‘That Girl’

Click on this link to hear the theme song and opening sequence: That Girl

I loved “That Girl.” I wanted to be Ann Marie, the lead character. She had great hair (I’ve written about my struggles with my hair before in Hair: Not Long, Not Beautiful). Hers was shiny and straight with a stylish flip at the bottom. Her bangs were perfect. My bangs always curled – the least bit of humidity or sweat and my bangs were history, just frizz and curls. She also had a cute figure, like a real-life Barbie doll. She had a boyfriend who was devoted to her, despite her sometimes-exasperating adventures. She was bubbly and had a great smile. She lived in Manhattan and her loving parents lived in a nice suburban house. Oh, why couldn’t I be her?!

I was seven years old when “That Girl” first started airing. It was on for five years. No matter what I did, my hair would not look like Ann’s. No matter what I did, my body was simply too thick. I come from Eastern European peasant stock, after all. The closest person, in real life, that I knew who met that ideal was my Dad’s cousin, Carol. Somehow the peasant stock was noticeably absent in Carol. She was petite and had fabulous hair that she wore in the same style as Ann Marie. She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and she was a lawyer. I was in awe.

But, and this is big, she wasn’t married! While it is entirely possible she had a boyfriend, I was not aware of that as a child. This was a major problem, in my young mind. It confused me. According to my sophisticated world view, she should have either been married or had a steady boyfriend, since she was the epitome of what a woman should be.

The messages I received as a girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were conflicting. I was paying close attention to the women’s movement and I bought in to the idea that women can and should have it all: career and family. That message turned out to be incomplete – maybe we could have it all, but not at one time. It was also unrealistic given the need for all of society to change – men, the world of work, families, our institutions. It was a tall order that hasn’t been fulfilled yet – 50 years later.

Even with those ideas about changing roles for women, my notion of romantic relationships remained quite traditional. I thought a woman should marry a man, have two children and a cat. The idea of having a cat may have been revolutionary, but otherwise, I was quite traditional.

I got the message that a woman should be attached, that something was amiss if she was without a husband. Even as a girl, I felt that pressure. I could not separate what was societal, familial or my own neuroses.

In my family, the dating status of single female adults was not spoken of. Generally, you had to be engaged to be married for the relationship to be recognized. And, while that is understandable, in terms of welcoming someone into the family, it doesn’t explain the silence on the subject. I took the silence to mean there was something wrong with being a single woman. In our extended family, there were a few who fell into that category. Oddly enough, there was only one single male, my Uncle Mike, and it was understood that he certainly wanted to be married (which he did, eventually). We had no ‘confirmed bachelors.’ In retrospect, I wonder if the silence around the women who weren’t married was more about wanting to avoid any conversation about sex.

All of this contributed to my great fear that I would not marry. If Carol wasn’t married, pretty as she was, how would I ever ‘catch’ someone. Why, as an adolescent, was I preoccupied by this fear?

I remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were teenagers. For a couple of summers, Mark and I worked at the same summer camp. One time there was talk on the girl’s side about a counselor, Robin, coming back to her bunk with grass on her back and in her hair. There was some joking and teasing about who she had been with. Rumor had it that she was with my brother. That was weird for me to hear. Some brothers and sisters may talk or joke about their dating lives, but that was not the case in our family. After hearing the scuttlebutt, alone with my brother, I asked him if he thought Robin liked him. He responded that he hadn’t really thought about it.

That was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. He hadn’t thought about it!! That is all I would have been thinking about. It was all I ever thought about when it came to guys: does he like me? Not, do I like him? I would worry about that once I knew that he liked me! Now, my brother may be unusual, actually, I know he is unusual. But I do think there was something to this. I spent endless hours with friends parsing words, body language, tone of voice to determine if the guy was interested. While I don’t doubt that guys were concerned with whether they were liked, I think their priorities were elsewhere – like: What’s for dinner? How did the Mets do? When would they next have sex? Maybe that is an overstatement, but I think there’s truth to it.

So much of my self-worth hinged on whether there was a guy interested in me. Or at least that’s what I thought during my teenage years and well into young adulthood. The irony is I came to learn that having a boyfriend or husband didn’t fix that self-worth issue. As author Anne Lamott said in her recent TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching here), that is an ‘inside job.’ No outside validation can silence the persistent voice in your head that tears you down. You have to find a way to do that yourself.

 

 

 

 

Life’s Mysteries

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Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.

That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.

More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).

One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.

While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.

Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.

“Stop the car!” I pleaded.

“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.

“You did that on purpose!”

“What?”

“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.

“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.

At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.

“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.

It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.

I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.

I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.

Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.

Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.

Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.

For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.

To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.

Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.

These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.

I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.

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Roger and Raffa posing in my bedroom May 2017

A Year in Review

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Note: Today is Leah’s birthday. It is funny how Dan, Gary and Leah all have their birthdays on the same day of the week – this year it falls on a Monday – blog day! So, as has been my custom with Daniel and Gary, I dedicate this post to Leah. It is particularly appropriate because though the rest of my family has been supportive of this endeavor, Leah has been my biggest cheerleader and frequent editor. Her comments are always incisive and helpful. More than any of that, though, she is an inspiration to me. I admire her willingness to put herself out there by sharing her songs and expressing her creativity. It only took me until I was in my fifties, but she was a trailblazer for me J.  So, Leah, happy birthday! I love you hugely! I wish you love, health, peace and wonderful adventures – and everything you want for yourself, too.

Today’s blog post is my 52nd! A year goes by fast! Well, technically I skipped one week, but still, I think it is a good time to take stock.

First, some numbers. The blog has had over 6000 views and it has had 2,250 visitors. Believe it or not, there have been 50 views from Germany, 10 from Italy, even 3 from China (and some other countries, too)! WordPress provides these stats. I have no idea how to interpret them. Clearly my Mom has visited the blog many times, but not from Germany! I’m not sure how the system tallies these things. I’ve also had well over 100 comments on the blog itself, not counting what has appeared on Facebook, or what was conveyed to me personally.

Despite not knowing how to make sense of the numbers, or how to compare them to any standard or expectation, I am just pleased to have readers! I started this blog to share memories and start some conversations and I think it has been successful. Without you, dear readers, it would not have been possible.

The blog has also had some unintended consequences. One of the reasons I entitled it “Stories I Tell Myself,” was that I believed each of us has a narrative that we use to describe the events of our lives. I think we have experiences and we interpret them so that they fit into the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. For example, to simplify the idea, if a person thinks of themselves as a victim, then they might look for how a set of circumstances reinforces that belief. I think we can trap ourselves in our own narrative.

In my case, I thought of myself as an unhappy child who felt insecure. I felt like I never got the love and attention I wanted. That perception shaped my life in important ways. It has been an effort to move beyond that – an effort that fortunately became more successful the older I got.

Writing these stories, and then editing and rereading them, and receiving comments has been a revelation. In digging through my past, I found so much love and warmth. I think while I was living through it, I didn’t absorb it – I didn’t feel it. I can’t explain that. I think I was more focused on the painful or disappointing parts. But, as I wrote and as I uncovered more memories, I couldn’t help but notice the love that was the foundation.

As is often the case for me, a song lyric comes to mind. Jackson Browne (once again) wrote, in Fountain of Sorrow, “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” While I haven’t changed the past, and I wouldn’t describe the blogging process as easy, I think I have changed how I feel about the past.

I think the idea of ‘stories we tell ourselves’ is valid, even if, upon closer scrutiny, mine was a little off. Maybe that is the whole point. To discover whether the story is true! Not everyone would choose to examine their own stories in a public blog, but I think it has been helpful to get feedback. When people comment, for example, that the stories about my Nana and Zada make them feel warm and safe, it helps me process and amplify my own feelings.

Writing the stories was also useful. Describing the images in my head helped to clarify them. Having to choose adjectives to express an emotion, or paint a picture of Nana’s kitchen forced me to think more deeply about the memory and its meaning.

I don’t think I am done yet. I think there is more to uncover about growing up in Brooklyn in that time with my family. I think, too, there is more to explore about the beginning of my relationship with Gary, our early marriage and starting a family. I hope you will continue to share my journey and, perhaps, share some of yours. I have very much appreciated when Gary and Leah offered their own stories (and judging by the comments, readers have enjoyed their posts, too). Others are welcome to do that in the comments or in a guest blog piece.

I think it is helpful to examine our stories, our memories; expose them to the light of day. You may be surprised at what you find. I hope I continue to surprise myself.

Family Ties

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From left to right: Uncle Jackie, Uncle Morris, me, the top of my brother Mark’s head, Dad, Nana and Aunt Elsie. Jack, Morris and Nana were siblings. Aunt Sadie, their oldest sister, is not pictured. Aunt Elsie was Uncle Jack’s wife.

As a child your family is your world. At least it was for me. I didn’t question how we did things or how our family functioned. While I knew we weren’t perfect, I thought we were pretty darn close.

As the years went by, I came to understand that the people around me were in fact flawed. Even my beloved Nana. Nana was a mythic figure in our family. Her legendary status only grew after her death.

I have wanted to write about Nana for as long as I could remember. I started this blog as a way of exploring my memories of her, though I have strayed from that at times. I think I wanted to understand her better, to have a better sense of her life, from an adult perspective. I was 11 when she died, but she played such a central role in my life – from the time I was four until she died, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother. With that in mind, I wrote to her youngest brother, my Great-Uncle Jackie (Jacob, but we called him Jackie or Jack), in December of 2001, asking him to share stories about her. This was the first letter I received in response.

                                                                                                                        January 2002
Dear Linda,

Life on Rochester Ave was a most unique experience. Unlike anything else, it was a lesson in humanities, and your Nana was the ultimate professor.

The one block on Rochester Ave was a community in itself, it was a shtetl, an almost self contained mini state, which thrived for many, many years.

Nana was the leader of the pack. She could have been mayor of the block.

Her warmth and friendship was infectious.

It was not a put on. It was real. She exuded this very unusual human quality automatically – without effort, without exertion.

The block could have had a fence around it. The business establishments and owners were like a family in every sense of the word. It was a “mutual admiration society,” knowing each other, respecting each other, liking and supporting each other.

Quoting, with humility, Tevya proclaims that Anatevka (Rochester Ave) has its variety of ‘colorful characters.’

There was Max, the fruit and produce man next door to the bakery – there was Al the barber – there was Sam the butcher across the street – there was Julius the appetizing maven, Datz the pharmacist, Singer the hardware man – and two names that elude me, the luncheonette guy and the pastrami (king) on the corner.

Your Nana loved this kaleidoscope of rainbow hued people – and they loved her. This was most important!!!

It was a violation of every concept of law not to support each other, purchase from each other, or maintain a warm relationship with each other.

Bakery business is a complex business. A wholesale/retail operation is a 24 hour business.

Zada Chas., of course, was responsible for the production end.

Nana Ray was totally involved in the retail aspect of this very difficult business. Coming in contact with the immediate neighborhood customers required the patience of a saint – the wisdom of a scholar – the compassion of a person of the cloth – the wit of a comic.

Well, Linda, your Nana was all of those things and more.

She constantly transmitted a warmth and friendship to all.

Please be assured Nana was no saint – she was just a very special human being.

It was very obvious through the years that your Nana loved the business and loved the intimacy of her station behind the counter.

She was on call every minute the store was open, at a moment’s call, always in her uniform, ready to report for duty.

But – she seemed to love the thought of the sweets on display. If memory serves, she was ‘almost’ obsessed with eclairs, whip cream cake, brownies, Napoleons, etc., etc. That was bad – very bad. Your Nana was a diabetic – an out of control diabetic. She was in and out of the hospital more times than I can remember. I could almost swear that she liked the occasional stay in Unity Hospital, where she developed friendships with the medical personnel.

She was a star, a favorite Unity visitor.

Nana did not accept the fact that she could be a diabetic. She did not care for herself and, at the end, it may have contributed somewhat to her demise at such a young age.

Nana Ray was a joy to love, live with and is constantly missed.

Love,
Uncle Jack

Fifteen years ago, when I received that letter, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping for more detail, more specific information about her life. The letter reinforced the mythology of Nana. In our family Nana was the matriarch, the center from which love flowed, even 30 years after her death. Uncle Jack noted that Nana wasn’t a saint, but he chose not to illuminate her flaws. He did address her self-destructive eating habits, and unwillingness to take care of herself. Even about that he was as gentle as possible in his wording. At the time I was hoping Uncle Jack could offer some stories that would provide more dimension, or a fuller perspective on Nana.

Today I read the letter and I see the insight in it. I appreciate the description of the community around the bakery, the community that encompassed Nana’s life. I better understand how difficult the bakery bankruptcy must have been and the defeat inherent in moving to the apartment above ours in Canarsie. It explains a lot about the sometimes testy relationship that I observed between Nana and Zada.

My mother used to tell me that she thought Nana used her hospitalizations as a kind of vacation, to take a break from her responsibilities. Uncle Jack’s letter seems to support that, though clearly it was a self-destructive way to go about it.

In some ways, the letter says more about Uncle Jack’s relationship with his older sister than it does about Nana’s life. He so loved and admired her. He was 11 years her junior. Jack had a very painful growing up. Their mother died when he was very young and his father was unable to care for him. Jack was shuttled to different relatives to live. When Nana (Ray) was married and settled, she took him in. The 1940 census, when Nana and Zada lived in Jersey City, lists their household on Essex Street as including the following: Charles – age 35, Ray – age 26, Feige – age 7, Simma – age 3 and Jack Woltz – age 15. My mother grew up with Uncle Jack as an older brother, much the way I grew up with Uncle Mike and Uncle Terry. It is strange how that pattern repeated itself.

During World War II Uncle Jack enlisted in the Marines before he was even 17, or he tried to. I believe Nana had to give permission for him to serve. In later years he spoke with great respect and pride about his time in the service, despite the fact that he was shot down in the Pacific, a harrowing experience. He had a tattoo to commemorate his time in the Marines on his bicep, quite an unusual thing for a Jewish man at the time.

While at war he wrote letters to his nieces (my mom and her sister) that included cartoons. He was a talented artist. Those letters were shared at Mom’s elementary school and posted on a bulletin board for all to see. Uncle Jack came home, after recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed, a decorated hero, a bit shell shocked, but happy to return home.

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Mom and Dad’s wedding in 1954 – the cake was made by Uncle Jackie. Nana and Zada sent Uncle Jack to school for cake decorating and he was a master. This cake was just one example of his artistry.

I think it is fair to say that Nana functioned as a mother to him. Something he confirmed in a subsequent letter. As he wrote, referring to his place in Nana and Zada’s home, “As for me personally, it meant for the first time in my life I felt that I had a family, that I was a valued member of a family, a stability with shared love and responsibility. This responsibility came to pass only by the goodness of Nana Ray and Zada Chas, who were more than sister or brother-in-law – more like an interim Mother and Father, with the children more like brothers and sisters.”

I continued my correspondence with Uncle Jackie and in subsequent letters, at my prodding, he offered a fuller picture of Nana. Here is most of the next letter:

                                                                                                April 2002
Dear Linda,

…..Nana Ray had this thing for hosting parties. She invented the term for Webster, and they called it——obsession.

The family was always the center, the core of any party that was planned to her agenda. I’m emphatically stating that at times, it did annoy the Spilken/Woltz clans – but our rebellion was unacceptable and hopeless. Any previous plans made by the helpless had to be cancelled and rescheduled.

There were small parties, large parties, grand elaborate parties, significant and memorable parties never to be forgotten……

Listing Nana’s obsession with parties, and listing occasions would require one volume of an encyclopedia.

But briefly: birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, B’nai Mitzvot, weddings, uf rufs, going into service, coming home from service (a reunion that made Aunt Elsie your aunt), Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, and the list goes on and on and on and on….

This was your Nana. She was a class act, her most important cast members were her family. There didn’t exist an occasion too minor or too important for it to escape the opportunity for Ray to honor.

Before going further, I must inject a couple of relationship points.
Ray’s relationship to her (our) sister Sadie was, at times, confrontational and argumentative. But, make no mistake, the love was strong, unbreakable and absolutely devoted. That was Nana Ray, 100% pure love. They spoke almost daily by phone. If Sadie could not come to the party, we took the party to Jersey. Restrictions on time of day or day of week never existed. Zada’s car was loaded and we did travel.

The fun was wonderful……

Aunt Say always disagreed with Ray’s way of life. Aunt Say always felt that Ray enjoyed going out too much (and as such), neglected her business. She argued that Ray’s spending on her antiques was excessive and wasteful. Say felt that vacationing was excessive, and most of all, Ray did not take care of herself (reckless food eating). Sadie was even more angry at Ray for too frequent hospital excursions.

They were both business women. Ray always felt that Sadie was more like the country bumpkin, catalogue ordering farm girl. Sadie was more home oriented, financially frugal, never concerned with fancy clothing, jewelry or home furnishings.

In spite of the silly differences, they were both hard working in their businesses, while caring for their children.

But again, our journeys to Jersey were precious and priceless. We were a family, happy to be together, enjoying the time.

Another relationship worthy of mention is the closeness shared by Nana and Aunt Elsie. This was very unusual, far beyond a sister-in-law relationship, they shared a love, respect and closeness that was out of the ordinary. They shared ideas, thoughts, and were closer than sisters.

Zada Chas and Elsie’s parents shared that same feeling of warmth, love and affection.

                                                                     My love to you ——-Uncle Jack

The differences between the sisters that the letter describes and what those differences revealed about each of them, was news to me. I was not aware of any issues between the siblings. While it may be true that a child may not be privy to those particulars, my experience with my family was a bit different. I was often the proverbial fly on the wall. I liked the company of adults and I liked listening. In any event, while it is certainly possible, I don’t think the tensions were spoken about.

Therein lies a problem. In our effort to preserve a reputation, especially that of a beloved person, we may sweep a lot under the rug. I don’t think it serves us well. While I don’t think it is helpful to tear down heroes, or speak ill of the dead, I think if we ignore or whitewash their failings, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity to better understand the person, to learn about ourselves, to acknowledge human frailty and, perhaps, to be more forgiving of each other and ourselves.

These letters, more than anything, though, remind me of the lessons I took from Nana’s life: To celebrate when you can. The priority and value of family relationships, even when the people are flawed. To live in the world with kindness, generosity and love. Whatever flaws Nana had, and they may well have shortened her life, they pale in comparison to her legacy.

Note:  Members of the Woltz family, please feel free to comment, correct or add to this post. If any of you would like to write a longer piece, I’d be happy to post it. That offer extends to all family members who may have something that they would like to share. 

My Heroes

Note:  Today is Gary’s birthday. In this blog post I highlight one of the many times he came through for me. He remains one of my heroes. Happy Birthday, my love!

I have written before about problems with my eyes (here). That entry recalled the semi-successful attempts to correct my strabismus (crossed eyes) when I was very young. It took two surgeries to improve the alignment of my eyes, but it was not the end of the story for me and eye surgery, not by a long shot.

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton in May of 1980, at age 20, and went straight into a master’s program in public administration and policy at Columbia University. The first day of the semester there was a meet and greet session. There were about 25 students in the program. We sat in a large circle and went round giving our names and undergraduate background. Several people introduced themselves and said, “I went to the The College.” I was baffled. I looked around for clues. I couldn’t tell if others were as perplexed. I’m not sure how it was revealed, I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask, but somehow I learned that “The College’ referred to Columbia. Okay, message received. I was intimidated.

Some public administration programs are designed to accommodate part-time students, with classes offered in the evening. Columbia’s was not. It was a full-time, two-year program that was demanding. I started experiencing a lot of migraines as that first semester unfolded and the stress mounted. To rule out a change in my eyesight as a cause of the headaches, I saw an ophthalmologist. Unrelated to the headaches, the doctor found that I had ‘lattice’ of both retinas. Lattice, it was explained, was a thinning and weakness of the retina. At that time the recommendation was to have a surgical procedure where they froze the retinas to keep them from tearing. This finding was revealed in mid November. The doctor told me I could wait until the December break for the procedure.

While I had some anxiety, I got through the remainder of the semester and completed my classes. The appointed day for surgery arrived and my parents took me from our house in Canarsie at the crack of dawn to Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital on East 64th Street. I was used to coming to the upper east side for eye care, but the old red brick hospital looked menacing in the dim morning light and my memories of the nausea caused by anesthesia the last time I had eye surgery heightened my nervousness.

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The hospital may not look menacing in this picture, but it was to me!

We did the necessary paperwork and I was prepped for the surgery. Next thing I knew, I awoke with my eyes bandaged. I heard voices by my bedside. I felt someone touch my foot. “Hey, it’s Steve,” I recognized my brother’s voice. “How ya doing?” he asked. “I think I’m okay.” I managed to croak out some sound, my throat was quite raw. “Just wanted to say hi and tell you to feel better,” he said.

My Mom and Aunt Clair were there, too. They explained that my Dad, after the surgery had been successfully completed, went out to get some air. He was so relieved it was done, he was overcome with emotion and needed to take a walk. My father never did well with hospitals. Ever since visiting his mom after her neck surgery when he was a young man, he would breakout in a cold sweat whenever he went to a hospital.

It was odd waking up and having both eyes covered. As I emerged from the cloud of anesthesia, a wave of intense nausea swept over me. Damn that anesthesia! The nurse gave me ice chips, which helped. Gradually I started to feel better.

A friend from graduate school, Sally, stopped by to visit later that afternoon. She had no expectation that my eyes would be bandaged. Although I could not see her, I sensed her discomfort. I tried to make small talk. We chatted for a few minutes; I made some kind of joke about getting pity points on our next test. Each visitor stayed briefly, except for my Mom and Aunt Clair who were there for the duration that first day.

I was moved to a semi-private room. There was a woman, Marcia, recovering from a detached retina, in the bed next to mine. She was a Manhattanite and quite a bit older than me. I had a lot of visitors. Marcia did not. When another uncle or aunt came to visit me, Mom and Clair would move over and visit with Marcia. They offered to share the grapes and chocolates that they brought for me.

After spending that first day completely bandaged, I was given pinhole glasses to use for mealtime. The glasses were thick black plastic with just a small dot of an opening, where the pupil of the eye would be, so I could see what was directly in front of me. Other than when I ate, both eyes remained covered. I think the idea was to minimize the movement of my eyes so the retinas could heal. I had to turn my head to see anything other than what was straight ahead of me. After I finished eating, back to the darkness.

At the time of the surgery, Gary and I had been together for just over a year. He was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian at 168th Street on the west side of Manhattan while I was attending graduate school. Each day after work, he came to the hospital to visit. Clair and my mother would go get some coffee or visit with Marcia when he came.

The first time he visited Gary brought me a fragrant rose that sat in a vase on the nightstand next to the bed. Although I couldn’t see the flower, I could surely smell it. There seemed to be some truth to the notion that your other senses sharpen when one of them is compromised. The second time he visited he brought two cassette tapes and a portable cassette player with headphones. He taped two of my favorite albums, Dan Fogelberg’s Homefree and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony– the Pastoral. Such great choices! Not that I had any doubts, but a person shows who they are when a challenge is faced, like my surgery, and Gary showed himself to be incredibly thoughtful.

One night after everyone had left, Marcia was angry. “You are really inconsiderate!” she rumbled.  At first I didn’t realize she was speaking to me. She continued, ranting, “There isn’t a moment of peace. I’m fed up with the noise and hub bub. Your visitors are so loud!” I apologized and said we would be more thoughtful, but I hadn’t realized we were being disruptive. She railed on at me.

Lying there, in effect blind, I was frightened. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I felt threatened. I groped for the phone on the nightstand and feeling for the buttons, I called my parents. They picked up immediately and I whispered into the phone that I was scared and explained what had happened. They said they would call the hospital to see what could be done.

I hung up and tried to relax. Marcia had quieted down by that time, but I was still anxious. A little later my phone rang and my dad explained that my room would be changed first thing in the morning. He was disappointed that it couldn’t be done right then, but they told him it just wasn’t possible. Aunt Clair, who lived in Greenwich Village, would come up to the hospital in the morning to make sure everything went as planned.

My doctor rounded very early in the morning, before 6 a.m. There’s nothing like being awoken to bandages being removed, your eyelids pried opened and a penlight flashed in your eyes. That morning the doctor and two other hospital staff members arrived at the usual early hour, along with Aunt Clair, to examine and then move me.

Aunt Clair was not an early riser; if left to her own devices she was a true night owl. She set a series of alarm clocks to get up for work, and sometimes she still slept through them. There were many times when she and my mom sat up talking late into the night in the living room of our Canarsie house and rather than go home, Aunt Clair would sleep on that same couch. In the morning I could rattle around in the kitchen and take my breakfast with no fear of waking her up. Even though she lived in Manhattan, not that far from the hospital, it was quite an imposition for her to get to the hospital before 6 in the morning. But there she was.

Aunt Clair gathered my things, including my rose and cassette player, and followed us to the new room. This one was a single. They got me settled and I went back to sleep.

I was in the hospital one final day. My eyes were no longer bandaged. The following morning Dad picked me up to take me home. I was given eye drops and instructions about symptoms to look for that would indicate a problem. Dad drove me home and I got into my parent’s bed and put on the TV. Dad went back to work. I would be home alone for at least three hours until my mom returned from work. I tried to find something mindless to watch.

I felt strange, oddly unbalanced and queasy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t realize that being in bed with my eyes covered for four days would leave me feeling weak and disoriented.

As I tried to concentrate on the TV, I had some brief flashes of light and in the corner of my field of vision things looked wavy, like seeing through a puddle. Then it went away. I wondered if I imagined it. I wasn’t sure if these were the symptoms I was supposed to be concerned about. The flashes and the visual distortion came and went very quickly. I waited a while and when it recurred a couple of times, I called the doctor’s office. I described what was happening and they told me it sounded normal, as long as the flashes and visual changes didn’t persist. I was relieved when my mom got home. Fortunately, the rest of the healing went uneventfully.

I learned some things from this surgical experience. First, and most important, when I needed help, my family and Gary could be counted on. I would always want them in my foxhole. Marcia was not so fortunate, she appeared to be alone in hers.

I also gained a greater appreciation for my eyesight. I have always loved the beauty in the world – man-made or natural – but now it was heightened. I didn’t want to miss seeing the Grand Canyon or the Alps or the great cities of Europe, or the ordinary things like the sunlight on a forsythia bush in early spring. I felt an urgency to make sure I didn’t take my vision for granted. I carry that lesson with me still.

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Our backyard – April 15, 2017

The Tooth Fairy and Other Dental Adventures

Note: Today is Daniel Aaron Bakst’s birthday. In celebration, I dedicate this blog entry to him. I love and treasure him and wish him many, many more happy and healthy birthdays.

You could never get anything over on Daniel. He was always very observant. He noticed everything. One time we were pulling into the parking lot to pick up Leah from dance lessons, he was probably 4 at the time, and he looked up at the building and noted, “The curtains in that window are a different color than they were last week.” “Really?” I asked in wonderment. The window he was pointing to was several stories up from the main floor entrance where we went in. I’m quite sure I had never looked up, much less noted the color of the curtains.

Maybe it was related to his being so observant, or maybe it was part of his innate skepticism, but when he lost his first tooth and found money under his pillow, he wasn’t fooled. “It was you or Dad, right?” he asked, a knowing look in his eye. “You don’t think it was the tooth fairy, bud?” I asked. He looked at me, considering the possibilities.

I wasn’t quite sure what the value of the charade was, but I didn’t want to ruin the fun either. “I think you or Dad put it under my pillow,” he concluded. I countered with, “I’m not so sure.” I winked. He smiled.

Each time Dan lost a tooth, he just smiled in a satisfied kind of way as he pocketed the money the tooth fairy left; he knew what he knew.

Some of the Mom’s in my social circle saved their children’s baby teeth – I think there was even a specially made keepsake that you could store them in. The idea was creepy to me. Maybe Dan would’ve preferred that I saved them, based on what happened with his wisdom teeth.

After my experience getting wisdom teeth pulled as a mature adult, I was determined that my children wouldn’t go through that pain. If the dentist recommended their removal, we would get it done sooner rather than later.

When Dan was 18 the dentist said he should have them removed. I took him to the same oral surgeon that we used for Leah, whose procedure went uneventfully several years earlier. We finished the initial visit and scheduled a time for the surgery. As we left the office and walked across the parking lot, a car started to pull out. It almost hit me. Dan, who was walking on my right, instinctively crossed in front of me and hit the trunk of the car hard with the palm of his hand. The guy, it was a male driver, slammed on his brake and yelled an apology. Daniel was not satisfied. “Look where you’re going!” he screamed. The guy replied, “I said I was sorry for Christ’s sake!” Dan’s anger escalated. “You were being an asshole!” “Dan, Dan,” I said, quietly, soothingly, “It’s okay. Let’s just go to our car.” Dan had stopped walking and stood glaring at the guy. “What’s your problem?” the guy wanted to know. “That’s my mother walking here! You be careful!”

I took Dan’s arm and nudged him along. He took a breath and came with me. While I appreciated his protective instincts, I didn’t want him getting into a needless fight. I have to admit, though the incident happened about ten years ago, I still smile when I think of it. I knew then and still know now Dan has my back – literally and figuratively.

That wasn’t the end of our adventure with his wisdom teeth.

We returned for the surgery. I sat in the waiting room, anxious to have it done and have Dan get through it without complication. They finally called me in and told me all went well and Dan could go home. They gave me the aftercare instructions, and we started to leave. The dental assistant called after us, “Wait up a minute!” We stopped and she handed me an envelope. “He wanted his teeth,” she explained. “Really?” “Yes, it seemed important to him.” I took the envelope and put it in my purse. “Okay, thank you.”

Dan and I left. He was pleasantly loopy from the drugs but he could walk okay, which was fortunate. Dan was was over six feet tall and lanky; well beyond the point where I could carry him. We made it across the parking lot without incident this time and got home.

I tucked him in for a nap. He awoke a couple of hours later, less groggy. I checked in with him to see how he was feeling. I gave him the envelope with the teeth. “What’s this?” he asked. “Apparently you wanted your teeth,” I explained. “What?” he was genuinely perplexed. “They told me you kind of made a thing about wanting them.” “I have no recollection of that at all,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want them. Yuck.” I started laughing, too “I thought it was a little unusual, but are you sure?” I wanted to be certain before I disposed of them. “I’m quite sure,” he reassured me. The only explanation we could come up with were the drugs they gave him for the procedure. We were amused by the surprising side effects.

I took the envelope back and dropped it in the wastebasket. To my knowledge he never regretted his decision and he never asked about his baby teeth either, so I think I am in the clear. One less parenting decision to worry about.

Two for the Price of One: Two Views

[Note: Another foray into prose/poetry]

Boundaries and Expectations

 

September 12, 1986

Partly cloudy skies.

Driving home alone, I could barely concentrate on the road.

My eyes welled up.

 

Will I be a good mother? Can I do this?

Minutes before,

what I suspected was confirmed.

This was planned, yet I was overwhelmed.

I took a deep breath,

focused on the road and the sky, made my way home.

 

Into our little brick house.

I rush to the phone to call Gary.

He is still on rounds at the VA.

I have him paged.

It takes many minutes, seemingly forever.

 

Hello, Lin?

I’m pregnant!

Wow! This is such great news!

When do you think you’ll be home?

The usual time.

You can’t get out early?

Linda, you know I can’t.

 

I sighed and exhaled, resigned to this reality.

Okay, we’ll talk later.

I was left to my thoughts.

 

Eight months crawl by.

I was not glowing with new life.

Queasy, tired, morning, noon and night.

Ear infection, bronchitis, heartburn

I didn’t enjoy sharing my body.

 

So many rules:

No caffeine, no alcohol, drink milk

I don’t like milk.

Vitamins the size of Pluto.

Alcohol was no loss, caffeine another story.

I’m responsible for this new life!

I don’t want to screw it up!

 

The due date kept changing.

First May 2, then May 11, finally May 16

That day comes and goes.

The longest gestation in history.

I am ready! Nature has its way, though.

 

May 20 Gary travels to Long Island to take part 4 of his medical boards.

My parents come up from Brooklyn to keep me company.

At 5 pm they leave me with friends and

head back home, Gary is on his way.

I feel some contractions: Braxton-Hicks or the real thing?

 

Gary gets home by 9pm.

My water sort of breaks after midnight.

We call the doctor.

He tells us to come to the hospital.

It is before dawn on Thursday morning.

We put the garbage cans by the curb before going to Albany Med.

 

27 hours, the last 7 hard labor,

an apt description.

First, no progress, then Pitocin – a brutal treatment.

Finally, I push!

Such a relief! My body is almost my own again.

 

4:39 am, Friday, May 22, I look at my baby.

Labor was hard on me, but she is perfectly formed.

She is part of me and yet, she might well be an alien.

We are one and we are separate.

I understand her; I feel her joy, her hunger, her frustration.

But I am clueless, she is a mystery.

 

I fall in love over those first few weeks.

Her wondrous eyes, sparking with light.

Her pink, smooth skin.

She emerges into herself.

Curious, demanding, loving.

 

30 years later and

it is all still true.

 

[Note: Gary’s remembrance of that same time]

September 12, 1986.  I was on rounds when I heard my name over the VA hospital intercom for the first (and only) time in my life.  The operator put me through. Linda tells me that we are going to be parents. You could have knocked me down with a feather.  I was elated and scared and excited.  She asked me if I could get home early that day.  But the patients cannot wait.  I work as fast and furiously as I can to get out early but 10PM is the best I can do.  I remember not being able to concentrate during rounds that day which is the one and only time that ever happened.

That VA rotation was in many ways horrible.  Perhaps it was also an experience in growing up.  The VA is an underfunded, second rate health care system and, in my mind, a poor excuse to offer people who fought for our country and now are down on their luck.  And, to be sure, if you are a veteran and have other health care available to you, you are not going to the VA.  So these are the guys who things have not gone well for after they came back home.

I was an intern along with two others on that rotation.  Claude Scialdone was another intern with me and he was amazing. I can’t remember who the third intern was but it was not someone who did all that much.  Worse than that, our resident who was supposed to guide and support us was an empty suit (perhaps an empty white coat is the better medical term?).  And the attending physician came by in the morning to round, as he was supposed to do, but did nothing else.  So Claude and I were basically two guys just out of med school trying to keep 40 very sick veterans alive with basically no help.

It was frightening and it was exhausting.  On a normal day, when I was not on call, I would get there before 7AM and get home anywhere from 8PM to midnight.  When I was on call I wouldn’t get home at all.

One particular patient still sticks in my mind.  He had been there since well before I started my 6 week rotation and he was often times confused, weak and kept running fevers.  I worked him up for sources of infection again and again.  I ordered chest x-rays to look for pneumonia, urine cultures and blood cultures but they repeatedly came back negative.  I asked my resident about the guy – I told him I was certain we were missing something.  There was something going on and we were failing to identify it.  The patient was treading water at best and sooner or later we were going to lose him.

My resident responded by asking me if any of the cultures had grown anything and the answer was no.  He then explained that this means he’s fine.  He wasn’t fine.  He wasn’t close to fine and I knew that in my marrow, but I was out of ideas and had no help.

At that time, the VA closely controlled the use of the newer, broad spectrum antibiotics.  If you ordered any of them, you automatically got an infectious disease consult.  Normally that might not seem like a problem, but in the Albany VA at that time, it meant you got Dr. Aldonna Baltsch on your floor. Dr. Baltsch was as feared as any doctor I have ever known.  She was a phenomenal, dedicated, passionate physician but she was also a perfectionist with a temper.  She would come in and yell at you for all the errors she determined you were making.  I think she just wanted to make us better doctors but perhaps didn’t exactly know how to go about doing it.  In any case, nobody ever wanted to see Dr. Baltsch around.

For that reason, nobody ever called for an infectious disease consult.  And the interns and residents became experts at using combinations of older antibiotics to avoid the newer ones that came with a dreaded visit from Dr. Baltsch.  But in this moment, I realized I feared the prospect of failing and losing this patient more than I feared Dr. Baltsch.

So I ordered a new wave, broad spectrum, expensive antibiotic when my resident wasn’t looking.  I did so because I knew that, while it would bring the holy wrath of Dr. Baltsch, it would also bring her expertise.  She came up and was really, really angry.  It was as if Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt and the lava would scorch us all.  However, as it turned out, her anger was entirely directed at my resident.  She never even spoke to me – which was fine with me.

And she ordered exactly the same tests I had ordered.  But this time, after they yet again came back negative, she ordered an LP (spinal tap).  That came back negative too but she told the lab to hold onto the spinal fluid sample longer for viral cultures and they eventually came back positive for Varicella (the virus that causes Chicken Pox).  Turned out he had Varicella encephalitis, an infection of his brain caused by that virus.  This is still the only case of Varicella encephalitis I have ever seen.

He was placed on antiviral antibiotics.  His fevers ceased after a few days and he finally started to get better.  Dr. Baltsch called for a special meeting of everyone in the entire department of medicine basically to humiliate my resident.  It looked like vultures picking at a carcass as the entire faculty went after the guy.  I almost felt sorry for him.

That rotation eventually gave way to others, some nearly as hard and some not quite as tough.

But fall turned to winter and winter to spring and then I took my boards exam on Long Island.  Knowing Linda was past her due date and could go into labor at any minute, I rushed through the exam.  It was the only time in my life that I was the first person out of the room on such an exam.  That night, Linda had spontaneous rupture of membranes (her water broke).  We took out the garbage and drove reasonably calmly to Albany Medical Center where she gave birth after 27 long hours of labor.

She was an amazing trooper.  No anesthesia.  One single dose of one pain killer.  Hour after hour.  I spent much of the time with her but also left to do rounds and see patients during parts of the process.  At the end, on May 22nd, Leah emerged, perfect, beautiful, alert and brilliant.  A miracle in our lives who has been such a great joy ever since.

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Just a few hours after birth – Leah looking directly at the camera, alert and bright. Gary, on the other hand, exhausted.

Leah was a force of nature.  It is hard to explain how even in those earliest days she had a spirit and a liveliness and a curiosity.  I felt like she saw and understood the world around her in ways that most babies could not and her smile melted my heart.  Life had taken on new meaning and I fell in love with her.

Still I was torn.  I could not devote less time to my patients than what I felt I needed to.  And yet I wanted to be home; to be with Leah; to help Linda who was in some ways almost a single parent. She was exhausted and I was exhausted.  And I could not do all I wished I could do.  I could not do all Linda needed me to do.

Having already completed all of the hardest rotations in May of 1987, my last rotation of internship was scheduled to be an easy one in a community hospital very near our house.  It was going to be perfect.  I would be working a short walk from our house, the hours would be reasonable.  A long, hard winter was about to give way to a beautiful spring and hours with Leah and Linda.  It didn’t work out that way.  On the day Leah was born, an intern quit the program and the department of medicine met to determine who should cover that intern’s rotation. They decided I should cover it.  I was back in the VA hospital.