Thumbnail Sketch: Aunt Diane

It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, it unnerved me a bit. Now it comforts me.

My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They are three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They have different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that is quite impressive and could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.

In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (the 1930s), the son was the prize. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.

Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an opthamologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old.

But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.

I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio apartment in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them so I wouldn’t have to commute from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.

I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents were! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a woman in the early 1950s. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.

One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale, leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.

Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as a mature adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.

A few weeks ago Gary and I met Aunt Diane for lunch at a diner in her neighborhood. She still lives in the same apartment on the Upper West Side, the apartment I have been visiting since I was a child. Uncle Paul died a number of years ago. She walks slowly with a cane. We sat in a booth and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she has a number of medical issues, as any 86 year-old would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her visit to Israel with Paul in the 1950s. She invited us to join her that afternoon to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did, and we really would have preferred to blow off).

It was a lovely visit. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkle up when she laughs. I am grateful I get to see them still.

A “Fantastick” Sweet Sixteen

My mother’s parenting approach can best be described as laissez-faire – not the adjective one tends to think of to describe a mother. My brother says we grew up with a Jewish mother, just in our case it was our father.   He was the one who checked to see if we were wearing a hat before going out into the cold. Although Mom’s parenting was not always a great fit for me as a sensitive and insecure child, she got many things right.

One muggy August night in 1975 I was tossing and turning, feeling nauseated, my heart pounding. As I lay sweating in my bed in my room the size of a closet, my thoughts were flitting from one unhappy topic to another; taking a mental inventory of everything that was wrong in the world. From the latest crime wave in New York City to more personal worries about Grandma being in the hospital with something serious, but as yet undiagnosed. Earlier that week my father’s friend, someone he had known and played poker with for more than 20 years, committed suicide because of gambling debts that no one suspected. I had also come home earlier that month from a job at a sleep-away camp because it seemed to me everyone on staff was getting high and I wasn’t. All in all I was feeling unmoored, the ground under my feet was shifting.

I lie in bed looking out my window at the bricks of the house next door and felt the world closing in. After trying to manage alone for a while, I woke my mother up.

At first she thought I might be physically ill, but after going over my symptoms it became clear that I wasn’t, so she took a different approach. She started a different kind of inventory – reminding me about the good things in my life. My brothers were fine, she and dad were okay, too. I was entering my senior year of high school and would be applying to college soon. Exciting possibilities awaited. Of course that was scary, too.

Mom had an idea to distract me. She suggested that we plan a sweet 16 party. I would turn 16 in early October. Between having a birthday late in the year and having been part of a New York City program that combined three years of junior high school into two, I was young to be a senior in high school. I had gone to many sweet 16 parties the year before and I thought people would be tired of them. As my mother talked I found myself getting excited in spite of my doubts.

“You promise people will come?” I knew it was a silly question even as I asked it, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Yes,” she said with assurance, “we’ll come up with something really great. Maybe a ‘mystery bus tour’? “

Hmmm, I thought, that sounded interesting.

Going out on a limb, she said, “I promise it will be a success. And, we’ll have fun planning it.”

She convinced me.

Fortunately, the rest of the summer passed without further tragedy.

We chose the off-Broadway show The Fantasticks as the destination for our mystery bus ride. Mom arranged to rent a yellow school bus. I could invite 20 friends. We would have fried chicken from Chicken Galore on the bus and make-your-own sundaes back at the house after the show.

Amazingly enough, I found an invitation among my memorabilia
Yes, I drew a bus on each invitation!

We still had to find something for me to wear, no mean feat given my self-consciousness. After combing the aisles of A&S, we managed to find dressy corduroy overalls. Who knew such a thing existed?! I lived in overalls so it was perfect.

Now my main worry was about the party once we got back to the house. I actually explained this to my parents: at virtually every sweet 16 I attended, people left the house, went for a walk and came back high. I didn’t like the idea of being alone at my party waiting for people to come back stoned. Of course, if they did, they would be especially appreciative of the make-your-own sundaes.

My parents reassured me as best they could.

The big day arrived. Friends and family arrived on time. We boarded the bus and had a little contest with everyone guessing where we were going. The Empire State Building? A bowling alley? A museum?

Everyone managed to eat their chicken dinner without too much difficulty. I wasn’t wearing my dinner – a personal victory! We arrived at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village. I remember worrying about the seating arrangements, but in the end just gave out the tickets and enjoyed the show.

Afterwards we piled back on the bus and returned to Canarsie. So far, so good.

To my surprise, the guy I had a crush on gave me the album The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler. He suggested we put it on. The song was Do You Wanna Dance. He asked me to dance! I had precious little experience slow dancing. But, I managed. It was awkward and thrilling.

Some people did disappear and came back high, but it wasn’t a mass exodus.

And, I was actually happy at the end of the night! Not all that common of an occurrence in my teenage years. I sat on the couch in the basement, reviewed the night with my mom and read the kind messages in the sign-in book and smiled. My mother made good on her promise.


The War Within

I was fighting a war on several fronts when I was growing up. I wanted to be a classically feminine girl and I wanted to behave like a boy at the same time. I had strong opinions about things, but I wanted to please people, too. I wanted to look pretty but I really wanted to be comfortable.

Wanting to look pretty created issues because I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. It was likely rooted in insecurity – I don’t think I believed I could be pretty and it was far easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

At the same time I wanted to be strong, physically and mentally. But I was afraid of seeming too masculine. I thought I already appeared masculine – I perceived myself as being built like a linebacker. Not to mention the unsightly facial hair that I could never figure out how to handle.

I absorbed the message that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures and mine didn’t look like that. I didn’t have a tiny waist, I didn’t have long, thin legs and I didn’t have a small, shapely butt. And then there was my hair and my eyes. Even when I grew up enough to know that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences of being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was probably 11 or 12 and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were at least the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me.

This is what a box of sanitary napkins looked like in the 1960s – just a different brand – and it is only a box of 12! I would buy a box of 48 for my Mom, so you can imagine how huge that was!

So, I was wandering the aisles, gathering up the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached me and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I have always understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I value humor, insight, sensitivity, generosity, compassion and curiosity in friends. Yet, I weigh my looks so heavily when I take stock of myself.

I used to take inventory – I got these qualities from my mom (for instance, my smile and my large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My mom and dad were so different from each other. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like my dad. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up everyday when she was getting ready for work. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic that I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern. I internalized that preoccupation.

I think the mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist so easily in me. I found myself wanting to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing and sometimes painful growing up. Making peace has been a life long project, one still in progress.


Other Voices: Rosedale

Note: After last week’s entry (“What are you?”) several people shared their experiences with race and ethnicity. I invited them to write them up to share on the blog. Gary, my husband, took me up on the offer. One of the things that Gary and I bonded over when we first met was talking about our experiences growing up in similar neighborhoods – he was just east of JFK airport, while I was just west of it. Here is his story – in his words. Thanks, Gary.

I wanted to share a story about my favorite bicycle. I was in seventh grade when this happened and to me it encapsulates so much about racial issues growing up in New York City in the early 1970’s.  At that time, the neighborhood I grew up in, Rosedale, was much like Canarsie.  It was largely Italian and Irish and Jewish.  There were no African-Americans in our part of the neighborhood.

Later on, when I was in high school that would change.  The first black families moved in and were greeted with rocks thrown through their windows, their garbage dumped out on their lawns and their children harassed.  Back then, I didn’t grasp how those families tolerated such racism and abuse.  Why would they stay in Rosedale when they were met with such hostility?

But now I understand that those brave people were standing up for their right to live in that neighborhood just like anyone else had the right to.  Eventually, that story was the focus of a PBS special report by Bill Moyers (you can find it on YouTube).  And, I must say, my Catholic neighbors were particularly vehement in their racism and use of the N-word.

But let’s get to my story.  Rosedale was divided by Brookfield Park.  On one side of the park, everyone was white.  On the other side, the neighborhood was nearly entirely black.  The park itself was everyman’s land.  Blacks and whites both used the park, and then retreated to their side of the divide.

Along with a group of my friends, I would bike to the park on weekends.  We would put on helmets and shoulder pads and play tackle football on a grass/dirt field and then we would bike back to our homes about a mile away.  On one particular weekend day, we had just finished playing and we all got on our bicycles and started to head home.

I really loved my bicycle.  It was a five-speed Schwinn lemon peeler.  It even had shock absorbers.  It was heavy and slow but it was cool and was perhaps the best gift I had ever received as a kid.

A Schwinn Lemon Peeler – How cool is that?

As I started to ride, I realized I had left my helmet behind.  I should have called out to the other kids to wait for me but I figured I would grab the helmet and catch up to them quickly.

That turned out to be a terrible decision.  As I picked up the helmet, a large, older black kid pushed me off the bike and started to pedal away towards the black part of the neighborhood.  I ran after him for no logical reason.  I couldn’t catch him on foot, even if the bike was slow.  And I surely could not physically take on this clearly older, bigger and stronger person.

Eventually, I walked home, embarrassed, and reported the theft to my family.  My brother Steve said we should go back to the park the following weekend and see if we could find the kid on the bike.  I thought that was worthless because nobody could be stupid enough to go back there so soon after stealing the bike.  And, once again, I was wrong.

I was in the park playing football with my friends and my brother was walking around the park and spotted a kid who fit the general description on a bike that obviously had been repainted but otherwise seemed like it could be mine.   Steve engaged the kid in a conversation and walked him over to where we were playing.  Upon seeing him on my bike, the football players surrounded the kid.  He said he had to go and my brother said, “You aren’t going anywhere.”

This was well before cellphones and I went running over to my Aunt Sophie’s house nearby and called the police.  They drove up in a patrol car and one of the two officers asked me if I wanted to press charges.  I said no – I just wanted my bike back.  So he gave me the bicycle.  And he got into the back seat of the car with the kid.  The other officer started driving the car away.

I will never forget what I witnessed as that car pulled away from us.  The police officer in the back seat took out his baton and started beating the kid.  It was horrible.  It was brutal.  It was surely criminal.  And yet it was the police – law enforcement itself – doing it.

It took three cleanings with turpentine to get down to the original paint job but eventually my lemon peeler turned yellow again.

I thought I would never see that kid again, but I was wrong yet one more time.

The following Monday, as I got out of school, Junior High School 231, he was there, waiting for me with a look of hatred in his eyes.  It was clear that he was intent on revenge for the beating he had been subjected to.  To be fair, he had no reason to be angry with me.  He stole my bike.  And I didn’t tell the cops to beat him up.  But, he surely couldn’t take his anger out on the police, so I was the only choice.

He ran after me and I faked right and cut left and got past him and ran onto the Rosedale bus.  That was the only bus he could not get on.  It was full of white people.  While boys are supposed to deal with their own issues, I realized this was not someone I could fight.  I told my parents what had happened and they went to the school and told school officials.

The next day, when I got out of school, the kid was there again and ran towards me.  But the dean grabbed him as soon as he moved.  And I never saw that kid again.  I must add that the dean was also black.

Racial overtones run throughout this story.  And no side is innocent.  The racism ran both ways but the white people ultimately had the power, in this case in the form of the police.  Surely economics were part of the issue too.  The blacks in our small part of southeastern Queens were living in poorer and less safe neighborhoods.

But still, race was the clear and obvious divide.  How much have things changed?  Surely the N-word is no longer acceptable to say in public.  And surely we could not have elected an African American president then.  But just as surely, we have many issues left to deal with and a substantial divide still separating us.