Driving from Brooklyn to Champaign-Urbana, I was always the first in my family to know that a farm was nearby. I picked up the scent of cow manure miles away. Cow manure was in wide use as we drove Interstate 70 through the farmland of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. To some, who perhaps grew up on a farm, that pungent aroma may have evoked warm feelings, reminders of Spring, the earth and beloved animals. For me, with my city sensibilities, it reminded me of the elephant enclosure at the Central Park zoo. I held my nose until I thought we passed it, or until I absolutely had to take a breath.
When I was early in my pregnancy with Leah, it was autumn. The smell of moldering leaves followed me around, I think the odor took up residence in my olfactory system. Years later, whenever I caught a whiff of rotting leaves, it reminded me of my pregnancy – a strange, perhaps unfortunate, association.
I enjoyed pleasant aromas, too. Freesia was a favorite flower. I loved Jovan Musk, the perfume, when I was in college. Baking chocolate chip cookies or roasting chicken were wonderful kitchen scents. Many childhood memories are infused with scents: suntan lotion at Belle Harbor Beach, mothballs in a cabin in Harriman State Park, the mountainous landfill next to my Canarsie home.
The first time I lost my sense of smell and taste was in 1989. Dan was 7 months old and Leah was just shy of two and a half. I took a leave from my doctoral program, first to give birth to Dan, and then extended it to go back to work full-time. Gary was in the third year of his internal medicine residency with two years of an endocrine fellowship still to come. He was paid for his efforts, but it was a paltry sum – certainly not enough for our family of four to live on. I had a graduate assistantship to attend the PhD program, but it wasn’t enough to cover our expenses.
A professor of mine, who knew I was looking for work, informed me about a job opportunity with the New York State Legislature. I applied and got the job; I started in late September of 1989. I reported for my first day of work with a heavy cold.
I was assigned my own cubicle, which made me slightly less self-conscious about the constant nose-blowing and hacking. I had been to the doctor and was already on an antibiotic. After another week or two with no improvement in the symptoms, I went back to the doctor. She prescribed a different antibiotic.
One afternoon I was sitting at my desk at work and I took some M&M’s as a snack. I put a couple in my mouth and realized I couldn’t taste it. I could feel them dissolving on my tongue, but I didn’t taste any sweetness or chocolately-goodness. I took a few more, just to be sure. Nothing! How disappointing! I didn’t think that much about it, though, attributing it to the severity of my congestion.
That night, as I was reading to Leah before bed, I noticed I was a little breathless. I couldn’t read aloud as fluidly as I usually did, needing to pause every few words to catch my breath. I pointed it out to Gary, who put his stethoscope to my lungs and heard me wheezing. I had never wheezed in my life. I went back to the doctor the next morning.
The doctor sent me for a chest x-ray and then I went back to work. A couple of hours later I got a phone call telling me I had pneumonia in both lungs. I asked the doctor if I needed to go home. The doctor said, “Yes! And, let’s schedule you to come back in tomorrow.”
When I visited the doctor the next day, she looked at me and suggested that I go to the hospital. “You clearly can’t get the rest you need at home. And, we should try IV (intravenous) antibiotics for a day or two.” I agreed. My family rallied to help take care of Leah and Daniel.
Between the bed rest, IV antibiotic and, an inhaler, I turned the corner. Over time, my tastebuds came back and so did my sense of smell. Both senses may have been dulled a bit, but not that noticeably.
When the kids were young it felt like I was constantly battling ear infections, sinusitis and/or bronchitis, though I never had pneumonia again. I had another episode of losing my sense of taste, but after a course of steroids, it came back. Over the years, I don’t know if it was related to the recurrent respiratory issues or not, my sense of smell diminished. Fortunately, once Leah and Dan were done with elementary school, I stopped getting those infections, but my sense of smell got left behind.
Today, I no longer perceive skunk! The odor must be unbelievably pungent for me to get even a whiff of it. Not a huge loss, it’s true. But, I can’t appreciate the scent of flowers either. Even sticking my nose into a rose, I only get a hint of the fragrance. It is so ironic, having been born with such a sensitive nose.
Smell is such an important part of forming memories, such an important part of experiencing the world. It is funny how there are some things I can still smell, the sense isn’t entirely gone. I still know when the litter box needs to be changed, thankfully (or not)! The pungency of slicing an onion still brings tears to my eyes.
Earlier this Spring, walking in the woods with Gary, I sensed the freshness in the air, but not the sweetness. “Can you smell that?” he asked, as we hiked. “These white blossoms are really sweet.” I shrugged, “Nope.” We walked on. I appreciated the rich green carpet of ferns, the sun dappled leaves, the sound of the wind in the trees, the coolness of the shade. But, it felt a bit incomplete.
Yesterday Gary and I took a break from our car ride from New Jersey to Albany to check out the Walkway over the Hudson River. The walkway is a pedestrian bridge that links Highland and Poughkeepsie.
Gary a few steps ahead of me
It was still warm, though the sun was setting. The air had cleared after a morning of heavy, hazy humidity. We enjoyed great views of the Hudson north and south. Heading back, with a neighborhood of Poughkeepsie beneath us, my nose registered something! “I smell barbecue! Smells good!” I said. “You can smell that?” Gary asked happily. We found the source, a family cooking out in their backyard.
My visual and olfactory systems may be flawed, but I’ll enjoy what I have for as long as I have them. I’m sure others struggle with compromised senses. Smell isn’t often mentioned; I think it deserves some attention.
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.
It was the summer of 1980 and I had just graduated from college. I would start graduate school at Columbia in the fall. I planned to work at The Perfumer’s Worskhop for the summer, the same place I had worked for the past three summers. The Perfumer’s Workshop was a company that created and distributed a few different lines of perfumes and essential oils, very high-end products that were sold only at the best department stores. Prior to working there, I had not even heard of these department stores. Suffice it to say that Princess Luciana’s Tea Rose, their biggest seller, was not offered at Alexander’s, or even A&S, and A&S was a fancy store, in my estimation.
I got the job through a friend of my father. I learned a lot in my time at The Perfumer’s Workshop. Aside from learning the names of the high-end department stores across the country (Nieman Marcus, Bullocks, Carson, Pirie, Scott, etc.), I saw a whole different world in that office. Mr. Bauchner, the owner, was always tan and dressed in the latest men’s fashion. He frequently jetted off to Dubai and Kuwait – exotic places I had not heard of until then. I hadn’t seen ‘air kisses’ before – visitors were greeted with pecks on the cheek that seemed to deliberately miss. Mr. Molyneux, the ‘nose,’ came to the office carrying his seemingly miniature Yorkshire terrier in his arms like a baby. (Note: The person who developed the scents at a perfume company was called ‘the nose.’) He had a light green velvet suit that he favored and sometimes he wore a beret.
It was a very small company; all the men were addressed as Mister. The office manager/controller was addressed by her first name, Eve. All the women, and there were only a few, were called by their first names. At the time, this seemed appropriate.
They offered me a permanent job, but I could not see my future there. I knew, and I was honest with them, that I didn’t want to be a bookkeeper and I had no interest in the world of high fashion and all that entailed. They were very gracious about allowing me to continue to come back for summers and school breaks.
In August of that summer the Democratic party was holding its convention at Madison Square Garden. My parents’ good friend, Sonya, was very involved in politics. She was, in fact, married to a congressman (Ted Weiss) who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sonya had connections and knew I was interested in politics, so she arranged for me to get an interview to work at the convention.
On a hot, humid July day I made my way from the Perfumer’s Workshop office on 57th and 5th to the interview at the Statler Hotel across from Madison Square Garden. I anticipated a swanky Manhattan hotel; it wasn’t. It had clearly seen better days. A threadbare carpet led me to a hotel conference room where I was briefly interviewed. It was clearly a formality. They told me they would be in touch with more specifics. I can’t say that I left feeling excited because I didn’t know what the job entailed, it all seemed pretty loose. The drabness of the hotel colored my mood. I went back uptown to the Perfumer’s office thinking that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, despite being underwhelmed by the interview process. In the meantime, I would continue working at the perfume company until the convention.
During that summer, my brother, Steve, and his wife, Cindy, were temporarily living in London. They were there for six months and that summer was in the middle of their time there.
Cindy and Steve allowed me to ‘apartment-sit’ at their lovely place in Jamaica Estates in Queens while they were away. Living there cut down my commute time dramatically, compared to Canarsie, and not having to move back in with my parents after college was a big plus. Unexpectedly, it also provided an opportunity for Gary to ingratiate himself with my father.
One evening I was on the phone with Gary. He was at his parent’s house in Rosedale, another neighborhood in Queens. We were chatting happily when Gary said he needed to go (literally) and he would call me back. We hung up and I went about my business. I think about half hour or 45 minutes went by when there was a knock on the apartment door. “Who’s there?” I ask, as I looked through the peephole. I see Gary and I open the door. Not only is Gary there, but his brother, Steven, is standing to the side of the doorframe. They both have baseball bats!
“You’re okay?” Gary asked. “Yes. What’s going on?” I opened the door wide so they could come in. “You didn’t answer the phone!” Gary exclaimed, sounding exasperated. “What do you mean? It didn’t ring,” I responded. I went over to the phone and picked it up and to my surprise there was no dial tone.
Turned out, Gary, having answered nature’s call, tried phoning me continuously for ten or fifteen minutes, getting progressively more nervous when I failed to answer. We had been on the phone and he knew I had no plan to go out, or even get in the shower. So, in a move that sealed him in my father’s heart forever, he and his brother jumped in the car and drove (maniacally, if I know Steven) over to make sure I was all right – bringing baseball bats to mete out justice, if need be.
We surmised that something must have happened with the phone after I hung up and I didn’t realize it had gone out of service. They were quite relieved to find that I was safe and sound. Gary and Steven went back home satisfied that all was well.
Steve and Cindy’s time in London provided the family with an opportunity to see England and there was discussion about visiting them. Pam, Cindy’s sister, wanted to go and we explored traveling together, but the timing didn’t work. I was betwixt and between because I needed to make money over the summer, so I didn’t want to cut short my time at Perfumer’s Workshop. I also wanted to work the convention and I would be starting graduate school early in September. But, how many opportunities would I have to go to London and have a place to stay for free? The trip would cost me only airfare and meals. But, how many opportunities would I have to attend the Democratic National Convention?
It was a tough decision.
After weighing the merits of each, I decided to go to London. I have vivid memories of that trip. I probably spent more time with my brother Steven during that week than I had in my life up to that point, or since. We took Brit Rail to Bath and saw Roman ruins and where Jane Austen lived. We went to museums and saw a play, Mousetrap. We also snuck into the second act of the play, Norman Conquests! I did some exploring on my own, too.
Most memorably, though, we took a one-day trip to Paris. When I arrived in London, Mark and Pam were concluding their own visit. (As mentioned previously on this blog, my two brothers married two sisters. Mark and Pam were engaged to be married in the summer of 1980.) We overlapped for one-day, quite an auspicious day. My plane landed at Gatwick, I took a train to Victoria Station and found Steven waiting for me. We went to their apartment, met Cindy, Mark and Pam and dropped my stuff off. We left immediately to catch a bus. We took the bus to the ferry to cross the channel (the Chunnel didn’t exist yet). We arrived in Paris as the sun was coming up. We had a little over 12 hours to tour Paris on our own before we caught the bus back to London.
I have a picture in my mind’s eye of us crisscrossing Paris, trying to see as much as possible in our limited time. My sister-in-law, Cindy, has very long legs and covers a lot of ground quickly and efficiently. Steven, with years of experience as her partner, matched her pace. I lagged behind them, but kept them in sight. Mark and Pam were quite a bit behind me. We trooped through Paris in that alignment. The Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries, the Pompidou Center, the Champs de Elysees, and the Arc de Triomphe. Mostly we just walked by the various sites. We did go into the Louvre. I couldn’t believe I was seeing so many iconic places.
It was exhausting! We met up with the others from the bus at a restaurant where we had dinner before boarding for our return. I sunk into my seat, beyond tired, barely able to keep my eyes open. Next thing I knew, there was a bit of a commotion and some male passengers, including my brothers, were coming down the aisle of the bus. It was pitch black as I looked out the side window, but there was a huge bonfire ahead of us blocking the road. There was some shouting in French. I didn’t understand what was going on. I heard my brother Steven explaining to the bus driver that he had previously traveled back to England through Ostend (in Belgium), which wasn’t too far. We were scheduled to get to the ferry in Calais in France, but we were thwarted. Steven was giving the driver directions so we could find another way back!
I came to understand, later, that French fisherman had created a blockade at Calais so that boats could not cross the English Channel. The bus driver was planning to ram the bus through the bonfire! Fortunately, the passengers, including my brothers, convinced him that going to Ostend was a better option. The blockade later spread to other ports. It was a dispute about fishing rights. We made it to Ostend and got on a ferry back to England. It turned out to be the last ferry for something like two weeks! We couldn’t believe it. Thank God Steven had a great sense of direction!
We got back to London. Mark and Pam returned to the United States. I slept for a day and then went about touring London and some of the surrounding areas. I didn’t regret my choice, though I believe that 1980 convention may have been the last time there was a contest on floor. Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the nomination, though he gave up after the first day.
A couple of months after I returned from my London adventure, I got this letter from Zada for my birthday. The letter included another story – his experience at the 1920 Democratic National Convention! In true Zada-fashion, it is a little off-color, but it was my 21st birthday, after all. I may have missed my chance to attend a convention, but, unbeknownst to me, Zada had attended one 60 years earlier.
October 3, 1980
At one time the age of maturity was ’21.’ Now I understand it is ’18.’ I think that you have matured a lot earlier. You have proven this not only to my satisfaction, but to everybody around you. We all are proud of the net result.
Although we will wish you the best in all succeeding birthdays, this one according to custom, is a check, that we hope you use to your advantage. I had vowed that I would send a check to grandchildren up to the age of 21. So far, I have lived up to my vow.
I promised you that because you missed the Democratic National Convention I would write of my experiences at the 1920 Democratic Convention that was held at the old Madison Square Garden, at that time situated on 23rd and Madison Ave. I will set the scene so that in your mind you will realize that this has happened 60 years ago. The morals and mores of the times then were a lot different than they are today…But if a U.S. president can say publicly, “I will whip his ass!”, what I have to relate is mild in comparison.
I was 16 years old, and on the street where we lived there was a young man who had worked with the Sells-Floto Circus. His boss there was in charge of the concessions at the convention. There was a need of hawkers (salesmen). So naturally he asked a few of us if we would be willing to work at the Garden in this capacity. And, as you know, I always possessed a yen for all kinds of adventure. I eagerly accepted. What I am going to relate is only one phase of all the important events I encountered. Some day, if fate decrees that we are together and if you are interested, I will recount the events that made such an impression upon me.
The delegates are assembled in the vast auditorium, there is a mixture of lady delegates, but predominantly they are mostly of the male species. As you know they have come from all parts of our great country. There has been a deadlock between Alfred A. Smith, governor of New York State and Williams Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury and also a son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. The battle raged hot and hectically. Neither one would accede to the other. It was necessary for the boys in the ‘smoked filled rooms’ to break the deadlock so they came up with an alternate choice which I will name later. As you have seen when a candidate is announced, all in his favor will start parading around the arena shouting and singing to the blaring music, the chant, We want Smith or whatever candidate is nominated. This repeated time and again for as long as their voices hold out.
The political ‘big wigs’ had come up with the governor of Ohio, namely James E. Cox. He was nominated and the band began to play an Ohio song (which I vaguely remember a few lines like “Round on the ends and high in the middle, that spells Ohio.). As they were told, the delegates arose with the cry, We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And above all the tumult, as if by prearrangement, all the male voices and the band stopped dead. All you could hear from the various locations, female voices shouting the slogan We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And with the same suddenness, realizing the double entendre of what they were saying, they ceased. And for a moment or two there was a complete hush over all of Madison Square Garden. Followed by gales of laughter emitting from the throats of 20,000 voices. You really had to be there to realize the impact of the occasion. So that is all for now. I promise that someday I will tell you little vignettes about Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and Isabelle Jewett Brown of S. Carolina. All that I witnessed at the 1920 Democratic National Convention.
Have a happy birthday and a healthy new year.
Lots of Love
Laura* and Zayda**
*Laura was Zada’s second wife. He remarried when he moved to Florida. From that point on he always including her in the close.
**We called my grandfather Zada, a Yiddish term. I believe this is the only letter I have where he spelled it with a y. Since it not an English word, and Yiddish uses a different alphabet, there is no correct English spelling. Our family most commonly used Zada, but I have seen many variations.
Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl
I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!
I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.
But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.
The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.
Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.
I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.
In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.
All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?
I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.
That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.
So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.
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!”
“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.
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.
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.
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.