The Hardest Job

I visited with my mom the other day. She is 88 years old. I asked her what she remembered about becoming a first-time mother.

I had just come back from helping my daughter, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, her first child. Caring for my newborn granddaughter, changing her diaper, soothing her when she fussed, brought back powerful memories of my own introduction to motherhood. I was curious how my mom remembered her early days after her firstborn, my older brother Steven, arrived.

Mom gave birth to Steven in an Air Force hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1955. When I asked her how she felt at the time, she responded, with some hesitancy, “I was frightened.”

I was surprised by Mom’s response, and, at the same time, I wasn’t. If asked how I felt upon being released from the hospital in 1987 with my newborn daughter I would have said, ‘Terrified.’

We don’t usually admit to those feelings. We are supposed to be overjoyed. For me, at least in the beginning, the fear outweighed the joy. It felt like such a huge responsibility; one I had no previous training to take on. I felt woefully inadequate.

Mom went on to tell me a story, one I had heard before, but was eager to hear again. Before they sent her home, the nurse showed her how to diaper the baby and gave her other instructions. While explaining, the nurse took Steven by his feet and flipped him over on the bed! He appeared unfazed by the motion, he landed safely. “He isn’t as fragile as you think,” the nurse told my stunned mother.

It is hard to imagine a nurse doing that when I had my daughter in 1987. Though Mom took some comfort from the nurse’s demonstration, she couldn’t help but wonder about her ability to meet the needs of the tiny, living, needy creature entrusted to her care.

In the 1950s women were not encouraged to breast feed. My brothers and I were bottle-fed formula from the get-go. During that recent conversation Mom told me the idea of nursing made her uncomfortable, she didn’t consider the possibility. Since bottle-feeding was the norm in that era, I don’t think she felt any guilt. When I became a mom, it was expected that you breastfed. It was assumed that unless you were physically unable to, you did it. I could be remembering wrong – it is possible it wasn’t quite that black and white, but that was my perception. I received some guidance from the nurse while I was in the hospital to get me started, and fortunately, I was able to successfully do it without much physical complication. That doesn’t mean there weren’t other complications. I remember being exhausted, on the edge of depletion. It seemed as soon as I finished a feeding it was time to do it again.

Tired anyone? Me holding Leah – at least one of us was sleeping

My husband and I decided, after two weeks, to introduce a bottle of formula so that he could take a middle of the night feeding. Despite hearing something about ‘nipple confusion,’ we decided to risk it for my sanity. Though I believed we did the right thing for us, I didn’t widely share our approach given the prevailing attitudes of the day.

I don’t recall getting much guidance or support navigating these issues. In a way, I envied the fact that my mom didn’t have to deal with the question of whether to breastfeed or not. She had confidence that a formula-fed baby would be just fine. By the 1980s the decision became fraught – there are extremists (as there are about everything in our society these days) who insist that a woman must do it given the evidence that breast milk helps the baby’s immune system. It is only in the last year or two that there is recognition that we should not be so dogmatic. So many things come into play. Nursing can be unbelievably time consuming. In the first days and weeks after birth it can be every two hours, leaving little time for sleep or physical recovery. Some women experience pain or have supply issues (some women who produce milk worry ceaselessly about whether it is sufficient). Others are fortunate to find it relatively easy and experience the emotional reward of bonding with their baby – but most women I know, though they ultimately may have felt fulfilled by doing it, had a bumpy road getting there. The process can be hard without adding the collective judgment of society.

Writing this in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe and deprive women of their right to choose, I see a consistent theme. Women shoulder huge responsibilities in bringing forth new life, but we are not supported in that work (yes, I called it work, labor is called that for a reason).

The myriad ways in which our culture fails us is breathtaking. From inadequate access to health care (from prenatal to aftercare for mother and baby), to the history of failing to research women’s health issues, to the lack of understanding of the demands of those first few months, and finally, on a fundamental level, not valuing us, women often feel alone and overwhelmed. Though I am well past new motherhood, all of those feelings come rushing back as I watch my daughter go through it, especially in the context of the court’s repudiation of women. I feel the anxiety and weight of the responsibility in the pit of my stomach.

Being a mother is the hardest job I ever had (and still have). I believe, from what I know of my grandmothers and mother, they would agree. Our society needs to reprioritize its values. Mothering, and all forms of caretaking, must move up many rungs. It deserves better pay (sort of a joke since mothers aren’t paid, but we should assign it value). Childcare should be far more financially rewarding. But, perhaps even more than that, the work of mothering deserves more respect. Mother’s Day is a trifling excuse for the recognition that is due to those who take on the role.

It goes without saying that the government has no place in deciding whether a woman becomes one. I am well aware that some are not up to the task; all the more reason to support reproductive choice and change the way we view and assist mothers. It does take a village to raise a healthy child. When will we accept that and make policy decisions accordingly? I hope for my granddaughters’ sakes we begin the change now.

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.

A Visit with Mom

My brother Mark, who lives near me, called the other day to tell me that he and his wife were going to visit Mom. They were planning to go there and back in one day – it is a 3.5 hour drive one way. I have been wanting to go but have been waiting for omicron to die down and the weather to cooperate. It seemed like this was fortuitous timing, and it would save me from driving alone. “Mind if I join you?” I asked. “Of course,” came the quick reply.

As I do before any visit to Mom these days, I thought about what I can bring that will make for pleasant conversation. This has gotten increasingly challenging as her circumstances have diminished. Aside from the realities of Covid which limits options, we can’t really take her out for a meal anymore. That used to be a great pleasure for her. I would be happy to manage her oxygen and walker, which make it awkward but doable, but these days she simply tires too quickly. It gets to be too much for her and the brief pleasure she derives from getting out of the apartment is surpassed by exhaustion and anxiety.

So, we look for other ways to make it enjoyable. Bringing in a meal is special. Fortunately, the food where she lives is good – no complaints there – but there is still a sameness. Mom particularly enjoys soup so bringing in wonton or a hearty chicken noodle is welcome. Since the weather was unseasonably nice, the sun was out in a cloudless sky and the air was relatively mild (considering it is January in the northeast), we ate on her patio. Mom closed her eyes, put her face in the sun and took a deep breath. In the days when Mom was hale and hearty she would have sat without a coat, not so anymore. It was chilly, and she needed a jacket, but it still felt good for all of us to get some fresh air.

As I have written in many previous blog posts, I have been sorting through papers and mementos from Mom’s house in Florida and Aunt Clair’s apartment. It is a bittersweet process, finding loving letters but also evidence of loss, like my dad’s death certificate. When I come across something humorous or poignant, I often take a picture of it and text it to whomever I think might be interested. Sometimes I text Mom photos, but it is hit or miss whether she will successfully find it on her phone. I scanned the items I most recently sorted and found some things I thought would be meaningful to her for our visit. I selected some letters from Zada, Mom’s father.

After finishing our lunch on the patio, we returned to her living room. Mom settled into her recliner and the rest of us sat down around her. We took out the letters from Zada.

Though Zada didn’t have the opportunity to finish high school, he was a self-educated, well-read man who wrote beautifully. Mark read this one aloud to Mom:

Tuesday 7/26/67

I am writing one letter to my dear ‘aynklach’ (note: grandchildren in Yiddish). Because whatever I have to say, I must say to all of you. I cannot single out one. But first let me tell you what your letters mean to me. Regardless of your grammatical errors and your misspelling, the words you write are full of love and wisdom. My pride knows no bounds. You are concerned that I have a good summer, that I do not work too hard. That Terry is making proper meals, and that I should not be lonesome. How can I be lonesome when I have your letters to remind me how precious you are? So I count the days when your vacation will be over, and I will be seeing you in the flesh again. To be able to watch television with Steve (especially the programs he likes), also to hear the pearls of wisdom emanating from Mark’s mouth. And to be rewarded by my little sunshine although I hear she is not so little anymore.

Look boys, I cannot go into detail about the sporting events we are all interested in, that is why I had the Post sent to you, and when you get back (hale and hearty) we will have long discussions of all the things that have transpired while you were away.

I am also very pleased with the progress you are making with your swimming and Steve, if I am ever to see you dive, and do it well, my pleasure will be complete. Mark, my hand does not hurt, and I have plenty of writing time, but words, once my stock in trade, are wanting to commend such a good boy as you. So I keep thinking of beautiful things to say. My heart is so full of love that mere words would blemish my feelings. Linda, stay as sweet as you are always, never lose your vivaciousness, speak up at all times so I may see the sparkle in your eyes and the loveliness of you.

God bless my grandchildren. May you be happy always. Zada

Mom listened, a smile on her face, marveling at how well he expressed himself. We talked about the context of the letter, remembering our summers in Illinois (the first of three spent there) while Zada was home in Canarsie. We weren’t on vacation exactly; Dad was attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to get his masters in economics. Mom remembers those days fondly. I brought a photo from that summer, which elicited Mom’s pleasure at how slim she looked in her bathing suit (see above).

Then Mark read the next letter, dated ten years later. This letter, written on her birthday just after the wedding of his oldest grandchild, my brother Steven, begins: From the president of the Feige Brody fan club.

It continues:

Nov. 16, 1977

Dear Feige,

The purpose of this letter is to expound on the theory that it is far better to be 44 years young, than to be 44 years old.

You proved to me without a shadow of a doubt, how you deported yourself at Cindy’s and Steven’s wedding: In my eyes and probably everyone else’s you were the fairest and youngest of all.

Stay young Feige, your husband will adore you, your children will respect you, and I will always love you.

Love and Best of Days,

Dad

As Mark read the letter to Mom, she smiled broadly and listened attentively. “That’s my father,” she said with satisfaction. I think it is fair to say that Mom did as he suggested. She stayed young, at least until her 88th year when time is finally catching up with her. Her husband, my father, certainly adored her until he took his last breath, and her children respect her. Zada was prophetic.

As we said our good-byes, we reminded Mom that she is 88 years young.

Words of Comfort

Once again, the Covid pandemic is on my mind. Aside from wearying of the limitations it has placed on my life, it feels like the virus is closing in on me. It feels unavoidable. It has hit close to home as family members and friends have been diagnosed in recent weeks. While omicron seems to be less deadly than prior variants and results in less serious illness, it is still no joke.  And, until we are over the peak and on the other side, we don’t really know its impact.

People continue to make different choices in how they cope with the pandemic. Some reasonable folks have concluded that, while wearing masks in public spaces, they are resuming activities and living their lives. My husband is not comfortable with that approach, perhaps as a physician who is in the office seeing patients every day, he thinks the risk is too high until we clearly pass the peak of this surge. He goes to work masked and goggled, washing and sterilizing his hands relentlessly, but then declines most social activities. He would like me to make the same choice. For the most part I have, refraining from most things except I continue to play tennis once every other week. Since I am not working and we are now in the depth of winter, my life is quite limited. It leaves too much time to think, too much time to worry.

In the midst of my angst, I read some helpful words in the form of a poem that came across my Facebook feed:

I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; it already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.

I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.

Author: Mary Anne Perrone

The above lines are part of a longer piece, but these were words I needed to read right now. I’m not so sure about that last phrase – I don’t dance in a holy circle (I’m not sure I even understand what she means by that), but the idea that I don’t need recognition to find value in what I create is a thought I need to be reminded of. The belief that I am enough is something I continue to work on.

The first lines of this piece speak to the major challenge posed by the pandemic – the fear that the other shoe will drop. What am I worried about? The health of the ones I love. I want to know that family members who have Covid or another a health scare are okay, that they will recover quickly and suffer no ill effect. Unfortunately, I can’t know that.

Worry can always be around the corner. If I allow it, it can rule my life. I find comfort in those lines above – the shoe has dropped – at times. It is true that the worst has not happened – I am still here, as are Gary and my children, thankfully – but bad things have occurred, and I have survived. I have managed.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend who is battling colon cancer. Her husband took the diagnosis hard, understandably. It is scary, though her prognosis is good. Her husband was depressed and after a time she confronted him, saying that she needed him to stop being so down, she needed a more positive attitude. He confessed that he was terrified of losing her. She reminded him that she is here now. When something scary and unknown hangs over you it is hard to be in the present.

Though I am not faced with the same situation as my friend, I related to the challenge they faced. The meditation app I started using a few weeks ago offered helpful insight into the scenario where you might imagine the worst. During one of the exercises, the guide pointed out that thoughts are not reality – thinking something doesn’t make it so. Worrying about future health complications has little to do with the reality of the here and now. It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of ‘what if,’ but it leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. We can’t put our head in the sand, we need to plan when we have real information about what the future holds, but we can’t live in anticipation of the worst. It is a choice we can make. I can control my thoughts. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t come easy to me, but it is empowering to realize that I can redirect my mental energy.

I don’t think I used to have to work so hard to quell the worry. I didn’t worry so much before. Why am I now?

Maybe being inundated with bad news – people losing their homes to fire, people dying of Covid, a friend losing her husband to pancreatic cancer – has made it harder to cope. Bad things were always happening and will always happen. I think social media heightens the sense of disaster all around us. Did they always report when a retired third string quarterback for an obscure NFL team died? My Twitter and Facebook feed is filled with those stories. When someone as famous as Betty White died in the past, of course it made the news. But now it is hard to know what to do with all this information, especially all the losses. How can we process these deaths (whether related to Covid or not)? It is hard not to be overwhelmed.

Some periods of time seem more perilous than others. This is one of those times. I want to put the people I love in a bubble. But I can’t, nor would they want to live there. I need instead to focus on the joys, the beauty and the love today.

Serenity now! View from a walk at Five Rivers – another coping-with-the-pandemic strategy

Living Her Best Life

As I continue to go through Aunt Clair’s collection of papers, I find interesting items. Among them a xerox copy of a letter written by Grandma to her oldest daughter, Diane (who was called Dinya by the family). I was initially puzzled that a xeroxed letter, not addressed to her, was included in Aunt Clair’s collection. After reading it I understood why Aunt Diane would have shared it and Clair kept it.

The first page of the letter, with the date, is missing so I don’t know exactly when it was written but based on the subject (and reference to their wedding anniversary) it appears to be early in my grandparents’ retirement to Florida, either the winter of 1970 or 1971:

In the almost 43 years of our marriage this is the first time Daddy went with me for clothes. He’s a panic. He wants me to buy everything I try on. Dinya, I think he is really seeing me for the first time in many years. Daddy could be walking with me, suddenly he stops and tells me I look good, is enough to drive me crazy. Daddy is completely relaxed and thank ‘God,’ he feels good. Remember the wise words from your mudder. Nothing like a love affair at 65 and 67. When we walk into a store and I try a dress on and walk over to Daddy to ask if he likes it etc etc, he tells me it is very nice, shakes his head up and down and tells me I look very good. When I walk back to the dressing room with the saleswoman, she asks if I’m ‘going with him,’ if I’m going to marry him. She thinks he’s my Romeo and I’m taking him shopping. Dinya, I fall apart. Dinya, you, Paul and children have a very Healthy Happy New Year. We miss you all very much. Heaps of love from Daddy and me.

                                                                                    Mom

How adorable is that? It gives me hope as a spring chicken of 62 and married for only 38 years that romance can be alive and well in the years ahead. I am quite fortunate in that, even with the natural ebb and flow of relationships, the love has never gone out of my marriage. It is nice to know that the flame can burn brightly again.

I also appreciate Grandma’s word choices. She writes, “He’s a panic.” I can hear her saying that – she used that a lot as I recall, and it shows up in any number of the letters in Aunt Clair’s collection. It meant the person, or their behavior, made her laugh. I don’t think we use the word panic that way anymore, do we? She also refers to herself as ‘your mudder,’ spelling it as she would say it. But it wasn’t that she had an accent and thought it was spelled that way, she was perfectly capable of saying and spelling mother properly, she was being humorous. The letters are filled with her amusing touches.

In another way, it feels odd to read this. These are my grandparents! And she is writing to her daughter! There is nothing off color or even too personal in it, it’s lovely, but still not what one expects in communication between a mother and daughter – especially of that generation. But, maybe I’m wrong and if I could survey letters of that era I would find intimacies shared. I wonder if I wrote something along those lines to my daughter how she would react.

More interesting to me is that it was my impression that though they cared for each other, I didn’t perceive much of a spark between Grandma and Grandpa. After all, they slept in separate twin beds like Lucy and Desi on television. Most of what I heard and saw of their interactions revolved around their respective health. Grandma regulated Grandpa’s diet rigidly and often spoke on his behalf. I thought he was the quintessential henpecked Jewish husband. Maybe he was.

Grandpa, with his gentlemanly, reserved ways, was considerate in a formal way, but I don’t recall romantic gestures. It was a different time, though. Emotions were more closely held. I certainly didn’t know them in their youth. Plus, they had been through so much.

Young adulthood, which for Grandma and Grandpa was during the early 1930s when the country was suffering, is a time of striving – to find your place, to establish yourself. Grandpa had the spirit of an entrepreneur. He came to America to seek his fortune; he was willing to take risks. He came by himself, leaving his parents, sister and extended family in Poland in 1921. He was 17. Grandma, American-born, was much more cautious by nature. The Great Depression heightened her fears. This difference caused friction. Aunt Clair told me that Grandpa felt stifled by Grandma. Then in 1945 Grandpa learned that what remained of his family had been killed by the Nazis. I can only imagine what that did to his spirit. It is a lot of strain for a marriage. Growing up in the stress, trauma, and sadness colored the childhoods of Diane, Dad and Clair and shaped their perception of their parents.

Both Grandma and Grandpa worked hard; they put in long hours at the stores they owned. Over the years they had a dry goods store, a luncheonette and then a laundromat. Some of their businesses were more successful than others. Their financial situation was a mystery, even to my father. They moved to a nicer apartment on Prospect Park West when Dad was in high school and it didn’t include a bedroom for him, though there was one for his sisters. Was that about money? Though they said they would contribute to his wedding, they gave less than they committed to, leaving Mom and Dad to use their gift money to cover the difference.

I knew Dad harbored many resentments about the way he was treated by his parents. He was determined to do it differently with his own children and he did. Recently my mother told me that when Grandma was dying, she and Dad talked it out. Tears were shed and apologies were made. I’m glad to know that, though I wish I knew it years ago when Dad was still alive.

Marriages go through phases, it seems, and children absorb the ripple effects. The beginning can be tough as the couple figures out if they are on the same page in how they approach life. Children can strengthen the bond but also create other tensions. Throw in a natural disaster (like the New England Hurricane of 1938 that upended Nana and Zada’s life) or economic calamities (like the Depression) or violence (the Holocaust) and a marriage may be stretched to the breaking point. If the marriage survives all that retirement can come as a balm, or a couple may find themselves strangers to each other.

Grandpa was able to relax and enjoy himself in his retirement. Not all men are able to do that. I know my father-in-law struggled with the transition, perhaps because retirement wasn’t on his terms. But it was likely more than that. Many men are defined by their work, their identities are wrapped up in their profession, and the loss of that can unmoor them. I imagine women can have that issue too, but I think it is less common for a woman to be so invested in their career that she can’t adjust when it is over. Having hobbies and other interests helps too.  

Most of the letters Aunt Clair saved were written by Grandma when they first became snowbirds (1970-75), after their retirement. The letters reveal that the last five years of Grandma’s life were very happy ones. Though it was abruptly cut short by cancer, she took great pleasure in those final years, even more so because she enjoyed the renewed attentions of her husband. I’m glad Aunt Clair saved those letters so I could know that.

Living their best lives

Reflections

We are now two weeks out from the wedding and we still know of only one case of Covid. We dodged a bullet, and I am so grateful to our guests and vendors for helping to make it as safe as possible. We are so lucky to have memories of a joyous event largely untainted by negative consequences. I can happily reflect on those special moments of joy. Here are some photos from our celebration.


Since the newest Covid surge has reduced our socializing, Gary and I have had time to watch Netflix, or in the case of the documentary “Get Back,” Disney+. The documentary is about the lead up to the rooftop concert that marked the Beatles final public performance, something previously explored in the film and album Let it Be. The documentary is almost eight hours long, divided into 3 segments. I thought it was well worth watching. I came away with a deeper appreciation of them as a band. While I am not immersed in Beatlemania, I am a fan of their music. There was a great deal I didn’t know or had forgotten.

First, they were so young! The events depicted were from January of 1969. I was nine years old and to me the Beatles were grown-ups. Watching them now, from the perspective of a 62 year-old, is quite different.

One of the things I came away with was that music-making is both inspiration and hard work. At various times each of the Beatles come into the studio having dreamt up a new melody in their head the night before or having an idea for a song while they were driving over in their car. To then watch the piece come to fruition is amazing. Some might find it either laborious or repetitive at points, but I thought it showed how much goes into it. I also wondered why I haven’t had the experience of driving to work and having a song like ‘The Long and Winding Road’ pop into my head. I’m joking, of course, I have no skill in that area. But how cool would that be?!? The documentary showed genius at work – and I don’t believe I am overusing that term.

Also, at least based on this presentation, the women, Linda and Yoko, got a bad rap in the old narrative around the Beatles break up. It seems it is a myth that they caused the split of the band. They were there during these sessions and did not seem to be interfering or causing tension. Unless Peter Jackson, the director, selectively edited things, Linda and Yoko should not bear that burden any longer.

If the film offers insight into the disintegration of the group, it seems that the members, particularly George and John, wanted to pursue their own creative voices. They felt constrained by being in the band. Other pressures and circumstances may have exacerbated things – drug use, family/relationship demands, the relentless attention that came with being a Beatle all likely contributed – but ultimately it seems they grew apart. One can’t help but feel sad thinking about what could have been. As I watched I thought frequently about the premature death of John Lennon, which occurred 11 years later, as I appreciated anew his talent and irreverent sense of humor.

Finally, I was impressed with how playful the whole group was. Though stressors were revealed in the film, George Harrison briefly quit, the joy they got from making music together was also evident. There was a lot of laughter.

After spending nearly 8 hours watching the film, I felt like I hung out with them which is a pretty cool feeling. In recent days I find myself putting on Beatles albums and enjoying them immensely.


Another thing Gary and I did, given Covid limitations, was take a ride to Bear Mountain, listening to Let it Be as Gary drove. I haven’t been to Bear Mountain in decades. There was a thin cover of snow, so though we originally planned to hike in the woods, we decided we didn’t have the proper footwear for that. Fortunately, there were some paved paths, one that circled a lovely reflective lake, so we could still explore and take in the lovely scenery.

Hessian Lake – reflecting the surrounding mountain

I had no memory that the park included a zoo which is arranged along a nature trail. Since it was Christmas Eve day, and it was cold and gray, there weren’t many other people which made it perfect! We saw an array of birds, reptiles and fish, in addition to a bear and coyote. The trail also included a history museum which focused on events in the area during the American Revolution. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the views. That section of the Hudson River Valley is spectacular.

A view of the Hudson River looking south

As we wended our way through the park, we noted how great it would be to bring our granddaughter there – an idea I will file for an outing in the future.

After walking for a couple of hours, we went into the Bear Mountain lodge and found a restaurant that was still open despite the approach of Christmas. We ordered some food and, in an abundance of caution, ate it in our car.  It was time to go home. “You don’t need to turn on the GPS, I know how to get home from here,” said Gary. Famous last words. We ended up on the wrong road, but it turned out to be a happy accident. We found our way to 9W north which was a less direct route but took us through a beautiful stretch of mountains dusted with snow.

When we got to Newburgh we turned west and took the Thruway, not nearly as scenic, but more efficient.

Though we made many adjustments on account of Covid, we are trying to make the most of this holiday season.  

What a Weekend!

What a weekend! The wedding weekend is now a full week behind us, and I have been on a roller coaster of emotions. From worrying about everything coming together beforehand, to deep satisfaction watching Leah and Ben having fun with their friends, to laughing with delight at our granddaughter’s performance as flower girl, and back to worrying about the Covid surge and what it might mean for our guests – it has been quite a ride. Frankly I am ready to get off the ride already, it is exhausting. Will I ever feel like life is normal? It is hard to imagine.

The three-day extravaganza in Troy, New York – the welcome dinner on Friday night, the wedding itself Saturday late afternoon and the Sunday brunch – could not have gone better. People came ready to celebrate. It was the first time for many of us (about 120) to gather and we made the most of it. One of the highlights for me was watching Leah and Ben’s eclectic group of friends cutting up the dance floor. The DJ did a great job of keeping the beat going. The dance floor was filled with guests of every age – it is funny that the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s transcends time. Everyone was boogeying and singing along, including me.

But the true verdict on the ‘success’ of the event won’t be known for another week when we see whether any of us or our guests got Covid. That is an unfortunate caveat. So far, we know of one guest who tested positive this past week after feeling symptoms on Tuesday – it is not clear that they were exposed at the wedding. I don’t want to make the wedding about Covid, but it can’t be avoided. I find it hard to reconcile the joy of the gathering with the risk of illness, potentially serious illness.

The weekend was about love – celebrating the love of our daughter and son-in-law for each other, and the love that family and friends have for them. But the specter of Covid hangs over our heads.

We took every step we could think of to ensure that we created as safe an environment as possible. We asked all attendees to provide proof of vaccination – and they did. We asked everyone to take a PCR test within 72 hours of coming to the wedding. We believe people did that, too. We made sure staff at the venue was vaccinated and masked. And, finally, we provided rapid tests to use on the day of the celebration. Gary and I took our rapid test in the hotel room before leaving for the rehearsal dinner – both of us were relieved to be negative.

All those measures still don’t guarantee that there won’t be breakthroughs, especially with the new Omicron variant and the recent spike. We will wait another week to see what happens. As of my writing this, Leah, Ben, Gary, our son Dan, daughter-in-law Beth and I have all taken tests and we have all been negative. Gary and I took a PCR test on Saturday morning, and we learned last night (Sunday) that we were negative again. Phew….

We live in such a strange time. We started planning the wedding two years ago, before the pandemic, when Leah and Ben got engaged. At the time we thought we’d have a large party – between the bride and groom’s friends and families, there were many we wanted to include. As the reality of Covid set in, we made adjustment after adjustment. Eventually we realized that we had to postpone the party – the kids did get married on the original date (December 12, 2020) and we had a total of 12 people present – just the immediate family. I wrote about that weekend here. It was lovely, and we made the best of it, but it wasn’t what we envisioned.

As time passed and things improved, with vaccinations and treatments, Leah and Ben decided to go forward with the original party plan. We, their parents, were happy to do it. The journey since then has included many ups and downs. We reevaluated regularly and kept adding procedures to try to protect everyone. There were many phone calls and long deliberations – we kept fine-tuning the protocol. But nothing is fail-safe.

At different points the worry became nearly overwhelming. Friday night, after our successful welcome dinner at the Arts Center, I lay down exhausted in our hotel room. I couldn’t sleep. I worried, my brain flitted from one disastrous scenario to another. Worry is a useless emotion! There was nothing productive to do. I tossed and turned and eventually dawn arrived. Not surprisingly, it was pouring. Rain is a good omen, right?

Fortunately, morning brought things to do, places to go and people to see. The rain subsided. The moment of truth arrived – the official gathering began. I stopped worrying and stayed present.

The venue, Revolution Hall in Troy, New York, has a beautiful bridal suite. We stocked it with snacks and bottled water. While Leah got her hair and make-up done, friends and family stopped by to chat. I took it all in, watching everyone shower Leah with warmth and affection, sharing stories and laughing. One of the pleasures of being a parent is seeing your children’s lives unfold – the partners they choose, the friendships they cultivate. I like my kids’ friends – they are smart, thoughtful, and kind people. I probably enjoyed the time in the bridal suite as much as Leah did!

Troy turned out to be a fine location – with hotels and other amenities in close proximity to the wedding venue which meant a minimal amount of driving. As I was out and about in the unseasonably warm weather running errands and dropping things off, I took note of my surroundings (also an effort to settle my nerves). Troy, settled in 1787, has a rich history and its architecture reflects that. I took some pictures for posterity (and the blog).

Upper left: Troy is the home of Uncle Sam – a sculpture of him greets passersby

Upper right and lower right: examples of murals

Lower left: Collar City Bridge spanning the Hudson River – One of Troy’s nicknames, it was the home of a shirt-collar industry a century ago.

Left middle: a view from downtown toward RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. After all that had gone into it, our guests left town, and Gary and I began to process it all.

In trying to reconcile the fear that is part of our lives today (not just Covid, but the divisions in our country, the threats to our environment, the rolling back of the reproductive rights of women, the doubts about our future) and the desire to celebrate a joyous occasion, I thought about the challenges faced by generations that came before. I thought about my grandparents having children in the depths of the Great Depression. I thought about my in-laws telling us about a wedding performed while they struggled to survive in the Ivye ghetto during the Holocaust. I’m not suggesting that the challenges we face today are the same as those, but we are in a difficult time. I am calling upon the strength and optimism of our ancestors to see me through this. They did not allow the fear to get the better of them.

Over the last year, as we planned the wedding weekend, I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Would it be worth it if even one person got sick? We decided to move forward – to try to minimize the risk, but to not let Covid define our lives. I think, like our ancestors, we affirmed life and love. I will live with that choice (and I will keep my fingers crossed that our one guest who has Covid recovers quickly and completely and that no one else gets sick).