Observations from a House of Mourning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memorial candle in our fireplace

David

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

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

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

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

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

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

David and Paula in the displaced persons camp circa 1947

More Wedding Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chuppah

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

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

An Unpleasant Interlude in Jersey City

NOTE: This is another story written by my mother, Feige Brody, who during this pandemic has been reflecting on her childhood.

Chicago bustled and New York never slept, but Jersey City had no such energy. When my family lost everything in New London, Connecticut, with the hurricane of 1938, we moved in above Uncle Irving’s wholesale bakery in Jersey City, in a railroad flat. The best thing I could say about it was that it had running water and heat.

But we were really on the wrong side of the tracks. The railroad was on one end of the street and the other four corners had rundown bars. The men that frequented those bars were not called homeless then, they were called drunks and slept in the gutter or wherever they fell. The smell was horrific, of feces, urine and garbage, all mingling. I had to be careful where I walked never knowing what was under foot.

Simma (my sister who was not school age yet) and I were the only children on the block so there were no friends to play with. I went to school by walking to the corner where I could join kids who were coming from the right side of the tracks. After school, walking home they would turn at that corner and I would be alone. I was always terrified, with my heart pounding and my palms sweaty. I was afraid some drunk would be sleeping on the steps and I would have to climb over him to get home. Never once was I actually bothered, but the fear persisted for the entire year and a half that we lived there.

Across the street from my uncle’s bakery was a fancy saloon. The owners were very kind, and they let Simma and I play there. The floor was a high-polished wood and we would run and slide – back and forth. Sometimes we made up elaborate games with our paper dolls on that floor. We were allowed to play the piano, softly, and jumped up and down the steps that led to apartments. It may have been a saloon, but it was our playhouse. Once in a while a man would be at the bar talking to the owner, making arrangements for a party or celebration. Then Simma and I would sweep up our play floor and help set the tables to prepare.

One day, leaving the saloon in a hurry, I ran past the owner’s dog, who was gnawing on a bone. As I bolted past, he took a bite out of me! Dad rushed me to the hospital where I was surrounded by medical personnel all dressed in white. I was put in a bed with bright white lights shining down on me and once again I was terrified. I was given an injection with a huge needle into my belly to prevent rabies. Fortunately, we soon learned the owners had papers that showed the dog was not rabid, so I didn’t need more shots. Dad took me home. I never did get over my fear of dogs.

We were still in Jersey City in 1939 when Mother got sick with rheumatic fever. Fortunately, the Sisters of St. Joseph came each day to wash, feed, bring water and provide whatever relief they could. I continued to go to school and each afternoon coming up the stairs at the end of my day, one of the sisters would be standing at the top of the stairs, gesturing to remind me to tip toe and be quiet, because every noise would bring Mother more pain. The good Sisters were intimidating in their long black habits, leaving only a bit of their face showing, and looking so unfamiliar to me. I was sure they meant to be kind, but I was terrified of them. (Ironically, many years later I was a reading teacher at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn and became friends with several nuns.)

With my mother being ill, her brother, Jackie, who had been living with us, left to stay with other aunts and cousins. Uncle Jackie was nine years older than me and was more like an older brother. He was the one who rescued Simma and I when I accidentally set fire to the curtains with a candle that I lit hoping to show Santa Claus the way to our apartment. With Jackie leaving, I was desolate.

I don’t know if there were pills that could have alleviated Mother’s pain, or maybe we couldn’t afford them, I will never know. While my parents would talk about the hurricane, they did not talk about her illness.

Since I could not stay in the apartment to play after school, I was left to my own devices. Though I knew it was forbidden, I went to the railroad tracks where older boys were playing. I would walk along, imitating those boys, balancing on the tracks, until I heard a rumble and then I hopped off and raced next to the train. I watched the train streak by, the conductor blowing the horn. It was a bit of fun in an otherwise dreary time. Once I fell and cut my knee and it bled a lot. I ran home and clomped up the stairs. I heard Mother cry out in pain. The sisters yelled at me, but one of them cleaned my knee. The skin healed over a small pebble that remained as a reminder. After many years it dissolved.

Eventually Mother recovered and in 1940, Dad having saved some money, bought a partnership in a Brooklyn bakery. We moved to the apartment above that store and Uncle Jackie was able to join us again. My third life began there. For the first time in a long while I felt safe in a friendly neighborhood, with lots of other kids. I realized the fear I carried in Jersey City was useless, there was nothing more to fear.

My mother (Feige) on the right, my Nana, on the left, years after Jersey City – in happier times

A daughter’s comment: I am so glad my Mom has written these stories. I know it isn’t easy for her, on several levels, but it enriches our understanding of her life. I am struck by the trauma she endured – losing everything in that devastating hurricane, moving to a cheerless place, worrying about her mother’s health, getting bitten by a dog. It was quite an eventful and painful early life. Yet, she was resilient. She did keep a fear of dogs, understandably (that was also reinforced by later scary encounters), but she was (and is) an optimist. She turned her attention to the bright blue part of the sky, as her father instructed her to do. Fortunately the third part of her life brought far more pleasure and much less fear. As the country emerged from the Great Depression, her family’s fortune turned for the better, too.

The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

New York City Isn’t Dead

Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.

Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.

We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.

We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.

We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.

I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.

We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.

I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.

I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.

After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.

I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!

I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.

It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.

Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.

Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.

Catching Up

I missed my self-imposed Monday morning deadline by several days, but hopefully you will forgive me. After five months of pandemic limitations, we arranged a visit with our son’s family. We got to spend time with our beloved granddaughter! To add to the joy, our daughter and son-in-law-to-be came too! We were all extra-careful in the weeks leading up to the visit, no one had any symptoms (though every day  I imagined every symptom in the book!) and we decided to take the risk. They came for six days (Leah and Ben were here for four)! We picked blueberries (granddaughter ate every single one she picked, none made it to the bucket), we swam in our pool for hours, we watched 101 Dalmations and Onward many times over, we ate great meals and generally reveled in their company.  I put aside my writing. I took many photographs to help remember the wonders of a two year old. On Monday Leah and Ben returned to their work life and yesterday, in the midst of the downpour that was the remnants of Isaias, Dan and his family packed up and drove home. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but we were left with a treasure trove of memories.

Today I have root canal to look forward to – I’m not joking. I probably could have timed that better. The good news is that we already have another visit planned so it will not be so long until we see each other – just a few weeks, not an endless five months (assuming no spike in Covid or other disaster).

One other exciting thing since I last posted, the essay I wrote that was accepted to an online journal has gone live! (I wrote bout that in Victory! ) I am honored and excited to be included in this edition of Trolley, the literary journal of the New York State Writers Institute. The theme for the magazine was our experience during the pandemic – poets, essayists and visual artists contributed. I hope you’ll explore it. Here is the link to my story. Happy reading!

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Observations and Questions in the Time of COVID-19

Is there more birdsong these days or have I just slowed down enough to hear it?

Same question about critters in general – my yard is filled with bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, woodchucks. Were they always there and I didn’t notice? As I was writing this, a fawn came out of the woods and strolled across our yard!

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one of two fawns in our yard this morning

I’m thinking of taking up bird watching as a new hobby.

Why do people bother wearing a mask if they don’t cover their nose with it? Are there any medical conditions that are truly worsened by wearing a mask? And, if they are that compromised, why are they walking through the supermarket in the first place? Though I have been tempted, I have never said anything to anyone who was wearing their mask incorrectly. Should I? I don’t want to police other people’s behavior. I also don’t want to get into an argument. At this point, what is the chance that they don’t know better?

It is hard to ignore the fact that poor people of color have been disproportionately harmed by coronavirus – in the incidence of illness, number of deaths, job loss. Perhaps our awareness of how inequitable our society is will be the one good thing that comes out of this catastrophe. The question remains, how will we respond? Will that awareness translate into structural change?

The number of deaths is mind-numbing. It feels like we have stopped noticing. I guess we have to do that, or we would be paralyzed. Will we ever deal with the enormity of it? Will the New York Times run another front page story listing the names of the next 100,000?

How do you decide how much vigilance in keeping physically distant and washing or sanitizing your hands is enough? Our daughter and son-in-law-to-be visited from Somerville, MA this past weekend. The reason for the trip was to order her wedding dress! A bright spot in an otherwise dreary time – even if we don’t know if the party can go on as planned.

The agreement about the arrangements for the visit (per my husband who is a doctor) was that we would keep physically distant. We didn’t hug. We did most of our visiting either outside or at least six feet apart in the house. We didn’t share serving utensils. They stayed in a bedroom in the basement. Any time he handed something to them, Gary ‘purelled’ before and after. I was not quite as careful, though I did my best. I’m thinking that if any one of us has COVID, we exposed the others just by being in the same house for an extended period. Did it make sense to take all of those precautions? I am thankful they visited, regardless of what happens. Unless all four of us get sick, we won’t know that we got it from each other anyway. All it takes is one virus-laden sneeze from a person on the one occasion you go out to put gas in your car… You can go round and round thinking about this, ultimately you make your best guess after weighing the risks and the benefits. The risks of their visit, given that Gary, the most vigilant among us, is the only one out in the work world on a day-to-day basis, and none of us had symptoms, seemed low. The benefit, especially to my emotional well-being, was huge. How are you dealing with making these calculations? Is it making you as crazy as it is making me?

As this drags on, will we get more lax about it?

My mom called asking my thoughts about getting picked up by her brother, taken to his house, visiting for an hour (so she can participate in our family movie club which is done online), and then getting driven back to her place. Her I-pad is too outdated to support the software for her to join in from her own place. She wanted to go. I thought about how hard the isolation has been on her, how much she enjoys movie club, weighed the risks and the benefits, and told her she had my support.

I hope with all my heart that these are the correct calculations.

Reconsidering Hugging and Kissing

NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!

It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.

It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.

The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.

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Roger and me

When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is no surprise. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face turn bright red. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?

As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?

And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?

How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?

A March to Remember

A March to remember.  What a strange month. On March 7th Governor Cuomo issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency here in New York due to the coronavirus. That same day was our last foray out – I wrote about our trip to Dia here. That was our last dinner at a restaurant. It was an excellent dinner, a nice memory, with friends, in person! Three weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime.

I have to admit I find myself struggling. But I am fighting it. Here are some things I find helpful:

  • Putting on music while I do chores. Somehow, I was not in the habit of doing that. It is motivating and I am rediscovering artists I haven’t listened to in a while. I have a new appreciation for Paul Simon’s American Tune. Give it a listen, it is quite timely.
  • Skipping articles that detail the horrors faced by medical staff in New York City hospitals. I see the headlines and my stomach knots. I don’t need to read more.
  • Making a plan for the day so that I know what tasks I will accomplish. I don’t always accomplish them, but just making the list helps my spirits.
  • Setting aside time to get outside – even if the weather is bad. Fresh air helps. I walked in the drizzle on Saturday and Sunday; I didn’t mind it at all.
  • Looking at photographs of my granddaughter – guaranteed to make me smile. Sometimes I text my son and daughter-in-law to request a new one. They have been great about accommodating me. Photographs of my granddaughter probably won’t do it for you, but something will – your child or pet or beautiful scenery.
  • Reaching out via text or phone to folks. This is harder for me than it should be. It always has been, I didn’t realize how well practiced I am at social distancing until now. I am working at doing more reaching out. I always feel better after I do it, but I have to psyche myself to take the first step. This does not apply to my immediate family – I would reach out to my kids hourly if that was acceptable.

Which brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about. It has been three weeks of this version of social distancing, which is far more extreme than my usual practice. Under normal circumstances it isn’t uncommon for me to go three weeks without seeing my children in person. My daughter lives in Somerville, MA; my son in Norwalk, CT. But knowing I can’t hop in the car to see them, and not knowing when I will be able to, changes things. I feel frustrated. We have been using FaceTime, but it isn’t the same. I want to be in the same room. I want to hug them. Maybe it is like forbidden fruit – when you know you can’t have something (someone), you want it more. I know our reunion will be especially sweet and that thought sustains me – sometimes. Sometimes I’m just angry and feel deprived.

Back to helpful things:

  • Switching up meals or trying to be a bit creative about them. On Friday evening, Gary made a fire in our chiminea in the backyard and we ate our dinner next to it. It was a beautiful night, cool, with a bit of a breeze; perfect for sitting next to the warmth of the fire. We watched the sparks leap up against the night sky and eventually the stars came out. Our use of the chiminea has been limited to when we entertain in the summer. Seems silly not to make use of it now.
  • Playing ping pong (insert any other game you have forsaken, i.e. backgammon? chess?). We have a ping pong table in our basement. I don’t remember the last time we used it – stuff was piled on it, as was a thick layer of dust. Gary and I have a history with ping pong. When we were in college, at the beginning of our courtship, we would go to the library tower to study. After maybe an hour we would take a break and head to the student union. We’d play ping pong and get a snack. We spent far more time chatting, playing ping pong and snacking than studying. Fast forward forty years. We found the paddles and a ball in our basement and dusted off the table. Gary thoroughly schooled me, which wasn’t surprising, but we had fun. We played about six games. I got less rusty as we played. Maybe by the end of this ordeal, I’ll give him a run for his money.
  • Watching Governor Cuomo’s daily press conference. Though the information may be grim, it is presented in a straightforward way and he reminds us of all the steps being taken to fight the pandemic. And, who knew he could be so empathetic? He shares his humanity. It’s interesting how this is a case where a person has stepped up to meet the challenge. I was not a fan of his strong-arm political tactics or his personality, but I think his strengths are particularly useful (decisiveness, attention to detail, organized, no nonsense) in this context. And, either he was more compassionate than I understood, or he has matured into that role. Either way, I am grateful. His policies are also shaped by the right values – people come first.
  • Avoid all coverage of the president – this is essential for my mental health.

There you have it. Ten helpful things – for me, anyway. Maybe some will work for you. I would love to hear yours! As this drags on, the more ideas the better; the more tools to call upon to get through this uncertain time.

One final thought: In re-reading this, I realize that I am quite lucky to still like my husband! Thank you, Gary!