Christmas in America: House Hunters Home for the Holidays Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a Weekend!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper right and lower right: examples of murals

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

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

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

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

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

Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

Of A Piece

How many lives have you lived?

I was listening to a podcast the other day, as I often do when I am on a long drive in the car. Marc Maron, comedian/actor and host of WTF, during an interview, said, “That was another life, I’ve had many.” He was referring to a period of time early in his career when he was performing as a stand-up comic traveling a circuit of gigs in New England.

I thought about my life. I have had only one. I understand Maron was speaking metamorphically, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve had different lives. It is all of a piece. I imagine that for someone who has had very different careers or lived in different parts of the country or world, or perhaps has been divorced, it might well feel like different lives. Nothing that dramatic has happened to divide mine into definable segments.

Other than living in Pittsburgh for 3 ½ years, I have been a resident of New York my whole life – less than half of it in Brooklyn, the rest in the Capital Region. I have been with the same partner for over 40 years. I have held a variety of jobs, but all were in some aspect of public policy. These are threads that bind the tapestry of my life.

In a way, I feel jealous of those who have had more variety. Sometimes I’m restless; I want a change of scenery. I remember being on vacation in San Francisco, enjoying the natural beauty and cultural offerings, and wondering ‘why do I live in Albany?’ I’m fully aware of the downsides of the city by the bay and the upsides of New York’s capital city but I felt a sense of longing, for a different climate, new surroundings, something new. I’ve never seriously considered moving, not with all that would entail: Gary starting a new practice, uprooting the kids, being so far from our families who are almost entirely located in New York and New Jersey.

There’s a group on Facebook that I am part of called ‘View from My Window.’ Folks from all around the world post pictures from a window in their home. Many have fabulous views of mountains or oceans, but there are mundane views, too: An ordinary tree in the front yard of a suburban home or an up-close look at an apartment building exterior with fire escapes and windows. I see those pictures and imagine if it was my view. I have no complaints about the one I look at most often – the window above my kitchen sink that looks out at our backyard. The same view I have looked at for almost 30 years. As lovely as it is, I crave something different.

The view from my kitchen window this rainy, autumn morning

I’m sure others, who have moved around a lot, would envy my stability.

For some, like Maron, phases of their lives may be demarcated by periods of sobriety and addiction. That, too, is foreign to me. I can imagine that, perhaps more than any of the other changes mentioned above, living life sober would be different on a very deep level as compared to being in the throes of addiction. Perhaps one almost feels like a different person in recovery, before and after, on the wagon or off – I’m just speculating. I am happy not to have gone down that road.

Living in different places and having different careers holds appeal.  It seems so much more colorful. One of my colleagues in a writing group has lived in far-flung places in our world, not to mention different regions of our country. It sounds so much more exciting than my path.

If I am honest with myself, there is a reason my life hasn’t been that exotic. When I was younger, I was afraid of change. In college when some considered studying abroad, the idea intrigued me, but I was too insecure to do more than read through the explanatory pamphlet. I told myself I couldn’t afford it, but I don’t think that was actually the case. Looking back at it, I don’t regret it, I wasn’t ready. In some ways I wish I could go back to college now; I would be so much less tentative, more willing to take risks. Someone said youth is wasted on the young. I see the truth in that now.

The question is what will the future hold? Will Gary and I make a ‘new life’ if he ever retires? I suspect, whatever we do, it will still be of a piece with what has gone before. That’s just who we are, even with my pangs of restlessness.

Do you feel like Marc Maron does, that you have lived multiple lives? Or is your experience more like mine. I’m curious to hear if you are willing to share.

Is This the Right Time?

           I picked an interesting time to stop taking my antidepressant! About two months ago I started the process of weaning off Zoloft. Two weeks ago, I completed the process. I was on it for years – certainly more than a decade. I began to consider stopping about a year ago. I noticed that I felt ‘flat;’ I wasn’t experiencing pleasure in moments that I expected to, like being with my granddaughter or going on vacation. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those things; I did but I wasn’t fully engaged. I wanted to feel more, even sadness. I understood that Zoloft was likely protecting me from real lows, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the tradeoff anymore.

            The reason I started taking medication in the first place was not because of depression, per se. I am fortunate in that I have never experienced the debilitating effects of clinical depression. My problem was that I would ruminate – I lived in my head, and I was tired of it. I remember telling my therapist that I felt stuck. I would ruminate about unsatisfying social interactions or relationship problems. Sometimes I would get stuck on fears, even silly ones. A low point was when I was on the teacup ride at Disney with Leah and instead of enjoying it – she was – I was imagining the headlines when it crashed. Anxiety was more of an issue for me than depression.

            All these years later, when it dawned on me that I was kind of numb, I thought maybe it was time to try life without Zoloft.  Even with the craziness of Covid, which has introduced another layer of challenge for our mental health, I wanted to give it a try.

            In one sense it was a good time to consider the possibility of going off the pills. When things started getting harder managing Mom and Aunt Clair’s health care about six months ago, I returned to therapy. After a few sessions I posed the question: Could the medicine be stifling my emotions? Was the dullness I felt caused by the drug? I wondered if, by virtue of being on Zoloft for so long, my brain had rewired itself. Maybe the pathways that led me continue to re-live the same conversation a hundred times had been rerouted – not to stretch the metaphor too far. She said that the flatness I was describing was a known side effect of medication and it was possible that my brain changed such that I would be less susceptible to ruminating. We discussed the process of discontinuing the medicine and what I should be on the lookout for in terms of side effects as I went forward. I also checked in with my primary care physician since my therapist is not a psychiatrist – my primary care doc actually prescribes the medicine. Having consulted with the two of them, having a plan in place, I decided to do it.

            With all that continues to go on with my mom and aunt (not to mention the relentlessly negative news from the world at large), it might not have been the wisest time to do this experiment. I think, though, it is also important for me to feel the pain of this part of the journey. Though I am only a couple of weeks into this, instinct tells me that it was the right step to take. I may change my mind – I haven’t disposed of the remainder of my pills – I reserve the right to go back on them. But, I think this feels more natural. I should feel sad that Mom is not herself. I should get angry and frustrated at the failures of our health care system. I should feel joy when my granddaughter runs at me to hug my knees, turning her bright, beautiful face up to mine, flashing a huge smile that melts my heart. I want to feel those emotions.

            It has been a dramatic welcome back to the world of emotion. People sometimes talk about oscillating between one feeling and another. My experience is more like the hour hand of a clock sweeping across an array of them – fortunately it isn’t the minute or second hand! That would be unsustainable. Anger, confusion, frustration, love, hope, despair, powerlessness, appreciation, grateful are all part of most days.

            As expected, anger is prominent. There is a lot to be angry about, and I have a shorter fuse now. I’m not sure that is a great development. Since Gary is often the one igniting the fuse, I have checked in with him to see if I’m being unreasonable. So far, we’re managing, or should I say he is. Isn’t he lucky! Seriously, though, I am working on handling my temper. It hasn’t been a problem, but I do notice a difference.

            Another expected emotion – sadness. Each time I am faced with the fact of my mom’s new limitations, I feel it. I am still not a crier. I wish sometimes I could get that release. Oddly, I find it comforting to be sad. Being numb to what is happening isn’t living. If I don’t dwell there too much of the time, I think it is healthy.

            If the last two weekends are any indication, the joy has ramped up, too. I spent time with my children and granddaughter two weekends in a row! One of those weekends was my birthday and we managed to combine all my favorite things: family, nature and art. I was more fully present. So far, so good.

My Gallery of Joy:

            I do notice some increase in anxiety. Stray thoughts about unlikely accidents (like my teacup ride) creep in, but they aren’t taking up residence. They aren’t getting in my way. At least not yet. I am hoping they won’t.

            Some may wonder why I am sharing all of this. It does feel a little weird to put this out there. But I want to ‘walk the walk’; I believe we need to destigmatize mental health issues and how can we do that if we don’t bring it out into the open? Maybe we’ll get to the point where it becomes a nonissue, then I’ll stop. We aren’t there yet. This is part of my journey, and I am choosing to share it. Hopefully it will help others who may be experiencing some of the same challenges. And, if not, maybe it illuminates what it feels like for those who have not been down this road.

Note: If any reader is considering stopping medication, please do so under the direction of a doctor and/or therapist. There can be serious side effects, especially if it is done abruptly, that need to be monitored.

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

Neat or Messy?

Note: I am changing the names in this essay to protect the innocent! I don’t want to embarrass anyone or tell tales out of school, but I am sure that many can relate to the topic.

“Would you drop clothing on the floor – you know, let’s say you’re tired or whatever and want to get to bed?” Samantha asked.

“No, I don’t do that. It’s simple enough to put it in the hamper or hang it up,” I answered.

She nodded.

She followed up, “Can you go to sleep with a dish in the sink?” I had to smile. “Uh, yeah! No problem,” I said. She rolled her eyes. Clearly, my cousin could not imagine it.

My cousin, and her adorable, precocious and kind 6-year-old son, came to visit from New Jersey. In honor of their making the long drive, local family gathered in my backyard, and we had a small pool party. Somehow the topic of how we kept our houses came up. A range of philosophy and practice was represented among the five households present. Some among us struggle to keep things organized, others are fastidious. Samantha needs things to be just so, she told two stories that illustrated her point.

She and her son arrived at a friend’s house to babysit and upon entering the living room, strewn with toys, her son blurted out, “We need to clean this room up!” Samantha was embarrassed. And proud, too; he had clearly absorbed her lessons. After you finished playing with a toy, you put it away before taking out another. Though many moms try to get their kids to abide by that rule, most are not as successful as Samantha. They proceeded to help clean up the room, much to the genuine delight of her friend.

Samantha’s other example involved the time she invited some of her friends over for a housewarming. Her walk-in closet was arranged by color. Her friends thought it would be funny if they took a white blouse and put it among the blue, mixing up some of the carefully arrayed items. Samantha laughed about it, then she put everything back where it belonged.

I explained to Samantha where I fell on the continuum of neat to messy.  “I would say I’m in the middle – I am certainly no neat freak. But I can’t abide chaos in my house either.”

In some households this issue can be a bone of contention. When I was in college, my roommate, Merle, kept things neat as a pin. I was messier back then. I wanted to believe that saying that a ‘messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.’ We both compromised. I tried to do better, she took a deep breath and lowered her expectations (as least as far as my side of the room went).

This was not so much of a thing between Gary and me. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. At least I think that is the case. The truth is that for all the time we have lived together he has been immersed in his career – first medical school, then training, then treating patients. I have been responsible for ‘keeping house.’ One of Gary’s great qualities is that he knows better than to criticize when he isn’t in a position (or maybe he isn’t willing) to do it better.  I don’t recall us ever having an argument over the state of the house. Now that we are empty nesters, our house is considerably neater. Children make the battle against mess infinitely more challenging.

One nephew of mine, Jonathan, married a very discerning woman who wanted a well-organized, clean, and orderly home. In the home of Jonathan’s youth neatness was not emphasized. He simply didn’t have the skills. He was a willing learner, though. Jonathan made the transition and is fully capable of maintaining their lovely home. I was not privy, nor do I need to know, what went into that process. It may have had its ups and downs, but they have arrived at a meeting of the minds.

One of my nieces grew up in a very orderly home. Neatness did not come naturally to Elizabeth. She gave up trying. She found a partner who is fastidious. They are in the process of working that out. Elizabeth has upped her game considerably, but they are still negotiating what is reasonable. They were laughing about it poolside as we all compared notes.

Another nephew, Jonah, who grew up in the same house as Jonathan, and was similarly challenged in the cleaning and organizing department, married a lovely woman, Margaret, who is also stationed on the messy side of the continuum. Margaret rebelled against the demands of her mother who kept the family home very neat. Margaret prefers to put her energies into fun activities. Add babies to the mix and you have a ‘situation.’ Jonah’s father jokingly offered to pay Samantha to organize their house. Samantha’s eyes lit up. The challenge appealed to her – she loves to create order out of chaos. “Let me run back to my house and get my label maker! I’ll be right back!” Samantha laughed. She lives four hours away. That will have to wait for another day.

When my mother-in-law, Paula, who kept a dust-free home, visited back in the days when my children were young, was very diplomatic about how I did things. She never criticized me and never appeared to judge me. In fact, I remember one visit where I apologized for the disarray, and she told me not to worry. “You are spending time with your children, that is more important.” How kind was that?

I do recall another visit when Paula relayed the wisdom of her mother. “My mother told me, ‘before you go to sleep, clean the kitchen, do the dishes. This way when you get up in the morning, you start fresh.’ It feels good.” I told her I appreciated that, and I would try, but I wasn’t sure it would work for me.

These days after dinner is my time to hang out with Gary. Whether I am using that as an excuse or not, I don’t know, but the dishes are still there in the morning. If I have trouble sleeping, it has nothing to do with the dishes in the sink. Cleaning the kitchen has become part of my morning routine

I think for some keeping your surroundings orderly is one way to stave off the anxiety of the chaos in the world. Maybe it isn’t that complicated and some just find it more peaceful to live in uncluttered spaces. How do you navigate it? Is it a source of friction in your household?

My sink this morning. I slept fine!

The Return of the Baksts

In October of 1989, when Daniel was 7 months old and Leah was almost 2 ½ , Gary and I took our first trip to the Outer Banks. Prior to that I had never even heard of it. I didn’t know it was a narrow barrier island that mirrored the coast of North Carolina – one of the earliest sites of colonial settlement and infamous as the resting spot for many shipwrecks. That trip was the beginning of a tradition.

It was thirty years ago when we rented a beach house with friends from medical school who also had two children. They were coming from the D.C. suburbs (I wrote a post about our experience with them – here). Since our children were young, we were not beholden to school schedules yet, we took advantage of that flexibility and went in the early fall. Late September and early October are wonderful times to be on the Outer Banks. The water is warm, but the days are not as brutally hot and humid as is typical in the height of the summer. The only downside is the threat of hurricanes is greater in the autumn.

In 1989, as I did before any trip, I went to AAA to get a triptik and guidebooks to help plan our route. We loaded up our Camry wagon, which did not have air conditioning, and made the trek. After that first year, we took that drive at least a dozen times over the coming years. We continued to meet our friends and, because we liked it so much, we went with family and other friends, too. We watched the narrow barrier island develop. The first few trips we saw wild horses roaming the sand dunes and munching on the wild grasses that abutted the properties. By the mid 1990s some horses were penned in next to the Corolla Lighthouse, the rest roamed the northern part of the island that remained undeveloped. With each trip we saw the wild areas become covered with huge beach homes and shopping areas.

A combination of school schedules, the kids’ other activities, a desire to use limited vacation time in other ways led to the end of our trips to the Outer Banks. I think our last time there was in 2001.

Fast forward two decades and our son went with his family to spend a week in Kitty Hawk (which people may know from the Wright Brothers, but might not realize is part of the Outer Banks). In 2019 they went with family and friends and enjoyed themselves immensely.  Gary and I frequently talked about going back, wanting to see how it has changed and to revisit great memories, but other places and opportunities kept taking priority. Until this year.

With Covid waning, we were looking for a family vacation that we could all be comfortable with and would fit everyone’s schedules. Going back to the Outer Banks was a great option. I found a home that would suit us, walking distance to the beach and with access to a swimming pool.

Our trip down was different than it was 20 years ago. It was just the two of us – our kids and their spouses and our grandchild were travelling from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively.

No longer using a Triptik, GPS adjusted our route depending on traffic. We took some back roads through Delaware to avoid congested main roads. I have always enjoyed road trips, especially when we get to see towns and neighborhoods off the beaten path. This trip fit the bill.

One thing we noticed as we drove down the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was the increased number of restaurants, stores and churches that catered to Spanish-speakers. We saw many iglesias and tacquerias. The demographics of the area must have changed. Much of the route was still sparsely developed, but there were more shopping centers (seeing all the chain stores and eateries, Gary commented “America has come to the Eastern Shore.”). Previously we saw more bait shops. There were still many places to buy a gun.

As we neared the bridge to the Outer Banks, traffic increased. We slowly made our way across the Wright Memorial Bridge which spans the Currituck/Albemarle Sound. It was early Sunday afternoon as we crawled north on Route 12 toward Duck, where our rental home was located. We passed development after development. When we last visited there were areas where there was just brush and live oaks. We saw bicyclists and runners along the road. Though it was clear that it was very densely populated in season, the homes, landscaping and shopping areas are tastefully done. There aren’t any big box stores (other than where you first cross onto the island), none of the buildings are higher than two stories, there aren’t any amusement parks or McDonalds (or the like). One could argue that it makes the area too exclusive and expensive, but there is no denying that it is lovely.

Throughout the drive, I was hit by waves of nostalgia. I miss the time when our children were young. I loved taking care of them, being involved in their everyday lives, taking them to see new places, and sharing adventures. Time marches on and I am blessed they are still a regular part of our lives, and they were willing to take this vacation with us, but as we drove along the familiar (but new in some ways) route, I had pangs of missing that earlier time. Thinking about our friends who we shared that time with, whose lives were shattered by the loss of one of their children, added another dimension of poignancy.

I am happy to report our week together was fabulous.

The weather was unbelievable – it was hot, and sometimes humid, but perfect for the beach and pool. We prepared great meals, enjoyed wine and each other’s company. We created new memories. As we were getting packed up to leave on Sunday, our granddaughter looked at me and said, “I want to stay here forever!” Me too, little one. Sigh.

It Takes a Village

It is painful to watch. Aunt Clair pushes her walker down the carpeted hallway, ever so slowly. After ten or fifteen steps she pauses to catch her breath. I had not realized that the hallway was so long. Seeing my mother and Aunt Clair move through the world, my perspective on all kinds of things has changed.

The hallway from the elevator to my apartment is not really that long, not for a healthy individual. I have taken my health for granted, but my eyes have been opened. I can stand up quickly from a couch or chair without a second thought. Getting up off the floor is a bit more challenging. I can stand at the stove and cook dinner without needing to take a break. I can go to the supermarket, carry my bags into the house and unpack them – all without stopping to rest. I can take a shower without considering whether I am strong or steady enough to do it safely. My mother and Aunt Clair can’t do any of those things.

I have never been particularly grateful for my body. I usually eye it critically. But, seeing what can happen as you age, I am re-evaluating. While I have achy joints, they all work well. Kein ayin hara (Yiddish for ‘no evil eye,’ or ‘I don’t want to jinx myself’), I can play tennis, go for a hike, ride a bicycle. People my age and younger are not able to do some of those things. I have taken to thanking my legs and arms for functioning so well.

Bearing witness to Mom and Aunt Clair’s experience has made me aware of many things I had not given much thought to previously. The cycle of life is on full display. We start as babies, dependent on others to meet our needs. Many end up back in that position. We don’t want to believe that about ourselves. After living independently for decades, taking care of ourselves, making choices about what we eat, when we eat, when we sleep, where we go, that slowly slips away. The fact that it generally happens slowly, may ease the transition. We adjust to the new realities, we lower our expectations. We draw the circle of our life smaller and smaller. We may make peace with encroaching age and the limitations it brings, but at some point it is demoralizing. I don’t know which is worse – watching someone you love go through it or experiencing it yourself. (I know the answer to that, but it is heartbreaking to observe.)

We may become physically or mentally (or both) incapable of the activities of daily living. We need help.

Who provides that help? In some cultures, the expectation is that family steps up and in. Multigenerational homes are the norm. That may work, up to a point. Sometimes the needs go beyond what can be provided. American culture does not have that expectation of families, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of it. We value rugged individualism too much and the vulnerable among us pay the price. I don’t know what happens in other countries, particularly those that have the long life span that we enjoy. I should do some research. Insight from readers would be much appreciated – please feel free to comment.

In America, if one is financially able, one can pay for assistance. But even if you have means, and insurance, it isn’t simple. Accessing insurance, researching options online, finding reputable agencies or individuals, getting doctors to write the necessary prescriptions, filling out the paperwork or electronic forms to get reimbursement – is challenging and requires persistence and some skill with technology. You would almost think that the system has been set up to discourage claims or deny payment (sarcasm alert!). It shouldn’t be that complicated! Most of our elders are not equipped to take all of that on. So even if you have money, you still need support.

Not all of us have those financial resources. For whatever reason, not earning enough, not planning ahead or suffering an unexpected financial loss (caused by bad health, an economic downturn, a natural disaster or bad luck), one can reach their seventh or eighth decade without much in the bank. Are government programs sufficient to meet the need? I think it is fair to say they don’t. Some services are available, but there are gaping holes. What are we, as a society, willing to pay to provide for our elders? What level of service, what is the quality of life we want to guarantee?

As we live longer and longer, many outlast spouses and friends. Not everyone has children. This is the situation that Aunt Clair faces. She has been single her entire adult life and she didn’t have a child. She is a very stubborn woman which has been a blessing and curse. She fought pancreatic cancer six years ago, surviving treatment – more than surviving. She bicycled to and from chemo….in Manhattan! From her apartment in Greenwich Village to Sloan Kettering, at Third Avenue and 53rd Street, she pedaled each way. Sadly, the cancer returned six months ago. She has resumed treatment. Other unrelated health problems have emerged. For a person so independent, who continues to be mentally sharp, the new limitations are a rude surprise, nearly impossible to accept.

Aunt Clair has experienced both the kindness of strangers and the invisibility that comes with being an elderly woman. New York City has a reputation for being a cold place to live, and it can be, but Clair has stories that show another side. One time recently she had an appointment with a doctor she had not seen before and had difficulty finding the office. Turned out she was on the wrong street. After exhausting herself going up and down the block, a younger woman stopped to help. She stayed with her until they sorted it out and found a cab – Clair was in no condition to walk the two blocks. I am grateful to know that there are good Samaritans out there. I know my mom has benefitted from help when she has needed it, too.

What is my role, as a niece and daughter? Clair has other nieces and nephews, each with a full life and responsibilities, their own challenges. Only one lives in Manhattan, albeit not close to Clair’s apartment, the rest of us are scattered around the Northeast. Mom has two other children, a brother and several nieces who have generously stepped in – and yet, there are still needs. It truly takes a village. Personally, I have no idea how to balance it.

When I returned home from New York City, having visited Mom and helped Aunt Clair a bit for a couple of days, I needed to recharge my batteries. I am fortunate to have a loving, supportive partner in Gary. Together we went for a long walk in the woods. My spirit is improved, but I still have no answers.

Visiting Mom early in the pandemic – before she needed oxygen full time
Me and Aunt Clair four years ago when she was cancer free

My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.