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).

Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

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.

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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.

Of A Piece

How many lives have you lived?

I was listening to a podcast the other day, as I often do when I am on a long drive in the car. Marc Maron, comedian/actor and host of WTF, during an interview, said, “That was another life, I’ve had many.” He was referring to a period of time early in his career when he was performing as a stand-up comic traveling a circuit of gigs in New England.

I thought about my life. I have had only one. I understand Maron was speaking metamorphically, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve had different lives. It is all of a piece. I imagine that for someone who has had very different careers or lived in different parts of the country or world, or perhaps has been divorced, it might well feel like different lives. Nothing that dramatic has happened to divide mine into definable segments.

Other than living in Pittsburgh for 3 ½ years, I have been a resident of New York my whole life – less than half of it in Brooklyn, the rest in the Capital Region. I have been with the same partner for over 40 years. I have held a variety of jobs, but all were in some aspect of public policy. These are threads that bind the tapestry of my life.

In a way, I feel jealous of those who have had more variety. Sometimes I’m restless; I want a change of scenery. I remember being on vacation in San Francisco, enjoying the natural beauty and cultural offerings, and wondering ‘why do I live in Albany?’ I’m fully aware of the downsides of the city by the bay and the upsides of New York’s capital city but I felt a sense of longing, for a different climate, new surroundings, something new. I’ve never seriously considered moving, not with all that would entail: Gary starting a new practice, uprooting the kids, being so far from our families who are almost entirely located in New York and New Jersey.

There’s a group on Facebook that I am part of called ‘View from My Window.’ Folks from all around the world post pictures from a window in their home. Many have fabulous views of mountains or oceans, but there are mundane views, too: An ordinary tree in the front yard of a suburban home or an up-close look at an apartment building exterior with fire escapes and windows. I see those pictures and imagine if it was my view. I have no complaints about the one I look at most often – the window above my kitchen sink that looks out at our backyard. The same view I have looked at for almost 30 years. As lovely as it is, I crave something different.

The view from my kitchen window this rainy, autumn morning

I’m sure others, who have moved around a lot, would envy my stability.

For some, like Maron, phases of their lives may be demarcated by periods of sobriety and addiction. That, too, is foreign to me. I can imagine that, perhaps more than any of the other changes mentioned above, living life sober would be different on a very deep level as compared to being in the throes of addiction. Perhaps one almost feels like a different person in recovery, before and after, on the wagon or off – I’m just speculating. I am happy not to have gone down that road.

Living in different places and having different careers holds appeal.  It seems so much more colorful. One of my colleagues in a writing group has lived in far-flung places in our world, not to mention different regions of our country. It sounds so much more exciting than my path.

If I am honest with myself, there is a reason my life hasn’t been that exotic. When I was younger, I was afraid of change. In college when some considered studying abroad, the idea intrigued me, but I was too insecure to do more than read through the explanatory pamphlet. I told myself I couldn’t afford it, but I don’t think that was actually the case. Looking back at it, I don’t regret it, I wasn’t ready. In some ways I wish I could go back to college now; I would be so much less tentative, more willing to take risks. Someone said youth is wasted on the young. I see the truth in that now.

The question is what will the future hold? Will Gary and I make a ‘new life’ if he ever retires? I suspect, whatever we do, it will still be of a piece with what has gone before. That’s just who we are, even with my pangs of restlessness.

Do you feel like Marc Maron does, that you have lived multiple lives? Or is your experience more like mine. I’m curious to hear if you are willing to share.

First Impressions

Note: I am returning to some of my earlier blog themes by exploring the beginnings of Gary and my relationship. I continue to work on a book which will examine how generational trauma (the Holocaust)shaped our respective lives and influenced the family we created together. That book is taking forever to complete and keeps getting interrupted by life, but I keep chipping away at it.

            Gary and I were home for the break between semesters of our senior year of college when I was invited to Shabbos dinner at the Baksts. I had been raised to know enough to bring something when you go to someone’s house for dinner – wine, a box of chocolates, flowers. I wondered:  what to bring? Of course, I wanted to make a good impression. Though I had met his parents once, this would be my first extended interaction. Wine was not a big thing in my family life, and I didn’t think it was for Gary’s either, and I didn’t know anything about it, so I eliminated that as an option. I thought it would be nice if I brought a homemade dessert. Mom had a recipe for cheesecake, maybe cheese-pie is more accurate, that I loved and was always a big hit. I decided to make that.

            It was not a complicated recipe. The base of the pie was Philadelphia cream cheese – how could it go wrong? I bought a pre-made graham cracker crust. I topped the cream cheese mixture with canned strawberry filling and fresh strawberries. It looked good. I was pretty sure it would taste good, too.

            I arrived at the Bakst home in Rosedale, a neighborhood strikingly similar to my own in Canarsie. Mrs. Bakst greeted me warmly. I gave her the pie, she thanked me and asked if it should be refrigerated. We agreed that it should, and she put it on a shelf in the refrigerator. We joined the rest of the family in the living room.

            I sat down next to Gary on the couch that was encased in plastic. I took note of the furnishings, so different from my parents’ living room. Aside from the plastic coverings, the style was more formal and classic. My Mom’s taste ran to the modern (for 1979); we had a red shag carpet and black and white houndstooth drapes in our living room. We chatted for a bit, Gary’s older brother and younger sister were there, too, and then we were called to the table.

            The dining room table was set with a cream-colored tablecloth. I didn’t know if the dishes were china, but they looked fancier than everyday plates. Before we sat down, Mrs. Bakst lit the candles, reciting the prayer and then covering her eyes as I had seen my Nana do years before. Mr. Bakst made the blessings over the wine and challah.  Mrs. Bakst served the first course, chicken soup. “I cook without salt,” she explained as she set the steaming bowl down before me, “because David has high blood pressure. If you want to add it, you can.” I nodded and thanked her. “I don’t think it needs it,” David said. “It’s better without all that salt.” I didn’t add any, though my tastebuds were accustomed to lots of salt. I didn’t know if my mom or dad had high blood pressure, I did know that Mom wasn’t shy about including salt to her recipes – especially chicken soup. I was impressed that Mr. and Mrs. Bakst were so disciplined about his diet. Diet and discipline weren’t connected in my family.

            Everyone took a slice of challah. I looked around the table for butter or margarine and saw none. It was dawning on me that the Baksts kept Kosher. Gary had probably mentioned that to me, but his eating habits at college didn’t strike me as all that different from my own. I didn’t have milk with meat either (though I had been known to have a cheeseburger now and again). I didn’t yet realize that there was much more to it than that. I was about to learn quite a bit more  – much to my chagrin.

            We finished dinner. I got up to help remove the dishes.  When I stood, I was horrified to see that there were two pink smudge marks on the tablecloth where my elbows had rested. I was wearing a burgundy chenille sweater. It had not occurred to me that the color would run on to Mrs. Bakst’s pristine cloth. I think my face turned the color of my shirt.  I briefly thought about whether to say something or to try to cover it with my napkin.  “Mrs. Bakst,” I stammered, “I’m so sorry, but my sweater….look.” She looked, “Don’t worry. It will come out when I wash it.” “Are you sure?” Among the many things I knew nothing about at 20 years of age was how to get stains out. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. I made a mental note to tell Gary to let me know if it didn’t come out so I could buy a replacement. Oy. I wasn’t making the impression I hoped.

            After clearing the table, we returned to sit and continue chatting. After a bit, Mrs. Bakst offered tea and suggested serving the pie. Though, we had talked about refrigerating it earlier, we had not specifically gone over its ingredients. I realized there might be a problem. I explained to her that there was cream cheese in the mixture. Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred and decided that we had waited long enough after dinner to have it. According to the laws of Kashruth, I would later learn, you wait a certain number of hours before consuming dairy after meat. Not everyone observes the letter of the law. I felt badly that I had put them in that position. But, it was going to get worse.

            Mrs. Bakst removed the pie from the refrigerator, and I noticed her looking at it carefully. She was reading the label from the pre-made shell which was still affixed to the plastic cover of the pie. “is it okay?,” I asked.

“I am looking to see if the crust is kosher,” Paula explained.

I didn’t know that a crust could be unkosher. I had not yet learned that food products came with symbols to indicate whether they were rabbinically supervised and if it contained meat, dairy or was pareve (contained no ingredients that were meat or dairy and could be eaten with either). If the crust included animal fat it could indeed be unkosher. Given that there was no symbol on the label, it was likely that it wasn’t kosher.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. If you don’t want to have it, I understand. I can just take it home.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bakst conferred again.They decided we would have it on paper plates with plastic utensils. I felt embarrassed.

            As I drove my father’s car back to our house in Canarsie, I reflected on the evening. How many things could I get wrong? The remains of the unkosher pie sat on the passenger seat. I knew it would get eaten in my house. Though I was born Jewish, there was a lot I didn’t know. And my lack of manners was on full display! Not only were my elbows on the table, but they had stained Gary’s mother’s linen tablecloth! Hopefully the smudges would come out. I hoped Mr. and Mrs. Bakst saw some of my positive attributes – I did help clear the table….

            Writing this 43 years after the fact, I am mostly amused by my ignorance. At the time I wondered if it would be a fatal flaw in the eyes of either Gary or his parents. Obviously, it wasn’t, but I had some work to do, including understanding how Gary felt about Judaism’s rituals and practices and whether I wanted to integrate them into my life.

Gary and I survived my inauspicious debut with his parents. Five months later we were graduating from SUNY-Binghamton 1980

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

“Most Likely to…”

Ever wonder what became of the people who were voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in your high school class? I don’t have to – I was one of them.  Alan Schick and I were selected from the Canarsie High School class of 1976. Though I don’t think Alan is famous, I certainly don’t hold that against him, neither am I. Success and fame are not synonymous in my estimation. We are Facebook friends and as best as I can tell, he is a successful attorney and family man. I hope he feels he has a fulfilling life. [Alan, if you are reading this and would like to chime in, please do!]

I’ve been thinking about it recently and, naturally me being me, the designation raises lots of questions. I wondered if anyone has ever done of study: were those folks predicted to be successful by their classmates actually successful? How did their lives turn out?

Not withstanding that question, why do we select classmates as most likely to succeed in the first place? Who came up with the idea? All of those ‘senior superlatives’ are tricky and they can be controversial, too. I looked back at my high school yearbook.

my high school yearbook

We had some interesting titles: Mr. and Miss Canarsie, Mr. and Miss Soul, Class Flirt, Class Fox (separate from cutest boy and girl obviously).  What were we thinking with class flirt and fox? Popularity surely plays a role in all the selections. Why do we vote for any of the categories? I suppose it is fun, but is it?

Since I had all these questions I went to the font of all knowledge – Google. I typed in: Are people voted most likely to succeed successful? Voila! I found a piece addressing some of my questions on NPR (from 2011). It reported the following:

“A recent poll by the high school reunion networking site MemoryLane.com found nearly one-third of those named most likely [to succeed] came to regard it as a curse…” [Please note, it was not offered as a scientific study/]

Only 1/3, that doesn’t sound too bad. Apparently, another third of those polled said the designation had no significance at all, some had even forgotten about it entirely. One person quoted in the piece reported finding motivation in it. When things got difficult, he thought back on the confidence people had in him and it helped.

I can’t say I found it helpful, but I also wasn’t burdened by it. I do remember having some trepidation about attending our 30th high school reunion. I wondered how I would be judged, if people would be disappointed when I reported what I was doing. It turned out to be a nonissue. Though I chatted with people about my life, I don’t recall anyone commenting on whether I measured up to the label.

At the root of this lies a more important question: what does success mean? When 17- or 18-year-olds choose a classmate, what are the metrics of success they have in mind? According to that same NPR piece, most people polled said ‘rising to the top of your field,’ making a lot of money and becoming famous. By those standards, I wouldn’t make the cut. I didn’t have a field, per se. I worked in different government/nonprofit positions. I didn’t make a lot of money and I am not famous either (at least not yet, perhaps this blog will go viral, though I have been at it for five years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, fame is not my goal.).  Not mentioned as criteria: having a long, loving marriage, raising children to be productive adults, maintaining friendships and family ties, continuing to grow and learn. If those were the measures, I’d be solid.

Whether one was voted most likely to succeed, another senior superlative or if one escaped high school without a designation, everyone deals with the weight of expectations. One way or another, we have to sort out what our parents want for us, the hopes of our family and community and what we want for ourselves.

Some may have to overcome a lack of expectation; feeling that no one has hopes for them. We all have challenges making our way in the adult world.

Should high schools continue this tradition? I’m under the impression that some have stopped. Did you get voted one of these titles? How has that impacted your life, if at all? I hope you’ll share. I’d love to get a conversation started.