The First Date

Dating was in the midst of a sea change in the 1970s. Women’s liberation was in full swing and a nascent gay rights movement was getting some traction. The upheaval may have contributed to some of my difficulties in establishing romantic relationships, as opposed to friendships, with guys. In my mother’s era, dating was pretty straight-forward. That it isn’t to say it didn’t have its challenges, but I think the process was kind of black and white. A boy liked a girl, he asked her out for a Friday or Saturday night. The boy put on nice slacks and a button-down shirt. The girl would likely put on a dress or skirt. The guy, if he had a car, would pick up the girl. If he didn’t, he still went to her house to get her. A girl might go out on dates with several different guys, until a couple became serious. I’m sure I’m simplifying, but it was simpler! (I’m not saying it was better.)

When I was in high school and in college a lot of socializing was done in groups, girls and guys could be friends.  Mostly we hung out in someone’s basement or at the diner, dressed very casually in t-shirts and jeans. If we went into the city (which meant going into Manhattan), we might put on nicer clothes, but we’d all meet at the subway station and travel together. Or, if someone had a car, we all piled in without regard to seat belts. The groups were co-ed. The relationship boundaries were fuzzy.

It was the beginning of a time where girls could take the lead, though that was not something I was ever comfortable with. It was also the beginning of a time where there was more awareness of options in sexual orientation. We had not yet reached the point that people came out as gay when I was in high school, but that began to happen when I was in college.

I found the whole scene difficult to navigate. I wasn’t adventurous, I didn’t know how to flirt and, while I was clear about my sexual orientation, I didn’t feel feminine. I had no confidence in myself as a feminine being. And, while some around me were adopting a more relaxed approach, sex was not a casual thing to me.

I offer this as background to my first ‘date’ with Gary. We embarked on a transition from friends who hung out as part of a larger group to something else, and I was bringing some baggage. He was, too.

It was September of 1979, the semester was a few weeks old, when Gary asked me out. He borrowed a car from a friend who lived on campus. Since we were going to Copperfield’s, a nice restaurant in Oakdale mall, we each got ‘dressed up.’ Gary was wearing slacks and a sweater, which was a major change from his usual wardrobe of a faded t-shirt and very worn in jeans. While I don’t remember what I wore, I wasn’t wearing overalls, which was my daily uniform.

There was some awkwardness in conversation as he drove us to the mall. Somehow the formality changed things, but we were doing okay. We were shown to a table. The waiter came by and asked if we wanted a drink. Gary immediately said no before I even had a chance to respond. The waiter went away. I was disappointed. I said, “It might be nice to get a drink.” Gary’s eyes opened wide. “It didn’t occur to me, I’m sorry.”

While I didn’t come from a family that drank much, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to have a cocktail when they went out to dinner. Apparently, that was not Gary’s experience. It was outside his ken. He motioned for the waiter to come back, I think I ordered a white russian.

We enjoyed our dinner, discussed our families and learned about each other. Then we drove to campus, returned the car and went to lecture hall number 2 where Foul Play, with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, would be playing. A line was forming and we were close to the front.  After a minute or two, a curly-haired girl walked by to get on the line, but she stopped when she saw Gary. I did not recognize her. “Hi Gary!!” she said with enthusiasm. Gary said hi a bit tentatively, and turned to me and introduced me, “Linda, this is Cindy. Cindy this is Linda.” I recognized the name, if not the face. This was Gary’s ex-girlfriend. She was quite delighted to see him and find him close to the front of what was now a very long line.

“Gary, you look very nice,” she noted. “Do you mind if I join you?” Gary nodded his thanks in acknowledgment of the compliment. She may have taken it as permission to join us. She did. We all made some small talk, mostly I smiled. When we filed into the lecture hall, she sat between us! This was all very strange.

Fortunately, it was a very entertaining movie. I have always loved rom-coms (still do) – they are a great means of escape from reality. Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase made a very likeable duo. The movie made me laugh and that was a relief from the uneasiness.

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After the movie ended, we started to walk out and Cindy asked if we wanted to go out for a drink! She had a car; we could go get a drink and then she would drop us off at 30 Haendel. “It will save you from having to take the OCC (Off-Campus Community) bus,” she explained. I hoped Gary would say no, we had other plans. But, alas, he didn’t. “Okay,” said Gary.

Off we went to some bar, I have forgotten which one. We sat at a table and Cindy asked about various members of Gary’s family whom I had not yet heard of much less met, but she had. “How is Aunt Sophie?” she inquired. Cindy and Gary had been together for two years. One of the things Gary and I had bonded over was our similar relationship histories. Though his relationship with Cindy lasted two years, by his account it petered out, lost its momentum and died a kind of natural death, while mine involved more heartbreak (at least for me). Even with that knowledge, I certainly wasn’t expecting to share our first date with her.

Eventually, we finished our drinks and everyone decided not to get another (Hallelujah!). We went to her car. She drove us to 30 Haendel. We thanked her for the ride and started to go up the stairs. Neither one of us knew what to say, so at first there was silence. I think I broke it by asking, “What just happened?” We were on the landing of the third floor at this point. Gary was shifting his weight from foot to foot, looking down. “I’m really sorry,” he said. Then he said, “I kind of lost control of my nervous system. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was awful.” I looked at him, shaking my head, but feeling kind of sorry for him. “Okay, I guess,” I said. We agreed that we would talk about it the next day, rather try to figure it out right then and there. We said good night and went into our respective apartments.

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The next night, Sunday, Annie Hall was on television; this was before cable, it was going to be on ABC, a special event. I don’t remember how the plan got made, but Alison, Merle, Gary and his housemate, Glenn, and I gathered to watch it in the living room of our apartment. Annie Hall was one of my favorite movies of all time (it still is). Merle and I would quote lines from it to each other and we loved noticing all the little quirks, like the fact that Woody Allen and Tony Roberts call each other Max throughout, even though their names in the movie are Alvy and Rob.

We all watched the movie, laughing and chatting during the commercials. Gary and I had yet to discuss our date of the night before. As the credits started to roll, Gary and I volunteered to make a Dunkin’ Donuts run for everyone. Just as we were getting up to go, the phone rang. It was my ex! Annie Hall was a movie he and I had enjoyed together and, apparently, he watched it back in Brooklyn. We had a very brief conversation during which he said seeing the movie made him think of me. As he said that, I realized I had watched the entire thing without associating it with him! I had not consciously recognized, until that moment, that I had finally moved on.

Gary waited in the hall while I wrapped up the conversation. I joined him and we walked the few blocks to the Dunkin’ Donuts. We were finally ready to address the events of the night before. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, though I’m pretty sure I explained how difficult it had been for me to spend the evening with Cindy. I don’t think I was too hard on him, but I wasn’t letting him off too easy, either. We agreed to a do-over. We would try another date the following Saturday.

This time we went to a real movie theater, to see The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which I didn’t enjoy as much as Foul Play, but we didn’t run into or hear from any exes.

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38 years later I see the seeds of important elements of our relationship in those first dates. We were honest with each other, we tried to understand one another, we were forgiving and we were friends. It stood us in good stead.

 

 

Summer of ’79: Gary Enters the Picture

 

Note:  It seems particularly appropriate to be writing about this subject because yesterday was Gary and my 34th wedding anniversary. It has been wonderful to think back on the beginnings.

The summer of ‘79 was a defining one, on many levels. The research experience in Corbett was enlightening, but more importantly, the summer of ’79 is when I met Gary.

I moved off campus in my junior year (’78-79) with friends, Merle and Alison. They went home for the summer, but I stayed in our rundown apartment at 30 Haendel Street. Binghamton has a neighborhood where the streets are named after German composers and writers. The pronunciation of some of the names bore no relation to their German origins. For example, Goethe was pronounced go-e-thee!  30 Haendel was a three story walk up, with two apartments on each floor. We lived on the third floor, which was fine in the winter since warm air rises. Not so great in the summer, as I was about to learn. Forget air conditioning, I didn’t have so much as a fan.

Our apartment sloped down about 10° from the front to the back; if you put a marble down on the floor of the living room it would have rolled down the hallway, through the kitchen and out the back door. It was a wooden structure, with sagging porches and rickety steps. The building probably should have been condemned, but we were oblivious to that at the time. It had its charms – mostly it was cheap, and it was the first apartment for all of us.

Our friend Dianne sublet Alison’s bedroom for the summer.  Dianne, a psychology major, had a job for the summer waitressing at Sambo’s (yes, that was the name of the restaurant, as offensive as it was) and working at the autism clinic on campus, too. Dianne was an RA in College-in-the-Woods, one of the dorm complexes at SUNY-B, during the school year.

Dianne was friendly with a couple of guys, Mark and Russ, who were also psych majors. They were also spending the summer in Binghamton. Mark lived a few blocks away from us, on Schubert Street which sat between Beethoven and Mozart (more German/Austrian composers!). Dianne and I began the summer hanging out with them and Mark’s housemates.

Mark and his housemates talked about another guy joining them. I kept hearing that Gary Bakst was coming up soon. I had heard a bit about Gary before because Dianne was his RA (I’m sure Gary is wincing as he reads this), but I had yet to meet him.

During the previous school year, I had several conversations with Dianne about this guy, Gary, who was a bit of a thorn in her side. Her floor was made up of females, but there were males in the two suites. Dianne took pains to cheerfully decorate the bulletin board that displayed the cafeteria menu and other announcements. Apparently, Gary and his buddies liked to kick a soccer ball around indoors with complete disregard for lighting fixtures and the bulletin board. 19-year-old ‘boy-men’ were not particularly respectful of her artistic efforts. Hearing Dianne’s frustration was my first awareness of Gary Bakst. Dianne and Gary did come to a meeting of the minds before the school year ended, but it was a bit of a bumpy road.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up in the car that picked him up from the bus station, but I was there when Gary arrived, and there was a lot of chatter about a problem. The house on Schubert Street was overbooked. Mark, had invited a friend, Jon, from another college, to spend the summer and offered him space in the apartment. Apparently, the other guys didn’t know anything about it, or maybe they did, it was all unclear. Gary was the last to arrive, though, and he was not okay with sleeping on the couch in the living room. It took a while to iron things out, there were some tense negotiations, but everyone ended up staying and Gary got a bedroom.

When I wasn’t doing field work in Corbett, I went to the library on campus and ate lunch outside the student union. Some of the guys from Schubert Street who were working or taking classes on campus, along with Dianne, would show up at the student union at lunch time, too. Whoever got there first would grab a big table and slowly it would fill up.  Sometimes Gary and I got there early and we would chat. We got to know each other. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we shared a lot of interests. We were both sports fans and interested in politics, conversation flowed easily. Gary was taking physics that summer because he was pre-med, but he was a political science major, like me. I was comfortable with him and he made me laugh. I was, however, seeing his housemate, Mark.

I don’t recall thinking at the time that I was interested in Gary ‘in that way.’ I was happy for his friendship, to be dating in general and to finally have separated myself from what had been a painful ending of a two-year relationship.

Unfortunately, I spent much of my junior year wondering what was wrong with me because the guy I had been seeing (exclusively on my end), kept choosing to date other people! Part of the problem was that he lived in Brooklyn, going to Brooklyn College, while I was in Binghamton. But, I thought it was my failing – I wasn’t attractive enough, I wasn’t interesting enough, etc., etc. I was ruminating on that to the point that my stomach always hurt and I was pretty miserable to be around. Frankly, I think my housemates were getting tired of it. Finally, Alison left me a note and a bottle of Di-Gel, reminding me I needed to take care of myself and move on. It was the nudge I needed. I stopped wallowing – not completely, of course, but enough so that I took steps forward.

That’s where I was at the beginning of the summer of ’79.

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Me, summer of ’79, attending dinner at Russ’s apartment

Dianne and I kept busy: we hosted Mark and Russ for a barbecue. They arrived in suits! They returned the favor and invited us for dinner. The whole group of us, including Gary, went out to dance at Power and Light, a disco (it was that era). Some weekends we went to a lake to swim. I played tennis with whoever was available. It was a good summer.

 As the summer wound down, Gary mentioned that he and two of his buddies were looking for an apartment for the fall. I knew the apartment across the hall at 30 Haendel was going to be available so I told him about it and gave him our landlord’s phone number. Before I knew it, Gary had taken the place.

One early August evening I realized I left a book in Dianne’s car, a two-door red Pontiac Le Mans. It was parked just across the street from our apartment. I quickly went down the three flights to the street.  I opened the driver’s side door and leaned in, but couldn’t quite reach the book on the floor of the passenger side. So, I sat down on the seat, one leg in the car, one hanging out the door. I stretched to reach and as I did the car door closed on my left foot. Ouch! That was one heavy door! I didn’t think that much about it, though. It was bruised, but I could walk. I finished out the last week of the summer in Binghamton, hobbled a bit, but doing what I needed to do.

Everyone went home for a couple of weeks before coming back for the fall semester of our senior year. I was happy that Gary would be living across the hall, but I didn’t think too much more about it.

Since I had a couple of weeks at home, I went back to work at the Perfumer’s Workshop. My foot wasn’t getting better, in fact it was getting worse. The subway ride was torturous. I felt the vibrations of the train as if electric shocks were shooting through my left leg. The pain traveled from my left foot all the way up to my thigh. After two days of commuting, I went to see Uncle Terry, who was at this point a practicing podiatrist. He x-rayed my foot and, lo and behold, I had a fracture! No wonder it was so painful!  He wrapped it and gave me a surgical boot.

I went back up to school for the fall semester still wearing the surgical boot. Merle and Alison had not yet returned, but Gary had. Each time Gary left his apartment he checked on me to see if I needed anything. While I could walk, I was minimizing the number of times going up and down the three flights of stairs with my bulky boot. One evening he unexpectedly brought me ice cream – a sure way to a Brody’s heart. I was impressed, he was very thoughtful. I was still seeing Mark, but we weren’t that serious. Now Gary was on my radar.

About two weeks into September, Gary asked me out on a date. We planned to go to Copperfield’s for dinner (a big step up from the usual places college students went to eat), and then to campus to see a movie. Sounded pretty mundane, but it didn’t turn out to be.

More to come next week 🙂

 

Hugs/Kisses: Yes or No?

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Another family gathering was coming to a close and I was saying my good-byes. When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, and I can’t explain it, I was always uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, loved our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s cousins, who went by the nickname “Knock,” his last name was Nachimow. He would cajole me, he practically chased me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting to me.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old family movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I may have been two years old in the film, which would have made him five (I was probably 30 when I last saw it). The way I remember the film, I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I got out. The film had no audio so I don’t know what was being said, and I don’t know who was holding the camera.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

Watching our actions, I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I think I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my reticence about getting kissed, he told me had a secret for me and when I bent down to listen, he planted a kiss on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped, I was so surprised (I have always been gullible so falling for the ruse was no surprise.) “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face burning bright red and I retreated back to my seat. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. But, I don’t doubt our affection for each other. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at that recent family gathering, I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly give my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am getting my hug (unless we are ‘schvitzy’)! After that, it is all iffy. And, for me, there is still some awkwardness about it. With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek.  It is equally clear with my brothers, we will just wish each other well. But for some there is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure all my interactions with friends and family will be totally comfortable! No one will try to hug or kiss me ever again! I hope it doesn’t come to that. As with most aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away from it? Why am I still conflicted? The search for understanding continues.

Life’s Mysteries

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Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.

That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.

More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).

One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.

While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.

Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.

“Stop the car!” I pleaded.

“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.

“You did that on purpose!”

“What?”

“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.

“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.

At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.

“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.

It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.

I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.

I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.

Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.

Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.

Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.

For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.

To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.

Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.

These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.

I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.

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Roger and Raffa posing in my bedroom May 2017

A Year in Review

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Note: Today is Leah’s birthday. It is funny how Dan, Gary and Leah all have their birthdays on the same day of the week – this year it falls on a Monday – blog day! So, as has been my custom with Daniel and Gary, I dedicate this post to Leah. It is particularly appropriate because though the rest of my family has been supportive of this endeavor, Leah has been my biggest cheerleader and frequent editor. Her comments are always incisive and helpful. More than any of that, though, she is an inspiration to me. I admire her willingness to put herself out there by sharing her songs and expressing her creativity. It only took me until I was in my fifties, but she was a trailblazer for me J.  So, Leah, happy birthday! I love you hugely! I wish you love, health, peace and wonderful adventures – and everything you want for yourself, too.

Today’s blog post is my 52nd! A year goes by fast! Well, technically I skipped one week, but still, I think it is a good time to take stock.

First, some numbers. The blog has had over 6000 views and it has had 2,250 visitors. Believe it or not, there have been 50 views from Germany, 10 from Italy, even 3 from China (and some other countries, too)! WordPress provides these stats. I have no idea how to interpret them. Clearly my Mom has visited the blog many times, but not from Germany! I’m not sure how the system tallies these things. I’ve also had well over 100 comments on the blog itself, not counting what has appeared on Facebook, or what was conveyed to me personally.

Despite not knowing how to make sense of the numbers, or how to compare them to any standard or expectation, I am just pleased to have readers! I started this blog to share memories and start some conversations and I think it has been successful. Without you, dear readers, it would not have been possible.

The blog has also had some unintended consequences. One of the reasons I entitled it “Stories I Tell Myself,” was that I believed each of us has a narrative that we use to describe the events of our lives. I think we have experiences and we interpret them so that they fit into the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, to simplify the idea, if a person thinks of themselves as a victim, then they might look for how a set of circumstances reinforces that belief. I think we can trap ourselves in our own narrative.

In my case, I thought of myself as an unhappy child who felt insecure. I felt like I never got the love and attention I wanted. That perception shaped my life in important ways. It has been an effort to move beyond that – an effort that fortunately became more successful the older I got.

Writing these stories, and then editing and rereading them, and receiving comments has been a revelation. In digging through my past, I found so much love and warmth. I think while I was living through it, I didn’t absorb it – I didn’t feel it. I can’t explain that. I think I was more focused on the painful or disappointing parts. But, as I wrote and as I uncovered more memories, I couldn’t help but notice the love that was the foundation.

As is often the case for me, a song lyric comes to mind. Jackson Browne (once again) wrote, in Fountain of Sorrow, “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” While I haven’t changed the past, and I wouldn’t describe the blogging process as easy, I think I have changed how I feel about the past.

I think the idea of ‘stories we tell ourselves’ is valid, even if, upon closer scrutiny, mine was a little off. Maybe that is the whole point. To discover whether the story is true! Not everyone would choose to examine their own stories in a public blog, but I think it has been helpful to get feedback. When people comment, for example, that the stories about my Nana and Zada make them feel warm and safe, it helps me process and amplify my own feelings.

Writing the stories was also useful. Describing the images in my head helped to clarify them. Having to choose adjectives to express an emotion, or paint a picture of Nana’s kitchen forced me to think more deeply about the memory and its meaning.

I don’t think I am done yet. I think there is more to uncover about growing up in Brooklyn in that time with my family. I think, too, there is more to explore about the beginning of my relationship with Gary, our early marriage and starting a family. I hope you will continue to share my journey and, perhaps, share some of yours. I have very much appreciated when Gary and Leah offered their own stories (and judging by the comments, readers have enjoyed their posts, too). Others are welcome to do that in the comments or in a guest blog piece.

I think it is helpful to examine our stories, our memories; expose them to the light of day. You may be surprised at what you find. I hope I continue to surprise myself.

Family Ties

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From left to right: Uncle Jackie, Uncle Morris, me, the top of my brother Mark’s head, Dad, Nana and Aunt Elsie. Jack, Morris and Nana were siblings. Aunt Sadie, their oldest sister, is not pictured. Aunt Elsie was Uncle Jack’s wife.

As a child your family is your world. At least it was for me. I didn’t question how we did things or how our family functioned. While I knew we weren’t perfect, I thought we were pretty darn close.

As the years went by, I came to understand that the people around me were in fact flawed. Even my beloved Nana. Nana was a mythic figure in our family. Her legendary status only grew after her death.

I have wanted to write about Nana for as long as I could remember. I started this blog as a way of exploring my memories of her, though I have strayed from that at times. I think I wanted to understand her better, to have a better sense of her life, from an adult perspective. I was 11 when she died, but she played such a central role in my life – from the time I was four until she died, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother. With that in mind, I wrote to her youngest brother, my Great-Uncle Jackie (Jacob, but we called him Jackie or Jack), in December of 2001, asking him to share stories about her. This was the first letter I received in response.

                                                                                                                        January 2002
Dear Linda,

Life on Rochester Ave was a most unique experience. Unlike anything else, it was a lesson in humanities, and your Nana was the ultimate professor.

The one block on Rochester Ave was a community in itself, it was a shtetl, an almost self contained mini state, which thrived for many, many years.

Nana was the leader of the pack. She could have been mayor of the block.

Her warmth and friendship was infectious.

It was not a put on. It was real. She exuded this very unusual human quality automatically – without effort, without exertion.

The block could have had a fence around it. The business establishments and owners were like a family in every sense of the word. It was a “mutual admiration society,” knowing each other, respecting each other, liking and supporting each other.

Quoting, with humility, Tevya proclaims that Anatevka (Rochester Ave) has its variety of ‘colorful characters.’

There was Max, the fruit and produce man next door to the bakery – there was Al the barber – there was Sam the butcher across the street – there was Julius the appetizing maven, Datz the pharmacist, Singer the hardware man – and two names that elude me, the luncheonette guy and the pastrami (king) on the corner.

Your Nana loved this kaleidoscope of rainbow hued people – and they loved her. This was most important!!!

It was a violation of every concept of law not to support each other, purchase from each other, or maintain a warm relationship with each other.

Bakery business is a complex business. A wholesale/retail operation is a 24 hour business.

Zada Chas., of course, was responsible for the production end.

Nana Ray was totally involved in the retail aspect of this very difficult business. Coming in contact with the immediate neighborhood customers required the patience of a saint – the wisdom of a scholar – the compassion of a person of the cloth – the wit of a comic.

Well, Linda, your Nana was all of those things and more.

She constantly transmitted a warmth and friendship to all.

Please be assured Nana was no saint – she was just a very special human being.

It was very obvious through the years that your Nana loved the business and loved the intimacy of her station behind the counter.

She was on call every minute the store was open, at a moment’s call, always in her uniform, ready to report for duty.

But – she seemed to love the thought of the sweets on display. If memory serves, she was ‘almost’ obsessed with eclairs, whip cream cake, brownies, Napoleons, etc., etc. That was bad – very bad. Your Nana was a diabetic – an out of control diabetic. She was in and out of the hospital more times than I can remember. I could almost swear that she liked the occasional stay in Unity Hospital, where she developed friendships with the medical personnel.

She was a star, a favorite Unity visitor.

Nana did not accept the fact that she could be a diabetic. She did not care for herself and, at the end, it may have contributed somewhat to her demise at such a young age.

Nana Ray was a joy to love, live with and is constantly missed.

Love,
Uncle Jack

Fifteen years ago, when I received that letter, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping for more detail, more specific information about her life. The letter reinforced the mythology of Nana. In our family Nana was the matriarch, the center from which love flowed, even 30 years after her death. Uncle Jack noted that Nana wasn’t a saint, but he chose not to illuminate her flaws. He did address her self-destructive eating habits, and unwillingness to take care of herself. Even about that he was as gentle as possible in his wording. At the time I was hoping Uncle Jack could offer some stories that would provide more dimension, or a fuller perspective on Nana.

Today I read the letter and I see the insight in it. I appreciate the description of the community around the bakery, the community that encompassed Nana’s life. I better understand how difficult the bakery bankruptcy must have been and the defeat inherent in moving to the apartment above ours in Canarsie. It explains a lot about the sometimes testy relationship that I observed between Nana and Zada.

My mother used to tell me that she thought Nana used her hospitalizations as a kind of vacation, to take a break from her responsibilities. Uncle Jack’s letter seems to support that, though clearly it was a self-destructive way to go about it.

In some ways, the letter says more about Uncle Jack’s relationship with his older sister than it does about Nana’s life. He so loved and admired her. He was 11 years her junior. Jack had a very painful growing up. Their mother died when he was very young and his father was unable to care for him. Jack was shuttled to different relatives to live. When Nana (Ray) was married and settled, she took him in. The 1940 census, when Nana and Zada lived in Jersey City, lists their household on Essex Street as including the following: Charles – age 35, Ray – age 26, Feige – age 7, Simma – age 3 and Jack Woltz – age 15. My mother grew up with Uncle Jack as an older brother, much the way I grew up with Uncle Mike and Uncle Terry. It is strange how that pattern repeated itself.

During World War II Uncle Jack enlisted in the Marines before he was even 17, or he tried to. I believe Nana had to give permission for him to serve. In later years he spoke with great respect and pride about his time in the service, despite the fact that he was shot down in the Pacific, a harrowing experience. He had a tattoo to commemorate his time in the Marines on his bicep, quite an unusual thing for a Jewish man at the time.

While at war he wrote letters to his nieces (my mom and her sister) that included cartoons. He was a talented artist. Those letters were shared at Mom’s elementary school and posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Uncle Jack came home, after recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed, a decorated hero, a bit shell shocked, but happy to return home.

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Mom and Dad’s wedding in 1954 – the cake was made by Uncle Jackie. Nana and Zada sent Uncle Jack to school for cake decorating and he was a master. This cake was just one example of his artistry.

I think it is fair to say that Nana functioned as a mother to him. Something he confirmed in a subsequent letter. As he wrote, referring to his place in Nana and Zada’s home, “As for me personally, it meant for the first time in my life I felt that I had a family, that I was a valued member of a family, a stability with shared love and responsibility. This responsibility came to pass only by the goodness of Nana Ray and Zada Chas, who were more than sister or brother-in-law – more like an interim Mother and Father, with the children more like brothers and sisters.”

I continued my correspondence with Uncle Jackie and in subsequent letters, at my prodding, he offered a fuller picture of Nana. Here is most of the next letter:

                                                                                                April 2002
Dear Linda,

…..Nana Ray had this thing for hosting parties. She invented the term for Webster, and they called it——obsession.

The family was always the center, the core of any party that was planned to her agenda. I’m emphatically stating that at times, it did annoy the Spilken/Woltz clans – but our rebellion was unacceptable and hopeless. Any previous plans made by the helpless had to be cancelled and rescheduled.

There were small parties, large parties, grand elaborate parties, significant and memorable parties never to be forgotten……

Listing Nana’s obsession with parties, and listing occasions would require one volume of an encyclopedia.

But briefly: birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, B’nai Mitzvot, weddings, uf rufs, going into service, coming home from service (a reunion that made Aunt Elsie your aunt), Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the list goes on and on and on and on….

This was your Nana. She was a class act, her most important cast members were her family. There didn’t exist an occasion too minor or too important for it to escape the opportunity for Ray to honor.

Before going further, I must inject a couple of relationship points.
Ray’s relationship to her (our) sister Sadie was, at times, confrontational and argumentative. But, make no mistake, the love was strong, unbreakable and absolutely devoted. That was Nana Ray, 100% pure love. They spoke almost daily by phone. If Sadie could not come to the party, we took the party to Jersey. Restrictions on time of day or day of week never existed. Zada’s car was loaded and we did travel.

The fun was wonderful……

Aunt Say always disagreed with Ray’s way of life. Aunt Say always felt that Ray enjoyed going out too much (and as such), neglected her business. She argued that Ray’s spending on her antiques was excessive and wasteful. Say felt that vacationing was excessive, and most of all, Ray did not take care of herself (reckless food eating). Sadie was even more angry at Ray for too frequent hospital excursions.

They were both business women. Ray always felt that Sadie was more like the country bumpkin, catalogue ordering farm girl. Sadie was more home oriented, financially frugal, never concerned with fancy clothing, jewelry or home furnishings.

In spite of the silly differences, they were both hard working in their businesses, while caring for their children.

But again, our journeys to Jersey were precious and priceless. We were a family, happy to be together, enjoying the time.

Another relationship worthy of mention is the closeness shared by Nana and Aunt Elsie. This was very unusual, far beyond a sister-in-law relationship, they shared a love, respect and closeness that was out of the ordinary. They shared ideas, thoughts, and were closer than sisters.

Zada Chas and Elsie’s parents shared that same feeling of warmth, love and affection.

                                                                     My love to you ——-Uncle Jack

The differences between the sisters that the letter describes and what those differences revealed about each of them, was news to me. I was not aware of any issues between the siblings. While it may be true that a child may not be privy to those particulars, my experience with my family was a bit different. I was often the proverbial fly on the wall. I liked the company of adults and I liked listening. In any event, while it is certainly possible, I don’t think the tensions were spoken about.

Therein lies a problem. In our effort to preserve a reputation, especially that of a beloved person, we may sweep a lot under the rug. I don’t think it serves us well. While I don’t think it is helpful to tear down heroes, or speak ill of the dead, I think if we ignore or whitewash their failings, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to better understand the person, to learn about ourselves, to acknowledge human frailty and, perhaps, to be more forgiving of each other and ourselves.

These letters, more than anything, though, remind me of the lessons I took from Nana’s life: To celebrate when you can. The priority and value of family relationships, even when the people are flawed. To live in the world with kindness, generosity and love. Whatever flaws Nana had, and they may well have shortened her life, they pale in comparison to her legacy.

Note:  Members of the Woltz family, please feel free to comment, correct or add to this post. If any of you would like to write a longer piece, I’d be happy to post it. That offer extends to all family members who may have something that they would like to share. 

Two for the Price of One: Two Views

[Note: Another foray into prose/poetry]

Boundaries and Expectations

 

September 12, 1986

Partly cloudy skies.

Driving home alone, I could barely concentrate on the road.

My eyes welled up.

 

Will I be a good mother? Can I do this?

Minutes before,

what I suspected was confirmed.

This was planned, yet I was overwhelmed.

I took a deep breath,

focused on the road and the sky, made my way home.

 

Into our little brick house.

I rush to the phone to call Gary.

He is still on rounds at the VA.

I have him paged.

It takes many minutes, seemingly forever.

 

Hello, Lin?

I’m pregnant!

Wow! This is such great news!

When do you think you’ll be home?

The usual time.

You can’t get out early?

Linda, you know I can’t.

 

I sighed and exhaled, resigned to this reality.

Okay, we’ll talk later.

I was left to my thoughts.

 

Eight months crawl by.

I was not glowing with new life.

Queasy, tired, morning, noon and night.

Ear infection, bronchitis, heartburn

I didn’t enjoy sharing my body.

 

So many rules:

No caffeine, no alcohol, drink milk

I don’t like milk.

Vitamins the size of Pluto.

Alcohol was no loss, caffeine another story.

I’m responsible for this new life!

I don’t want to screw it up!

 

The due date kept changing.

First May 2, then May 11, finally May 16

That day comes and goes.

The longest gestation in history.

I am ready! Nature has its way, though.

 

May 20 Gary travels to Long Island to take part 4 of his medical boards.

My parents come up from Brooklyn to keep me company.

At 5 pm they leave me with friends and

head back home, Gary is on his way.

I feel some contractions: Braxton-Hicks or the real thing?

 

Gary gets home by 9pm.

My water sort of breaks after midnight.

We call the doctor.

He tells us to come to the hospital.

It is before dawn on Thursday morning.

We put the garbage cans by the curb before going to Albany Med.

 

27 hours, the last 7 hard labor,

an apt description.

First, no progress, then Pitocin – a brutal treatment.

Finally, I push!

Such a relief! My body is almost my own again.

 

4:39 am, Friday, May 22, I look at my baby.

Labor was hard on me, but she is perfectly formed.

She is part of me and yet, she might well be an alien.

We are one and we are separate.

I understand her; I feel her joy, her hunger, her frustration.

But I am clueless, she is a mystery.

 

I fall in love over those first few weeks.

Her wondrous eyes, sparking with light.

Her pink, smooth skin.

She emerges into herself.

Curious, demanding, loving.

 

30 years later and

it is all still true.

 

[Note: Gary’s remembrance of that same time]

September 12, 1986.  I was on rounds when I heard my name over the VA hospital intercom for the first (and only) time in my life.  The operator put me through. Linda tells me that we are going to be parents. You could have knocked me down with a feather.  I was elated and scared and excited.  She asked me if I could get home early that day.  But the patients cannot wait.  I work as fast and furiously as I can to get out early but 10PM is the best I can do.  I remember not being able to concentrate during rounds that day which is the one and only time that ever happened.

That VA rotation was in many ways horrible.  Perhaps it was also an experience in growing up.  The VA is an underfunded, second rate health care system and, in my mind, a poor excuse to offer people who fought for our country and now are down on their luck.  And, to be sure, if you are a veteran and have other health care available to you, you are not going to the VA.  So these are the guys who things have not gone well for after they came back home.

I was an intern along with two others on that rotation.  Claude Scialdone was another intern with me and he was amazing. I can’t remember who the third intern was but it was not someone who did all that much.  Worse than that, our resident who was supposed to guide and support us was an empty suit (perhaps an empty white coat is the better medical term?).  And the attending physician came by in the morning to round, as he was supposed to do, but did nothing else.  So Claude and I were basically two guys just out of med school trying to keep 40 very sick veterans alive with basically no help.

It was frightening and it was exhausting.  On a normal day, when I was not on call, I would get there before 7AM and get home anywhere from 8PM to midnight.  When I was on call I wouldn’t get home at all.

One particular patient still sticks in my mind.  He had been there since well before I started my 6 week rotation and he was often times confused, weak and kept running fevers.  I worked him up for sources of infection again and again.  I ordered chest x-rays to look for pneumonia, urine cultures and blood cultures but they repeatedly came back negative.  I asked my resident about the guy – I told him I was certain we were missing something.  There was something going on and we were failing to identify it.  The patient was treading water at best and sooner or later we were going to lose him.

My resident responded by asking me if any of the cultures had grown anything and the answer was no.  He then explained that this means he’s fine.  He wasn’t fine.  He wasn’t close to fine and I knew that in my marrow, but I was out of ideas and had no help.

At that time, the VA closely controlled the use of the newer, broad spectrum antibiotics.  If you ordered any of them, you automatically got an infectious disease consult.  Normally that might not seem like a problem, but in the Albany VA at that time, it meant you got Dr. Aldonna Baltsch on your floor. Dr. Baltsch was as feared as any doctor I have ever known.  She was a phenomenal, dedicated, passionate physician but she was also a perfectionist with a temper.  She would come in and yell at you for all the errors she determined you were making.  I think she just wanted to make us better doctors but perhaps didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it.  In any case, nobody ever wanted to see Dr. Baltsch around.

For that reason, nobody ever called for an infectious disease consult.  And the interns and residents became experts at using combinations of older antibiotics to avoid the newer ones that came with a dreaded visit from Dr. Baltsch.  But in this moment, I realized I feared the prospect of failing and losing this patient more than I feared Dr. Baltsch.

So I ordered a new wave, broad spectrum, expensive antibiotic when my resident wasn’t looking.  I did so because I knew that, while it would bring the holy wrath of Dr. Baltsch, it would also bring her expertise.  She came up and was really, really angry.  It was as if Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt and the lava would scorch us all.  However, as it turned out, her anger was entirely directed at my resident.  She never even spoke to me – which was fine with me.

And she ordered exactly the same tests I had ordered.  But this time, after they yet again came back negative, she ordered an LP (spinal tap).  That came back negative too but she told the lab to hold onto the spinal fluid sample longer for viral cultures and they eventually came back positive for Varicella (the virus that causes Chicken Pox).  Turned out he had Varicella encephalitis, an infection of his brain caused by that virus.  This is still the only case of Varicella encephalitis I have ever seen.

He was placed on antiviral antibiotics.  His fevers ceased after a few days and he finally started to get better.  Dr. Baltsch called for a special meeting of everyone in the entire department of medicine basically to humiliate my resident.  It looked like vultures picking at a carcass as the entire faculty went after the guy.  I almost felt sorry for him.

That rotation eventually gave way to others, some nearly as hard and some not quite as tough.

But fall turned to winter and winter to spring and then I took my boards exam on Long Island.  Knowing Linda was past her due date and could go into labor at any minute, I rushed through the exam.  It was the only time in my life that I was the first person out of the room on such an exam.  That night, Linda had spontaneous rupture of membranes (her water broke).  We took out the garbage and drove reasonably calmly to Albany Medical Center where she gave birth after 27 long hours of labor.

She was an amazing trooper.  No anesthesia.  One single dose of one pain killer.  Hour after hour.  I spent much of the time with her but also left to do rounds and see patients during parts of the process.  At the end, on May 22nd, Leah emerged, perfect, beautiful, alert and brilliant.  A miracle in our lives who has been such a great joy ever since.

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Just a few hours after birth – Leah looking directly at the camera, alert and bright. Gary, on the other hand, exhausted.

Leah was a force of nature.  It is hard to explain how even in those earliest days she had a spirit and a liveliness and a curiosity.  I felt like she saw and understood the world around her in ways that most babies could not and her smile melted my heart.  Life had taken on new meaning and I fell in love with her.

Still I was torn.  I could not devote less time to my patients than what I felt I needed to.  And yet I wanted to be home; to be with Leah; to help Linda who was in some ways almost a single parent. She was exhausted and I was exhausted.  And I could not do all I wished I could do.  I could not do all Linda needed me to do.

Having already completed all of the hardest rotations in May of 1987, my last rotation of internship was scheduled to be an easy one in a community hospital very near our house.  It was going to be perfect.  I would be working a short walk from our house, the hours would be reasonable.  A long, hard winter was about to give way to a beautiful spring and hours with Leah and Linda.  It didn’t work out that way.  On the day Leah was born, an intern quit the program and the department of medicine met to determine who should cover that intern’s rotation. They decided I should cover it.  I was back in the VA hospital.