I try to imagine how it would feel, but it just isn’t possible. I can’t put myself in his shoes. It is important to try, though. The more I learn, the more astonishing his story is.
We were sitting in a luncheonette in Saugerties, Gary, David, my father-in-law, and Paula, my mother-in-law, as part of an ordinary Thursday afternoon visit. We lingered while Paula painstakingly ate her cream cheese on bagel. The rest of us had long since finished our lunches. But, I felt no impatience. David was telling us about his childhood. David grew up in the vanished world of the shtetl, in a town called Iwie (pronounced Eve-ya), in what was then Poland (today it is Belarus, and the spelling of the town varies).
“It was a beautiful youth,” David explained. Almost like the scene from My Cousin Vinny,I ask, “Beautiful what?” David repeats the word, then asks, “That’s the word, right? Youth?” All these years later, he still questions his English. “You said it perfectly, I just didn’t hear you,” I replied with a smile.
I hadn’t given much thought to what shtetl life meant to them. We have had many conversations over the years, but it mostly covered things like: Did you have running water in the house? (No) Did you have electricity? (yes for David, no for Paula). Those kinds of things are interesting tidbits, but don’t paint a picture of their lives. This conversation offered more insight, perhaps because Gary asked, “Did your father think about leaving for the United States earlier?”
David’s parents, Berl and Rachel, were comfortably established in Iwie. Berl’s brothers left for America in the 1920s. They appealed to Berl to come with them. He declined. His business, making and selling leather shoes, was growing. He was making a name for himself based on the quality of his product; he was becoming more and more successful. He was providing a good life for his growing family. David was born in 1922, another son, Eliahu, was born in 1925 and two daughters followed.
Perhaps as important, Rachel’s family lived in Iwie, too. Every Shabbos, after services, aunts, uncles and cousins, came to the Bakst (spelled Bakszt) home to visit. The adults schmoozed and talked politics, the children ran around outside. There was warmth and affection – there may have been arguments, too, but nothing serious. Berl was to the right politically of some of his family, a supporter of Jabotinsky, while others were more mainstream Zionists. They enjoyed the give and take.
David observed, “The family was close. Not like what I see in America. It is different here.” I said what he described sounded a lot like the family I grew up in (minus the observance of Shabbos) – with aunts, uncles and cousins coming in and out of my grandmother’s upstairs apartment. But, I had to agree, it probably wasn’t typical of American families.
Without saying it explicitly, the picture David painted made it clear why Berl didn’t leave in the 1920s. And, it would have been up to Berl, as the head of the household. David was in awe of his father. “I thought my father was the smartest man in the world,” he said, with pride all these years later.
David’s idyllic youth ended September 3, 1939 (he remembers the date), he hadn’t celebrated his 17thbirthday yet. After the Soviet Union and Germany signed the infamous Non-Agression Pact in August of that year, Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviets invaded from the east. The Russians took over Iwie.
A lieutenant and a captain in the Soviet army commandeered rooms in the Bakst house. Their shoe factory was confiscated by the state. Their passports were stamped ‘capitalist.’ Berl was permitted to work at the factory, but he could no longer claim ownership. They were persona non grata in the communist system.
As bad as things were under the Russians, it got worse when Germany violated the Non-Aggression treaty and made their move to invade the Soviet Union. The German army invaded Iwie in June of 1941.
It was far too late to decide to emigrate to America, it became a question of survival for Berl and his family.
Note: I will continue the story in future blog posts. If family members have more information to add, please do. If I have gotten anything wrong, please correct me!
As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go. Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short). Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice. The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey. Those visits had gone quite well.
This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over. The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease. She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade. The disease has done what it does. It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her. The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.
And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her. Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it. In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her. This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.
But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly. You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated. She cannot retain what is said to her. I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her. Never.
Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players. I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care. But that is, frankly the easiest part. My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall. My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.
Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car. While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.
Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city. They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly. In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available. While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services. In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.
As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed. We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride. The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.
Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem. Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets. They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom. And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.
In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well. This was the reason for all of the effort. For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.
The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment. He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland. The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died. There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans. The statistics are startling. 80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war. 98% of Jewish children were killed. The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.
David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother. His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America. All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat. Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.
Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties. I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim. Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well. Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.
So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation. Those who came with an army to kill him are gone. He remains. And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.
He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.
This was a very different moment. This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that. Linda understood that. Dan and Beth understood that. And all wanted him to have that moment. It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.
After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells. We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate. We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan. The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.
We did not have as easy a time driving up. My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat. She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire. Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.
We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family. They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.
We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria. After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide. With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.
We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.
It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift. Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that. They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.
It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day. The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere. I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.
Note: I wrote a post previously that included portions of this story (here). I wanted to write about it in a different way, explore it further.
I met Mindy before we even moved to Canarsie. I was a month shy of my fifth birthday. In the twilight of a warm August evening in 1964, we drove across Brooklyn to see our new home. After we got out of the car, my mom took my hand and led me up the stairs of the next door neighbor’s house, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered. “Hi, let me get Mindy,” she greeted us in a husky voice. “Mindy!” she yelled, “Come down and meet our new neighbors!” Apparently, Mom had, on a previous trip, introduced herself and our visit was expected.
I stood on my tiptoes to see over the solid part of the screen door. In the dim light, I could make out the shape of a girl, who looked to be about my age and size, coming down the stairs. We waved at each other. The screen door opened and our moms talked while we looked at each other.
Mindy was olive-complected and skinny. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine. In the coming years, we would share the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness. We bonded over being neighborhood outcasts. We also enjoyed pretending, making up elaborate games involving playing school or imagining we were pirates.
Since only a narrow alley separated our houses, we would talk from our respective windows. We had a lot in common – we each had a brother named Mark (her’s spelled it Marc) who we complained about. Our mothers were teachers. We each shared our houses with extended family. Her aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in the downstairs apartment of their house, while my grandparents and two uncles lived upstairs from us. We were both sports fans. As we got older we talked incessantly about our beloved Knicks. We obsessed about our crushes on particular players (me on Dave DeBusschere, her on Henry Bibby).
There were some important differences. Her mother was a screamer. I could hear her yelling at Mindy, even calling her names, from inside my house. Though my dad was the one with the temper in our family, he never resorted to name-calling.
Her mother would come home from work and lay down to rest, insisting on quiet in the house, before she made dinner. Mindy and I would do anything to avoid disturbing her. Mrs. Schiff’s anger was a thing to behold. If we couldn’t play outside because of the weather, we used my bedroom or basement. I was rarely invited to her house.
Mindy was my best friend. That is until my friendship with Susan blossomed at the end of third grade. Susan and I were in the same class; Mindy was never in ours. Things got complicated because Susan and Mindy weren’t friends.
One day, Mindy and I were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship. I was the captain; she was the first mate. We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny idiot,” they taunted. I was relieved – they weren’t jeering me. I stood silent.
Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in. I knew it was wrong, even in the moment. But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful.
Mindy and I didn’t speak for months. I would lay in my bed staring out my window, looking at her house only a few feet away, feeling guilty and ashamed. I couldn’t stand it. I went to my mother and told her what happened and asked what I should do. She said there was only one thing to do, apologize.
“But what if she doesn’t accept my apology?”
“She may not, but you have to do it. You’ll feel better, even if she doesn’t.”
I couldn’t bring myself to do it immediately, but I knew she was right. After a few days, I got my courage up.
I spotted her in front of her house, getting ready to get on her bicycle. I called to her, “Mindy! I’m sorry,” I blurted it out. She turned to look at me, warily. I came down my steps and approached her, continuing, “Can we be friends again? I promise never to do anything like that again.” She gave me a small smile and said, “It’s okay with me, but we need to talk to my mother.” “Okay, whatever you want,” I said, relieved, though the thought of facing Mrs. Schiff made my stomach turn over.
At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered. She ushered me up the stairs. Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door. Her mother was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner. I told her I apologized and it would never happen again. She told me, in her sand-papery smoker’s voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble. “You can’t play with Mindy only when no one else is available,” she warned. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.
Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I believe she actually did. In my memory she said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson.
I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings. I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.
I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating. Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.
I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.
It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.
You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.
Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.
But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?
In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.
This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.
As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.
During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.
These are the strategies I came up with:
Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.
I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be. If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.
When Leah called me back in January and asked if I wanted to do the 5 Boro Bike Tour, my answer was a definitive and excited yes. For those of you not familiar with it, this is a 40 mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City. I thought it was a great idea. I love biking – it is an awesome way to sightsee and get exercise. I would plan it and get to experience it with my daughter, we would build memories together. It was a full four months off so I could train for it and get in shape. All of which turned out to be true, except for that last one about the training.
Spring came very late to Albany, in fact we had a number of Spring snows, which made biking outside very difficult, if not impossible. I admit that I am a fair-weather bicyclist. I did up my walking/jogging routine. And when the weather finally permitted, I cleaned up my pretty red bike, Gary put air in the tires, and I took to the road. The longest ride I managed, though, was 14 miles. A paltry amount compared to the 40 the tour would require. But, I was determined and that would count for something.
As the date of the tour approached (it is not a race! all the promotional materials make a point of this, I think mostly for safety reasons), I found myself increasingly nervous. I had butterflies. Aside from the inadequate preparation, I was worried about a few things, in no particular order:
potholes – New York City streets and highways, especially in the Spring, are a disaster. I worried, with so many bikers, would I be able to avoid them?
the weather – Rain was forecast. While I don’t mind the rain generally, the idea of slick roads and obscured potholes (see above), was frightening.
bike malfunction – The tour materials suggest bringing a spare tube because flats are common (again, see the first bullet), and I didn’t get one. Also, I didn’t get my bike tuned up, which was also recommended. So, I was concerned that something would go wrong and I didn’t know how that would work out.
my 58 year-old body – I do exercise regularly, but I still manage to be quite overweight. In addition to the lack of preparation, I worried about how my various parts would handle such a long ride.
logistics – I read and re-read the online information about the tour, but I still worried about all the logistics, like getting to the start on time, getting back to the apartment, getting separated from Leah, etc.
disappointing Leah – I wanted this to be a fun experience for both of us, I didn’t want to fail or be a drag on her.
I think that about covers the sources of my anxiety. I was surprised by how nervous I was. Looking at the list of my concerns written out, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Anyway, I plowed ahead and did it anyway, and I am so glad I did. Here are my thoughts and observations on taking a 40 mile bike ride through potholed streets and highways with my daughter:
Leah is the best teammate ever! She is fun, encouraging, fierce and strong (in every sense). I could rely on her. She remained in good humor (with one brief exception I will get to later – which wasn’t directed at me, but at circumstances beyond our control). She took pleasure in the sights. She believed in me. Yay, Leah!
The weather was perfect. Cloudy and a little cool, it was awesome for biking. Maybe some sunshine would have made some of the dingier parts of the city look better, but cloud cover was wonderful. We learned later from Gary that there was rain in every direction, but the city was spared. We were in our own dry bubble.
The ride up Sixth Avenue from the the financial district to Central Park, and then into the park (in full bloom), was exhilarating. With no automobile or truck traffic, we had the wide avenue to ourselves (and thousands of fellow bicyclists). We passed through different neighborhoods and could appreciate the architecture, sculpture and people as we passed. Central Park was in all its glory with flowering trees and clumps of tulips and green grass.
Seeing Gary waving us on as we exited Central Park at 110th Street was a great surprise. Seeing Dan and Beth, in her ninth month (!), at the side of the FDR at 120th Street was encouraging and so very cool. It’s funny because Leah and I were passing 106th Street a few minutes later when I said, “You know we passed Beth’s school (where she teaches), but I didn’t note it or mention it. Oh well.” I was making a point of mentioning landmarks or places related to our family history. Beth told us later they were standing in front of her school! Obviously I so excited to see them, I didn’t notice anything else.
We heard only one lewd comment. We were riding up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Oh, I wish my face was a bicycle seat!” Leah and I laughed about that for a couple of blocks, and periodically throughout the rest of the race.
Water is essential! Somehow we had neglected to bring a water bottle. Since this event was ‘eco-friendly’ the water stations offered no cups or containers. We used our hands the first time. When we got to Queens, I suggested we pull over and I ran into a bodega and bought a large bottle of water. The guy in the store took one look at me, and pointed down an aisle, “The water is over there.” What a relief! We refilled it as necessary.
The experience of riding with so many people was almost entirely positive. Some riders had blue tooth speakers set up with music blaring. That created camaraderie and gave us a boost. Plus there were real musicians along the way – we heard every type of music. Gospel, bluegrass, rock, jazz. There were also cheerleaders – we had no idea what team they represented, if any. It isn’t like the NYC Marathon where spectators line the route, but that was fine. At times there were bottlenecks, a particularly bad one exiting the FDR and approaching the Queensboro Bridge, where we had to dismount and walk for a while. Most people were courteous. We did see some accidents, but thankfully nothing too serious. The organizers of the tour did a good job – there was lots of support and people giving directions.
Riding on the FDR and BQE was an eerie experience. The BQE, in particular, was strange because there isn’t much in the way of scenery to appreciate, it is hard to gauge progress and the road is textured so it created a lot of vibration. My body, from head to toe, did not enjoy that. It also seemed to feature a lot of gradual uphills. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel really shitty when you’ve already gone 28 miles. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. My legs were not happy and my spirit was sagging and I knew we had a demanding uphill to come (the Verrazano Bridge). We pulled over, I drank some water, took some bites of a power bar, and Leah gave me a pep talk. We resumed the trek.
I told Leah that I might have to walk some of the way on the Verrazano, my legs just may not carry me. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know if I could ride all of that. Leah wanted to ride it – she was fresh as a daisy (she may not say that exactly, but she was in good shape). We made a plan to meet at the finish and agreed that she should do her thing. Later when we compared notes, I was so impressed with her. The climb up the bridge was tough. I was pleased with myself because I stayed on my bike. I thought I had reached the point where the downhill would begin, but alas, it wasn’t! There another stretch of uphill (at a slightly lesser grade, so it appeared from a distance that you had already crested the hill). What a disappointment! I got off my bike and walked the last part of the uphill. Leah had the same experience of expecting the end of the climb, but fierce woman that she is, she just pedaled harder.
We started at 8:45 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m.- a bit slower than we hoped, but we had no complaints.
We met after we got our medals at the finish line and walked our bikes through the festival area where there was music and concessions. For probably the first time in my life, a cold beer sounded very appealing. We wanted to get back so we didn’t partake, just followed the hordes of people to the exit. We re-mounted our bikes and rode to the Staten Island Ferry. The ride started out pleasant enough. But then it kept going and going. I got angrier and angrier. Where was that fucking ferry!?! I was muttering and cursing. I was not mentally prepared for the four mile ride to the ferry! This was truly the worst part, for me. For Leah, the next part was the worst. Waiting on line to get on the ferry. She was facing a four hour drive back to Boston and was eager to get back to the apartment, get changed, eat and get on the road. She handled her frustration well. It was probably close to an hour of waiting on line before we got on the ferry. I was never so happy to sit down!
Gary was waiting a short distance from the ferry landing with the car. We walked less than two blocks with our bikes. He was parked right next to a hot dog vendor, so clutch! I bought a soft pretzel and a Diet Coke and climbed into the back seat. Delicious! Leah and Gary secured the bikes to the car and, other than hitting some traffic in lower Manhattan, we got back to the apartment in reasonable time.
What a day! I was pleasantly surprised that I could still walk. My 58 year old body didn’t fail me. I took a hot shower. Leah and I debriefed a bit with Dan, Beth and Gary. I shared a long hug with Leah before she got on the road.
As I sit here writing this, I am not in agony – everything is a bit a sore, but certainly tolerable. I will carry great memories, and, as always, great appreciation for my family. Their encouragement and pride are a constant source of strength and joy.
Writing this memoir blog has been revelatory in a few different ways. For one, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the mystery that is memory. Some of the readers of the blog have expressed wonder at the quantity and specificity of my memories. Some say they have no memories of their own childhoods. I find that hard to imagine given that my idea of myself is shaped so much by my memories.
My father maintained that he had no memories of his childhood, though there were a few stories (mostly about the presence of the mob in his neighborhood) that he liked to tell. I was left with the impression that he felt sad about his growing up years, that he felt neglected and unappreciated by his parents, and therefore, I assumed that he had repressed it. Even without access to specific memories, he carried a narrative about his childhood that certainly shaped his adult persona. I wonder if it would have been helpful or hurtful to uncover specific memories, if he could.
My brother Mark is another person who professes to have little to no memory of his growing up years. But, based on his comments on the blog, I think he has more than he gives himself credit for. Perhaps my recounting of events awakened memories for him. I wonder if that has been a positive or negative thing for him. Sometimes his take on an incident (for example, when my cat, Cutie, jumped out the car window, which I wrote about here) is quite different than my own. In that case, I had no memory of Mark being in the car with us when Cutie took her fateful leap. He says he remembers it clear as day. So much for not having any memories of his childhood! And, so much for me being THE family historian.
As is often the case, I’m not sure how my oldest brother, Steven, would characterize his memory. He has shared some in response to the blog, but he tends to keep things close to the vest in many areas of his life, so I don’t know if that is the tip of the iceberg, if he doesn’t remember much, or something in between.
I knew before embarking on this memoir blog that memory was illusive, but as I write about childhood experiences and receive feedback, I understand that calling the blog “Stories I Tell Myself” was prescient. I’ve always suspected that we each have a narrative for our lives, one made up of selective memories and interpretations of those memories. That suspicion has been strengthened by my experience of writing this.
I have also come to realize that some of my memories are incomplete and/or unreliable (see the above referenced experience with Cutie the cat). In another example, I would have sworn that when I was in high school (I would have been 14 or 15 years old), as a stringer for a local newspaper, I wrote a story about a blind athlete who came from Yugoslavia. Turns out I wrote two different stories. One about a blind athlete and the other about a soccer player who had immigrated from Yugoslavia. Upon further reflection, the conflated memory made no sense because it was highly unlikely that the blind athlete, who I knew was named Andre Rodriquez, would have come from Yugoslavia! Somehow, in my mind the two became one, and that inconsistency was overlooked. When I realized the disconnect, I made up an explanation – perhaps his father was in the US armed forces stationed there. It wasn’t until I looked at my portfolio of clippings, and saw it in black and white, that I understood my error.
I don’t think this is cause to question all of my memories because the particulars aren’t necessarily that relevant to the meaning of it. But what is the meaning of the memory?
The editor of the local syndicated newspaper had asked me to interview Andre, who was going to participate in a Marine Corp track and field competition, despite his blindness. Andre was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. I set up an appointment with Andre through his coach. I went to the gym at the prearranged time, which was during practice. I located the coach among the various people running, stretching, lifting weights, who brought me over to Andre. I introduced myself, we shook hands. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Andre: café au lait skin, long brown hair, slight frame, wearing a blue track suit. We went to sit on the bleachers so I could interview him. He was accompanied by a student who acted as his guide when they ran. The guide, I don’t recall his name, sat next to Andre during the interview. Within a couple of minutes, it became clear that the two were friends also. After a few preliminary questions, Andre leaned slightly toward his buddy and asked, as if I couldn’t hear, “Is she pretty?” I giggled, as I waited for the response. He smiled at me and said yes, which was very kind of him (of course, what could he say?). Andre responded, “I thought so.” I was confused. “What would make you think that?” I asked. “I could just tell.” I could feel my cheeks burning, they were probably hot pink. I was grateful he couldn’t see that. I quickly changed the subject back to the interview.
It probably isn’t surprising that I stored that memory. Other than Nana referring to me as ‘shana madela’ (pretty girl in Yiddish), I was rarely complimented on my looks. Rarer still from someone not related to me. It was ironic that it took a blind person to see it.
So, did it actually happen that way? I have no way to know. It doesn’t merit tracking down Andre to check (nor do I imagine he would remember it). But, it fits with the way I understand myself.
It calls to mind something that happened when Leah was about six years old. Gary and I were a little late to realize that if we intended to raise our children to be Jewish we would need to enroll them in Hebrew school. Consequently, Leah missed the equivalent of Kindergarten. We did manage to sign her up for first grade. Fortunately, she was a quick study. She came home after a Sunday school class with an important question. Having heard the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, she asked, “Is it true? Did it really happen?” After thinking for a bit, I told her that I didn’t know if it was real, some people believed it was literally true, others didn’t. The important thing was what we learn from the story, that this was a story told for centuries and had value because of what it taught people through the ages. I suggested that when they read these stories in class, she should think about the lessons learned, rather than whether it was historically true. Lucky for me, she seemed satisfied.
Maybe our memories are like that, too: worth examining for what they reveal about ourselves, rather than the history they may reveal.