donating all these years. Holy Cow! The possibilities are endless.

Or are they? What if no longer having a title (say an engineer or teacher or CEO of a corporation) makes you feel as if you're one big nothing? What if you don't have enough money to take off for Timbuktu? What if you're tired after some 40 plus years of working and you just don't have the energy to start from scratch? What if your mind goes numb with all the possibilities and renders you paralyzed?

I suppose we could all sign up for counseling. Or read a bunch of self-help books. Or we can plod our way through this delicate life marker event, making our share of boo boos along the way. In the meantime, I'll share whatever I figure out as I go along.