Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

Adventures in Puberty

Mom felt woefully unprepared for her own puberty. When she found blood in her underwear, she thought she was dying. Her mother, my Nana, had said nothing to her about the changes she could expect as she matured into womanhood. Determined not to make the same mistake, Mom was on a mission to provide me with the necessary information. She may have overcompensated.

Mom sat my brothers and me down to tell us the facts of life…at the same time. I assume this explanation was prompted by questions from my oldest brother. The problem was that I was four and a half years younger than him. I think I was five at the time. I wasn’t ready for the birds and the bees yet, at least not at the level that my almost ten-year-old brother needed. I was confused by the information and what I did understand sounded disgusting. Mom meant well, but it was a perplexing start to my girlhood.

Over those early years, I was all too aware of my mother’s menstrual problems. Mom and Dad referred to it as being ‘unwell.’ Dad would say to me, “Mom is unwell, you need to let her rest and…..” fill in the blank with a household chore or errand. As a result, I learned to prepare roast chicken and other meals as a youngster. Mom could be debilitated by heavy bleeding. She had several medical procedures to address it, culminating in a total hysterectomy when she was 42 (I was 16 at the time). She refers to that surgery as the happiest day of her life, exaggerating only a little. I now understand she had fibroids and endometriosis. As a young girl observing this, and for lots of other reasons, I wished I was a boy. But that was not to be – the inexorable maturation process did its thing. And, not only that, it did it on a much earlier timetable than my peers.

I asked Mom about getting a bra at the end of third grade. She seemed taken aback. I don’t think she noticed what seemed obvious to me and was making me very self-conscious. She took me to a store in our local shopping center and I was fitted for a bra. At the beginning of fourth grade, at the age of nine, I was beyond a training bra!

Since I was already afflicted with self-consciousness, being fully developed by fifth grade didn’t help. Even in seventh grade many of my classmates still looked like young girls. I would have given anything to have a flat chest! And, like my mother, I had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. I didn’t feel like I could talk to Mom about it, immersed as she was in her grief since Nana had only recently died.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). The girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have these issues, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. Dr. Holland asked a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room. He asked if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no; thinking to myself I’m 13! It made me wonder if girls my age were having sex.  Apparently, some did, or he wouldn’t have asked the question! Then he asked if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question. I almost asked him to explain but was too embarrassed. I just said no, again.  A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which was weird and uncomfortable but not traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Not everything was bleak during my junior high school years.  In 9th grade I connected with a few girls. We made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Gerri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out – everyone was supposed to eat in the cafeteria (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks away. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived, and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant as we hurried to Lisa’s house. We were walking down Avenue K when we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We shrieked and ran. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house –  laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. Some kids may have been exhilarated by the adventure, but I took it as a sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year.

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Nana and me. At the beginning of my journey to womanhood, maybe a year before Nana died.

Halloween Past and Present

Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.

So many memories of Halloweens past….

When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.

In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!

Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.

 

Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.

 

Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.

I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.

My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.

On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar.  One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.

On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.

Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.

“Don’t even look at him!”

“Go to your room and close the door!”

Mom still wonders how we all survived it.

On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.

Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.

My Favorite ‘Things’

This past weekend was very special. We celebrated my 60th birthday as a family. It was made special by the people who showered me with love. I am grateful and inspired by your words and deeds. The main planner of the lovely weekend in the Berkshires – with all of my favorite things – was Gary, with able assists from Leah, Daniel, Beth and our granddaughter.

Let me pay tribute to my favorite things – ‘things’ encompasses people, places and objects.

First and foremost, I love my family. Not just my immediate family, though they are the best. Many people would not choose to celebrate a milestone birthday with their mother, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews (and some other assorted relations). I would. So, Gary arranged to gather them.

I love the Berkshires. The wooded mountains, with enough autumn color to contrast with the bright blue sky, are lovely. Saturday provided us with crisp, cool air and bathed us in sunshine.

I love a walk in the woods, so we took a hike up Monument Mountain. Dan, Beth and our 17-month old granddaughter started out with us, but when it started to approach her nap time, they went back to the Inn. Gary, Leah, Ben and I continued to the peak.

It was the perfect hike in that some of it was easy, some of it was uphill which demanded more of us, and some of it was a little scary. When we got close to the top it got rocky, with some sheer drops. It required care and concentration – especially for this 60-year old. But the payoff was worth it – the views and the sense of accomplishment were satisfying. Leah led us through the tricky parts and kept an eye on me to make sure I was okay. Ben found me a great walking stick. We all got back to the car safe and sound.

I love a good sandwich with chips. As we made our way down the mountain, I pulled out my handy-dandy smart phone and pulled up Yelp and found a highly rated deli nearby. The wonders of modern technology! We picked up sandwiches and brought them back to the Inn. Our granddaughter was still napping so we sat in the common area and ate.

While I don’t generally love games, there are certain kinds of games that I do enjoy. Beth, our daughter-in-law, introduced us to one where you pick a letter (in this case m) and each person takes a turn naming a movie title that begins with that letter. We played as teams. Gary was my partner. He is not a movie maven, but he has a great imagination. He made up some great titles (The Mufti, Grand was a particularly humous one) and we laughed. That is one of my favorite things to do – laugh. He also surprised us with some legitimate answers.

Our room at the inn had a huge claw-foot tub. After lunch I soaked my weary legs and back in a wonderful hot bath. Yet another indulgence in a pretty great day. But there was more to come.

Next was the dinner party. I love food! This was a sumptuous meal. I had a cocktail. I had some wine with dinner. I visited with my favorite people. There were so many nice touches. Gary borrowed someone’s Polaroid camera (who knew they made them anymore?) and Leah took pictures and put together an album during the festivities (I can look at it and think back on this lovely time). Our granddaughter was a joy and made it through the main course.

Gary composed and read a poem for me. It really isn’t fair that he has so many talents. Others offered kind, loving words, too.

Daniel presented me with custom socks. I have a tradition of gifting socks. I also have a tradition of sending my children postcards from wherever my travels take me – including work which brought me to exotics cities like Buffalo and Rochester. I sent a postcard anyway. Dan has saved those postcards. Beth photographed them and had it printed on socks and made up two pair. One for Dan, which he was wearing that night, and one for me. How cool is that? It makes me smile to look at them, remembering the various trips. But, more than that, I get to reflect on my connection to my son (and daughter).

I love chocolate. The birthday cake was a celebration of chocolate. They plated it with a scoop of black currant sorbet. So delicious! What a way to end the meal!

Sunday morning dawned cold and rainy – not my favorite thing. But the kids, Gary and I gathered for one more meal. Hot coffee, a warm scone, berries, yogurt and granola hit the spot. One last snuggle with our granddaughter and hugs for our children. The weekend was over, and it was time to go home. I will keep the memories of my favorite things: my family, the beauty of nature, physical activity that pushes me just enough, laughter, delicious meals and decadent chocolate to top it off.

Thank you to all who made it possible, especially Gary, Leah and Daniel. I love you hugely!

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A view from Monument Mountain

Transitions

I came to college carrying a lot of baggage. I was 16 when I arrived at orientation at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY-B) in 1976. I brought my insecurities and inchoate self to campus with hopes of emerging confident, connected (to friends, a boyfriend would be good, too) and on my way to a successful career. An ambitious undertaking to say the least!

In the weeks before leaving, I went shopping with Mom for supplies. I got a real winter coat – winters were longer and colder than in Brooklyn (though I had no idea how much worse it would be!). I picked out towels and linens that had mountain scenes on them. I loved my new things. We packed up the car and left Brooklyn early in the morning in the middle of August. Orientation preceded the beginning of the semester, so when we drove out of Canarsie, I didn’t think I was coming back until Thanksgiving. I was excited and anxious.

My parents and I got to campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to College-in-the-Woods, the newest of the dorm complexes on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were brick-red cinderblock structures with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building. When I opened my door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods.  There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was part of the all-male basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga.

Dad saw the set up that first day and was furious. He thought it wasn’t safe. We sought out the resident director to see if anything could be done to change it. Dad made his case that it was isolated and appeared to be poorly lit. The director assured him that it would be fine.

My Dad, who in my eyes was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my full steamer trunk into the room. Mom helped me unpack and made my bed. Then, they got back in the car and headed home to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in and go with them.

My two roommates and I represented a microcosm of the campus. Sue was Jewish from Long Island. Sharon was Jewish from a suburb of Rochester. I was Jewish from Brooklyn. Jews were heavily overrepresented on campus, as was downstate. There weren’t many students from the local area, the Southern Tier, or from other parts of upstate New York. Despite the fact that I had traveled four hours from the New York metropolitan area, I was still surrounded by its people.

I hit it off better with Sue that first day. There were a lot of kids from her high school who lived in our dorm complex and she invited me to go meet them. I followed her to another dorm and was introduced to a well-built guy wearing a powder blue jumpsuit, platform shoes, his feathered blond hair styled like a male version of Farrah Fawcett, with impossibly white teeth. He was ready to hit the disco. I was wearing overalls, sneakers and was still fighting with my curly, out-of-control hair. I couldn’t think of a less appealing place to go than the disco. I was so intimidated I don’t think I made sensible conversation. After observing the scene for a while, I made some excuse and retreated to my room. This was going to be even harder than I thought.

Fortunately, there was a dorm-wide meeting where I spotted someone from my high school. Merle was a familiar face and though I didn’t know her well, our circle of friends from Canarsie overlapped. She was in a similar situation – tripled in a room that was outside the dorm. We bonded over our shared sense of feeling lost in our new surroundings; we found a lot to laugh about, too.

At that gathering we connected with two other girls, Alison and Dianne, from Island Park, which was on Long Island, a working-class suburb, more similar to our Brooklyn experience. The four of us became fast friends and spent a lot of time hanging out, listening to music and laughing.

Merle and I came up with a theory. The happier you were at home, the unhappier you were at college. If you came to Binghamton to escape a bad home situation or feeling like you outgrew high school, then college felt great. I made a lot of progress in high school, emerging from the pain of junior high, but I wasn’t close to outgrowing it. Merle’s experience was different in that she had a huge network of friends in Canarsie, some were going to Brooklyn College, some to other schools. Her boyfriend was at Brockport, hours away by car. She wasn’t accustomed to needing to make new friends. For both of us Binghamton proved to be a difficult place to do that. The combination of intense academic competition (so many students were pre-med or pre-law) and a pervasive sense of entitlement (born of their upper middle-class suburban upbringing) made it an unreceptive environment.

I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I couldn’t walk to a store. There was a commercial strip outside of campus, but it wasn’t very accessible on foot (there were no sidewalks) and there weren’t many shops like I had in Brooklyn (not that I had any money to spend anyway). I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was accustomed to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable, we didn’t get NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected from the world.

My roommate situation didn’t help. Though I got along fine with Sue, we never moved much beyond that first day. Her social circle was not one I was going to join. Sharon, on the other hand, came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that habit, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.

I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by my Lit & Comp teaching assistant and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. In fact, I received C’s on the first two papers I submitted. I was reeling.

Perhaps because they knew I was struggling, or maybe because they thought nothing of a four-hour jaunt in the car, Uncle Mike, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara came for a visit. I took them on a tour of campus and then we went to get ice cream. One of the major positives of coming to the Southern Tier was discovering Pat Mitchell’s ice cream. It was a major draw if an on-campus event advertised Pat Mitchell’s – a far more appealing attraction to me than free beer. The store was located in Endicott, a solid 15-minute drive from campus, so it was a rare treat. Their chocolate chip ice cream was heavenly. It should have been called chocolate chunk – large milk chocolate hunks were surrounded by creamy, smooth vanilla creating the perfect spoonful. In a flash of inspiration, we asked them to pack up a quart in dry ice. I hopped in the backseat and we all headed back to Brooklyn to surprise my mother.

With my departure to college, my parents were empty-nesters. I wasn’t the only one enduring a difficult adjustment.

We all trooped into my parent’s house, me bringing up the rear. Mom was so shocked to see me, her jaw dropped. Then she sneezed. She didn’t stop sneezing for the 12 hours that I was home. The sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes actually continued after I left. It was the weirdest thing. We didn’t understand what happened, but Mom developed some kind of allergy that she never had before, and it returned each September for the next several years. We joked that it was somehow connected to the trauma of me, her baby, leaving for college. Or maybe it was that surprise visit that shook up her immune system.

After that little escapade, I returned to campus and went back to work adjusting to my surroundings.

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Four friends, forty years later

 

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.