Bittersweet

I know I have used the word bittersweet quite often on the blog. Lately it just seems to fit. This past week was no exception. It featured wide swings – from the deep satisfaction of connecting in person (!!!) with long-time friends (who were fully vaccinated) to extreme anxiety about Mom’s health and back to marveling at the wonder of a toddler. It has been a roller coaster ride.

I accompanied Mom for pre-op testing a week ago in New Jersey. It went smoothly, though, it is increasingly evident that any exertion takes a great deal out of her. I wish we had a better understanding of what is happening. I feel like there should be an answer – and with that some kind of fix so that her quality of life is improved. We continue to search but so far, we have not come up with anything. This has been going on since last August!

On Friday I brought her in for a procedure that was meant to enlighten us – at least with regard to the condition of her heart. In a strange way I hoped that the doctor would find something wrongthat he could address. He didn’t. Her heart is good – which should have been excellent news, and it does bring some comfort. The search continues for an explanation for her extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.

In between Monday’s testing and Friday’s procedure, I visited with family and friends who live in the New York City area. My son came into the city for the first time in over a year for work. He visited with me before his scheduled meeting. I gave him a bagel with cream cheese. He took a bite and exclaimed, “Jesus, that is so good!” He lives in Connecticut and gets bagels, but there are bagels and there are bagels. New York City may be struggling, but you can still get fabulous bagels on the Upper West Side.

Though things are far from normal, some activities are returning in new ways. A Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue set up some tables on the sidewalk enclosed in individual plastic bubbles. The pod was open on one side.  Steven, our friendship began when I was 14 or 47 short years ago, and I were enjoying our lunch when it started to drizzle, then the sky opened up. The waiter pulled down the plastic sheeting and zipped us in. We were protected from the elements and continued eating our delicious meal. When the rain stopped, the panel was unzipped and we emerged into breezy sunshine, a blue sky to the north but more ominous clouds moving in from the south. It was one of those fast-changing weather days. Spring is in full swing in NYC.

I consumed quite a bit of Asian food during my time in the city – all of it outstanding. Isn’t it great to share a meal with people you love? Another afternoon I met Aunt Clair at a Japanese restaurant. Despite her own serious health challenges, we were able to talk about family history and current events while digging into our bento boxes. I learned more about my Dad and clarified some things, some of which will likely make its way into a future blog post.

Late that afternoon I fought traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway to meet another childhood friend – I know Deborah since I was four years old. Anyone who has lived in the New York area has to know the Cross Bronx is infamous – it can be 3 a.m. and traffic can be at a standstill. But Waze, the navigation app that scans for the best route, told me repeatedly, “You are still on the fastest route,” as I sat incredulously staring at the unmoving tractor trailer in front of me. The good news was that I was listening to NPR when the verdict was read in the Chauvin trial. What a relief – on so many levels! In addition to finally providing some accountability and a measure of justice, I hate to think what would have happened if a different verdict had been rendered.

I met Deborah for dinner in Port Washington on Long Island. Deborah lives in another part of the Island but suggested a spot that was more convenient for me to travel to. Another excellent Asian restaurant. I realized that I was only minutes from where my cousins grew up. After the meal, since the days are now so much longer, there was still some daylight. I plugged their old address into the GPS. It was only a five minute ride. The terrain was familiar and foreign at the same time. The lovely homes, tree-lined, curving streets and lush lawns were as I remembered. The house itself was quite different. The wood rail fence and bushes that lined the property were gone. The siding was a different color. But it brought back many memories of our visits. So much has changed. My aunt and uncle passed away – as have so many other family members. My cousins live in Massachusetts and Florida respectively. I took a picture and texted it to them. They commented on the changes they noticed. More evidence of the bittersweet nature of life.

Mom needed to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. I drove out to New Jersey Thursday night and stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, they live about 15 minutes from Mom. Somehow when you know you are getting up at 5:00 a.m. it is impossible to get restful sleep. I woke up multiple times to check the clock, relieved to find that I still had more time. But at 4:30 I gave up. Mom was ready when I arrived at 6:00. We saw the sun rise as we drove east to the hospital.

The procedure took less time than expected and I was thankful that she had made it through it, even though I wished there was something they could have fixed that would improve her situation. Given that she is 87 and experiencing shortness of breath, I was acutely aware of the risks of the procedure. At least she had come through it.

She was admitted to the hospital because of a complication with her heart rhythm. I went to see her in her room. Her color was actually better than it had been. She was in good spirits. Assuming that she was stable, I planned to return home that afternoon. Months earlier the weekend of April 24th was chosen by our children to celebrate my husband’s birthday. Since Covid made going to a Met game an uncomfortable proposition, the kids came up with the idea of recreating the experience in our backyard. They would come to Albany and we would all watch the game together on Saturday afternoon.

Fortunately, Mom was stable, so after staying with her for a couple of hours, I drove home. The celebratory plans were a surprise to Gary. He didn’t know the kids were coming. I arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon. Leah and Ben followed about 20 minutes later. Gary worked a bit later than usual, proving that he had no idea about the surprise. He saw Leah’s car in the driveway and was delighted. He came in all smiles. It only got better from there.

A couple of hours later, there was a knock at the door. Our almost 3 year old granddaughter stood smiling on the porch (don’t worry she wasn’t alone, her mother and father accompanied her). I reached out my arms and she lifted hers. I brought her into the family room where Gary was on the phone with a patient. His jaw dropped. I heard him say, “Okay, gotta go. Good night, Mr. Smith.” Fortunately, he had communicated the necessary medical information so though he ended the conversation abruptly, he was in fact done. He stood up and took her from me. So began the weekend.

Though we had a great time with the kids, my mom alternately sounded horrible on the phone (struggling to breathe and speak), then a bit better, then like herself, then horrible again. I was worried. I thought about whether I should go back down to the hospital, but what could I accomplish? The kids had gone to great effort. They set up a screen against the house so we could watch the Met game. They brought crackerjacks, peanuts, beer and sandwiches. They decorated with Met paraphernalia. The weather even cooperated, sadly, the Mets didn’t. They lost 7-1. We all agreed that was as it should be in a way, we’ve been to many losses at Shea and Citifield. Happily, we watched the game (indoors) the night before when Jacob DeGrom pitched a masterpiece.  

Our own version of the 7th inning stretch

Sunday morning, I blew bubbles with our granddaughter in our backyard. It delighted both of us. Something about watching the delicate orbs, rainbows shimmering on their surface, illuminated by the sun as they drifted into nothingness seemed appropriate. The fleeting nature of it, of everything, struck me. At the same time, her squeals of laughter as she chased them reminded me of the whimsy of life. I need to go with it, accept the bittersweet, as hard as that is.

Remembering Ray

by Barbara Spilken

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is written by my aunt, Barbara Spilken. It is about my grandmother, Nana. I have written many blog posts about her. Thank you, Barbara, for sharing your tribute to her. The photos come from the Spilken family collection.

I woke up in tears this morning. April 18, 2021 marks 50 years since my mother-in-law’s death. Not many people are fortunate enough to find inspiration to last that many years from anyone much less their mother-in-law. Most in-law relationships, if we are to believe Hollywood, are strained at best. I was blessed with a different reality.

Though I only knew Ray (Rachel Spilken) for three years before her untimely death, she shaped how I live my life and the values I strive to uphold. I was 18 years old when I first met her.

Ray was the sun to family and friends that orbited her. She welcomed people to her home, regardless of their station in life or if they had a disability or lived on the margins of society. My family of origin did not offer such a generous and loving atmosphere. I drank in this alternative and vowed to try to live her values.

Whether I have accomplished that is for others to say. I believe Ray’s legacy is going strong in our family. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are caring human beings, loving their families, involved in philanthropy, each trying to make the world a better place in their own way.

Everyday I wake up to see Ray’s large, beautiful mahogany dining room table in my house. It is a reminder to gather those we love, to share our burdens and our celebrations, to break bread as often as we can  –  to stay connected to each other.

I was welcomed by my husband, Terry, into his world. His mother extended to me every kindness and taught me these values. I hope I have done and continue to do them honor.

Terry and Ray in 1969

This year in which we have sustained many losses has inevitably led me to think about the meaning of life, I am comforted by my reflections on Ray. Her legacy of love and care continues to ripple through the generations that have followed. What more can one hope for?

At my wedding – January 10, 1971

The Cycle of Life

I just re-read last week’s blog post. This week’s could be quite similar. In this time of coronavirus, one day doesn’t vary much from another and that adds up to a sameness week to week. There were some differences. The prime one being I didn’t get to cuddle and play with my granddaughter. Oh well. I did get to babysit my great-nephew. He is almost 15 months old and fascinated by cars, trucks and buses. Fortunately, his house has a big picture window in the living room that looks out on a busy thoroughfare. We watched red cars and blue cars and yellow buses go by for quite some time.

One of the extraordinary things that is happening in our family is that a new generation is emerging. Aside from my granddaughter, I now have five great-nephews! The newest arrived less than two weeks ago, on March 24th. The oldest will be four in August. Four of them have the last name Brody. My father’s name carries on! So as not to be left out, the most recent arrival was given the first name Brody! When I was young Brody was not a first name (though I think both of my brothers were regularly called Brody by friends), now it is, and we are all delighted. It will be quite something when the five of them get together! Mass confusion might ensue, but what fun!

As we are at the beginning of a new season, a season of rebirth, I am acutely aware of the cycle of life. We are greeting new family members; we have said goodbye to others. No matter how long a life they have been granted, it doesn’t feel long enough. At the same time, we don’t want to see them suffer. There is a time to die. It is all so bittersweet. It is the way of the world.

Yesterday, the final day of Passover, is a day when Yizkor is recited. Yizkor translates as ‘may He (God) remember;’ it is a memorial service that is conducted four times throughout the year. In Judaism we commemorate the anniversary of a parent’s (and other immediate family members) death (the yahrzeit) by lighting a candle. We also participate in Yizkor and light a candle then too. Gary is not yet comfortable attending services in person, so he livestreamed from a New York City synagogue. Throughout the year we have done that and found it to be surprisingly meaningful.

Of course, our thoughts of David, and my father, and others who have died, are not limited to those occasions. I asked Gary yesterday what brings his dad to mind. The list was long – from mundane things like having a nice stretch of weather to elections in Israel – all things he would share on his daily phone call with him. We agreed that the most painful part of the loss is the finality of it. Many believe that we will be reunited with our loved ones when we ourselves die. I imagine that is a very comforting thought. I can’t say I have that faith. Instead, I comfort myself with memories that have become part of me, lessons that I was taught, the love that I was given and still carry with me. It isn’t the same as having their physical presence, but it is something – something significant. My father and my grandparents are part of my DNA and are, in turn, part of my children.

I marvel at our family’s the next generation. I will share the memories, the lessons and love and hope that they carry it forward.

I’m Tired

I don’t have a blog post prepared so I am winging it. The past week was a tiring one. It started off with a dental appointment to put a crown on a tooth that had previously had root canal. The process of preparing the crown left my mouth sore. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy when they insert the tray with the gooey stuff in my mouth to make an impression of my teeth. I remind myself to breathe so I don’t gag. I prefer not to have someone putting their hands in there to drill either- the vibrations cause my ears and sinuses to ache. Invariably my jaw is sore afterwards. It took a couple of days for that to settle down. Great start to the week.

Then I went down to New Jersey to accompany my mom to her pulmonologist appointment. I wanted to go (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!). I don’t mind a road trip. I listen to podcasts, NPR and music. As long as traffic isn’t bad, I’m good. I wanted to be there to hear directly what the doctor said, to support Mom and to spend some time with her. The issue is that the visit to the doctor was not great. I’m not going to go into details, but we left with more questions that we arrived with. Mom is doing okay, but not as good as we would like and frankly, I worry about her. (Mom, don’t feel guilty!!) It is hard being 3.5 hours away.

That night, after the unsettling appointment, I had a zoom bookclub. I signed up for an offering from my local library – the club meets virtually to discuss 7 Pulitzer Prize winning novels that explore the American experience. The assignment for this meeting was Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I’m not going to digress too far on this, it could merit its own blog post, but I would describe the read as a slog. Reading a book should not be a slog. I fought through it, at least in part out of respect for my fellow bookclubbers. The facilitator of the session, who I like very much, opened the meeting by confessing that he couldn’t get through it! Part of me regretted that I had put in the effort, but, in fact, I’m glad I did. It wasn’t great timing in that I had other things to do, but I did get something out of the experience. One thing I learned: I will not read another Saul Bellow novel. I read one in college, Herzog, which I also remember as a painful experience. I think two is quite sufficient for my lifetime. I may write more about Mr. Bellow’s novel another time. I enjoyed our discussion which centered on whether we feel an obligation to finish a book we have started. What do you think?

The week proceeded with preparations for Passover. Last year we did a virtual seder which worked out pretty well, all things considered, but certainly isn’t what we prefer. This year, since Gary and I are fully vaccinated, our children came and we zoomed with my husband’s sisters. I love having a full house. I loved having Leah, Ben, Dan, Beth and our granddaughter here.

Our granddaughter woke up at 4:15 a.m. Saturday morning. I didn’t want her to wake her parents – she was starting to cry and we had the monitor in our bedroom – so I went in to her. She settled quickly. I didn’t. I got back into bed and thought about everything I needed to do. About 6:00 a.m. I fell back to sleep. Our granddaughter woke up at 6:15 a.m. Fortunately, Gary was happy to get her and I fell back to sleep for another hour and a half. Despite that I got up not feeling particularly well rested. A small price to pay, but as I get older it gets harder to rebound. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be 61!” as I brushed my teeth. Of course it is better than the alternative.

During the weekend we laughed, we chatted, we prepared the seder meal (three of us combined efforts to make the turkey and it paid off), we ate multiple meals actually. We played Trivial Pursuit. My granddaughter not only chose me to put her to bed both nights, but said, “Nana, I love you.” Nothing is better than that. I will treasure the memories and look forward to the next time we get to be together.

Now it is Monday morning. I don’t have a blog post prepared. But that’s okay.

Passover bouquet on my dining room table

A Survivor’s Story: The Beginning

Note: In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am revisiting the beginning of my mother-in-law’s story. When most people think of survivors of the Holocaust, they think of concentration camp survivors. But, there are other important stories, of Jews who made it through by hiding and fighting alongside the Partisans in the woods, using guile and courage, and sometimes the kindness of strangers, to sustain themselves. That is the story of my in-laws. Another thing that is important to remember is the quality of life those survivors enjoyed before the wholesale destruction of their shtetl culture. Not only did millions lose their lives, but a whole way of life ended. This story brings some of that to life. The information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children (with spouses) and grandchildren, went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided for her father’s livelihood as a boat-maker. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it).

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle; they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, but they were able to communicate. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernard, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

The Silberfarbs made a loving home. Their house consisted of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large one room apartment next door that they rented out. A lush, colorful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill and Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula was lovingly cared for by her mother and father. Lea was the primary caregiver, providing guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather at the riverside to watch it launch. It was a community event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business.

Gershon, a widower, lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters. Gershon had an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family joined him Saturday morning. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs. Paula watched her brother, father and grandfather through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula played with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw it further. She also especially liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula was particularly fond of one neighbor friend, Chaya. Once Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one which she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even 60 years after the fact.

In 1939 the Soviets invaded Serniki. Though she was frightened of the newly arrived Russians, Paula was eight when they took over, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change was to her school life. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Soviets took over. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch only to have the Germans shoot them in the back, causing everyone to fall in, one on top of another. The father and son fell just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Nazis left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran.

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made all the difference.

Paula just after the war, in her early teens, but no longer a child.

A Daunting Task

The task was daunting. Four large cartons full of loose photographs sat on the floor of our study waiting to be reviewed and organized. Sorting them would be a difficult job – the contents of those boxes represented two long and eventful lives, spanning more than 70 years. When we were emptying out my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s house in Liberty, as part of their move to a new, smaller apartment closer to their children, we couldn’t take the time to decide what to do with each photo album and all the loose pictures we found. We set aside some of the framed photos on the wall to bring to the new place and put the rest in cartons. I volunteered to take the load to my house with the idea that at some point I would go through them to see what we had and organize them. Once I unloaded the car and put the boxes in our study — two years ago — it was easier to let them sit than to begin the project.

Then my father-in-law died – a month ago now. In the immediate aftermath, I opened a few of the boxes and grabbed some photos for my husband and his siblings to reminisce over when they did their Zoom shiva sessions. Questions about family history were raised. It felt like it was time to fully open the cartons and see what the contents could tell us.

Fortunately, last Thursday, while chatting with my daughter, Leah, I mentioned this project and she offered to help. On the spur of the moment she suggested coming home, she lives in the Boston area, the very next day and spending the weekend. The project was starting to feel a bit less daunting.

I went to Staples to get photograph containers. The material we would be sorting came in all different sizes. I bought various sized plastic bins. I had no idea how many we would need. I started with five. It turned out not to be enough.

Leah arrived and we got right to work. First, we strategized. We would leave whole photo albums intact. We thought we would start with a sort into three broad categories: photos from before and during World War II, the years in Cuba, and then the ‘modern’ era in America.

We dove in and found out that those categories weren’t going to cut it. There were a number of things that didn’t fit. For example, my mother-in-law saved thank you cards that included photographs from various weddings. That became a separate category. There were also various documents and letters among the photos. We set those aside in another pile. As we pored over the pictures, another issue emerged: we didn’t recognize the people and we couldn’t tell where or when the photo was taken.

I should note that it was not our job to decide if any of it should be thrown away. That decision would remain for Gary and his siblings once they knew what they had. Our plan is once it is safe to meet in person, the siblings will get together and look through the catalogue and decide what to do with it.

On Saturday, Leah and I spent about five or six hours sorting, learning as we went. We got better at recognizing faces. We started picking up on clues: clothes, background scenery like palm trees and wallpaper, the numbers at the bottom of the prints sometimes helped group items or names of photolabs. Gary used his phone and took some photos and texted them to the family to get their input. Slowly but surely, we made progress. At the end of the day on Saturday, when we decided to break for dinner, we had succeeded in emptying all but one box. We were left with many piles on our dining room table and a final box to go through on Sunday.

The table early on Saturday

Saturday evening I was surprised to find myself exhausted and parched. Something about the sustained concentration and the dust from handling old papers, left Leah and I mentally tired and very thirsty. It was a relief to relax and water myself!

The table when we began Sunday morning

We resumed our efforts after breakfast on Sunday. The last box contained whole photo albums, two of which we were hoping to find: Gary and his brother’s respective bar mitzvah albums. We were delighted to find them all intact and no loose photos to categorize.

We set about combining our existing piles and further refined our categories. It was painstaking because there were so many different ways one could organize things. We could have done it entirely chronologically, another option was to do it by people or family, and still another possibility was to group things by events. There was no right way to do it. We made our best guess at what would make sense and used a combination of those categories. We finished our task late in the afternoon.

Once Covid is over, we’ll invite the family to a photo-review party. That should be fun. Then the siblings can decide if they want to divide them up or digitize them or dispose of some of it.

So, what did the contents of those cartons tell us? I was struck by the many pictures of my mother-in-law smiling. It isn’t that Paula doesn’t smile, but when I think of her I see her in my mind’s eye with a serious countenance, especially in this last decade as Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much of her spark. It was good to reminded of her lighter side and to see her full of life.

The photos also show Paula and David living a life connected to others. Many pictures of family and friend gatherings over decades – the same core of people crowding around a table for a meal over the course of many years. One thing about living such a long life, many of the people in the photos are now gone. It is bittersweet but comforting to reflect on the richness of those lives.

Looking at the pictures over the years, it was also interesting and sometimes amusing to take in the fashions. The Bakst family went to celebrations in style!

Bakst Family 1969

I also realize how wonderful it is when there is a note on the back of a photo or in the margin of an album that gives the names of the people (especially babies!), the date and maybe the place. This might be less of a thing with digitized pictures since some of that information is embedded, but it was so helpful in this project. Interestingly many of the notes on the back of these photos were in another language – Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and something we couldn’t recognize. We put a post-it on all of those so we could come back to them and ask for assistance with translation.

I couldn’t help but think about my own collection of photographs. When the pandemic began one of my early projects was to go through a couple of drawers of loose photos and organize them and I completed that to some extent.  I still have a large plastic bin in the basement that needs to be organized.

I have generally been good about creating photo albums. Whenever we come back from a trip, I make up an album soon after, even though the pictures are on my phone. I am not satisfied with scrolling through files of photos. I prefer to look at them in print, along with saved ticket stubs, maps and small memorabilia – almost like a scrapbook, but not going that far. I enjoy looking through our adventures from time to time. But, what will become of them when Gary and I are gone? I think about the many albums sitting in my mother’s place in Florida. She too documented her travels in albums, and she was lucky enough to travel extensively with my dad and even continued to after he died. I guess there is no avoiding having to make painful choices when the time comes.

The vast majority of pictures we sorted through over the weekend were of people, very few were of landscapes or other sites. It makes me think about the purpose of taking the pictures in the first place. These days, with cameras in phones, we have so many photos and videos. What will we do with them? Maybe they serve their purpose in the taking; in solidifying an image in our minds so that we can remember it better in the future. I’m curious how young adults feel about the photos on their phones – do they curate them or organize them? Do they look back at them?

Having undertaken this effort, I have a lot of questions. One random one: Why do we keep whole sheets of school profile pictures? You know the ones – the page of wallet-size pictures, followed by the same photo in a variety of sizes. I admit it is hard to throw away perfectly good pictures of our adorable children, but…..

I imagine that some of the material we found has historical value. Would a museum or research institute want it? The family may want to consider donating those items so that they are preserved properly.

We believe this is David’s membership card in a Zionist organization

Photography, no doubt, is also an art form. When Gary and I travel, or when we hike, I like to take some images of scenes that I think are particularly beautiful or interesting. I doubt anyone else would find them compelling.

I admit my brain is tired this Monday morning. But, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and hopefully it will be something the rest of the family will find enlightening when they can peruse the collection – once we emerge from this plague.

The table on Monday morning – I still need some boxes for the remaining items

Two Stories

Note: The following two stories are written by my mom, Feige Brody. She is 87 years old and resides in an independent living community in New Jersey. She has been taking time during this period of enforced isolation during the pandemic to reflect on important, formative experiences in her life. She has also tried to capture the flavor of the time. We hope you enjoy them.

THOROUGHBRED

The only time I came running home from school was when I was sure I had failed the Spanish Regents exam. That was the culminating test after three years of instruction. It included verbs, vocabulary conjugation, translation, grammar and, even history of Spanish-speaking countries. It was a high-stakes test before they used that term. If I failed, I might fail the class and it could affect my graduation.

            When I reached home, I ran to my bedroom and collapsed, sobbing into my pillow which woke my dad who had been sleeping. He came into my room, towering over me.  I felt I was a failure, a disgrace to the family.  He knew I was a decent student. I had made honor roll. But this was a disaster even though I had studied hard.  During that school year, I went every morning to an 8:00 a.m. class that Mrs. Kennedy, our Spanish teacher, held to give students extra help. She gave up her time and we gave up our sleep.

            I hated feeling I had disappointed my Dad who was proud to be the first in his family to graduate 9thgrade.  His schooling ended when he had to go to work to help support the family, so his younger sister and brother could continue their schooling. I continued sobbing and hitting my hands into the pillow.

            Dad, a gambler who loved sports and who had taken me to many afternoon ballgames and horse races, reminded me of the times we went to Aqueduct, Belmont and even Saratoga far away in upstate New York.  I knew about the jockeys like Eddie Arcaro, Ted Atkinsons. I knew the owners and the colors they used. I would stand at the finish line with the ground shaking beneath my feet, the horses thundering by, watching them with their nostrils flaring in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. 

            As he stood next to my bed, Dad reminded me of those races. This is what he said, “Every one of those horses are thoroughbreds and they all want to win but there can be only one winner. Every one of them continued running hard; no one ever gave up, even the last horse, because they are thoroughbreds.  And you are a thoroughbred.  You did your best, no one can ask for more.”

            I stopped sobbing and thought what a wonderful gift he gave me, what a compliment.  I’m a thoroughbred, I thought to myself. As he left the room, he reminded me, “The good times take care of themselves, the bad times we celebrate. If this is one of your bad times, think what you would like to do.” He gave me a small smile and left the room.

            I blew my nose, dried my eyes and turned my thoughts to how we might celebrate. I later learned I got an 83 on that test, enough to rescue me from failing the class for the year. The lesson I learned from my father was more important than that Spanish class.

LOCAL JOINTS

Veselka. The name feels like velvet on my tongue. I would be coming from work, heading to the LL subway line on a cold wintry day, when the aroma came wafting through the air. Veselka was a Ukranian restaurant in the East Village on 14th Street. It had unpronounceable main dishes, with a local crowd speaking Russian and a polyglot of other languages. The crowd was mostly first and second-generation Americans, longing for the food their parents and grandparents made. I would get a bowl of tasty, hot borscht and then I’d head home.

            I remember neighborhood Brooklyn restaurants, too. When I went to P.S. 191 and J.H.S. 210 I would go home for lunch. Every once in a while, my mother, who worked full time in the bakery, didn’t have time to go shopping so she gave me and my younger sister some money to eat out. Oh joy! I’d go to the Jewish deli on the corner, Bartnofsky’s. Despite its unglamorous name, my mouth waters thinking of it. The table would be set with sour pickles, mustard, ketchup, silverware, napkins and sauerkraut – the smell tantalizing as soon as I entered the store. I’d order a well-done hot dog with a side of baked beans or French fries. It cost 25 or 50 cents. If I didn’t go to Bartnofsky’s, I would go to the luncheonette where the very cute ‘older’ guy (probably not yet 20, making money for college) worked. I had a secret crush on him, my heart beat faster as I barely managed to blurt my order out. “Salami and eggs, please.” He smiled when he handed me the dish, making my day. Then I went back to school

On Saturday my sister and I would go around the corner, on St. John’s Place, to the Congress movie theater. We would be led by the matron to the children’s section and sat on grimy, often damp seats. After a whole afternoon of cartoons, shorts, a newsreel, and finally a main feature, we would exit to the blinding sun. Across the street was the very exotic Chinese restaurant. We would say hi to Joe, we couldn’t pronounce his real name, and he, in turn, greeted us in Yiddish. He would say, “One combination plate coming right up!” The food would come piping hot: wonton soup, egg roll, fried rice and chicken chow mein. The meal included tea and ice cream for dessert. All for $1.00!

            All of those restaurants are gone, lost to all but my memories. It isn’t just the food that stirs my reverie, but the clamoring of people coming and going, the good-natured shouting, “No, I want this table near the window!” And the rattling of dishes and clinking of silverware, and, oh yes, the wonderful scents. Every once in a while, I catch a whiff of something that brings it all back. It wasn’t Nathan’s or Juniors, the more known or established places in Brooklyn. Rather, it was the local joints where we would be recognized and treated as the neighbors we were that are etched in my memory and heart.

Observations from a House of Mourning

I have always thought there was wisdom in the Jewish rituals surrounding death since I first learned of them at age 11 when Nana died. That notion was reinforced this past week. Though it was my husband who was sitting ‘shiva,’ I participated in some of it and witnessed his observance. I know he drew comfort from it.

Sitting shiva involves stopping your routine obligations to stay home, saying Kaddish (the prayer after the departed) two times a day, refraining from life’s pleasures (parties, drinking, dancing, music, etc.), and reminiscing about the departed with guests who come to pay their respects. Immediate family, spouses, children and siblings, are obligated to sit. Extended family and friends provide meals and emotional support. Mirrors are covered in a house of mourning (to discourage being distracted by or dwelling on our appearance). The mourners sit on low stools (perhaps to reflect our low mood and not allow us to get too comfortable).

Judaism has a lot of rules and regulations, not just in regard to death, many more than the Ten Commandments. It offers guidance on everything from diet to sex, not to mention morality. Jews follow the rules to varying degrees. It can create tension in that members of the same family may have different interpretations, standards or expectations. Fortunately, though Gary’s siblings may have different approaches to adhering to shiva, it didn’t create division. They were respectful of each other’s choices and found common ground.

Covid, of course, added an extra layer of complication. Gary’s Dad specified a graveside service when he made his arrangements years ago, so we were outside for the funeral. Technically there was no limit on the number who could attend but, being mindful of the continued risk of the virus, the family limited invitations. The burial site is in Liberty, New York in the Catskills, about two-hours from our home. Gary’s siblings are spread across the lower part of the state, with each one at least an hour away from Liberty. It wasn’t possible to gather before or after the burial. David’s grandchildren came from Boston, Norwalk (CT) and Brooklyn. Usually the family would have a meal together afterwards, but between the pandemic and everyone’s homes being spread out, that wasn’t an option. Gary’s brother and sister-in-law thoughtfully packed a cooler with turkey sandwiches, potato chips and bottles of water. After the service everyone took a sandwich and ate it as they drove home. Until I took a bite of that sandwich, I had not realized how hungry I was. We had breakfast at about 8 a.m. and we got back into our car to return home at about 2:45 pm.

The weather cooperated. It was cold (it almost always seems to be cold when I am at a cemetery), but it was sunny. When the breeze picked up, it got a bit uncomfortable, but everyone came prepared with layers, so we managed.

 Our children, and their spouses and our grandchild, came back to our house. It had been a long, draining day. We were grateful to have dinner provided by friends. We talked about David and enjoyed time with our granddaughter. I think at various times each of us felt guilty that we were having too good a time. We took out old photo albums to look at pictures of David with the family over the years. Tears were shed and there was a lot of laughter. The truth is I believe that David would have been happy looking down on us, pleased that he was the reason we were gathered and reveling in each other.

Judaism requires that kaddish be said in a minion, a group of ten people praying together. With the Covid risk so high, the numbers keep climbing in our community, Gary was not willing to go to synagogue. His siblings and David’s grandchildren agreed to Zoom each evening so that they could say the prayer together. Gary would say it alone in the morning – alone was better than not at all. It was one of the many compromises made to these strange times. That compromise, Zooming with his brother and sisters, had an upside. I’m not sure how they would have handled things if we weren’t in the middle of pandemic since they live hours apart, it is possible each of them would have done their own thing, or maybe they would have met at someone’s house. It is hard to say. This way they met every evening from Monday through Friday at 7:00 and often continued chatting, sharing old photos, videos and anecdotes, for two hours or more. They agreed to meet once a week for the next month and then once a month until the end of the year in accordance with Judaism’s customs.

Gary’s family, like all families, has its tensions. They are bound tightly by their shared DNA and their parents’ Holocaust trauma, but they are also wildly different from each other. With a large age range from oldest to youngest, 15 years, their childhoods were quite different from each other as Paula and David became more acclimated to American culture and financially comfortable. The shiva process of sharing their grief and memories, even though it was virtual, was healthy. Again, David would have been pleased to see the four of them pull together in his honor, despite their differences in perspective and temperament. David was a uniter, he wanted peace, most especially in his family.

Shiva has drawn to a close. Gary returns to work today. He and his siblings begin the process of reentering community, at least to the extent they can given the pandemic. The grieving will continue. Each person mourns in their own way, on their own timetable. It took me years to reclaim my memories of the healthy, vital person my father was instead of the shell of the person he became in his final year. I don’t think that will be the case for Gary, but he will still need to come to terms with the loss of his hero.

No matter the nature of the relationship, no matter the age, losing a parent is painful and challenging. Rituals that bring families and friends together to offer support certainly help.

The memorial candle in our fireplace

David

Three generations: Daniel, David and Gary (not in the picture is the fourth generation, his great-granddaughter, who David is holding)

Regular readers of this blog and family members know that David Bakst has appeared many times in my stories and essays. My father-in-law had an extraordinary life. If you haven’t read his story, you can find the beginning of it herehttps://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/07/09/part-of-the-story/. Most recently I recounted that he led us in the blessings over the Chanukah candles and bread via FaceTime at Leah’s wedding. It was so appropriate that he did that. He loved to sing and daven (pray), he cherished his family and his Jewish identity was a source of comfort and pride. In leading us in those rituals, he fulfilled all three.

He died yesterday. He was 98 years old. On the one hand it wasn’t shocking, he had been in failing health in the last few months, but, at the same time, he seemed indestructible. It is impossible to count the number of times he cheated death in his long life. He was a Holocaust survivor after all. He was hospitalized any number of times over the last few years but rallied each time so we expected that he would do it again. He had such a strong will; he was an inspiration to all who knew him.

Gary, my husband and one of his two sons, would say that his father was the most optimistic Holocaust survivor he ever met (and he has met many survivors). David emerged from the ordeal and trauma of his war years with a fierce determination to live, to take joy, to continue his family name. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary since he had witnessed the worst in human nature, he liked people; he was open to them. This is particularly unusual for someone who had his life experience. He wasn’t a fool, but he didn’t shut down. He radiated warmth, enjoyed a good discussion and engaged with the world. To the very end, when diminished eyesight and compromised hearing robbed him of reading the newspapers and watching CNN, he would ask Gary to fill him in on events in the world. As a devoted Zionist, he was always particularly interested in Israel; he followed U.S. politics closely, too.

David wasn’t perfect. He was impatient and he could be demanding. He was a product of his time and place, but his essential good nature led him to evolve. He respected the women in his life. The same cannot be said of many men from his generation. His care for and devotion to his wife on her long Alzheimer’s journey was so touching, we were in awe of his tenderness.

David left his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild a wonderful legacy. He persevered in the face of difficulties I can’t fathom. He reclaimed his humanity after being subjected to unspeakable horrors. His death is a terrible loss for the family, but he leaves us essential life lessons, as well as poignant and treasured memories. May his memory be a blessing.

David and Paula in the displaced persons camp circa 1947

More Wedding Reflections

I am still basking in the afterglow of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend. To be fair, some of what I feel isn’t basking. There is a tinge of sadness because the big event is behind us and we have plunged into this darkest of winters. But, when I feel that melancholy, I look at the pictures and I am brought back to the joy, light and hope that filled the weekend.

I wanted to share more reflections. I wish all parents the pleasure I felt helping Leah to get dressed. It was just the two of us in her room at the Inn. She didn’t really need my help, only with her zipper, but it was a joy watching it all come together. Though she was stressed, it was a happy excitement more than any negative energy. Being a bride can be a lot, so much expectation and preconceived ideas about what one should look like. Leah made a bold choice in going for a red velvet dress, and it was the right choice. She radiated happiness. I can’t deny that she, like all women I know, struggles with body image, it seemed that she was able to put that aside and enjoy the moment. She was (and is) beautiful and she positively beamed.

Although Leah would not ordinarily wear a fur, the one she has on in the picture above is her Bobe’s (her paternal grandmother) which was quite meaningful to Leah. Though Leah has three living grandparents, they were not able to attend. Having her Bobe’s stole wrapped around her was a reminder that they were there in spirit. In addition, the headpiece she is wearing is the same one I wore 37 years ago (brought back to life by our florist).

Though the grandparents couldn’t attend, they did participate. We FaceTimed with my mom, who dressed for the occasion as if she was attending (looking beautiful) and she toasted the couple; and with Gary’s parents. Regular readers of this blog might remember that Gary’s mom is many years into Alzheimers. She was on the FaceTime call but it is hard to know what she took from it. While on FaceTime, we lit the menorah, sang the prayers, and said the blessing over the bread. Gary’s Dad led us in those prayers, even though he was in Florida. The wonders of technology!

Another pleasure from the weekend was working with a small business owner, Danny from Weathered Wood in Troy, NY. As we were planning this new version of the wedding, it was coming down to the wire, and the kids decided that it would be nice to have a chuppah (wedding canopy). Though they were not having a religious ceremony, the symbolism of the chuppah (recognizing that they are making a new home as a couple) was meaningful to them. This was three weeks before the wedding date. I had gathered information about chuppahs from round one of wedding planning and I had Danny’s business card. I called and he was more than happy to accommodate us.

We agreed that he would get to the Red Lion at 9:30 a.m. to set up. At 8:45 the room phone rang. Danny was at the front desk. Some people might be annoyed at a vendor being 45 minutes early; I was elated. I was awake for hours already and was delighted to get started. We chatted as he worked, and I learned what a struggle it has been for his business to survive Covid. He explained that normally he would have 30 opportunities to rent a chuppah, this year he had 5! Chuppahs aren’t his only business, he is an artist who works in wood and he maintains a shop in downtown Troy. He is barely holding on, hoping to weather the pandemic, but it is getting desperate. While I knew this was the case for many small business owners, it was jarring to face it in person with an individual who was clearly talented, hardworking and attuned to customer service. I write this both to bring more attention to something we already know but may be tempted to ignore (the strain on small, locally-owned stores ), but also to suggest that if you have an opportunity, you should visit Weathered Wood. He has many lovely items. (I also wrote a rave review on Yelp.) That’s it for my sales pitch.

The chuppah

Back to the wedding….one of the other joys of the weekend was reuniting with our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. We had not seen them in three months! Way too long in the life of a two-year old. I was worried that our little one would be shy with us; that perhaps she would take a long time to warm up and we only had a weekend! Fortunately, while she was initially reticent, that lasted about two minutes. After that she happily climbed in Gary or my lap. We were back in our rhythm. She continued to charm everyone for the rest of weekend. She was the flower girl and she did it in her own special way. She didn’t drop the petals until after the ceremony and she ran up the aisle and back again, and it was perfect. We had the ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and time hanging out afterwards, and through it all she was a delight. It was 10:00 p.m. when the party broke up and she had not fussed once. She played with toys, visited with us, and kept us entertained. Hanukkah gelt (chocolate covered coins) may have played a role but was used sparingly.

The next few months will be challenging. I will come back to my memories of Leah and Ben’s wedding weekend to nourish my spirits. Then I will look forward to Spring.