Nana’s Table

Note: The following is a longer post than usual. For readers who have been following me from the beginning, some of the stories may be familiar. I have pieced together previous blog posts, along with new material, to create a more complete narrative of my relationship with Nana (my maternal grandmother). I am experimenting with different forms and approaches. Thanks, Leah, for your edits and suggestions. And, thanks Dan for your suggestion for the title. I look forward to feedback from any and all readers!

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After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith. They bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was August of 1964, they were 30 and 31 respectively, and they were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary.

The house, a two-family semi-attached brick and shingle structure, was on a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the dirt road was awash in mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada (my maternal grandparents) and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, took the apartment upstairs.

I started Kindergarten that fall and thus began a routine that would stretch over the next six years: go to school, visit upstairs with Nana, go back down for dinner with my parents and two brothers, do homework, go back up to watch tv with Nana, and, finally, go to bed.

Long before moving to Canarsie, Zada, in 1941 bought and managed Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in Crown Heights. Nana worked in the bakery alongside Zada and the family lived above the store. A master bread baker, Zada’s challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough.

By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s once thrived was changing. Zada thought that the new immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean, would buy his high-quality rye, pumpernickel and challah. But, they didn’t. He didn’t change his product and he didn’t follow his customers to Long Island either. So, for the second time in his life, he lost everything – he went bankrupt.  At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery in Greenpoint, and moved his wife and two teenage sons to the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.

The door to Nana and Zada’s apartment was always unlocked. Each day when I came home from school, I dropped my stuff off in my bedroom, climbed the stairs, and let myself in. Though it was a two-family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one.

Nana sat at a small, round marble table. The gold threads in the marble caught and reflected the light from the amber glass fixture suspended above it. The marble table top sat on a black cast iron pedestal. Both were unforgiving on misplaced elbows and knees.

“Hello, Sunshine,” her daily greeting to me as I opened the door. Nana’s arthritic hands were wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising. She lifted herself from her chair and shuffled across the yellow linoleum floor toward the refrigerator.  I settled into a chair next to hers.

“Zada brought home a chocolate crème pie.  Do you want a piece?” She was already removing the pie from the refrigerator shelf – she knew my answer. Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies, and I was always ready to indulge in a treat. As the refrigerator door swung closed, I saw Nana’s supply of insulin bottles lined up on the bottom shelf.

A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came on shortly after. I ate my pie.

“Tell me about your day, Sunshine,” Nana asked.

“The usual. But, we have an assembly on Thursday and my class is putting on a little play. Maybe you could come?”

Nana sighed, “You know I’d love to, but my feet are hurting so much, there’s no way I could get there.”

My elementary school was not near the house, it was even a long walk to the bus.

“It’s okay, Nana. Maybe next time your feet will be better.”

We turned our attention back to the Mike Douglas show where the Rockettes were dancing. I adjusted the rabbit ear antenna so we’d get better reception.

“Lindale, bring me my aspirin,” Zada bellowed from the back bedroom. Another part of my daily ritual.  Zada worked an early morning shift and was resting in bed while I visited with Nana.

“Coming!” I would get a glass of water, go into the bathroom and pour three aspirin from a huge bottle and bring it to him. Zada was propped up in bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles, wearing his sleeveless t-shirt, boxer shorts and horn-rimmed glasses, reading the Daily News. He took all three pills at once and washed them down with a gulp of water.

“Did you have the chocolate crème pie?” Zada asked.

“I did, it was delicious.”

“Good.” I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen, my job done.

The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters in the window. I sat in my cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.

On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from the old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or car service because they didn’t drive. The nearest bus to our house left them with a long, windy walk across Seaview Park.

Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, trudged across the park. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satin smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow cloth so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside.

Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too.  They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.

Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. I listened. Nana served tea and cake.

It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.

One day I took my usual place at the table and Nana shared an idea. Since my hair was a constant source of difficulty, she wanted me to try something different. A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, my hair was entirely unmanageable.  This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that fill an aisle of CVS today. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.

Combing my hair after washing it was a nightmare for both me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. My hair was such a jumble of knots that it was nearly impossible to endure the process. I would avoid the whole thing for as long as my mother would allow.

Nana came back from a session at the beauty parlor with her silver hair teased high, each hair sprayed into submission.  Fortunately, that wasn’t what she had in mind for me, though that still might have been an improvement.

She explained that she spoke to another hairdresser at her salon about me. A new style had come into fashion, a shag, and they thought it could work. If I was interested, Nana would make me an appointment. I readily agreed.

After getting Mom’s consent, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Nana was greeted with warm embraces and enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age.

A shag was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched as my hair was trimmed and styled. When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. For the first time, my hair looked good! The other people in the beauty parlor even complimented me.

Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited to show everyone. Nana walked in with me to see Mom’s reaction. Mom looked at me puzzled for a long minute, brow furrowed, and said, “I have to get used to it.” Her face said she didn’t like it. I burst into tears and ran to my bedroom. As I left I heard Nana say loudly, “Feige, you don’t know your ass from your elbow!”

I had never heard Nana use a curse word – ever. And, I never heard her say a cross word to my mother. I also had never heard that expression – it conjured up an image that shocked my eleven-year-old self. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – so I did both.

After a minute or two, Mom knocked on my bedroom door. “Nana’s right, Linda,” she said as she sat down next to me on my bed, gently stroking my back. “The cut looks great. I’m sorry for reacting that way. I was just surprised.”

“Ok,” I sniffled, “but I can’t believe Nana said that!”

“Well, she was upset with me. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the haircut.”

“You really think my hair looks okay?”

“I do. Go upstairs and let Nana know you’re feeling better.”

I did.

 

A few months later I climbed those same stairs to my grandparents’ apartment, knowing Nana was no longer there. I opened the door and found Zada sitting at the huge mahogany dining room table in his suit and tie. I crossed the room and went to sit with him to wait for everyone else to be ready to leave.

I was wearing the same dress, brown with white polka dots, cinched at the waist, that I wore a month earlier to my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary party.  That party, with its frivolity and craziness (there had been a belly dancer, of all things!) seemed ages ago.

Zada looked at me and said, “Nana would be so happy to see you looking so pretty,” and his voice broke; he made a strangled sound. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed.  I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen a grown man cry. I stood up and ran back down the stairs to my bedroom with the sounds of his grief following me. I didn’t know how to comfort him or myself.

Two days before, I awoke to the sound of Uncle Mike calling to my mom. “Feige, it’s mommy.  She’s sick.” I heard his panicked voice in the hall outside my bedroom.  Then I heard rustling sounds as my mom got out of bed, “I’m coming!” the slap of her slippers on the linoleum as she followed him upstairs. I pulled the covers over my head, trying to block out any more sounds.

I couldn’t help but hear the voices calling back and forth, the frantic phone calls being made.

Despite my growing fear, I got out of bed and slowly climbed the stairs to see what was going on. I stepped into Nana’s kitchen and my Dad stopped me.

“Nana would not want you to see her like this,” he said.

“Can I make her some tea?”

“Okay, why don’t you do that.”

I did and when it was ready, I wanted to bring it to her, but an ambulance was just arriving. I put the cup down on the marble kitchen table and retreated to our apartment. When I heard movement on the steps, I went back out into the hallway to try and see Nana. I couldn’t see her face, just her wavy white hair as they carried her to the ambulance.

All the adults piled into cars and followed the ambulance, siren wailing. It got very quiet in the house. Mark, my 14-year-old brother, an unbelievably heavy sleeper, had finally awoken in the tumult. I explained to him what was going on. Steven, my oldest brother, was away working at a resort hotel in New Jersey for the Easter/Passover holiday break from school.

Mark and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Mom and Dad had returned the night before from their first ever vacation without us. They went to Florida, while Nana and Zada watched us, and came back happy and tan. That happiness lasted only a few hours.

They also brought back souvenirs. With nothing to occupy us but our worry, Mark and I took our new alligator-shaped water guns and chased each other around outside – down the alley next to our house, into the backyard and back to the front. Squirting each other, we laughed to relieve the stress. Eventually we tired ourselves out, went back into the house and just waited.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still afternoon, we heard people at the door. As the front door was being unlocked, I could see my Aunt Simma through the sidelight, tears streaming down her face. My Dad opened the door and came into the kitchen.

“Come, sit with me,” Dad said. He ushered Mark and me to the couch in the living room.

He took a deep breath. “Nana died,” he said quietly.

“What happened?” I asked, “How??”

“We don’t really know – maybe a burst blood vessel or blood clot.”

Mark immediately burst into tears. How did he do that? How did he understand it so quickly? I was numb. Dad patted Mark’s shoulder and put his hand on mine. “It’s okay to cry.”

I don’t know if he said that for Mark’s benefit or mine. I’m sure he offered words of comfort but I don’t remember what they were.

I learned a lot over the course of the next week. I learned about sitting shiva –  the Jewish ritual surrounding death. I watched the mirrors in the house get covered with sheets; Mom, my aunt and two uncles and Zada each wore a black pin and ribbon to signify their loss; mourners used small hard stools instead of regular chairs. Each morning my uncles walked across the park to the nearest synagogue to say kadish. The house was filled with people, day and night; sometimes it felt like a party. Nana loved a party. It was strange – the happy chatter mixed with grief.

I learned that grown men do cry. Uncle Jack, Nana’s youngest brother, was sitting quietly one moment and then was overcome the next. I didn’t shed a tear, not then, not since. Nana was my comfort and heart, I felt a deep sadness, but tears would not come.

At the time, I thought Nana was old. She was 56. I am 58 as I write this.

The December Dilemma

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Celebrating Leah’s birthday at Kidskeller (daycare center). Dan is to her right.

It was late fall of 1990. I went through the revolving door of my office building to leave for the day, as I did five days a week. By the time I emerged on the sidewalk, every thought about work evaporated. It was like crossing into another world, one totally focused on Leah and Daniel (my children, aged 3 years and 18 months). If I offered to bring something from home to a colleague at work, let’s say a book, by the time I got to the street, the thought was gone. No chance I’d remember to bring it. The next day I’d arrive back at the office, realize I had forgotten and apologize to my colleague. It was hopeless. My brain was on overload.

In the fall of 1990 Gary was in his second year of his endocrine fellowship, his fifth year of post-medical school training. I was working full time for the New York State Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review. Leah and Daniel attended a daycare center, Kidskeller, that was part of Albany Medical Center, where Gary was in training.

Each day I’d leave work, take a bus to VA hospital where our car was parked. I would take the car to the daycare center and pick up the kids and drive home. Sometime later in the evening, Gary would call and I would put the kids in the car and pick him up. Honestly, I don’t know how our marriage survived those years– at times we were hanging on by our fingernails.

On one particular day, I got to Kidskeller and was getting stuff from Leah’s cubby. As was often the case, there was a note from the head of the program with information about upcoming events. I quickly read it and saw that Santa Claus would be visiting the center in a few weeks. I took a deep breath, folded the note and put it in the bag with Leah’s other stuff. The same note was in Dan’s cubby. I would read it more carefully later that night.

After Gary got home and had dinner, I showed him the note, which asked parents to bring a small wrapped gift for their child so that Santa could distribute it when he visited.  We were not happy. I resented being required, in effect, to get gifts when money was so crazy tight. I also resented having Santa Claus imposed on us – he was ubiquitous already! While some Jews may partake of Christmas rituals, we didn’t. I enjoyed the lights and decorations that brighten the season, but we didn’t exchange gifts or acknowledge Santa Claus and we didn’t want that for our children.

We were surprised that a daycare associated with a medical center would approach the holiday without recognizing the awkward position in which it would put non-Christian parents and children. After discussing it, Gary and I decided that it was likely too late to ask them to change the plan, but we would talk to the director so that maybe other plans could be considered in the years to follow. In the meantime, I would come to the center at the appointed hour with a gift for Leah and Dan and give it to them myself.

The next day I stopped by the day care director’s office and asked if I could schedule a time to meet with her. I told her it was about the center’s plans for Christmas. She readily agreed and we set aside some time the following week.

I arrived at the meeting as relaxed as possible. I knew there was nothing to be gained by going in loaded for bear.

“Amy, I wanted to explain how the plan to have Santa Claus come to the center, and give gifts to the kids, put Gary and I in a difficult position,” I began.

I went on to explain that we didn’t view Santa Claus as a secular figure and that we didn’t observe Christmas. She listened. I think it came as a surprise to her that we were troubled by Santa Claus, as she didn’t see him as a religious symbol at all.

We agreed that there wouldn’t be any change to that year’s plan. She understood that I would come with my own gifts for Leah and Daniel. We also agreed that the center would form a committee of parents and staff to discuss holiday observances and make recommendations for the future. I was pleased that she was willing to do that.

The day of Santa’s visit arrived. I left work, taking my lunch hour, to go over to the center. Santa was scheduled to visit Dan’s room first. The children, who were between 18 months and two years old, were sitting on the floor in a circle. Their care givers and a couple of other parents were spread throughout the room. Dan climbed into my lap. Santa was led in by the assistant director. Santa sat in a chair and read off each child’s name, inviting each to come up and get their present. After some cajoling by an adult, most of the kids toddled up to Santa. Only one or two cried. The adults were smiling and laughing. I gave Dan his small gift. Santa left and moved on to the next age group.

I left Dan and went to Leah’s room. She was with the 3-4 year olds. While some of the kids were still reticent, more of them shared the excitement of the adults. I gave Leah her present. She seemed a bit perplexed, but was always excited to get a gift.

I went back to work, struck by the feeling that Santa’s visit meant more to the adults than the children.

When I went back to pick up Leah and Dan at the end of the day, one of Leah’s teachers asked Leah if she would hang the ornament they had made on her Christmas tree. Leah turned to look at me, not sure how to answer. I smiled and said, ”We don’t have a Christmas tree, but we’ll give it to someone who does.”  Cathy said, “Oh, you don’t? Hmmm.” I took Leah’s hand and we went to get Dan.

Driving home, Leah asked, “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?” I explained that we aren’t Christian and we don’t celebrate the holiday. We celebrate other holidays. “I wish we celebrated Christmas,” Leah said wistfully. “I understand, Leah. We can still enjoy the lights and stuff. We just won’t be observing it in our house.” I changed the subject, “What should we have for dinner?”

I hadn’t expected to confront this so soon. She was three and a half.

That wasn’t close to the end of it.

(My next blog post will relate what happened with the day care center committee and the following year’s holiday season.)

 

Adventures with Aunt Clair

Aunt Clair, my father’s younger sister by two and a half years, may be short in stature, but she more than makes up for it with an outsize personality. One of my earliest memories was a weekend where she watched me and my two brothers while my parents were away. As I recall, we named her car ‘Bumpity Morgan.’ I don’t know if that name was a result of its poor suspension or New York’s potholed streets (or both).

I could be mixing different times together, but I recall Aunt Clair driving us in ‘Bumpity’ to the beach in the Rockaways. We were enjoying jumping the waves and collecting shells when the sky grew ominous. Aunt Clair poo-poohed it for a while and we continued to enjoy playing in the water and sand. Eventually it became clear that a storm was rolling in. We gathered up our things as quickly as we could and made a run for it. We got to ‘Bumpity’ just in time to avoid the lightening and fat raindrops. Wet and sandy, we climbed into the car and went back home, having squeezed out the last possible moments of fun. This was a very different approach from my parents. Mom and Dad would have packed up sooner, cleaned the sand off our feet and gotten back to the car with time to spare.

Aunt Clair, 81 years old now, lives in the same rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village that she has occupied for almost my entire life. When you think of a person who spent over 50 years, living on their own, in the Village, you might imagine someone with idiosyncrasies – you might imagine my Aunt Clair.

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Aunt Clair and me, June 2017 Photo credit: Mary Sulzer

She stands maybe 5’2” with curly white hair, there may be remnants of light brown strands from her younger years. Even 40 years ago, whenever I would walk with her, she would remind me that she had to take twice as many steps to keep up – she considered me to be tall! I didn’t think I had a particularly long stride, unless I was next to her.

Like her siblings, she has large, lively blue eyes. Like her siblings, she is razor sharp smart and insightful. She has a hearty laugh – my kids tell me we sound alike when we laugh.

Aunt Clair is 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, so 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 wasn’t easy. I remember hearing about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. I’m not sure how that ended up, I think she ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though my Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did in that case. He advised, if in a similar situation, to not fight back and risk serious injury. Aunt Clair didn’t (and still doesn’t) find it easy to back down.

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 guess I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.

Some of my fondest memories of time spent with Aunt Clair involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders.  She continued to bike, even to chemotherapy appointments when she was in her late 70s!

When I was college-aged and home for the summer, I joined Aunt Clair for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! Earlier that evening I went with my parents to see an off-Broadway play. We drove into the city from Brooklyn with my bike was strapped to their car. Aunt Clair met us at the theater when the show was over. We retrieved my bike and went to her apartment to drop my stuff off and then headed uptown.

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Photo credit: Snapshot for Sore Eyes – Central Park at Night

Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain which is located mid-park at around 72nd Street. Central Park begins at 59th Street and stretches to 110th, south to north. East to west, it encompasses two avenues across (Fifth to Central Park West). It was odd to be in a place that most people thought of as dangerous at that hour. 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 through the theater district all the way down 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. At that time, there were no residential buildings in the area, so there weren’t restaurants (other than those that catered to the lunch crowd) or clubs or theaters. It was a ghost town during off hours. 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. Midafternoon she drove me and my bike back to Canarsie.

It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair.  We took other bike rides together – 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’ve seen plays, movies and ballets with her. We’ve eaten 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.

I was fortunate to grow up in an unusual family – made up of interesting, quirky and intelligent people. Aunt Clair’s feistiness, strong opinions and independent streak could sometimes create friction with other family members, especially my Dad (who shared some of those same qualities). But, I have been lucky to have her.

 

Facilitation 101

Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.

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One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).

I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.

He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.

He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”

In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.

My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.

I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.

All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.

He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”

Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?

“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.

Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.

“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”

There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.

“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.

It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”

As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”

I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.

I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.

Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.

The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.

A Remembrance

I stood at the foot of the hospital bed, playing solitaire on the tray table.  With each turn of a card, I looked up to see my father’s large blue-gray eyes staring at me.  Memorizing my face?  Asking for something?

He was beyond speech; four years into his illness.  Chronic lymphocytic leukemia was supposed to be relatively benign.  “You can live with this for twenty years and likely die of something else,” said the doctor at the time.   Four years later, aged 72, he was diapered and speechless in a hospice bed. I didn’t understand how he had gotten to this point. Even though I saw the disease rob my father of himself, bit by bit, it was still a shock.

When I was growing up, he was often mistaken for a wrestler or football player.  Such was my father’s presence.  A deep, resonant voice, broad shoulders, with a bald head and prominent nose – he was the perfect dean of a New York City high school.

He was also the perfect social studies teacher.  A voracious reader; he consumed biographies of Jefferson, Lincoln, Russian histories, westerns by Louis L’Amour, and any and all novels about the mob.  All with equal gusto.

I continued playing solitaire.  The slap of the cards on the laminate was a familiar sound to him.  I would hear that sound as I came down the stairs in my own house, when my parents visited, and see him at my kitchen table, playing solitaire while waiting for the rest of us to be ready to go – wherever it was we were going, Dad was always ready early.

I kept looking up at his eyes.

My flight was 5:45 a.m. the next day, Sunday, March 13, 2005.  That flight would get me home in time to see Leah’s final dance recital (she was a senior in high school and would be going on to college in the fall) and to celebrate Daniel’s 16th birthday.  I took my leave, giving him a kiss on the cheek and a squeeze of his diminished arm. My mom and my brother Mark were with him and that comforted me.

He died that next day, on my son’s birthday, during my daughter’s dance recital.

I still see his eyes looking at me.

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Broad Shoulders

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One of my favorite pictures of me and my Dad – from the late 1990s

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.

 

 

The First Date

Dating was in the midst of a sea change in the 1970s. Women’s liberation was in full swing and a nascent gay rights movement was getting some traction. The upheaval may have contributed to some of my difficulties in establishing romantic relationships, as opposed to friendships, with guys. In my mother’s era, dating was pretty straight-forward. That it isn’t to say it didn’t have its challenges, but I think the process was kind of black and white. A boy liked a girl, he asked her out for a Friday or Saturday night. The boy put on nice slacks and a button-down shirt. The girl would likely put on a dress or skirt. The guy, if he had a car, would pick up the girl. If he didn’t, he still went to her house to get her. A girl might go out on dates with several different guys, until a couple became serious. I’m sure I’m simplifying, but it was simpler! (I’m not saying it was better.)

When I was in high school and in college a lot of socializing was done in groups, girls and guys could be friends.  Mostly we hung out in someone’s basement or at the diner, dressed very casually in t-shirts and jeans. If we went into the city (which meant going into Manhattan), we might put on nicer clothes, but we’d all meet at the subway station and travel together. Or, if someone had a car, we all piled in without regard to seat belts. The groups were co-ed. The relationship boundaries were fuzzy.

It was the beginning of a time where girls could take the lead, though that was not something I was ever comfortable with. It was also the beginning of a time where there was more awareness of options in sexual orientation. We had not yet reached the point that people came out as gay when I was in high school, but that began to happen when I was in college.

I found the whole scene difficult to navigate. I wasn’t adventurous, I didn’t know how to flirt and, while I was clear about my sexual orientation, I didn’t feel feminine. I had no confidence in myself as a feminine being. And, while some around me were adopting a more relaxed approach, sex was not a casual thing to me.

I offer this as background to my first ‘date’ with Gary. We embarked on a transition from friends who hung out as part of a larger group to something else, and I was bringing some baggage. He was, too.

It was September of 1979, the semester was a few weeks old, when Gary asked me out. He borrowed a car from a friend who lived on campus. Since we were going to Copperfield’s, a nice restaurant in Oakdale mall, we each got ‘dressed up.’ Gary was wearing slacks and a sweater, which was a major change from his usual wardrobe of a faded t-shirt and very worn in jeans. While I don’t remember what I wore, I wasn’t wearing overalls, which was my daily uniform.

There was some awkwardness in conversation as he drove us to the mall. Somehow the formality changed things, but we were doing okay. We were shown to a table. The waiter came by and asked if we wanted a drink. Gary immediately said no before I even had a chance to respond. The waiter went away. I was disappointed. I said, “It might be nice to get a drink.” Gary’s eyes opened wide. “It didn’t occur to me, I’m sorry.”

While I didn’t come from a family that drank much, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to have a cocktail when they went out to dinner. Apparently, that was not Gary’s experience. It was outside his ken. He motioned for the waiter to come back, I think I ordered a white russian.

We enjoyed our dinner, discussed our families and learned about each other. Then we drove to campus, returned the car and went to lecture hall number 2 where Foul Play, with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, would be playing. A line was forming and we were close to the front.  After a minute or two, a curly-haired girl walked by to get on the line, but she stopped when she saw Gary. I did not recognize her. “Hi Gary!!” she said with enthusiasm. Gary said hi a bit tentatively, and turned to me and introduced me, “Linda, this is Cindy. Cindy this is Linda.” I recognized the name, if not the face. This was Gary’s ex-girlfriend. She was quite delighted to see him and find him close to the front of what was now a very long line.

“Gary, you look very nice,” she noted. “Do you mind if I join you?” Gary nodded his thanks in acknowledgment of the compliment. She may have taken it as permission to join us. She did. We all made some small talk, mostly I smiled. When we filed into the lecture hall, she sat between us! This was all very strange.

Fortunately, it was a very entertaining movie. I have always loved rom-coms (still do) – they are a great means of escape from reality. Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase made a very likeable duo. The movie made me laugh and that was a relief from the uneasiness.

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After the movie ended, we started to walk out and Cindy asked if we wanted to go out for a drink! She had a car; we could go get a drink and then she would drop us off at 30 Haendel. “It will save you from having to take the OCC (Off-Campus Community) bus,” she explained. I hoped Gary would say no, we had other plans. But, alas, he didn’t. “Okay,” said Gary.

Off we went to some bar, I have forgotten which one. We sat at a table and Cindy asked about various members of Gary’s family whom I had not yet heard of much less met, but she had. “How is Aunt Sophie?” she inquired. Cindy and Gary had been together for two years. One of the things Gary and I had bonded over was our similar relationship histories. Though his relationship with Cindy lasted two years, by his account it petered out, lost its momentum and died a kind of natural death, while mine involved more heartbreak (at least for me). Even with that knowledge, I certainly wasn’t expecting to share our first date with her.

Eventually, we finished our drinks and everyone decided not to get another (Hallelujah!). We went to her car. She drove us to 30 Haendel. We thanked her for the ride and started to go up the stairs. Neither one of us knew what to say, so at first there was silence. I think I broke it by asking, “What just happened?” We were on the landing of the third floor at this point. Gary was shifting his weight from foot to foot, looking down. “I’m really sorry,” he said. Then he said, “I kind of lost control of my nervous system. I didn’t know what to say or do. It was awful.” I looked at him, shaking my head, but feeling kind of sorry for him. “Okay, I guess,” I said. We agreed that we would talk about it the next day, rather try to figure it out right then and there. We said good night and went into our respective apartments.

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The next night, Sunday, Annie Hall was on television; this was before cable, it was going to be on ABC, a special event. I don’t remember how the plan got made, but Alison, Merle, Gary and his housemate, Glenn, and I gathered to watch it in the living room of our apartment. Annie Hall was one of my favorite movies of all time (it still is). Merle and I would quote lines from it to each other and we loved noticing all the little quirks, like the fact that Woody Allen and Tony Roberts call each other Max throughout, even though their names in the movie are Alvy and Rob.

We all watched the movie, laughing and chatting during the commercials. Gary and I had yet to discuss our date of the night before. As the credits started to roll, Gary and I volunteered to make a Dunkin’ Donuts run for everyone. Just as we were getting up to go, the phone rang. It was my ex! Annie Hall was a movie he and I had enjoyed together and, apparently, he watched it back in Brooklyn. We had a very brief conversation during which he said seeing the movie made him think of me. As he said that, I realized I had watched the entire thing without associating it with him! I had not consciously recognized, until that moment, that I had finally moved on.

Gary waited in the hall while I wrapped up the conversation. I joined him and we walked the few blocks to the Dunkin’ Donuts. We were finally ready to address the events of the night before. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, though I’m pretty sure I explained how difficult it had been for me to spend the evening with Cindy. I don’t think I was too hard on him, but I wasn’t letting him off too easy, either. We agreed to a do-over. We would try another date the following Saturday.

This time we went to a real movie theater, to see The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which I didn’t enjoy as much as Foul Play, but we didn’t run into or hear from any exes.

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38 years later I see the seeds of important elements of our relationship in those first dates. We were honest with each other, we tried to understand one another, we were forgiving and we were friends. It stood us in good stead.