We made it! After planning, adjusting, worrying, fretting and more planning, the wedding weekend not only happened, it was a success. In the face of Covid, we pulled it off. We won’t fully exhale for another two weeks or so, when we see that no one in our little gathering got sick, but the important event was accomplished. Ben and Leah are husband and wife!
We started planning Leah and Ben’s wedding Pre-Covid (PC). It is hard to remember that there was a PC time, but there was. We had a big bash planned – with some 200 guests, a venue reserved, hotel rooms blocked, photographer and DJ booked, etc. After the plague struck, for a while we held out hope that time was on our side – that December was far enough off so the worst of the virus would be over. As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that the it wasn’t going to be the case and that the original plan would have to either be cancelled entirely or significantly modified.
Happily, the kids decided they wanted to keep their wedding date (12/12/2020). They scrapped the idea of a big shindig this year and agreed that they would just have their immediate family (12 of us – maybe there is something to that number for them). In October we set about looking for an inn in Massachusetts. We settled on the Red Lion in Stockbridge.
I lived in anxiety that there would be a lockdown as the coronavirus raged. I just wanted our daughter to have this and I didn’t want the plague to win. When Friday arrived and Gary and I left for Stockbridge, I finally felt some relief. Even if Massachusetts declared a shutdown, they usually give a couple of days notice so in that respect, we were in the clear. I can declare that we pulled it off and I have photographic evidence.
Friday evening we started the festivities by visiting Winterlights at Naumkeag Estate in Stockbridge.
The room where it happened, including a table with family wedding photos.
The bride and groom, and the cutest flower girl ever! Good friends, Sarah and John officiated.
I am so grateful for the riches of this past weekend. Our daughter who was so joyful. Our son-in-law who is so warm and loving. Our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter who are fun, funny, and all-around fabulous people. Our newest family members, Ben’s parents, Kathy, and Gary and Alex (Ben’s brother) – all good-natured, generous and happy participants in all of the activities. The food and drink were great. The accommodations were more than comfortable. We made beautiful memories and hopefully got Leah and Ben off on the right track (to borrow a phrase from Leah’s grandpa David). We look forward to many more shared celebrations.
Note: Some of the photos were taken by Kathy Johnson, some by Gary Bakst and some by me. Frankly I’m not sure which were which at this point, but thank you both for sharing!
First, ultimately the truth comes out; maybe not immediately, but in time it would emerge, and you would be embarrassed or ashamed to be caught in that lie.
Second, your lie could hurt someone, and we didn’t want to hurt other people if we could avoid it. [They did offer this caveat: If it was a white lie, intended to protect someone from harm, it might be okay.]
Third, it can be hard to keep track of lies and you might contradict yourself later (“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” – I remember that adage from that font of all wisdom, Sargent O’Rourke on F-Troop.)
Fourth, if you make a practice of lying, you won’t be trusted, and when you need to be believed, you will be out of luck (see the fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’).
Finally, and possibly most important, when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you want to have a clear conscience so you can sleep peacefully.
I was convinced. I am not perfect – I can’t say I’ve never lied, but I am really bad at it. Ask my family.
It appears that our president didn’t learn this lesson, or he has conveniently forgotten it. It is hard to believe that we need to review the reasons to value honesty. Let’s take a closer look at how Trump fails:
The first argument assumes a person can be embarrassed. Trump has no shame. When he is caught in a lie, he doubles down on it.
The second argument assumes that we value not hurting people. Trump is unconcerned about people’s feelings – he puts this on display every time he mocks someone for their disability and, more generally, how he treats people in his life.
Trump could not care less about keeping track of his lies, he makes no attempt to do so. When a reporter brings up statements Trump has made in the past which were incorrect or contradictory, he pretends it never happened or shrugs his shoulders.
Trump doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t want to acknowledge dependence on anyone, so he moves through the world without worrying about whether his word means anything. He has been sued repeatedly for not fulfilling commitments. His lack of credibility has done damage to our relationships with allies across the world.
Considering that he is known for tweeting at all hours of the night or early morning, sleep appears to elude him.
Trump’s enablers and followers apparently didn’t learn that lying is wrong either. It frightens me for our future – lying has become normalized. What will it mean for our country if our culture no longer values personal integrity and if we believe the ends justify the means?
Trump’s lying may in fact be criminal when you consider his handling of the coronavirus. I believe he has blood on his hands.
I understand the temptation to lie when it is expedient. If a lie gets you what you want in the short term, it can be quite tempting. Sometimes we lie to avoid conflict or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the motivation, it is short-sighted. If you lie to avoid conflict, it puts off the inevitable and possibly makes it worse when you finally do have to confront it. If you lie to achieve a short-term goal, it may jeopardize more important long-range accomplishments. We need to take a longer view, in our personal relationships and in our professional lives. I think any number of societal issues we face would be improved if we did that.
I was thinking about this because of a Facebook exchange I had with a neighbor. She is a Trump supporter and she posted a comment that she wasn’t voting for Trump’s personality, but for his principles(!). What principles? I was stunned. She made this remark in response to someone that criticized Trump for lying. Incessant lying is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of principles and/or mental illness. In either case, it is not a quality that someone who is entrusted with the presidency of our country should possess. This neighbor’s world is upside down. But, that’s what happens when you depend on Fox News and talk radio for your information.
Yesterday that same neighbor criticized Biden on Facebook for being boring. I long for boring. I am exhausted after four years of outrageous statements. I can’t wait for us to turn the corner and heal from this divisive and painful time – not to mention finally getting a handle on the pandemic with thoughtful, scientific federal guidance.
Tomorrow is election day. I pray that Americans send a resounding message by rejecting the Lying Liar and those that have enabled him in the House and Senate. While I also hope that Trump is held accountable for his crimes after he is out of office, I think I will be satisfied if he and his family fade away and are no longer part of our national conversation. It is an interesting question: what is best for our country? Pursuing investigations and possible prosecution or focusing on the future and turning the page on Trump. But, I am getting ahead of myself. We can debate that question after he is sent packing.
I am practically holding my breath with anxiety – I need to remind myself, and you, to breathe until we get through this, hopefully in 48 hours.
‘Okay, just one more small piece.’
I slice a sliver of banana bread,
delighted that she so enjoys something I made.
She takes it eagerly.
‘Mmmm,’ she says, as she munches.
How can I deny her?
I draw chalk hearts on the driveway.
Pink, blue, yellow, orange and green.
She runs, jumps on them.
‘Papa, go to a blue one!’
Gary leaps to it.
I jog over.
She has invented a sport,
she directs us with enthusiasm.
She trips on her sandal.
Skins her knee.
I scoop her up, carry her inside.
We clean the scrape, apply ointment and a colorful band-aid.
Back outside to our rainbow heart game.
Laughter turns to tears
And back again in minutes.
‘I love you, Papa!’
She says as we climb the stairs to bed.
He is on the phone with a patient.
‘I love you, Papa!’
He doesn’t hear.
‘Papa loves you sooo much,’ I assure her.
She is strapped into her car seat.
I blow kisses.
They drive away.
I wave, take a deep breath, exhale.
Relief and longing in unequal parts wash over me.
When will I get to hold that little bundle of life, love, demands and discovery again?
Note: It is only appropriate that today I share another of my Mom’s pieces. I am off to visit her and accompany her to the doctor. Unfortunately, Mom has had a serious health issue come up that is made more difficult to manage because of COVID. Any positive vibes, karma, or prayer is appreciated. Meanwhile, here is another slice of her life. We hope you enjoy!
A stoop is not a porch. A porch has rocking chairs or other seating where folks sip iced tea and relax. A stoop is a wide staircase that leads to a multifamily home, usually in a city. I had a stoop. It was in front of the house where I grew up, on Rochester Avenue in Brooklyn.
The stoop was our playground, like a town center for all the kids on the block. We sat on the steps of the stoop and played jacks or all kinds of card games. The boys would trade baseball cards or play knocks (don’t ask).
We sat on the steps and took turns playing jump rope or double dutch (if you were brave) on the sidewalk. We played hit the penny. We’d put a penny on the crack in the pavement, you and your partner stood on either side, trying to hit the penny with a pink ball called a pensy-pinky. One point if you hit it; two points if it turned over. 11 points to win. The boys also played punch ball and of course stoop ball, which took some imagination. We sat on the steps putting on or taking off our roller skates with a key on a string attached to our neck.
After school or in the evening we would sit on the steps talking about our teachers. Were they fair? Did they have favorites? We talked about who we liked or disliked. We sometimes did our homework and if we were in the same class, we might compare answers.
A group of us would meet on the stoop and then go to the movies. Afterwards we’d come back to the stoop and the boys would act out sword fights (from the movie Robin Hood). The girls would be the damsel in distress – I might be her best friend. They would play cops and robbers; or, they would be the US and its allies fighting the Nazis or the Japanese. We would see news reels at the movies which gave us reports on the progress of World War II.
We would sit on the steps singing war time songs like The White Cliffs of Dover. We would watch the night sky and follow the search lights until the warden came to tell us to go home for dinner or bed. The blackout had to be obeyed and we’d go home to pull down the shades and leave the street in total darkness.
It was the 40’s and some of us had relatives in the armed services so we knew of the Second World War and the stories of concentration camps. But, in general, we did not talk about it. So it was a time of innocence and change. If we knew of the horrors or the turmoil in the world, we did not talk about it then.
Our conversations did become different in the 1950’s. We got older; we got married and moved away; we got jobs and had children. Then different people sat on the stoop, playing the games of their youth.
Note: I haven’t had time to write recently. Life has gotten in the way. I am hoping things will settle down this week and I can get back to it. In the meanwhile, since I plan to return to this topic, I am reposting an essay from two years ago.
Changes were afoot in 1982. It was a big year for the Brody family. Joshua, the first grandchild, born to my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, arrived February 1st. In April Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara moved from the upstairs apartment in Canarsie to a large suburban house in Morganville, New Jersey. My parents had their first non-family tenants take their place. I began my job search, as I was in the last semester of my master’s program at Columbia. Gary was waiting to hear about medical school admissions, he was wait-listed at Pittsburgh and Downstate (in Brooklyn). It was a time of excitement and anxiety.
In the midst of this, and maybe because of it, my parents started looking for a second home. I think my father thought that, since they would truly be empty nesters for the first time, my mom needed a distraction. Financially…
This past Saturday I was in the elevator of my son and daughter-in-law’s apartment building when I pulled out my phone. I saw that I missed a phone call and a FaceTime call from my daughter. I had been picking up sandwiches at the Fairway and, as is often the case for me, I didn’t hear or feel my phone ring. Since I had just spoken to Leah earlier in the morning, I was surprised to see that she had called so soon – especially a FaceTime call. We don’t often bother with that.
I figured I’d call back when I got settled back in the apartment. Gary and I were watching our granddaughter while her parents were working at their new house, readying it to move in the following day. I came in to find Gary on FaceTime with Leah. This was really odd.
“Here she is,” I hear Gary say to Leah.
“Come over,” he says, as he waves me in before I even take my coat off. I sense some impatience.
I put the packages down and come over.
“Hi, what’s up” I say to the screen.
Leah’s smiling face looks back at me. Ben, her partner, is by her side.
“We have some news!” Leah said, as she held up her left hand.
There was a ring on it!
Gary and I cheered for them and expressed our excitement. We told them we loved them and couldn’t wait to celebrate. Leah looked radiant and emotional. Ben was smiling broadly and proudly. It was one of those precious life moments.
While this wasn’t unexpected, we didn’t know for sure when it would happen. And, until it actually does, it is best not to make any assumptions.
Naturally, the emotions and the excitement brought lots of reflections – especially on symbols and traditions. These days there can be so much hype around an engagement – almost like it’s a competition. It can seem staged for social media. I knew that would not be what Leah would want. Thankfully Ben knew that, too. Theirs was low key and simple. Ben didn’t call Gary to ask permission nor did he get down on one knee. Those are traditions that wouldn’t be meaningful to our daughter and we are fine with that. If they wanted to observe those rituals, that would be fine too, but we didn’t have any stake in that. Leah is 32 years old, she is an adult who has been independent for a very long time (and independent minded since birth).
It can be tricky navigating these milestones, though. There are so many messages that children receive about what is expected of men and women. As much as we may have made progress in opening the gender boxes so that there is more room for individuality, there are still boxes. And there are still powerful images of what it means to be a bride and groom. It can be hard to separate what is actually meaningful from what is expected. We may not even be aware of the limitations that we have placed on ourselves. I know I had a hard time with that when I got engaged and that was a time when we weren’t inundated with images from social media.
I also recalled being surprised at how much I loved my engagement ring. I was not, and I still am not, someone who was very interested in jewelry. I didn’t pay particular attention to what other people had or what they wore. I didn’t know anything about quality. I did want a ring; I did want a symbol of his commitment to me. Even though, at the same time, I knew that the object had little to do with his actual commitment. But when he gave it to me and I put it on, I found that I couldn’t stop looking at it. One day I was in the elevator at work and the light happened to reflect off the stone in such a way that I held my hand up to admire it. A person congratulated me. I had not noticed that there was someone else in the elevator with me! I was embarrassed, but I thanked them and laughed at myself.
Who knew it could be so much fun to have something so sparkly on your finger? I realized there was a reason people liked diamonds. Plus, when I looked at it, I was reminded of Gary and my love for each other. It was a more powerful symbol than I previously understood.
Leah’s ring is a ruby. Ben knew that she would prefer that to a diamond. Leah doesn’t like to do things just because everyone else does. But I think Leah is similarly surprised by the power of the symbol. She is already enjoying wearing it much more than she ever expected.
Leah has never worn a ring – I think it was a combination of not enjoying the feeling of her fingers being encumbered and not caring one way or another about jewelry in general. There’s only one exception I can think of – she does like earrings – especially those that have a sense of humor about them. She favors a pair that are yellow and shaped like a banana.
I suspect planning a wedding will bring lots of opportunities for us to think about traditions that are meaningful and those that can be set aside. I have already been warned – she will not be wearing a white or off-white wedding gown. I am not surprised.
Note: I shared this three years ago. I think it merits reposting, especially for those who missed the early essays. I hope you enjoy!
For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.
Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!
Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.
Here in Zada’s own words:
In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.
I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.
All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).
So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.
My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.
Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.
In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).
So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.
Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).
Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:
A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.
The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.
But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.
Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.
The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.
That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.
Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.
I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.
Note: Once again life has interfered – in a good way! I do not have a new blog post to share. We have been busy continuing to celebrate Gary’s milestone birthday. Last night we were treated to a concert by Jackson Browne at the Beacon Theater by our kids. Anyone who reads this blog knows that spending time with my children and their partners is simply the best part of my life. And, seeing Jackson Browne was the cherry on top. So, in the meanwhile, I will share this post from July 3, 2017.
Another family gathering was coming to a close and I was saying my good-byes. When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave. I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.
I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, and I can’t explain it, I was always uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, loved our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?
As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s cousins, who went by the nickname “Knock,” his last name was Nachimow. He would cajole me, he practically chased me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting to me.
Many years ago, I remember seeing an old family movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I may have been two years old in the film, which would have made him five (I was probably 30 when I last saw it). The way I remember the film, I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I got out. The film had no audio so I don’t know what was being said, and I don’t know who was holding the camera. I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.
Watching our actions, I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?
I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I think I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my reticence about getting kissed, he told me had a secret for me and when I bent down to listen, he planted a kiss on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped, I was so surprised (I have always been gullible so falling for the ruse was no surprise.) “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.
In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face burning bright red and I retreated back to my seat. I hoped no one noticed.
When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. But, I don’t doubt our affection for each other. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.
But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at that recent family gathering, I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly give my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am getting my hug (unless we are ‘schvitzy’)! After that, it is all iffy. And, for me, there is still some awkwardness about it. With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. It is equally clear with my brothers, we will just wish each other well. But for some there is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.
Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure all my interactions with friends and family will be totally comfortable! No one will try to hug or kiss me ever again! I hope it doesn’t come to that. As with most aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away from it? Why am I still conflicted? The search for understanding continues.
Note: I am working on a new piece but it isn’t ready yet. It occurs to me that I have been fortunate to accumulate new readers since I began this blog over three years ago. With that in mind, I will periodically post an earlier essay. I hope to have the new entry ready by Wednesday. Meanwhile, I offer the following reprise from June 6, 2016:
Everyone has stuff that they deal with – sometimes it is invisible to others and sometimes it is painfully obvious. I’m not sure which is worse.
The image that is the banner for this blog is of my brothers and me in the style of the time, lined up in age order. Today I look at that picture and smile. When I was young I looked at it and cringed. All I could see were my crossed eyes and it felt like a personal failing.
I had my first surgery when I was one. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I had another when I was in kindergarten. I remember waking up from that surgery with the cloying smell of ether still in my nose, the nausea overwhelming. I was released from the hospital wearing an eye patch with hopes that it would force the strengthening of the weaker eye muscle. Perhaps there are children who could pull off wearing an eye patch, making it cool, but I wasn’t one of them. Fortunately I didn’t have to wear it for long.
After that surgery, instead of fixing inward on my nose, my right eye drifted out, especially when I was tired. “You talkin’ to me?” was a question I heard often, long before it was used in a different context in Taxi Driver. Like the movie, though, the question had a very unsettling affect. I would take a deep breath, close my eyes in a kind of prayer, concentrate really hard and hope my eyes would go in the same direction when I opened them. Mostly in that moment I wanted to be swallowed up by the floor.
At least once a year I would go with my mom into Manhattan to see the eye doctor, Dr. Snyder. The trek to ‘the city’ from Canarsie was a long one. A long walk across blustery Seaview Park, a long bus ride to Eastern Parkway and then the 4 or 5 train to the Upper East Side. That trip may be a reason some Canarsiens didn’t bother going into the city.
On the one hand it was special to have my Mom all to myself for the day. We would have lunch out and window-shop. On the other hand, the subway, with its screeching wheels, the smell of metal on metal and the crowds of humanity, filled me with dread. I was terrified of getting separated from her.
Dr. Snyder’s office was just off Park Avenue. The waiting room had red leather chairs and, to my delight, Highlights magazines. I would find the hidden animals in the pictures while we waited to be seen. Dr. Snyder was gentle. There was one part of the exam that confounded me. He showed me a picture of a fly; it was enlarged, the details of the fly in blue against a silver background. He would ask me if it looked raised or flat. I could never decide. I would just pick one and looked at him to see if I got it right, but he never let on one way or another. This went on every year. Turns out I couldn’t see in three dimensions. I used one eye at a time and still do.
I was assigned exercises to strengthen my eye muscles. I was supposed to stare at my index finger as I moved it slowly toward my nose. I’m not sure that we followed the doctor’s directions as faithfully as we should have, but I don’t know that it would have made a difference.
As I got older other problems with my eyes emerged. In graduate school I was having recurring migraines and as part of the work up I had my eyes examined. Unrelated to the migraines the eye doctor found that my retinas had areas of weakness – he called it lattice. He advised against skydiving (no loss for me since as anyone who knows me would agree, I’m no adrenaline junkie!). He said, “Your retinas are your Achilles heel,” and recommended a surgical procedure to freeze them. I had the surgery. (Another story for another blog entry☺)
I think having crossed eyes, and then a lazy eye, and weak retinas shaped me in important ways. It added to feeling like an outsider. I always identified with those who felt different. I was also terribly self-conscious and received more than my share of teasing from other kids, especially in my neighborhood. More than once my brothers were called upon to defend me from bullies.
I can’t help but think that my eyes played an important part in creating the sensitive, introspective and insecure little girl that I was, the girl who sought comfort from Nana.
As my father pointed out, as I got older, some of those same qualities were a blessing, not just a cross to bear. It’s been a journey, but I can smile at that picture today, despite the fact that my eyes are still my Achilles heel.