Playgrounds and Parenting

Yesterday was the first time I went to a playground in many years. My children are well into adulthood. Now that we have a grandchild, I had reason to pay a visit. I saw so much, and probably through different eyes than the last time I spent any time there.

We were lucky enough to have our granddaughter, who I’ll call Lucy, was with us for a sleepover. [Her parents do not want her portrayed on social media and I respect their judgment, so I am not using her real name.] She is just over 15-months old, walking steadily, beginning to climb and enjoying the wonders of the outdoors. She liked picking up leaves and presenting them to us proudly. She also loves dogs – or “Doggies!” as she blurted out with glee every time she saw one. What better place to take her than Central Park, which as luck (or planning) would have it is down the block from our apartment.

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Plenty of leaves and acorns to pick up!

We took a few essentials, a hat, a sippy cup with water, put her in her stroller and off we went. The sun was struggling to break through the layer of clouds. The air was cool. Perfect weather for a visit to the playground. Lucy was alert to the sights and sounds – pointing and commenting with almost-words.

At the entrance to Central Park at 100th Street there is an extensive playground. I had walked past it many times before without paying much attention, and now I was about to get a whole new perspective.

It was ten o’clock on Sunday morning. I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that I was missing CBS Sunday Morning, until now as I write this, though I watch that show religiously. Grandchildren have a way of reprioritizing things.

The playground was busy, but not crowded. There were children of different shapes and sizes. We took Lucy out of the stroller and she started walking toward the sprinklers. I hadn’t realized there were sprinklers, so we weren’t prepared for her to get wet. Fortunately, she didn’t charge in – she was content to watch the water shooting up into the air. One boy, I’ll guess he was about 5, was wearing only his underwear, stood directly over the jet of water and seemed to enjoy pretending he was peeing. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if he was my child. That was the first of many similar questions I’d be asking myself over the course of the next hour.

What the child was doing was harmless and he was having fun. On the other hand, I would also want my son/grandson to learn “appropriate” public behavior. The mom appeared to be nearby. I didn’t hear or see her address him, but later when I looked over, they were gone. She may well have spoken to him privately or quietly or both. I wasn’t sitting in judgment; I wasn’t sure what “the right thing to do” was.

After watching the sprinklers for a while, we walked over to the area where there was a cement and brick climbing structure and slides once you got to the top. These were big slides! I imagined that from the top it would look like a mountain for a small child. Lucy was content to play with the sand at the bottom and explore the stones that made up the ladder. Several little boys were climbing. One was being watched by his older sister. She moved confidently up and down the structure, stopping to offer her little brother help. “You can do it, Milo,” she urged him. He followed her a couple of steps up, using his hands and feet. Then he seemed to get stuck in place. He started to whimper. His sister tried again to encourage him. “Follow me.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t. After a few more moments, she called “Dad! Milo needs help.” The Dad responded pretty quickly, climbing up, putting a hand on his son and encouraging him to continue going. Milo wasn’t having it. The Dad picked him up and carried him down. I didn’t hear what the Dad said to him.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but parenting involves so many decisions, moment by moment. Was the big sister old enough to be watching him? Should the Dad have been closer by? Do you push your child to overcome their fear? If so, how hard? Again, I wasn’t judging the dad. I was reminded how hard it is to be a parent. And, for someone like me, where questions run amok, it could be torturous. I’m so glad I got through that stage! I will leave it to my children to judge whether I got it more right than wrong. With adult children, there are still parenting choices to make, but not every day! And they aren’t so vulnerable, they are more fully formed and can better withstand our mistakes.

Later when we were walking home, Gary observed that he wouldn’t have been sitting on the bench chatting with other parents if his son was Milo (who was quite a bit bigger than Lucy, and may have been two or three, but he was still in diapers). I said I wasn’t so sure what I would have done.

Being a grandparent is simpler. Our job was to keep Lucy safe. It was one morning of many for her. If we were more protective than her parents, she would recover. Better that way than the alternative.

 

Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

If…

If you want to find every bit of schmutz (translation: dust bunnies and other crumbs) in your house, have a 14-month old visit.

If you want to be reminded of the wonder of electricity, watch the face of a 14-month old when you flip a light switch on and off.

If you want to discover muscles you forgot you had, play with a 14-month old for two full days.

If you want to see the beauty of the wind in the trees, look out the window with a 14-month old.

If you want your heart to melt, get a hug around the legs from a toddler who nuzzles you when she is ready for a nap.

If you want to experience your heart in your mouth, watch that toddler walk like a drunken sailor past a glass and wood coffee table.

If you want to experience the full range of human emotion, spend 15 minutes with a 14-month old who goes from joy to frustration to laughter to curiosity to tears in that space of time.

If you want a smile, give a 14-month old a bite of a sugar cookie. Yum.

 

I had the pleasure of all of this, and more, over the past four days. It is also why my blog post is so late. I admit to being tired, physically, mentally and emotionally. I am also reminded that there is a reason we have children when we are young. But, it is all worth it. To be a grandparent is a privilege and I am keenly aware of that. I will treasure memories of these days.

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On a brutally hot day, she had the right idea! My precious one.

 

A Remembrance

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We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.

They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.

Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.

The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.

Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.

Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.

How young is too young?

How young is too young?  Or put another way, what is the appropriate age for children to…..fill in the blank. As parents we were always debating these questions. To walk to a friend’s house by themselves; to ride their bike in the neighborhood alone; to cross the street; to see PG-13 movies; to wear make-up or get their ears pierced. So many decisions. There are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be.

My parents were permissive in this regard. I’ve touched on this before on my blog. I saw violent movies when I was quite young. I was allowed to read anything I wanted – I don’t recall ever being told to make a different choice when I went to the library with them or if I picked up a book that my older brother was reading. The only time my reading was limited was when I went to check out The Grapes of Wrath when I was in elementary school and the librarian told me it wasn’t appropriate. I vaguely remember arguing with her briefly before giving up.

Some of those parenting decisions are influenced by where you live and what the norms are in the area. Certainly, growing up in New York City is different than growing up in suburban Albany where my children were raised. Of course, technology has changed things, too. Our kids were in middle school before some of the social media issues started to emerge.

Generally, Gary and I were on the same page with these decisions. We agreed that our children would not have a television or computer in their bedroom (this was before laptops, i-pads or smart phones; they were in high school before that became an issue). We wouldn’t buy Eminem’s CD for Dan (he was ten when the Slim Shady LP came out), no matter how much he begged. We knew he heard the music at friends’ houses, but we wanted to be clear that we weren’t sanctioning it. It wasn’t the language we were concerned about, it was the misogyny and casual treatment of sex and violence.

We may have made some errors in judgment, but at least we made them together! One example of what may have been poor decision-making involved Daniel. Daniel was born with a certain skepticism. He never bought into fairies or magical thinking. He was on to the fact that we left money under his pillow when he lost a tooth; he never went for the idea of a tooth fairy. Though it wasn’t part of our tradition, he never believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. Out of respect for friends, family and neighbors, we never taught our children that there wasn’t a Santa, we simply told them that we didn’t celebrate those holidays. Unfortunately, Dan came to his own conclusion before some of our friends’ children and he shared his ideas (not to be cruel, he thought they already knew). That led to some awkwardness.

Knowing that his skepticism led him to have a mature sense of humor at a young age, we let him watch a George Carlin HBO Special when he was ten or eleven. I knew the humor would appeal to him and it did. But, I think it was too much too soon. In retrospect, we should have encouraged more innocent comedy. I don’t think it helped Dan’s anxiety level to hear Carlin’s cynicism and biting observations so young, even if we all laughed and appreciated his skewering of the establishment.

Though we were almost always in agreement in our parenting decisions, there was one specific time that Gary and I were not on the same page. We had agreed that we would not pierce Leah’s ears as a baby. We wanted it to be her decision. By the time Leah was eight, she was asking to get earrings. Dan was born skeptical; Leah was born headstrong. She was quite persistent. I explained that she needed to be more mature so that she would follow the instructions for the care of her ear lobes and to be sure that it wasn’t a passing fancy. That explanation bought me some time, but by the time she was ten, she was convinced that she was ready. I thought she probably was; Gary didn’t.

One evening we were at the mall. Leah was nearing 12 at this point and I had been putting her off in terms of the earrings. Dan and Gary went to look for something while Leah and I went in another direction. We agreed to meet up at a certain time. As Leah and I were walking, we passed a kiosk that offered ear piercing. Leah stopped and asked me again. I took a deep breath and made an executive decision that she was mature enough. The woman did it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Leah handled the pain without much reaction. She was proud of herself and excited.

We met back up with the boys. When Leah showed Gary the small gold posts in her ear lobes, he was furious. I hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. When Gary is angry, he retreats; his silence is more penetrating than harsh words. At first, he was mad at Leah too, but he let go of that in a reasonable amount of time. Most of his fury was reserved for me. He may not be over it yet (20 years later).

Looking back at it, if that was the worst of our differences in parenting styles, that’s pretty damn good. That isn’t to say we didn’t have other arguments, but at least not about those issues.

It will be interesting to watch the next generation navigate their parenting path.

Siblings

I was visiting with my son, we were debriefing after the successful birthday party for his daughter, who turned one the prior weekend. He mentioned an observation his wife shared after the party. She said she never met siblings who were more different from each other than my brothers. I got a good laugh from that. She is so right.

Her observation came as no surprise, but I realized that I take it for granted. I don’t think about it; it just is a fact of our family life. Hearing her comment, though, gave me pause. It is hard to explain how two such different people grew up in the same house, from the same set of parents, born only 17 months apart. Mark and Steven are about as different as day and night.

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Me and my bros – 2017 – recreating a pose from when we were small and could more comfortably sit like that!

Mark likes to be the center of attention; Steven doesn’t (he certainly doesn’t seek it). Mark is a jokester; Steven enjoys a good laugh, but doesn’t work to get one. I can see Mark’s wheels turning as he figures out a way to tease someone or fit in a humorous story; Steven tends to hang back. Steven gives attention to his appearance, he enjoys wearing stylish shoes and a well cut leather jacket. Mark couldn’t care less – he is pleased if his clothes aren’t stained. Mark is also color-blind; Steven isn’t. Steven is neat and organized; Mark is anything but. Mark is very liberal politically; Steven is a centrist. Other than being about the same height and having the same hairline, they don’t look much alike either. Steve has a dark complexion; Mark is fair-skinned and freckled. I could go on and on. How could they share so much DNA and yet be so different? It is a mystery.

They do share some commonalities. They like sports and are good athletes. Hmmmm. What else? They are dedicated husbands, fathers, brothers and sons (though how they express that dedication is not similar). They are both upstanding citizens – trustworthy and hard-working. Beyond that, it is hard to find adjectives that apply to both. Interestingly, they married sisters! My sister-in-laws are not as dramatically different as my brothers, but enough so that they are a good fit.

It makes me wonder about siblings. I see patterns in the siblings in my extended family and Gary’s, too. Our mothers had an interesting and similar dynamic with their respective sisters. When asked about her childhood, before the war, Paula recalled with warmth and love her father sitting on the edge of the bed she shared with her sister telling them bedtime stories. Sophia, younger by a couple of years, didn’t remember it that way. She insisted that their father directed the story to Paula, Sophia felt neglected. Fifty years after the fact they still disagreed about it. Paula insisted he was entertaining them both; Sophia said no, the stories were for Paula. There is no way to reconcile the difference in perception – they felt what they felt.

It is sad because that perception colored Sophia’s view of the world. Her Holocaust experience added trauma and pain to the baggage she carried. Paula at least had a more positive foundation.

The story of my mother and her sister was not as dramatic, it didn’t play out against the Holocaust, but the theme was similar. If asked to describe the same incident from their childhood, my mother’s version was lighter, more positive. Whether it was because she was extra sensitive or tuned into subtleties, her sister, Simma recalled slights and hurts. They often disagreed about the meaning of the actions of their parents or aunts and uncles. Again, it could be difficult to reconcile their views of the same people.

The pattern isn’t limited to sisters. If you asked Gary and his brother to describe their father, you might think they were depicting two different people.

I wonder how common this is. It would be an interesting experiment: ask siblings to describe their parents and see how much overlap there is in the portrait offered. Maybe the same words would be used, but it might still feel different to each child. I imagine that my brothers and I would agree that our Dad was impatient. But, we each might feel differently about that. It might have rolled off my back because I knew the storm would pass. One brother might have been unnerved by the harsh tone and the other might have been oblivious. It could be that Dad mellowed with age and while I saw his impatience, I may not have experienced the intensity of it. Or maybe as his baby girl, he may have shielded me from the worst expression of his impatience. So many possibilities! Birth order, gender, gaps in age all likely play into it. Is it any wonder that sibling relationships can be so complicated?

Regardless of the differences in perceptions and personalities, my mother and mother-in-law were deeply connected to their sisters; they were not estranged. They argued, but they were present for each other. The message I received growing up was that familial bonds should be valued and respected. Hurts and disappointments could be overcome because you knew you could count on your sibling to be there for you, especially during tough times. You didn’t have to like your brother or sister, that would be a bonus, but you loved them no matter what and they were part of your life forever. Judging by how often families are estranged, not everyone grew up with that message.

I do understand that sometimes relationships are so toxic that they have to be cut. Certainly, where there is abuse, it is appropriate and necessary to dissolve the bond and create a family of choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me or my brothers.

Whatever differences in character traits that exist between my siblings or between them and me, we know with certainty that we can rely on each other. I am grateful for that knowledge.

 

 

Family

I was taking another drive to New Jersey recently. Usually I listen to music, but I have been exploring podcasts. A friend recommended Marc Maron’s WTF, saying he was a good interviewer. He’s also a comedian so I thought there could be some laughs. I enjoy a good interview and laughing so I decided to check it out.  (I agree with my friend; he is a good interviewer and I enjoyed the three podcasts I listened to – it is a long ride!).

Anyway, one of the comments he made got me thinking. He was relaying a story about family vacations. He did not remember them fondly (don’t worry, Mom, I remember ours very warmly). He talked about his family of four sharing one hotel room and in that cramped space they got on each other’s nerves. He mentioned that they didn’t know each other that well. He pointed out that they were probably all too self-absorbed in their day-to-day life and didn’t actually know each other. When they were thrown together in the confines of a single hotel room, it could get unpleasant.

The idea of not really knowing your own family gave me pause. On the one hand, I would have said that we knew each other quite well. We were a close family; we spent a lot of time together. On the other, maybe not…. especially when I was younger. Most of my time with them was as a family unit, and we fell into certain roles. Dad was the disciplinarian. Mom was the one directing our activities. Mark was the instigator, looking to get a rise out of someone, mostly me. Steven was the sphinx, keeping to himself, getting along. I don’t know who I was – sometimes I know I was the whiner, “Mark touched me!” I would cry with great indignation.

I don’t mean to reduce us to one characteristic, but I think there is something to that. We still fall back into those roles.

I remember once when I was a young adult living in Albany, having already started my own family, Dad came to visit alone. He was attending a social studies conference at one of the hotels in the area. He stayed overnight at Gary and my house. It was all fine, but it felt odd. It isn’t that I never spent one-on-one time with my Dad. But that was when I was a kid.  When I was 9 or 10 years old, I would go to watch him play tennis. I would ride with him to Marine Park, where he met his friends and they would play doubles. I would alternate between hitting a tennis ball against a wall and watching them play. On the way home, we’d stop for an egg cream. I remember enjoying those times, they are special memories for me.

I’m sure that was more time than some daughters get with their fathers. Yet, when he visited that time in Albany, it struck me that there was some awkwardness to it. Maybe it was because as an adult it had been years since it had just been us. Maybe we didn’t know each other as adults.

It wasn’t that he disappointed me in any way during that visit, or that it was unpleasant. I became aware, though, that our relationship was inextricably tied to our connection to my mother. I was more accustomed to spending time with them as a couple. It felt a bit weird to relate to him as an individual.

This notion was reinforced, years later, when my Dad died. I became aware that my relationship with my mother was changing. She was likely changing, after 50 years as a partner to Dad she needed to find her own path. I discovered different parts of her personality, as she may have been discovering different aspects of herself. It is hard to disentangle the varied strands – was she changing? Was I? was that who she had always been, but now I saw it?

I also think back on ideas I had about other family members. It’s funny how my understanding of our family has changed over the years. When I was young, I thought we were perfect. Then I went through a phase, not surprisingly, as a teenager, where I hated them (okay, hate is a strong word – they annoyed me profoundly). Then I got to college and realized I was so lucky to have two parents who communicated their love and care clearly, and an extended family that I was deeply connected to. As I grew into adulthood, I saw our family in more nuanced ways. I became aware of tensions that ran beneath the surface – not so much in our immediate family but with aunts and uncles. I realized that things were more complicated than they seem on the surface.

I remain deeply connected to my family. I continue to get to know them. How well do we know each other?  I can’t answer that. I wonder what others experience in their families. Do you know each other?

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part of my family