Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.

Photographs and Memories

Photographs and memories –  a Jim Croce song that was popular in the mid-1970s – could be the soundtrack for this past weekend. The song’s lyrics don’t exactly fit, that song is about a lost love, but the sentiment of being left with photographs of times gone by is right on point.

Once again, I spent hours sorting through family photographs. This time from my mother’s place in Florida. Two years ago, we cleaned out my in-laws’ home to prepare to sell it. I took boxes of photographs to sort out  – I wrote about that experience here.

This past weekend, I received a new set of boxes filled with photos, memorabilia, my mother’s paintings and other decorative items. These items made up her home in Boynton Beach, a home in the process of being sold. A great deal of the work of sorting was already done by my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, who spent a week going through Mom’s stuff – making multiple trips to Goodwill, wearing out a path to the trash dumpsters across the street, shipping boxes of books and photos, and finally packing their SUV to the brim with the rest to drive north.

Even with all the donations and distribution of many items, we are still left with the question: What to do I do with all of the photographs. I find it very difficult to throw them away. I know they can be digitized and, in fact, I have done some of that. But what should we transfer? How should we organize it? If we take the time and effort to convert photos, will anyone look at them? What is the point of photos?

I like to pull out albums from time to time. I go back through a vacation remembering the sights and funny anecdotes, or on the birthday of one of my children, I’ll take out an album from when they were an infant and walk down memory lane.

Walking down memory lane has its pitfalls. In some ways it was easier to do this task with the Bakst family photos – less baggage for me. The pictures I was going through this past weekend ran the gamut from when my mom was a little girl in the 1930s to family weddings through the decades to our more recent trip to Israel.

I find myself looking at the pictures as if they will provide answers. Who was Nana (my maternal grandmother)? She has been gone fifty years. She was such a central figure in my childhood and in my understanding of family. I see pictures of her with Zada, my grandfather, and try to intuit their relationship. It is fruitless. The pictures don’t bring her back. If I linger too long, I just get sad.

I came across photos of our time in Illinois where we spent three summers while my dad went to school at the university to get his master’s in economics. We were great friends with another family, the Emrichs from Delaware. I see our smiling faces, there were seven of us kids, as we sit in the grass at the side of the community pool that we went to every day – weather permitting. I can hear Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 playing over the loudspeakers as we splashed each other. I look at myself and wonder: why did I think I was so fat and ugly – even then, at 7 years old? Now I see a cute little girl. I’ve wasted so much time dwelling in that negative place.

Us standing in front of graduate student housing at the University of Illinois. Our cousins came to visit. I am front left.

So many people in the pictures are gone. Finding images of my dad holding his grandchildren as newborns, when they are now in their thirties, some even approaching 40!, knowing he has been gone for 16 years brings warm memories and the ache of missing him.

It reminds me how much he reveled in being a grandfather. He had six that he doted on.

The realization that Gary and I are on the precipice of being the oldest generation is mind-blowing. There are so few elders left and those that are still with us face serious health threats. I am grateful that they are here. The shape and nature of our family has changed and continues to evolve. It is the cycle of life, and I cannot control it, try as I might.

I think it is time to put the photos aside and look forward. It is fine to take a trip down memory lane, but I can’t live there. I need to focus on my family as it is today. I want to shed the negative self-image and create a healthier one; one that I can walk in more comfortably for the rest of my life. That is a more fruitful assignment. Good luck to me.  

Remembering Ray

by Barbara Spilken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry and Ray in 1969

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

At my wedding – January 10, 1971

The Cycle of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reckoning

NOTE: Today’s blog post is written by Gary, my husband. He was reflecting on the fact that we have, depending on the data source, reached or exceeded 200,000 American deaths from Covid-19. Gary and I feel that we have become numb to the loss; maybe complacent is a better term. He wrote this as part of a letter to our children. I asked if he would allow me to share it on the blog. Obviously, he said yes.

            One other thing you need to know. In our family since Trump was elected, we have referred to him as the CF. CF stands for character flaw. We were naming his flaws, dishonest, misogynist, selfish, ignorant, when our daughter Leah noted that there were too many to count and that in fact, he was just a giant Character Flaw, hence he is the CF which is how Gary refers to him the letter that follows.

            Today is the final day of summer with fall well entrenched in the air and the days rapidly shortening.  Fall officially begins tomorrow morning.  It is a time for introspection for us as Jews with the high holidays underway and the annual fast less than a week away.  It is a time of bounty with harvests, apple picking and pumpkin picking and a time when leaves begin to change color leading to what will be the prettiest time of the year.  

            At the same time, it is a time when summer plants wither and die, flowers fade, and soon, frost covers the morning landscape.  You can smell the change in the air.  That warm, soft smell of summer is giving way to the smell of leaves and the mornings start to become foggy with the sun slower to burn off the haze.  So, while it is a time of beauty and bounty, it is also a time of loss and withering. 

            This year, of course, it is a time to mourn in very specific ways.  For so many people, it is a time to mourn the loss of certainty with jobs lost, incomes lost; with lives upended, people suddenly stuck at home.  People are working from home more than ever before; people are stuck home without daycare available to them and schools are still struggling, even with the school year already underway, to find ways to deal with COVID and still provide for the needs of their students, their teachers and other staff and the families that depend on them. 

            Everything is upended.  Things we have taken for granted are no longer true.  Going out to eat, going to a movie, going to a ballgame, a museum, a concert are all either no longer possible or are so very fraught.  

            There are different counts of how many Americans have died of COVID but it appears to me that we have, in fact, reached another tragic milestone:  200,000 dead Americans.  As brutal and horrible as this reality is, as many people have died, have lost loved ones, often dying alone in ICUs with family unable to be with them, the fact that it did not have to be this way makes it so much more tragic. 

            The CF has been accused of mismanaging the pandemic, but that accusation wildly understates what he has done and how serious the crimes he has committed are.  People make mistakes but they are not all created equal.  If a doctor makes a mistake, someone could be harmed, someone could die.  If an air traffic controller makes a mistake, many people may die. 

If a president makes a mistake – let’s say President Obama failing to block a resolution unfairly condemning Israel, there can be repercussions on an international level.  The Palestinians, in that case, became yet more emboldened in their rejectionist policies.  But that was, relatively speaking, a minor mistake.  A much larger mistake was President George W Bush invading Iraq.  It broke that country apart, opened a Pandora’s Box of Sunni and Shiite militant groups, bolstered the Iranian regime and paved the way for the creation of ISIS.  It cost many, many lives in the region, cost thousands of American soldiers’ lives and cost us enormous sums of money.  It also harmed Israel by permitting Iran to send advanced weapons to Hezbollah (and more recently also to other militant Shiite groups) over land through Iraq and Syria. 

That was a gigantic mistake.  It has repercussions that have continued to harm us and will continue to harm us for some time.  But it was still a mistake.  (Not a mistake by Cheney – intentional on his part and on the part of others.  But, I believe, a mistake on W’s part). 

            The CF, however, did not make a mistake.  He thought that his intentional sabotage of our efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic would bolster him politically.  It has not worked out that way – that was a mistake.  But he absolutely, positively intentionally lied to us about the pandemic and he has blood on his hands.  I cannot tell you how many people have died because of the CF’s lies, but I am absolutely certain that he lied and that deaths resulted.  We know that from innumerable reports over these months.  We know that from the audio tapes recorded by Bob Woodward. 

            And we know it from the words of the CF himself.  He admitted that he lied.  He lied while admitting it – when he tried to sell us on the excuse that he did it to avoid fear among the American people.  Nonetheless, he lied to us.  And, because he lied to us, and because he also presided over an administration that left its job, the job of organizing our response to the virus, of generating strategies for confronting it, to the states, lots more Americans died.  Lots of Americans became sick, many suffering a devastating illness, many suffering a very long term illness, many never regaining all of what they lost.  Many lost loved ones.  Many will never be whole again. 

            Think about it for a minute.  Someone in that position, someone who has chosen to take a position that has enormous responsibilities, that places the health, safety, even the lives of the American people in his hands.  He has actively campaigned for the position, been in that position and had years to familiarize himself with the responsibilities inherent in it.  He has been given a huge challenge to save Americans’ lives.  That challenge is his duty – his sacred duty – as the person given all of the titles and powers and resources that come with the job he chose to take.  

            And he intentionally chose to let Americans die instead.  He said things – it’s a hoax, the media and the Democrats are hyping it, it’s no worse than the flu, it will soon disappear, it will magically disappear, the best thing you can do if you have a mild case is to go to work with it.  He’s said things – open up the economy, open up the schools, open up sporting events, open up anything and everything, open them up quickly and regardless of the consequences.  

Think about this for a moment, during the entire time that we have been confronting this horrific, deadly plague, he never once – never – took the position of waiting.  He never said that those people in that meat packing plant should not be there until they figure out how to safely operate it.  He never said that eating in a restaurant in a state with incredibly high virus prevalence might be dangerous.  Not even once. 

            The intent is as horrific as the crime itself; it is unforgivable.  It is something people should be learning about for generations to come, forever.  When we learn about American history and we think of people who have been traitors to our country, we should not first think about Benedict Arnold whose name itself has come to be synonymous with such treachery.  In the future, that distinction should belong to the CF.  (“He took money to provide classified information to the Russians.  He’s a CF.”  “She hacked into the computers of our electrical grid and demanded ransom payments in order to not plunge millions of Americans into darkness during a heat wave.  She’s a CF.”)

            200,000 Americans and counting.  It is sad, tragic, horrific.  It is worse than that because it is also treachery.  And it is a disaster that is far from over. 

            Another tragedy, of course, is the passing of the magnificent and beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life is exactly the opposite of his.  She did not come from wealth.  She faced obstacles that she ought not have had to face because of her gender, because she was a mother.  Nobody took her entrance exams for her.  Nobody used their money and influence to help her get into the places she got into.  And, once there, she was consistent, moral, ethical and used her passion, abilities and energies to help others.  She was a good and loyal friend to many and demanded more of herself than of others. 

            And she should also be remembered forever.  She should be remembered as a hero, a role model and an inspiration to us all.  Women, in particular, will find inspiration from her good works and, as Jewish people, we can allow ourselves just a bit of nachas that it was one of our own who did all of this. 

            Her story is one that we can all think of when we wonder what it is that we can do to make the world a better place.  For crying out loud, she was 5’ 1”  and probably never even weighed 100 pounds.  So much greatness in such a little package.  She could fit in aunt Rochelle’s clothing. (Editor’s note: Gary’s sister is also a petite person as anyone who knows her can attest – also, not a person to be underestimated.)

            While the political part of what is going on now is very concerning, and while it may take a while to know what the outcome of it will be, the greatness that she embodied is something we will hold onto and let us allow some of that light to shine on us.  

NOTE: I wanted to share this because I think we need to look at the totality of what Trump has done through this pandemic. It can’t be emphasized enough. We need to look for the light in the midst of the darkness, and RBG’s legacy can offer that, but we need to reckon with his actions and that many have been complicit in it. We can disagree about what would have been the best strategy to fight the virus, but his lies cannot be forgiven.

Small Comfort

March 13th, in addition to marking my son’s 31st birthday, was the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. I am pleased to report that memories of Dad’s strength, intelligence and ever-present support have replaced the images that haunted me in the years immediately after his death. My thoughts of him then were of an ill, diminished person, and that was as painful as the loss itself. I am happy now to be able to call upon memories of my healthy father, but the pain of that time is still part of me. The other day I was struck by one poignant memory and wrote a prose-poem.

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

“You think I’ll be able to get my chemo today?”

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

“No, Pop. Not today. Don’t worry about that now.”

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

I post this now in the midst of the craziness and uncertainty – with a hot cup of coffee offering small comfort, but at least it is some comfort. Thinking of friends and family and wishing everyone strength and hope in this challenging time.

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times

Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

Bittersweet

NOTE: I have changed the names out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

April 20th marked twenty years since the tragedy at Columbine High School. It was a watershed moment for many reasons. It is one of those times where I remember exactly where I was as the horror unfolded on live television. We were in the living room of our friends’ home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Memories come flooding back…bittersweet memories.

Memories:  Of flying kites on the beach, where we could count on a stiff wind to make it easy to get the kite to lift off, almost taking our children with it!

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Leah and Daniel on one of our early trips to the Outer Banks circa 1992

Of Daniel assuming the pose of a martial arts master to slay the waves. He also had a penchant for chasing sand pipers. I was so relieved when they flew away beyond the grasp of his small hand.

Of taking Leah and Christine, our friends’ daughter, to the pool – as older girls (four and six) they could swim. They amused themselves in the water for hours.

Of sunny early mornings, before anyone else was awake, sitting on the deck facing the ocean and reading whatever novel I had brought with me. Our time on the Outer Banks was often my only chance to read a book for pleasure and I relished it.

Of walking with some combination of our kids the couple of blocks to the shopping area where there was a donut shop. Breakfast was often coffee and a donut.

Of retreating from the midday sun to the cool of the air-conditioned house for an afternoon nap.

Of Gary, legs coated in sunscreen and sand, building elaborate sand castles with the kids.

Of quickly packing up everything and evacuating ahead of hurricane Hugo – which actually missed the Outer Banks and made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, but we couldn’t take chances with our children. We drove inland through the night and went to the Martins’ home in Maryland.

When we first went to the Outer Banks in 1989, we rented a house near Duck, we loved the name of the town. Wild horses could still be seen by the roadside. We drove down from Albany, an arduous trip, in our Camry station wagon. It was the first car Gary and I ever bought and we didn’t get air conditioning, thinking we didn’t need it living in upstate New York. Plus, we would save a lot of money, which was still very tight. That was a serious mistake and we paid for it in a myriad of ways, including on those trips. Neither Leah nor Dan appreciated hot air blasting through the open windows as we made our way south on the Jersey Turnpike.

I vividly recall arriving at the rental house that first time. It was a beautiful home – weatherworn shingles, with multiple decks and, of course, the smell of the ocean coupled with the unique scent of the Carolina lowlands. We went inside and I nearly burst into tears. There was a long staircase to get to the main living area. There were glass coffee and end tables. We had a 7 month old (Dan) and Leah was two and a half. A week of keeping Leah and the other kids safe from falling down those stairs, or banging into the glass tables flashed before my eyes. Gary and Evan, his buddy from medical school, ushered me outside while they quickly moved the tables and did as much baby-proofing as possible. I practiced taking deep breaths.

It turned out to be a great week and the beginning of something we would do for more than ten years.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 we were a few days into our spring break from school and our friends had, years earlier, bought a house in Whalehead (a newly developed area on the northern edge of Outer Banks). We were fortunate enough to be invited to continue our tradition of vacationing with them.

That afternoon, having spent the morning riding bicycles and playing mini-golf, we were hanging out in the great room on the top floor.  We happened to have the television on, tuned to CNN. We watched as events unfolded in Littleton, Colorado. After leaving it on long enough to understand that it was a school shooting, we turned it off and went about our activities. We didn’t want our children to be distracted or troubled by the images.

I remember being angry – at the gunmen of course, but also at the media coverage. They didn’t know what was happening. They were broadcasting live coverage from a helicopter – but the reporters didn’t understand what they were seeing, so they could only speculate. Like a car wreck, it was hard to look away, fortunately we did, eventually. I remember thinking that the speculation of the reporters seemed reckless.

That tragedy was a watershed moment in many ways. It was my first real understanding of the power and problems caused by the 24/7 news cycle. Since I was a school board member at the time, it represented a major change in the way we thought about school security. And, though it was entirely coincidental, our times going to the Outer Banks were also coming to a close.

Our children were growing up, beginning activities that would take time and commitment. The Martin children were doing the same. We would need to make difficult choices about how to spend our limited vacation time. There were always some stresses and strains between the kids, and in our friends’ marriage, that sometimes interfered with the fun. Those rough patches were outweighed by the laughter and adventures.  But then tragedy truly struck and things were permanently altered.

In April of 2003 the Martin’s oldest son, at age 15, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gary and I visited them in early August and found them shattered by the devastating prognosis. I came back and spent a week at the end of October, to help with their two youngest children (their oldest daughter had started college), so Evan and Amy could tend to their son. It was beyond painful. He died in January of 2004, just shy of his 16th birthday.

Not only had they lost their son, but their family was irretrievably broken.

While April of 1999 was not our last time vacationing together, we had one or two more trips, it felt like the beginning of the end of something. Somehow the terrible events of that day and the subsequent tragedy for the Martin family are forever linked in my mind.