Memory and Meaning

Memories. 

“So beautiful and yet, what is too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”

Barbra Streisand is right.  She sings the definition of nostalgia — a glossy overview of the truth.

Today, I was alone in Dad’s apartment.  Mom’s and Dad’s apartment.  My siblings’ and my home.  55 years of life and memories and stuff.

Alone.  With the walls that talk. 

While I unscrewed the extra shelves in the closets and bathrooms, in preparation for the walls to be skim-coated and painted, I was bombarded by memories — some good, some great, and other not-so-much. 

Teenage years.

Being gay before Mom and Dad accepted me.

Other painful times, just because parents and children don’t always (or often) get along.

I think the physical activity of cleaning made it easier to process the memories. 

And, I was afraid of some of them, because they do not fit the vision of perfect parents of my blogs  — an assault on my revisionist memories.  My “truth” of later years.

And with all of it,

the teenage “I hate you, FOREVER” moments and

the moments of abject despair as Mom and (to a lesser extent) Dad seemingly turned their backs on me because I was gay,

it all turned out ok.  (We all figured it out.  They forgave me for being gay and I forgave them for needing to forgive me.)

Our parents loved us.  And we loved them.  And no one was perfect.  And we were safe in our homes and knew that every resource would be available for us.

Why am I nostalgic?  Because through the shit times, Mom and Dad were present and connected (not always in the way we wanted).  But, when we needed them, they were there. 

I often wonder if I will measure up to their commitment when tested.

So, I was bombarded by memories of shouting, anger, etc. today, and still I think I am incredibly lucky. 

So, to Mom and Dad, on Mother’s Day — thank you both for nurturing me and standing by me (almost always), whether or not you agreed or approved.

I love you.

Dear Mom

 


Dear Mom:

SOB (sister of blogger) and I had to have a little time today.  She went to Dad’s and your apartment alone and looked through pictures. What was she thinking?

The house is still filled with happy memories, even with your and Dad’s deaths there.  For each of you, the months before your deaths were the most honest, hilarious, screwball-comedic and emotionally devastating episodes of our lives. 

If you read my blog, you know that we made sure Dad had everything, including his cocktail hour — his sacred time with all of us.  Even if we had to use an eye-dropper to share wine with him.  And I know you would have laughed at all of this, because you loved that your kids were crazy when it came to you and Dad.  And you loved that, when we took over, it was gently and lovingly.  You raised us right — with love and humor.

You died before your peers.  They were there to mourn you and comfort us.  Luckily, there were many to mourn Dad.  He staked out a place in people’s hearts after you were gone.  Hard to believe but true.

He never forgot you.  We tried to get him interested in others.  But he was married to you and that was the beginning and end of the story. So, we took special care of him because he, like us, live every day with you in our hearts.

SOB and I are having a hard time on the weekends, because they centered on visits with Dad.  I think I drink a little too much wine on Friday nights so I can’t get up on Saturdays for the usual routine. 

But, the hole needs to stay for a while because, to fill it, would erase Dad.  And we cannot figure out how to fill our weekend and keep Dad’s spirit with us.  Yet.  Maybe soon.  But it is a process.

I don’t think we ever thought that both of you would be gone and we would relinquish our home with all of the memories that soaked right into the walls, shoring up the very building’s foundations. 

The other painful part is memory.  We can’t figure some of the faces in the pictures.  That is too scary for us, because maybe in two generations, no one will pick out you or Dad in the pictures.  And that is more painful that you know. 

Life is a journey.  And death is a legacy and that legacy is a gift to the generations that follow.  If only we make sure they remember.

I love you, Mom.

~ Blogger

Darling, so good to hear your voice

My calls with Mom and Dad (and then just Dad) always started:

“Hi [Mom][Daddy], it’s [Blogger]”

And every time, no matter the hour and what I might be interrupting, Mom or Dad would say, in the most enthusiastic and happy way:

“Darling!!! So good to hear your voice!”

Everything else was gravy.  And now I just smile at the memory.

Last Passover to this Passover

Last Passover, Dad was not well enough to attend.  That freaked me out. 

And, in one of those moments that, even then, you realize are precious, prescient, and Heaven-sent, BOB (brother of Blogger) decided to come North and bring his sons to Seder.

It had been more than 35 years since BOB, SOB (sister of Blogger) and I had shared Seder.  And the last time, we had both parents, scores of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. 

With Dad’s absence feeling like a foreshadow of recent events, I was so grateful to share Seder with SOB and BOB. 

Like the old days. Only not at all. 

We were older.  The traditions meant more.  The togetherness was special. 

The years in between had smoothed our rough edges. 

Ok, just mine. 

Ok, Ok, Ok, only SOME of mine.

We had come full circle — us, kids — and found togetherness in our religious traditions.

This year, we won’t all be together.  But I will carry my visual memory of last year — looking around the Seder table at my siblings, all of us gray-haired (if left untreated), carrying on the traditions handed down through the generations.

And, even though, we won’t all be together for this Passover, that memory sustains me.  Because we have reconnected, in life and in tradition.

Hey, bro, next year, OK?  We will miss you and your family something awful.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad:

I am writing but I don’t know what will spill out or whether it will make any sense.  I am not going to edit it afterwards.  I am just going to write.

Friends from high school (and Facebook) lost their dad a day ago.  It seems we are at that age.

And, a young girl whom we know from Benny’s school died from an anaphalactic reaction to medication when traveling in Asia on a school trip. 

So, I feel so lucky that you lived a long and happy life.  Even when I resented the pressure, and frankly the fear, of how to make it all work financially.

I think you died exactly when you knew it was going to be more than I could handle emotionally or figure out financially.  You never wanted to be a burden.

I am going to the apartment this weekend.  I am scared.  Right after you died, I cleaned out some rooms.  I think I was channeling energy into something that seemed constructive.  SOB (sister of blogger) and BOB (brother of blogger) have taken some stuff that they wanted.  I haven’t been back in more than two weeks.  Because the place will not look the same.  

We all talked about what would happen to Mom’s portrait.  But I didn’t think about what would happen to our portraits.  The ones that hung over your bed for literally 50 years.

BOB took his.  SOB took hers. 

Mine is left.  I will take it this weekend.

And, with that, the deconstruction of our home.  A small place.  Way too small for all of us.  I know we had the country house but we were crammed into the apartment growing up.  I know Mom and you wanted to give us the best of everything, and some things had to give.  I get that now.  I used to be embarrassed, but now I get it. 

And now I want to emulate you both as models of parental love and sacrifice.

And this weekend, I will take my portrait down from its place since 1967 and I will take more boxes of pictures.

And I will try to absorb all the memories dancing in the ether.

And I will relish the years in this house and regret the toll of my adolescent years and my embarrassment in front of my rich friends.

I will learn again that I am so lucky.  That I didn’t bury a sibling or child.  That I can take care of my family.  That I have wonderful memories of the old days and the knowledge that Mom and you enjoyed your lives.

But I will still be a child in the deafening quiet of an emptying house, taking down my portrait.  One of the three that hung above your bed for 50 years. 

50 years.

50 years.

And a generation of the family, and my childhood, comes to an end.

I love you forever, Dad,

Blogger

P.S.: I imagine that being with Mom again is the same as it was.  She is deep in conversation with a stranger and you are worried that you are going to be late to meet people to go to a museum.  I bet the show is “Earth on Heaven: The Horror, the Horror.”  If Mom doesn’t know about Trump, don’t tell her.

Home

Home. 

Just the word evokes a sigh of relief. 

It has a different meaning — perhaps more than one — to each of us and, even that meaning may change over the course of time and our life experience.

Lately, I have been thinking about what home means to me.  And I know it is affected by the passing of Dad and, with him, the last of our elders.

Home is physical and emotional.  Two physical places — an apartment on the east side, where I was raised, and an apartment on the west side, where we raise our son.  Together, they are where I feel safe and where memories of the generations dance in the ether.  They are my past and present, and they indicate my future. 

And home is the place where Mom’s portrait hangs, as it has for literally 50 years in the home of my youth.  [One of Dad’s sculptures is in the foreground.]

I am unsettled that this will be the first time we kids don’t have a common place.  A place where the three of us belong and that belongs to us.

I think we need to figure out a place for Mom’s picture, in one of our homes. Because that is where the memories of Mom and Dad, our aunts, uncles and grandparents, will dance in the ether, and where we can feel safe and loved.

Because, without that, home is incomplete.

TRUTH SQUAD

Dad’s death is hard for me to process, although I know he lived a long, good and rich life.

TRUTH SQUAD:

Sometimes, I resented Dad’s dementia and, therefore, him.  I could have done things differently.  I could have spent less time with Dad. But those were my choices.  He did not set rules.  But, while it was painful to see him decline, who else in the world could be as unabashedly thrilled to see his children? 

He was a man who instinctively squared off his shoulders when we called him, “Dad”.

TRUTH SQUAD: 

Sometimes, I groused.  Sometimes, I had no patience (especially, when he wanted pancakes at the diner — my sister will have to guest-blog about that). 

I am grateful for the weekend lunches.  Even for having to run over to his apartment to reassure him when he was having an episode. For time just holding his hand. 

TRUTH SQUAD:

I still cannot handle even the memories of the times trying to make sense of what he said.  That pained me and shook the foundations of my world.

I am now mostly overwhelmed — when looking back — by the extraordinary nature of the ostensibly ordinary man who was my father.  The man who would stand between Mom and us kids and any perceived harm. He always provided first for Mom and us, then for charity, then for the larger family, if necessary, and then, finally for him. 

TRUTH SQUAD: 

He yelled a lot when we were kids and misbehaved.   (And, on occasion, he smacked us.)  

Some years, I was not so sad that he had synagogue meetings at night, because Mom was day-to-day mush-ball.  (Dad was the overarching mush-ball, as we found out in later years.)

And, sometimes, when we wanted something conspicuously consumptive, he raged because it pushed his emotional buttons.  He came from nothing and we expected everything.  (Now, I understand his point of view. . . .)

If any of us kids faced a serious problem, he would speak in a calm voice. He might give us a talking-to, or even worse with my brother (I think it is a father-son thing), afterward, but in the moment, Dad was right next to us, helping solve the problem. 

 

TRUTH SQUAD: 

When the “problem” was my being gay, it took him time to evolve (less time than for Mom).  But Dad never wavered in his love, although the early years were painful.

His every day started with an optimistic lift in his step. When I was in elementary school, he would walk me to school.  On the way, he would hold my hand and our arms would swing. And, he would talk about the great things to come that day, the rest of the week or the upcoming weekend.  The great things were the perfectly ordinary things in our lives — family dinner, going to our house in the country, or having a Blogger clan event.

TRUTH SQUAD:

Going to our house in the Berkshires only sounds good in retrospect.  We were freezing until Sunday morning when the house finally warmed up.  And then it was time to start packing up!! (My parents got smarter a few years into owning the house and paid someone to turn on the heat on Thursday night.)

In later years, Dad was a sculptor.  He called it his second profession. Shortly after Mom died, our son was 6 months old.  Dad’s next sculpture was of two women and a child. He wanted his art to reflect everyone in his family.

TRUTH SQUAD: 

It was not a great piece.  It looks like two women with three breasts, but my father wanted to express his love in his chosen medium.

TRUTH SQUAD ROUND UP:

The Truth-O-Meter says:

1. Hey, Blogger, you had a normal father-daughter relationship.

2. Hey, Blogger, stop being a cry baby.  And P.S., if you were roses, you had out-sized thorns.  

3. Your Dad was an ordinary man with an extraordinary capacity to love. 

4. Hey, Blogger, you can’t go wrong if you try to be like your father.

5. Hey, Blogger, you are tough to handle. And your son will only appreciate you when you are too old to enjoy it. Welcome to life.

The Hilarity In the Darkest Moments

In the last 10 or so conscious days of Dad’s life, he was present in a way that he hadn’t been in more than a year. 

He slept a lot.  And he seemed to dream because he smiled and reached out his arms.  I hoped that he was talking to Mom. 

But when he was conscious or semi-conscious, he was able to respond to our questions and if one of us said, “I love you,” he would respond in kind.

This was a gift to his kids in his final days.  

First, a back story:

BACK STORY:  Cocktail hour (with hors d’oeuvres) was a time-honored tradition in our family.  As old world as that sounds, we are Jews and so it was Jewish all the way — mostly food and a little alcohol.  Scotch was the drink of choice.  And the food was white fish salad, pickled herring, eggplant salad and, in a nod to the “new country,” mixed nuts.  Ok, so some affectations but we never forgot our roots.  In later years, Dad would alternate between scotch and wine.

So in those last days, we celebrated with Dad, as much and as often as was safe.  And we toasted his life.  Unfortunately, the serving set was less than ideal . . . .

So we all had wine together (scotch would have been too hard to handle).  And we hung out in Dad’s room.  (And when he slept, we had MORE.)

About five days before Dad died, when he was essentially unconscious, SOB (sister of blogger) had the brilliant idea to move a mattress in Dad’s room so that the three kids could be right there any case anything happened. 

SIDEBAR:  The usual night aides — wonderful women — helped us change him when needed and mostly slept in another room.

As I was helping SOB move the mattress, I looked at her and said, “You are on the other side of crazy.  And I am even more crazy for helping you.”  SOB nodded in a way that indicated, “true,” and was pleased that I acknowledged the sibling pecking order of — let’s say loosely — “sanity”.

BOB (brother of blogger) wasted no time throwing himself on the mattress and falling asleep.  SOB and I rolled him as necessary to make the bed.  SOB got on the mattress and beckoned me in the middle.

WAIT. STOP.  My brother tosses and turns and my sister wakes up at the slightest noise.  Is this 45 years ago and am I in the middle in the back seat of the car on family trips, feeling nauseated and poked and pinched by BOB?  Are you kidding me? 

“Nah, I just sleep on the comfy floor.”

“Are you sure?  There is enough room.”

“Yeah.  I’m good.”

Over the course of that first evening of Dad’s effective unconsciousness, Dad’s breathing changed to a Cheynes-Stokes rhythm — no breath for an insane amount of time and then four deep breaths.  Repeat, until you almost kill your children.

So, as you can imagine, that first night, SOB is lunging over BOB to check Dad’s pulse while I am watching wide-eyed and scared because Dad is not breathing.  And then he would start breathing again.

At dawn on each of those days, I would pick up my pillow and blanket and go into a different bedroom to sleep a few hours.  SOB would go to Dunkin’ Donuts.  BOB would continue going through photos.  Rinse. Repeat.  Wonder about sedation. FOR US.

And so it went.  And we shifted sleeping places over the nights. Because, we had some sanity left in us.

Dad died at 2:48am on a Friday with his kids around him.  No one pronounces a person dead, like in the movies.  You just watch it.  And let the enormity of it wash over you.  

Yep, there is pain.  But Dad had a good and long life.  There is no tragedy here.  There is no anger.  There is, in fact, guilty joy for being able to celebrate a long life well-lived.  An embarrassment of riches.

Ok, because I need to bring it back to humorous. 

Here are things I learned:

  • BOTH BOB and I snore.
  • Do not want to get between SOB and any patient.  Every now again I let my head get in the way of her arm reaching to feel Dad’s pulse.  A painful mistake.
  • BOB thinks I pick wine based on the freakiest or stupidest name.  He may be half-right.  My real goal was to make sure when Dad was drinking his last “cocktail”, we were giving him a good send off home to Mom.

And now I have to get all emotional. 

The greatest lessons I learned are:

(i) we siblings need our own bedrooms,

(ii) we have the craziest memories of childhood and they are all different,

(iii) we siblings are in sync in a crisis, and

(iv) SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet.

Yes, SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet

I am the luckiest person ever.

Looking Around

One hard part of Dad’s death is that, now, there is no human barrier protecting us kids from the Universe. 

There is no one — even in theory — who can hold us, protect us or offer the wisdom of the ages.

We are the older generation.  Ostensibly, the wise ones. 

We were incredibly lucky, our grandparents died and then our parents and their generation.  In order. 

As we learned, in our extended family, too many people have to bury a child or a loved one gone too early.

Even when Dad was declining, he still held our emotional, mythical line between us kids and mortality.

Months and months ago, I had to get Dad on the phone with customer service at a credit card company.  I asked him, “Dad, can you tell the lady on the phone how you are?”

“Dad,” he answered.

Because, no matter where his mind took him and no matter how confused he could become, he was instinctively our Dad.

He always came back to us, almost magically, if he heard one of his children say,

“Dad?”

“Yes, darling?” was his answer.  Always.

Since he is gone, there is no one to whom we can call out, “Mom?” “Dad?” and get a response — at least in this dimension.

And still, sometimes, I sigh, “oh, Daddy . . . . ” 

And wait for a response.

And I know that, for us, any death that lies ahead is unbearable. 

Lessons Learned Oddly Applied

Growing up, Mom and Dad made sure every visitor felt welcome in our home with a (proverbial or actual) warm and welcoming embrace. 

And our cultural, religious and family traditions had to follow suit.  My parents never cared much for tradition that didn’t honor everyone, engender both joy and remembrance and welcome the stranger.

I remember, at one Passover years and years ago, a relatively new friend of Mom (she made friends every day, even in the elevator or on a City bus) came over for her first Passover seder and brought something that she had made and  . . .  

WAIT FOR IT, WAIT . . .

there were noodles in it.  [NOT kosher for Passover.]

It was a shock to all of us that someone would make something homemade (especially to my mother) because, after all, we lived in New York City.

SIDEBAR:  No one “cooked” except for Mrs. Travers (of blessed memory) who made the same cherry Jello mold with fruit since the early 1960s.  Don’t laugh because it became so “groovy retro” in the 1990s.

So my mother was charmed and mortified all at once. Still, what to do about the noodles?

Without missing a beat, my mother put the noodle dish on the Passover table.  As everyone sat down, she thanked her friend for bringing it and advised those observing the Passover dietary restrictions that this was not a dish for them.

Just as it is written that, each of us was liberated from the land of Egypt and we eat the Hillel sandwich of the matzah and maror signifying the bitterness  of slavery and other symbolic foods, the Blogger family ate the matzah, maror and some pasta and veggies, in observance of our tradition and our parents’ rules about joy and welcoming the stranger in our house.

Fast forward twenty or more years to Dad’s Shiva.

Ok, “Shiva” was only one night, so it doesn’t even meet the requirements of the name, Shiva. And, a female rabbi who looked about 11 years old led the service. 

And THEN . . . .

My brother beckons me to the kitchen. 

SIDEBAR: It has taken many years but I think that my brother and I are in a good place.  I know we love each other.  And, I have a deep admiration and respect for him.  And, he is just so adorable and handsome and funny.

“Hey, E . . . . ” he says with his Texas drawl.  “SOB’s [Sister of blogger’s] birthday is in two days and we are going back to Dallas. We brought this birthday cake with these crazy striped pastries on top.  Like the ones Grandma and Grandpa used to bring from the bakery in Brooklyn.”

The following things ran through my head:

BIRTHDAY CAKE. 

SHIVA. 

A HOUSE PARTIALLY FILLED WITH MEN WEARING KIPAS,

A 12-YEAR OLD FEMALE RABBI LEADING MINYAN.

TRUMP THANKING MY FATHER FOR HIS SERVICE TO OUR COUNTRY [see earlier post].

MOM.  DAD.  PASSOVER SO MANY YEARS AGO.

THE LOVE OF A BROTHER WHO DIDN’T WANT HIS SISTER’S BIRTHDAY TO GET LOST IN REMEMBRANCE OF DAD’S LIFE WELL-LIVED.

“BOB [Brother of blogger], great idea!!  Let’s wait until the Shiva minyan is over and those who would be totally offended have left, OK?”

So, when we thought “the coast was clear” and some of SOB’s friends were still around, out came the birthday cake, with candles and everything.

Also? It was GREAT cake. (Just sayin’.)

And, courtesy of BOB and his family, there was joy for us three kids amid the sadness.  And we bent the traditions so far back that they almost broke in two — but not quite.

And Mom and Dad smiled down.  They were proud. 

And the three of us?  We would not have done a thing differently.