A Titanium Foot and a Long-Stemmed Rose: Lessons in the Art of Gratitude

Robin Meloy Goldsby encounters Eleanor Roosevelt, gets a new foot, and sings a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The ball drops. Champagne flows. Regrets (I’ve had a few) are counted, and triumphs noted. Glasses clink, lips meet, smiles stretch the faces of children and drunks and musicians. We ring in the new, send in the clowns, bring on the dancers, bend the rules, launch the rockets, and catapult from one year to the next.

Mr. G. (my dear husband) says that end of year retrospectives—The Best of  the Best of 2012!—make him want to cry. The sad moments are sad, the happy ones are also sad, because they’re not really all that happy. I get what he’s saying. If you examine the highlights and lowlights of a year they turn into a reality show version of what actually counts. What counts isn’t what happens in a year. What counts is what you learn.

I learned a lot in 2012, lessons I wish I had learned a little sooner. Here are three that come to mind:

1. In June of 2012 watched my nineteen-year old son receive his German Abitur (an academic high school diploma that makes my American high school degree seem like a summer camp certificate). I sat with my husband, my parents (who were in town for the festivities), and my daughter. I listened to the music—featuring a faculty choir that sang a heart-wrenching version of “Shenandoah”—and smiled as two decades of parenthood flashed through my memory—a flickering diorama of music lessons, math and physics homework, Harry Potter marathons, fights (in two languages!) about computer games, philosophical discussions (of which he was capable at age five), flights back and forth to the USA, and drives—a million of them—to the school from which he was now graduating. After his name had been called, he received his diploma and a long-stemmed red rose, did a hip-hop victory-walk down a runway, found me in the audience, and bent over and handed me the rose. I never knew I was capable of projectile crying until that moment.

“Nineteen years of raising Curtis and you get a rose,” said Mr. G. “Well done. You deserve that.”

Lesson learned: a little bit of gratitude from your adult-child means way more than the thunderous applause of strangers. Way more.

2. After a three-month siege following foot surgery (a brand new titanium joint that will forever protect my right foot from the perils of pedaling a grand piano while wearing high heels), I found out what it’s like to be confined to a small bedroom, lose my ability to drive, and have my daily exercise limited to crutch-assisted trips to the bathroom. Thinking I would enjoy lolling about in bed and eating cinnamon toast prepared for me by my doting husband, I discovered that watching endless hours of PBS documentaries on Netflix—a fine activity when one has options to do other things—has certain disadvantages, most of which involve ibuprofen-induced nightmares about Bill Moyers. I was thrilled when my surgeon (a skilled craftsman with the personality of a desk) told me I had graduated to a Frankenstein boot and could begin moving around a bit. The Frankenstein boot had a three-inch platform on it and threw my weight back onto my heel. It also threw my back out. I could walk very slowly, but I looked like Quasimodo.  I couldn’t go to work. Even though the boot was black, Quasimodo in a black lace dress has never been a good look for a cocktail pianist. Not that I could play—the fingers were fine, but operating a sustain pedal with the left foot is best left to contortionists.

Still, at least I was moving. At least I didn’t have to go up and down four flights of steps on my butt. At least I could undress myself and take a shower without having my daughter monitoring me to make sure I didn’t slip and take a dive while conditioning my hair. Things were looking up.

That’s when the stomach virus hit me. It was one of those “pass the bucket” bugs—the kind that normally lasts twenty-four hours—but, because I was still recovering, it slapped me in the gut and flung me back to bed for another two weeks. And that’s when I began to feel like an old person. Enough. I hobbled to the dining room table and declared 2012 my Year of Health (an announcement that caused members of my family to laugh uncontrollably for about ten minutes). I put myself on a take-no-prisoners nutrition program, removed myself from negative influences,  bailed on a couple of “friendships” that were draining my energy, and eliminated stressful work situations that weren’t either artistically satisfying or financially clever.  I snapped back, stronger than ever.  Okay, maybe not stronger, but smarter.

Lesson learned: Feeling old is a drag. Be good to yourself, keep moving, and take care of your feet.

3.  In July of 2012, Julia G., age sixteen, took off on her long-awaited Summer Adventure, all of it paid for by an expatriate essay competition she had won in 2009 (when she was twelve) and a scholarship she received to attend the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Academy in Hyde Park, New York. (Note to parents of teenage girls: Check out this program—it’s wonderful!)

Julia had an ambitious plan. Before arriving at her dormitory at Vassar, Julia would spend a week in Louisville for a music workshop at the Jamey Aebersold School of Jazz at the University of Louisville. In between the Jazz Guys and Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia would hang out with her grandmother in Kentucky and her maternal grandparents in Western Pennsylvania. Following her graduation from Eleanor’s she would head to Manhattan to visit friends before heading back to Pennsylvania for more time with her grandparents. She’d fly back in Germany in time to start the eleventh grade. I was exhausted just looking at her itinerary.

My job, as chief travel coordinator for Julia G’s Summer Adventure was to put her on a flight at Düsseldorf Airport, then beg and bribe various family members and friends to transport her from one American location to another—a complicated operation that involved arranging planes, trains, and caravans; vegan picnics, sandwiches in the back seats of moving vehicles, meals in shopping mall food courts, tea at the Plaza and cocktails at the Waldorf; plush guest rooms, a Vassar dormitory without air-conditioning, and an inflatable mattress on the floor of a stylish Manhattan living room.

Her grandparents, her aunts, her uncles—all of them pitched in, spending hours behind the wheel to get her where she needed to go, on time and in style. Aunt Gail transported her from Louisville to Reynoldsburg, Ohio; Aunt Randita drove her from Ohio to Pittsburgh. My parents got her from Western Pennsylvania to Vassar. Our friends Carole and Emilio Delgado rented a car and drove from Manhattan to Hyde Park to attend her Eleanor Roosevelt graduation as ersatz parents (Carole, a big ER fan, was exactly the right person for this job, mainly because she had the perfect outfit). Carole and Emilio hosted Julia in Manhattan for a week she will never ever forget. My dear friend and fellow Piano Girl Robin Spielberg took the train from Baltimore, and hid behind a potted palm next to the “Eloise” portrait at the Plaza with her daughter Valerie, just so they could jump out and surprise Julia. She hadn’t seen them for five years. You can just imagine the fun they had at the tea party.

I’m astonished by what Julia learned this summer. Eleanor Roosevelt’s team of enthusiastic counselors, in between trips to the United Nations and sessions about the value of volunteering, taught Julia to “act like a lady and speak up.” Jamey Aebersold’s music workshop taught her about jazz theory and performance, and that “anyone can improvise,” especially a sixteen year old girl. But mainly, what Julia learned this summer is this: If she makes the effort to show up and do her part, she’ll have an eager support team waiting to transport her from one destination to another. If it takes a village, she has one of global proportions. If it takes a chariot, she has a golden coach with a band of willing drivers. If it takes love, she’s holding the winning ticket in the friends and family lottery.

Lesson learned: The kindness of strangers means a lot in this world, but when you want to get your daughter from a Starbuck’s in Düsseldorf to Peacock Alley in Manhattan (via Atlanta, Kentucky, Ohio, Poughkeepsie, and Pennsylvania)—and back again— you call the people on your A-List. Friends and family make one heck of a hauling squad—even if they’re an ocean away.

The New Year’s Eve glitter has clumped on the dance floor and the corpses of spent fireworks still litter the town square. Resolutions (not my own) own the month of January. I’m writing new music, launching my kids into adulthood, taking very good care of myself, and watching to see what 2013 will teach me.  Slow down, hold on, let go, be grateful. That’s what I know for now, but these are last year’s lessons. I’m hoping 2013 will be the Year of Continuing Education.

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Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Julia G, rowing in Central Park. Photo by Carole Delgado.

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