The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

New York City Isn’t Dead

Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.

Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.

We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.

We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.

We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.

I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.

We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.

I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.

I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.

After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.

I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!

I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.

It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.

Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.

Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.

Catching Up

I missed my self-imposed Monday morning deadline by several days, but hopefully you will forgive me. After five months of pandemic limitations, we arranged a visit with our son’s family. We got to spend time with our beloved granddaughter! To add to the joy, our daughter and son-in-law-to-be came too! We were all extra-careful in the weeks leading up to the visit, no one had any symptoms (though every day  I imagined every symptom in the book!) and we decided to take the risk. They came for six days (Leah and Ben were here for four)! We picked blueberries (granddaughter ate every single one she picked, none made it to the bucket), we swam in our pool for hours, we watched 101 Dalmations and Onward many times over, we ate great meals and generally reveled in their company.  I put aside my writing. I took many photographs to help remember the wonders of a two year old. On Monday Leah and Ben returned to their work life and yesterday, in the midst of the downpour that was the remnants of Isaias, Dan and his family packed up and drove home. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but we were left with a treasure trove of memories.

Today I have root canal to look forward to – I’m not joking. I probably could have timed that better. The good news is that we already have another visit planned so it will not be so long until we see each other – just a few weeks, not an endless five months (assuming no spike in Covid or other disaster).

One other exciting thing since I last posted, the essay I wrote that was accepted to an online journal has gone live! (I wrote bout that in Victory! ) I am honored and excited to be included in this edition of Trolley, the literary journal of the New York State Writers Institute. The theme for the magazine was our experience during the pandemic – poets, essayists and visual artists contributed. I hope you’ll explore it. Here is the link to my story. Happy reading!

trolley-600-400

 

Observations and Questions in the Time of COVID-19

Is there more birdsong these days or have I just slowed down enough to hear it?

Same question about critters in general – my yard is filled with bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, woodchucks. Were they always there and I didn’t notice? As I was writing this, a fawn came out of the woods and strolled across our yard!

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one of two fawns in our yard this morning

I’m thinking of taking up bird watching as a new hobby.

Why do people bother wearing a mask if they don’t cover their nose with it? Are there any medical conditions that are truly worsened by wearing a mask? And, if they are that compromised, why are they walking through the supermarket in the first place? Though I have been tempted, I have never said anything to anyone who was wearing their mask incorrectly. Should I? I don’t want to police other people’s behavior. I also don’t want to get into an argument. At this point, what is the chance that they don’t know better?

It is hard to ignore the fact that poor people of color have been disproportionately harmed by coronavirus – in the incidence of illness, number of deaths, job loss. Perhaps our awareness of how inequitable our society is will be the one good thing that comes out of this catastrophe. The question remains, how will we respond? Will that awareness translate into structural change?

The number of deaths is mind-numbing. It feels like we have stopped noticing. I guess we have to do that, or we would be paralyzed. Will we ever deal with the enormity of it? Will the New York Times run another front page story listing the names of the next 100,000?

How do you decide how much vigilance in keeping physically distant and washing or sanitizing your hands is enough? Our daughter and son-in-law-to-be visited from Somerville, MA this past weekend. The reason for the trip was to order her wedding dress! A bright spot in an otherwise dreary time – even if we don’t know if the party can go on as planned.

The agreement about the arrangements for the visit (per my husband who is a doctor) was that we would keep physically distant. We didn’t hug. We did most of our visiting either outside or at least six feet apart in the house. We didn’t share serving utensils. They stayed in a bedroom in the basement. Any time he handed something to them, Gary ‘purelled’ before and after. I was not quite as careful, though I did my best. I’m thinking that if any one of us has COVID, we exposed the others just by being in the same house for an extended period. Did it make sense to take all of those precautions? I am thankful they visited, regardless of what happens. Unless all four of us get sick, we won’t know that we got it from each other anyway. All it takes is one virus-laden sneeze from a person on the one occasion you go out to put gas in your car… You can go round and round thinking about this, ultimately you make your best guess after weighing the risks and the benefits. The risks of their visit, given that Gary, the most vigilant among us, is the only one out in the work world on a day-to-day basis, and none of us had symptoms, seemed low. The benefit, especially to my emotional well-being, was huge. How are you dealing with making these calculations? Is it making you as crazy as it is making me?

As this drags on, will we get more lax about it?

My mom called asking my thoughts about getting picked up by her brother, taken to his house, visiting for an hour (so she can participate in our family movie club which is done online), and then getting driven back to her place. Her I-pad is too outdated to support the software for her to join in from her own place. She wanted to go. I thought about how hard the isolation has been on her, how much she enjoys movie club, weighed the risks and the benefits, and told her she had my support.

I hope with all my heart that these are the correct calculations.

Reconsidering Hugging and Kissing

NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!

It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.

It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.

The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.

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Roger and me

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, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? 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 (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said.  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.

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 also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.

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 made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is 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 turn bright red. 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. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. 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 a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?

As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?

And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?

How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?

A March to Remember

A March to remember.  What a strange month. On March 7th Governor Cuomo issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency here in New York due to the coronavirus. That same day was our last foray out – I wrote about our trip to Dia here. That was our last dinner at a restaurant. It was an excellent dinner, a nice memory, with friends, in person! Three weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime.

I have to admit I find myself struggling. But I am fighting it. Here are some things I find helpful:

  • Putting on music while I do chores. Somehow, I was not in the habit of doing that. It is motivating and I am rediscovering artists I haven’t listened to in a while. I have a new appreciation for Paul Simon’s American Tune. Give it a listen, it is quite timely.
  • Skipping articles that detail the horrors faced by medical staff in New York City hospitals. I see the headlines and my stomach knots. I don’t need to read more.
  • Making a plan for the day so that I know what tasks I will accomplish. I don’t always accomplish them, but just making the list helps my spirits.
  • Setting aside time to get outside – even if the weather is bad. Fresh air helps. I walked in the drizzle on Saturday and Sunday; I didn’t mind it at all.
  • Looking at photographs of my granddaughter – guaranteed to make me smile. Sometimes I text my son and daughter-in-law to request a new one. They have been great about accommodating me. Photographs of my granddaughter probably won’t do it for you, but something will – your child or pet or beautiful scenery.
  • Reaching out via text or phone to folks. This is harder for me than it should be. It always has been, I didn’t realize how well practiced I am at social distancing until now. I am working at doing more reaching out. I always feel better after I do it, but I have to psyche myself to take the first step. This does not apply to my immediate family – I would reach out to my kids hourly if that was acceptable.

Which brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about. It has been three weeks of this version of social distancing, which is far more extreme than my usual practice. Under normal circumstances it isn’t uncommon for me to go three weeks without seeing my children in person. My daughter lives in Somerville, MA; my son in Norwalk, CT. But knowing I can’t hop in the car to see them, and not knowing when I will be able to, changes things. I feel frustrated. We have been using FaceTime, but it isn’t the same. I want to be in the same room. I want to hug them. Maybe it is like forbidden fruit – when you know you can’t have something (someone), you want it more. I know our reunion will be especially sweet and that thought sustains me – sometimes. Sometimes I’m just angry and feel deprived.

Back to helpful things:

  • Switching up meals or trying to be a bit creative about them. On Friday evening, Gary made a fire in our chiminea in the backyard and we ate our dinner next to it. It was a beautiful night, cool, with a bit of a breeze; perfect for sitting next to the warmth of the fire. We watched the sparks leap up against the night sky and eventually the stars came out. Our use of the chiminea has been limited to when we entertain in the summer. Seems silly not to make use of it now.
  • Playing ping pong (insert any other game you have forsaken, i.e. backgammon? chess?). We have a ping pong table in our basement. I don’t remember the last time we used it – stuff was piled on it, as was a thick layer of dust. Gary and I have a history with ping pong. When we were in college, at the beginning of our courtship, we would go to the library tower to study. After maybe an hour we would take a break and head to the student union. We’d play ping pong and get a snack. We spent far more time chatting, playing ping pong and snacking than studying. Fast forward forty years. We found the paddles and a ball in our basement and dusted off the table. Gary thoroughly schooled me, which wasn’t surprising, but we had fun. We played about six games. I got less rusty as we played. Maybe by the end of this ordeal, I’ll give him a run for his money.
  • Watching Governor Cuomo’s daily press conference. Though the information may be grim, it is presented in a straightforward way and he reminds us of all the steps being taken to fight the pandemic. And, who knew he could be so empathetic? He shares his humanity. It’s interesting how this is a case where a person has stepped up to meet the challenge. I was not a fan of his strong-arm political tactics or his personality, but I think his strengths are particularly useful (decisiveness, attention to detail, organized, no nonsense) in this context. And, either he was more compassionate than I understood, or he has matured into that role. Either way, I am grateful. His policies are also shaped by the right values – people come first.
  • Avoid all coverage of the president – this is essential for my mental health.

There you have it. Ten helpful things – for me, anyway. Maybe some will work for you. I would love to hear yours! As this drags on, the more ideas the better; the more tools to call upon to get through this uncertain time.

One final thought: In re-reading this, I realize that I am quite lucky to still like my husband! Thank you, Gary!

Life in the Age of Coronavirus

I woke up yesterday coughing. That sent me down a rabbit hole for a while. Do I have the virus? Is this the beginning of symptoms? What if I gave it to my husband (who is a healthcare provider)? Nevermind that it isn’t uncommon for me to wake up coughing. I have a pretty relentless case of acid reflux which I take medication for, but it still breaks through. It also isn’t uncommon for me to have post-nasal drip which can lead to coughing fits, especially at night. But, I cast aside the reasonable explanations and went straight to doomsday scenarios. I indulged in that for about ten minutes, scaring the shit out of myself. Anybody else do that?

I took several deep breaths and turned my thoughts to concrete things.

Get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, make the bed…..I could revisit whether the cough was anything in an hour.

I decided I would minimize my intake of social media for the day – at least news consumption. I would reach out to my family. I would read my book. Maybe watch a movie. The sun was shining though it was quite chilly. Getting out for exercise was a good option, too. There were chores to do around the house. I’ve been washing towels and such more frequently. I actually had a number of options to distract myself.

Lo and behold, I didn’t continue coughing. I did not have fever. It was just another day.

After getting off to a rocky start, the day proceeded as planned. I listened to some music as I walked a loop around the SUNY-Albany campus. I greeted others who were walking, biking and jogging. I was pleased to note that they were social-distancing appropriately (unlike a few days ago when I did the same walk). It stresses me out when people aren’t doing that – I know some folks are partners or parents with kids and I try to give the benefit of the doubt. But some folks are just not getting with the program. Yesterday they were. That made me feel better.

This is my life in the age of coronavirus. Worrying about a stray cough and whether people are keeping far enough apart!

I am trying to find the balance between getting enough information to be responsible, but not too much so I feel overwhelmed. Some days I don’t get it right. Yesterday I think I did.

I am trying to be productive, but finding it difficult to focus. There is so much I could be doing – in terms of writing, or organizing my house. We’ve lived in the same house for more than 25 years, so there is more than enough stuff to sort and throw out. Photographs to catalogue. There are real opportunities here, but somehow I am not doing it…not yet anyway. I hold out hope that I will.

I have been reaching out to family and friends so that I continue to feel connected – and maybe helping them to feel connected, too. I’m glad my mom is tech-savvy enough to FaceTime. We had a nice little visit the other day, a nice change from the usual phone call. The best is when my phone rings and I see an incoming FaceTime call from one of my kids – guaranteed to make me smile. Gary and I have looked pretty silly trying to get a laugh from our granddaughter – making noises and faces, and dancing around with plastic animals. It is well worth it when she smiles and giggles. It isn’t as wonderful as being in the room, but it’s pretty damn good.

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Our granddaughter asked us to send a picture of ourselves – here’s the one I sent. How can I not be delighted?

It is a challenging and strange time. I am putting one foot in front of the other and reminding myself to savor the sun on my face, a good cup of coffee, a laugh with a friend, our granddaughter’s smile. All of that is still available and I am grateful.

Small Comfort

March 13th, in addition to marking my son’s 31st birthday, was the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. I am pleased to report that memories of Dad’s strength, intelligence and ever-present support have replaced the images that haunted me in the years immediately after his death. My thoughts of him then were of an ill, diminished person, and that was as painful as the loss itself. I am happy now to be able to call upon memories of my healthy father, but the pain of that time is still part of me. The other day I was struck by one poignant memory and wrote a prose-poem.

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

“You think I’ll be able to get my chemo today?”

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

“No, Pop. Not today. Don’t worry about that now.”

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

I post this now in the midst of the craziness and uncertainty – with a hot cup of coffee offering small comfort, but at least it is some comfort. Thinking of friends and family and wishing everyone strength and hope in this challenging time.

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times

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.

 

More Dress Shopping…More Drama

Thinking back on my wedding has brought back a flood of memories. Once again it makes me wonder about memory. Why are some things vividly etched in my mind, while other periods of time are indistinct? Whatever the reasons, there are more stories to tell about planning the wedding.

Choosing bridesmaids and groomsmen was a bit complicated. We were balancing new friends and old, family and friends, and people who had already asked me to be part of theirs. Gary and I went big (see the photo below of the full group). We had eight women and eight men, and a flower girl. I had four friends and four sisters-in-law; Gary had his brother, my two brothers, two friends and three cousins.

Deciding on a flower girl was simple. Rachel, my cousin who was five years old, was the perfect choice. She was friendly, smart and adorable, with red braids and a big smile. I knew she could carry out the serious responsibility of dropping petals as she walked down the aisle with great aplomb. And I was right!

Choosing a dress for the bridesmaids was difficult. There were many different body types to consider. My four sisters-in-laws couldn’t have been more unalike. My brothers’ wives, Pam and Cindy were quite tall. Gary’s sisters, on the other hand, were quite short. It didn’t occur to me to let everyone pick their own. It was expected that they would wear the same outfit. My dress was very simple, I didn’t want their dresses to be too fancy. I was also living in Pittsburgh by this time and the bridal party was spread out, too. Coordinating shopping was tricky. Fortunately, people were agreeable to wearing pretty much whatever I picked, but my mother-in-law-to-be, Paula, had her own ideas.

I didn’t know Paula well yet, though Gary and I had been together for three years at that point. I had spent many an hour sitting at her kitchen table talking, but she was a private person. She was perfectly nice to me (offering tea with a shot of brandy when I had a sore throat), but there was a coolness. I sensed she didn’t fully trust me. I believed she didn’t think I was Jewish enough (I probably wasn’t given my ignorance of ritual, and the fact that I didn’t read Hebrew). I felt her keeping me at a distance.

I knew Paula was a Holocaust survivor and that she was a child when the Germans invaded her town, but I didn’t know her story in any detail. I knew she was an overprotective mother from stories Gary shared with me. I knew she was fearful – she would wait up all hours until her children came through the front door, even when they were adults, home for a visit. She also would not drive on the highway, so she made her way around Queens and Long Island using the streets. She navigated those streets with a great sense of direction, she also directed her husband, David, when he drove. I knew she kept a spotless home, cooked all the family’s meals, was an expert shopper (she knew the prices of items at various supermarkets) and could squeeze every bit of value out of things (she would re-use a tea bag over and over again, the same with a Brillo pad which she would tear in half before using it, she also altered and mended clothing). I was impressed with her skills and competence. Her strengths as a mother and homemaker didn’t overlap very much with my own mother. Paula was very precise; good with numbers and loved math. My mother was probably dyslexic when it came to numbers and precise wouldn’t be a word that would be used to describe her. My mom wasn’t a worrier. She worked full-time outside the home as a reading teacher, she was an excellent cook, she took pleasure in making sure family and friends were well-fed; and, we had someone come in to clean the house every other week. It was hard for Paula to trust someone in her house. My Mom didn’t like to shop and was far more interested in books, movies and theater than homemaking. Paula’s style of parenting was foreign to me.

I also didn’t realize that Paula’s perfectionistic streak would impact shopping for the bridesmaids’ dresses.

We settled on a date when enough of us would be available to shop for the dresses. I flew in from Pittsburgh one weekend. Dad drove Mom and I to Rosedale and dropped us off. My mom, Paula, Gary’s two sisters and I set out with Paula driving. In preparation for our excursion, I had found a dress in a magazine that I liked and located the store that carried it. I thought we would go there, have Rochelle and Doreen try it on, and, assuming it was good, we would order it. Not so fast! I came to learn that Paula would never purchase something that quickly, but I didn’t know that yet. She needed to be satisfied that there wasn’t a better dress or better price somewhere else. This was one of those experiences that illustrated the differences between our two families.

We spent the day going from store to store and eventually made it to the shop that had the dress I picked out. It was a gown in two pieces: a blouse with a ruffle down the front and a long skirt. The blouse was white with a short sleeve. We could pick the color of the skirt. I wanted mauve – pink, with a hint of purple. There was a thin ribbon at the neck that matched the color of the skirt. Doreen and Rochelle tried it on – I thought they looked great and they seemed fine with it. I was sure it wasn’t something they would have picked for themselves, but they didn’t show strong negative feelings. I thought it would work with my gown, would be flattering for all the bridesmaids and it had the overall feeling I wanted.

Paula didn’t seem all that happy with the choice. She wasn’t convinced. Despite that, we left the shop with what I thought was an agreement that they would go back another day and order it. I would share the information with the others who weren’t with us and we would move forward.

We got back into the car and went to the Bakst home in Rosedale. Everyone was tired, but we were in good spirits. My Dad would come from Canarsie to pick Mom and I up. I was exhausted but relieved to have gotten through it. We got to their house and went in the front door. David, my father-in-law-to-be, greeted us.

“How did it go?” he asked cheerfully.

“Fine,” I replied.

“Yes, we looked at the dress Linda picked, but I think we should look some more,” said Paula. “There are some stores we didn’t get to. There may be better choices, dresses that would be more flattering.”

I immediately burst into tears. All the stress, all the doubts I had about all my choices, poured out. My mother put her arm around me. The Baksts looked at me quizzically. David was flustered.

“Come, sit down. Don’t cry. Let me get you a drink,” he said as he ushered me to the couch. He busied himself pouring me a small glass of Cherry Heering.

I took a sip of the sweet liquor and tried to compose myself while everyone looked on uncomfortably. I managed to say, “I thought we agreed on the dress. I have to go back to Pittsburgh tomorrow. There won’t be time to shop again.”

“Don’t worry, Linda,” said David.

“It couldn’t hurt to look a little more,” said Paula. “Maybe we’ll find something that you’ll like better.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You know my dress isn’t fancy,” I reminded her.

Mom was patting me, murmuring words of comfort. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I guess, you can look. But, if you don’t find something soon, we need to order the dresses. Right?”

Paula nodded in agreement.

“See,” said David triumphantly, “we can work things out.”

I was embarrassed by my reaction. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t in Paula’s nature to make a decision that quickly. We did end up ordering the dress I picked. The experience illustrated the learning process involved in melding our two families. It took time for me to feel fully embraced as a family member by Paula. But, once I was, her loyalty and support were ever-present.

Paula spoke an accented English, and her formal education ended much too early because of the war (I wrote about Paula’s Holocaust survival in a series of blog posts between August and October of 2018). She was self-conscious about her accent and thought her command of the language wasn’t strong. I told her many times that she spoke as well as any native-born American, she was quite articulate in sharing her insights or telling a story. Plus, she could speak at least four or five languages fluently, while I only knew one. It was always clear to me that she was highly intelligent, but I don’t know if she knew that. I was American-born, both of my parents were too, they had master’s degrees and were teachers. She respected that, but it may have intimidated her, too. It took time for us to understand each other. Providing her with grandchildren definitely helped.

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Postscript:

I shared this story with Gary and his sisters before posting it. I wanted to get their take on the events described, especially since it involved them. All three acknowledged that they respected my perspective, that it was my memory and prerogative to post it (I appreciate that they expressed that sentiment). Each had a slightly different view of it, though, and I want to relate what I heard. I think it is important to recognize the difficulty in reconstructing an experience from 38 years ago and to understand that we may assign different meaning to the same event.

Gary thought my portrayal of Paula, his mother, wasn’t very generous. In response to that I added more about Paula to give context. The version you read above includes that addition. But the truth is I didn’t feel very generous at the time. That’s part of the point. I didn’t understand where she was coming from.

Doreen didn’t recall going to different shops. Her memory was that we went to the one that had the dress, that they tried it on, and she was under the impression that the choice had been made. She didn’t recall being present for my breaking down in tears. She also had a feeling that my father was somehow involved and that it was distressing to her mom (Paula).

Rochelle didn’t remember the particulars but also recalled that my father was involved and that it had been upsetting to her mom.

Hearing what they remembered was really interesting. It is entirely possible that we only went to the one shop. I may have been exhausted and stressed out from travel and decision-making and imagined that we must have shopped for whole the day. It is also quite possible that Rochelle and Doreen were not in the living room when I started crying. They may have left to do other things – I don’t recall them reacting one way or another at the time so it may be that they were not present.

The memory of my father being involved is the piece that is most perplexing. I am thinking that when he came to pick us up, if indeed that is what he did, and he saw that I had been upset, his protective paternal instincts may have kicked in. I now believe, knowing my Dad, that after I left to go back to Pittsburgh, he called Paula and asked her to accept my choice. I knew nothing about that (or more accurately, I remember nothing about that) – I am surmising based on what I know of my father and that the issue just went away (as far as I knew) – all the bridesmaids ordered the dress I picked out.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Paula or my father. I did ask my mother. She remembered the day, and my tears. She could not confirm whether Dad had called Paula after the fact, but she thought it was plausible. She also commented that if that was the worst of the disagreements we had during the planning of the wedding, we did pretty well.

There you have it. Is this an example of the ‘stories I tell myself’? Is it worth sharing these stories so I can process the memories and reality test it, or does it just make things messy? I am still pondering those questions. My motivation in sharing them is that it provides family history to my children and in examining my experiences, and sharing it with the public, it might resonate with others. It might spark insight or a sense of being less alone. That is my intention.