Winds of Unrest

I hate this relentless wind. When did it become so consistently gusty here in Albany, New York? I thought Chicago was the windy city. Is this a global warming byproduct? Is it my imagination that it is windier? Am I overreacting because the coronavirus quarantine has made me crazy?

I find it unsettling – I hear the howling. I see branches waving wildly. Yesterday, April 21st, after the rain/sleet/snow showers passed, the sun came out, but the wind remained. I needed to get out of the house, so I took a walk. I kept my eyes open for flying debris. I was worried that a garbage can, it was collection day in our neighborhood, would take flight. I wanted to make sure I was ready to take evasive action! I walked quickly, scanning both sides of the street. Garbage cans slid around, a couple tipped over, but none became airborne. I did my walk and made it home without incident. Phew.

I do remember another time I was disturbed by the wind and we weren’t even under a quarantine, so maybe I just have a thing about unpredictable weather. We were vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We had a tradition of going there during the April school break. We met another family and shared a house for ten consecutive years. One year we splurged and rented a beachfront home. It was huge with three floors. The bottom floor had a play room and a bedroom, the middle floor had a master suite and two more bedrooms, and the top floor had the kitchen, a great room with a fireplace, and another master. It was a fabulous home. Unfortunately, it was a stormy week with heavy gray skies and driving rain. The wind screamed through the chimney. I couldn’t relax, especially at night. I was thankful we were in the suite on the second floor – at least the wind’s moaning wasn’t as loud there. In the years that followed we continued to vacation on the Outer Banks, but in a house a few blocks off the beach.

Today, April 22nd, the wind continues to howl. We have several dead trees on our property. Last fall I arranged to have them removed but the person who was going to do it injured his ankle. I didn’t find a replacement, so we postponed the project. None of the trees are that close to the house, but they could damage the pool and fence. Unrelated to the recent weather, I started contacting contractors to do the work – I think it is something that can be done despite the nonessential business shutdown. I met with two contractors today in the middle of the windstorm (we maintained appropriate social distancing). We walked to the area where the work needs to be done, all the while I was listening for the sound of wood cracking, anticipating that a tree could fall. Apparently both contractors shared my concern; they looked around quickly and suggested we go around to the front to talk, there are no trees there. I readily agreed. They didn’t want to be in the shadow of those dead trees any more than I did. I’m saddened by the loss of life, even if it is tree-life. It’s painful but necessary to cut them down. Until they are removed, I have to hope that the wind doesn’t do damage.

There are other healthy trees on our property. We have a giant white pine inside the fence in our backyard (see photos below). It is very much alive. The trunk splits into three parts and each part has many branches. When I look up it seems like it touches the sky. In summers past I have spent time floating in our pool admiring its green, soft needles brushing the bright blue sky. That is the tree that, if it came down in the wrong direction, could do major harm to our house. I love that tree. In this crazy wind, I fear it. I don’t think it is at risk of falling, it looks vibrant and healthy, but you never know. Right now, I have plenty of time to imagine the worst. I watch it suspiciously, looking for hints it might betray us.

Views of our giant white pine on this gray rainy day (4/27)

That appears to be my mood right now; unsettled, uneasy as the air outside. Everything is moving, clouds scudding, spring flowers bowing to the stiff breeze, bushes swaying, the wind chime ringing insistently. Everything is shifting, outside of my control, while I sit at my kitchen counter waiting for calm.

P.S. After several days of wind, it finally subsided. With it my sense of unease lessened too. I was able to get out and take my walks without worrying about flying objects. Even though the post above doesn’t reflect my mood today, I thought it was worth sharing as a glimpse of the ups and downs of this quarantine period. Anxiety, when it comes, seems to be heightened. From what I read and see on social media, I may not be alone in experiencing that. As the coronavirus crisis subsides, hopefully our collective anxiety will too.

Revelations

One of the things I have done during this period of quarantine is watch a variety of videos: music, movies, t.v. shows. Some are homemade that pop up on my Facebook or Twitter feed; others have been made available by professional artists or companies. All of them provide a welcome diversion. I received a link to one such performance from my daughter Leah. She knows I am a fan of the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe and they released Revelations, which was filmed at Lincoln Center in 2015, so that it could be viewed for free. [Note: The link she provided is no longer active. Apparently, Alvin Ailey has created a free All Access streaming service that rotates programming. Here is the link. Hopefully they will offer Revelations again. Their other works are well worth viewing, too.]

Watching the piece brought back memories. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in the early 1970s. It was a powerful experience

Aunt Clair, who I wrote about here, invited me to join her to see Alvin Ailey at City Center. I was excited. I was a fan of dance as an art form. During my teen years Mom and her sister (Aunt Simma) had a subscription to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). They took their daughters, me and my cousin Laurie, to three or four performances each season. The four of us would meet for lunch beforehand and then go watch the ballet. I loved those afternoons. Although I could not imagine myself as a dancer, I was moved by the athleticism, grace and strength displayed. Sometimes the music was even more beautiful than the choreography. Taken together, the music and dance were breathtaking. Some might find classical ballet boring, but it was rare for me to think the piece dragged. Most often I was captivated by the expressiveness of the human form – sometimes it told a story, but sometimes it was just raw emotion.

Alvin Ailey would be a different experience on several levels. We were going at night; not to a matinee. That meant being into the city after dark, which brought a different energy. Plus, it was the holiday season so Manhattan would be more lit up than usual. I didn’t know what to expect from the dance itself, but I did know that Alvin Ailey was not the classic approach offered by NYCB.

It also meant getting dressed for an evening at the theater and going into ‘the city.’ Though I lived in Brooklyn, which is in fact part of New York City, we didn’t think of it as the city. When we went to Manhattan, we said “We’re going to the city.”  I  also would be spending time with my Dad’s sister, my adventurous, independent and always interesting Aunt Clair.

Though I did not ordinarily focus on my wardrobe, this was an exception. For one thing, I was feeling a bit better about my body. For a brief time during high school, after having some success at Weight Watchers and staying quite active (I played basketball on my high school team), I was in reasonably good shape. Mom and I bought some clothes that I felt good in.

I chose my high-waisted, plaid, bell-bottom slacks. They were red and black with a thread of yellow, quite stylish at the time. I put on a black turtleneck sweater. I had to decide whether to tuck the top in or wear it out. I modeled for my mom and she suggested I go upstairs and ask Uncle Terry what he thought. Maybe Dad wasn’t home at the time. I was nervous as I climbed the stairs. Uncle Terry gave me a thumbs up for either way. If I tucked it in, I felt like it emphasized my chest. I wore the sweater out. Though I felt more comfortable in my body, I wasn’t ready to make that statement.

It was winter and holiday lights made the theater district even more festive than usual. I don’t recall how I got to the city – if Aunt Clair picked me up or if my Dad drove me in. I know I would not have taken the subway by myself. At that time, taking the LL in the evening alone was simply not an option – too dangerous.  Either way, Aunt Clair and I arrived at the theater and found our seats along with several thousand others. The theater was packed. Our seats were in the center in the lower balcony – perfect to see the whole stage, the dancers’ full bodies and the patterns they formed.

We saw three pieces: Blues Suite, Cry and, the finale, Revelations. I was enthralled by each one in turn. The program took us through the range of human emotion, from despair to joy, from anger to triumph. The audience was totally immersed in the ride. Revelations uses spirituals as its spine and the theater felt like what I imagine to be a revival meeting in a black church. Being a white, Jewish person, I had no point of reference for this, but I loved it. The heart of the dance was universal, showing us the human spirit in all its dimensions, but calling upon the specific experience of African-Americans. When the performance concluded, the audience, which represented a cross-section of New Yorkers, kept clapping, stomping and singing – even when the lights came up. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted to break the joyous spell. Eventually, after many minutes, people started to make their way toward the exits. Aunt Clair and I were exhilarated.

I have returned to see Alvin Ailey many times since. Though not all performances elicited the excitement of that first one, I have always been moved and grateful for the opportunity to see so much talent. I come away amazed at what the human form can communicate. Once we get through this period of social distancing, I can’t imagine a more perfect choice of performances to see than Revelations. If you have an opportunity to see it live, take it.

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And, thank you, Aunt Clair for opening my eyes to what dance and theater could be.

A March to Remember

A March to remember.  What a strange month. On March 7th Governor Cuomo issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency here in New York due to the coronavirus. That same day was our last foray out – I wrote about our trip to Dia here. That was our last dinner at a restaurant. It was an excellent dinner, a nice memory, with friends, in person! Three weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime.

I have to admit I find myself struggling. But I am fighting it. Here are some things I find helpful:

  • Putting on music while I do chores. Somehow, I was not in the habit of doing that. It is motivating and I am rediscovering artists I haven’t listened to in a while. I have a new appreciation for Paul Simon’s American Tune. Give it a listen, it is quite timely.
  • Skipping articles that detail the horrors faced by medical staff in New York City hospitals. I see the headlines and my stomach knots. I don’t need to read more.
  • Making a plan for the day so that I know what tasks I will accomplish. I don’t always accomplish them, but just making the list helps my spirits.
  • Setting aside time to get outside – even if the weather is bad. Fresh air helps. I walked in the drizzle on Saturday and Sunday; I didn’t mind it at all.
  • Looking at photographs of my granddaughter – guaranteed to make me smile. Sometimes I text my son and daughter-in-law to request a new one. They have been great about accommodating me. Photographs of my granddaughter probably won’t do it for you, but something will – your child or pet or beautiful scenery.
  • Reaching out via text or phone to folks. This is harder for me than it should be. It always has been, I didn’t realize how well practiced I am at social distancing until now. I am working at doing more reaching out. I always feel better after I do it, but I have to psyche myself to take the first step. This does not apply to my immediate family – I would reach out to my kids hourly if that was acceptable.

Which brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about. It has been three weeks of this version of social distancing, which is far more extreme than my usual practice. Under normal circumstances it isn’t uncommon for me to go three weeks without seeing my children in person. My daughter lives in Somerville, MA; my son in Norwalk, CT. But knowing I can’t hop in the car to see them, and not knowing when I will be able to, changes things. I feel frustrated. We have been using FaceTime, but it isn’t the same. I want to be in the same room. I want to hug them. Maybe it is like forbidden fruit – when you know you can’t have something (someone), you want it more. I know our reunion will be especially sweet and that thought sustains me – sometimes. Sometimes I’m just angry and feel deprived.

Back to helpful things:

  • Switching up meals or trying to be a bit creative about them. On Friday evening, Gary made a fire in our chiminea in the backyard and we ate our dinner next to it. It was a beautiful night, cool, with a bit of a breeze; perfect for sitting next to the warmth of the fire. We watched the sparks leap up against the night sky and eventually the stars came out. Our use of the chiminea has been limited to when we entertain in the summer. Seems silly not to make use of it now.
  • Playing ping pong (insert any other game you have forsaken, i.e. backgammon? chess?). We have a ping pong table in our basement. I don’t remember the last time we used it – stuff was piled on it, as was a thick layer of dust. Gary and I have a history with ping pong. When we were in college, at the beginning of our courtship, we would go to the library tower to study. After maybe an hour we would take a break and head to the student union. We’d play ping pong and get a snack. We spent far more time chatting, playing ping pong and snacking than studying. Fast forward forty years. We found the paddles and a ball in our basement and dusted off the table. Gary thoroughly schooled me, which wasn’t surprising, but we had fun. We played about six games. I got less rusty as we played. Maybe by the end of this ordeal, I’ll give him a run for his money.
  • Watching Governor Cuomo’s daily press conference. Though the information may be grim, it is presented in a straightforward way and he reminds us of all the steps being taken to fight the pandemic. And, who knew he could be so empathetic? He shares his humanity. It’s interesting how this is a case where a person has stepped up to meet the challenge. I was not a fan of his strong-arm political tactics or his personality, but I think his strengths are particularly useful (decisiveness, attention to detail, organized, no nonsense) in this context. And, either he was more compassionate than I understood, or he has matured into that role. Either way, I am grateful. His policies are also shaped by the right values – people come first.
  • Avoid all coverage of the president – this is essential for my mental health.

There you have it. Ten helpful things – for me, anyway. Maybe some will work for you. I would love to hear yours! As this drags on, the more ideas the better; the more tools to call upon to get through this uncertain time.

One final thought: In re-reading this, I realize that I am quite lucky to still like my husband! Thank you, Gary!

Life in the Age of Coronavirus

I woke up yesterday coughing. That sent me down a rabbit hole for a while. Do I have the virus? Is this the beginning of symptoms? What if I gave it to my husband (who is a healthcare provider)? Nevermind that it isn’t uncommon for me to wake up coughing. I have a pretty relentless case of acid reflux which I take medication for, but it still breaks through. It also isn’t uncommon for me to have post-nasal drip which can lead to coughing fits, especially at night. But, I cast aside the reasonable explanations and went straight to doomsday scenarios. I indulged in that for about ten minutes, scaring the shit out of myself. Anybody else do that?

I took several deep breaths and turned my thoughts to concrete things.

Get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, make the bed…..I could revisit whether the cough was anything in an hour.

I decided I would minimize my intake of social media for the day – at least news consumption. I would reach out to my family. I would read my book. Maybe watch a movie. The sun was shining though it was quite chilly. Getting out for exercise was a good option, too. There were chores to do around the house. I’ve been washing towels and such more frequently. I actually had a number of options to distract myself.

Lo and behold, I didn’t continue coughing. I did not have fever. It was just another day.

After getting off to a rocky start, the day proceeded as planned. I listened to some music as I walked a loop around the SUNY-Albany campus. I greeted others who were walking, biking and jogging. I was pleased to note that they were social-distancing appropriately (unlike a few days ago when I did the same walk). It stresses me out when people aren’t doing that – I know some folks are partners or parents with kids and I try to give the benefit of the doubt. But some folks are just not getting with the program. Yesterday they were. That made me feel better.

This is my life in the age of coronavirus. Worrying about a stray cough and whether people are keeping far enough apart!

I am trying to find the balance between getting enough information to be responsible, but not too much so I feel overwhelmed. Some days I don’t get it right. Yesterday I think I did.

I am trying to be productive, but finding it difficult to focus. There is so much I could be doing – in terms of writing, or organizing my house. We’ve lived in the same house for more than 25 years, so there is more than enough stuff to sort and throw out. Photographs to catalogue. There are real opportunities here, but somehow I am not doing it…not yet anyway. I hold out hope that I will.

I have been reaching out to family and friends so that I continue to feel connected – and maybe helping them to feel connected, too. I’m glad my mom is tech-savvy enough to FaceTime. We had a nice little visit the other day, a nice change from the usual phone call. The best is when my phone rings and I see an incoming FaceTime call from one of my kids – guaranteed to make me smile. Gary and I have looked pretty silly trying to get a laugh from our granddaughter – making noises and faces, and dancing around with plastic animals. It is well worth it when she smiles and giggles. It isn’t as wonderful as being in the room, but it’s pretty damn good.

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Our granddaughter asked us to send a picture of ourselves – here’s the one I sent. How can I not be delighted?

It is a challenging and strange time. I am putting one foot in front of the other and reminding myself to savor the sun on my face, a good cup of coffee, a laugh with a friend, our granddaughter’s smile. All of that is still available and I am grateful.

Small Comfort

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

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

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

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

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

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

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

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times

A Theater Experience and More

I went to the theater on Saturday night with my friend Deborah. We were celebrating her 60th birthday. We have been friends for about 57 of those years. Pretty impressive! I feel very fortunate to have a friend of such long standing. We grew up together; she lived next door to me in Canarsie.  Today we can speak in shorthand. If I mention a cousin, aunt or uncle, not only do I not need to explain who that person is, she likely has met them multiple times. And, she remembers my Dad, and my Nana and Zada.  If she talks about her aunts, uncles or cousins, I know them and usually know something about her relationship to them, warts and all. It is a special thing to share all of that history.

Which got me thinking. Sometimes on some interviews I see on television or podcasts I listen to, people will be asked about how long they have been friends with someone. They might respond, “A long time – 7 years.” I think to myself, that’s a drop in the bucket. My ‘newest’ friend is someone I’ve known for more than 20 years. Maybe that’s because I’m 60. If you’re 40, naturally you’d have friends of more recent vintage. But still, 7 years? Maybe it’s because my life is predictable – I’ve lived in the same house for 26 years, I haven’t changed jobs, etc. If your life is less rooted, then it makes sense that your friends would be ‘younger.’ Some of my peer group have moved to retirement communities and thus have made new friends.

I think something else might be at work, though.  I don’t make friends that easily. This has been true for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, if I talked to someone in class or ate lunch with them, I wondered whether that made us friends, especially if I didn’t see them outside of school. I still have those questions. Since I retired I have been participating in several writing groups that have brought me together with new people, many of whom I enjoy. But, I’m not sure I would say we have crossed the threshold to friendship. What marks that transition? That’s a whole other tangent, perhaps for another time.

Back to the theater Saturday night.

Deborah and I settled into our seats and there were four women in front of us, one was wearing a tiara adorned with a sparkly 50. Clearly they were celebrating, too. We exchanged pleasantries. This may not reflect well on me, but I looked at the women and thought, ‘we don’t look that much older.’ Then I wondered if I was deluding myself.

We saw the musical Come From Away. It is about the small town in Newfoundland, Gander, that took in passengers from about 200 planes forced to land there on 9/11. It is a remarkable story. The town’s population almost doubled when those planes arrived – they had 9,000 residents; they received 7,000 guests! Amazing that they were able to do it. The story is uplifting – a great reminder of the potential for human generosity, kindness and problem-solving.

The play acknowledges some of the complexity. This was a fraught situation, as would be expected in such stressful circumstances. People had no idea what was going on at first and then they didn’t know how long they’d be stranded. Both townspeople and passengers struggled with the uncertainty. But, they persevered. You couldn’t help but feel good seeing the best of humanity. There was a lot of humor and the music and staging added to the story-telling.

Of course, me being me, it also reminded me how the United States squandered so much goodwill. There is a brief scene in the play where the people of the town stop and observe a moment of silence, as that moment was being broadcast from the United States.  It was quite poignant. As I recall, so many countries in the world stood with us in the days after the terrorist attack. But, then, the Bush administration (I largely blame Cheney) invaded Iraq…and we know how that went (and continues to go). We turned the goodwill into resentment and worse.

But, that was not the point of the play so I will fight my impulse to dwell on that. Another theme of the play was that this cataclysmic event changed people’s lives. Though the people of Gander went back to ‘normal,’ the experience changed them, opened them up to different people and they learned about themselves. Even in the darkest of times, there is that possibility. I need to hold onto that thought.

Prior to seeing the play, I was feeling very anxious. With the coronavirus and the sorry state of our government leadership, I have been worrying more than usual. Something about having the shared experience of seeing Come from Away, in a theater full of people laughing and clapping together helped me let go of some of the angst. I will do what I can to be constructive, taking common sense health precautions, committing to helping whoever the Democratic candidate is (the Senate candidates, too), and, importantly, continuing to live my life. I know there is so much out of my control, but dwelling on fear and anxiety will not help.

 

The Big Day…Finally

July 30th 1983 dawned warm, cloudy and humid. Not an unusual beginning for a summer day in Brooklyn. But this was no ordinary day. Finally, after all the planning and fretting over details (from dress shopping to choosing a napkin color to the seating arrangements), it was time to say ‘I do’ and have a party!

Fortunately, there was a steady breeze so it wasn’t as stifling as it could have been. I wasn’t unhappy about the humidity because my hair looked its best in those conditions. Less frizz, more curl. What could be better for my wedding day?!? The downside was that it didn’t take much to get me sweating. I hoped that the Seaview Jewish Center would be well air-conditioned.

I woke up that morning in my childhood bed happy and excited, but also a little lost. What was I going to do with myself until it was time to get my make-up done? Since our invitation was for 9:30 pm, even with time for getting ready and taking pictures, a long day stretched ahead of me. I was never one to sleep late, and that day was no exception, especially with the anticipation of the big event.

There were some distractions. My 17-month old nephew, Joshua, was in the house, along with his mom and dad (my brother). I was enamored with Josh, an adorable, charming red head. He was the first grandchild in the Brody family, and was doted on accordingly. But there were limits to the time I could spend with him – he needed to eat and nap, and for some reason his grandparents claimed his attention too. Inexplicably, he sometimes stated his preference for his mom or dad.

Happily, my maid-of-honor, Merle, was also available. Since we graduated from college, we didn’t get to see each other that frequently. She was living in Buffalo getting her PhD in counseling psychology, while I was living in Pittsburgh. Though those two cities aren’t that far apart mileage-wise, the travel could be treacherous with lake effect snow and other weird weather phenomena (tornado warnings on one drive!). I wrote about one of our memorable trips where we got stuck in a blizzard in Erie, PA here. Merle and I got together in the early afternoon to take a walk. I was grateful for the one-on-one time before the craziness of the wedding.

Though evening took its sweet time, eventually it arrived. My bridesmaid, Deborah, arranged for my make-up to be done at my house. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift since my mother and I didn’t know much about that stuff. Maria, armed with a small suitcase of cosmetics, sat me down in our kitchen and got to work. She knew I wanted to look natural, but with enough touching up to look special and photograph well.

As I was sitting in the chair, it was still long before we needed to leave to take pictures, the doorbell rang. Who could that be? Everyone was accounted for and busily getting showered and dressed. My father answered the door and ushered our guest in. It was Gary!

“Gary! What are you doing here?”

I was shocked – we were supposed to meet at the photographer’s studio in another hour.

“No one in my house was close to ready. There’s construction on the Belt, and I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t going to be late for my own wedding.”

“Ooookaaaay.”

I thought about whether I cared if he saw me as I got ready. There’s supposed to be this big reveal when the groom sees his bride for the first time (though they had not come up with the ‘first look’ photo session yet). I quickly decided that it was silly to worry about that – it was sweet that he was so concerned and responsible that he arrived ridiculously early.

“All right, well it’s fine if you want to hang out. You can head to the photographer when we go.”

His family, his brother in particular, had a reputation for being late and Gary didn’t want to get caught up in that drama at his house. He didn’t want to be the one to nudge them along, worrying all the while about the potential traffic. Gary and I had already experienced the impact of the construction on the Belt Parkway.

The Belt was the highway that connected our respective neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In between was JFK, the airport. Traffic was always heavy. Introduce a lane closure for construction or an accident and an epic back up ensued. Gary and I had been home for a few days to prepare for the wedding and made the trip between our two houses several times, finding ourselves at a standstill in that traffic. I understood why he had been so anxious about it. He warned his family. They might be late, but he wasn’t going to be.

I went into my bedroom to put on my dress. Some women, when stressed, eat less and may lose weight in the week before their wedding. Not this woman. Though I thought I was being careful, my gown was tighter than when I last put it on – but it zipped up without too much difficulty. I looked in the mirror and commented to my mom that I was showing more cleavage than I remembered. I guess that’s where the extra pound or two had gone. Mom reassured me that it was fine.

Since Sabbath ended so late, we couldn’t take pictures at the Seaview Jewish Center. We didn’t want to delay things even more, so we arranged to go to the photographer’s studio beforehand. It was conveniently located in the shopping center near my house. We were working with Jay Phillips, the same photographer who did my parents’ wedding 29 years earlier! Much to Gary’s relief, his family did indeed make it in time. By the time the session was done my cheeks hurt from smiling so broadly.

As we were leaving the studio, it started to rain. David, my father-in-law-to-be, commented that in Judaism rain is a good omen – it was a blessing on our marriage. Over the many years that I would know him, David could be counted on to turn to Jewish tradition to find the bright side to a seemingly negative or innocuous thing. (Did you know that in our tradition Tuesday is the best/luckiest day to move? David told me that after learning that his grandson, my son, Daniel and his wife Beth had moved into their new house on a Tuesday.)

In those days it was common to have the cocktail hour before the ceremony. The bride was supposed to stay in a private room so the ‘reveal’ wouldn’t be spoiled. The groom was free to mingle. I stayed in the room for a bit, but decided it was another silly ritual, so I joined the festivities. After a brief spin around the room, it was time to take care of the pre-ceremony paperwork – the signing of the ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract).

We, my parents, the rabbi, Gary and his parents, gathered in the rabbi’s study. The rabbi asked for our marriage license – we gave it to him. Then he asked for the ketubah. We all looked at each other. Panic ensued. After a few minutes of searching, my dad prepared to go back to our house (fortunately only a five- minute ride) to get it. Just as Dad was leaving the room, Gary looked over at the rabbi, who was sitting at the desk busily writing.

“Rabbi, what are you doing?”

The rabbi looked up perplexed, apparently oblivious to the chaos in the room.

“I’m preparing the ketubah.”

“Then you have it?!?”

The rabbi, it turned out, had asked the question rhetorically – he was asking himself and he quietly found it in his folder. He neglected to mention it, though, and the rest of us were in high gear searching and trying to come up with a plan B if we couldn’t locate it. We couldn’t believe that the rabbi hadn’t noticed the turmoil in the room.

My father, who had carried his gin and tonic from the cocktail hour into the study, gulped it down in one swallow, in relief. He was stressed at the prospect of trying to find the document in the disarray of our house. Luckily, he didn’t have to. We all took a deep breath.

The rest of the night went on without incident. The ceremony was enhanced by two flautists playing Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses) – the romantic and lovely melody was the perfect accompaniment. I didn’t want to walk down the aisle to the traditional ‘Here Comes the Bride.’

My father’s friend, Jack Merlis, was a cantor and opera singer. He agreed to perform during the ceremony. His powerful voice practically blew us off the bema. I felt the vibration of his vocals down to my toes.

It was after midnight when the ceremony concluded, and we got down to the dinner and dancing. Gary’s brother, our best man, toasted our individuality and our union. We had a great time. After three hours of revelry, we prepared to leave around 3:30 a.m. Gary arranged to borrow his mom’s car for our honeymoon in upstate New York. We would spend the week at my parents’ house in Livingston Manor (without my parents :)).

We went out to find the car decorated with a ‘Just Married’ sign and streamers. Gary’s siblings had done the honors. Not only that, they gave us a cooler stocked with champagne and snacks so we could continue our celebration. We learned that the reason that Steven was delayed and distracted earlier in the day, when Gary was worrying that no one was getting ready in a timely way, was that he and Rochelle were running around getting the cooler, glasses, champagne and other goodies. It was a thoughtful and appreciated gesture.

The stresses and strains of the planning were behind us. Gary and I set off on our future together, supported by the love, humor, care and generosity of our family and friends. Though there would be other bumps in the road, the journey continued and continues. We still rely on that foundation.

 

More Dress Shopping…More Drama

Thinking back on my wedding has brought back a flood of memories. Once again it makes me wonder about memory. Why are some things vividly etched in my mind, while other periods of time are indistinct? Whatever the reasons, there are more stories to tell about planning the wedding.

Choosing bridesmaids and groomsmen was a bit complicated. We were balancing new friends and old, family and friends, and people who had already asked me to be part of theirs. Gary and I went big (see the photo below of the full group). We had eight women and eight men, and a flower girl. I had four friends and four sisters-in-law; Gary had his brother, my two brothers, two friends and three cousins.

Deciding on a flower girl was simple. Rachel, my cousin who was five years old, was the perfect choice. She was friendly, smart and adorable, with red braids and a big smile. I knew she could carry out the serious responsibility of dropping petals as she walked down the aisle with great aplomb. And I was right!

Choosing a dress for the bridesmaids was difficult. There were many different body types to consider. My four sisters-in-laws couldn’t have been more unalike. My brothers’ wives, Pam and Cindy were quite tall. Gary’s sisters, on the other hand, were quite short. It didn’t occur to me to let everyone pick their own. It was expected that they would wear the same outfit. My dress was very simple, I didn’t want their dresses to be too fancy. I was also living in Pittsburgh by this time and the bridal party was spread out, too. Coordinating shopping was tricky. Fortunately, people were agreeable to wearing pretty much whatever I picked, but my mother-in-law-to-be, Paula, had her own ideas.

I didn’t know Paula well yet, though Gary and I had been together for three years at that point. I had spent many an hour sitting at her kitchen table talking, but she was a private person. She was perfectly nice to me (offering tea with a shot of brandy when I had a sore throat), but there was a coolness. I sensed she didn’t fully trust me. I believed she didn’t think I was Jewish enough (I probably wasn’t given my ignorance of ritual, and the fact that I didn’t read Hebrew). I felt her keeping me at a distance.

I knew Paula was a Holocaust survivor and that she was a child when the Germans invaded her town, but I didn’t know her story in any detail. I knew she was an overprotective mother from stories Gary shared with me. I knew she was fearful – she would wait up all hours until her children came through the front door, even when they were adults, home for a visit. She also would not drive on the highway, so she made her way around Queens and Long Island using the streets. She navigated those streets with a great sense of direction, she also directed her husband, David, when he drove. I knew she kept a spotless home, cooked all the family’s meals, was an expert shopper (she knew the prices of items at various supermarkets) and could squeeze every bit of value out of things (she would re-use a tea bag over and over again, the same with a Brillo pad which she would tear in half before using it, she also altered and mended clothing). I was impressed with her skills and competence. Her strengths as a mother and homemaker didn’t overlap very much with my own mother. Paula was very precise; good with numbers and loved math. My mother was probably dyslexic when it came to numbers and precise wouldn’t be a word that would be used to describe her. My mom wasn’t a worrier. She worked full-time outside the home as a reading teacher, she was an excellent cook, she took pleasure in making sure family and friends were well-fed; and, we had someone come in to clean the house every other week. It was hard for Paula to trust someone in her house. My Mom didn’t like to shop and was far more interested in books, movies and theater than homemaking. Paula’s style of parenting was foreign to me.

I also didn’t realize that Paula’s perfectionistic streak would impact shopping for the bridesmaids’ dresses.

We settled on a date when enough of us would be available to shop for the dresses. I flew in from Pittsburgh one weekend. Dad drove Mom and I to Rosedale and dropped us off. My mom, Paula, Gary’s two sisters and I set out with Paula driving. In preparation for our excursion, I had found a dress in a magazine that I liked and located the store that carried it. I thought we would go there, have Rochelle and Doreen try it on, and, assuming it was good, we would order it. Not so fast! I came to learn that Paula would never purchase something that quickly, but I didn’t know that yet. She needed to be satisfied that there wasn’t a better dress or better price somewhere else. This was one of those experiences that illustrated the differences between our two families.

We spent the day going from store to store and eventually made it to the shop that had the dress I picked out. It was a gown in two pieces: a blouse with a ruffle down the front and a long skirt. The blouse was white with a short sleeve. We could pick the color of the skirt. I wanted mauve – pink, with a hint of purple. There was a thin ribbon at the neck that matched the color of the skirt. Doreen and Rochelle tried it on – I thought they looked great and they seemed fine with it. I was sure it wasn’t something they would have picked for themselves, but they didn’t show strong negative feelings. I thought it would work with my gown, would be flattering for all the bridesmaids and it had the overall feeling I wanted.

Paula didn’t seem all that happy with the choice. She wasn’t convinced. Despite that, we left the shop with what I thought was an agreement that they would go back another day and order it. I would share the information with the others who weren’t with us and we would move forward.

We got back into the car and went to the Bakst home in Rosedale. Everyone was tired, but we were in good spirits. My Dad would come from Canarsie to pick Mom and I up. I was exhausted but relieved to have gotten through it. We got to their house and went in the front door. David, my father-in-law-to-be, greeted us.

“How did it go?” he asked cheerfully.

“Fine,” I replied.

“Yes, we looked at the dress Linda picked, but I think we should look some more,” said Paula. “There are some stores we didn’t get to. There may be better choices, dresses that would be more flattering.”

I immediately burst into tears. All the stress, all the doubts I had about all my choices, poured out. My mother put her arm around me. The Baksts looked at me quizzically. David was flustered.

“Come, sit down. Don’t cry. Let me get you a drink,” he said as he ushered me to the couch. He busied himself pouring me a small glass of Cherry Heering.

I took a sip of the sweet liquor and tried to compose myself while everyone looked on uncomfortably. I managed to say, “I thought we agreed on the dress. I have to go back to Pittsburgh tomorrow. There won’t be time to shop again.”

“Don’t worry, Linda,” said David.

“It couldn’t hurt to look a little more,” said Paula. “Maybe we’ll find something that you’ll like better.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You know my dress isn’t fancy,” I reminded her.

Mom was patting me, murmuring words of comfort. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I guess, you can look. But, if you don’t find something soon, we need to order the dresses. Right?”

Paula nodded in agreement.

“See,” said David triumphantly, “we can work things out.”

I was embarrassed by my reaction. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t in Paula’s nature to make a decision that quickly. We did end up ordering the dress I picked. The experience illustrated the learning process involved in melding our two families. It took time for me to feel fully embraced as a family member by Paula. But, once I was, her loyalty and support were ever-present.

Paula spoke an accented English, and her formal education ended much too early because of the war (I wrote about Paula’s Holocaust survival in a series of blog posts between August and October of 2018). She was self-conscious about her accent and thought her command of the language wasn’t strong. I told her many times that she spoke as well as any native-born American, she was quite articulate in sharing her insights or telling a story. Plus, she could speak at least four or five languages fluently, while I only knew one. It was always clear to me that she was highly intelligent, but I don’t know if she knew that. I was American-born, both of my parents were too, they had master’s degrees and were teachers. She respected that, but it may have intimidated her, too. It took time for us to understand each other. Providing her with grandchildren definitely helped.

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Postscript:

I shared this story with Gary and his sisters before posting it. I wanted to get their take on the events described, especially since it involved them. All three acknowledged that they respected my perspective, that it was my memory and prerogative to post it (I appreciate that they expressed that sentiment). Each had a slightly different view of it, though, and I want to relate what I heard. I think it is important to recognize the difficulty in reconstructing an experience from 38 years ago and to understand that we may assign different meaning to the same event.

Gary thought my portrayal of Paula, his mother, wasn’t very generous. In response to that I added more about Paula to give context. The version you read above includes that addition. But the truth is I didn’t feel very generous at the time. That’s part of the point. I didn’t understand where she was coming from.

Doreen didn’t recall going to different shops. Her memory was that we went to the one that had the dress, that they tried it on, and she was under the impression that the choice had been made. She didn’t recall being present for my breaking down in tears. She also had a feeling that my father was somehow involved and that it was distressing to her mom (Paula).

Rochelle didn’t remember the particulars but also recalled that my father was involved and that it had been upsetting to her mom.

Hearing what they remembered was really interesting. It is entirely possible that we only went to the one shop. I may have been exhausted and stressed out from travel and decision-making and imagined that we must have shopped for whole the day. It is also quite possible that Rochelle and Doreen were not in the living room when I started crying. They may have left to do other things – I don’t recall them reacting one way or another at the time so it may be that they were not present.

The memory of my father being involved is the piece that is most perplexing. I am thinking that when he came to pick us up, if indeed that is what he did, and he saw that I had been upset, his protective paternal instincts may have kicked in. I now believe, knowing my Dad, that after I left to go back to Pittsburgh, he called Paula and asked her to accept my choice. I knew nothing about that (or more accurately, I remember nothing about that) – I am surmising based on what I know of my father and that the issue just went away (as far as I knew) – all the bridesmaids ordered the dress I picked out.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Paula or my father. I did ask my mother. She remembered the day, and my tears. She could not confirm whether Dad had called Paula after the fact, but she thought it was plausible. She also commented that if that was the worst of the disagreements we had during the planning of the wedding, we did pretty well.

There you have it. Is this an example of the ‘stories I tell myself’? Is it worth sharing these stories so I can process the memories and reality test it, or does it just make things messy? I am still pondering those questions. My motivation in sharing them is that it provides family history to my children and in examining my experiences, and sharing it with the public, it might resonate with others. It might spark insight or a sense of being less alone. That is my intention.

 

 

Adventures in Wedding Planning

My daughter is getting married. This is a joyous time for our family, but as anyone who has planned a wedding knows, it is also stressful. So many decisions to make, so many people to please, so many opinions and so many preconceived ideas – how could it not be fraught? And, it brings back memories of my own wedding.

It was 1982 – an eventful year I have chronicled on this blog (here). Before Gary left for medical school in Pittsburgh, we wanted to get a few of the wedding essentials nailed down. We started by thinking about a venue. I had visions of a ceremony outside on a lush hillside, the sun shining down on us, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of my bouquet. We’d be dressed in relatively informal attire. Maybe I wouldn’t even wear a gown. That was my fantasy; I was introduced to reality quickly.

If we were going to be married by a rabbi and have a wedding in the sunshine, we would have to do it on a Sunday. A rabbi would need to wait for Sabbath (Saturday) to end before performing the ceremony. We both had large families with many coming from out of town, Sunday would be inconvenient.

We both wanted the ceremony to be officiated by a rabbi – I doubt Gary would have considered another option. In my ignorance, I did not realize that we would need to wait until after sunset to walk down the aisle on Saturday. Maybe we could have found a Reform rabbi who could conduct the ceremony earlier in the evening, but that was not going to fly with Gary’s family. It seemed to be the consensus of our families that the wedding should be on a Saturday night.

With Gary starting medical school that fall, we began planning for the following summer, the summer of 1983. Sunset was quite late. I learned that we couldn’t gather our guests until 9:30 pm!! Not only would it not be an afternoon wedding, it would be after midnight before Gary and I finally said our vows!

My education in wedding matters continued as we visited venues. We liked Terrace on the Park, which was located on the grounds of the old World’s Fair in Queens. The ballroom was at the top of a tower, high above Flushing Meadows Park. It had great views. It didn’t serve kosher food. This was the next lesson in my learning process. My family would be fine with that, but the Bakst family needed it to be certified kosher. I had never heard of a mashgiach before, but I learned that we needed to hire one to oversee all the food preparation to ensure that the rules of kashruth were observed.

Our venue options were getting narrower – we looked at a couple of synagogues that had large social halls. Each one offered a unique feature. It seemed that showcasing the bride in some way was part of their shpiel. For example, one salesperson enthusiastically described how they had a pedestal on which the bride could stand while it rotated – the audience could appreciate her beauty from every angle. I shook my head in disbelief – I had no desire to pose like a cake topper.

Eventually we visited the Seaview Jewish Center, where the salesperson made his pitch for my dramatic entrance. They had a curtain behind which the bride would wait before walking down the aisle, her body lit in silhouette so guests could anticipate with bated breath the reveal. I told him that I was not interested. Once we got past that, the venue offered a number of advantages. It was kosher, conveniently located in Canarsie, not far from my house, the ceremony and reception would be in the same building, and they presented a reasonably priced package deal. It even included a band. Sign us up! My parents put down a deposit and we had a date – June 11, 1983

The next wrinkle came when Gary got to medical school and found out his semester didn’t end until June 30th. Uh-oh! After a brief spasm of panic, I called the Seaview Jewish Center, and, to our great relief, July 30th was still available. We made the switch.

Our planning continued. Now I needed to look for a dress. At that stage of my life, I was as fit  as I had ever been. I could sometimes get into a size ten, though 12s were more reliable. Mom and I went into the city to the famous bridal building. This was a place in the garment district in Manhattan where designers had their showrooms. For a limited time on the weekend, they would open their doors to shoppers. You could try on samples and order a dress at greatly reduced prices. Everyone talked about what a great deal it was for a high-quality gown.

I was nervous about trying on dresses, of course. I had trouble imagining myself as a bride. I perused the magazines, looking at the styles, the hair-dos, and none of it looked like me. The dresses I saw were flouncy and tiered, with a lot of lace – more fitting for a Southern belle than a Brooklyn tomboy. But, Mom and I had heard so much about the bridal building, and we didn’t know of many alternatives, so off we went.

We arrived at 1385 Broadway, to what looked like a standard-issue office building. We checked the directory in the lobby and picked a few places to visit. We went to three or four showrooms on different floors – each with the same result. The largest sample size they offered was a six. I couldn’t even get my arms into it, much less the rest of my body! One of the salesgirls suggested that I hold it up in front of me to see if I liked it. One place had a dress in a size 20 that I could actually put on. It looked like a giant white tablecloth. I wanted to cry.

Needless to say, our outing was a disaster. We gave up. I don’t know who felt worse, Mom or me. Mom said we would find a dress somewhere else. We got on the subway and went back to Canarsie, my worst ideas about my body confirmed. Even though I was in the best shape of my life, I still couldn’t try on a dress.

Mom asked around and learned that Laura Ashley, a designer who made dresses more my style, had a line of wedding gowns. The following weekend Dad drove us to the shop in Manhattan. I had never gone into a clothing store on Madison Avenue. I was doubtful as I climbed the stairs. Alas, we hit pay dirt! There, in the lovely store that smelled like lavender, on the sales rack (!) was a dress, just my style and just my size. It was a simple white cotton Swiss polka dot gown with a v-neck, short sleeves, fitted to the waist. It had minimal frills, no train, just touches of ruffle on the bodice and sleeve. It was as if it was made just for me and it was only a little over $100 (about $260 today). What a relief!

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There were other hiccups in the rest of the planning process, but I had some nice surprises, too. I loved our invitations. We picked a heavyweight white paper with cranberry colored ink. The envelope was cranberry with white lining. Mom and I took an adult ed calligraphy class at South Shore High School specifically so I could address the envelopes. I took to calligraphy. I was able to reproduce the pen strokes that the teacher demonstrated. It was a great project for me.

In a way planning a wedding is a test of the relationship. Can you disagree in a constructive way and come to a resolution? Can both parties compromise? Do you share the same values? The answer for us was yes. I communicated this thought to Leah as she and Ben began their journey. They are off to a great start!

One final observation: Based on my experience shopping for a mother-of-the-groom dress several years ago, and going with Leah for her dress more recently, I believe stores offer a wider range of sample sizes. Hopefully no one has to repeat my experience at the bridal building!