Minding the Elderly Can Age a Person

Today, the paternal side of the Blogger family buried one of our own.  My cousin was not even 37.  Family members spanning nearly a century — 4 generations — were present, as if to beam a harsh light on the tragedy that my cousin would never grow old.

BOB, who flew in from Texas for the funeral, thought that we should visit Mom’s brother, Uncle L., the last surviving uncle of blogger (ULOB), and that he should meet ULOB’s paramour (POULOB).

SIDEBAR:  Why not make it the day a total beat-down?  In for a little hearbreak, in for a trifecta.   Like that penny and pound thing.

This was so last minute.  And I didn’t want ULOB to think that BOB would come to town and not see him (even though that does happen from time to time).  So, I call ULOB from the car on our way back from the funeral and tried to frame the narrative:

“Hi, Uncle, it’s [Blogger].  [BOB] just came into town at the last minute for a [paternal Blogger] family funeral.  We didn’t want to call to early to wake you [ULOB sleeps until noon].  We would like to stop by and visit this afternoon.”

“Can I invite [POULOB]?”

“Of course.  Does 4pm work?”

“See you then.”

Great.  Death. Destruction. Tears. Lamentations. And a visit to the apartment that is gross by the slums-of-Calcutta standards.  I guess I am not getting a nap today.

BOB and I walked [3 miles] to ULOB’s apartment.  It was good to talk to BOB.  I don’t think we have an hour to talk just the two of us in three decades.

But, we were running late.  So I called ULOB’s apartment.  No answer.  Hmmmm.  Odd.

We arrive at his building.  He lives on the fourth floor of a five story walk-up in what is formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen.  We buzz his intercom.  No answer.

I call again his phone again.  No answer.  BOB leans his palm on ULOB’s buzzer.  I go inside the first door (which is never locked) and start buzzing every apartment in the building until someone lets us in.

We walk up four flights to his apartment.  There is a radio blasting.  We go inside his apartment (don’t you mind the details), expecting to find a body.  BOB says helpfully, “you know, bad things happen in threes, so this would be event no. 2.”

SIDEBAR: BOB needs a refresher in the Blogger family protocol, as in “unhelpful comments in scary, potentially life and death situations are punishable by a different kind of scary, life and death situation.”  Rule No. 3, for those of you following in the handbook.

The place looks like it has been ransacked.  BOB is a little rattled, but I remind him that that is usually what the place looks like.  I am still calm.  I start to look around for a body.  The stench of 54 years of filter-less cigarettes would cover any smell of a decomposing body.

No body here.  Thank G-d.  But nobody here either, so he must be dead in the street.

BOB and I decide not to panic.  Instead, we sit at an outdoor cafe doing our version a TV crime drama stake-out, only with cocktails.  I watch his building while BOB looks for him along the street.

We leave countless more messages on ULOB’s message machine in case he shuffled in while traffic was stopped and a bus obscured my view.

ULOB doesn’t have a cell phone.  We don’t have any contact information on POULOB except her address and her phone number is unlisted.  (I tried.)  This is the time when I wish I didn’t avoid information about her and just embraced her, regardless of their relationship’s beginnings.  Sometimes, principles just bite you in the ass.

SOB knows POULOB’s phone number.  Except, SOB is in London. My phone is running out of juice. And I am rattling off phone numbers to BOB as my phone dies.

BOB calls SOB, “Hey, [SOB], [ULOB] is a no-show at his house.  But he isn’t dead IN his house.  We need POULOB’s number.  Oh, I love you, [BOB]by.”

We abandon our stake-out after 1.5 hours.  Police work is not for me, unless lubricated with a nice cabernet.  BOB goes to Dad’s to have dinner with him.  I go home, preparing myself to call hospitals or go to POULOB’s house and knock on the door.

I get home. The doorman hands me a message from ULOB and POULOB. They were here, thinking the gathering was here. The message says they are at a nearby restaurant. I RUN there.  We clear up the miscommunication.  POULOB says ULOB told her we were having a gathering either at 2, 3 or 4.  They opted for 4:15. Ok, I am not so devastated about missing them.

I say, “we were at a funeral, although I could understand the mix-up”.  Wow, cabernet is the opposite of a truth serum.  Because, who, in the world invites guests, who don’t know the deceased, to a post-funeral gathering?

We resolve the following things:

  • ULOB needs a cell phone.
  • POULOB needs all of our contact information and we, hers, because she is here to stay.  And she does take really good care of ULOB.
  • Nobody dies on my watch.  And when I say nobody, I also mean no body on my watch.

I did remember to text SOB that we were really sorry we gave her a heart attack, especially when she would get care in the UK hospital system.  I called Dad to tell him to tell BOB that all is well, but Dad already started cocktail hour, so at some point I ask him to pass the phone to his attendant, because I could not live another moment in loopy land.

This Abbott and Costello afternoon happened on the heels of the real tragedy — my young cousin’s untimely death.  Today I experienced universal grief, elderly confusion and existential anxiety, some at both ends of the spectrum of life.

For now, I am grateful to be in the middle.

 

Uh, oh, another “Dear Mom” blog

Dear Mom:

I know you are watching the events as they unfold down here on Earth.  Dad is remarkable in the ability of his body to heal so quickly — and just days shy of his 92nd birthday.  Ok, the mind is another thing.  That is a bit of a mixed bag.

Dad’s week has been packed with life and all of its emotions, from heart-breaking to uplifting, from triumph to quiet desperation, from funny to painful indignity.  And we, the kids, whether in person or on the telephone, have been on the ride along with him.

We went from feelings of sheer terror in taking Dad for a walk around the block (would he fall?) to POB’s dancing with Dad in the house to the sublime — a soft shoe routine in the supermarket, he with his cane (and his home aide ready to catch him) and I with a new mop that we desperately needed.  But later he couldn’t get up from the table without help and was dizzy, so he needed a long recuperative nap.  So, we will do soft shoe when we can, but we aren’t ready to go on the road. We do what he can do and no more.

We spent days going through pictures, reminding him of the family.  He is getting really good at this.  He remembers you, without any sort of coaxing.  One of his home aides told me that Dad talks about you and how he is still married to you and still in love with you, no matter that you died 10 years ago.  He told her the secret — that you appear somewhere in all his paintings.  He knows your spirit lives in the house.  And, of course, your portrait remains as evidence that this is your home.

In a weird way, I think that the home aides are a blessing.  Dad can talk to them all day.  Now I realize what life has been like for Dad these last few years.  If Dad can’t go to the studio to sculpt (he hasn’t been able to for a few months) and he isn’t with us on the weekends, the days between are deafening silent and slow.  I wanted to cry for his loneliness.  But now he sings for his home aides, offers them a cocktail (which they refuse) and the house has noise.

But there are hard moments.  Moments filled with the indignity of aging and a child having to care for a parent as if he were a baby.  And, when he is discombobulated, the air seems to fill with a toxin that hurts my lungs.  There are also less profound crises, like the day there were no bananas for breakfast and Dad was not strong enough to go to the store or be left alone.  Imagine, a reasonably successful New York lawyer unable to answer client emails because she has to bring bananas for breakfast.  Still, he asked, “how much a pound did you pay?”  “Before or after I add in the cost of the cab to hand deliver these to you, Dad?”

At least today, there was levity amidst the crazy talk.  Aunt Glue and Cousins J and K came to visit.  Aunt Glue and Dad were both a little off, but they enjoyed their conversation.  The rest of us didn’t quite understand the conversation, but I tried to let go of reality and roll with it.  Cousin J tried to correct Aunt Glue’s somewhat vague statement, and I asked her, “at this table, what does it matter?”

Aunt Glue and Dad, the remnants of our greatest generation, stronger in body than in mind, gained fortitude and joy from each other’s presence.  Aunt Glue is the only one alive who knows to call Dad by his original, Yiddish, name, Nachum.  “So, Nachy”, she said, “tell me all.”  I wanted to live in that moment because she has said that in the same way for as long as I have been alive (and longer), when they were strong and infallible and blazing the frontier.  When Dad was Dad and you were alive.

At least Dad has you, always.  As do we, your children.  But, in these moments, I wonder why I had to grow up.  I love you, Mom.  And I love Dad, come what may.

Love, Blogger

 

 

 

It absolutely gets better

As a girl (in the 1960s and 1970s), I was fearless, self-confident and wholly comfortable with my body.  That is, until I became a teenager.  Then, as quickly as a flip of a switch (or so it seemed), everything changed.

Aside from the raging hormones that could have alone turned me into an alien, I had unfamiliar feelings and longings.  And I didn’t fit neatly into the role of a 14 year-old girl who had to wear skirts (dress code) to school.  But, generally, I liked the way I looked.  And I liked the way other girls looked, too.

Except, I was supposed to be looking at boys.  Once I realized my “mistake”, I knew “fitting in” was something I would have to study, like any other subject in school.  And I figured it would be hard, like Biochemistry (yes, I was precocious at 14), but I was smart and a good student.  So, I thought, “I could do this”.

It was harder than Biochemistry and you couldn’t learn it from a book.  My high school girl friends were “into boys” in such a natural, innate way. I withdrew into myself because I knew that this difference was too basic and I couldn’t fake it.  I wouldn’t make close friendships because I had this secret and this unease about where friendships ended and romance could begin.  I needed to keep people at bay.  Invisibility was my goal when it came to talking about boys, what you did with boys, make-up, etc.  Just blend in.

All through high school on Saturday nights, I used to take long walks around the East Side so my parents didn’t know that I was friendless or weary of feeling like the outsider.  Only years later, did I learn that someone else was doing the same thing because she had the same issues, except her route was different enough so that we never bumped into one another.  We would have recognized each other because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.

Inside, I was confused and sad and I knew, just knew, that my troubles were my fault.  How could I fix something that I couldn’t even talk about?  I medicated with food and alcohol.  Brilliant.  I added significant weight gain to my problems.  And nothing makes teenage life worse than being fat.  Now I was a liability to be around if you wanted to talk up cute boys.  I was less than background; I was avoided.

I remained heavy through my college years.  I was still struggling with wanting to be straight and not wanting to deal with this horrid, scary secret. On campus, a right-wing newspaper printed the names of the members of the GSSG (Gay Students Support Group).  I was secretly grateful that I was too scared to join.  I remained anonymous but I saw the effects of being “outed” on some of my friends. What happened to them confirmed my every nightmare.  “Out” meant parental disapproval (and worse), no chance of having children and discrimination. I wanted my parents to be proud and I wanted a family.  But I also wanted love.  What did I do to deserve this fate?  I had to have done something so unspeakably wrong to be exiled to a long and lonely road.

But sometimes the desire to feel whole can make a person go to crazy extents.  During college, I kept trying to put myself in situations where I might meet lesbians but only at a distance.  Two girls giggling in a bathroom piqued my interest, but I stayed in the background.  Invisible.  My comings and goings seemed mysterious enough so that my friends assumed that I was a Soviet spy meeting my handler.  No joke.  They still tease me to this day.

When I was graduated in 1985, I resolved to live a double life – try to marry a man and have an emotional (or romantic?) relationship with a woman. I had a hard time keeping up with the lies about why I was a no-show with my college friends or why I spent so much time with a particular woman when my mom would ask. I was a handful of shards of glass, each reflecting a portion of me, but not adding up to the whole.

I joined a gym to relieve some of the stress of my life and because I simply got sick and tired of literally wearing the weight of my troubles. I joined a gym to stop the “you would be so much more attractive if you lost some weight”.  I really channeled my anger and fears into exercise.  I was angry at G-d for making me gay and I was fearful of what would happen if I acted on those feelings.  Maybe you can imagine how sweating buckets can calm you down and make you so tired that you needed to adjourn those quandaries until the next day.  And, the next day, and so on.  I used work-outs at the gym to avoid my issues.  The upside was that I was really getting into good shape.

When I got thin, the family’s mantra “you are so thin and pretty now, I am sure the boys are knocking down your door!” returned.  In truth, I tried boys.  There was one lovely man I came close to marrying.  But he sensed the issues that lay right under the surface and called me on them.  “Do you need to sow some wild oats or should we just not have female housekeepers?”  And then, “should I wait?”  “No,” was my anguished answer.  (“If only you were female,” I thought.)  G-d bless him and his family forever.  (He has a lovely wife and two adult children now.)

In New York City in the 1980s, there were still no positive images of lesbians, let alone images of feminine lesbians. What was I thinking throwing away a solid relationship with a wonderful man? But, he and I both deserved to find our heart’s desires and soul mates.  At least he did; I couldn’t see how I was going to meet someone.  I didn’t want to be with a butch woman; I was a woman who wanted to be with a feminine woman.  They were invisible (unless they were on the arms of butch women). I was looking for a hypothetical feminine, pretty, Jewish (not essential), well-educated, funny and slightly neurotic lesbian.  Whoa, tall order.  I figured I would be alone for the rest of my life.  If it sounds sad, you can be sure that this is an understatement of how I felt.

Somewhere, on the other side of town, was a woman in a relationship who was wondering if she would ever meet her soul mate, her heart’s desire. We would have recognized each other if we met because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.

If I was going to leave a relationship with a wonderful man because of this “girl thing”, then it was high time I started gluing the shards of my life together.  Even though my father’s “I would welcome him as a son-in-law” echoed in my head and threatened to push out my brains through my ears, I tried to be open and honest with my family, my friends and, yes, me. And that required coming out.

My told my friend NYCFOB (dear NYC friend of blogger) in a cab, “you know my boyfriend John?  Her name is [girl’s name].”  I could see her brain working; a lot now made sense to her.  “It changes nothing between us,” she said simply.  She gave me a gift of a lifetime – in those few words, she said to me: “I am your friend even if you lied to me because I get that you thought it was necessary.  And I don’t care about the gay thing.”  Then, “who else knows?” She needed to know whom she could call and with whom she could shriek about some serious scoop. I still think she doesn’t know that we know that she has the biggest heart and a wellspring of love and acceptance tucked beneath a New Yorker’s veneer.

As for my parents, let’s just say that their rejection was hurtful and ugly, although it had a happy ending. Imagine a nice Jewish girl whose grandparents were the pre-World War II remnant of Russian Jewry, and parents who were poor children of immigrants of the Depression Era.  That means I was raised to need my parents’ approval on a daily basis.  Imagine that nice Jewish girl being cast out.  The gym was my haven.  I could sweat and lift weights and expel some of the anger and hurt I felt.  As I processed all the changes and charted a rough course for my life, I started not to want to be invisible or ignored anymore.  I had arrived – 115 pounds, toned body, good looks.  I was ready to fit in and conquer all social settings – gay or straight.

So, I joined a hip and groovy gym. It is a rule of life that if your gym is hip and groovy, you will work out in a sea of tall and beautiful women in that blond, willowy way with perfect gym outfits.  I wasn’t ready to be “out” because I still preferred ambiguity. Secretly, I wanted cute boys to talk to me as some sort of vindication of my sexual appeal – that men might want me even if I wanted women.

The muscled, handsome straight (and hell, even gay) guys talked to them and not to me.  Even the trainers didn’t pay attention to me.  I was still invisible. I know it doesn’t make sense, but nothing relating to body image, sexuality, and desire has anything to do with logic.  It was probably because I was too scared that if I came out, there was no going back.

Life got a lot better over the years.  I realized that you have to be a little out in order for people to find you.  Family hurts healed (with my mother’s wanting to ride on our synagogue’s Gay Pride float and my father’s making a huge stone sculpture of two women with a child). I had good romantic relationships (and some horror shows, let’s be honest).  I was happy.  I had friends.  I was an up-and-coming lawyer.  I found my groove.

Still, the gym was complicated. Working out made me feel strong, in control and let me expiate work anxiety and stress.  I started to understand that maybe I didn’t fit in because, for me, the gym was not my primary social outlet.  I went there to get sweaty and release endorphins.  Ahhhhh.  Still, I wanted to be noticed.  I know, I know.  It doesn’t make sense but it is what it is.

At Rosh HaShanah evening services in 1996, I was living the quintessential lesbian drama – my present girlfriend sat to my left and my ex-girlfriend sat to my right.  I was looking up at the ceiling, finally introducing myself to G-d. (This alone should have wiped away my sins for the year.)

In the midst of this bad movie, I heard a singing voice I recognized.  I turned around and I saw her. She was my best friend at sleep-away camp when we were 10 year-olds.  We went to Hebrew School together through senior year at high school.  I thought, “she is too cute to be gay”.  It’s that internalized homophobia ingrained in many of us who came of age in the 20th century and, no matter how we try, it still sometimes slips out.   (And I had very attractive exes.)

I looked for her after services, but she had left in a flash.  Ten days later, at Yom Kippur service, I was carrying the Torah around the synagogue during a ritual where the Torahs are marched around the sanctuary. I saw her again. POB (soon-to-be partner of blogger).  I knew somehow that we were living in parallel bubbles that “kissed” ever so slightly over the years.  We were both in relationships and just looking for friendship.

Our friendship was deep and supportive.  We leaned on each other when things got hard in our relationships.  We pushed each other to re-invest our emotions in those long-term relationships.  Nevertheless, our relationships ended between 1998 and 1999.  In spring of 2000, we realized that we were each other’s intended ones.  We fell into a happy rhythm of life together and started to think about having a baby.

Still, the gym was an important part of my life.  Sometimes we would go to the gym together after work, around 8pm.  We didn’t work out together; we needed our separate areas at the gym. I was working out the toxicity of life as a young partner in a law firm; she was just getting a fitness work out.

Then my mother had a recurrence of breast cancer.  I needed a punching bag and boxing gloves.   Our gym had those.  I watched others and then just copied them.  Tears would stream.  The rings on my fingers under the boxing gloves cut into my flesh.  I was bleeding and I was punching G-d as hard as I could.  In summer 2002, POB and I had a little boy.  In January 2003, my mother died.  I needed to punch out my unspeakable pain and sadness, but with newborn and two working moms, there was no time for the gym.

2002 through 2008 were rough years.  Setting aside various economic and professional upheavals (which don’t matter much in the end, anyway), POB’s mother’s chronic illness worsened to a point that hospital stays on respirators were not uncommon.  Ultimately, she died.  Our son presented with some developmental issues, which are resolving (something for which we are grateful everyday).  There was much joy and happiness, of course, in those years, but joy and happiness don’t make for interesting writing.  And besides, as a neurotic, urban-dwelling Jew, it is my cultural duty to emphasize the gut-wrenching, the embarrassing, the bizarre and the ooky.

When our son was six years old, POB and I were able to clear some personal time in the family schedule.  I chose to return to the gym.

What a difference six years makes. My first day, I was in the locker room and to my horror I discovered that I packed form-fitting running tights that go down just below my knees and a geeky t-shirt that stopped at my waist.  Two things to note: I couldn’t remember when last I shaved my legs, and if this outfit looked good on me, I wouldn’t need to go to the gym.

Now, our son is 9 years old.  He is 70 pounds and still jumps in my arms when I come home, so I need strong leg, stomach and arm muscles so as not to end up in traction. Now, I do sit ups and pull-ups.

I hate pull-ups but I do three sets of three (sometimes four).  And all the gym boys think it’s really cute that a gray-haired, middle-aged lady can do unassisted pull-ups.  No, joke — I get compliments, fist pumps and high-fives from male trainers and regular gym rats.  And they give me technique pointers.  And I know that some of the women are watching me. They are not checking me out; they are wondering how they could try a pull-up when no one is looking.  At long last, the “buff and beautiful” (even the trainers) notice me and talk to me.  It took some gray hair and a few pull-ups to be the belle of the gym.  Of course, now I don’t need that kind of attention.  At 47, I have lost some elasticity and agility, but age has given me determination and self-confidence, and, yes, helped me negotiate a comfortable detente with my body.

And now I am visible at the gym? The gym gods must be crazy indeed.

So, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my life, my family and my wholeness.   It does get better.

~ note from Blogger:  Special thanks to the Soeurs for editing and remembering and loving me, in all my guises.

Serenity and Renewal

My professional coach (not CAFOB) had sent me a New Year’s greeting card which I finally got around to opening at a computer (as opposed to a blackberry).  It was warm and wonderful and direct.  Wishing me the usual for the new year, but also renewal and serenity.

Eureka!!!  (My coach is awesome, but not as awesome as CAFOB who is my friend for 30 years.  If you need a coach, I can give you two people who are amazing.)

Renewal.  Not a theme of the Jewish new year (which has more of a return to G-d and atone theme).  More a Passover theme (spring time, rebirth and renewal of the covenant with G-d).  Nevertheless, I have been feeling the weight of creating business generating opportunities in a terrible economy.

I was so exhausted in August that when it came time for our family week in Montauk, I told the COB (colleague of blogger) that I would not be checking my blackberry and that all calls had to go through POB (partner of blogger).  Originally, POB told me there was no wifi where we were staying and only POB’s phone would work.  As it turned out, there was wifi and my blackberry worked.  If POB lied to me, well, then I love her more for realizing that I needed a blackberry-free zone.  Only twice did work intrude on the week.

When the world is in chaos, it is still navigable but it takes so much more energy that I often feel — well — spent.

My family re-charges me.  POB and SOS (our son, source of sanity) are my mainstays, but SOB (sister of blogger) and HOSOB (husband of SOB) and Cousin Gentle help hold me up.  They are daily miracles in my life.  Even DOB (father of blogger) with all his eccentricities grounds me.  And CB (Cousin Birder) links me to my mother’s family and he is such a wonderful guy. (I wish that CB only realized how awesome he is.  I lectured him about this on Rosh Ha-Shanah — of course I did.)

And there are my goddaughters.  They don’t have to love me because of family connection.  We created that connection together.  These relationships are among the most important in my life.

By their presence in my life, all of these people feed my soul, lessen my burden and give meaning to life.  They are my agents of emotional and psychological renewal.  I hope that I provide for them even a fraction of what they provide for me.

Serenity. Acceptance.  Roll-with-it.  What will be, will be.  Take it as it comes.  Don’t worry forward.  Be in the moment.

Discussion:  compare and contrast blogger’s personality with the above themes.  (Hint: no common ground, as in blogger is the antonym of each of these themes.  Don’t believe me?  Read Wikipedia (right after I send in my comments).)

Ok, clap your hands if you’ve heard this before:  someone has business in this economy, someone is figuring it out, someone is benefiting from all the problems!

Ok, if you have heard this, clap if you heard:  “An A minus?  What’s wrong with an A?  Did someone get an A?”

Whoa, I hear a round of applause throughout the blogo-sphere.

This serenity thing is a hard one.  But I did laugh these last two days when I looked at the wild ride of the stock market and how our retirement is now effectively pushed out to age 113.  I will be the dead, yet-propped up greeter at Walmart’s.  The company will love me because it won’t have to pay overtime (how will I know? I’ll be dead), and I won’t mind being in the freezer section.

At least I laughed.  Ok, gallows humor, but, hey, it IS a start.  I am trying to focus on the things that renew me because they also provide the building blocks of serenity — love, constancy and laughter.

*     *    *    *    *   *    *   *   *   *   *    *   *  *   *

But renewal and serenity are sooooooo much easier in a bull market and a roaring economy.  Just sayin’.

My coach knows me well.  This is the start of a journey for me — to allow time for renewal and to allow a sense of serenity in a chaotic world.

Really, email me if you want a lifeline (or two).

Sunday Dinner

FOPOB (father of POB (partner of blogger)) is a hard guy to pin down.  He doesn’t like to “commit” to coming over for Sunday night dinner when he is in the City (and not at his beach house).  This weekend was no exception: he wasn’t able to say yes or no when asked again yesterday. He’d let us know.  Ok.

In fact, he let us know by coming over at 3:15pm, unannounced.  That’s so early even for MY dad who would come at 9am, if we let him.  That’s ok.  I couldn’t even emerge from the bedroom until 3:45pm.  Then I felt guilty and let POB escape to the kitchen.  At 4:15pm, FOPOB was itching to watch the Giants game.  And in a slightly-passive-but-really-overly-aggressive move, I told SOS (our son, source of sanity) to keep FOPOB company, believing full well that SOS would get bored within 5 minutes and start trying to convince FOPOB to change to either Nature or Discovery channels.  And it would drive FOPOB nuts.

You think that wow I can be awfully mean sometimes.  Yes, yes, I can.

Somehow, despite my best-laid plans, SOS started to get into the game.  (My son:  the child who went from worrying about the euro crisis to watching people gratuitously concuss each other in 48 hours.  I am having whiplash and I will remind him of this indignity until the day I die or the guilt kills him — whatever.)  The Giants versus the Redskins.  The Redskins?  Really?  Do we still have teams with humans (in this case, Native Americans) as mascots?  Haven’t we progressed as a civilization?  Oh, wait, that is my way left-of-center whine.  I am a centrist now.  I digress.

FOPOB was impatient at cocktail hour (6pm) because the Redskins (pause, take a deep breath) were beating the Giants.  And, because HOSOB (husband of SOB (sister of blogger)) and CB (cousin birder) were talking about bird nerd things that even a loving and adoring  sister-in-law and cousin could not possibly abide.  SOB was seeking shelter in the kitchen with POB, leaving me to referee the “boys”.

So I threw out random things, like the blue inner feathers of a mallard and the way hummingbirds make their calls with their feathers, to bring the conversation within normal nerd parameters.  Nothing doing.  DOB (Dad of blogger) rather adeptly tried to steer the conversation away from what could have been mortal boredom (did I mention how much I adore HOSOB and CB?) by musing about the difference in conversations he had when he was our age 20 years ago.  OK, DOB, that was 40 years ago when you were our age, but who is counting.  Yes, it was just after the 60s and you were wearing mustard colored bell bottoms and Mom was wearing floral halter tops, “hostess” pants and Elvira the Vampiress make-up, but I am sure your politics had sound bases. Still, he had a good point.

FOPOB, who had a moment to shine, instead said flatly that the conversation was boring, he’d rather watch his team lose and did anyone realize that Casablanca was on TV tonight?  I poured everyone more wine.  DOB mentioned he liked it and I told him it was NOT Trader Joe’s $3.50 special Merlot.  “Really?”  DOB was genuinely surprised.  I excused myself to the kitchen where POB was hiding out.  I asked POB to kill me before SOS ever had to have this conversation with me.

Thank G-d Cousin Gentle arrived.  And time to eat.  FOPOB wanted to take dinner-to-go but we locked the door.  SOB had to take a call from the hospital.  SOS wanted to run back and forth from the dinner table to the TV in our room to watch the football game.  I considered Crazy Glue to keep him in his chair but I settled on the Evil Eye of Doom and Despair that I inherited from my mother that kept us in line.  It is amazing how a few moves of the facial muscles can subdue a child.  It worked. Luckily, I also still have the brute strength in my arsenal, if necessary.  But only for a little time more.

At the beginning of the meal, we toasted the many sides of the family that were present.  We toasted our good fortune in being together.  We remembered the victims of the attack on our Nation 10 years ago.

At some point in the conversation, we started talking about the different sources of the Bible and how women may have been writers.  HOSOB asked what I knew about this.  So, of course, I held forth, but with a caveat.  I started with, “Unencumbered as I am with fact or knowledge about the subject matter . . . .”  Cousin Gentle was impressed that I said this.  I was shocked.  I thought this was an implied caveat in any conversation in our family history because clearly Uncle Loud, Cousin Gentle’s father and DOB, would have otherwise been mute for most of their lives.

After that, someone complained that the chicken was salty.  Someone wondered about having added marjoram (a spice I still don’t understand) to the quinoa dish.  FOPOB wanted to take dessert to go (keep trying, dude) in order to watch Casablanca at home on his ginormous TV.

So, we were deep, we were shallow, we were loving, we were honest. .  .and in so doing, we gave meaning to the statement:

WE ARE A FAMILY.

I love you all.

Our Trip to Philly

The six of us set out yesterday morning for the City of Brotherly Love:  POB (partner of blogger), TLP (our son, the little prince), SOB (sister of blogger), HOSOB (husband of SOB), DOB (Dad of Blogger and SOB) and me. Three generations. One car.  Four sets of directions.

DOB sat up front will me.  HOSOB and SOB took row two.  POB and TLP were in the third row, practically a full block away from me in the driver’s seat.  In fact, the car was so huge, that I entered New Jersey and Pennsylvania a solid two seconds before they did.  I was surprised the car didn’t take diesel and we didn’t have to park with the trucks at rest stops.

As soon as DOB got settled, he offered me some hard candy.  You know, the kind that old Jewish ladies carry in their pocketbooks for decades and old Jewish men have in every pocket of every jacket they own.  Those candies.  I make it a point not to eat anything that I think may be older than 9 year-old TLP.  I declined.  SOB, ever the intrepid one, said yes.  She took one for the rest of us, because she knew DOB wouldn’t stop offering until someone said yes.

DOB read every sign out loud from the Lincoln Tunnel to Elizabeth, New Jersey.  But he didn’t sing.  And SOB was counting on having him sing to see just how crazy I would get.  SOB finally asked DOB, “Dad, doesn’t that sign remind you of a song?  Like, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again?'”  SOB was soooooooo trying to win our bet about how quickly, how much and what DOB would sing.  Of course, that kind of cheating is only allowed when I do it.

Soon after Elizabeth, New Jersey, there was a multi-generational bathroom emergency.  So we stopped at a rest stop that was named for someone whom I am sure would be horrified if he/she were still alive.  As SOB and I walked into the women’s room, our faces already had the scared-and-disgusted-look in anticipation of what we might see in the stalls. We caught sight of each other and laughed but we didn’t have the camera to record.  Our looks were not in vain.  Nasty.  Nasty.  Nasty.  POB yelled out a helpful, “Use your hamstring muscles, girls!!!”

As I left the bathroom, I noticed the medical waste dispenser with a sign that said, “For your sharps”.  I made SOB go back in with a camera and take a picture.  When she sends it to me, I will post it.  SOB is a doctor and always optimistic: “it must be for insulin”.  Really, SOB?  You run an ICU in an urban hospital.  Are you kidding me?  If only the needles were for insulin . . . . We beat it out of there.

We were soon back on the road with traffic, narrow lanes and fellow travelers seeking to go 70 mph in work zones.  Of our four sets of directions, two were written, and two were saved on handheld electronic devices.  No GPS with the automated voice.  No map.  Still we had six or seven different opinions on the way forward.  TLP (the only child) offered constructive critical questions, like: “Emom, are both hands on the wheel?”  “Did you signal long enough to practice safe driving?”  “Are we there yet?”

Rules:  Always have a diversion for your child.  Always have a bona fide map.  iPhones and blackberry screens are tooooo small and, with two sets of directions, there is no agreement on the correct exit until after we have passed it.  In fact, even when we were within one block of the hotel, no one could make out the directions, and ended up back on the highway and in a traffic jam. One hour later, we got to the hotel.  And all the time TLP is asking, “did we get lost?”  AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaargh.

When we arrived, I had to go to the gym, sit outside for a bit and then nap.  No sightseeing.  I knew I couldn’t sit outside the old Custom House anymore when men dressed in Revolutionary Era clothes tried to show kids how to hold fake bayonets and march like militiamen.  I met SOB and DOB as we were all on our way back to the hotel.  DOB couldn’t really handle that much sightseeing. His stamina and physical stature have declined markedly this last year.  Still, I think he enjoyed the trip.

DOB doesn’t hear very well and therefore can’t follow conversations so closely anymore.  And over dinner, the restaurant music included “The Girl from Ipanema”, and HOSOB and I were trying to remember the woman who sang the original with Jobim.  DOB didn’t remember the song, so he just started singing something else that he knew, “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.  But The Girl from Ipanema was still playing overhead.  HOSOB started singing a combo of “When Johnny Comes Marching With the Girl From Ipanema . . .” .  Then TLP abandoned singing  the Louie Armstrong part of the duet with DOB, and chimed in with “La Cucharacha”.  (Not sure why.)

The rest of us started to lose our minds a little.  SOB and I took pictures of each other’s exasperated, disbelieving looks.  POB retreated to a happy place in her head where her family was not re-enacting a scene from a psychiatric ward.

As we were walking back to the hotel, everyone was amiable and quiet.  TLP was holding DOB’s handing, HOSOB was holding SOB’s hand and I was holding POB’s hand. Unwilling to let a wound heal, I started to sing the “Ants Go Marching Two by Two, Hurrah, Hurrah,” to see if I could get a rise out of SOB.  She was engaging in willful deafness.

This morning we went to the Franklin Institute, which is worth a return visit.  It took us a few tries to leave Philadelphia and at least one electronic device conked out after the second escape attempt.  We went a little too far on 295 North (or East, whatever), and had to stop for food and directions at the Frying Skillet, a real trucker stop in Bordentown, New Jersey.  Everyone looked at our posse of three women, a child, middle-aged guy and nonagenarian, who were tattoo-less and looked every bit like effete New York liberals that we are.  (What kind of lettuce is in your house salad?  Just what’s been out on the salad bar that looks like wilted spinach?  Hmmmm.  Pork, bacon and burgers are the house specialties? I guess I’ll have a grilled burger.  Oh, ok, pan-fried in a skillet is fine.)

On the way back, TLP and DOB had quite a sing-along.  I wanted to press an eject button but I was the driver.

We powered through and all were safely deposited at their doors, happy to have had an adventure and even happier to be home. Safe and sound and exhausted.

Take-Out Take-Away

From age 21 to 44, I lived on take-out food.

In the beginning, it was cool to order during a late-night at the office especially since I couldn’t afford to eat that way if I were actually paying for it.  Then I had dreams of eating tuna fish out of a can over my kitchen sink if only I could be at home at dinner time.  And then I realized that I never had time to be in my kitchen, much less clean my kitchen, so I really wouldn’t want to eat anything in there.  The dream remained, even though interrupted from time to time by reality.

At some point, I was living with someone who cooked (pre-POB (partner of blogger)) and the food was good but hard on my digestive track.  And before the days of blackberries and remote access, I had to go to the office with my intestines in a twist.  So, as a matter of honor and sacrifice to my colleagues, I was forced to stay late and eat Shun Lee and other take-out so that I didn’t smelled of garlic or other spices anymore than anyone else.  In typical blogger family fashion, it was, in fact, the least I could do.

When POB came along and beepers were available, we would work long hours, meet at the gym, have a little falafel and hummus with hot sauce that tested our abs of steel — in a slightly different way.  We learned that some days were more — how do you say? — microbial than others.  But these are the sacrifices we make to “have it all”.

Then came TLP (our son, the little prince) and there was no time for sleep, let alone cooking or even eating.  Exhaustion won over hunger every time, except when we absolutely, positively needed energy.  “Don’t talk with your mouth full” became “don’t-sleep-with-your-mouth-full-because-I-am-too-tired-to-do-the-Heimlich-and-I-can’t-stand-the-smell-of-whatever-you’re-eating.” As many of you will remember, love is an emotion that is felt but not expressed when you have a newborn.

Then, came the Great Recession.  Time for family and friends.  Time for hanging out.  Time to have our families over for Sunday night dinners.  POB decided after a while that she would rather cook than order another dinner from Saigon Grill (and we were supposed to be boycotting them anyway for labor violations).  So, she started cooking.  And she didn’t stop.

And the take-out stopped and the cook-in began.  POB cooked, I cleaned.  When she needed to prove a point, she dirtied every pot and utensil in the house.  Point taken and respect paid.  Harmony restored.  Paradise, momentarily lost, was regained.  A possible script for a Sunday night movie, although no one is dead or psychotic — yet.  (I’ll get back to you on this.)

Tonight, these many years later, we are companionably cobbling together dinner from the fridge — cold carrot soup with cumin and lime, quinoa with tomatoes, onions and black beans, a salad and some wine.  A perfect repast for a hot summer’s night.  And our kitchen is cozy (yet cool thanks to air-conditioning) and inviting.

Take-out was my food source for over 20 years.  I don’t miss it at all.  And now we have a kitchen in which I would eat tuna out of a can just to be home with my family.

And to think, she still wants to marry me next year.

Twas the day before Passover, and all through the house. . .

It is really the day before the eve of the holiday (because we celebrate holidays from sunset to sunset) but every creature was stirring. Heck, 15 people are coming over.

POB (partner of blogger) made a vat of chicken soup.  She rendered chicken fat which, if you’ve done it, you know that is a disgusting necessity for light, floating matzo balls.  The whole house smells like a barn.  And while we are talking about matzo balls, I need to note for the record that the Blogger family tradition is that matzo balls sink, not float.  Their intended purpose — so say those in my tribe — is to line your stomach for the coming week of no bread and also give you a reason to complain about intestinal issues, e.g., (in a Yiddish accent) “I ate such a heavy matzo ball that it is cement in my stomach, and boy-oh-boy, have I got troubles getting anything out!!”.  However unpleasant, it is my inheritance.

But MOPOB (mother of POB), may she rest in peace, made floating matzo balls.  And since Passover is all about MOPOB (my mother’s memory is invoked on Thanksgiving), we “sinkers” just sigh and “boing” the matzo balls with our figures, wondering if, with a little push, they might sink.  No such luck these past few years.  So part of our Passover narrative (“and you shall tell your children on that day . . . “) also includes the sinker-floater dichotomy, because as surely as there were Israelites on the shore of the Red Sea, they were also arguing about whose matzo was better.  So, it is just in keeping with the tradition.  So I shall tell my child that “on that day” there were no floaters in the land of Egypt.  Ok, that isn’t fair because there weren’t sinkers either.  There wasn’t matzo ball soup.  But history is written by the conquerors and vanquished loud-mouths.  I can live with being in the latter category on the matzo ball issue.

Those of you who aren’t Jewish may not appreciate that importance of this.  This is a divide that can splinter families.  We are talking about our grandmothers’ and great grandmothers’ recipes.  We are talking about the overbearing, tyrannical beings that, upon death, miraculously turned into angels in everyone’s memories.  We are talking about tradition.  [Start singing from Fiddler on the Roof.]  This is big.

But MOPOB’s traditions must prevail.  She was terminally ill at our first Seder in our home in 2006.  She pronounced herself satisfied with the celebration — a high compliment and tantamount to a blessing on our home and us — and then, within 36 hours was hospitalized and soon died.  You can’t mess with that heavy trip.

I needed chairs and an extra table from my Dad.   We had lunch and then went down to the storage bins in his apartment building.  Dad is looking great these days, although slower since his fall two weeks ago.  Still he grabbed the hand truck at the entrance to this scary storage room in the bowels of his apartment building.  Only one light worked.  He and I were feeling around in the dark for his folding table and chairs.  We found them and managed not to fall or otherwise hurt either of us.  Every year we go through this ritual and I make a note to self to remind the doorman about the lighting.  Every year, Dad and I forget.  Every year, we grope in the dark until we find what we need.  So far, it has worked for us.  Tradition.

Tradition.

Tradition.

 

Dragon Wimpering in the Year of the Rabbit

My son keeps trying to teach me how to say Happy New Year in Mandarin, but he is soooooo frustrated with my horrible tones (for those of you who may not know, Chinese languages are tonal).  At the tender again of 8-1/2, he has been taking Chinese for a few years and apparently has really good tones.  But I wouldn’t know since I am obviously tone-illiterate.

As someone totally demoralized by the economic bloodbath of the last few years, I have taken to looking up any horoscope in any culture in a — yes, yes — futile attempt to divine (or control, let’s be honest) the future.

Since it is the Chinese New Year, I looked up Dragon in the Year of the Rabbit.  But that isn’t enough information.  I need to know my elements: am I wood or metal, earth or water or fire?  I always imagined my elements would be like 1920s-30s modern furniture — brushed steel or carved wood structure with fabrics in deep red accents or bright thin stripes.

But, you can’t simply pick what you think works for you.  That is determined at your time of birth.  Not so simple, now that Mom is gone.  But it wouldn’t have been so simple either if she were still alive. Mom gave birth in a classically 1960s way:  she was under anesthesia before the first labor pain and woke up for the hairdresser (surgery can play havoc on one’s slightly poofy, Jackie Kennedy look).

So, even when my mother was alive, she couldn’t say, “I stopped screaming at 3:00pm, so that’s how I know that’s when you were born.”  It would always have been, “Oh, darling, you were born sometime between when I was told to breathe deeply into the gas mask and when the hairdresser woke me for an in-hospital hair emergency procedure.”

So, it isn’t as easy as one might think to get tired, trite and vague prognostications.  I needed information from a third party reliable source.

I got out of bed where I was web-surfing and I started hunting around for my birth certificate.  I found only half of it.  The copy I have was the original copy given to my parents and, well, after 47 years, the part with the relevant information had disintegrated.

POB (partner of blogger) asked if she could help and I told her she would laugh at me if I told her what I was doing.  She didn’t laugh but she did roll her eyes.  The Big Eye Roll. The one that means “I had a crazy day and now you are going off the deep-end trying to find out the time of your birth so you can read some free, on-line horoscope and use that to guide your and — therefore my — life for the next 12 months?”

Ok, she had a point.  I cannot control the future.  I cannot divine whether my loved ones and I will be financially successful, or happy, or healthy or . . . or . . . .  But, crazy is as crazy does, because I keep trying.

My sister-in-law, the keeper of the flame

SILOB (sister-in-law of blogger) and I don’t have much in common.  I don’t know that much about her, mostly because BOB (brother of blogger) has banned potentially touchy topics, such as sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, religion, politics and the first-coming-versus-second-coming discussion that can be VERY tricky among Jews and Christians.  So, there isn’t much of interest to talk about, except our kids (my nephews are FABULOUS in case anyone wants to know).  I may have failed to mention that I curse like a sailor which may or may not be offensive to her.  BOB insulates her so well from us that we assume that she really doesn’t like the New York family.

Except for my mother.  When my mother died, SILOB said simply and beautifully that she was the daughter-in-law that my mother never expected (not Jewish, GOP, Texan) and my mother nevertheless threw her arms around her and made her welcome.  POB (partner of blogger) could relate; my mother — having had two girls and one boy — never expected to have TWO daughters-in-law.

Families are complicated.  Love isn’t as complicated.  What is complicated is what you do about the things you don’t like — or don’t know — about the people you love.   My mother seemed to have bridged the divides with her daughters-in-law well before her death.  So much so, that SILOB walked 60 miles in San Diego for the Susan G. Komen organization in my mother’s memory.

So, EIGHT years after my — OUR — mother’s death, SILOB keeps the dream of a cure for breast cancer alive.  She literally walked the walk.  She keeps my mother’s memory alive in a positive way (SOB (sister of blogger) and I try to, but sometimes, we just wallow in self-pity.)

It is a testament to SILOB and my mother and their relationship that eight years on, she fights breast cancer “for Elsie” [our mom].

I haven’t tried very hard to get to know SILOB these past 13 years.  I have allowed every inadvertent or intentional rebuff (mostly from BOB) be an excuse not to try harder.  But there is something very basic we share — the memories of Mom.   And that is one of the strongest ties I have to most people in my life.

To SILOB, the keeper of the flame and the fight for a breast cancer-free world.