The Hardest Job

I visited with my mom the other day. She is 88 years old. I asked her what she remembered about becoming a first-time mother.

I had just come back from helping my daughter, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, her first child. Caring for my newborn granddaughter, changing her diaper, soothing her when she fussed, brought back powerful memories of my own introduction to motherhood. I was curious how my mom remembered her early days after her firstborn, my older brother Steven, arrived.

Mom gave birth to Steven in an Air Force hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1955. When I asked her how she felt at the time, she responded, with some hesitancy, “I was frightened.”

I was surprised by Mom’s response, and, at the same time, I wasn’t. If asked how I felt upon being released from the hospital in 1987 with my newborn daughter I would have said, ‘Terrified.’

We don’t usually admit to those feelings. We are supposed to be overjoyed. For me, at least in the beginning, the fear outweighed the joy. It felt like such a huge responsibility; one I had no previous training to take on. I felt woefully inadequate.

Mom went on to tell me a story, one I had heard before, but was eager to hear again. Before they sent her home, the nurse showed her how to diaper the baby and gave her other instructions. While explaining, the nurse took Steven by his feet and flipped him over on the bed! He appeared unfazed by the motion, he landed safely. “He isn’t as fragile as you think,” the nurse told my stunned mother.

It is hard to imagine a nurse doing that when I had my daughter in 1987. Though Mom took some comfort from the nurse’s demonstration, she couldn’t help but wonder about her ability to meet the needs of the tiny, living, needy creature entrusted to her care.

In the 1950s women were not encouraged to breast feed. My brothers and I were bottle-fed formula from the get-go. During that recent conversation Mom told me the idea of nursing made her uncomfortable, she didn’t consider the possibility. Since bottle-feeding was the norm in that era, I don’t think she felt any guilt. When I became a mom, it was expected that you breastfed. It was assumed that unless you were physically unable to, you did it. I could be remembering wrong – it is possible it wasn’t quite that black and white, but that was my perception. I received some guidance from the nurse while I was in the hospital to get me started, and fortunately, I was able to successfully do it without much physical complication. That doesn’t mean there weren’t other complications. I remember being exhausted, on the edge of depletion. It seemed as soon as I finished a feeding it was time to do it again.

Tired anyone? Me holding Leah – at least one of us was sleeping

My husband and I decided, after two weeks, to introduce a bottle of formula so that he could take a middle of the night feeding. Despite hearing something about ‘nipple confusion,’ we decided to risk it for my sanity. Though I believed we did the right thing for us, I didn’t widely share our approach given the prevailing attitudes of the day.

I don’t recall getting much guidance or support navigating these issues. In a way, I envied the fact that my mom didn’t have to deal with the question of whether to breastfeed or not. She had confidence that a formula-fed baby would be just fine. By the 1980s the decision became fraught – there are extremists (as there are about everything in our society these days) who insist that a woman must do it given the evidence that breast milk helps the baby’s immune system. It is only in the last year or two that there is recognition that we should not be so dogmatic. So many things come into play. Nursing can be unbelievably time consuming. In the first days and weeks after birth it can be every two hours, leaving little time for sleep or physical recovery. Some women experience pain or have supply issues (some women who produce milk worry ceaselessly about whether it is sufficient). Others are fortunate to find it relatively easy and experience the emotional reward of bonding with their baby – but most women I know, though they ultimately may have felt fulfilled by doing it, had a bumpy road getting there. The process can be hard without adding the collective judgment of society.

Writing this in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe and deprive women of their right to choose, I see a consistent theme. Women shoulder huge responsibilities in bringing forth new life, but we are not supported in that work (yes, I called it work, labor is called that for a reason).

The myriad ways in which our culture fails us is breathtaking. From inadequate access to health care (from prenatal to aftercare for mother and baby), to the history of failing to research women’s health issues, to the lack of understanding of the demands of those first few months, and finally, on a fundamental level, not valuing us, women often feel alone and overwhelmed. Though I am well past new motherhood, all of those feelings come rushing back as I watch my daughter go through it, especially in the context of the court’s repudiation of women. I feel the anxiety and weight of the responsibility in the pit of my stomach.

Being a mother is the hardest job I ever had (and still have). I believe, from what I know of my grandmothers and mother, they would agree. Our society needs to reprioritize its values. Mothering, and all forms of caretaking, must move up many rungs. It deserves better pay (sort of a joke since mothers aren’t paid, but we should assign it value). Childcare should be far more financially rewarding. But, perhaps even more than that, the work of mothering deserves more respect. Mother’s Day is a trifling excuse for the recognition that is due to those who take on the role.

It goes without saying that the government has no place in deciding whether a woman becomes one. I am well aware that some are not up to the task; all the more reason to support reproductive choice and change the way we view and assist mothers. It does take a village to raise a healthy child. When will we accept that and make policy decisions accordingly? I hope for my granddaughters’ sakes we begin the change now.

A Remembrance of Aunt Diane

Note: I wrote and posted a piece about my Aunt Diane in September of 2016, not long after I started this blog. I have updated and edited that essay in her memory. She died Monday, April 25, 2022. She was 92. She joins her sister, Clair, who passed away this past November, and her brother, my dad, Barry, who died 17 years ago, in the unknowable great beyond. They were each unique and important to me and I miss all three.

When we met at the burial site for Aunt Diane this past Wednesday, the rabbi told us that death takes us all, no one is spared.  He went on to say that the ritual of gathering at the cemetery reminds us to recommit to living life meaningfully. He told us that we were fortunate to be able to leave that afternoon though Diane could not– we should make the most of the time we have. He urged us not to waste it. I stood in the chill wind, somehow it is always colder and windier at cemeteries, I took in the huge expanse of grave markers as far as my eye could see, and I understood the truth of his words.

It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The line of the brow. The particular shade of blue, flecked with gray. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, the likeness unnerved me. During subsequent visits it comforted me. I felt like I got two-for-one: a visit with Dad, too.

My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They were three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They had different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that was as impressive as it could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.

In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (Dad was born in 1932), the son was the prince. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.

Visual evidence of the family dynamic: photo taken at my dad’s bar mitzvah in 1945: Diane (16 years old) seated in front, (l-r): Clair (10 years old), Selma (my grandmother), Leo (my grandfather), Barry (my dad, age 13).

Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an ophthalmologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old and again when I was 21.

But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. Dad and Uncle Paul had different sensibilities, they didn’t share interests or humor. They each liked to laugh, but not at the same things. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.

I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them to spare me a 90 minute commute (each way!) from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.

I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a Jewish woman in the early 1950’s where she faced both anti-Semitism and misogyny. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.

One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale (Queens), leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.

Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, her patients were mostly children of immigrants. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as an adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.

After Uncle Paul died in 2010, when Gary and I were in Manhattan, we would sometimes meet Aunt Diane for a meal, often at the diner in her neighborhood.  She still lived in the same apartment she shared with Paul on the Upper West Side, the same apartment I stayed in back in 1980, and the same one I visited when I was a child. We met her as she walked ever so slowly with a cane, making her way down Broadway. We took a booth at the Metro Diner and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she had medical issues, as any octogenarian would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her adventures in Israel with Paul in the 1950s.  She asked us questions about our lives, discussed advances in medicine with Gary. As one of those meals concluded, she invited us to join her to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did have – her offer was much more appealing!).

Those meals became less frequent as time went on and Aunt Diane’s mobility and cognition declined. I will continue to think back on them, though, particularly whenever Gary and I go to that diner. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkled up when she laughed. I am grateful I got to see them for as long as I did, but also so sad that I will see them no more, a connection to my dad extinguished. I will miss Aunt Diane’s wisdom, her stories, and insights. Her memory is surely a blessing.

Dad with his sisters

Mom with her sisters-in-law

A Visit with Mom

My brother Mark, who lives near me, called the other day to tell me that he and his wife were going to visit Mom. They were planning to go there and back in one day – it is a 3.5 hour drive one way. I have been wanting to go but have been waiting for omicron to die down and the weather to cooperate. It seemed like this was fortuitous timing, and it would save me from driving alone. “Mind if I join you?” I asked. “Of course,” came the quick reply.

As I do before any visit to Mom these days, I thought about what I can bring that will make for pleasant conversation. This has gotten increasingly challenging as her circumstances have diminished. Aside from the realities of Covid which limits options, we can’t really take her out for a meal anymore. That used to be a great pleasure for her. I would be happy to manage her oxygen and walker, which make it awkward but doable, but these days she simply tires too quickly. It gets to be too much for her and the brief pleasure she derives from getting out of the apartment is surpassed by exhaustion and anxiety.

So, we look for other ways to make it enjoyable. Bringing in a meal is special. Fortunately, the food where she lives is good – no complaints there – but there is still a sameness. Mom particularly enjoys soup so bringing in wonton or a hearty chicken noodle is welcome. Since the weather was unseasonably nice, the sun was out in a cloudless sky and the air was relatively mild (considering it is January in the northeast), we ate on her patio. Mom closed her eyes, put her face in the sun and took a deep breath. In the days when Mom was hale and hearty she would have sat without a coat, not so anymore. It was chilly, and she needed a jacket, but it still felt good for all of us to get some fresh air.

As I have written in many previous blog posts, I have been sorting through papers and mementos from Mom’s house in Florida and Aunt Clair’s apartment. It is a bittersweet process, finding loving letters but also evidence of loss, like my dad’s death certificate. When I come across something humorous or poignant, I often take a picture of it and text it to whomever I think might be interested. Sometimes I text Mom photos, but it is hit or miss whether she will successfully find it on her phone. I scanned the items I most recently sorted and found some things I thought would be meaningful to her for our visit. I selected some letters from Zada, Mom’s father.

After finishing our lunch on the patio, we returned to her living room. Mom settled into her recliner and the rest of us sat down around her. We took out the letters from Zada.

Though Zada didn’t have the opportunity to finish high school, he was a self-educated, well-read man who wrote beautifully. Mark read this one aloud to Mom:

Tuesday 7/26/67

I am writing one letter to my dear ‘aynklach’ (note: grandchildren in Yiddish). Because whatever I have to say, I must say to all of you. I cannot single out one. But first let me tell you what your letters mean to me. Regardless of your grammatical errors and your misspelling, the words you write are full of love and wisdom. My pride knows no bounds. You are concerned that I have a good summer, that I do not work too hard. That Terry is making proper meals, and that I should not be lonesome. How can I be lonesome when I have your letters to remind me how precious you are? So I count the days when your vacation will be over, and I will be seeing you in the flesh again. To be able to watch television with Steve (especially the programs he likes), also to hear the pearls of wisdom emanating from Mark’s mouth. And to be rewarded by my little sunshine although I hear she is not so little anymore.

Look boys, I cannot go into detail about the sporting events we are all interested in, that is why I had the Post sent to you, and when you get back (hale and hearty) we will have long discussions of all the things that have transpired while you were away.

I am also very pleased with the progress you are making with your swimming and Steve, if I am ever to see you dive, and do it well, my pleasure will be complete. Mark, my hand does not hurt, and I have plenty of writing time, but words, once my stock in trade, are wanting to commend such a good boy as you. So I keep thinking of beautiful things to say. My heart is so full of love that mere words would blemish my feelings. Linda, stay as sweet as you are always, never lose your vivaciousness, speak up at all times so I may see the sparkle in your eyes and the loveliness of you.

God bless my grandchildren. May you be happy always. Zada

Mom listened, a smile on her face, marveling at how well he expressed himself. We talked about the context of the letter, remembering our summers in Illinois (the first of three spent there) while Zada was home in Canarsie. We weren’t on vacation exactly; Dad was attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to get his masters in economics. Mom remembers those days fondly. I brought a photo from that summer, which elicited Mom’s pleasure at how slim she looked in her bathing suit (see above).

Then Mark read the next letter, dated ten years later. This letter, written on her birthday just after the wedding of his oldest grandchild, my brother Steven, begins: From the president of the Feige Brody fan club.

It continues:

Nov. 16, 1977

Dear Feige,

The purpose of this letter is to expound on the theory that it is far better to be 44 years young, than to be 44 years old.

You proved to me without a shadow of a doubt, how you deported yourself at Cindy’s and Steven’s wedding: In my eyes and probably everyone else’s you were the fairest and youngest of all.

Stay young Feige, your husband will adore you, your children will respect you, and I will always love you.

Love and Best of Days,

Dad

As Mark read the letter to Mom, she smiled broadly and listened attentively. “That’s my father,” she said with satisfaction. I think it is fair to say that Mom did as he suggested. She stayed young, at least until her 88th year when time is finally catching up with her. Her husband, my father, certainly adored her until he took his last breath, and her children respect her. Zada was prophetic.

As we said our good-byes, we reminded Mom that she is 88 years young.

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.