Two Stories

Note: The following two stories are written by my mom, Feige Brody. She is 87 years old and resides in an independent living community in New Jersey. She has been taking time during this period of enforced isolation during the pandemic to reflect on important, formative experiences in her life. She has also tried to capture the flavor of the time. We hope you enjoy them.

THOROUGHBRED

The only time I came running home from school was when I was sure I had failed the Spanish Regents exam. That was the culminating test after three years of instruction. It included verbs, vocabulary conjugation, translation, grammar and, even history of Spanish-speaking countries. It was a high-stakes test before they used that term. If I failed, I might fail the class and it could affect my graduation.

            When I reached home, I ran to my bedroom and collapsed, sobbing into my pillow which woke my dad who had been sleeping. He came into my room, towering over me.  I felt I was a failure, a disgrace to the family.  He knew I was a decent student. I had made honor roll. But this was a disaster even though I had studied hard.  During that school year, I went every morning to an 8:00 a.m. class that Mrs. Kennedy, our Spanish teacher, held to give students extra help. She gave up her time and we gave up our sleep.

            I hated feeling I had disappointed my Dad who was proud to be the first in his family to graduate 9thgrade.  His schooling ended when he had to go to work to help support the family, so his younger sister and brother could continue their schooling. I continued sobbing and hitting my hands into the pillow.

            Dad, a gambler who loved sports and who had taken me to many afternoon ballgames and horse races, reminded me of the times we went to Aqueduct, Belmont and even Saratoga far away in upstate New York.  I knew about the jockeys like Eddie Arcaro, Ted Atkinsons. I knew the owners and the colors they used. I would stand at the finish line with the ground shaking beneath my feet, the horses thundering by, watching them with their nostrils flaring in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. 

            As he stood next to my bed, Dad reminded me of those races. This is what he said, “Every one of those horses are thoroughbreds and they all want to win but there can be only one winner. Every one of them continued running hard; no one ever gave up, even the last horse, because they are thoroughbreds.  And you are a thoroughbred.  You did your best, no one can ask for more.”

            I stopped sobbing and thought what a wonderful gift he gave me, what a compliment.  I’m a thoroughbred, I thought to myself. As he left the room, he reminded me, “The good times take care of themselves, the bad times we celebrate. If this is one of your bad times, think what you would like to do.” He gave me a small smile and left the room.

            I blew my nose, dried my eyes and turned my thoughts to how we might celebrate. I later learned I got an 83 on that test, enough to rescue me from failing the class for the year. The lesson I learned from my father was more important than that Spanish class.

LOCAL JOINTS

Veselka. The name feels like velvet on my tongue. I would be coming from work, heading to the LL subway line on a cold wintry day, when the aroma came wafting through the air. Veselka was a Ukranian restaurant in the East Village on 14th Street. It had unpronounceable main dishes, with a local crowd speaking Russian and a polyglot of other languages. The crowd was mostly first and second-generation Americans, longing for the food their parents and grandparents made. I would get a bowl of tasty, hot borscht and then I’d head home.

            I remember neighborhood Brooklyn restaurants, too. When I went to P.S. 191 and J.H.S. 210 I would go home for lunch. Every once in a while, my mother, who worked full time in the bakery, didn’t have time to go shopping so she gave me and my younger sister some money to eat out. Oh joy! I’d go to the Jewish deli on the corner, Bartnofsky’s. Despite its unglamorous name, my mouth waters thinking of it. The table would be set with sour pickles, mustard, ketchup, silverware, napkins and sauerkraut – the smell tantalizing as soon as I entered the store. I’d order a well-done hot dog with a side of baked beans or French fries. It cost 25 or 50 cents. If I didn’t go to Bartnofsky’s, I would go to the luncheonette where the very cute ‘older’ guy (probably not yet 20, making money for college) worked. I had a secret crush on him, my heart beat faster as I barely managed to blurt my order out. “Salami and eggs, please.” He smiled when he handed me the dish, making my day. Then I went back to school

On Saturday my sister and I would go around the corner, on St. John’s Place, to the Congress movie theater. We would be led by the matron to the children’s section and sat on grimy, often damp seats. After a whole afternoon of cartoons, shorts, a newsreel, and finally a main feature, we would exit to the blinding sun. Across the street was the very exotic Chinese restaurant. We would say hi to Joe, we couldn’t pronounce his real name, and he, in turn, greeted us in Yiddish. He would say, “One combination plate coming right up!” The food would come piping hot: wonton soup, egg roll, fried rice and chicken chow mein. The meal included tea and ice cream for dessert. All for $1.00!

            All of those restaurants are gone, lost to all but my memories. It isn’t just the food that stirs my reverie, but the clamoring of people coming and going, the good-natured shouting, “No, I want this table near the window!” And the rattling of dishes and clinking of silverware, and, oh yes, the wonderful scents. Every once in a while, I catch a whiff of something that brings it all back. It wasn’t Nathan’s or Juniors, the more known or established places in Brooklyn. Rather, it was the local joints where we would be recognized and treated as the neighbors we were that are etched in my memory and heart.

When is Enough, Enough?

When is enough, enough? The question resonates today. Last Wednesday, when the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a mob, I hoped we had finally arrived at an answer, at least on the national political stage. I had enough of Trump and his rhetoric long, long ago. I hoped that my fellow citizens would finally arrive at the same place: enough of Trump, enough of conspiracy theories, enough toxic politics. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case. I hope we have reached the bottom and are on the way back up. It is hard to imagine wanting more of the same. But the question of when enough is enough applies in many situations.

I was thinking about it in a totally different context as I was listening to an interview with Mandy Patinkin, the actor/singer. He commented that performing for an audience was fulfilling up to a point. Needing applause can be problematic because you can be left with feeling like it wasn’t enough – maybe not enthusiastic enough, or not long enough. Or, you get the adulation, and then you come off stage and go back to your hotel, and what do you have? Is it enough to fill you up? And then you do it all over again. You can drive yourself crazy – the thirst for validation can be unquenchable.  

I am not a performer, but I totally got what he was saying. If you are doing something mostly for the feedback, you can set yourself up to be in endless pursuit of more. If I get 150 reads of a blog entry, I could feel unsatisfied because I didn’t get 200. Then if I get 200, I can be thinking ‘why can’t I get 300?’ I can forget that when I first started, I was often lucky to get 30 or 40 views. And if I get one meaningful comment, is that enough? What if I get 50 likes and no comments? By the way, I was told by a literary agent that you need 40,000 followers to be seriously considered for publication.  So, there’s that. Clearly, since there is no monetary reward to my blogging endeavor, and the numbers aren’t impressive, where does that leave me?

Of course, it isn’t reasonable to discount audience reaction entirely. If you are putting something out into the world, if you choose to share it, part of the reason is to be in conversation with others. It is only natural to want that dialogue to be plentiful and positive. But there needs to be balance. The process of creating itself, in my case of finding the right words, conveying my thoughts, doing the research, has to offer its own reward. I need to be able to find satisfaction in putting down on paper clear ideas, authentic emotions and compelling images. Sometimes that needs to be enough, regardless of the reaction or the numbers. As the years of blogging have gone by, I am getting better and better at this.

Another pitfall can be comparing yourself to others. If I compare myself to others, I can set myself up to feel like it isn’t enough, depending upon who I use as my measure. I can continually fall short because there will always be authors with far more success, no matter how it is quantified.

This calculation, how much is enough to feel sated, is complicated. I was struck by it in yet another setting. My father-in-law died almost three weeks ago. My husband has received countless calls, texts and sympathy cards. Many of his patients offered their condolences when they saw him in his office. I think Gary has the capacity to allow himself to be comforted by the show of support. I don’t believe he spends much time (if any time) thinking about who didn’t call or whether enough was done for him. Having the capacity to receive, whether it is comfort or praise or love, is essential for our mental health.

Not having preconceived ideas seems to be part of the equation, too. Do you have expectations? Of course we do! But are they reasonable? Can you accept what you have been given, rather than focusing on what might be missing? I sometimes find myself thinking more about the latter, but then I check myself. Like the classic question of seeing a glass as half full or half empty, or as was the case with my brother’s friend, who in the midst of his fight with ALS, said he saw his cup as overflowing – we can choose to change our focus. For some of us it may come easier than for others. I have to work at it, but I can do it.

Is that enough? It depends. How thirsty are you?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to pursue excellence and growth. We can and we should. The motivation needs to come from a healthy place, from curiosity and creativity, rather than from a bottomless well of need.

When is enough, enough? More often than not, I think the answer is now – we have enough right now.

Observations from a House of Mourning

I have always thought there was wisdom in the Jewish rituals surrounding death since I first learned of them at age 11 when Nana died. That notion was reinforced this past week. Though it was my husband who was sitting ‘shiva,’ I participated in some of it and witnessed his observance. I know he drew comfort from it.

Sitting shiva involves stopping your routine obligations to stay home, saying Kaddish (the prayer after the departed) two times a day, refraining from life’s pleasures (parties, drinking, dancing, music, etc.), and reminiscing about the departed with guests who come to pay their respects. Immediate family, spouses, children and siblings, are obligated to sit. Extended family and friends provide meals and emotional support. Mirrors are covered in a house of mourning (to discourage being distracted by or dwelling on our appearance). The mourners sit on low stools (perhaps to reflect our low mood and not allow us to get too comfortable).

Judaism has a lot of rules and regulations, not just in regard to death, many more than the Ten Commandments. It offers guidance on everything from diet to sex, not to mention morality. Jews follow the rules to varying degrees. It can create tension in that members of the same family may have different interpretations, standards or expectations. Fortunately, though Gary’s siblings may have different approaches to adhering to shiva, it didn’t create division. They were respectful of each other’s choices and found common ground.

Covid, of course, added an extra layer of complication. Gary’s Dad specified a graveside service when he made his arrangements years ago, so we were outside for the funeral. Technically there was no limit on the number who could attend but, being mindful of the continued risk of the virus, the family limited invitations. The burial site is in Liberty, New York in the Catskills, about two-hours from our home. Gary’s siblings are spread across the lower part of the state, with each one at least an hour away from Liberty. It wasn’t possible to gather before or after the burial. David’s grandchildren came from Boston, Norwalk (CT) and Brooklyn. Usually the family would have a meal together afterwards, but between the pandemic and everyone’s homes being spread out, that wasn’t an option. Gary’s brother and sister-in-law thoughtfully packed a cooler with turkey sandwiches, potato chips and bottles of water. After the service everyone took a sandwich and ate it as they drove home. Until I took a bite of that sandwich, I had not realized how hungry I was. We had breakfast at about 8 a.m. and we got back into our car to return home at about 2:45 pm.

The weather cooperated. It was cold (it almost always seems to be cold when I am at a cemetery), but it was sunny. When the breeze picked up, it got a bit uncomfortable, but everyone came prepared with layers, so we managed.

 Our children, and their spouses and our grandchild, came back to our house. It had been a long, draining day. We were grateful to have dinner provided by friends. We talked about David and enjoyed time with our granddaughter. I think at various times each of us felt guilty that we were having too good a time. We took out old photo albums to look at pictures of David with the family over the years. Tears were shed and there was a lot of laughter. The truth is I believe that David would have been happy looking down on us, pleased that he was the reason we were gathered and reveling in each other.

Judaism requires that kaddish be said in a minion, a group of ten people praying together. With the Covid risk so high, the numbers keep climbing in our community, Gary was not willing to go to synagogue. His siblings and David’s grandchildren agreed to Zoom each evening so that they could say the prayer together. Gary would say it alone in the morning – alone was better than not at all. It was one of the many compromises made to these strange times. That compromise, Zooming with his brother and sisters, had an upside. I’m not sure how they would have handled things if we weren’t in the middle of pandemic since they live hours apart, it is possible each of them would have done their own thing, or maybe they would have met at someone’s house. It is hard to say. This way they met every evening from Monday through Friday at 7:00 and often continued chatting, sharing old photos, videos and anecdotes, for two hours or more. They agreed to meet once a week for the next month and then once a month until the end of the year in accordance with Judaism’s customs.

Gary’s family, like all families, has its tensions. They are bound tightly by their shared DNA and their parents’ Holocaust trauma, but they are also wildly different from each other. With a large age range from oldest to youngest, 15 years, their childhoods were quite different from each other as Paula and David became more acclimated to American culture and financially comfortable. The shiva process of sharing their grief and memories, even though it was virtual, was healthy. Again, David would have been pleased to see the four of them pull together in his honor, despite their differences in perspective and temperament. David was a uniter, he wanted peace, most especially in his family.

Shiva has drawn to a close. Gary returns to work today. He and his siblings begin the process of reentering community, at least to the extent they can given the pandemic. The grieving will continue. Each person mourns in their own way, on their own timetable. It took me years to reclaim my memories of the healthy, vital person my father was instead of the shell of the person he became in his final year. I don’t think that will be the case for Gary, but he will still need to come to terms with the loss of his hero.

No matter the nature of the relationship, no matter the age, losing a parent is painful and challenging. Rituals that bring families and friends together to offer support certainly help.

The memorial candle in our fireplace