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.

Reflections

We are now two weeks out from the wedding and we still know of only one case of Covid. We dodged a bullet, and I am so grateful to our guests and vendors for helping to make it as safe as possible. We are so lucky to have memories of a joyous event largely untainted by negative consequences. I can happily reflect on those special moments of joy. Here are some photos from our celebration.


Since the newest Covid surge has reduced our socializing, Gary and I have had time to watch Netflix, or in the case of the documentary “Get Back,” Disney+. The documentary is about the lead up to the rooftop concert that marked the Beatles final public performance, something previously explored in the film and album Let it Be. The documentary is almost eight hours long, divided into 3 segments. I thought it was well worth watching. I came away with a deeper appreciation of them as a band. While I am not immersed in Beatlemania, I am a fan of their music. There was a great deal I didn’t know or had forgotten.

First, they were so young! The events depicted were from January of 1969. I was nine years old and to me the Beatles were grown-ups. Watching them now, from the perspective of a 62 year-old, is quite different.

One of the things I came away with was that music-making is both inspiration and hard work. At various times each of the Beatles come into the studio having dreamt up a new melody in their head the night before or having an idea for a song while they were driving over in their car. To then watch the piece come to fruition is amazing. Some might find it either laborious or repetitive at points, but I thought it showed how much goes into it. I also wondered why I haven’t had the experience of driving to work and having a song like ‘The Long and Winding Road’ pop into my head. I’m joking, of course, I have no skill in that area. But how cool would that be?!? The documentary showed genius at work – and I don’t believe I am overusing that term.

Also, at least based on this presentation, the women, Linda and Yoko, got a bad rap in the old narrative around the Beatles break up. It seems it is a myth that they caused the split of the band. They were there during these sessions and did not seem to be interfering or causing tension. Unless Peter Jackson, the director, selectively edited things, Linda and Yoko should not bear that burden any longer.

If the film offers insight into the disintegration of the group, it seems that the members, particularly George and John, wanted to pursue their own creative voices. They felt constrained by being in the band. Other pressures and circumstances may have exacerbated things – drug use, family/relationship demands, the relentless attention that came with being a Beatle all likely contributed – but ultimately it seems they grew apart. One can’t help but feel sad thinking about what could have been. As I watched I thought frequently about the premature death of John Lennon, which occurred 11 years later, as I appreciated anew his talent and irreverent sense of humor.

Finally, I was impressed with how playful the whole group was. Though stressors were revealed in the film, George Harrison briefly quit, the joy they got from making music together was also evident. There was a lot of laughter.

After spending nearly 8 hours watching the film, I felt like I hung out with them which is a pretty cool feeling. In recent days I find myself putting on Beatles albums and enjoying them immensely.


Another thing Gary and I did, given Covid limitations, was take a ride to Bear Mountain, listening to Let it Be as Gary drove. I haven’t been to Bear Mountain in decades. There was a thin cover of snow, so though we originally planned to hike in the woods, we decided we didn’t have the proper footwear for that. Fortunately, there were some paved paths, one that circled a lovely reflective lake, so we could still explore and take in the lovely scenery.

Hessian Lake – reflecting the surrounding mountain

I had no memory that the park included a zoo which is arranged along a nature trail. Since it was Christmas Eve day, and it was cold and gray, there weren’t many other people which made it perfect! We saw an array of birds, reptiles and fish, in addition to a bear and coyote. The trail also included a history museum which focused on events in the area during the American Revolution. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the views. That section of the Hudson River Valley is spectacular.

A view of the Hudson River looking south

As we wended our way through the park, we noted how great it would be to bring our granddaughter there – an idea I will file for an outing in the future.

After walking for a couple of hours, we went into the Bear Mountain lodge and found a restaurant that was still open despite the approach of Christmas. We ordered some food and, in an abundance of caution, ate it in our car.  It was time to go home. “You don’t need to turn on the GPS, I know how to get home from here,” said Gary. Famous last words. We ended up on the wrong road, but it turned out to be a happy accident. We found our way to 9W north which was a less direct route but took us through a beautiful stretch of mountains dusted with snow.

When we got to Newburgh we turned west and took the Thruway, not nearly as scenic, but more efficient.

Though we made many adjustments on account of Covid, we are trying to make the most of this holiday season.  

What a Weekend!

What a weekend! The wedding weekend is now a full week behind us, and I have been on a roller coaster of emotions. From worrying about everything coming together beforehand, to deep satisfaction watching Leah and Ben having fun with their friends, to laughing with delight at our granddaughter’s performance as flower girl, and back to worrying about the Covid surge and what it might mean for our guests – it has been quite a ride. Frankly I am ready to get off the ride already, it is exhausting. Will I ever feel like life is normal? It is hard to imagine.

The three-day extravaganza in Troy, New York – the welcome dinner on Friday night, the wedding itself Saturday late afternoon and the Sunday brunch – could not have gone better. People came ready to celebrate. It was the first time for many of us (about 120) to gather and we made the most of it. One of the highlights for me was watching Leah and Ben’s eclectic group of friends cutting up the dance floor. The DJ did a great job of keeping the beat going. The dance floor was filled with guests of every age – it is funny that the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s transcends time. Everyone was boogeying and singing along, including me.

But the true verdict on the ‘success’ of the event won’t be known for another week when we see whether any of us or our guests got Covid. That is an unfortunate caveat. So far, we know of one guest who tested positive this past week after feeling symptoms on Tuesday – it is not clear that they were exposed at the wedding. I don’t want to make the wedding about Covid, but it can’t be avoided. I find it hard to reconcile the joy of the gathering with the risk of illness, potentially serious illness.

The weekend was about love – celebrating the love of our daughter and son-in-law for each other, and the love that family and friends have for them. But the specter of Covid hangs over our heads.

We took every step we could think of to ensure that we created as safe an environment as possible. We asked all attendees to provide proof of vaccination – and they did. We asked everyone to take a PCR test within 72 hours of coming to the wedding. We believe people did that, too. We made sure staff at the venue was vaccinated and masked. And, finally, we provided rapid tests to use on the day of the celebration. Gary and I took our rapid test in the hotel room before leaving for the rehearsal dinner – both of us were relieved to be negative.

All those measures still don’t guarantee that there won’t be breakthroughs, especially with the new Omicron variant and the recent spike. We will wait another week to see what happens. As of my writing this, Leah, Ben, Gary, our son Dan, daughter-in-law Beth and I have all taken tests and we have all been negative. Gary and I took a PCR test on Saturday morning, and we learned last night (Sunday) that we were negative again. Phew….

We live in such a strange time. We started planning the wedding two years ago, before the pandemic, when Leah and Ben got engaged. At the time we thought we’d have a large party – between the bride and groom’s friends and families, there were many we wanted to include. As the reality of Covid set in, we made adjustment after adjustment. Eventually we realized that we had to postpone the party – the kids did get married on the original date (December 12, 2020) and we had a total of 12 people present – just the immediate family. I wrote about that weekend here. It was lovely, and we made the best of it, but it wasn’t what we envisioned.

As time passed and things improved, with vaccinations and treatments, Leah and Ben decided to go forward with the original party plan. We, their parents, were happy to do it. The journey since then has included many ups and downs. We reevaluated regularly and kept adding procedures to try to protect everyone. There were many phone calls and long deliberations – we kept fine-tuning the protocol. But nothing is fail-safe.

At different points the worry became nearly overwhelming. Friday night, after our successful welcome dinner at the Arts Center, I lay down exhausted in our hotel room. I couldn’t sleep. I worried, my brain flitted from one disastrous scenario to another. Worry is a useless emotion! There was nothing productive to do. I tossed and turned and eventually dawn arrived. Not surprisingly, it was pouring. Rain is a good omen, right?

Fortunately, morning brought things to do, places to go and people to see. The rain subsided. The moment of truth arrived – the official gathering began. I stopped worrying and stayed present.

The venue, Revolution Hall in Troy, New York, has a beautiful bridal suite. We stocked it with snacks and bottled water. While Leah got her hair and make-up done, friends and family stopped by to chat. I took it all in, watching everyone shower Leah with warmth and affection, sharing stories and laughing. One of the pleasures of being a parent is seeing your children’s lives unfold – the partners they choose, the friendships they cultivate. I like my kids’ friends – they are smart, thoughtful, and kind people. I probably enjoyed the time in the bridal suite as much as Leah did!

Troy turned out to be a fine location – with hotels and other amenities in close proximity to the wedding venue which meant a minimal amount of driving. As I was out and about in the unseasonably warm weather running errands and dropping things off, I took note of my surroundings (also an effort to settle my nerves). Troy, settled in 1787, has a rich history and its architecture reflects that. I took some pictures for posterity (and the blog).

Upper left: Troy is the home of Uncle Sam – a sculpture of him greets passersby

Upper right and lower right: examples of murals

Lower left: Collar City Bridge spanning the Hudson River – One of Troy’s nicknames, it was the home of a shirt-collar industry a century ago.

Left middle: a view from downtown toward RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. After all that had gone into it, our guests left town, and Gary and I began to process it all.

In trying to reconcile the fear that is part of our lives today (not just Covid, but the divisions in our country, the threats to our environment, the rolling back of the reproductive rights of women, the doubts about our future) and the desire to celebrate a joyous occasion, I thought about the challenges faced by generations that came before. I thought about my grandparents having children in the depths of the Great Depression. I thought about my in-laws telling us about a wedding performed while they struggled to survive in the Ivye ghetto during the Holocaust. I’m not suggesting that the challenges we face today are the same as those, but we are in a difficult time. I am calling upon the strength and optimism of our ancestors to see me through this. They did not allow the fear to get the better of them.

Over the last year, as we planned the wedding weekend, I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Would it be worth it if even one person got sick? We decided to move forward – to try to minimize the risk, but to not let Covid define our lives. I think, like our ancestors, we affirmed life and love. I will live with that choice (and I will keep my fingers crossed that our one guest who has Covid recovers quickly and completely and that no one else gets sick).

A Eulogy for Aunt Clair

Note: Aunt Clair, my father’s sister, has been included in this blog many times, including a post that was dedicated to her ( this one). She was a unique person who had a major impact on my life. As my cousin Ilana so aptly put it: Every teen and young adult should be lucky enough to have an adult who cares about them and exposes them to new experiences who is not their parent. We were fortunate to have Aunt Clair. The family gathered this past Friday to celebrate and honor her. These were my remarks.

Thank you for coming – or participating via Zoom.

I’m Linda, one of Clair Brody’s nieces. Aunt Clair communicated her last wishes to me, and I hope this gathering reflects her intent.

From the time she arrived on March 5, 1935 until her death on November 2, 2021, Clair, far more than most, did things on her own terms. It is something I have long admired, though I’m not sure it always worked to her benefit.

Aunt Clair was Brooklyn born and bred. Arriving while the Great Depression still had a grip on this country, she was the beloved daughter of hard-working parents, Leo and Selma Brody. She was the younger sister, by five years, of Diane (now Gareen) and 2 ½ years younger than Barry, my father. She was so proud of her older and very accomplished siblings. Clair went to New York City public schools and graduated from Brooklyn College, with a major in photography. She was a talented photographer and some of her work is on the table here. (I am including other photos below to show her work)

Leah on her first birthday – May 1988 – Photos by Clair Brody
Leah with her Grandpa – Clair’s brother – my dad – taken that same day

Clair went on to write code for computers – for TWA (which allowed her to travel far and wide), Bendix and Avis among others –  she worked in that industry when it was in its infancy and when there were few women.

My brother Mark and I went to her apartment in Greenwich Village on Wednesday. There were a couple of reasons we went, but a major reason for me was to find some mementos of who Aunt Clair was and the legacy she leaves us. I think what we found does just that.

We were greeted by one of the long term doormen, who recognized me from my prior visits. He immediately asked, “What is happening? How is she?” Mark explained that she had passed away and his face dropped. The weight of the loss was clear. We thanked him for being so helpful to our Aunt Clair and continued on to pick up her mail and go up to the apartment.

Her mail gives another glimpse into our Aunt Clair. She has likely donated to every social justice and charitable organization in the world. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Nature Conservancy, the City Mission, the Simon Weisenthal Center….the list could go on. Though she was never rich, she was generous with what she had.

We went into her apartment. First, we have to acknowledge that organization and neatness were not strengths of our beloved Auntie. Aunt Clair loved gadgets and tools and she had lots of them. She loved a good deal from Costco – so there was evidence of that, too. She enjoyed cooking and eating. – though she had a tiny galley kitchen in her Greenwich Village studio apartment – it was well-stocked with pots, pans, dishes….and gadgets.

There was a lot of dust. Aunt Clair accumulated things and saved everything. Medical reports from decades ago, instructions for exercise, letters. I found the original lease to her apartment – from July 1, 1960! She paid $80.40 a month. Think about that…she lived in the same place for 61 years. What does that say? As much as she was a free thinker, and she was as insightful and intelligent as they come, she did not embrace change.

As I looked around her apartment, I saw her love of art and music. Her taste in both could be quirky. She had lovely pieces of pottery. She also kept a plastic ring with a smiley face.

She loved biking. She had a compact stationary bike set up in that studio apartment. She had lots of tools and supplies to take care of her other bicycle, the one she kept in storage. I had great adventures with her biking.

There is much more I can say – and I will say a bit more about my personal relationship with Aunt Clair – but first I will turn to her other niece, Ilana. Then her nephew Mark will share his remembrance and I will come back.

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Before I share my personal memories, I want to say on behalf of my mother, that she is devastated by the loss of her sister-in-law. They may have been fractious at times (as Aunt Clair was with those near and dear to her), but they maintained a close and devoted relationship long after Dad died. Mom will miss their late-night telephone conversations and just knowing Clair was there for her.

I’d like to share some specific memories:

Aunt Clair was feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.

Making your way in New York City as a single woman isn’t easy. I remember Dad telling me about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. She fought back and ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did.

I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I think I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.

Some of my fondest memories of time spent with her involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders. 

I joined her for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! This was in August in the late 1970s when the park was a haven for drugs and violence. Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain. It was odd to be there. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.

We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode down Broadway, passing the neon signs of the theaters, all the way to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. It felt like a ghost town. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.

Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment.

It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair.  We took other bike rides – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I saw plays, movies and ballets with her. She introduced me to Alvin Ailey, not the man, the dance troupe. I have gone back to see them many times, and brought Gary and later my children. We ate many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her. Thank you, Auntie.

Finally, I want to say that I am so saddened by Aunt Clair’s final months. I wish it had gone differently. She struggled – in so many ways. She was just celebrating her 86th birthday when she found out the pancreatic cancer had returned. She fought it. She so wanted to maintain her independence, but she really couldn’t. Her body was failing her. So was our broken medical system and our country’s flawed elder care. I tried to help and so did others in the family, but we could not fix it. The inevitable was going to happen – and it did this past Tuesday.

I take comfort in several things, my memories, of course. But there is something else. When Gary and I visited her last Saturday, while she was still in the hospital, she was quite talkative. In between language that was indecipherable, she shared something important that I want to share with you. She said she had no regrets – she acknowledged that though she never had a spouse or her own children, she felt loved. She said she knew she was loved by her mother and father, and she felt like she belonged – her words. That’s more than many can say.

The last six months brought Aunt Clair a lot of anguish and discomfort, but I am heartened that she felt loved. I will miss her, as I know many of you will too, but she isn’t suffering anymore – I am grateful for that. There is a traditional phrase in Judaism, and though Aunt Clair was not religious, I think she would appreciate it: May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. I hope her soul is bound with those she loved who left before her – her parents, her brother, her cousin Carol, her dearest friend Phyllis and other family and friends who were important to her.

And may she rest in peace.

Thank you.

Bittersweet

I know I have used the word bittersweet quite often on the blog. Lately it just seems to fit. This past week was no exception. It featured wide swings – from the deep satisfaction of connecting in person (!!!) with long-time friends (who were fully vaccinated) to extreme anxiety about Mom’s health and back to marveling at the wonder of a toddler. It has been a roller coaster ride.

I accompanied Mom for pre-op testing a week ago in New Jersey. It went smoothly, though, it is increasingly evident that any exertion takes a great deal out of her. I wish we had a better understanding of what is happening. I feel like there should be an answer – and with that some kind of fix so that her quality of life is improved. We continue to search but so far, we have not come up with anything. This has been going on since last August!

On Friday I brought her in for a procedure that was meant to enlighten us – at least with regard to the condition of her heart. In a strange way I hoped that the doctor would find something wrongthat he could address. He didn’t. Her heart is good – which should have been excellent news, and it does bring some comfort. The search continues for an explanation for her extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.

In between Monday’s testing and Friday’s procedure, I visited with family and friends who live in the New York City area. My son came into the city for the first time in over a year for work. He visited with me before his scheduled meeting. I gave him a bagel with cream cheese. He took a bite and exclaimed, “Jesus, that is so good!” He lives in Connecticut and gets bagels, but there are bagels and there are bagels. New York City may be struggling, but you can still get fabulous bagels on the Upper West Side.

Though things are far from normal, some activities are returning in new ways. A Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue set up some tables on the sidewalk enclosed in individual plastic bubbles. The pod was open on one side.  Steven, our friendship began when I was 14 or 47 short years ago, and I were enjoying our lunch when it started to drizzle, then the sky opened up. The waiter pulled down the plastic sheeting and zipped us in. We were protected from the elements and continued eating our delicious meal. When the rain stopped, the panel was unzipped and we emerged into breezy sunshine, a blue sky to the north but more ominous clouds moving in from the south. It was one of those fast-changing weather days. Spring is in full swing in NYC.

I consumed quite a bit of Asian food during my time in the city – all of it outstanding. Isn’t it great to share a meal with people you love? Another afternoon I met Aunt Clair at a Japanese restaurant. Despite her own serious health challenges, we were able to talk about family history and current events while digging into our bento boxes. I learned more about my Dad and clarified some things, some of which will likely make its way into a future blog post.

Late that afternoon I fought traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway to meet another childhood friend – I know Deborah since I was four years old. Anyone who has lived in the New York area has to know the Cross Bronx is infamous – it can be 3 a.m. and traffic can be at a standstill. But Waze, the navigation app that scans for the best route, told me repeatedly, “You are still on the fastest route,” as I sat incredulously staring at the unmoving tractor trailer in front of me. The good news was that I was listening to NPR when the verdict was read in the Chauvin trial. What a relief – on so many levels! In addition to finally providing some accountability and a measure of justice, I hate to think what would have happened if a different verdict had been rendered.

I met Deborah for dinner in Port Washington on Long Island. Deborah lives in another part of the Island but suggested a spot that was more convenient for me to travel to. Another excellent Asian restaurant. I realized that I was only minutes from where my cousins grew up. After the meal, since the days are now so much longer, there was still some daylight. I plugged their old address into the GPS. It was only a five minute ride. The terrain was familiar and foreign at the same time. The lovely homes, tree-lined, curving streets and lush lawns were as I remembered. The house itself was quite different. The wood rail fence and bushes that lined the property were gone. The siding was a different color. But it brought back many memories of our visits. So much has changed. My aunt and uncle passed away – as have so many other family members. My cousins live in Massachusetts and Florida respectively. I took a picture and texted it to them. They commented on the changes they noticed. More evidence of the bittersweet nature of life.

Mom needed to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. I drove out to New Jersey Thursday night and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, they live about 15 minutes from Mom. Somehow when you know you are getting up at 5:00 a.m. it is impossible to get restful sleep. I woke up multiple times to check the clock, relieved to find that I still had more time. But at 4:30 I gave up. Mom was ready when I arrived at 6:00. We saw the sun rise as we drove east to the hospital.

The procedure took less time than expected and I was thankful that she had made it through it, even though I wished there was something they could have fixed that would improve her situation. Given that she is 87 and experiencing shortness of breath, I was acutely aware of the risks of the procedure. At least she had come through it.

She was admitted to the hospital because of a complication with her heart rhythm. I went to see her in her room. Her color was actually better than it had been. She was in good spirits. Assuming that she was stable, I planned to return home that afternoon. Months earlier the weekend of April 24th was chosen by our children to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Since Covid made going to a Met game an uncomfortable proposition, the kids came up with the idea of recreating the experience in our backyard. They would come to Albany and we would all watch the game together on Saturday afternoon.

Fortunately, Mom was stable, so after staying with her for a couple of hours, I drove home. The celebratory plans were a surprise to Gary. He didn’t know the kids were coming. I arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon. Leah and Ben followed about 20 minutes later. Gary worked a bit later than usual, proving that he had no idea about the surprise. He saw Leah’s car in the driveway and was delighted. He came in all smiles. It only got better from there.

A couple of hours later, there was a knock at the door. Our almost 3 year old granddaughter stood smiling on the porch (don’t worry she wasn’t alone, her mother and father accompanied her). I reached out my arms and she lifted hers. I brought her into the family room where Gary was on the phone with a patient. His jaw dropped. I heard him say, “Okay, gotta go. Good night, Mr. Smith.” Fortunately, he had communicated the necessary medical information so though he ended the conversation abruptly, he was in fact done. He stood up and took her from me. So began the weekend.

Though we had a great time with the kids, my mom alternately sounded horrible on the phone (struggling to breathe and speak), then a bit better, then like herself, then horrible again. I was worried. I thought about whether I should go back down to the hospital, but what could I accomplish? The kids had gone to great effort. They set up a screen against the house so we could watch the Met game. They brought crackerjacks, peanuts, beer and sandwiches. They decorated with Met paraphernalia. The weather even cooperated, sadly, the Mets didn’t. They lost 7-1. We all agreed that was as it should be in a way, we’ve been to many losses at Shea and Citifield. Happily, we watched the game (indoors) the night before when Jacob DeGrom pitched a masterpiece.  

Our own version of the 7th inning stretch

Sunday morning, I blew bubbles with our granddaughter in our backyard. It delighted both of us. Something about watching the delicate orbs, rainbows shimmering on their surface, illuminated by the sun as they drifted into nothingness seemed appropriate. The fleeting nature of it, of everything, struck me. At the same time, her squeals of laughter as she chased them reminded me of the whimsy of life. I need to go with it, accept the bittersweet, as hard as that is.

I’m Tired

I don’t have a blog post prepared so I am winging it. The past week was a tiring one. It started off with a dental appointment to put a crown on a tooth that had previously had root canal. The process of preparing the crown left my mouth sore. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy when they insert the tray with the gooey stuff in my mouth to make an impression of my teeth. I remind myself to breathe so I don’t gag. I prefer not to have someone putting their hands in there to drill either- the vibrations cause my ears and sinuses to ache. Invariably my jaw is sore afterwards. It took a couple of days for that to settle down. Great start to the week.

Then I went down to New Jersey to accompany my mom to her pulmonologist appointment. I wanted to go (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!). I don’t mind a road trip. I listen to podcasts, NPR and music. As long as traffic isn’t bad, I’m good. I wanted to be there to hear directly what the doctor said, to support Mom and to spend some time with her. The issue is that the visit to the doctor was not great. I’m not going to go into details, but we left with more questions that we arrived with. Mom is doing okay, but not as good as we would like and frankly, I worry about her. (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!) It is hard being 3.5 hours away.

That night, after the unsettling appointment, I had a zoom bookclub. I signed up for an offering from my local library – the club meets virtually to discuss 7 Pulitzer Prize winning novels that explore the American experience. The assignment for this meeting was Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I’m not going to digress too far on this, it could merit its own blog post, but I would describe the read as a slog. Reading a book should not be a slog. I fought through it, at least in part out of respect for my fellow bookclubbers. The facilitator of the session, who I like very much, opened the meeting by confessing that he couldn’t get through it! Part of me regretted that I had put in the effort, but, in fact, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t great timing in that I had other things to do, but I did get something out of the experience. One thing I learned: I will not read another Saul Bellow novel. I read one in college, Herzog, which I also remember as a painful experience. I think two is quite sufficient for my lifetime. I may write more about Mr. Bellow’s novel another time. I enjoyed our discussion which centered on whether we feel an obligation to finish a book we have started. What do you think?

The week proceeded with preparations for Passover. Last year we did a virtual seder which worked out pretty well, all things considered, but certainly isn’t what we prefer. This year, since Gary and I are fully vaccinated, our children came and we zoomed with my husband’s sisters. I love having a full house. I loved having Leah, Ben, Dan, Beth and our granddaughter here.

Our granddaughter woke up at 4:15 a.m. Saturday morning. I didn’t want her to wake her parents – she was starting to cry and we had the monitor in our bedroom – so I went in to her. She settled quickly. I didn’t. I got back into bed and thought about everything I needed to do. About 6:00 a.m. I fell back to sleep. Our granddaughter woke up at 6:15 a.m. Fortunately, Gary was happy to get her and I fell back to sleep for another hour and a half. Despite that I got up not feeling particularly well rested. A small price to pay, but as I get older it gets harder to rebound. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be 61!” as I brushed my teeth. Of course it is better than the alternative.

During the weekend we laughed, we chatted, we prepared the seder meal (three of us combined efforts to make the turkey and it paid off), we ate multiple meals actually. We played Trivial Pursuit. My granddaughter not only chose me to put her to bed both nights, but said, “Nana, I love you.” Nothing is better than that. I will treasure the memories and look forward to the next time we get to be together.

Now it is Monday morning. I don’t have a blog post prepared. But that’s okay.

Passover bouquet on my dining room table

More Wedding Reflections

I am still basking in the afterglow of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend. To be fair, some of what I feel isn’t basking. There is a tinge of sadness because the big event is behind us and we have plunged into this darkest of winters. But, when I feel that melancholy, I look at the pictures and I am brought back to the joy, light and hope that filled the weekend.

I wanted to share more reflections. I wish all parents the pleasure I felt helping Leah to get dressed. It was just the two of us in her room at the Inn. She didn’t really need my help, only with her zipper, but it was a joy watching it all come together. Though she was stressed, it was a happy excitement more than any negative energy. Being a bride can be a lot, so much expectation and preconceived ideas about what one should look like. Leah made a bold choice in going for a red velvet dress, and it was the right choice. She radiated happiness. I can’t deny that she, like all women I know, struggles with body image, it seemed that she was able to put that aside and enjoy the moment. She was (and is) beautiful and she positively beamed.

Although Leah would not ordinarily wear a fur, the one she has on in the picture above is her Bobe’s (her paternal grandmother) which was quite meaningful to Leah. Though Leah has three living grandparents, they were not able to attend. Having her Bobe’s stole wrapped around her was a reminder that they were there in spirit. In addition, the headpiece she is wearing is the same one I wore 37 years ago (brought back to life by our florist).

Though the grandparents couldn’t attend, they did participate. We FaceTimed with my mom, who dressed for the occasion as if she was attending (looking beautiful) and she toasted the couple; and with Gary’s parents. Regular readers of this blog might remember that Gary’s mom is many years into Alzheimers. She was on the FaceTime call but it is hard to know what she took from it. While on FaceTime, we lit the menorah, sang the prayers, and said the blessing over the bread. Gary’s Dad led us in those prayers, even though he was in Florida. The wonders of technology!

Another pleasure from the weekend was working with a small business owner, Danny from Weathered Wood in Troy, NY. As we were planning this new version of the wedding, it was coming down to the wire, and the kids decided that it would be nice to have a chuppah (wedding canopy). Though they were not having a religious ceremony, the symbolism of the chuppah (recognizing that they are making a new home as a couple) was meaningful to them. This was three weeks before the wedding date. I had gathered information about chuppahs from round one of wedding planning and I had Danny’s business card. I called and he was more than happy to accommodate us.

We agreed that he would get to the Red Lion at 9:30 a.m. to set up. At 8:45 the room phone rang. Danny was at the front desk. Some people might be annoyed at a vendor being 45 minutes early; I was elated. I was awake for hours already and was delighted to get started. We chatted as he worked, and I learned what a struggle it has been for his business to survive Covid. He explained that normally he would have 30 opportunities to rent a chuppah, this year he had 5! Chuppahs aren’t his only business, he is an artist who works in wood and he maintains a shop in downtown Troy. He is barely holding on, hoping to weather the pandemic, but it is getting desperate. While I knew this was the case for many small business owners, it was jarring to face it in person with an individual who was clearly talented, hardworking and attuned to customer service. I write this both to bring more attention to something we already know but may be tempted to ignore (the strain on small, locally-owned stores ), but also to suggest that if you have an opportunity, you should visit Weathered Wood. He has many lovely items. (I also wrote a rave review on Yelp.) That’s it for my sales pitch.

The chuppah

Back to the wedding….one of the other joys of the weekend was reuniting with our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. We had not seen them in three months! Way too long in the life of a two-year old. I was worried that our little one would be shy with us; that perhaps she would take a long time to warm up and we only had a weekend! Fortunately, while she was initially reticent, that lasted about two minutes. After that she happily climbed in Gary or my lap. We were back in our rhythm. She continued to charm everyone for the rest of weekend. She was the flower girl and she did it in her own special way. She didn’t drop the petals until after the ceremony and she ran up the aisle and back again, and it was perfect. We had the ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and time hanging out afterwards, and through it all she was a delight. It was 10:00 p.m. when the party broke up and she had not fussed once. She played with toys, visited with us, and kept us entertained. Hanukkah gelt (chocolate covered coins) may have played a role but was used sparingly.

The next few months will be challenging. I will come back to my memories of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend to nourish my spirits. Then I will look forward to Spring.

A Theater Experience and More

I went to the theater on Saturday night with my friend Deborah. We were celebrating her 60th birthday. We have been friends for about 57 of those years. Pretty impressive! I feel very fortunate to have a friend of such long standing. We grew up together; she lived next door to me in Canarsie.  Today we can speak in shorthand. If I mention a cousin, aunt or uncle, not only do I not need to explain who that person is, she likely has met them multiple times. And, she remembers my Dad, and my Nana and Zada.  If she talks about her aunts, uncles or cousins, I know them and usually know something about her relationship to them, warts and all. It is a special thing to share all of that history.

Which got me thinking. Sometimes on some interviews I see on television or podcasts I listen to, people will be asked about how long they have been friends with someone. They might respond, “A long time – 7 years.” I think to myself, that’s a drop in the bucket. My ‘newest’ friend is someone I’ve known for more than 20 years. Maybe that’s because I’m 60. If you’re 40, naturally you’d have friends of more recent vintage. But still, 7 years? Maybe it’s because my life is predictable – I’ve lived in the same house for 26 years, I haven’t changed jobs, etc. If your life is less rooted, then it makes sense that your friends would be ‘younger.’ Some of my peer group have moved to retirement communities and thus have made new friends.

I think something else might be at work, though.  I don’t make friends that easily. This has been true for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, if I talked to someone in class or ate lunch with them, I wondered whether that made us friends, especially if I didn’t see them outside of school. I still have those questions. Since I retired I have been participating in several writing groups that have brought me together with new people, many of whom I enjoy. But, I’m not sure I would say we have crossed the threshold to friendship. What marks that transition? That’s a whole other tangent, perhaps for another time.

Back to the theater Saturday night.

Deborah and I settled into our seats and there were four women in front of us, one was wearing a tiara adorned with a sparkly 50. Clearly they were celebrating, too. We exchanged pleasantries. This may not reflect well on me, but I looked at the women and thought, ‘we don’t look that much older.’ Then I wondered if I was deluding myself.

We saw the musical Come From Away. It is about the small town in Newfoundland, Gander, that took in passengers from about 200 planes forced to land there on 9/11. It is a remarkable story. The town’s population almost doubled when those planes arrived – they had 9,000 residents; they received 7,000 guests! Amazing that they were able to do it. The story is uplifting – a great reminder of the potential for human generosity, kindness and problem-solving.

The play acknowledges some of the complexity. This was a fraught situation, as would be expected in such stressful circumstances. People had no idea what was going on at first and then they didn’t know how long they’d be stranded. Both townspeople and passengers struggled with the uncertainty. But, they persevered. You couldn’t help but feel good seeing the best of humanity. There was a lot of humor and the music and staging added to the story-telling.

Of course, me being me, it also reminded me how the United States squandered so much goodwill. There is a brief scene in the play where the people of the town stop and observe a moment of silence, as that moment was being broadcast from the United States.  It was quite poignant. As I recall, so many countries in the world stood with us in the days after the terrorist attack. But, then, the Bush administration (I largely blame Cheney) invaded Iraq…and we know how that went (and continues to go). We turned the goodwill into resentment and worse.

But, that was not the point of the play so I will fight my impulse to dwell on that. Another theme of the play was that this cataclysmic event changed people’s lives. Though the people of Gander went back to ‘normal,’ the experience changed them, opened them up to different people and they learned about themselves. Even in the darkest of times, there is that possibility. I need to hold onto that thought.

Prior to seeing the play, I was feeling very anxious. With the coronavirus and the sorry state of our government leadership, I have been worrying more than usual. Something about having the shared experience of seeing Come from Away, in a theater full of people laughing and clapping together helped me let go of some of the angst. I will do what I can to be constructive, taking common sense health precautions, committing to helping whoever the Democratic candidate is (the Senate candidates, too), and, importantly, continuing to live my life. I know there is so much out of my control, but dwelling on fear and anxiety will not help.

 

The Big Day…Finally

July 30th 1983 dawned warm, cloudy and humid. Not an unusual beginning for a summer day in Brooklyn. But this was no ordinary day. Finally, after all the planning and fretting over details (from dress shopping to choosing a napkin color to the seating arrangements), it was time to say ‘I do’ and have a party!

Fortunately, there was a steady breeze so it wasn’t as stifling as it could have been. I wasn’t unhappy about the humidity because my hair looked its best in those conditions. Less frizz, more curl. What could be better for my wedding day?!? The downside was that it didn’t take much to get me sweating. I hoped that the Seaview Jewish Center would be well air-conditioned.

I woke up that morning in my childhood bed happy and excited, but also a little lost. What was I going to do with myself until it was time to get my make-up done? Since our invitation was for 9:30 pm, even with time for getting ready and taking pictures, a long day stretched ahead of me. I was never one to sleep late, and that day was no exception, especially with the anticipation of the big event.

There were some distractions. My 17-month old nephew, Joshua, was in the house, along with his mom and dad (my brother). I was enamored with Josh, an adorable, charming red head. He was the first grandchild in the Brody family, and was doted on accordingly. But there were limits to the time I could spend with him – he needed to eat and nap, and for some reason his grandparents claimed his attention too. Inexplicably, he sometimes stated his preference for his mom or dad.

Happily, my maid-of-honor, Merle, was also available. Since we graduated from college, we didn’t get to see each other that frequently. She was living in Buffalo getting her PhD in counseling psychology, while I was living in Pittsburgh. Though those two cities aren’t that far apart mileage-wise, the travel could be treacherous with lake effect snow and other weird weather phenomena (tornado warnings on one drive!). I wrote about one of our memorable trips where we got stuck in a blizzard in Erie, PA here. Merle and I got together in the early afternoon to take a walk. I was grateful for the one-on-one time before the craziness of the wedding.

Though evening took its sweet time, eventually it arrived. My bridesmaid, Deborah, arranged for my make-up to be done at my house. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift since my mother and I didn’t know much about that stuff. Maria, armed with a small suitcase of cosmetics, sat me down in our kitchen and got to work. She knew I wanted to look natural, but with enough touching up to look special and photograph well.

As I was sitting in the chair, it was still long before we needed to leave to take pictures, the doorbell rang. Who could that be? Everyone was accounted for and busily getting showered and dressed. My father answered the door and ushered our guest in. It was Gary!

“Gary! What are you doing here?”

I was shocked – we were supposed to meet at the photographer’s studio in another hour.

“No one in my house was close to ready. There’s construction on the Belt, and I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t going to be late for my own wedding.”

“Ooookaaaay.”

I thought about whether I cared if he saw me as I got ready. There’s supposed to be this big reveal when the groom sees his bride for the first time (though they had not come up with the ‘first look’ photo session yet). I quickly decided that it was silly to worry about that – it was sweet that he was so concerned and responsible that he arrived ridiculously early.

“All right, well it’s fine if you want to hang out. You can head to the photographer when we go.”

His family, his brother in particular, had a reputation for being late and Gary didn’t want to get caught up in that drama at his house. He didn’t want to be the one to nudge them along, worrying all the while about the potential traffic. Gary and I had already experienced the impact of the construction on the Belt Parkway.

The Belt was the highway that connected our respective neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In between was JFK, the airport. Traffic was always heavy. Introduce a lane closure for construction or an accident and an epic back up ensued. Gary and I had been home for a few days to prepare for the wedding and made the trip between our two houses several times, finding ourselves at a standstill in that traffic. I understood why he had been so anxious about it. He warned his family. They might be late, but he wasn’t going to be.

I went into my bedroom to put on my dress. Some women, when stressed, eat less and may lose weight in the week before their wedding. Not this woman. Though I thought I was being careful, my gown was tighter than when I last put it on – but it zipped up without too much difficulty. I looked in the mirror and commented to my mom that I was showing more cleavage than I remembered. I guess that’s where the extra pound or two had gone. Mom reassured me that it was fine.

Since Sabbath ended so late, we couldn’t take pictures at the Seaview Jewish Center. We didn’t want to delay things even more, so we arranged to go to the photographer’s studio beforehand. It was conveniently located in the shopping center near my house. We were working with Jay Phillips, the same photographer who did my parents’ wedding 29 years earlier! Much to Gary’s relief, his family did indeed make it in time. By the time the session was done my cheeks hurt from smiling so broadly.

As we were leaving the studio, it started to rain. David, my father-in-law-to-be, commented that in Judaism rain is a good omen – it was a blessing on our marriage. Over the many years that I would know him, David could be counted on to turn to Jewish tradition to find the bright side to a seemingly negative or innocuous thing. (Did you know that in our tradition Tuesday is the best/luckiest day to move? David told me that after learning that his grandson, my son, Daniel and his wife Beth had moved into their new house on a Tuesday.)

In those days it was common to have the cocktail hour before the ceremony. The bride was supposed to stay in a private room so the ‘reveal’ wouldn’t be spoiled. The groom was free to mingle. I stayed in the room for a bit, but decided it was another silly ritual, so I joined the festivities. After a brief spin around the room, it was time to take care of the pre-ceremony paperwork – the signing of the ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract).

We, my parents, the rabbi, Gary and his parents, gathered in the rabbi’s study. The rabbi asked for our marriage license – we gave it to him. Then he asked for the ketubah. We all looked at each other. Panic ensued. After a few minutes of searching, my dad prepared to go back to our house (fortunately only a five- minute ride) to get it. Just as Dad was leaving the room, Gary looked over at the rabbi, who was sitting at the desk busily writing.

“Rabbi, what are you doing?”

The rabbi looked up perplexed, apparently oblivious to the chaos in the room.

“I’m preparing the ketubah.”

“Then you have it?!?”

The rabbi, it turned out, had asked the question rhetorically – he was asking himself and he quietly found it in his folder. He neglected to mention it, though, and the rest of us were in high gear searching and trying to come up with a plan B if we couldn’t locate it. We couldn’t believe that the rabbi hadn’t noticed the turmoil in the room.

My father, who had carried his gin and tonic from the cocktail hour into the study, gulped it down in one swallow, in relief. He was stressed at the prospect of trying to find the document in the disarray of our house. Luckily, he didn’t have to. We all took a deep breath.

The rest of the night went on without incident. The ceremony was enhanced by two flautists playing Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses) – the romantic and lovely melody was the perfect accompaniment. I didn’t want to walk down the aisle to the traditional ‘Here Comes the Bride.’

My father’s friend, Jack Merlis, was a cantor and opera singer. He agreed to perform during the ceremony. His powerful voice practically blew us off the bema. I felt the vibration of his vocals down to my toes.

It was after midnight when the ceremony concluded, and we got down to the dinner and dancing. Gary’s brother, our best man, toasted our individuality and our union. We had a great time. After three hours of revelry, we prepared to leave around 3:30 a.m. Gary arranged to borrow his mom’s car for our honeymoon in upstate New York. We would spend the week at my parents’ house in Livingston Manor (without my parents :)).

We went out to find the car decorated with a ‘Just Married’ sign and streamers. Gary’s siblings had done the honors. Not only that, they gave us a cooler stocked with champagne and snacks so we could continue our celebration. We learned that the reason that Steven was delayed and distracted earlier in the day, when Gary was worrying that no one was getting ready in a timely way, was that he and Rochelle were running around getting the cooler, glasses, champagne and other goodies. It was a thoughtful and appreciated gesture.

The stresses and strains of the planning were behind us. Gary and I set off on our future together, supported by the love, humor, care and generosity of our family and friends. Though there would be other bumps in the road, the journey continued and continues. We still rely on that foundation.