Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.
On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday. Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it? And, so what if it was a little stale? It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.
There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.
My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!
For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come. As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.
The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!
I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.
Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.
I was very lucky. I grew up with a father who made me feel safe and supported. Although I did not fully understand my good fortune until I was a young adult, I did know it long before he died. I appreciated him in his lifetime and I am grateful for that.
Dad had an imposing presence. He was a bit shy of 6 foot, which in my mother’s estimation wasn’t tall enough (she was over 5’7” before osteoporosis and age did its damage), but he was a good healthy height by the standards of most Jewish people of his generation. It might be different today, with hybrid vigor and all, but notwithstanding my mother’s family, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation tended to be short. More than his height, though, Dad had broad shoulders, both literally and metaphorically.
I came to a greater appreciation of my father’s broad shoulders when I was a freshman in college.
I remember the trip up to Binghamton to drop me off quite clearly. We were listening to the radio as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap in the early morning, which was scenic with its green mountains and shimmering waterways. The sun was shining – a good omen, I thought. Coincidentally, the radio was tuned to a station that was playing music around the theme of saying good-bye. That may not have been the best choice for listening under the circumstances.
I already had mixed feelings about leaving home to go to college. I knew it was the right thing to do. It had been drummed into me that it was an important growth experience. My parents lived at home when they went to Brooklyn College and wanted their children to have the opportunity to go away. But, I was only 16 and had never been one to embrace change easily, so it presented a challenge. While I made progress during high school, gaining confidence and more self-esteem, I still had a long way to go.
For my oldest brother, college away was a great fit. As my parents liked to tell it, Steven arrived at the SUNY-Brockport campus, unloaded his bicycle, hopped on and rode away without looking back. They didn’t know if he would return to say good-bye.
For my brother Mark, I think it was a bit different. I don’t think he felt particularly ready to leave home, but he seemed to adjust to life at Oneonta. He was two years ahead of me and was quite settled by the time it was my turn to go to Binghamton.
In late August of 1976, as we drove through the Delaware Water Gap, with the sad songs playing, I felt a mix of melancholy and hopefulness. It was a new chapter and I had no idea what to expect.
We arrived on campus and were directed to my room, which was difficult to find. I was assigned to the College-in-the-Woods dorm complex, the newest of the dorms on campus and supposedly the most desireable. The buildings were a modern design, with a quirky layout that included large rooms, intended to be triples, where the door to the room was outside the building. Those rooms weren’t really part of the rest of the floor. Not only was the room set apart, but in my case, it was located in back of the building, so it was isolated. When I opened my room door, I saw a small driveway, garbage dumpsters and then the woods. There was also a door to the rest of the dorm across a short walkway. The room was allegedly part of the basement floor, called “the Pits,” of Cayuga Hall. My new home.
Dad was not happy with my room. In fact, he was angry. We went to find someone in authority. Dad vigorously made the case that he thought it wasn’t safe for young women. In his opinion, the room should have been assigned to boys. There were no options for changing anything, though. They assured us that it was safe, there was adequate lighting and the RA (resident assistant) on the floor would be attentive. Reluctantly, Dad gave in, but not before putting everyone on notice about his concerns.
My Dad, who I thought was the strongest person in the world, single-handedly carried my very full, heavy steamer trunk into the room. We all made several trips from the car to the room. They helped me unpack and my mom made up my bed. Then, they left and headed back to Canarsie. I had to fight the urge to climb in the backseat.
Orientation week began. I had major ups and downs. On the upside, I bonded with Merle (who was tripled in a similar type of room one floor above me on the other side of the same dorm), Alison and Dianne immediately. On the downside, I didn’t bond with my roommates and I found the campus atmosphere stifling. It felt unreal to me, not only was my room isolated, but the whole campus felt like an island. I was used to reading three New York City newspapers every day. I was used to watching the news on television every night. The only television available was in the common lounge and there was no cable in those days, we didn’t get the NYC channels. The local Binghamton newscast seemed quaint by comparison. I felt disconnected…and I was.
I called my parents regularly, often in tears, often feeling lonely. I would be apologetic, “I’m sorry I’m calling you so unhappy.” My Dad was reassuring, “You have nothing to apologize for. We want you to call us if there is something bothering you. You are not a burden.” Although he couldn’t fix things, he and my mom did make me feel better. He wrote me encouraging letters. He tried to help me navigate things with my two roommates.
The three of us were an interesting combination. Me, from Brooklyn, Sue from Long Island and Sharon from Rochester, NY. Sue and I got along fine, but we were from different worlds. There was a large contingent of freshmen from her high school and she socialized with them. They reminded me of the kids from the camp where I worked – and not in a good way. They were concerned with hair, make-up and designer clothes – and partying. They came across as entitled and monied. So, while as an individual Sue was fine, I didn’t enjoy her group and I didn’t hang out with her.
Sharon was from a suburb of Rochester and she was a completely different story. She came to college not knowing how a woman got pregnant. She was naïve beyond belief. Sue offered her her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Though I was totally inexperienced in that regard (I had a lot to learn from Our Bodies, Ourselves, too), I at least knew the facts of life. Sharon was a very odd duck. One of the things that was unique was that she could burp louder than anyone I had ever known. Each time she did, I couldn’t help myself, I would go, “Woah!?!,” a mixture of awe and surprise. I was taught to keep all bodily functions as quiet and private as possible, so Sharon was a revelation. Beyond that quirk, we also didn’t have much in common, and she seemed a bit troubled. During midterms, she scratched her own face in a fit of anxiety.
I had my own struggles that first semester. My writing, which was a source of pride in high school, was criticized by both my Lit & Comp TA (teaching assistant) and my Intro to Poli Sci professor. I was reeling. The weather in Binghamton in the fall and winter of 1976/77 was biblically bad – it literally precipitated for 40 days and 40 nights. There was snow on the ground from my birthday (October 3) through April – and we had snow flurries during finals in May. I had to steel myself, I hunched my shoulders and tightened my muscles each time I opened the dorm door to the bitter cold. Previously I didn’t know nose hairs could freeze, but they did when I walked to the classroom wing! Gray clouds were a constant. For someone prone to melancholia under the best of circumstances, this was a bad recipe.
In the middle of that fall semester, weird stuff started disappearing from our room – some money (mostly loose change), a robe, a pair of pajamas. Not major theft, but it was noticeable. I mentioned it to my Dad. He told me to report it to the RA. I did.
They did an investigation that included being interrogated in the RA’s room by the Resident Director, with a single lamp shining on my face, while I sat on the RA’s desk chair. After a few days, I received a letter (I think all three of us received the same letter, but my memory fails me on this) that said they knew who was doing this and that person was expected to go to Psych Services (the counseling center). I shared this with my Dad, who was incensed. I was totally perplexed. Who was doing this? It was more of an annoyance than frightening to me. He wrote a letter to the President of the University saying that the matter was being mishandled and that the letter I had received had better not be included in my official record and should be destroyed. Dad received a letter in return that agreed with him and assured us that the letter was torn up and was not part of my official record.
Shortly thereafter items stopped disappearing. It was all very strange. That incident certainly didn’t help my relationship with my roommates or connect me to my RA and the other residents of “The Pits.” It solidified the need for me to change rooms and roommates.
At another point in that semester I received a bill indicating that tuition had not been fully paid. I think it may have related to not getting credit for my Regent’s Scholarship. Once again, I called home. Dad told me he would take care of it, and he did. I didn’t receive another bill.
As painful as freshman year was, I learned a great deal. Aside from reading The Iliad and other classics, I made life-long friends. And, I came to understand how lucky I was to have parents who were there for me. Dad especially offered unconditional love and would help me sort out whatever issues came my way. Many of my friends were left to their own devices when bills came or were only able to rely on their Moms for emotional support. Recognizing my good fortune was more important than any academic lesson.
Her skin smelled different as I gave her a hug. Nana was just back from a vacation to Florida. Her freckles had blended from the sun, her face and arms a burnished copper. I felt a little sad, a bit distant. I wanted her familiar scent, her familiar skin. But I was grateful that she was home at last.
That trip to Florida must have been longer than others because I remember writing a letter to her. I remember thinking I was quite clever because I wrote, “Everyone misses you, but I miss you most of all.” A variation of the line from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all. Though I don’t think I had that in mind when I wrote it.
More commonly, we were the ones leaving – at least for the summers. My Dad, a teacher, used his summers to attend graduate school. We spent, as a family, one summer in Worcester, MA at Clark University, and three summers at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (I have written about our road trips and time in Illinois here and there).
One summer I was especially uneasy about leaving home because I was taking care of a cat. We didn’t have pets in my family, my mother was deathly afraid of all animals. I always wanted a cat so I befriended a neighborhood stray that I named, creatively, Cutie. Mom allowed me to feed her in the garage and I could bring her in the basement to play with now and again. I considered Cutie to be my cat. I didn’t want to leave her when it was time to go to Illinois. Nana agreed to look after Cutie.
While we were away, unbeknownst to me, Cutie was injured. I later learned that the neighborhood kids were mean to her (not all that surprising given how they treated me), throwing rocks and taunting her. Nana tried to protect her, but she wasn’t outside much. Cutie recovered, but she was left with a scar. When I came home and saw it, I was devastated. She had a patch of fur missing on her neck and there was an ugly scab there. Every time I looked at it, I felt sick to my stomach. I was so upset, I didn’t want to handle her anymore. Rather than holding and comforting her, I rejected her. My nine-year-old self couldn’t cope with the disfigurement, which made me feel worse. My Dad stepped in and explained that since I couldn’t care for Cutie anymore, it would be best if we took her to an ASPCA shelter. I reluctantly agreed.
Dad got in the front seat of the car and I held Cutie on my lap in the back. We didn’t have a carrier. Cutie got agitated once the car started moving. I managed to hold her for a while, but eventually she wriggled out of my arms and climbed on the back of my Dad’s seat. At that moment, Dad opened his window. Cutie leapt out. I screamed. I think we were on Utica Avenue, or a similarly busy thoroughfare. I didn’t see where Cutie went, though at least I didn’t think she had been hit by another vehicle.
“Stop the car!” I pleaded.
“I can’t, not right here,” Dad said firmly.
“You did that on purpose!”
“You opened the window on purpose! Now what will happen to her?” I was crying.
“Linda, I didn’t open the window on purpose, but it may be for the best.”
“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked desperately.
At this point, Dad pulled the car over. We were looking out the windows in every direction, but we didn’t get out. There were so many people crowding the street, so many cars blocking the view of the sidewalks, shops with racks of goods outside, buses coming and going; general chaos. It was hopeless. There was no way we would spot her.
“We were bringing her to a shelter, anyway, Linda,” Dad offered. “Maybe this is better. I’m sorry. Let’s go home.” He circled around the block. I was still looking frantically, through my tears. I didn’t see her. I didn’t really believe that it was better, but I didn’t know what to do.
It was a painful episode for everyone. I think we all felt guilty. I was mostly disappointed in myself and how I reacted to Cutie’s injury. One thing I don’t recall doing: I didn’t blame Nana. I knew that even if I had been home the same thing could have happened.
I always wondered if my father opened the window to let her out. That will remain one of life’s mysteries. Maybe it was for the best. At the time, I didn’t understand how shelters worked. Thinking about it now, it is unlikely that she would have been adopted. She had always been a street cat. I tried to convince myself that she figured out how to survive in a new neighborhood.
I still loved cats, but it would be quite a while before I took care of another one.
Another one of life’s mysteries began with another trip. This one Nana took – to Portugal. That seemed like quite an exotic destination to me. People I knew didn’t travel to Europe. She went with her older sister, Sadie. I had a sense that this was a big thing – maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity that Nana felt she couldn’t pass up.
Naturally Nana came back bearing gifts. She brought back a gold filigree bracelet. I marveled at its intricate pattern and delicacy. She also brought back an embroidered bag. It was black with bright flowers and the word ‘Portugal’ sown on. I kept my doll collection in that bag for years.
Unfortunately, she also brought back an infection in her big toe. People with diabetes often have difficulty healing, especially in their extremities. I didn’t understand that at the time, I only knew that this toe infection became a serious medical problem that required hospitalization. Once again Nana went to Unity Hospital in Brooklyn.
For a time, it looked like they might have to amputate her toe, or maybe even her foot. Nana, who was looking forward to dancing at Uncle Terry’s wedding in a few months’ time, flat out rejected that possibility. She was determined to keep all her toes, perhaps even at the risk of her overall health. She was released from the hospital with all her toes. She danced at Terry and Barbara’s wedding in January of 1971. Three months later, in April, she died. I don’t know if there was a relationship to the infection. I didn’t think so at the time.
To an 11-year-old, three months is a long time. It is strange how the perception of time changes the older you get. The infection and her death seemed too far apart to be connected. Now I’m not so sure.
Jewish tradition doesn’t generally permit an autopsy because of the belief that the body is sacred, shouldn’t be desecrated and should be buried intact. There are exceptions if the law of the land requires it or if a physician determines that new knowledge could be gained to help others. Neither exception applied, so we never fully understood Nana’s death. An embolism or an aneurysm were suspected. Perhaps the adults knew more but, if so, nothing was shared.
These events left me with many questions. Why would anyone harm an animal? Why didn’t I have the stomach to care for Cutie after her injury? Did Dad deliberately open his window to let her escape? Did the infection hasten Nana’s death? Could things have been different for Nana if she had taken better care? Of those questions, there was only one I could do anything about. I could do better with my next pet.
I suppose we all carry questions that we can’t answer. I look for meaning in the losses and I think I find it, even if I don’t have answers. As a child, I learned to love and cope with loss – the two are inextricably connected.