The Clan

On Sunday we gathered at my sister’s house for the traditional Jewish post-Christmas brunch, to go over the number of tourists who got in our way and the number of merry people who infected the usual ennui and bad humor that are so quintessentially New York.  Because we are open-hearted, if narrow-minded, my sister’s Catholic husband was welcomed to join. We sat down to a traditional meal — high in salt smoked fish oils and low nutrition and low in any nutritive value.  Not a vitamin in sight.

But something different happened this Sunday, and I have yet to process the event fully.  I saw — or else I would not believe this — my sister cook something.  Our cousin can no longer eat the usual fare that is our cultural comfort foods.  My sister, who had never before used her stove, made our cousin freshly scrambled eggs.

Last year, she got married to a wonderful man who is kind and always in a good mood.

This year she is cooking nourishing food.  I can see a trend, but I can’t yet see the trajectory.

For background, my mother and I had suggested to my sister, when she bought her apartment in 1999, that she just convert the kitchen to a den.  All she needed were a phone, a stack of take-out menus and a mini-bar fridge for diet coke. But she insisted that an apartment needed a kitchen.  So we suggested that she get the fiberglass demo version of a stove to save some money.  A few years after she moved in, my partner finally took out the plastic envelope with the care instructions and warranties and turned on a burner.  (I was horrified that she diminished the resale value for no apparent reason.)

I was nervous seeing my sister at the stove, thinking she might hurt herself.  Our cousin was so touched at my sister’s domestic effort once he realized that she never cooked anything for anyone, even her husband.  Also, our cousin is a life-long bachelor (save for a short-lived marriage a long time ago) living in a tiny studio with a mini-bar fridge, and therefore unaccustomed to home-cooking.  He could not stop complimenting my sister on the eggs.

We forgot to kvetch about the tourists or the merriment that interfered with our hardened and mean personalities.  Instead, at this brunch, we just all talked and were glad to be together.

Next year, we may be singing folk songs and a bonus round of kumbaya or maybe my sister will have knitted each of us something in seasonal colors.  I think I’ll read up on Ebenezer Scrooge, so I know my part and can be the standard bearer against the march of time and humility.  I hope Scrooge doesn’t get nice.  I don’t “do” nice.

You see why I am worried.

Transportation Safety Administration

We know that TSA personnel are mean and threatening.  They enjoy lording over passengers and looking at each pereson suspiciously.  And yet, they still seem to effect that attitude of “I’m doing you a favor, so don’t piss me off.”

We also know that having some one’s smelly shoes in a bin next to your bin (and permeating your coat and blazer) is no way to start or end a trip. 

My favorite, though, is the full-body glaucoma test, where you are in a Woody Allen-esque orgasmatron machine as jets of air hit various areas of your body.  The point is to find any trace chemicals.  I also had someone swab my dirty underwear (I was on my way home) looking for trace chemicals.  And, G-d forbid, you wanted to pack some hair gel.

We put up with these and other indignities.  Why? Because they are keeping us safe.

Hmmm.  Then how does a man previously denied entrance into this country, whose family alerted the authorities that he was dangerous, walk on a plane with a syringe and more liquid than “allowed”?

What have we learned?  TSA personnel are mean and threatening AND incompetent.  Luckily, the terrorist in this case was more incompetent.

There are a lot of very qualified people out of work.  Maybe we should upgrade our TSA personnel (and personality).

No Holiday For Us

My son refused the time-honored Jewish tradition of going to the movies on Christmas.  It is a variation on the theme of sitting in the dark until the holiday passes.  In the movies, you sit in the dark, too, but are possibly diverted for 2 or so hours.

We took a walk along Broadway.  It is a gray day and the lingering snow is in that only-in-New-York-could-snow-be-so-gross state.  Everything is closed, even the eatery I called which had a recorded message naming the soup of the day.  In the back of my mind I had a feeling that that recording was for the soup d’autre jour.  Thursday, for example.  Our son didn’t want to go on this walk to — as it turned out — nowhere, and the fact that there was no “there” there justified further whining.

Now we are home, watching educational movies (because we are those creepy kind of parents who have very few videos just for fun).  Now that I have watched the biography of Abraham Lincoln for the third time in six weeks, I am so creeped out by my own parenting that I may have to buy the entire video library of SpongeBob.

Maybe my partner will talk me off the ledge.

The good news is tomorrow is NOT Christmas.

The ties that bind

Humans are bound together by many things (being human, for one).  But there is a litany of things that people say are intrinsic to being human and, therefore, we share.  If you read my blog before, you can imagine my eyes rolling at lofty connections.  But I came upon one tie that caught me quite by accident.

A person’s relationship with his/her hair stylist.  Most people don’t think about that relationship.  It is the only one where if you “step out”, you can’t hide it.  If you are unfaithful, you have to break up because your hair stylist will know you went to someone else.   Don’t even think that skipping a few “trim cycles” will protect your indiscretion.  The very fact that you avoid your hair stylist is evidence of your guilt and your infidelity.  Fooling a spouse or a lover, piece of cake.  Hair stylist?  All I can say is that I am glad that those open razors (a la Sweeney Todd) are not in fashion anymore.

I always thought of my relationship with Miwa as “oy, she will look at how I let her beautiful cut go to hell, like an overgrown garden.”  And always wondered if she would break up with me because I was so unreliable about getting my hair cut.  Yet, ours was a different relationship.  Miwa talked to me as much as I talked to her.  So, I knew about her mother’s death and her difficult and conflict-ridden relationships with her mother and her daughter.  I knew she felt  guilty that her daughter was her surrogate in caring for her dying mother in their native Japan. I knew that she left her family for a career in the US, which was so radical in so many ways, even more so in the decade in which she did it.  In her youth, it seemed, she did what she wanted and then figured out how to pick up the pieces.

I knew that, while Japanese and not Jewish, she knew how to cook for a seder since her male companion was Jewish.  I knew that his mother and his sister and sister’s family never (it seemed to her) showed any respect or appreciation for her efforts.

I also knew that she recently had a bruising fight with cancer and that she won rounds 1 and 2.  I also figured she was anywhere from mid-50s to mid-60s.

Miwa was too tired in round 3 to cut hair.  She wouldn’t schedule appointments.  That was a bad sign because it was her art and her passion.   In a 45-minute flurry of hair flying out of her scissors, she could make me look vital (and less like a graying middle-aged person) and yet I didn’t look like the proverbial 50 year-old trying to pull off a mini-skirt.

Finally, I had to have someone else cut my hair.  I held out as long as I could until I started looking like a hippy. I felt like I was betraying a dying friend but Miwa had said during each of my last two haircuts that, if she were unavailable, I should have Mary cut my hair.  Mary is very good, but Miwa was an artist.

Miwa lost the fight in Round 3.  She was actually in her mid-70s.  And I bet she took the death blow rather than stay alive and be helpless.

Miwa, I toast your life lived on your terms.  I know you had regrets.  I hope you healed as many of them as you could before the end.

Don’t Impinge on My Holiday

On Christmas, Jews go to the movies and, before the 1980s, ordered in Cantonese Chinese food (now we have more choices).  It isn’t as if we have a holiday to celebrate although the Federal Government long ago, in a flagrant “fusion” (I don’t want to say violation) of the separation of church and state, declared Christmas a national holiday.

It used to be that if you went to a movie theater you would see all your Jewish friends in the neighborhood.  And you knew NOT to talk about synagogue matters even in whispers because even a stone deaf Jew can hear when you talk about synagogue politics or intrigue.

Over the past few years, I have noticed that the movie theaters are crowded and some people are wearing new hats, gloves and jackets and talking about recently received presents.  Hmmmmm.  Chanukah has usually come and gone by that time.  Hmmm. 

I thought that the fun and cheer and Norman Rockwell-like frolicking started at sundown on the 24th when, magically, everyone you know has a beautiful voice and all (miraculously, one could say) sing Christmas carols in perfect harmony.  Everyone, of course, has a chimney with a fire (why, if Santa is supposed to climb down, would you want to roast him and your presents in the fire) or at least a broken window for the Great White Man from the North Pole to enter.  Then, off to Christmas Mass where long-lost friends, lovers, siblings and parents materialize right on the music’s rhythmic beat to surprised and loving looks, but surprisingly little body contact.  (In my family, I assure you, the music would stop and the prodigal person would be asked for an explanation of his or her actions and what atoning actions will be undertaken.)  Christmas morning, everyone wakes up cheerily despite too much eggnog and other Santa’s helper drinks.  Then everyone spends the day on the 25th having meaningful talks, kumbaya moments and epiphanies.  So, clearly no time for the movies.

Am I wrong?  This wouldn’t be the first time. 

But, it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t hang mistletoe or go a-wassailing because it is not my holiday.  So, don’t squeeze me out of tickets to the movies on December 25th because THAT part IS my holiday.

Today’s Confession

So I must confess that while my sister-the-doctor was away on vacation, my dad did not go to the ER. My endless blogging and sturm und drang amounted to nothing (happily).

No one is more surprised than I. I lived with a sick feeling in my stomach all that week as I contemplated our usual ER protocol when Dad was feeling not so good.  Since he has always been healthy, the least discomfort would make him think the worst was going to happen. Add anxiety about my sister-the-doctor being away. Stir. Let simmer 5 minutes. Hop a a cab to the ER.

May this time was different because Dad really has a condition now. Maybe this time Dad wasn’t afraid of the unknown because he knows that he has something. And he doesn’t need to wonder if the least discomfort means this is it.

Anyway, my sister was happy to be home from her vacation. Me? I ran a victory lap around my office to the imagined cheering crowds.

The World’s Best Chewing Gum

I was on the subway, minding my own business.  I was reading a book on my iPod.  A woman standing next to me asks her boyfriend (it is obvious by the end of this anecdote) whether he wants some really great chewing gum.  He asks, “how good can chewing gum be?”  She says, “it makes you want to stick your tongue down someone’s throat.”  I had to look up.  I said, “really?”  She nodded.  I looked at the boyfriend questioningly.  He was too embarrassed to answer. I mentioned that it was too important a secret not to share with fellow strangers on a train.  In fact, it would be downright cruel to tantalize and not deliver.

The woman told me what kind and what flavor (I won’t tell you until I confirm this urban legend).

Life altering experiences on the subway.

The Dark Days

Life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon.  Or so says Carly Simon.  For a long time, I thought she was singing, “Life is a turtle,” and so did my son (hey, she sang eensy weensy spider, didn’t she?).  A little like my revelation about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

These are the days during which, each year, my sister and I re-live the final days of my mother’s life, seven years ago now.  For those who haven’t gone through this life-changing experience, all I can say is, may it be a long time before you know such pain.  That is a paraphrase of what one says when one takes leave of a mourner during shiva.  I would add, may it be a long time before you know such bewilderment and loss of place in world.  My father is still alive (thank G-d) so I don’t stand as an orphan (no joke, no matter how old you are, when your parents are gone, you are  an orphan).

I remember those days in razor-sharp color and in stark relief against the background of the mundane. Life is truly amazing when you are focused and grateful for the little things.

On December 13th (2 days after my mother’s 76th birthday), I had my sister paged in her ICU (which I had never before done and have never since) and told her that Mom’s health had fallen off a cliff and that she should just come to their apartment where I was waiting.

It is odd knowing that something has changed and that something set an irreversible course toward death.  I can’t describe what it was that made me know that we needed to gather the family (some of whom had to come from afar and make arrangements for child care).  I think my mother, the consummately considerate person, was signaling to me that we need to give everyone notice.  After all, my mother was the de facto matriarch of a far flung clan of family and friends.  All would want to come.  And all did (except her brother, who lives blocks away, but let’s not talk about that right now).

My sister and I were focused on Mom and Dad and the waning days.  We laughed and cried harder and took the conversations about life, love and loss with my mother with the extra gravity of knowledge being passed from one generation to another.  And, one full day before my mother lapsed into a coma, she gave each of her children her blessing over our current lives and her hopes for our futures.

I was so aware of my feelings and the existence of my mother in this world, in those dark days, and the stories she wanted to be told again and the memories she wanted to be re-lived as she entered the hereafter.  I remember the way she laughed until tears came when hearing old standards of family antics (even though I am scared that I can no longer actually remember her voice).  And, the way she produced my father’s and her ketubah (marriage contract) when my father averred that there was not one.  And, the way she smiled at her children’s disbelief that she and my Dad would take our uncle’s suggestion about a rabbi for their wedding (after all, he WAS a criminal defense attorney who had no synagogue affiliation).  And how the rabbi was imprisoned for kosher fraud AFTER they were married.  Yes, the Angel of Death hovered, but we had a few more days and we were going to love my mother and celebrate her legacy with her until the inevitable happened.

My mother (never one to hold back when she needed information) always refrained from satisfying her curiosity when there was no useful purpose.  In that way she was true to her Jewish roots of not entertaining idle gossip.  But, in these days, she asked questions merely to satisfy nagging puzzlements, like why did so-and-so have a white and peach theme to their wedding.  (In this particular wedding, groomsmen wore white tuxedos with peach-colored frilled tuxedo shirts.)  The beauty of these questions was that no one was really offended and, more importantly, she was at peace with life’s bigger questions, so she could indulge herself a little.  So, G-d will forgive a dying woman a little loshen hora especially if the people talked about were present to answer the questions.

She left us gently, having blessed us and having told us she had a good life.  A double blessing.

Everyday I miss my mother.  Everyday her memory is a blessing.  Seven years later, her death continues to transform my life and my world view for the better.  I am a kinder, gentler person and a more conscientious world citizen as a result of her life on earth and, sadly, her death.

Oh, Mom, I know that you had to leave because the pain and disease were too much.  And I knew you hung on months longer than was bearable (with all the pain) because you didn’t want to leave Dad alone.  You believed your children were strong enough.  And we are — you made us that way, but that doesn’t mean we don’t cry and want you here with us, now and for always.  Dad lives on, but only because he immerses himself in the memories of you and your shared love — a true love story in times of disposable relationships.

May you rest in peace.

Blogger’s code of silence

A note to readers:

My sister’s friend, in visiting from a not-to-be-revealed other place, feared speaking to me because I write a blog and she thought that I would reveal too much detail about her life and people would figure out her identity.  I told her that I protect my sources and use my powers for good not evil.  Her fears were unassuaged and she conversed very little with me although by the end of the evening I was able to discern many, many things about her and her life.

But, true to my word, I can’t tell you.  Mystery friend of my sister, I hope you are reading this.


Good ol’ Rudolph

Ok, so I had a revelation at my son’s school’s winter celebration. He was great and all the kids were adorable but that was not eureka moment.

We were given song sheets so that the audience could participate. Printed were the lyrics to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. I am Jewish and native Manhattanite and have never attended a Christmas celebration (even though my Christian friends KNOW I am free that eve and day) so I have never heard the carol up close and personal — only in stores.

To be honest, I never understood the Rudolph song.  I couldn’t get why the red nose mattered — that is until I read that Santa asks Rudolph to GUIDE his sleigh. As a New Yorker (with a New York accent) I always thought Santa wanted Rudolph to GUARD his sleigh because how could Santa leave a sleigh with presents unattended, especially in New York?

I told you it was a revelation — a pure Eureka moment.

And what’s the difference between a sleigh and a sled, anyway?