Peggy and Ruth

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I just found this photo, purchased a little over a year ago. Somehow it has been overlooked, but today seems like the right day for it finally. For many of us this past week was smacked with a weather front we now refer to as a polar vortex. While it plunged our compatriots in the midwest into negative double digit weather, closing offices and schools and terribly even killing a number of people, here in New York it was just very, very cold, requiring many more layers of clothes than we wanted to wear and waddling like down covered penguins as a result.

In the midst of it we experienced something called a snow squall, which I admittedly liked the name of very much, but the experience of a bit less. I saw it from a conference room at work, overlooking the south end of Columbus Circle and within view of the southwest most corner of Central Park. We could barely see out the window and the wind was so bad it snowed upward! For a little more than an hour it poured snow and pounded Manhattan. Visions of pioneers struggling through sudden deadly storms came to mind, although we remained safe in our office tower perch. It resulted in a sheet of ice covering all the sidewalks which somehow the denizens of buildings responsible for snow removal didn’t see fit to address.

Of course my relationship to bad weather was quite different as a child, as I am guessing is true for at least most of us who experience childhood in the suburbs. For me, childhood hurricanes brought floods caused by the nearby river and had a holiday effect, a cause for excitement as water rushed around the house and under the floors, chilling them, ducks quacking at the backdoor. (I think about that now and how my mother was often home alone with us, three small children, when it happened – Dad off at work in New York or traveling as often as not. Mom was and remains, one tough cookie.)

Snow was of course the best because it resulted not only in a day off from school, but in ice skating (that same river flowed into smaller tributaries that froze solid) and sledding. Now, before I create an image of a sylvan childhood of Rockwell-like jolliness, I will state that as a child the meteorological conditions seemed to rarely result in weather that both closed school and was prolonged enough and appropriate for skating and/or sledding. It seemed to be something you were always waiting for that rarely occurred – making it all the better when it did.

Born in February blizzard, I have experienced many snowy birthdays. I will not opine on them right now, but frequently canceled birthday plans created a love-hate relationship with the white stuff. However, I do remember getting a new sled for, I believe, my eleventh birthday, and even without snow on the ground that year it remains a splendid gift that lives in memory.

While this photo was taken twenty-one years before I popped onto the scene, it could very easily been me and my sister Loren, and our cat Snoopy. We owned this very type sled and peaked caps, just like Peggy and Ruth. Snoopy was white with black cow spots, instead of this nice tabby type, and I believe Loren and I at 19 months between us, were closer in age than Peggy and Ruth appear to be. (A nod to Edward who would have shown up on the scene later in the game.) I have trouble imagining a photo of us this angelically posed – I believe most of the snow photos of Loren and I have us fighting, appropriately enough. Still, I purchased it thinking of us.

Unsurprisingly, at the moment the long-range forecast has precipitation predicted for my February 11 birthday. Last year it was a torrential, icy rain – none of the jolliness of snow I am afraid. I am working next weekend, but taking my birthday off to enjoy with Kim and cats here, snow or not, at Deitch Studio.

 

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Cat Ears

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I resisted this photo as long as I could because it was expensive, but had to purchase it. (Full disclosure: Kim has tweaked the contrast on this in Photoshop which improves it considerably.) There’s no explanation on the back of this card and it was never sent, but it does speak for itself. I must say, with perhaps one exception (second girl from the left end), as a group they don’t appear happy about what I consider to be their jolly cat costumes. And my goodness, poor #6, in his enhanced, darker costume doesn’t look happy at all. Even mom doesn’t look thrilled. It’s a glum group of kitties. (A careful look leads me to believe the adult is at a minimum related to the child whose hand she holds and #6.)

In addition to his number label, #6 is the only one sporting a nice set of whiskers and has a high contrast version of the cat suit. It is hard to see, but they do also sport tails – a pity that we don’t see those better. One set of ears was sewn to look more elfin that cat, third in. It is almost impossible to see, but each also sports a tiny horseshoe pin – pointing down I’m sorry to say, all that luck pouring out. Mom wears one too. There’s something I especially love about the line up of shoes peering out, the trouser legs sewn differently at the bottom of each. There is that reluctant version of hand holding that children do – with a complete refusal of the two on the end. Ha! Gotcha. Take that you grown ups!

Personally, I have long loved a good animal costume and I tend to think I would have been more than happy to have been dressed up like this, especially if I was #6 – I would have been jealous of those whiskers and sharper black suit if I was one of the others. A tail is a great thing too and I have often thought I would like one. For myself, I am very fond of a pair of cat ears on a hairband I own. (This combines a good hair look with, well, lovely pointy cat ears – if only I could make them move independently like Cookie and Blackie do in inquiry and annoyance.) Our cats seem to find my cat ears alarming and repugnant however.

I remember when I first got the cat ear hairband years ago and put it on to show my cat Otto – who shrank away and with an expression which could only be described as the sort of disapproval and disappointment she’d have reserved for my holding forth with a racist joke – how could you? Evidently cat ears are the equivalent of kitty black face. It also seems you have, in their eyes, been transformed into a huge monster cat. Frankly, they appear to find hats distasteful too in a similar way – although it must be said that Cookie and Blackie are forgiving of Kim’s outsized cowboy hat he wears daily. However, I get the kitty stink eye for a knit cap in winter on my way out the door.

Unlike the Metropolitan Museum, it is interesting to note that many of the folks at Jazz dress up for Halloween. I was surprised the first year, but this past year I did bring cat ears to work. I only wore them for a short time, but it is clearly one of the perks of the job.

All in the Family

Pam (Family) Photo Post: As I sit down to write today I am unsure really what I want to say about this photo. I was fascinated by it when I saw it for the first time over Thanksgiving. I have no memory of seeing it before. It is a photo of a photograph which is in very bad condition and over-exposed in part (I took it on my phone and Kim has darkened it slightly for us here), but it manages to be fascinating nonetheless.

This photo was taken in the yard I grew up as knowing to be my grandmother’s, but it was a home (and yard) that at one time housed several families and generations of my family. My mother grew up in the two story house attached to it, with her brother and parents on the ground floor and an aunt, uncle and cousin on the second. One of the grandmothers lived with them there at one time too. I wrote about the house aways back when some photos of it came my way. (That post can be found at My Grandmother’s House here and I also wrote about my maternal grandmother, and her kitchen in Ann’s Glass which is here.) However, here is the familiar yard, several generations before my childhood, recorded on the advent of the wedding of my great-aunt Rose (Ro’ or Ro’ Ro’ to me as a kid) and a glimpse of this opulent, if homespun, backyard celebration.

My mother tells me that this table, impossibly long and which literally disappears into the photo horizon, is set up under a grape arbor decorated here with festive bunting, which supplied this (very Italian) family with the grapes to make wine. The arbor was long gone by my childhood, my mother says it was the victim of a jolly rodent population attracted by its bounty and the nuisance convinced the later generation of denizens to dismantle it. Every inch of the yard, less than an acre by my reckoning, was devoted to producing food for the family – fruit and nut trees, a vegetable garden, chickens. This yard, hunting and fishing, extraordinary cooking and preserving skills, kept this family fed through thin times, including my mother’s childhood which includes the far end of the Depression.

The family owned a bar which the women of the Cittadino family (at a minimum my great-grandmother and her daughters) cooked for, in addition of course to feeding and taking care of the family. When I look at this photo my mind reels with thoughts of the days (weeks really) of work that must have gone into this celebration. I would imagine that many hands helped in a variety of ways, but there’s no way to imagine it wasn’t an enormous job for those at the heart of it. As I look at it I am fascinated by how the men are grouped at the end of the table closest to us. No one has identified any of them specifically. Frankly, it looks like a tough group!

In general the men on this side of the family are dim in my memory and mind. They seem to have largely died on the young side (a variety of reasons, inherited heart issues among them) and therefore my childhood self never met them or at least didn’t know them long enough for there to be much of an impression. On the other hand, the women, an undeniably strong group of women, loom large and Ro was the oldest of that clan. I have vivid memories of them. As I unpack more of these images in future posts I will likely write more about these strong willed sisters and what I know of them.

These photos come to me via a cousin (second cousin to me) who has unearthed them as she starts cleaning out her own version of an ancestral home. She has lost her mother and significant other over the past year (the latter quite unexpectedly), and she has drifted to staying with my mother, who since my father’s death over the summer is largely alone in her house – although so many friends come and go I often think it is her own version of Grand Central Station. Nonetheless, family is different and it is a poignant reminder that it is an interesting thing, which can at times expand and contract as needed. It unfurls further than the eye can see, back into the past, and indefinitely into the future.

Handkerchiefs

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The only physical possessions of my father’s I brought home after he died are a series of white handkerchiefs. Dad was a devoted cotton handkerchief user. That was just a fact of him, like having greenish hazel eyes. I never thought about that never-ending line of handkerchiefs, for example when he started using them – why he preferred them to Kleenex. I wish now I had thought to ask, but as I said, they were just a fact of him. I think he would have found the question perplexing anyway, and he would have given me a look he reserved for those occasions when I would zip a question like that in out of left field – eyebrows raised and a shake of the head before probably saying he had no idea.

These handkerchiefs are not of a decorative, natty nature, peeping out from a suit pocket. These were practical and daily used, workaday hankies, always fresh and white though. I have no idea where he purchased them or how frequently. Presumably there was a very long line of them, the tatty ones ultimately pulled out by my laundry doing mother who also put herself in charge of thinning out all his worn out clothes with an eagle eye. (Dad was never very good at de-accessioning things. He was a keeper of all things – an accumulator in fact if left to his own devices.) I wouldn’t even know where to purchase such a thing, although I assume these days Mr. Google would accommodate me if I attempted it.

I brought dad some freshly laundered clothes from home shortly before he died and one of his handkerchiefs fell out when he went to put a shirt on. We both stared at it. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I hadn’t thought about them, those handkerchiefs, in a long time. It seemed incongruous to see it in his hospital bed. After he died I packed up those handkerchiefs that remained in his drawer and brought them home with me. I began carrying one, without the intention of using it, but just to have it like a lucky penny. Yet, like some heretofore unknown law of nature, if you carry a handkerchief, you will ultimately find yourself using it and I have.

This brings to mind a myriad of points about hygiene and maybe even the ecology of the disposable versus the washable, but frankly it doesn’t really matter. It seems a case can be made either way and I will leave it at that. Privately I think of them as my own stack of crying towels, a bit unkind perhaps, but there is some truth behind that. And I am learning that, after all, there are worse things than crying. Meanwhile, they are a talisman, albeit a practical one, tucked away in my handbag.

 

Cars

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Probably because I have been thinking a lot about my father recently, a memory of the beloved Matchbox cars of my childhood has pushed its way to the top of mind. One of my earliest memories was racing these cars with my father on the wide expanse of a bare wooden floor in a house we lived in when I was a toddler. Dad would get on the floor with me and my sister and we would choose cars and push them – Ready, Set, Go! and see which would go furthest. Some cars were favored as being believed to be faster and some were just cooler than others.

So stubborn and persistent is this renewed memory that I began to think about purchasing these cars again. There are toy collectors who are largely preoccupied with repurchasing their childhood – a glorified version of their childhood or exactly what they owned, or perhaps what they never had. I, of course, am generally a sort of extreme version of the last, assembling the childhood of an extremely wealthy if somewhat odd British-American child of the 1920’s and 30’s. Other than a few books (posts on some of these can be found at The Cricket in Times SquarePush Kitty and also The Story About Ping) I have not attempted to replace any toys of my own past.

However, I was gratified that images of my favorite cars were immediately and easily found. A child of the early 1960’s Lesney’s Matchbox cars (founded in Britain in 1957) had probably only reached our shores a few years before, the true explosion of these models just taking hold. Unsurprisingly, there are a myriad of fan sites and Pinterest pages devoted to collecting Matchbox cars. Photos of my favorites were readily found online, leading also to discovering others I have owned. These very cars are in fact also available, in a wide range of condition, for sale on eBay – albeit not inexpensive and frequently necessitating the purchase of several cars along with the ones I want, ones that I have no interest in. Therefore, I have not yet pulled the trigger.

For some reason I was shocked to discover that my very favorite car, the white converible with the red seats as above, was a Mercedes Benz – expensive taste even as a child! It was the favorite and fastest. Another prized one was the Mercury Couger below. In researching this I was reminded that we also had an ambulance (that blue bit on the roof slides back and forth and I was crazy about that) and a beloved double decker bus, both special, but slower when racing.

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This Mercury Couger was usually in competition with the Mercedes Benz above

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Matchbox Ambulance, Studebaker Wagonaire, we’d race this one, but not the fastest

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Also slower was this double decker bus

 

The detail on these cars is what you remember, the doors opened, some you could pop the hood open; sometimes there were trailer hitches on the back. I can’t seem to find one we had where the exposed engine wiggled up and down when it ran – it made a slight ticka-ticka sound as a result – and it was fast! These details made them memorable and wonderful. Cast in metal, they had a bit of heft to them. It turns out that the series was founded by a man who was a co-owner of the nascent toy car company, Jack Odell, who designed the first tiny model car for his daughter. She was allowed to take a toy no larger than a matchbox to school. Frankly, I had never realized that it was a British company and was surprised to realize this – I had always associated them with the much later purchase of the company by Mattel in my mind.

My dim memory of purchasing our Matchbox cars is that they were in a display or bin at the supermarket near the register where you could convince mom of a last minute impulse buy – they were designed to be extremely affordable and this ploy worked. Meanwhile, I do not believe my parents were making any significant unisex statement with the fact that my sister and I played with cars, and we had electric trains too. I seem to remember the occasional baby doll, although admittedly they were not high on my or my sister’s list. (I did have a lovely metal baby carriage that I used to coax the cat into and would occasional try to dress him in some doll clothes however.) Barbie later ranked very high with me and certainly there are those who say she epitomizes a sexist toy. (I adored my Barbies, more about that another time.)

By the time my brother was in the picture, my mother’s toy politics profile was raised and she was marginally disapproving of guns and war toys. However, my Barbie dated a GI Joe purchased instead of the lunkhead Ken sold for that purpose. (GI Joe was full posable with articulated joints, Heidelberg dueling scar and all, and was the optimum date; Barbie also had an off model doctor doll – Dr. Bob maybe? – she deigned to hang out with occasionally.) My brother had water pistols and at least a nominal few GI Joe’s as well so mom wasn’t maniacal about this. However, I think it was largely the availability and affordable nature of Matchbox cars that got mom to pop a new one in the shopping cart occasionally to quiet us kids down. Dad brought home what may have been a rip off by Esso of a gasoline truck at one point, purchased at the gas station or given as a premium. I was entertained and pleased to learn that Mr. Odell designed them originally for his daughter.

Try as hard as I can, I do not remember the cat, Snoopy, chasing these when we raced them although he must have. (I think Cookie and Blackie would assume this game was meant just for them.) Memory tells me that eventually we had a case for our cars and this one below strikes a familiar chord. Mom and Dad probably just got tired of constantly stepping on them. I seem to remember that too!

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Cookies and Ice Cream

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is a tempestuous red and blue dawn on a lovely, cool July morning in the aptly named Fair Haven, New Jersey. I am sitting in bed eating a bagel and drinking cold coffee accompanied by my father’s cat, Red, with Dick Powell as The Singing Marine on TCM to keep us company. The bagel is a very reasonable one, although it has a vegan spread on it instead of butter – mom didn’t know I would be coming so only her own vegan offerings are available. I have a miserable chest cold, but despite that this would be a perfectly lovely perch if it wasn’t for the fact that I am here because my father is dying.

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Red, my father’s constant companion, is my host cat when I visit

 

Most of my experience with dying has been of the fast and furious kind, starting with people dying young, mostly in accidents. Then when my sister Loren died of breast cancer, the actual end was upon us suddenly somehow, even after seven years of struggle. Dad on the other hand, is going by inches – slipping just perceptibly more one day or week, but then finding a new plateau. It is painful to watch and not the way anyone would really chose to go. After an especially bad dip I came on Friday, despite the chest cold. I found him mostly lucid, but falling into unconsciousness.

The nurses and hospice folks are gentle with me, preparing me for the obvious. They are all very nice people – as I said to a friend yesterday, the nicest people you never want to have to meet. First spring then turning to summer weekly visits to see him and his slow, but steady decline, and offer support to my mom. It is sad and difficult, but undeniably inevitable in a way my sister’s death at 40 was not.

My early visits home were accompanied by chocolate for Dad. I brought whatever I thought might tempt him a bit, sending chocolates online, bringing chocolate bickies from London after a trip. As he transitioned to in-patient hospice care I shifted to a favorite of his since childhood, black and white cookies. I remember being introduced to these first from my grandparent’s house in Mamaroneck, New York. Those visits were spotted with the large black and white cookies with slightly sticky frosted icing, and slices of marble cake, bottoms wrapped in yellow paper – the taste of either brings me back to long Sunday afternoons of my childhood. Dad remained a life long fan of the black and whites (a friend in college called them moon cookies which entertained me) and Penn Station offers a reasonable, if packaged, version that he likes and I pick up on my way through to NJ Transit.

***

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My father has always loved ice cream. It was an open family secret that you could almost always talk him into an ice cream junket. If you were driving on a trip, pulling off at an exit for a Howard Johnson’s sundae was always an option, and more successful ploy than asking to stop for the bathroom. In our New Jersey town, an evening trip to the local Dairy Queen was an easy coax.

As spring turned to summer his condition worsened. Father’s Day approached and he had asked for ice cream (something more satisfying than the little cups offered with his lunch and dinner daily as per my instructions). A good friend frequently picks me up at the train to take me to visit him, I knew that week she could not. While it wasn’t at all logical it kept scratching at my brain that there must be a way to get ice cream from Manhattan to him somehow, but I failed to figure it out.

Kim has been devoted about accompanying me on most of these weekends to offer moral support. However, on that particular weekend I was traveling alone and hopped a cab at the train station. For those of you who live in suburbia you may understand that a local cab is nothing like one in Manhattan. Instead, it was a broken down Chevy sedan, driven by a guy about my age in cutoffs and flip flops. (I have frequently found myself in a cab with  someone I went to school with – while this was not the case, but could have been easily enough.) The cab had torn upholstery, hemorrhaging stuffing where I installed myself in the backseat.

I gave the address and the name of the facility which has sufficed to get me to there previously as this is a relatively small town. Having lived there most of my young life I know the area well, but he took me in a direction I didn’t know, a fact that dimly registered in my distracted mind as I settled into my own thoughts,  preparing for my visit and what I would find.

When I snapped to attention I realized that I was at a strange intersection, and as I was formulating an inquiry to get us where we needed to go, the driver turned around and asked me in a cheery voice, “Would you like to stop for ice cream?” You can imagine my amazement. I said, “Excuse me?” Him, “Yeah, there’s a great place for homemade ice cream just about 200 yards from here.” “Well, yes, actually I would love to, but your a cab driver, are you sure you don’t mind?” “Naw, it’s fine.” Me, as we pull into the empty parking lot next to a tiny white building that houses what turns out to be a family owned business, “Can I get you something?” Him, “No, I’m good.”

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Ryan’s Ice Cream, Tinton Falls, NJ

 

So off I go, into this small white box of a building which has evidently been here for decades, attended by a high school student in summer job mode, the wares – more than a dozen large containers of homemade ice cream, taking up the length of the store. I purchase a medium order of chocolate chocolate chip for my father and a small cookies and cream for myself. Dad’s medium size ice cream was a bit unreasonably large, but happily he ate every bite much to my surprise. He hasn’t been able to eat nearly as much subsequently, but I keep bringing it. He’s partial to chocolate on chocolate, but likes vanilla with bits of Heathbar in it too, a blatant rip off of the Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Clearly ice cream will be more or less the last thing to pass his lips.

****

Part Two: I think we may have passed through all the possible good stages, these are the last days I guess. Dad is uncooperative, stubbornly blatantly so, refusing to take his medication or talk to me. Gone is the gentle joshing of a few days ago about who is bossiest in the family and maybe the tiniest mouthfuls of ice cream. He will only take a few sips of this or that. Dad, a few weeks shy of 88, has fought his death, with every fiber – blood clot in the leg, a raging infection, congestive heart failure all topped off with N Stage COPD – he has worked his way through nine lives in the last few weeks alone, rising again and again like an unlikely phoenix.

Just two days ago he was telling me he was thinking about getting up with his walker the next day. (This extremely unlikely given the state of his leg, but who am I to be discouraging at this point?) So, I sit, with the stubbornness he has willed to me, at least equal to his own – I always say doubled by that I inherit from my mother. I play early jazz on my computer, then classical music. He’s never been a fan of music in particular, but I think it is a nice change of pace for him and he might as well hear something other than the tv if we aren’t going to talk. Or rather if he doesn’t want to listen to me prattle on as our conversations have been one-sided for some time now. I have given up on reading to him from the New York Times.

As for me, if I am not here I am fretting about not being here, when I am here I worry about my inability to do much, to engage him. I have foolish thoughts about how other people are probably better at this than me – my self-inflicted burden for being competitive in every aspect of life and finding my own perceived inadequacies when left alone to my own devices. I reflect on how my father has actually always been good at just being there – never too chatty, but always willing when called upon to drive or sit somewhere he would do it, if silently, but without restlessness. I tell him stories about this now.

There are other things to be said about my father, but for now I will just say a few. A camera man for ABC News for his entire career, honored with two Emmy’s, nominated for a third, he was a man who loved his job and deeply embodied it, staying with it despite the physical nature of it, camera rig on his shoulders, until he was almost 70. By no means perfect, his current illness brings out an periodic belligerence – hard although I think it unfair to expect someone in his current situation to have be perpetually cheerful. His 6’5″ frame has long been folded into this bed, still massive, but shrunken. Always a silent man, he once joked that it tickled him to intimidate the occasional man I brought home. Perhaps in the future I will write more about him, the good and the bad, but for now these are the things I think about.

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Dad died on August 11 and I sent six pints of ice cream to the hospice, with his and my thanks.

 

The Boys and Felix

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have periodically opined on how much fun it would be to have your photo taken with a nice Felix the Cat doll and this one looks like a third child in the photo. Felix is such a handy size I wonder if it is a prop (probably) or actually belongs to these youngsters. I know if it was I as a tiny tot, I’d have been bellowing for him to come home with me; greedy, thankless child that I was. These two kids look quite jolly, the older one downright debonair – perhaps best not to meet him as a gent (or cad) around town later in life. The younger one appears to be trimmed out in fur which seems all odd from today’s standards. Even in our own decadent times – fur trimmed outfit for your toddler?

This photo seems like the sort of studio shot taken for the purpose of eventually ending up on grandma’s table of treasured family photos. My mother’s mom had studio portraits, large ones, of my mother and her brother, both in graduation cap and gowns, as I remember. The one of my mother had hand colored tinting, and it was the first time I ever saw that in a photo. As a kid I was endlessly fascinated by it. I can see it in my mind now, hanging in the dining room (housing a table which occasionally held food, but we absolutely never ate at – that was done in the kitchen with a table and space which both somehow magically expanded to fit an infinite number of family members as required) on a flocked print wallpaper, gray with a green design. The photo did not look like my mother, mostly because her nose was broken and not set properly shortly after high school when the photo was taken. I didn’t know that until I was older and wouldn’t have thought to ask for an explanation for the transformation. My uncle looked exactly the same – his Howdy Dowdy resemblance following him into adulthood and beyond. As the younger brother his photo was true color and his bright red hair and freckles stood out.

When my grandmother moved out of her house and into a nursing facility, much was disposed of and a small number of things were absorbed by my mother and uncle – who by that time was living down south, but collected a number of things. I do not know what happened to the photos, my mother was not overly fond of hers so she clearly did not claim them. I do not know if my uncle did. I must think to ask my mother when I call her later today.