A Remembrance of Aunt Diane

Note: I wrote and posted a piece about my Aunt Diane in September of 2016, not long after I started this blog. I have updated and edited that essay in her memory. She died Monday, April 25, 2022. She was 92. She joins her sister, Clair, who passed away this past November, and her brother, my dad, Barry, who died 17 years ago, in the unknowable great beyond. They were each unique and important to me and I miss all three.

When we met at the burial site for Aunt Diane this past Wednesday, the rabbi told us that death takes us all, no one is spared.  He went on to say that the ritual of gathering at the cemetery reminds us to recommit to living life meaningfully. He told us that we were fortunate to be able to leave that afternoon though Diane could not– we should make the most of the time we have. He urged us not to waste it. I stood in the chill wind, somehow it is always colder and windier at cemeteries, I took in the huge expanse of grave markers as far as my eye could see, and I understood the truth of his words.

It’s funny how I hadn’t noticed it before – the likeness around the eyes. The line of the brow. The particular shade of blue, flecked with gray. The first time I saw Aunt Diane after my father died, the likeness unnerved me. During subsequent visits it comforted me. I felt like I got two-for-one: a visit with Dad, too.

My father was the middle child, one sister (Diane) three years older and another sister (Clair) two and a half years younger. They were three of the smartest people I have ever known. It’s kind of amazing that three siblings could each be so sharp. They had different personalities to be sure, but they shared incisiveness, a capacity for insight and intelligence that was as impressive as it could be intimidating. They also shared lively, large, blue-gray eyes. I always wished I had inherited those eyes.

In a traditional Jewish family, especially of that era (Dad was born in 1932), the son was the prince. Typically the family’s aspirations were tied up in the success of the son. Not so in my dad’s family. While I take pride in the fact that it was the eldest daughter who became the doctor, it seems that my father was overlooked. By his description, corroborated by Aunt Diane, he was not given encouragement or attention by his parents. It is a mystery that will never be solved.

Visual evidence of the family dynamic: photo taken at my dad’s bar mitzvah in 1945: Diane (16 years old) seated in front, (l-r): Clair (10 years old), Selma (my grandmother), Leo (my grandfather), Barry (my dad, age 13).

Growing up I didn’t know Aunt Diane that well. We celebrated Passover and Thanksgiving together most years, but those were large gatherings and didn’t provide much opportunity to have intimate conversation. I knew that we all respected Aunt Diane and called upon her whenever there were medical issues that needed to be addressed. I remember her reassuring presence at the hospital when I had eye surgery, by an ophthalmologist she recommended, when I was 5 years old and again when I was 21.

But the relationship between my father and his older sister, while loyal and loving, could also be tense for reasons I didn’t understand. Or maybe the tenseness related to her husband, Paul. Dad and Uncle Paul had different sensibilities, they didn’t share interests or humor. They each liked to laugh, but not at the same things. It was not something spoken about, just something I sensed. It would take some unusual circumstances for me to get to know Diane on my own.

I was preparing to go to Columbia University for graduate school, but housing wasn’t available when the semester started. It was September 1980 and Columbia was rehabbing a building on 80th Street and Columbus Avenue that would be offered to graduate students. I reserved a studio in that building, but since it wasn’t ready, Aunt Diane and Uncle Paul offered to let me stay with them to spare me a 90 minute commute (each way!) from Canarsie. I lived with them for almost two months, making the easy trip from 104th and Broadway to 120th and Amsterdam where the School of International and Public Affairs was located. And, I got to know Aunt Diane. I can’t say I got to know Uncle Paul.

I spent any number of hours talking with Aunt Diane about a range of subjects, from national politics (lamenting Ronald Reagan’s nomination to be President) to Israel to health care policy to personal values. I learned she was a lot more liberal than my parents! I learned about her history, about the challenges of going to medical school as a Jewish woman in the early 1950’s where she faced both anti-Semitism and misogyny. She was a trailblazer and a free-thinker; a woman before her time, especially in terms of male and female roles.

One area where Aunt Diane was distinctly more progressive than my parents was in her attitude toward premarital sex. I knew she and Uncle Paul took a more relaxed view of the subject so I asked her if Gary could stay over with me. Gary and I had already been together for a year at that point and he was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, even further uptown (on 168th street). Gary was living at home with his parents in Rosedale (Queens), leaving him with a monumental commute to the lab. Aunt Diane explained that she had no problem with it, but was not comfortable allowing something that would go against my parents’ wishes. While it was true that my parents would not sanction that in their home, I thought they would be okay with it if she was – after all, I had been away at college for the four previous years. I think my parents took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. I suggested she talk to my mom about it. I was not privy to that conversation, but a day or two later Aunt Diane told me that Gary was welcome to stay over.

Aunt Diane was a pediatrician who worked at a clinic in a hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, her patients were mostly children of immigrants. During one of those conversations she told me she didn’t believe money should be part of the relationship between a physician and her patient. As a result, she spent her career practicing in the clinic and working for the New York City Department of Health, organizing continuing education for doctors. I always respected that choice, but today as an adult fully aware of the implications of that decision, I admire it even more.

After Uncle Paul died in 2010, when Gary and I were in Manhattan, we would sometimes meet Aunt Diane for a meal, often at the diner in her neighborhood.  She still lived in the same apartment she shared with Paul on the Upper West Side, the same apartment I stayed in back in 1980, and the same one I visited when I was a child. We met her as she walked ever so slowly with a cane, making her way down Broadway. We took a booth at the Metro Diner and chatted. We talked briefly about her health status; she had medical issues, as any octogenarian would. But mostly we talked about other things, she told us stories of her adventures in Israel with Paul in the 1950s.  She asked us questions about our lives, discussed advances in medicine with Gary. As one of those meals concluded, she invited us to join her to see a movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on the book by the same name by Amos Oz. She was meeting a friend to see the movie at 3:00. We would have loved to go, if only we didn’t have another commitment (which we really did have – her offer was much more appealing!).

Those meals became less frequent as time went on and Aunt Diane’s mobility and cognition declined. I will continue to think back on them, though, particularly whenever Gary and I go to that diner. I saw my father in her eyes while we sat in that booth, especially how they crinkled up when she laughed. I am grateful I got to see them for as long as I did, but also so sad that I will see them no more, a connection to my dad extinguished. I will miss Aunt Diane’s wisdom, her stories, and insights. Her memory is surely a blessing.

Dad with his sisters

Mom with her sisters-in-law

Strong Ties

When you have a group of friends, especially from college, there can be an ebb and flow to the connections. I was part of a group of four friends at SUNY-Binghamton that has remained connected for 46 years, from freshman year through graduation and the decades that followed. Wow! that is a number that is hard to fathom. Stretches of time pass without seeing each other, though social media has made it easier to keep tabs on one another, but when we gather again, we pick up where we left off. Alison, Dianne, Merle and I have all led very different lives since college but the essentials remain – our view of the world, our humor, our wish to see the best in each other are at the heart.

Most recently we gathered in Atlanta for a four-day visit. Sadly, the reason for our reunion was the death of Dianne’s husband after a grueling battle with pancreatic cancer. Dianne has lived in the Atlanta area since 1982, the rest of us remained in New York. Though our trip was prompted by her tragic loss, our time together included as many laughs as tears. There’s a Joni Mitchell lyric, “laughter and crying, you know it’s the same release” seems particularly apt. Our visit surely did not heal Dianne, a loss of that magnitude is too hard to process if it ever can be, though she is strong and resilient. Hopefully we provided comfort that she can draw on as she figures out her path forward.

The four of us bonded during freshmen orientation at SUNY-Binghamton. Alison and Dianne chose to room together, they were high school friends from Island Park, a working-class suburb on Long Island. Merle and I came from Canarsie (Brooklyn) and though we attended the same high school, we didn’t know each other well. Luckily, the four of us were assigned to the same dorm, Cayuga Hall. Many nights of drinking, dancing, studying, and talking – mostly talking – laughing and crying carried us through those four years.

Sometimes in friendships like ours there can be crosscurrents of tension where one person falls out with another or the dynamic shifts. That didn’t happen so much for us, at least not that I remember. Choices we made, classes, internships and jobs, may have separated us but the bond remained. We saw each other through break-ups, disappointments and achievements in those four years. It is kind of extraordinary that it was enough to sustain us for more than 40 years after we left college.

Some friendships are born of convenience, from work or your neighborhood, and when no longer convenient, they dissolve. Others stand the test of time. What is it that creates a stronger connection?

Scenes from Atlanta:

All Things Must Pass

I arrive at the corner of Bleecker and Sixth Avenue with a decision to make: continue clearing out Aunt Clair’s apartment or head home. I take a breath after running around to three banks to close out Clair’s accounts and dropping off her cable equipment. Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably mild weather, I am overtaken by sadness. It hits me: an era has come to an end. Clair’s apartment is just a block from where I stand, having made her home in Greenwich Village for 60 years. Though I know I can return any time to wander these streets, window shop, sit at a café, or see an Off-Broadway play, it won’t be the same.

It isn’t just Aunt Clair’s passing that accounts for my unsettled feeling. Everywhere I look I see empty storefronts, signs advertising retail space for rent, shop windows papered over. Empty booths for outdoor dining line the already narrow streets. It may be mild for February, but it is still too cold to eat outside. The sidewalks are busy, though. A steady stream of people coming and going. I hear hammering, metal striking metal, and look up to see construction workers on a fire escape working on a building. Greenwich Village is in transition again.

Memories of other visits to the Village flood in. Like many neighborhoods in New York City, the Village has gone through many incarnations. When I was a teenager in the 1970s there were multiple independent bookstores, side by side with headshops and record stores. I would come with a friend, and we would go in and out of those stores. I loved browsing the aisles of Azuma, a store featuring decorative items imported from China and Japan. SoHo wasn’t a thing yet, there was nothing but empty loft space below Houston Street. Though I enjoyed walking the neighborhood, I was wary of the strung-out junkies hanging out on the corners, the panhandlers, the odd characters who mumbled to themselves and the general seediness. That was the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Photo captured from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf206HJ55ts  – retrieved 2/13/2022

As the decades passed, the bookstores left, New York University expanded its footprint, chain stores moved in, and the Village changed. It was strange to see the same stores (Gap, Banana Republic, American Eagle) I saw in the mall near my house in upstate New York, now just blocks away from Washington Square Park.

Like other parts of the city, the change was a mixed bag. The neighborhood no longer felt seedy; it felt safer. Some of the charming shops remained, but pricier restaurants replaced the mom-and-pop places. SoHo became trendy featuring interesting art galleries. Rents went through the roof. Aunt Clair’s building was bought by a fancy property management company. She was fortunate to be grandfathered into the rent-control program; it was the only way she could have stayed in her place. In fact, she likely could not have afforded to live anywhere in Manhattan had she been forced out.

One of the last times I walked through the Village with Aunt Clair, not long before the pandemic, change was already afoot. Some stores were vacant, much to her consternation. She explained to me that for large real estate companies there was some kind of tax advantage to taking a loss on these properties – there was no incentive to rent to a fledgling new business, hence the empty retail spaces. In her estimation, the neighborhood was paying the price to protect the interests of the rich and powerful – something that violated her sense of fairness. Not knowing enough to question her, we went on to other topics, but her analysis stayed with me.

My travels this morning, to settle Aunt Clair’s affairs, also took me past the NYU-owned building where my mother sublet an apartment for several summers. After my dad died in 2005, my mom hoped to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in the Village, a prospect distinctly unappealing to Dad. Aunt Clair, Dad’s ever resourceful sister and devoted to Mom, found a list of apartments offered for sublet by NYU professors when they went on sabbatical or taught abroad for a semester. Aunt Clair got Mom on that email distribution list and found a place for her. Mom spent at least three summers seeing shows, going to museums, and meeting up with Clair and other friends and family, a dream fulfilled.

As I stand on the corner, I think of all the experiences on these streets. I am grateful that I noticed as I ran errands that morning that three of Clair’s favorite shops – a coffee roasting/tea shop (Porto Rico Importing on Bleecker), a homemade pasta store (Raffetto’s on West Houston) and Rocco’s Bakery (also on Bleecker) are still open for business despite the pandemic and the economic turmoil that comes like waves over the decades. Some things are constant – or seem to be, until they aren’t.

I continue standing on the corner lost in reverie. I consider my options: stay and try to accomplish more clearing out of my aunt’s apartment, the essentials are done but the task could be never-ending, or get on the road to head home with enough time to beat rush hour. I look at the time on my I-phone. It is about 2:00 in the afternoon. Rush hour can be an all-day affair in New York. Driving uptown any time after 3:00 can get hairy, with schools letting out and some trying to beat an early exit from work. I haven’t eaten lunch and I still have about an hour on my parking meter. I stand there paralyzed with indecision. Slowly I realize I have had enough. I am worn out.

I walk to my car wondering when I might be back here and what I will find when I do. Whatever happens, it will be without Aunt Clair there to witness and offer her unvarnished, insightful  commentary.

Letters Left Behind

Note: Every so often my thoughts are best expressed in a prose-poem – I call it that because I don’t know what else to call it. As I continue going through Aunt Clair’s stuff, this is what came to me.

Aunt Clair saved letters

Who do they belong to now that

She has passed to another dimension?

The sender? The recycling bin?

Me – her devoted niece and self-appointed family historian?

Are they private?

Can I use them in my writing?

She saved them

To what end?

Buried in a stuck drawer

Wrapped in rubber bands

Encased in baggies.

Liberated, gently unfolded

Expressions of love

From her mother who died 46 years ago,

Endearments scrawled with an unsteady hand

From her father, also long dead.

Sister, nieces and nephews

offering thanks for a thoughtful gift

updating her from college or from across the world

making amends for a misunderstanding.

Love committed to paper

Yellowing, disintegrating with my touch

Voices from long ago

Briefly heard again.

A Eulogy for Aunt Clair

Note: Aunt Clair, my father’s sister, has been included in this blog many times, including a post that was dedicated to her ( this one). She was a unique person who had a major impact on my life. As my cousin Ilana so aptly put it: Every teen and young adult should be lucky enough to have an adult who cares about them and exposes them to new experiences who is not their parent. We were fortunate to have Aunt Clair. The family gathered this past Friday to celebrate and honor her. These were my remarks.

Thank you for coming – or participating via Zoom.

I’m Linda, one of Clair Brody’s nieces. Aunt Clair communicated her last wishes to me, and I hope this gathering reflects her intent.

From the time she arrived on March 5, 1935 until her death on November 2, 2021, Clair, far more than most, did things on her own terms. It is something I have long admired, though I’m not sure it always worked to her benefit.

Aunt Clair was Brooklyn born and bred. Arriving while the Great Depression still had a grip on this country, she was the beloved daughter of hard-working parents, Leo and Selma Brody. She was the younger sister, by five years, of Diane (now Gareen) and 2 ½ years younger than Barry, my father. She was so proud of her older and very accomplished siblings. Clair went to New York City public schools and graduated from Brooklyn College, with a major in photography. She was a talented photographer and some of her work is on the table here. (I am including other photos below to show her work)

Leah on her first birthday – May 1988 – Photos by Clair Brody
Leah with her Grandpa – Clair’s brother – my dad – taken that same day

Clair went on to write code for computers – for TWA (which allowed her to travel far and wide), Bendix and Avis among others –  she worked in that industry when it was in its infancy and when there were few women.

My brother Mark and I went to her apartment in Greenwich Village on Wednesday. There were a couple of reasons we went, but a major reason for me was to find some mementos of who Aunt Clair was and the legacy she leaves us. I think what we found does just that.

We were greeted by one of the long term doormen, who recognized me from my prior visits. He immediately asked, “What is happening? How is she?” Mark explained that she had passed away and his face dropped. The weight of the loss was clear. We thanked him for being so helpful to our Aunt Clair and continued on to pick up her mail and go up to the apartment.

Her mail gives another glimpse into our Aunt Clair. She has likely donated to every social justice and charitable organization in the world. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Nature Conservancy, the City Mission, the Simon Weisenthal Center….the list could go on. Though she was never rich, she was generous with what she had.

We went into her apartment. First, we have to acknowledge that organization and neatness were not strengths of our beloved Auntie. Aunt Clair loved gadgets and tools and she had lots of them. She loved a good deal from Costco – so there was evidence of that, too. She enjoyed cooking and eating. – though she had a tiny galley kitchen in her Greenwich Village studio apartment – it was well-stocked with pots, pans, dishes….and gadgets.

There was a lot of dust. Aunt Clair accumulated things and saved everything. Medical reports from decades ago, instructions for exercise, letters. I found the original lease to her apartment – from July 1, 1960! She paid $80.40 a month. Think about that…she lived in the same place for 61 years. What does that say? As much as she was a free thinker, and she was as insightful and intelligent as they come, she did not embrace change.

As I looked around her apartment, I saw her love of art and music. Her taste in both could be quirky. She had lovely pieces of pottery. She also kept a plastic ring with a smiley face.

She loved biking. She had a compact stationary bike set up in that studio apartment. She had lots of tools and supplies to take care of her other bicycle, the one she kept in storage. I had great adventures with her biking.

There is much more I can say – and I will say a bit more about my personal relationship with Aunt Clair – but first I will turn to her other niece, Ilana. Then her nephew Mark will share his remembrance and I will come back.

————————————————————————

Before I share my personal memories, I want to say on behalf of my mother, that she is devastated by the loss of her sister-in-law. They may have been fractious at times (as Aunt Clair was with those near and dear to her), but they maintained a close and devoted relationship long after Dad died. Mom will miss their late-night telephone conversations and just knowing Clair was there for her.

I’d like to share some specific memories:

Aunt Clair was feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.

Making your way in New York City as a single woman isn’t easy. I remember Dad telling me about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. She fought back and ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did.

I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I think I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.

Some of my fondest memories of time spent with her involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders. 

I joined her for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! This was in August in the late 1970s when the park was a haven for drugs and violence. Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain. It was odd to be there. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.

We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode down Broadway, passing the neon signs of the theaters, all the way to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. It felt like a ghost town. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.

Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment.

It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair.  We took other bike rides – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I saw plays, movies and ballets with her. She introduced me to Alvin Ailey, not the man, the dance troupe. I have gone back to see them many times, and brought Gary and later my children. We ate many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her. Thank you, Auntie.

Finally, I want to say that I am so saddened by Aunt Clair’s final months. I wish it had gone differently. She struggled – in so many ways. She was just celebrating her 86th birthday when she found out the pancreatic cancer had returned. She fought it. She so wanted to maintain her independence, but she really couldn’t. Her body was failing her. So was our broken medical system and our country’s flawed elder care. I tried to help and so did others in the family, but we could not fix it. The inevitable was going to happen – and it did this past Tuesday.

I take comfort in several things, my memories, of course. But there is something else. When Gary and I visited her last Saturday, while she was still in the hospital, she was quite talkative. In between language that was indecipherable, she shared something important that I want to share with you. She said she had no regrets – she acknowledged that though she never had a spouse or her own children, she felt loved. She said she knew she was loved by her mother and father, and she felt like she belonged – her words. That’s more than many can say.

The last six months brought Aunt Clair a lot of anguish and discomfort, but I am heartened that she felt loved. I will miss her, as I know many of you will too, but she isn’t suffering anymore – I am grateful for that. There is a traditional phrase in Judaism, and though Aunt Clair was not religious, I think she would appreciate it: May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. I hope her soul is bound with those she loved who left before her – her parents, her brother, her cousin Carol, her dearest friend Phyllis and other family and friends who were important to her.

And may she rest in peace.

Thank you.

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

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 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.