Notes from a Jersey Girl

by Lisa G Westheimer

About Invisibility

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I’m recovering from invisibility. It starts once a girl hits 50. We slowly but steadily fade away. We get taken for granted. We’re always there. We’re the ones who’ve kept the houses running, the food plunked on the dinner table every evening, the elves who make the bed every morning, do the laundry and plan every holiday. We’ve become so dependable that we are as old and faded as the wall paper, something you pass by so much it blends in, just hanging there marking time in the house.

It started full blast when my husband and I went on a bike trip to California with 2 male friends. I had just recovered from a knee injury and could finally exercise again. It was a long and lonely recovery. I fell off my horse. Actually it was the 5th time that year I fell off my horse. I almost gave up but attacked the problem full on- took lessons on him, took lessons on other horses, read books about overcoming fear, read books about equitation. Put poultice and ice packs on my knee. AND I trained for that goddamn bike trip in California. I was proud of myself.

But no matter, when in the company of Mamils (Middle Age Men in Lycra) the only thing worth noticing is the bike and all the little expensive googas dripping off it, hills, mileage and butt cream. Many things are invisible to Mamils- the quality of accommodations, certain odors, foods other than gels and energy bars, drinks other than electrolyte replacements and beer and most of all- women, in particular those over 50.

While they went off to do their man rides I went off alone to make my own adventure. I jogged, I rode horses, I rode my bike, I took car tours, sometimes all in the same day. I sat down at the dinner table bubbling with stories. I talked myself hoarse for a half hour before realizing not one of them heard a word I said. I finally screamed, “Hello! Am I invisible or what?!” Only friend Chris heard me (he’s the introspective one.) He said, “it appears so.”

On the day of the ride I was determined. I was a girl with a mission. I was on fire. I was going to nail my ride. I was going to come in the top ten and win in my age group. While the men did the 100 I did the 20. 20 is a good number. Good things happen when one is 20. $20 will get you a nice sandwich, chips, a drink and dessert. 20 rolls off the tongue like a lucky number. Riding 20 miles is impressive to those who don’t exercise. 20 miles of hard riding is a nice way to punctuate the end of recovering from an injury. 20 miles of hard riding translates into chocolate and mixed drinks with no weight gain. And the 20 miler was going to be my friend. I had studied the course. I trained in the rain. I rode a heavier bike that the one I had for the race. I had bike tights long enough to cover my knee brace. I was sick of being invisible, this was my moment!

I zoomed out of the start and never quit. I stopped at the rest stop only to take off my jacket. I put my head down and pushed on through a stiff damp head wind. I sized up my opponents ahead- a gaggle of Mamils and their spouses. They were in my cross hairs. They were toast. Only they were too far ahead for me to catch on their lighter, faster road bikes. Mine was a sturdy hybrid. Damn. At least 6 of them and all in my age group.   My dreams were being shattered on the road before my eyes. But I put my head down and kept mashing. The road was pitted. It had pot holes, my butt hurt, my knee ached, my thighs screamed.

But around the last bend there was a sight to behold. The clouds were parting, the wind shifting, the angels sang- the gaggle, every last one of them, were stopped by the side of the road. Flats on those skinny fast tires. HAH! Only I had trained on the roads of New Jersey, home of the pothole that ate Newark. HAH! My heavy bike with wide tires, my thighs of thunder and generous butt padding ruled the road. Only four 20- somethings on heavy fat tired mountain bikes, the whippersnappers who could drink all night and do their first bike ride of the season and win a race were ahead. A hallowed vindication. I crossed the finish line 5th overall, first in my age group. HAH! Oh sweet victory. That after ride bagel and coffee went down smooth.

Hours later I waited for the boys at their finish line. 1 didn’t finish and the other 2 came in last and second to last. HAH! I came in FIFTH! I came in FIRST IN MY AGE GROUP! But according to the boys it didn’t matter. Afterall it wasn’t a race-race. It was a ride, and afterall, I only did the 20. To further hammer that nail in my ego coffin, the race results transposed my age from 51 to 15. Of course a 15 year old would do that well. Invisible yet again.

I recounted this sorry turn of events to my cousin Amy in Oakland to whom I clung as if she were a life raft during this Mamil fest. When Amy heard we were coming to California she stepped in and made sure we would all end the trip in Calistoga, where she would pick the hotel for us and meet us there with her husband Eddie (another Mamil, but God Bless not the rabid sort.) “That is so sad.” She texted after receiving the picture I took of my breakfast at the motor lodge: an apple with the broken plastic knife I tried to cut it with on a styrofoam plate with mosaic sized plastic packets of peanut butter and coffee so weak it looked like a brown crayon had been dipped in warm water. “I made you an appointment for a massage.”

“Get used to it” she wrote next when I texted I was completely invisible, “it gets worse but you learn to work around it. By the way, I made dinner reservations.” So days later, sitting in a lounge at the hotel pool with a glass of wine in one hand and in the other a murder mystery where the protagonist was a cat and the last chapter contained recipes, I found peace. The boys straggled in from yet another gnarly ride, furrowed brows, stiff kneed, making groaning noises as they sat down. What was that? Did I detect some grumbles? A little bickering among the ranks? Dinner was fabulous, the massage was amazing and I forced Lenny to buy his wife a present over the $20 he wanted to spend. Life was good.

It took a few years after that trip to realize what I had to do to once again join the ranks of the visible- I had to turn into my Aunt Vicky. What a terrifying prospect, but it had to be done. Aunt Vicky was really my great Aunt. She was my mother’s aunt, her father’s sister. (The Italian side) First generation Italian American born in the North Ward of Newark, she was 1 of 2 girls with 10 brothers who’s mother died when she was 2, leaving her to be raised by my mother’s father who was the oldest. My earliest recollection of Aunt Vicky was visiting her and my Uncle Mandy (her husband) in their run down apartment in an equally run down and squalid public housing building off the Garden State Parkway (Exit 145 by the cemetery and Pabst Brewery) in Newark.

The building was of dark brown brick. The halls were of dark brown cinderblock with chocolate brown glossy trim and a dark brown linoleum floor. The elevator doors were dark brown and dented. The halls smelled like sweat and stale fried liver and onions. As soon as we entered their Chihuahua “Chipper” would attack and bite every single one of us. Chipper was insane. Chipper was the Devil incarnate. He had bug eyes and sharp teeth and long black nails that clicked on the floor.   He was dark brown.   Chipper had it in his pea sized head that he had to protect Aunt Vicky. If someone even slanted a look her way they were mincemeat. Forget about giving her a kiss or touching her.

Aunt Vicky always wore a house dress and slippers. She had curly brown hair and was thin and kind of shriveled, like a prune. Her brows were bushy and always pointing down towards the tip of her nose. She was always mad, even when she was laughing. My Uncle Mandy was always sitting in a Barcalounger (dark brown) in front of the tv watching football in winter, baseball in summer. He had dark skin and black greasy hair, a basketball belly and very very long arms and ear lobes. His lower lip always drooped and his lower lids sagged. He had an uncanny resemblance to an orangutan. Sometimes their son Johnny would join him, the two of them slack jawed and dewey eyed in front of the tv, slouching in their chairs wearing wife beater shirts, boxer shorts and black socks, each with a beer in his hand. I don’t remember either of them ever speaking or even moving.

Aunt Vicky had the metabolism of a humming bird and never was still. Upon arrival she would rip off our coats, drag us into the kitchen, plunk us at the table and feed us until we exploded, all the while complaining or laughing about something. Toiling away at the stove or the sink interrupting only to get a beer for Mandy. She was always mad about something. She terrified me but she was a damn good cook. Her gravy (red sauce to the rest of you unfortunates) was to die for. My fondest recollection of her was yelling at my brother who sat complaining that he’d rather be swimming down the shore. Whipping around from the stove, waggling a gravy stained wooden spoon his way she shrieked, “It’s not even 4th of July. You want to freeze your kweezer off?!”

Aunt Vicky wasn’t invisible. I didn’t really appreciate Aunt Vicky until I turned 50. Like her battle ax of an older sister, Aunt Laura, bigger, badder and more bushy eyebrowed, who thankfully lived in Maryland so we didn’t get to see her often, Aunt Vicky had PRESENCE. You always knew where she was and where you stood in relation to her. She had to be tough. Raised by 10 brothers and no mother with Aunt Laura as a sister and Uncle Mandy as a husband and Johnny, his clone as a son. She may have been small, but like Chipper, she was scrappy.

My mother is an Essex County 2nd generation Italian American Jersey Girl from Newark. That is a very special pedigree of Jersey Girl. What begins in Essex County usually stays in Essex County. Newark Essex County Jersey Girls don’t translate well west of the Delaware Water Gap, south of Maryland (Aunt Laura was just on the edge) and north of Boston.   The Atlantic Ocean is wide enough to protect England and most of Europe but you can find a lot of them in southern Italy visiting family or on vacation.

Newark Essex County Jersey Girls are very smart. They know how to work around things that hold them back and move forward when no one’s looking. They make gravy with meatballs and sausage on Sundays, say Novenas; (My Aunt Mary used to say them in between rounds of Friday night poker, more on her another time) accidentally eat meat on Fridays during Lent (but that’s ok, God wouldn’t want to waste) wear their hair high and thick and their pants low and thin and spend their weekends putting flowers on graves on the way home from going down the shore. They don’t take crap from anyone but are known to cry watching kitty litter commercials. And the have wicked accuracy when throwing shoes.

I’m a hybrid. I was born in Bergen County (up north) New Jersey. My father (gasp) was first generation Polish American from Garfield. What that meant was he was supposed to be hard working, neat, very patriotic, very sentimental, able to drink like a fish and have pictures of at least 3 popes hanging in the dining room. Except for the first 2 my father fit the pattern except when he married my mother. Uh-oh on both sides of the family. How huge- marrying an outsider! Not only not the same heritage but not even the same zip code!   Family meetings were convened. Jaws dropped. It was shocking.   But both exhibiting traits common to both cultures- stubborn hot headed determination,   they married and stayed married until my father died in 1999.

As I said before, Essex County Italian American Jersey Girls from Newark generally have no problem with invisibility, but since I’m a hybrid and have only lived in Essex County for 15 years and counting, I have issues. Oh my God I married a Jew from Ohio but at least he wasn’t like that other one, the knuckle dragger from Staten Island I almost married, even if his mother was Italian and his father from Kearny. (Besides it’s not like he’s observant.) Heck after him, I could have married a giraffe and they would have still thrown me a shower. I wondered how my family would react to me marrying someone outside my faith, but it upset the family more, especially my Aunt Sue (my mother’s sister) that he was lactose intolerant.

“No eggplant parm?”

“No Aunt Sue.”

“No mutz?”

“Afraid not.”

“No cannoli???”

“No.”

“And you’re getting married?”

But I digress. Hybrid that I am I left home at 18 to go to college and the minute I could scrape the money together left to live on my own in 1980 in New York City as if shot out of a cannon. Sure there were very hard times, having little money and making bad decisions only a 20 year old girl can make, but my parents always rushed to the rescue through the Lincoln Tunnel bearing lasagne and cold fried fluke they caught off the party boats in the Atlantic Highlands.

So about this invisibility thing. It seems I had to learn to put my foot down and put it down loud enough for it to be heard. I tried everything. I stopped turning the inside out t-shirts when folding clean laundry. I asked at dinner time, “can you cook tonight?” and “can you change the comforter cover?” But the turning point was, “I don’t want do Easter at our house this year.” Like my brother who was born close to Christmas, I am a baby who’s birthday gets eclipsed by a holiday. My birthday falls during Lent. Usually during Holy Week. Sometimes on Good Friday, Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday. With Christ’s torture, death and resurrection I can’t compete. To add to the complication our anniversary is two days after my birthday. And this year, Easter fell smack dab in between.

So I announced that since it was my birthday and our anniversary I didn’t feel that I should be the one to clean (a euphamism for changing over the curtains from winter to spring, washing windows, airing out the house and putting out Easter decorations) shop, cook, serve, get drunk, then clean up again. I wanted to just skip over to the get drunk part. I thought I had made myself CLEAR, but when I woke up on Easter morning my husband looked at me and said, “what do you want to do today?” Poor innocent lamb. Though I’m sure I could make some calls and get some Essex County Jersey Girls over with shovels and a garbage bag even on Easter Sunday, I did not rip his head off.   I turned on the water works.

I replied, “what I want to do is go visit my Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary and her sister Brigitte in their upstairs railroad flat overlooking Watsessing Park and eat strufoli and play seven card stud deuces wild. I want to see my Grandpa Frank and Grandma Nancy and sit in their sunroom while they gave me coconut eggs in a pretty basket and a dollar. I want to go to Garfield and hunt Easter eggs in my Babci’s backyard with the rest of my cousins and have her help me find the best one.”

I worked up a good head of steam for awhile there. My husband looked scared. He had that look in his eye they tell you to have when you encounter an enraged bear in the woods. And then it hit me- I was Chipper. I was Aunt Vicky. I was visible.

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Author: Lisa G Westheimer

I am a ceramic and glass artist living and working in West Orange, NJ, USA. I have a masters degree in ceramics from Montclair State University and teach at the Montclair Art Museum, both in Montclair, NJ. Prior to this I was co-owner of "The Manhattan Expedition Inc" and was a NYC Building Code and Zoning Specialist in Manhattan, my main claim to fame as a Loft Conversion Specialist in Soho and Tribeca in the 1980's and 1990's, and a specialist in Landmarks Preservation and Special Places of Assembly, particularly the Fashion Shows in Bryant Park and any weird sort of thing happening in Manhattan worthy of getting thrown out of the Commissioner's office. But mostly I'm a Jersey Girl, born in Rutherford, schooled in a private school in Montclair, did a stint living in Greenwich Village then Soho before fleeing to Llewellyn Park in West Orange, NJ where I learned how to clean and restore stuffed bald eagles!!!! I can mostly be found in my studio or on the campus of The Montclair Art Museum (where I teach) or on the back of my horse Buddy, either in my backyard or at a farm in Sussex County.

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