Come Sit Next To Me
I love talking to people who have lived life deep and wide and have a breadth of knowledge and wisdom to share. One of those people is the mother of my oldest friend, Stephen (we’ve been friends since we were toddlers) — Pat Dodson, or Mrs. D. as we called her. I grew up in a rural-ish town in South Jersey and Stephen lived down the street with his mom, dad, and sister. Growing up we had a healthy neighborhood posse of kids who played outside during the day when we weren’t in school and at night until it got dark. We walked to our Catholic school about a mile away and swam in the above-ground pool in our back yard during the dog days of summer. All manner of things grew in my hometown in the surrounding farming community and in our yards. In retrospect, my childhood was pretty idyllic although as a child who chafed against the confines of kid-dom, I probably didn’t recognize it for what it was while in the midst of it.
What I did recognize was Mrs. D — graceful, sophisticated, and beautiful both inside and out — and as a kid, I was in awe of her. (My own mother was equally as elegant, but she was my mom so that didn’t count.) Mrs. D. used to call me Pam-Ella — her version of Pamela — something she still does today. She’s had to pull herself up by herself again and again in this life, getting divorced when the kids were still young and retraining to work after being out of the workforce for awhile to make ends meet and she did it all with her usual aplomb. And I’m still in awe of her as she continues, now in her 80th decade, to redefine herself, most recently as an author.
For Pat’s birthday last year, Stephen gave her a gift from StoryWorth — 52 writing prompts, once a week for her to respond to that would ultimately be turned into a book, Come Sit Next To Me. In addition to re-living many of her life’s events, it’s a keepsake for her family and a work of creativity for Pat, a lovely book that for me brought back many childhood memories of growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. And in the process of answering writing prompts, Pat discovered an innate writing ability that she didn’t know she had.
We are so preoccupied with youth that we forget how valuable the experience of matriculating through life is with its hard knocks, high fives, and various life lessons. Even if I didn’t know Pat, the little vignettes that make up this book would have resonated with me. You can’t get Pat’s book in stores, but you can get a bit of her wisdom and firecracker personality below:
How was this experience of writing a book from writing prompts?
I feel like an imposter. I never set out to write a book. I just humored my son by committing to 52 weeks of innocuous questions to do him a favor. I laughed when he said it was his gift to me. Yeah, sure. Without the prompt of pre-selected questions, the book (it is a book, right?) never would have been. My memory went to places that surprised even me. I can’t imagine writing a real book. How does one create from nothing? The research, the sacrifice, the creative talent, must be slow and painful. When I see still another Jodi Picault book on the shelf, I am in disbelief. How does she grind them out? I consider her a good author, too. I would still be resting from last year’s effort. For me, the essay form was the most natural, but who knows. They say, ” write what you know”. Grandma Moses didn’t paint until she was 78 years old, so stay tuned.
I’ve read your descriptions of your children several times now and, having known them for all these years — despite the physical separation and passing of time — I can still see the attributes you have prescribed to them. You must feel extremely proud and lucky to be the mother of two such wonderful people. Considering your ex-husband’s struggles, how did you manage to steer the ship and raise such amazing individuals?
When my marriage ended, Beth was away at Nursing School. Steve was a high school senior. Beth was closer to her dad than to me ( my perception), so I think she wanted me to try a little harder to keep things together. We never discussed the problems because I couldn’t burden kids with big people’s stuff. We never discussed it until years later, when her husband walked out on her and her two kids. Steve was a senior. He didn’t get the big graduation party his sister got. He had to come with me to a sad little apartment on the wrong side of town, while she lived in a school dorm and could escape the day-to-day misery of staying afloat. I was called to school a few times to discuss behavior problems with a few teachers. After Steve’s first year at college, he was not invited back. In the meantime, I got a new job and moved to the shore. Raising teenagers was a tough job at best, but my circumstances made it worse. There were no answers, easy or otherwise. I just had to hang on until the storm subsided.
Okay — the portrait/painting of your kids as toddlers — my mother had one of my sister and me. Did everyone get them? Was that the thing to do in the ’60s, have a photographer do a photo shoot, and then have someone add paint to it?
Photo courtesy Foschi Studio. Every family had one. Like the bronzed baby shoes, they are things that aren’t there anymore. The studio would lightly tint the portrait. JC Penney also had a photographer every month. The first few years of their babyhood were recorded a few times a year for future reference. I bet they are in a box somewhere in a dark closet.
In your essay about who inspires you, you talk about your granddaughter who survived cancer and your grandson who survived a deployment to Iraq. What qualities have you watched these two young people develop that you would like to emulate?
I see Allison as one of those accomplished women that everyone will admire. She knows what she wants and is willing to work for it. I think cancer made her kinder, stronger, more confident. She knows disappointment and loss. I think she will love her life because she worked for it. Collin has had his challenges too. He was a preemie and has had to deal with ADHD all of his life. He is sweet and kind. I hope people don’t mistake that for weakness. Collin once got a tattoo with a misspelled word. That pretty much sums up Collin’s luck. The girl he is engaged to calls him the love of her life. I pray this is true because he is a treasure.
I laughed at the essay on your “brief life of crime” where you nicked the profits by eating some of the Hershey’s candy you didn’t have the nickel to pay for it and later got dinged by the nuns. What has happened in our country, do you think, between a kid who regrets that action and today’s world where adults have grown up to steal far more while needing far less. I’m thinking say, of the politicians who sold off a bunch of stocks just before the pandemic hit or someone like Bernie Madoff and his massive Ponzi scheme. Has it always been like that and we just see it more because of the internet? Were we ever any better as a nation?
Don’t be fooled. For every law, there is an opportunity to break it. My frame of reference is WWll and the early 50s. I think we were more idealistic then. Our world was much smaller. With the internet, and inventions like jet planes and the telephone, the world became accessible to most of us. It also provided an opportunity to make money and accrue power, by fair means or foul. And we did! We took native land with lies and worthless treaties, busted unions, spied on our enemies, spied on our own country, sold bootleg booze, did business with the Mafia, and more. Insider trading is a lucrative business. Over the years, we have tweaked crime to a fine art. There will always be good and evil, side by side. The saving grace is a word called integrity. What do we do when nobody is looking? I think there is still reason for optimism.
I hope you’re right! In one of the essays you say “God knows, REALLY knows, I have missed so many chances to be a better person.” A lot of us feel that way about ourselves. First, how do you manage to make peace with yourself about the past over your own perceived shortcomings (which others may not see as such), and second, how do you move on?
I don’t have the answers to life’s questions. I think the answers change. Life changes. We change. Let me describe this week as an example. Except for a trip to ShopRite, I have been home. To the untrained eye, it has been a boring few days. From where I sit, I am finishing a quilt I am making for myself. By the end of the week, it should be done! I have spent at least an hour a day on my porch, appreciating the lack of humidity and sunshine. I cleaned a closet. I made the decision to finally obey the doctor and wear those dreaded compression stockings. You should know how I hate the thought. My point is, without breaking a sweat, I have become a better person than I was last week. It isn’t much, but it is a step forward. My sister says quilting is boring and tedious. I say, “I’m going to tell on you”! Here is a bit of knowledge: sibling rivalry lasts forever.
Saddle shoes and bobby socks, penny loafers, cardigans buttoned down the back [how?!?], working women and women’s rights playing a large part in the fads and faux pas in the dressing of women.The joke was always that Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire could but in heels and backward.Can you talk about how women seem to need to work twice as hard to get half as much (or about 81% as of last accounting) more than men, and also how you think fashion trends have impacted a woman’s place in the working world?
Before women went to work for the war effort in WWll, they did not wear jeans. They were then called dungarees. It was practical and expedient in the factory jobs they held when the men went off to war. They tied their hair up in bandanas because the machinery was dangerous and time was better spent working than primping. Why primp? There was a man shortage. “What’s good is in the army, what’s left will never harm me.” After the war, what to do with the women who were entering the corporate world? Crinolines were out of the question. Even then, women desired and deserved to be taken seriously. Christian Dior designed the a-line maxi skirt for the working woman. That morphed into the pantsuit, which still seems to be the costume of the day until someone comes up with another great idea. Gone are the slip, girdle, garter belt of the past. Now, if we could get women on the same pay scale as men, we would be golden.
In your essay on selflessness, you say “every night I relive my day to see where I have fallen short of my own expectations.” You go on to say that we probably all do, but I’d offer that is probably not the case because if we did, there would not be as much strife, greed, and flat out bad behavior in the world. How has being kind instead of right worked out for you?
I often default to insisting on being right. After all, I am not Mother Theresa. There is a saying, “I’d rather be right than president”. I don’t know who said it, but it could have been me. I suppose it is only human. I try to listen more and speak less. I am pleased with myself when I succeed, disappointed when I fail. I guess it is the human condition. What was the question?
The icebox story is one of my favorites where your friends all pooled their money to buy you this antique icebox that you had really wanted but couldn’t afford and then they threw a surprise party to give it to you. What instances of thoughtfulness have you encountered in this decade that give you pause the way the icebox has?
Last week, neighbors invited me to lunch at the Lobster House in Cape May. It was a beautiful day. Because of social distancing, we ate on the pier from paper plates. We had lobster. It was heaven. They then told me it was their 54th wedding anniversary. I was shocked that they chose me to celebrate with them. They have grown children several miles away. They could have arranged to meet them. I don’t know why they chose me to spend their special day with, but I was thrilled at the compliment. As I stated in one of my little essays, I try to be aware of when the glass is half full…sometimes a little more than half.
Beautiful! One of the essays talks about Freddie Mercury and your evolving family traditions, this one where you chose not to do a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and how liberating it was. Do you think we place too much emphasis on tradition as a society such that we’ve lost the meaning in the accouterments? Does tradition keep us from being present?
When I think of the rituals that accompany any holiday, I have to compare it with my Catholic upbringing. How many rosaries, how many Stations of the Cross did I mindlessly recite. Was it really meaningless, or is that what imprinted on my child’s heart all that was good and holy. So much was memorization, yet I can still cry when I hear a particular hymn or still strive to be good. I still pray to St. Anthony when I lose something. Does that prayer have value or is it the tradition that carries the weight? With the specter of COVID still hanging over us, how will our lives be forever changed? What will the five-year-old tell us of his school year of 2020/2021? How about the high school kids who have to figure out how to put out a yearbook, or do we really need a yearbook? How will they make friends? How will they learn to play? Interact with others? It will be interesting to look back on all of this to see how we adapt or not. So, whether it is celebrating Seder or taking the family to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, it is all about what floats your boat.
In the essay on inventions that have made an impact on your life, you say, “I don’t want a picture of what you are eating. I don’t want your political opinion. I don’t care who your friends are. I want your company. I want to talk to you. I want your undivided attention.” Amen to that. The world would be a better place if people just really listened to each other. Would you like to add to that? Also, if we remove politics — which have taken over all of our lives — from our discussions, do we still have something to talk about.
Oh, will the election ever be over? Will I have any friends left? Luckily, most of my friends are approximately my age. They are not dependent on their cell phones. Some don’t know how to work them. That is why I call them friends. For the most part, we all know by now who we will vote for. Conversation is an art. Listening, being “present” is not always easy, especially when you are sure you are right and others just don’t appreciate your wisdom. I am comfortable with my friends, so it is easy to “show up”. I usually talk too much but have been told that I am interesting and fun to be with. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Love that you picked NJ to get the Miss Congeniality Award. You obviously love living there. Where would you live if not there?
Where would I live if not New Jersey? We once had a log cabin on a lake in Bloomsburg, PA. The lake was right out our front door. We had a big porch and a fireplace. We took rides to Danville and other beautiful rural towns. Loved it. We sold it when the three-hour drive got to be too much. Would I love it there? Why not? For something more exotic, how about Scandinavia. I have always wanted to see Denmark and surrounding countries. I hear the food is fabulous. Socialism is alive and well, which is always a consideration at my advanced age. I don’t know if I could live with all those long days and equally long nights. Maybe I would try it for a year. How about Australia? The people seem so nice and the koala bears are adorable. France and Japan are right up there as fabulous places to live. Both entail learning another language, so that is discouraging. I know nothing about South America, so I can’t comment on that. Ireland sounds like a place I would love but it rains a lot. And I don’t like lamb. Thinking stateside, I think Seattle would be fun. It is a little hilly and rainy, but I could be happy on one of those little islands in Puget Sound. I would have a cottage and a gardener. I would take the ferry into town. I would go to Pike’s Market for flowers and fresh produce. The people are friendly. If it didn’t work out, I would get out the map and see what else would appeal to me.
You were voted Class Clown in your senior year of high school. How has being a class clown helped you overcome some of the more difficult situations in your life and which of your traits would you love to pass on to your grandchildren?
Humor has been both a blessing and a curse for me. Psychology 101 will tell you that humor is used to assuage the pain. It covers discomfort, it deflects feelings of inadequacy. I learned very early in life to use it for all of the above. It also takes lots of practice to be good at it. Bad humor is the opposite. It can be used by amateurs to embarrass or hurt others. Bad humor is not funny. I always used humor to get attention from adults when I was a child. It worked. When you are the middle kid in a big family, you will use desperate means to be noticed. I don’t want to brag, but I was good at it and it helped in social gatherings. I admit it is not appreciated by some people. I was recently dressed down by a family member who failed to see the humor in my wit. I was devastated. It took me a few days to pick myself up and dust myself off. After lots of soul searching, I had to admit that some people just will never appreciate my attempt to be funny, and I have to accept that I will henceforth tiptoe to the best of my ability when I am in this unfortunate person’s company. My intention is not to hurt or embarrass. However, lesson learned. I am not everyone’s cup of tea.
You talked about showing up in both your job and your life when life asked it of you. How are you still showing up today? (hint — pretty bold to take on a writing project).
Sometimes I show up just by not having any regrets at the end of the day. Sometimes I am really on my game and I am just on automatic pilot. I am at my smiley best and loving the world. It’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. I know I am repeating myself.
I love the last picture of you and your family holding hands and the other of you with a gun spitting out tickets of some kind at a family party. What’s the single greatest moment of your life, one that you’ll never forget no matter what and that will bring you joy every time?
I remember when we picked up our dog at Philadelphia Airport. My husband was in love with all things German. When we decided to get a dog, he investigated and purchased a miniature wire-haired dachshund from a breeder in Berlin. He was 12 weeks old. His picture was adorable. They packed him in a dog crate marked “living animal”, and shipped him to Cargo City at Philadelphia Airport. We were waiting when the carrier arrived on the plane from Germany. We had to sign a million papers while this little being peeked out at us. He had been in that crate for at least 12 hours. When I lifted him out, all I saw was big brown eyes. His crate was immaculate inside. This baby had stayed clean all those long hours on his flight over the Atlantic. I took him outside to relieve himself, which he did the minute he touched American soil. The breeder had placed one of her socks in the crate to comfort him during the long flight. On the drive home, I sat with him in the back seat. He never took his eyes off of me. We named him Amos after my husband’s grandfather. Amos was our joy for 12 years. I smile just thinking of him.
What is your favorite genre of book to read? Favorite author?
I am a painfully slow reader. Since I belong to a BookClub, I am exposed to many books that I never would have read if left to my own devices. This is a good thing. I don’t think I have a favorite genre. I love the silly humor of Carl Hiaasen. I love the medical novels of Lisa Genova. I love Elizabeth Berg. I tried to love Toni Morrison, but her books are too sad and dark for my taste. James Mitchner is too wordy. Maeve Binchey is too easy. I love it when I find a book that I can’t put down. Hanging Mary was one of those books. It is a historical novel, based on the assassination of Abe Lincoln. Devil in the White City is a must-read about the Chicago Worlds Fair. Love Anthony by Lisa Genova kept me up all night. I can’t get enough of her. One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCort, and Sacajawea by Anna Waldo all come to mind.
Do you think writing is a form of therapy and, if so, how has it helped you work through life stuff? What has been your greatest writing or life lesson?
Writing is like eating a potato chip. One is never enough. I find myself full of stories to tell, but with no audience. Most of my stories are dated, just observations, whether valid or not. As I have stated, I am not for everybody. Like Aster’s Pet Horse, some folks have no idea or interest in my nuggets. But I love that little girl who stole the candy in school. She learned a life lesson. And nobody died. Confidence and self-love are not bad words. They are a destination.
Love that! We all could use a bit more of each, I think. If you could be a character in any novel, what character would you be and why?
I have no idea who I would love to be. Scarlett O’Hara? So beautiful. So spoiled, so selfish. So brave. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt. She was ridiculed for being homely. Her husband had a lover. She was brilliant. She made her life meaningful when a “woman’s place was in the home. ” She marched to her own drum and made the world a better place. She raised her children in the White House during wartime. She traveled the world and wasn’t afraid to be an advocate for the United States. I think I’m going to read more about her. Yes, I think I would like to be like Eleanor Roosevelt. They are big shoes to fill.
Oh, you said a character in a novel. Sorry…
I could ask a million more questions of Pat, but as they say, every good story must sooner or later come to an end. Thanks for reading and thanks, Pat, for humoring me!
pam lazos 9.13.20