Remembering Dad

It’s so strange when I remember Dad.  It seems that so much of who we are is tangled up with the real or perceived relationship we had or didn’t have with our fathers. Thanks to Freud, I think way too muJulianne and Dad communionch weight has been placed on this relationship, but in any case, it occurred to me yesterday, Father’s Day, that maybe my memories are not as accurate as I think, and they don’t really tell the whole story.

In browsing through picture albums looking for photos of Dad and grandparents to post on Facebook for Father’s Day, I see a kinder, gentler and happier Dad than I remember from my childhood.  Why is that?

I consider my childhood a troubled one, and I blame Dad for most of my unhappiness. I blame him for being too strict a disciplinarian, who had trouble expressing his love for his kids.  He was critical and had very high standards for his children, whether it were in a school performance, academic grades or piano lessons and recitals. I never remember Dad being truly involved with me, despite the fact that I have a clear memory of him attending Father-Daughter days with me at my high school and so many other events.

Dad and momPoklemba family, Marie, John, Julianne and Johnnie bought our summer house in Lakewood. Wasn’t that so my brother and I could get out of the city in the summers and enjoy swimming in the lake and picking blueberries in the woods?  Didn’t Dad take us to amusement parks and host barbeques with the extended family?  And although he punished my rebellious acts, my lying, my subterfuge and sneakiness, didn’t I deserve some punishment, even if what was meted out to me was maybe a bit harsh at times?

I guess the most disturbing memories were those of my mom and dad fighting, which was often accompanied by throwing things and cursing. I thought there was way too much drinking to escape reality. I don’t know how often the conflicts occurred, but in my unbalanced memory, it was a constant background noise that accompanied my upbringing. But all of that had more to do with their happiness, no?  Why was I so affected by their disharmony?  Maybe it was the uncertainty of it all.  Would they stay together? Would they divorce?  When would the next argument explode? I had no idea what they were really fighting about. As a small child, I had no true understanding of the meaning of their hateful words. As I grew to be a rebellious teenager, they seemed quite selfish to me, when, in truth, they sacrificed so much so that I could be secure.

I guess I’ll never know the answer to my questions, but I am grateful for the last decade of Julianne and Dad graduationDad’s life and the new relationship we enjoyed.  He taught me to play golf and took me on fishing trips and to the beach, during visits to their home in Florida. He was a new man in this tropical paradise, and although the cacophony of my parents’ arguments continued, there was definitely a “mellowing” of his personality in his final years. When Dad was struck down by cancer, he drifted away from me as his mind passed into oblivion as a result of the spreading of the cancer throughout his body.  When he left his family to enter the next life, it was a quiet relief.  He had lost all of his dignity and power with this disease, and I know he had finally escaped his own nightmares.

Till There Was You!

Julianne playing piano with Dad

Julianne and Dad at the piano in Jersey City

Flipping through old photographs is how we summon memories most of the time. That’s what I was doing in the garage today, when I had the strong feeling that I needed to get rid of some of these dusty old remnants of a life that seems long gone.

When I moved to Florida from New Jersey, I was filled with reminiscence. I moved into the house my parents built back in 1978, just a year before I met and fell in love with Gene.  Everywhere here in the Florida home there are memories, but they are not mine; they belong to my mom and dad, John and Marie. I was just an occasional visitor when they lived their lives here together in “Paradise.”

Today, the photo above, which I discovered in the pile buried in a container in the garage, is a memory of Dad that reaches back in time to my days on 135 Lake Street in Jersey City and the piano playing that was so very important to Dad, but mostly a chore to me. Strange as it may seem, when I thought about how to complete furnishing the Florida living room, the idea of a “piano” was undeniable. I longed for a second chance at that skill. I wondered if it would still be a chore, or if somehow deep down inside of me there was really some desire to play, some latent talent, some subconscious ability, that if awakened, would bring me peace.

Last fall, after much of the living room renovation was complete, I shopped for a piano.  After feeling pushed and shoved this way and that by piano dealers in Venice and Sarasota, I met Anthony Duffy at Bayfront Music.  Anthony has an amazing talent.  He played each piano in his showroom so beautifully, and I could tell he was dedicated to sharing his passion with others through his store. With his guidance, I selected a Kawai acoustic upright piano in a beautiful walnut finish that was a perfect complement to the new wood-grain tile I had installed in the living room.  And the sound was melodic and true.

I took lessons at the store with a purpose.  I wanted to re-learn the favorite pieces I mastered in my youth. One of those was also my dad’s favorite, “Till There Was You,” a tune from the musical, also made into a movie, The Music Man. Looking at the photo now, I recall so clearly, like it was yesterday, how Dad sang while I played. The affection he showed me in these times was a rare treat — when I played the song without mistakes, that is. Now, when I play it each night, I never tire of it. The song brings me back. It brings Dad back. That brings me peace.

In case you’ve forgotten how it goes, Shirley Jones belts out this tune in a clip from the movie:

And did you know that the Beatles recorded the song too? Listen:

And last, but not least, here is a sample of my humble performance:

Wish I could sing!

Julianne signature

Honoring our Veterans

John Poklemba

John J. Poklemba

Growing up in the 1960’s in Jersey City, New Jersey, I had no clear understanding of what it was like to serve in the United States military.  I graduated high school in 1969, a year scarred by Vietnam War protests and youth’s rage against the “Military Industrial Complex.”  I knew so little then about any of the issues involved, and often went with the flow of popular opinion because I just didn’t know any better and my husband at the time, Warren, was influencing my political point of view.

Later in life, as I matured in age and attitude, my heart broke to see how poorly our military men and women were treated when they came home from what so many called an “unjust war.”  My heart still breaks today to learn that even now, the wounded and families of those returning from war do not get the treatment they need or are kept waiting for months and sometimes years to receive urgently needed services from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

My dad served in Japan during or after the Guadalcanal Campaign in the 1940’s and that’s all I know and I’m ashamed to say how little I know.  My dad didn’t talk about his military service, and although I don’t believe he was involved in actual fighting, I wish he told me about his experiences overseas.  All I have now are a few pictures and a one page summary of his military service record. Mom didn’t talk much about dad’s experience either and to be fair to them, I didn’t ask.

John J. Poklemba, Sr.

My Dad, John Poklemba

So, I urge those who have served or are serving in the armed services today to tell your sons and daughters, your nieces and nephews and your grandchildren, as much as you can, and as much as they will absorb.  It’s important because there are valuable lessons that our service men and women have learned that those of us who don’t serve will never have the opportunity to know. The next generation shouldn’t have to wonder or guess at their relatives’ military experience. They shouldn’t have to wonder why they served or how they felt when they returned home. They shouldn’t have to repeat the mistakes of those who have no clue and who may have false impressions or naive beliefs about the importance of a strong military.

That’s why I am offering a FREE Lifetime Book to a Veteran who will spend the time with me to tell his or her story in as little or as much detail as they want.  I will offer this service and one printed book free to any Vet, active or retired, for as long as I am able to write. The first U.S. armed services Veteran to request a book will be selected as my first project.  I can only write and publish one book at a time, so right now, I am looking for one person to work with me on my first Lifetime Book for someone who served proudly in our military.  If you are a Veteran of any war, please contact me by email or phone if you are interested in a free Lifetime Book. I am searching for my first “pro bono” project and I am anxious to begin. | 908-883-1296 (mobile)

Thank you.

My New Year’s Eve Miracle

The holidays will never be what they once were for those of us suffering from the recent loss of a loved one. The time of year that used to bring anticipation of presents and Santa and the Baby Jesus and sweets in our stockings and “Auld Lang Syne,” becomes an unwelcome ghost in the face of grief.  Each mourner finds a way to get through the holidays with the help of family and friends, or maybe with a creative plan to shake things up a bit and do something different.  Some escape on a cruise ship or take a plane, train or automobile somewhere warm or scenic.

I threw a party for Christmas and invited my neighbors and new Florida friends.  It was just what I needed.  My piano teacher played Christmas Carols and everyone dutifully sang.  I beamed with joy, so grateful that my plan to escape the emptiness was working.

And yes, that story is a miracle itself, but it was on New Year’s Eve that I was visited by an angel. Before you call the paramedics to rush me into therapy, read on.

I figured a distraction plan worked for Christmas, so I thought: “Better figure out some strategy for New Year’s Eve as well.”  The holiday was not one that my late husband Gene and I celebrated too frequently, although we had a great time one year at Camelback Ski Area when they hosted a party in their lodge. But mostly we would just toast the New Year at about 9 pm and drift off to sleep before the ball dropped. But I was determined to do something festive.

sharkeys at sunsetI thought I’d begin with sunset on the beach at Sharkey’s pier in Venice. Sharkey’s advertised a New Year’s Eve beach bash, but doing that solo was risky.  As I watched the sun sneak below the earth, taking pictures with my phone and sending them to friends and relatives, wishing everyone a Happy New Year from the beach, I weighed the pros and cons of bar hopping to maybe “Sharkey’s,” “The Crows’s Nest,” and “Pops Sunset Grill.” I realized “…oops, I have no driver.”  Drinking and driving was also too risky.

Coming off the beach and swishing the sand off my feet, I climbed into the Subaru and headed to “The Crow’s Nest”, still sober.  I couldn’t find a parking space, so I drove on to the south Jetty, where I parked, sat and stared at the stars in the sky and I began to get all nostalgic.  A deep sadness crept like a thief into my heart, taking a wrecking ball to my big plan. The tears welled up and I thought my night was over, then the phone rang.  It was my friend, Margie.  God bless Margie.  We talked and laughed and my mood improved as I struggled to hear because there were loud noises behind me.  Margie and I ended our call offering each other best wishes for the New Year and I turned the car around.  Fireworks!!  There were beautiful fireworks shooting up directly behind the North Jetty Fish Camp.  This was Gene’s favorite place in Florida!  Our old fishing pier.fireworks

Things were looking up.  Next I knew I had to go to Pops.  This was our favorite restaurant and bar in Florida!! Situated on the Intercoastal Waterway, Pops is the best place to relax and watch boats motor by, drink something tropical, wine, or a beer, and listen to some fantastic local band. I never thought I’d get a parking space on New Year’s Eve, but there it was, second space, right in front of the door.  What are the odds?

I felt a little out of place, but asked the waitress if I could sit at the bar and she welcomed me and ushered me inside. Pops Sunset GrillI ordered a glass of wine.  A bench in the common area looked more roomy than a bar stool and several people were already seated there.  I slid into a vacant spot and began to listen to the music as the flames flickered from the fire pits burning at each table and the holiday lights blinked red and green, illuminating the palm trees and making them seem magical. The band was R.P.M. with Dan and Mary.  They played a mix of 1960’s folk rock and rock tunes including Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee.” This was followed by a Beatles set and I had the thought that maybe I’d request our wedding song, The Beatles, “In My Life.”  Then I thought about that again.  “No way, I’ll fall apart if I hear that song tonight.  Can’t do that.” The Band played McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” Oh my God. So beautiful, so apropos, so heart-wrenchingly sad. I wondered “Why God?” I was soon to have an answer.

As I finished the thought and recovered from McCartney’s lyrics, guess what the band played next?  Yes.  They played “In My Life.”  I couldn’t bear it..  As I broke down in tears, I remembered so clearly the glory of our fall wedding day and the quirkiness of the backyard ceremony. I recalled the local folksinger who crooned this Beatles song despite her laryngitis and played guitar so sweetly.  I smiled and began to feel warm as if the sun was shining down on me.  It occurred to me to be embarrassed, wondering if the servers or patrons were staring at me and if I was spoiling the party for them. But to my surprise, no one reacted to me.  It was as if I were in a bubble in time, separated from everyone, allowed to grieve without interruption and without disturbing or penetrating the world of anyone around me.  That is….. except for one person.

Earlier in the evening, when I first found my seat on the bench, I did a bit of “people-watching.” I noticed an American family, a father, mother, daughter and one who appeared to be a boyfriend, laughing and singing and dancing.  Next to them stood a young man who didn’t seem to fit.  He was Middle Eastern, dark hair and eyes, very young, maybe late teens or early 20’s, and to me he looked very ill at ease.  His movements seemed to be practiced, and I thought he might be pretending he was having a good time, but maybe not feeling quite as “cool” as he would have liked.

The family sat on the bench, and this young man sat next to me.

As I sobbed, I looked up at him to see if I was disturbing his revery, and he spoke to me: Quite clearly and with a wide smile, he said: “God Bless You.”

Just then the music reached a crescendo, “…In my life, I love you more…” followed by the touching instrumental interlude. That line always makes me sob, whenever I hear it. The young man next to me must wonder, and I felt I owed him an explanation.  I wiped my eyes and turned. Gently, I laid my hand on his and I apologized.  I explained that I lost my love this year, and that this was our wedding song, and I was overcome with grief. I was sorry but I lost control.

He smiled again, an amazing smile that lit up his entire face.  And he said simply and again, “God Bless You.”
I stared in disbelief but accepted the blessing in my heart.
The family rose to leave and he followed.

Whoever you were, young man, for this New Year’s Eve, you were an angel who comforted me. Thank you.


Happy Thanksgiving with Biscotti memories

Thanksgiving memoriesTomorrow will be the first Thanksgiving I spend without Gene and without a loving family around my table. As a poor substitute, I am baking biscotti today (recipe link, I substitute walnuts for pistachios), in the hopes that the scent of these yummy breakfast morsels baking in my kitchen will fill my heart with warm memories of Thanksgiving turkey dinner and all the trimmings that we enjoyed with our cousins and moms, year after year.  Gene and I both lost our dads in the late ’80s, so you won’t see them in most of our photos. But for many years, we hosted Thanksgiving for our cousins, who in turn hosted Christmas, and our moms joined us until they passed away. It was tough watching the Thanksgiving crowd dwindle over the years.

I can tell so many funny stories of turkeys that took forever to cook, and perogies that exploded on the stove top (I forgot I had them in a glass casserole and the burner was ON! Duh!).  When Jake was a puppy, Gene walked him for hours in the rain to try to tire him out before dinner so he wouldn’t make mischief.  (No matter how many times we were told that you can’t tire out a young Brittany hunting dog, we still tried). And no matter how much I screwed up the turkey, everyone always LOVED my sausage and onion stuffing!  And the pies were always delicious too, whether I baked or bought them.

No matter what the menu, it was assured there would be TOO MUCH FOOD, and everyone would enjoy taking some home for next-day leftovers.

So tomorrow, instead of whining about what I don’t have this year, I will give thanks to God for all the years of Thanksgiving blessings that I did have and that Gene and I were blessed to have together.  And tomorrow, I will celebrate with a new friend I met here in Florida. Her name is Carole and we met at the dog park.  Our pups get along great together, Megan and Jake.  Carole and I will celebrate the holiday aboard the Marina Jack II, a sightseeing vessel that motors around Sarasota Bay while serving up a gourmet feast.  No cooking, no clean up, and no crying, please.  There will be entertainment and the weather promises to be sunny and warm.  How lucky am I?

I’m not really kidding myself or anyone else though.  No amount of counting my blessings can erase or lessen the amount of grief and sadness that finds its way into my heart and ambushes me at inopportune times during the day, mostly early morning and night.  But I pray, as I do every day, that the joy I find in my new life by extending myself to others and doing things to contribute in some way to my new community, will make it possible for me to get to the next hour, the next day, the next holiday and even the new year.

I wish you all the blessings of fond memories, funny stories, and precious moments.  Happy Thanksgiving!
Julianne and Jake

Remembering Lakewood

Lakewood NJLakewood New Jersey.  Nestled in the pine forests of south Jersey, Lakewood was a short distance from Lakehurst, “Airship Capital of the World.” Here, in the early 1950’s my parents bought a former “army barracks,” complete with two entrances, a large kitchen, and several bedrooms off both sides radiating from a long hallway.  In July of 1969, my family huddled around our RCA Victor TV to watch Neil and Buzz land on the moon.

I returned to Lakewood with Gene…..oh maybe 5 or 10 years ago and I was thrilled to show him where I grew up in summers, swimming in Lake Carasaljo, watching the July 4th fireworks on the lake, picking blueberries in the woods and flirting with lifeguards.Those summers flew by way too fast.  Returning to these places where childhood was carefree and every day was filled with adventure brought forth a flood of conflicted feelings.

The feeling of the sand between my toes, the sweet scent of bright white water lillies, the gutterel sounds of horny bullfrogs, and the rough feel and wintergreen aroma of the bark of pine trees bring me back to very specific days and times. Closing my eyes, I can recall conversations with friends, the cold tingle in my feet while I wade in the water on a chilly June day, and the feeling of the soft mud I would dig as a child, way deep below the sand.  Mud that felt so smooth and pliable that I could make mud pies that appeared good enough to eat.

The memories bring tears to my eyes….and I wonder why it makes me sad.  I think because of the loss of innocence, the days I can never recapture, but more likely the thought that the best times of my life are behind me.  I don’t know for sure, but I do feel lucky to have had “Lakewood,” in which to live two months out of the year in my childhood and adolescent years.

Photos can be deceiving

CCMSome photos can be so deceiving and can even change your memory of any given day.  This photo of me and my dad was taken on graduation day in 1971 in front of CCM (County College of Morris), where I earned an Associates Degree. We look very close and happy to be together to celebrate this momentous occasion, don’t we?  In reality, my dad and I were in conflict about so many things on that day, including my continuing education plans.

I wanted to continue college in Boston, as my brother had before me.  Armed with my acceptance to Boston University, I broke the news to dad and he was not supportive, emotionally or financially.  Dad said so matter-of-factly that a degree was not important for “girls.” I was also about to make the biggest mistake of my life by marrying someone who was very wrong for me, and frankly, my dad tried to talk some sense into me about that, but I was too rebellious, too stubborn, too alienated to listen. But most of all, I was determined to prove him wrong about what a “girl” could accomplish in this world.

Because I loved my parents so much, I made a very bad decision that year so that they wouldn’t disown me.  I wish I could get a “do-over” on that. But I will never regret the decision to attend Boston U to earn my Bachelor’s Degree.  I paid for my BU education with scholarship funds, loans and by working a part-time job every day after classes, and I managed to graduate with a Bachelor’s in Science, magna cum laude.  I lived off-campus in the Back Bay, and I supported myself best I could. On weekends, I drove to New Jersey  to visit mom and dad because mom always made sure I had enough to eat. She surreptitiously packed the trunk of my car with steaks and chicken and sundries, just so I wouldn’t starve.

I love this picture and I love my dad, but seriously, on that day, while we posed for that photo, I could have flipped him the bird for minimizing the importance of my education!