Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tree'd Volume II

Yes, it's New Year's Eve and I'm still writing about Christmas but that's just indicative of how this holiday season unfolded. We are both behind the eight-ball for the last month and we make it through Christmas by the skin of our teeth.

We still have much to do on Christmas Eve. Robin has the day off so we head out to buy last minute items like stocking stuffers. There is no better place on Earth for stocking stuffers than Big Lots. Scores of cheap and close-out items but always a few nuggets amongst the clinkers. Unbeknown to us, our local store terminated its lease and sold most of its stock over the last month.

We enter the store and see aisles of empty shelves. After three weeks or so, only the most mutant items remain. Actually, this is a golden opportunity for marketing students and working professionals. They should all take a tour of that store to see ideas that someone signed off on but should stay in the darker recesses of the marketing mind.

Ideas like Bald Guyz Wipes. Yes this is a real product. No I can't make this up. Bald Guyz Wipes are moist towelettes made specifically for wiping your personal dome. What happens if you use them somewhere else? Do the Bald Guyz Police jump out of your gym bag and arrest you for Unauthorized Use Of Marketing-Targeted Products? Let's look at the following official Bald Guyz bullet points:

  • Specially formulated for the bald guy.
Are bald guyz different physiologically? Are we endowed with special Bald Guyz Powers? Am I not living up to my Bald Guyz Potential? Are we poorer spellerz? Can I join a group like the NAABP?
  • Cleans and Freshens
Help me understand why a piece of skin exposed to the open air needs, er, "freshening."
  • 16 wipes in each box
Are you sure that's enough? After all, if my head needs freshening, I should do that like once an hour, right?
  • Green Tea extract cleans your head from the natural oils secreted during the day while providing a cool fresh feeling.
If those "oils" are natural, why are we cleaning them off? Their continual reappearance tells us maybe they're important. Or maybe this forward-thinking company wants to sell you a product called ChappedHead later on.
  • This quick drying Swiss formula will give you a clean and renewed feeling, leaving your head with a natural healthy look.

Picture with me a roomful of white-coated Swiss scientists stroking their Van Dykes and uttering pithy truths like, "Yah, I zeenk it needz more uff zet grrreen tea shtuff. "

There is also a product called "Lifelike Legs" or something to that effect. Hang the life-size Lifelike Legs out of a garbage can or car trunk and use the Lifelike Kicking Action to fool your friends. A regular laugh riot.

Great men and women are dying in Iraq so we can waste valuable resources on crap like this.

Time is critical and we need to wrap presents. For weeks I tell myself we need Scotch Tape. Here it is Christmas Eve and still no Scotch Tape. Nerves fray. Both of us get snippy and start taking it out on each other. Robin asks me to pick up her prescription at CVS when I go buy Scotch Tape. I want to scream because I will have to wait for the prescription to be filled but I take one for the team and hold it in.

Now I'm at CVS waiting in line to see the pharmacist. In front of me is a small man made smaller by sitting in a wheelchair. He knows the pharmacist and they're laughing over something. HIPAA mandates I do not divulge. Later on, while searching out the Scotch Tape, I find him having a lighthearted conversation with a clerk. After minutes of searching, it turns out the Scotch Tape is over by the magazines and our friend is already there reading Motor Trend.

I want to strangle this guy. He has no right to be upbeat in a wheelchair on Christmas Eve. Then I realize it's my attitude that needs adjusting, especially since I'm planning a nice surprise gift for all the girls this scaled-down Christmas. I buy a box of those chemical heat pads for Robin as a peace offering. Her upper back is killing her lately. These pads bring relief.

So I'm shamed into cooling it for Christmas Eve. Scotch Tape in hand, I ready myself for The Final Hurdle. Unbeknownst to everyone I suffer secretly from Gift Wrap Anxiety Syndrome. I cannot produce one passably wrapped rectangular package in less than an hour. In the same amount of time, I can pack a transmission for shipment across the country.

Three hours later, I emerge from my office perspiring after wrapping three packages. In the same time, Robin wrapped thirty gifts. No baloney. Now she's curled up on the sofa watching A Very Special Christmas Eve Presentation of HGTV's Property Virgins. Seems a young couple expects their first child real soon but can't find anything in their price range. The Realtor shows them a partially completed manger conversion. I think I've seen this one before but I can't remember how it comes out......

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tree'd: Volume I

The spirit of Christmas finally smacked me in the face like a refrigerator falling off a speeding furniture truck. Last Saturday, my lovely wife Robin and I participated in an event we like to call The Annual Christmas Tree Lug. There is a Christmas tree lot at the end of our street about a quarter mile down the hill from our house. Parking is at a premium and it's too much of a pain to put the tree in the trunk so we walk down to the lot and buy our tree.

Like much of America, we downsize Christmas this year and carry that theme to our choice of greenery. We opt for a skinny six foot tree instead of the usual seven- footer, saving fifteen bucks and perhaps ten pounds of tree in the process. Of course, my wife wants to bargain the price down too. She'll bargain over anything from groceries to electronics at the drop of a hat. Robin is probably the only woman in America who enjoys buying a car. It took me a long time to find a woman who relishes frugality as much as I do. My love for her knows no boundaries because of it.

So we pick out our tree, pay our reduced price and lug the tree back up the hill. After a bit of trunk trimming, the tree stands proudly in our living room ready for decorating.

Now we pull out all the Christmas music. Nobody does Christmas music like The Jingle Cats. Thank God. The joke and the novelty wear out their welcome after the first five seconds. Any more than that and one is either certifiable or has a house full of seven-year-olds.

Actually, we lead off with the inimitable Vince Guaraldi and music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This album is a real touchstone for my generation of fifty-somethings. Guaraldi's playing is superb as well.

While futzing with the lights, we segue to An Oscar Peterson Christmas. Why these two people rate their own Christmases separate from the rest of us I do not know. The album alternates between admirable restraint and admirable tearing it up.

Once the lights are up and rearranged 42 times, Oscar has had his moment and my wife hauls out A Windham Hill Christmas. Now here's an entire organization with their very own Christmas. Does anyone share anymore?

While my wife handles most of the ornament placing, I start preparing the London broil thawing out on the counter. A little seasoning rub and into the broiler it goes. There's nothing like the broiler on an early '50s O'Keefe & Merritt gas range. Adjustable rack height and flame level make it the Cadillac of broilers and a must for steak lovers everywhere.

Now the house smells like steak and baked potatoes microwaving in the "nuke." This is enough to make me cry on its own but go ahead and add in the Celtic Christmas music wafting out of the stereo and the live tree smell. I'm ready to go.

Then I look at the tree. On it are favorite ornaments from when Robin's daughters were little, mixed in with newer stuff from my life with them. Since I weaseled my way into their lives, many of the ornaments I added have an outdoor theme. There's a little hiking boot, a lantern, a mountain tent and a pair of snowshoes. There's also my favorite shown in the photo above.

If you can't make out the shape, I will tell you the white thing is a roll of toilet paper. Most backpackers know the plastic international orange trowel is the international symbol for, well, you can take it from here on your own. I love this ornament. Robin's daughters hope the cats carry it off and bury it somewhere.

So now the music plays, the steak sizzles, Robin looks very cute decorating the tree, and she's handing me some ornaments. At that moment, I realize how much history hangs from its branches. Every family's tree is a totem. Each ornament is a little bit of history and comfort. The cats like batting them around too.

For most of the 19 years since arriving here at the Outpost, I did not put up a Christmas tree. I felt I had better things to do with my hard-earned money. My job was to strive and suffer until I reached The Ultimate Goal. That was a mistake. Perhaps putting up a tree and staring at those ornaments would make me miss my family too much when they're 3,000 miles away. Now with Robin and her two daughters, knowing our tree is truly il nostro albero brings a new and exciting level of happiness.

Now I'm ready to fall on my knees and thank God for allowing me even this small glimpse of marriage and family life as a husband. Most of my friends married in their twenties so they have a twenty-five-year head start. I am a mere rookie.

By now, Robin wonders what's up with me. I can't begin to tell her all the different feelings coursing around simultaneously. So I grab her and we dance until I get it back together enough to talk to her about it. Evidently, she's not used to the men in her life confessing the simple truths about themselves because it looks like she's ready to cry too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

There's No "I" In Team But There Is In "Married"

My lovely wife Robin and I entered the state of Holy Mortal Wedlock about two and a half years ago. This is her second trip, having two beautiful and ridiculously intelligent daughters with her first husband. This is my first marriage. Not too many men get married for the first time at 50, unless they lead the Warren Beatty life first. I did not lead the Warren Beatty life.

We met online. Okay, I hear the howls of derisive laughter from here. Tell me again how meeting at a club or party or even a wedding is better than meeting online. With online dating, one can sort through a few pics and write some letters, leading eventually to talking on the phone. If all systems are go, meet in a public place. Bring a wingman if you're still nervous. Your wingman can sit nearby at Norm's or House of Pies with the other party's wingperson. Perhaps they make a connection and start seeing each other as well.

Despite living only seven miles apart, there's no other way our lives intersect. Online dating is a great way to break out of one's normal crowd, especially if one finds oneself meeting the same type of person over and over again.

Sure, there are pitfalls. People do lie. Women sometimes lie about their appearance. Men have been known to lie about their circumstances. Do people lie more online than they do at closing time in a bar with the beer goggles on? Most people are sober online unless it's 2:00am and the beer goggles are still on. At that point, you're more apt to write the Stupid Drunken Email to your ex.

Besides, savvy online daters can read between the lines. We all know the true meaning of words and phrases like, "curvy," "has curves," "creative" and "athletic." Besides, what is an athletic build really? If a guy's gut looks like a basketball, that's athletic, right? From what I hear, the answer is yes.

Some people don't lie outright but they give the truth a good beating. For instance, I learned "average" height for an American man online really means 5 feet 4 inches. I was once rejected by a tallish woman because she told me over the phone I "sound short." I insist my real height is in fact the 5 feet 11 inches reported in my profile. She replies if I admit to 5 feet 11, I am probably 5 feet 6.

Online dating facilitates identifying crazy people before meeting face to face. If a person writes a 12,000 word profile outlining their desire to be understood, chances are good you won't understand them either. If a woman's photo shows big hair and high-waisted jeans, chances are 1987 was the last time she was happy.

One time I get to the calling point with someone who spends the last half of the first call bagging on her ex. The next time she bags on her ex for an hour. The third time it's ninety minutes. After that, I suggested we might change the subject. She told me I was just like all the other men who never listen.

Get my point? Online dating is also a public service. Another potential murder-suicide averted.

Say what you will. Since I entered the state of Holy Mortal Wedlock, I no longer dwell on the circumstances of our meeting. I'm married, I like it and work to stay that way. Now I try to understand exactly what it means to be married.

My wife insists we are a "team" but sometimes we both act like we're alone. Let me know if the following rings true:

My wife is in the bathroom applying eye makeup. The door is open. I walk in and say, "Honey..." Now she's shrieking and I have to peel her off the ceiling.

"You scared me, " she replies shakily after catching her breath.

"How? by walking in and saying, 'Honey...?'"

"Well...I didn't expect you to walk in."

"Okay, let me get this straight. We're married. We share the house, yet you don't ever expect me to walk into the open bathroom? Ever?"

Here's another: I'm entering the shower. Halfway in, I realize my wife removed the freshly laundered washcloth I placed in there previously. Now I'm dripping wet and fuming because I must drip over to the linen closet to retrieve a fresh one. My wife inquires about the tirade later.

"What was all the swearing about?'

"You took the new washcloth out of the shower. I was forced to walk through the house dripping wet to get another one."


"What do you mean, why? There was no washcloth...."

"Why didn't you just get in the shower and call for me to bring you a fresh one instead of stomping around all mad?"

Hmmm. She had me there. However, I ignored Newton's Second Law of Marriage (pick yer battles ya eejit) and put up a front.

"Because...Because...I am a man. A man always provides for his own washcloth."

Yes I said that. Looking back, it doesn't make sense to me either. My wife endures this logic on a daily basis for two and a half years now. Truth be told, I forget for a moment I have a teammate.

Teammates pick up the slack for you sometimes when your "A" game deserts you. When your shot's not dropping, you compensate with more hustle and tenacious defense. Encourage your teammates when the day isn't theirs. Cajole them for sloppy play.

Little by little, I get the picture. Marriage most resembles basketball, though a good argument can be made for doubles tennis, ping-pong or badminton.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Goodbye, Old Paint

Had to sell my old 1989 Nissan Sentra the other day. Actually, I didn't sell it so much as betray it. The car would no longer pass a smog test without about 300 dollars worth of catalytic converter and other parts. While the car ran excellently, it wasn't worth the additional investment. Especially since I bought it for 375 dollars at an impound auction almost four years ago.

Trust me, this is the "good" side.

The State of California bought this car off me for 1,000 dollars. Yes, that's ten hundred bucks. How does a dented old 375-dollar car turn into a thousand-dollar machine four years later? The California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) wants older, more polluting (Their opinion. More on that later) cars off the road so badly, they pay 1,000 dollars to retire your car. Of course, "retire" is the shiny happy euphemism for "crush the living snot out of it." Hence the term "betrayal." I felt like Werner Klemperer as Eichmann repeating, "Don't worry. It's only a delousing shower" to my car as we approached the salvage yard where they inspect the cars for the BAR.

Yes, your car must pass an inspection so it can be crushed. One can't drag in any dead player and get a grand. One must prove three years of ownership with a recent registration. The car must move under its own power, start and stop on command, have all the smog gear present, an intact windshield, at least one door glass and make the drive to the salvage yard without being towed or pushed in. The car must have at least three years worth of life left in it. How they prove that is beyond me.

Oh, and if another name is on the title with yours, grab a Power of Attorney form from the DMV. One woman was turned away in tears at the thought of talking to her ex-husband about their huge old Chevy Suburban, not to mention the eighty gallons of gas consumed going back and forth to the salvage yard. Retiring that behemoth offset all the soot from the last three local wildfires.

I'm taking a moratorium from visiting that particular salvage yard for parts. The thought of seeing my dowdy but reliable steed partially disemboweled by hordes of jackals before meeting the final end in the crusher disheartens me.

So what's the fascination with these rolling wrecks? There are a couple of forces at play here. First of all, I am frugal. I am not cheap. Frugal means buying a 375-dollar car knowing that a couple of hundred well-placed dollars and a time investment will result in a car capable of good service for a number of years. Cheap means buying a 375-dollar car and expecting it to be perfect.

My wife thinks I take perverse pleasure in owning the unownable. She's right but postponing a car's trip to the crusher helps the environment without cost to taxpayers. Squeezing all the life possible out of a consumer product before recycling means less demand for a substitute. If I buy used cars all my life, at least six new ones don't get built.

While a new car has fewer emissions, the greater amount of raw materials required to construct those new cars more than offsets the difference. Coke provides the fuel for steel making; huge amounts of electricity from coal-fired power plants powers aluminum forming and the plastic materials are petroleum. Does the world need any more plastic?

My old manual transmission Sentra weighed about 2200 pounds. A new one similarly equipped weighs 2885 pounds. The extra 685 pounds means the new car uses more fuel than the old one. I don't expect the country to adopt my hair shirt environmentalism, but I have the knowledge and tools to make it work for me.

Besides, why would I want to buy something for twenty-five grand that becomes twenty grand the minute I sign the contract? Remember, a car can only be sold as new once. People think a new car depreciates upon leaving the dealership lot. Actually it depreciates while the Finance Manager beats you over the head.

For most people, buying a three-or-four-year-old used car is the cheapest personal transportation alternative. Insurance and registration costs are far less, plus the original owner takes the major depreciation hit. A modern three-year-old car with 30 thousand miles on the clock has at least another 175 thousand more miles left in it with any care at all. Unless the first owner used the car to haul logs.

My wife rolls this way. Last year, we went to the LA Auto Show to see what she'll buy in two years.

Meanwhile, I took part of my filthy state lucre and purchased another fine piece of automotive craps-manship. This beautiful 1989 Toyota Camry!

Hey I'm going upscale. This car has air conditioning. At least, all the air conditioning stuff is present. The car followed me home from the impound auction for a mere 225 bucks. That's roughly 12 cents a pound.

Good thing, too. While always vigilant for wear and tear, this car was tortured. With the limited time and space of an auction, I couldn't tell this car was hurt in ways I never saw before. The previous owners (plural because one person could not be this inept yet still have the wherewithal to drive) were neither skilled nor well tooled. Every nut and bolt touched by them is either snapped off or gnarled to the point where no wrench will fit. So every typical ten-minute disassembly requires an hour. Per bolt.

For example, the plastic window crank wore out on the driver's side window so instead of spending five bucks and replacing it, some genius used a vice grips to roll the window down. Not only is the mechanism destroyed but they tore up the "door card" upholstery too. The rear wheel brake cylinders leaked for at least a year but they repaired that by replacing all the front brake stuff instead. Unfortunately, they screwed that up in ways I can't even describe so all the front brake stuff had to be trashed as well. Leaving out all the retaining hardware means the front caliper hoses carrying the brake fluid were almost sawed through.

Replacing the front McPherson struts requires two nuggets of knowledge; install them on the proper side and tighten the large retaining bolts really tight. They did neither. So if the car wasn't impounded, would these jokers die due to brake failure or because the suspension fell apart? If either happened, would they be the only victims or would some innocent bystander buy the farm as well?

Believe me, I understand "survival mechanics." There's a right way and a wrong way. It's not hard to acquire the knowledge, especially when motivated by lack of funds. Knowledge is the price paid for poverty. Judging by what was in the trunk, there was enough money to do the job right.

Buying a car from an impound auction entitles the buyer to everything in the trunk too. I bought a Toyota Starlet from auction a few years ago for 200 bucks. In the hatch area was a man's leather jacket and a child safety seat. I sold the jacket for 35 dollars, the safety seat for 20 bucks. Hello 145-dollar car. Drove it for almost three years.

The Camry came with about 60 bootleg DVDs in the trunk. Most were boots of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. All but two were made by bringing a camera into the theater and shooting the screen. Okay, I can see how a person gets away with sneaking the camera in but what about the tripod? There's no way someone shoots the screen without one.

So yes, I take frugality and environmentalism to its extreme. Many years of freelancing and voice-talent-ing made me this way. It's a tough habit to break. With the economy in the toilet and employment opportunities spotty, I'm not sure this is the time to break it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ready Or Not, It's Christmas

Here in the City of Angels, the Christmas spirit is hard to come by. Of course, watching the news lately strangles everyone's good time but LA is unique in its suffering. First of all, we had no autumn. OK, I see the jokes on the horizon. "In LA you know it's autumn because the smog changes color."

Yes, the seasons are not so pronounced here. However, the week before Thanksgiving featured triple-digit temps. The hot dry Santa Ana Winds fanned three area fires leaving hundreds of cinder piles where homes once stood. Ash fell out of the sky for three days. The sun was an orange disk cloaked in the murk. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, huh? Not.

With LA's famed Endless Summer reluctant to leave, with more families showing up at homeless shelters and charity holiday meals due to economic woes or having lost everything to the flames, no one is ready for the holidays.

The lovely Robin and I threw our annual Christmas Kick-Off party this last weekend. Our official date is the first Saturday in December (or DeCember as it's spelled around here) because nobody else is crazy enough to mount another major food shindig so close to Thanksgiving. Therefore, we expect a high turnout because we're the only game in town. Lethargy was our competition this year and we lost.

About 16 people showed up when our usual turnout is 50. Everyone still around left in a conga line at 10:30 pm. Robin and I were dumbfounded. Last year, the house rocked with laughter, music and good times.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not crabbing about the lack of turnout. Hey, I have a refrigerator stocked with enough food to feed 34 no-shows. It was still a very nice party and I enjoyed everyone's company immensely. Rather, I worry about what we choose to live without in these tough times.

The television news relates stories of shoppers cutting back on gift-giving. Robin tells me more than one of her co-workers told her only their young children will receive gifts. Fewer than usual, too. Okay, we all have less disposable income but Christmas is here, ready or not. So lets all quit being bummed because Santa can't give Johnny and Jane an X-Box this year. Let's get back to the basics and remember what this season is all about.

My best childhood Christmas recollections do not focus on the gifts but the people. Seeing all my cousins at my grandparents on Christmas Eve. My Uncle Sam teasing my youngest cousin Valerie about Santa getting hit by a car on the way to her house. It sounds mean on your computer screen but it was wickedly funny to the rest of us in 1965. Mind you, this went on for years. Uncle Sam added a new twist every year and Valerie fell for it again and again. We still laugh at the thought.

The traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve revolves around fish. Catholicism before Vatican II required a meatless meal on either December 23rd or the 24th for everyone over seven years old. Anyone who knows me more than five minutes knows I hate fish. Sorry, but I know what we put into the ocean so I'm not eating anything coming out of it. Besides, I never understood the whole fish thing. People like fish but they don't like it if it tastes too fishy? What is the point, then? When one eats a steak, one hopes it tastes really steak-y. Anyway, I made do with the spaghetti and clam sauce, straining the clams out by drawing individual spaghetti strands through my teeth.

What I remember most is the amount of love and laughter in that kitchen. My grandfather and grandmother were legends in their neighborhood. They really didn't say much on Christmas Eve. Usually they just sat there and beamed. The love and respect they gave their family and friends returned to them a hundredfold. The family and the in-laws all got along incredibly well.

The adults exchanged small gifts. Grandpa augmented his cigar supply. Uncle Sam got another dress shirt for work. Small quantities of cologne or fancy soap changed hands. A box of Russell Stover chocolates might make an appearance. My family was never a "stuff" family. Christmas for the adults was more about the hugs and kisses than the goodies. Santa was always good to me, though.

As we got older, the Catholic Church forgot about meatless days but the tradition remained so my recently-departed Aunt Agnes made me a baked stuffed pork chop. Every year I looked forward to that baked stuffed pork chop because it meant I was once again in the bosom of my family on Christmas Eve. December 24th was the only time I ever ate them. Doing so any other day might dilute the significance.

These people love to laugh. The table groaning with food and the happy boisterous voices ringing out greetings or jokes or opinions about some current event still rattle around in my head. Unfortunately, I live far away from most of my family so our little yearly soirée with our best friends laughing and the kids chasing after the cats gives me a small taste of that atmosphere. It's why I look forward to it and why I won't let any outside forces ruin it.

The next couple of years will strain this country more than any time since World War II. Time to strip Christmas back to the basics. Everybody is bummed over something this year. So forget the X-Box or the set of Calloway woods and get together with family and friends. Don't miss the parties because you're not in the mood. Be proactive. The parties and family gatherings are mood-altering substances. Hugs and kisses and laughter are free. It's what you'll remember 30 years after the toys and trinkets are forgotten.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Agnes Jaglinski Votto 1925-2008

My Aunt Agnes died over the weekend so there's been no blogging. As with all my relatives who die, I took time to think about them and their impact on me.

"Auntie Ag" married my uncle Pasquale "Pat" Votto at a relatively young age. Pat was a hands-on hard-charger at the Griest Manufacturing plant where they both worked. They moved into a house right next door to my grandparents. This has to be a harrowing situation for a young Polish girl; marrying the family firstborn son with your Italian mother-in-law sixty feet away.

Family lore has it my Aunt Agnes wasn't much of a cook back then. My grandmother taught her to cook Italian over the years. Aunt Agnes took that ball and ran with it, becoming not only a good cook but a great one. She was a scratch baker, too. Turns out Auntie Ag was a bit of a hard-charger as well. I bet that was the initial attraction.

She never did anything halfway. Both my aunt and uncle were the epitome of hard work and its rewards. My whole family is that way.

Aunt Agnes did not suffer fools gladly. She was on warm terms with irony and sarcasm. When relating a story about one dimbulb or another, she would punctuate the dimbulb's aha moment with an ironic but lusty "Hallelujah!" He was not too bright that one letmetellya.

This early exposure to irony and sarcasm probably fostered my love for same. Biting wit was a hallmark of holiday table conversation. Auntie Ag was at the forefront. In our presence she usually let us kids have the floor, especially as we got older. She loved to listen to our stories about high school and college. No matter how young we were or how trivial the topic, She always listened hard to what her nieces and nephews had to say. When I was younger, I could hear her holding court over coffee with the other adults around the dining room table. The woman had strong opinions. We didn't always agree with them but she had them.

Lest one think Aunt Agnes a hard nut to crack, any child could melt her heart. She loved every child ever born and any child yet to be born. She advocated for children. She became a cafeteria lady because she loved children. Of course, she ran the joint after a short while. The food got a lot better too.

If one was fortunate enough to be Auntie Ag's niece or nephew, it was obviously a reward for good deeds done in a previous life. She was loyal beyond belief. That woman sat through a driving rain to watch me run my leg of the mile relay (now 4x400m relay) at a regional high school relay meet. Anyone attending a high school track meet knows they take awhile to complete. Relay meets are to regular track meets as War and Peace is to haiku. There are endless rounds of the same event so as many kids as possible can participate. The mile relay is near the end of the program.

Because she and my cousin Valerie sat through that whole meet (perhaps Valerie will forgive me someday), I did my best to make sure the day wasn't wasted. I ran the third leg, passing two competitors and handing the baton to our anchor in second place. He took care of the remaining competition and Hamden High placed first overall. If Auntie Ag sat all day in a cold rain to watch me run for 50 whole seconds, then cold rain was no excuse for me to let up. She holds the record for most times a relative other than my parents watched me compete through high school and college.

Perhaps Aunt Agnes loved children because she had so much trouble conceiving one of her own. She knew the preciousness of each child. Reproductive science was positively stone age back then compared to today. With time running out, doctors tried an experimental procedure to give her one shot at having a child. The procedure was a success and my cousin Valerie was born in 1961. Which segues nicely into my most memorable Auntie Ag moment....

It was 1961. Auntie Ag was standing in the front doorway. She was wearing one of those maternity smock tops women wore back then. I was sitting in the car but I was so small, I could see upwards out of the window. My mom was standing in the open driver’s door of her white 1959 Ford Galaxie. The two women were shouting at each other over the engine noise. I can’t remember what was said but they were both having a laugh.

Then my mom said something and Aunt Agnes smiled. She always had a nice smile but this was special. I never saw anyone smile like that before. It was a 100-megawatt smile. Not some goofy grin but a knowing smile. That smile was so amazing, it stuck in a five-year-old’s memory. I recall it 47 years later like it happened yesterday.

Later in life we hear people talk about pregnancy making women glow. Whenever anyone broaches that subject I think of Auntie Ag and that smile every time. Every time. At that moment there was no one on Earth happier or more fulfilled than Agnes Votto. Knowing she experienced that level of joy in her life makes me feel a little better about her death.

Three weeks ago, she entered a hospice because she just couldn't go anymore.
Aunt Agnes was no-nonsense even about her exit.