Thursday, December 15, 2011

No longer Hamm I am

After 57 years, I am no longer Catharine Hamm.

It feels strange to write this and felt even stranger to have done it. I was more nervous at the DMV and Social Security than I was on my wedding day, as evidenced by the fact that I screwed up the DMV form twice. It’s such a habit to write “Hamm” under “Name” that I did that. Of course, the DMV thought it was a little odd that I was changing my name from Hamm to Hamm and pointed out that I probably needed to write “Skolnik” under the name.

I did, and, for some reason, promptly ripped up the form. (In my defense, I thought I was ripping up the incorrect version.) Yes, I was rattled. But so was the DMV clerk when I pointed out she had erred by forgetting to put my motorcycle license classification on the form. She looked at me and at my old license and then flounced off. How dare I be an old lady on a motorcycle? But I digress. (You'd be surprised if I didn't, wouldn't you?)

The license and Social Security are just the start. Next will be the passport, the deed to the house, my trust, my mother’s trust, my credit cards—the list is staggering.

Which raises this issue: Why do it at all? It’s such an old-fashioned notion to take a spouse’s name. After all, when I had the chance to change it on my marriage license, I didn’t. Now it’s almost four years after the fact.

One easy but not simple answer is my husband’s daughter’s wedding—my stepdaughter.

The fact that I’m calling her my stepdaughter says something about how far our relationship has come in eight years—from sniping and snotty to solid and caring.

She is getting married in April and is leaving her maiden name behind.

But until that date, we are Carl and Catharine and Jessica Skolnik. We are a united front against all forces that would seek to make this less than the happiest day of her life.

And although Carl has seen repeated demonstrations of this, I wanted him to know with certainty that I also stand with him and by him in all circumstances, except for maybe when he is declaring the Three Stooges the funniest act ever and his absolutely wrong-headed views on the death penalty. (By the way, don't mention this change to him just yet. He doesn't know--won't until the holidays are officially here. It will either be the worst gift ever or a lovely surprise. In either case, I want to see his face as he tries to absorb this.)

I’m not leaving Hamm behind completely. I will still be Hamm professionally—maybe because there’s no form to fill out that says, “I used to be known as this and now I’m this.” I’m still CatHamm on Twitter. Heck, this blog site is still Hamm Party of One. I mean, just because Tide takes on a few new ingredients in its detergent mix, it doesn’t leave its old name behind. And as my digitally savvy friends point out, your name is a brand. (Alas, Hamm happened to be a brand—of really bad beer. Maybe I should rebrand…No, no, too much to think about.)

Leaving Hamm makes me a tad wistful. I was the last one in the family; there are no kids to carry on the name. But other than the novelty of it, there is no particular nobility in being that party of one in a family that included more than its share of scandals and scoundrels and sad stories. Not that the Skolnik side is much better. We are families, after all. It's part of the package.

Besides, what families are without troubles? As I reflect at this time of the year on the Holy Family, I am awed by their unity in times of joy and times of trouble.

So this Irish German Catholic girl has cast her lot with the Russian Hungarian Jews. We are the Skolniks. United we stand.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

RIP Our Blue Byrd of Happiness

Blue Byrd Hamm Skolnik, a Dalmatian, died Friday after a long battle with degenerative arthritis. She was, well, pretty old for a big dog but no one was really sure.
Blue was adopted by Catharine Hamm in February 2004. Her previous owners used her to capitalize on the popularity of Dalmatians after the 1996 remake of "101 Dalmatians." When her mothering purposes were over and her family moved, she was kicked to the curb and ended up with Dalmatian rescue. Catharine Hamm found her online--"we should have called it D-Harmony"--and it was love at first sight. The deal was sealed in Santa Monica, where Catharine took the unimaginatively named Perdita on a walk that would be like many of their walks--very slow because no blade of grass remained usniffed.
As part of the agreement with SavetheDals, the renamed Blue--for her blue eyes--had to participate in obedience training. In a class of 10, she graduated No. 10.
"She was a little conflicted," said her teacher. "She wanted to please, but she wanted to do her own thing. When I told her she couldn't have it both ways, she decided to have it her way. She essentially learned nothing, but she did enjoy the car ride to the park."
Blue soon gained three roommates--Maridith Ramsey, Catharine's niece, and two cats, Golde and Brigitta, in addition to the cats Bella and Beau who were already in residence but who preceded her in death. She showed a genuine statesmanship by largely ignoring all of them except Mari, whom she enjoyed tormenting. Later, she (Blue, not Mari) was adopted by Catharine's new husband, Carl Skolnik.
"She wasn't very bright," said Skolnik, adding, "She couldn't have spelled C-A-T if we had spotted her the C and the T. But she had a good heart."
Besides walks, Blue enjoyed breakfast, dinner, puppy treats and naps. She was especially close to Catharine's mother, Genevieve, because they identified with each other: Both were moms who tried hard to raise their children, although Genevieve, to our knowledge, never sold any of her children. Both suffered the ravages of age, including deafness (selective or otherwise), poor eyesight and mobility issues. And both expected to be treated like princesses because, dammit, they earned it.
Blue is survived by cats Beatriz Cecelia and Barnie Louise, and a host of family and friends who all helped make the last 7 years of her life as wonderful as the first few were awful.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Embracing Your Inner Cruella De Vil

Three years of guilt, frustration and heartbreak. Three years of hating myself for being the bad guy and making her move. Three years of sorrow for loss, for what comes next, for a life grown small.

When I made the decision (with support from my wonderful sisters) to move my mother from her house to a senior living facility closer to me, she was so upset she got shingles, which are nasty and often result from stress. (And, by the way, if you are sending a picture of your mother’s butt to your mother’s doctor so the doc can get a jump on the diagnosis, remember to erase that picture so that the next time you whip out your cell phone to show a new acquaintance pictures of your cat—taken before the butt photos—you don’t accidentally moon your new acquaintance with your mother’s butt.)

After the shingles went away, I found her lying on the floor one day. Urinary tract infection but maybe a small stroke. Then came the broken hip—you know, the one where she told me her knee was bothering her and I drove her to the ER, where they gently suggested an ambulance might have been a better choice. And then surgery to replace that hip, after which she thought I was my father and announced to me, “They tell me you’ve been dead for 19 years.” I resolved to do something about that little facial hair issue and the apparent pallor issue.

Then rehab and then coming home and all the confusion and finding full time help and then the inevitable worsening of her condition—forgetting where she was or big parts of her life story or not knowing where I was born or when, which made it much easier to lie about my age and feel good about it because if your mom doesn’t know, who does?

And always, the guilt. The guilt about ruining the end of her life. My mom gave me a sweater once that had the initials DOM over the left breast—Daughter of the Millennium. It was a gentle joke—I often referred to myself that way, just to tease my sisters—but in some small way, I believed it. But once the new century began, there was no more talk of this, and I knew I was seriously out of the running for any kind of honor, except perhaps the Cruella De Vil "Rhymes With Witch" Award.

Until one recent Sunday when my mom asked me again to explain to her why she was living where she was living. And I told her the story and I said, “You were very angry with me.” And she smiled and said, “Oh, honey, I had no business living by myself anymore. You did the right thing.” Absolution. Finally. From her.

And someday, maybe I’ll even forgive myself for doing what needed to be done. There’s a leadership lesson in there somewhere, but I don’t want to think about it too much because I bet Barack Obama doesn’t cry when he ponders his tough and unpopular decisions.

It is opening day of baseball season. My mother loves baseball, loves the athleticism of it, loves the Dodgers. I’m disgusted with the Dodgers because of the Divorce and how they phoned it in last season, but I agree with her about the grace of the game. She asks me repeatedly during the off-season: How many more days till opening day?

Finally the day is here, and I stop by her place with a new Dodgers jersey and she is delighted. I write down the time of the game and the channel and give it to the caretaker and tell Mom to root for the Dodgers in their home opener against the Giants. She is beaming as I leave and says, “You are the best kid.” I am beaming too.

At 90, my mother has taught me another important lesson: Life, examined as a selected series of moments, can be joyful. I asked her later whether she watched the game, and she didn’t remember. But it didn’t matter—finally—to either of us.