Days Thirty-Three and Thirty-Four – Aimee and Sheena

So a whole bunch of years ago, my darling Dad, my great kid and I were down at Point Pleasant strolling the boardwalk on an early autumn Sunday afternoon. There was a crafts fair on the boardwalk and I left my Dad and my son at the arcade and I browsed the tables. I came across a table with the most glorious scented candles I have ever experienced. I picked a few and chatted with the talented woman who made these candles and learned about her process. The scents were heavenly and I bought a few and asked how I could buy more in the future. She gave me a card showing all the crafts fairs she’d be displaying at through the winter and, a few months later, I headed back down to Point Pleasant and its local high school’s craft fair. I reintroduced myself and bought even more candles and asked if she sold at retail. She did, she told me, and gave me the name of a boutique just a short drive away: Plethora.

And that was my how my love affair with this spectacular boutique and its two kick ass owners, Aimee and Sheena, began. Their store, the epitome of a local business that knows customer service like no other retailer I’ve ever frequented, carries a multitude of things you don’t know you need until you see them. Fashion, candles, jewelry, handbags, photography, cards, glassware, baby clothes and more things than I can even recall. When Point Pleasant is our destination, my Mom and I (and my great friend, Carol, when she and I do our every-few-months-trek to Point Pleasant for a day of shopping, a great meal and even better conversation) always make Plethora our first stop.

When my sister came with us one day, Aimee and Sheena found her a one-of-a-kind dress she wore to a wedding that still stands out as a knockout of an outfit. My Mom must have 20 of their multi-dimensional scarves and actually carries their business cards with her to give out because so many people stop my Mom and ask her where she got the scarves. When my Mom was getting out of the hospital a few years ago, they had a gift for her the next time we visited. And they always give us a discount for no other reason than “just because”. I know that we are not the only people they treat this way because it’s in their DNA to be kind and cheerful and compassionate and giving.

When I need a gift, big or small, for my friends or family, Plethora is where I head and Aimee and Sheena are who I look to because they know what their customers like, they never try to push us into buying something that’s not right and they treat us like friends, instead of casual customers. I’ve gifted so many people with things I’ve bought there over the years and, as a local business, they so appreciate their customers. It’s always a privilege to support a business that gives back as much as they do. They often hold fundraisers where they donate a portion of their sales to various charities or events throughout the Jersey Shore. If I spot an item I’d like on their Facebook page (please check it out and I know you’ll fall in love with them too), I can send them a note and ask them to hold it for me and even if it’s months before I get back there, they’ve got it stored away for me. They are strong, beautiful and successful entrepreneurs and it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be their customer.

I’m so glad that all those years ago I let my Dad convince me to go to Point Pleasant on a Sunday afternoon where I stumbled across the crafts fair on the boardwalk and bought a candle that led me to the high school fundraiser which pointed me towards Plethora and Aimee and Sheena. They have been so kind to my family, my friend, Carol, and me and I love them to pieces. If you are ever down that way, please patronize their store. I can promise you that you will be happy that you did.

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Day Thirty-Two – Tom

So when I lived my corporate life, well before my great kid was born, I worked so much overtime each week and took so many taxis home from work at 11:00 pm that I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Of course I was 100 years younger than I am now with lots more energy and a youthful belief that hard work, commitment and dedication to one’s job always counted for something. I had been in the same position for a few years during a troubled time when the senior person overseeing our department was very ill and the person who reported to him was carrying on inappropriately with a staff member. A hotshot person in the company was brought in to raise the flagging morale of the staff and to shake things up and get things back on track.

After a few months on the job, this hotshot asked me to consider switching to a different position to try to rebrand, energize and breathe some life back into a division that had come under scrutiny for a number of unfortunate decisions. I accepted, albeit reluctantly, but felt with a little time and patience I could master the new job. I learned quickly that my confidence was probably overstated.

Within days I felt overwhelmed. Not so much from the challenge but because the learning curve on the project seemed insurmountable. I was out of my element. I was ready to go back to the hotshot and tell him he’d made a mistake picking me. But the night before I was going to do that, I called my work mentor, my dearest friend, my consigliere and poured my heart out to him. I’m in over my head, I told him. I feel like I’m never going to get it, I cried. I’m a failure before I begin, I said.

This man who was a role model for me as to what a good and kind and caring man should be counseled me and basically said “You’ve got this”. He told me he would be by my side as I navigated these unfamiliar waters and wouldn’t let me sink. His very words, his confidence in me, his belief in my abilities to not only learn but excel at the new job were like a life-preserver thrown to me. I was renewed with the knowledge that I could handle the new job.

And I did. I managed in about 2 years to turn the situation around and right the ship. The mistakes that had been made were corrected, the staff I was able to assemble was top-notch, the hotshot gave me free rein to lead the team in the right direction. Not only was it the most confidence-building experience of my life, I ended up winning a Presidential award that year for what had been accomplished.

One of the things my mother always instilled in me from the time I was young was that when someone gives you something or does a kindness for you that you write that person a thank you note. So after I won this award I wrote the President of the company a thank you note for acknowledging my work, and my team’s work. But I made sure in that note to single out my friend, my mentor, my hero, Tom Packert. Because I could not have taken a single step nor succeeded in any way if he had not been there with me.

To this day, next to my darling Dad he is the finest man I have ever known. Although we have both moved on to different chapters in our lives, I carry the gift of his friendship in my heart every day. Thank you, Mr. Packert. You are the best and always will be.

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Day Thirty-One – Eileen

So my high school friend Eileen Dolan is the type of woman who is a success at everything she does. She is a Mary Kay¬†representative extraordinaire (just ask her how many pink Cadillacs she’s received for her outstanding sales with them) and is also an outstanding nurse, ready to offer suggestions or advice when one of her friends is sick or struggling or has a family member receiving medical care. She has been on missionary missions to help those less fortunate than herself and knows that you are blessed when you give more than you receive.

Whenever we have one of our frequent high school lunches, she comes with little goodie bags for all of us, stuffed with makeup and skin care samples for us to try. At the annual fundraising event in memory of Jenn Esposito, the daughter of one of my other classmates, she always makes a donation of a basket of Mary Kay products to raffle off and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Jenn’s name. She makes no attempt to call attention to what she does but I am making sure that the world knows the goodness in her heart and the compassion in her soul.

I have a very short but deeply moving story about Eileen that demonstrates how kind a person she is. A few years ago I had ordered a Mary Kay gift card from Eileen to give to my Mom for Christmas. (My Mom has used Mary Kay skin care products for over 40 years and, if you’ve seen my mother, you’ll know how beautiful her skin is which she totally credits to Mary Kay). Eileen sent it off, I gave it to my Mom and she was thrilled. End of story.

Except it’s not. I forgot to pay Eileen for the card and then I fell on some difficult times and coming up with the money to pay her for the card became tough. She never nagged me about it even once and honored the git card when my mother redeemed it with her to order some more Mary Kay products. And when I finally was able to pay her for it many months later, she brushed off my apologies and said it was not a big deal at all. But it was for me because she was the epitome of kindness and grace and friendship and loyalty to me. I will never, ever forget that. She is the kind of person we all should have on our side.

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Day Thirty – Eric the Great

So it’s not often you can say that someone changes your life but Eric Wolff changed mine. After my darling Dad died and as my great kid was getting ready to head off to college, I really was at loose ends. I had left my job a few years prior to take care of my parents and to spend more time with my son before he left for his own experiences. I didn’t want, nor could I convince myself, to go back to the 9:00 to 5:00 corporate life with its long commutes and warring factions and lack of appreciation for the value that long-time employees bring to a company. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what.

I have always written and found it both relaxing and energizing. I’d had some minor success in school with writing poems and essays and a few years ago was lucky enough to win a writing contest which was a big thrill (because I’m not one of those people who will tell you that it’s an honor just to be nominated!) About 7 years ago I decided to start this little blog which so many of you are kind enough to read and share and provide feedback and encouragement and support, all of which I am ever so grateful for. I enjoyed the writing process even more than I had previously so I started looking for freelance writing jobs, mostly ones that could be done virtually because my creative juices seem to get cranked up best when I’m in my little mini-office here at home.

And after applying to many (I’m not kidding; over 100) writing jobs, I was contacted by Eric Wolff, who had a tremendous biography and was looking to launch a website dedicated to making complex financial things more simple so that people could read, understand, be educated and not intimidated by techno-babble. He was looking for someone to write a female-centric blog 3 days a week and I sent him a few writing samples and after chatting a few times, he offered me the gig. That’s how my blog (Kids, Men and Money – Looking at Life’s Financial Complications) was born on his website, I focused on what I knew best: how to manage your own financial situation while dealing with aging parents and children headed off to college and still keep your sanity.

There was never a lack of topics to cover and any time I asked my friends for suggestions, they were always willing to lend a hand and provide great topics for me to write about. Eric was the perfect editor. As he liked to say, he didn’t edit so much as curate articles and it was seldom when I needed to change anything I had submitted to the site.

After a few months, he asked me if I’d start writing about celebrities and their financial issues. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) those were the days of Charlie Sheen being on television telling us he was “winning!” every chance he got, so there was plenty of stuff and more than enough people to write about. One highlight (or lowlight depending on your perspective) was when I received any angry e-mail one Friday night from Wayne Newton’s publicist about an article I had written about his latest bankruptcy. Eric stood by me 100% and told me not to worry and that he’d handle it. And he did.

He also encouraged me to write about the good that celebrities can accomplish with their financial clout and the article I wrote about the great Danny Thomas and his daughter, Marlo Thomas, and the outstanding work the entire Thomas family has done for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was the most viewed article I had written, a fact I am still enormously proud of.

A few months after that, Eric asked me if I’d like to cover the Presidential debates of the 2012 election. I make no pretense about my political leanings but it was a true learning experience to try to be an impartial observer and write based on the narrative as opposed to assuming my candidate of choice (the sorely missed President Obama) had the only right position. I hope I was able to impart some good information and present what Fox News would call a fair and balanced story.

Sadly, as many start-up websites do, PrimeRates was shuttered a few years ago. I’m sorry it didn’t survive because there were so many sharp and talented writers contributing to the site. I miss the writing, the research, the feedback, the reader comments, the thrill of seeing my name on the byline. But mostly I’m grateful for the opportunity Eric provided me, the belief he had in me, the platform he gave me. He was the first person to ever hire me professionally as a writer and, to this day, I miss writing for him more than I can say. Thank you, Mr. Wolff, for taking a chance on an untested writer. Your confidence in me made me a better writer, which made me a better person. I will always be grateful to you.

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Day Twenty-Nine – Miss Beans

So I met Miss Beans as a freshman in high school (DC girls rock!) and during our first Christmas season we had a secret Santa event and she played my Secret Santa. (I don’t know if she even remembers this but I sure do). The idea was to leave little notes or tiny things for your secret Santa every day and then a gift right before Christmas. In those days I was a huge fan of the Fifth Dimension (Google them if you don’t know who they are but they were and probably still are awesome!) and one day Miss Beans left me on a tiny little note the words from one of their biggest hits, One Less Bell To Answer.

And the fact that I remember this some 100 years later tells you what an impact it had on me. She made a point of knowing what I liked and did something tied into it. It’s the kind of person she is. She’s a fierce warrior who like too many women I’ve known has fought a health battle and, so fortunately, come out the other side. She adores my Mom and I suspect that if we had a DC lunch and my Mom showed up without me, it would be OK with her.

She has an enormous heart that includes her husband, kids and grandkids and all of us lucky enough to be her friend. She is the best friend to animals with her current menagerie including the largest rabbit I’ve ever seen who ate the cushion of one of her chairs, a pretty big cat and the newest additions, 2 puppies named Vito Corleone and Luca Brasi whose specialties so far seem to be dining on shoes and slippers. She is always on the go visiting folks, having lunch with friends, staying busy, moving onward and upward.

I don’t see her nearly often enough (my fault, not hers) but any time I do get a chance to go somewhere she is I try to make sure I sit next to her because she is a veritable ray of sunshine on the gloomiest of days. She is supportive, upbeat, loyal and protective, all of which I’ve experienced first-hand as I know many people (hopefully) reading this have experienced as well. I can only speak from my own experience but somehow she knows to reach out when your friend reaching out is what you really need.

If I was stranded on a desert island, she’d be one of the people I’d hope would be stranded with me. She is the best of the best and inspires me to scale the heights she does. We’ve grown up together and now we’re growing older together. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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Days Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight – Cooky and Dom

So I wrote about my Vernola boys recently but I can’t talk about how amazing and gifted and wonderful they are without going back to where it started: their parents, Cooky and Dom. College sweethearts who were both teachers, both highly devoted not only to their children but their parents and siblings. Although Cooky and my Mom are first cousins, many times my darling Dad couldn’t remember whether it was Cooky or Dom who he was related to because they both are so integral to our family life.

It’s not easy to raise 4 boys on the salaries that teachers make but they not only did it, they did it extraordinarily well. Every happy family memory I have from my childhood involves them. I was the first child Cooky was allowed to babysit and she loves to tell the story about how she took me to see Santa at Macy’s in Herald Square where we stood on line for an eternity (according to her) and when it was our turn to see Santa, I burst into tears and she had to take me home. (Since I have no memory of this, I suppose I have to take her word for it).

We’d visit them at Rockaway Beach in the summer and watch the Wednesday night fireworks from the boardwalk. We spent more wonderful times with them than I can count. Every time I saw Dom, he’d say “Hello beautiful” and to see the way they lived their lives and loved each other so deeply was and is an inspiration.

When Dom became very ill years ago and passed away after a valiant fight, it was heartbreaking for all of us and my Dad gave one of the eulogies at his service, a difficult task for my father and one he struggled mightily to get through without breaking down. I can remember being overwhelmed at how many people – his students (present and past), his friends, his neighbors, his co-workers – packed the church for his service. It was a true testament to the outstanding man he was.

I have often referred to Cooky as my second mother because she has always been there for not only me but all of us more times than I can count. When we had a 60th anniversary party for my parents, she gave one of the speeches and she talked about my Dad in a way that still makes me get teary. She said that not only was he the person who was there at the beginning of so many lives in our family, he was also the person who was there at the end of many of our family members’ lives. She made a point of reminding everyone – because it’s something easy to take for granted – that my mother never forgets anyone’s birthday and always send a card or a note and is the person who keeps the many cousins, scattered throughout the country, connected. I knew how wonderful my parents were but to hear her share with this crowd of their friends and family so many of their wonderful qualities is a gift that I’m not sure she realizes she gave me.

She includes us in everything and any time my Mom or Dad were sick, she was there. The last time my Dad was in the hospital, she was there almost every day and the last day she saw him, when they both knew it was the last time they’d ever see each other, he said to her as she was leaving “I’ll tell Dom you send your love”. And, to make him laugh, she said “Tell him I’m spending his money too”.

When I knew I was having some major surgery about 5 years ago, she called me a few nights before and asked if it would be OK if she came to the hospital to be with my Mom and my great kid as they waited. I was so grateful to have her there as I know they are too.

There are a handful of people who truly change your life for the better. Cooky and Dom are two of them. And to quote the wonderful lyrics from Wicked “because I knew you, I have been changed for good”.

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Day Twenty-Six – Pat

So my family and I are lucky enough to have as our friend and car advisor extraordinaire the great Pat. My Dad was someone who knew everything about cars and could figure out how to fix whatever needed to be fixed, even if it was just a temporary solution to get us from Point A to Point B. (I remember a particular few months when I was a child when my Dad always carried a spare battery in our VW bug because we never knew when the one in our tired little car was going to die. And it did, frequently).

But since my Dad died, my Mom, my great kid and I are lost when it comes to figuring out what a strange noise means or why the car seems to be not accelerating as fast as it used to. We are lucky, so lucky that my Mom lives around the corner from the Firestone that Pat owns.

Any time we have any kind of problem, he is not only there for us but he makes sure to treat us beyond what would be considered normal customer service. He makes sure to give us the best possible price on any work or service and he doesn’t recommend work that really isn’t necessary.

And with my great kid being 2500 miles away and, until last summer, owning a car that could be kindly called a pile of junk, any time he had a problem (and there were a lot of problems, believe me) and had to take the car in to the local Firestone, Pat would call them and tell them who he was and to make sure they took excellent care of my great kid.

In a world where so many people can operate on the “less is more” theory when it comes to customer service, in a time when you want to make sure you can trust someone, Pat has advocated for us and helped us and treated us so kindly that it is a blessing. He always says to us that he wants to help us the way he’d want someone to help his son or his family and that is a true and rare quality in a person. He is smart, hard-working and a family man who refers to his wife as The Queen every time he talks to us about her. He is decent and kind and a treasure and that he looks after us whenever we need him to do is something to celebrate. It’s far too easy to be the person who complains when we don’t get good customer service. I always try to be a person who lets someone know when they’ve done a great job. Telling you that Pat does a great job each and every day is my pleasure.

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