Living Her Best Life

As I continue to go through Aunt Clair’s collection of papers, I find interesting items. Among them a xerox copy of a letter written by Grandma to her oldest daughter, Diane (who was called Dinya by the family). I was initially puzzled that a xeroxed letter, not addressed to her, was included in Aunt Clair’s collection. After reading it I understood why Aunt Diane would have shared it and Clair kept it.

The first page of the letter, with the date, is missing so I don’t know exactly when it was written but based on the subject (and reference to their wedding anniversary) it appears to be early in my grandparents’ retirement to Florida, either the winter of 1970 or 1971:

In the almost 43 years of our marriage this is the first time Daddy went with me for clothes. He’s a panic. He wants me to buy everything I try on. Dinya, I think he is really seeing me for the first time in many years. Daddy could be walking with me, suddenly he stops and tells me I look good, is enough to drive me crazy. Daddy is completely relaxed and thank ‘God,’ he feels good. Remember the wise words from your mudder. Nothing like a love affair at 65 and 67. When we walk into a store and I try a dress on and walk over to Daddy to ask if he likes it etc etc, he tells me it is very nice, shakes his head up and down and tells me I look very good. When I walk back to the dressing room with the saleswoman, she asks if I’m ‘going with him,’ if I’m going to marry him. She thinks he’s my Romeo and I’m taking him shopping. Dinya, I fall apart. Dinya, you, Paul and children have a very Healthy Happy New Year. We miss you all very much. Heaps of love from Daddy and me.

                                                                                    Mom

How adorable is that? It gives me hope as a spring chicken of 62 and married for only 38 years that romance can be alive and well in the years ahead. I am quite fortunate in that, even with the natural ebb and flow of relationships, the love has never gone out of my marriage. It is nice to know that the flame can burn brightly again.

I also appreciate Grandma’s word choices. She writes, “He’s a panic.” I can hear her saying that – she used that a lot as I recall, and it shows up in any number of the letters in Aunt Clair’s collection. It meant the person, or their behavior, made her laugh. I don’t think we use the word panic that way anymore, do we? She also refers to herself as ‘your mudder,’ spelling it as she would say it. But it wasn’t that she had an accent and thought it was spelled that way, she was perfectly capable of saying and spelling mother properly, she was being humorous. The letters are filled with her amusing touches.

In another way, it feels odd to read this. These are my grandparents! And she is writing to her daughter! There is nothing off color or even too personal in it, it’s lovely, but still not what one expects in communication between a mother and daughter – especially of that generation. But, maybe I’m wrong and if I could survey letters of that era I would find intimacies shared. I wonder if I wrote something along those lines to my daughter how she would react.

More interesting to me is that it was my impression that though they cared for each other, I didn’t perceive much of a spark between Grandma and Grandpa. After all, they slept in separate twin beds like Lucy and Desi on television. Most of what I heard and saw of their interactions revolved around their respective health. Grandma regulated Grandpa’s diet rigidly and often spoke on his behalf. I thought he was the quintessential henpecked Jewish husband. Maybe he was.

Grandpa, with his gentlemanly, reserved ways, was considerate in a formal way, but I don’t recall romantic gestures. It was a different time, though. Emotions were more closely held. I certainly didn’t know them in their youth. Plus, they had been through so much.

Young adulthood, which for Grandma and Grandpa was during the early 1930s when the country was suffering, is a time of striving – to find your place, to establish yourself. Grandpa had the spirit of an entrepreneur. He came to America to seek his fortune; he was willing to take risks. He came by himself, leaving his parents, sister and extended family in Poland in 1921. He was 17. Grandma, American-born, was much more cautious by nature. The Great Depression heightened her fears. This difference caused friction. Aunt Clair told me that Grandpa felt stifled by Grandma. Then in 1945 Grandpa learned that what remained of his family had been killed by the Nazis. I can only imagine what that did to his spirit. It is a lot of strain for a marriage. Growing up in the stress, trauma, and sadness colored the childhoods of Diane, Dad and Clair and shaped their perception of their parents.

Both Grandma and Grandpa worked hard; they put in long hours at the stores they owned. Over the years they had a dry goods store, a luncheonette and then a laundromat. Some of their businesses were more successful than others. Their financial situation was a mystery, even to my father. They moved to a nicer apartment on Prospect Park West when Dad was in high school and it didn’t include a bedroom for him, though there was one for his sisters. Was that about money? Though they said they would contribute to his wedding, they gave less than they committed to, leaving Mom and Dad to use their gift money to cover the difference.

I knew Dad harbored many resentments about the way he was treated by his parents. He was determined to do it differently with his own children and he did. Recently my mother told me that when Grandma was dying, she and Dad talked it out. Tears were shed and apologies were made. I’m glad to know that, though I wish I knew it years ago when Dad was still alive.

Marriages go through phases, it seems, and children absorb the ripple effects. The beginning can be tough as the couple figures out if they are on the same page in how they approach life. Children can strengthen the bond but also create other tensions. Throw in a natural disaster (like the New England Hurricane of 1938 that upended Nana and Zada’s life) or economic calamities (like the Depression) or violence (the Holocaust) and a marriage may be stretched to the breaking point. If the marriage survives all that retirement can come as a balm, or a couple may find themselves strangers to each other.

Grandpa was able to relax and enjoy himself in his retirement. Not all men are able to do that. I know my father-in-law struggled with the transition, perhaps because retirement wasn’t on his terms. But it was likely more than that. Many men are defined by their work, their identities are wrapped up in their profession, and the loss of that can unmoor them. I imagine women can have that issue too, but I think it is less common for a woman to be so invested in their career that she can’t adjust when it is over. Having hobbies and other interests helps too.  

Most of the letters Aunt Clair saved were written by Grandma when they first became snowbirds (1970-75), after their retirement. The letters reveal that the last five years of Grandma’s life were very happy ones. Though it was abruptly cut short by cancer, she took great pleasure in those final years, even more so because she enjoyed the renewed attentions of her husband. I’m glad Aunt Clair saved those letters so I could know that.

Living their best lives

Christmas in America: House Hunters Home for the Holidays Edition

Note: The following essay explores a theme that can be a third rail: Christmas in America. My intent is not to impugn the holiday. I hope friends, family and readers who celebrated this past Christmas had a wonderful, meaningful holiday. I understand and respect its importance. I have a perspective, as an outsider, that some may not have considered. I offer my thoughts in that context. I welcome constructive criticism, other insights and reactions. Please feel free to comment.

I was watching a holiday version of House Hunters recently. The idea was that a family wanted to find their dream home in time to be settled in it for Christmas and have time to decorate for the season. The family was shown homes by a real estate agent who looked like Santa Claus (yes, really). Okay, I figured, let’s see what this is. I love these types of shows – whether it is Lakefront Bargain Hunt, or House Hunters International, I find it entertaining and mildly informational seeing a range of housing options across the globe. This variation seemed interesting enough.

Though I do not celebrate Christmas, I enjoy the light displays very much. As we begin the dark descent into winter, the lights are a bright, cheerful spot. Growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn) we would take a ride around the neighborhood to see which houses had the best lights. The funeral home, Guarino’s, did a particularly spectacular job. I could enjoy the efforts of my neighbors but did not feel deprived that we as Jews didn’t decorate our home.

I settled in to watch and early on felt surprisingly uncomfortable. My hesitation with this episode of House Hunters: Home for the Holidays was that the family featured was Indian (from India originally) and they were Hindus. First, to be clear, I have no issue with the show featuring non-white, non-Christian families! One of the things I appreciate about the House Hunters franchise is that they present a fairly diverse group of individuals – families, couples or singletons of every color and orientation. It may not be perfectly representative, but there is a cross section of humanity on the show. I have been watching it since the Bush (Dubya) administration and they incorporated diversity early on.

The thing that troubled me – and I could have missed something that would have explained it – was the premise that this family needed to have a fabulous Christmas display, though it didn’t seem like they celebrated the holiday. The show began with an explanation of the Hindu holiday of Diwali – a festival of lights. They were going to incorporate the colors of Diwali into their Christmas decorations. Mind you, at least as best as I can tell, Diwali does not fall at the same time of the year as Christmas so I’m not sure there is a natural fit, but maybe there is. The family explained to the Santa-look-a-like realtor about their holiday, and he was delighted to learn about it. That’s great, if only they left it there. Maybe the house hunt could have centered on how well it met their needs in celebrating Diwali, or other Hindu festivals.

But, then they went on this journey to find the perfect home for their new Christmas display. It didn’t sit right, though I readily acknowledge every family’s right to celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want (assuming they aren’t hurting others in the process).

I had a friend in graduate school whose family (her parents) immigrated from China to escape Communism. Her parents were not raised with religion. When they got to this country they converted to, I think that is the right word, or maybe they simply became Catholic. They raised their children in the church accordingly. They did this of their own free will. I didn’t ask why her parents chose Catholicism, or why they chose religion at all. The beauty of our country is that they could make that choice. They celebrated Christmas. They did not shed their Chinese customs either – in food and family traditions they maintained their identity. I’m sure there were difficulties adapting to American life, but they seemed to be forging a path that integrated different elements into a whole that worked for them. So, the idea of coming to America and embracing Christianity is not what I am questioning.

I was not convinced this was the case for the family featured on House Hunters: Home for the Holidays. If this family got joy from adding Christmas to their family traditions, good for them. Something about the way it was presented didn’t come across that way. It felt like a competition to outdo others with their Christmas lights. It seemed to have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the holiday.

I would love to hear from readers who are of other faiths, or those without any faith tradition, who have navigated this. Did your family adopt Christmas? If so, how does it feel for you? I know many people who intermarried (Jews and Christians are common pairings in my family)  – which is also a journey that requires compromise and negotiation. But, I am not really focused on that here. This t.v. show was not highlighting a ‘mixed’ family. There may be parallels but it is a little different.

I find Christmas in America to be very confusing – and I was born here (third generation as my grandmothers were born here) and have never lived anywhere else. On the one hand, people seem to want Christmas to be everywhere – on t.v., on the radio, in the mall, even in public schools. They want it to be an American holiday. But then they complain that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. If Christ is at the heart of it, then it should be for believers. Not everyone is a believer, though. Perhaps many in this country are happy to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. But then why the attachment to “Merry Christmas?” If it is secular, why is it so important that everyone observe it? You can’t have it both ways.

I can imagine that for some the holiday is about family traditions which is a powerful attachment. Putting up a tree, decorating the home, exchanging gifts, gathering with those you love are all beautiful traditions. I respect that, but it still does not explain why it should be expected of others who don’t share the faith or the family history.

I wondered if the family on this show felt pressured to adopt Christmas as a holiday.  Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists and other non-Christian people should not have to participate in Christmas. If they choose to, for whatever reasons (though hopefully not to keep up with the Joneses), that’s their right. And, they don’t owe me an explanation for their participation. I just hope it comes from a healthy, expansive place and not from feeling looked down upon, or judged as less than by other Americans. And, Americans should not start from the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas.