On Turning 58

Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.

On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday.  Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it?  And, so what if it was a little stale?  It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.

There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.

My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!

For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come.  As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.

The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!

I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.

Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.

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Shana tova.

An Unexpected Weekend in Erie, PA

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Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?

Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.

We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.

December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.

The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.

We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.

Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.

We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.

We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.

We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.

The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.

We went back to our room and went to sleep.

The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.

The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!

Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.

The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.

By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!

To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.

We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.

A Godfather Seder

Jewish holidays were associated with certain traditions when I was growing up. Horrific traffic was often part of it.

Rosh Hashana was celebrated by going to Aunt Simma’s house in Port Washington for a family dinner. We battled the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. My father never learned to cope with it despite being a life-long resident of Brooklyn – he may have invented road rage. All of us in the car tried to become invisible, silently shrinking into our seats so as not to increase his wrath. We tried to ignore his steady stream of invective. My mother would make excuses for the poor choices of the other drivers. After someone cut us off, she might suggest, ”Maybe his child has a stomach ache and he’s just trying to get home faster.” Somehow this didn’t help.

Traveling ever so slowly to Long Island, I would look out as the houses changed to single family, larger homes with lovely landscaping. Arriving in Port Washington it seemed a different world from my own with its dirty sidewalks, postage stamp-sized lawns and multifamily, attached homes.

Although Rosh Hashana is a high holiday on the Jewish calendar that for many meant hours in synagogue, our celebration was an excuse to gather as a family and have traditional foods like chicken soup, brisket and noodle kugel.

Passover meant dealing with the traffic on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Aunt Diane’s apartment was on West 104th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. In those days, when New York City was the murder capital of the world, each block was a different neighborhood. 104th west of Broadway was safe, 103rd east of Broadway wasn’t. Gentrification wasn’t even a concept yet. One thing remains the same – looking for parking was, and is, a nightmare.

Their apartment, on the 16th floor, was overheated so the windows were open. I would stand in front of the window in the bathroom and look out at the city – listening to the traffic and sirens, feeling the cool air, looking at the lights, imagining the lives in the apartment buildings across the way – I relished the feeling of being both removed from and in the midst of the energy of the city.

One Passover seder in particular was memorable – not really for the seder itself, but for what my family did afterwards.

The seder was a long, involved affair, filled with ritual and song. Uncle Paul came from a long line of rabbis and his family knew many traditional melodies. It was their custom to discuss the story of the Exodus and its various interpretations. It took a very long time to get to the matzoh ball soup.

This particular year the movie The Godfather had just come out, it had opened a few days earlier and was playing to sold out theaters in the city. My Dad was dying to see the movie. He was not a religious man, dubious about the existence of God and not one to enthusiastically partake of Jewish rituals. Attending the seder at his sister’s house evoked many conflicting emotions for him: his relationship with his sisters and parents was strained at best, he hated the traffic, he didn’t exactly get along with his brother-in-law and though the lesson of Passover, remembering our oppression and valuing freedom, was a core value, he probably could have done without the lengthy service.

Finally, the seder concluded at about 11:00 p.m. When we got to the car, Dad asked my mom, “Feige, what do you think? Can we get in to see ‘The Godfather’ now?”

The movie was playing around the clock in certain Manhattan theaters.

My mother, always ready for a movie, said, “Why not? Let’s try.”

“You kids okay with that,” Dad asked. Mark and I shrugged, okay. (Steven was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.)

We drove to the east side (getting crosstown through Central Park without traffic!) and were relieved to find that there were seats available. We got tickets for the midnight showing. I was 12 years old. My father, who had grown up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, was fascinated by the mob. I teased him about reading “The Don is Dead” multiple times. He read every book that came out about the Mafia. His parents, who owned a small grocery, had personal experience with mobsters who provided protection in the neighborhood.

I vividly recall certain scenes from the movie – one involving a horse’s head and another Sonny Corleone’s demise. I’m thinking it probably wasn’t a great choice for me at that age and at that hour of the night. But it was memorable.

The movie ended at about 3 in the morning. As he drove us back to Canarsie, Dad expounded on why he thought it was such a great movie. We hit no traffic. A perfect ending to our seder night.