A Seminal Event

Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story.  In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it. 

Change by Feige Brody

There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.

When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.

Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine

Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link

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This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.

An essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

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A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

Reconsidering Hugging and Kissing

NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!

It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.

It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.

The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.

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Roger and me

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, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? 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 (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said.  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.

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 also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.

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 made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is 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 turn bright red. 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. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. 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 a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?

As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?

And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?

How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?

Life in the Age of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Comfort

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

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

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

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

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

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

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

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times

The Big Day…Finally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gary! What are you doing here?”

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

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

“Ooookaaaay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rabbi, what are you doing?”

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

“I’m preparing the ketubah.”

“Then you have it?!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More Dress Shopping…More Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it go?” he asked cheerfully.

“Fine,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

“Don’t worry, Linda,” said David.

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

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

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

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

Paula nodded in agreement.

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

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

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

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Postscript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Adventures in Wedding Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

Adventures in Puberty

Mom felt woefully unprepared for her own puberty. When she found blood in her underwear, she thought she was dying. Her mother, my Nana, had said nothing to her about the changes she could expect as she matured into womanhood. Determined not to make the same mistake, Mom was on a mission to provide me with the necessary information. She may have overcompensated.

Mom sat my brothers and me down to tell us the facts of life…at the same time. I assume this explanation was prompted by questions from my oldest brother. The problem was that I was four and a half years younger than him. I think I was five at the time. I wasn’t ready for the birds and the bees yet, at least not at the level that my almost ten-year-old brother needed. I was confused by the information and what I did understand sounded disgusting. Mom meant well, but it was a perplexing start to my girlhood.

Over those early years, I was all too aware of my mother’s menstrual problems. Mom and Dad referred to it as being ‘unwell.’ Dad would say to me, “Mom is unwell, you need to let her rest and…..” fill in the blank with a household chore or errand. As a result, I learned to prepare roast chicken and other meals as a youngster. Mom could be debilitated by heavy bleeding. She had several medical procedures to address it, culminating in a total hysterectomy when she was 42 (I was 16 at the time). She refers to that surgery as the happiest day of her life, exaggerating only a little. I now understand she had fibroids and endometriosis. As a young girl observing this, and for lots of other reasons, I wished I was a boy. But that was not to be – the inexorable maturation process did its thing. And, not only that, it did it on a much earlier timetable than my peers.

I asked Mom about getting a bra at the end of third grade. She seemed taken aback. I don’t think she noticed what seemed obvious to me and was making me very self-conscious. She took me to a store in our local shopping center and I was fitted for a bra. At the beginning of fourth grade, at the age of nine, I was beyond a training bra!

Since I was already afflicted with self-consciousness, being fully developed by fifth grade didn’t help. Even in seventh grade many of my classmates still looked like young girls. I would have given anything to have a flat chest! And, like my mother, I had menstrual problems. My period was very irregular and when I got it, after missing it for several months, it was terrible. It would last for two weeks, with cramps, and I bled profusely. I didn’t feel like I could talk to Mom about it, immersed as she was in her grief since Nana had only recently died.

It was 1972 and they didn’t have the feminine products available today – sanitary napkins were bulky and didn’t come with a wrapper in which to dispose of it (you had to wrap it in toilet paper). The girls’ bathrooms in school didn’t have waste receptacles in the stalls either, just a garbage pail by the sinks. All of which meant that it was nearly impossible to be discreet about having my period. I needed to carry a purse (something I didn’t ordinarily do), and I would have to take that purse with me to the bathroom. Even on an ordinary day, the idea of using the bathroom was an anathema to me, I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want anyone to know about my bodily functions. I don’t know why I felt ashamed, but I did. I thought other girls, if they even got their period, didn’t have these issues, and I didn’t have the nerve to broach the subject with anyone. So, I muddled my way through, hoping not to embarrass myself by staining my clothes (which sadly did happen on more than one occasion).

Eventually, I had an episode of cramps that were so bad, I had to tell my mom. She made an appointment for me to see her gynecologist. Dr. Holland asked a series of questions before examining me. Mom was not in the room. He asked if I had had intercourse. Surprised by the question, I answered no; thinking to myself I’m 13! It made me wonder if girls my age were having sex.  Apparently, some did, or he wouldn’t have asked the question! Then he asked if I was sexually active. I didn’t understand the difference between the first and second question. I almost asked him to explain but was too embarrassed. I just said no, again.  A nurse stayed in the room for the physical exam, which was weird and uncomfortable but not traumatic. Fortunately, he found nothing wrong. He made some suggestions to treat the cramps if they were painful in the future and that was that.

Not everything was bleak during my junior high school years.  In 9th grade I connected with a few girls. We made a plan to leave school for lunch, a daring idea. Gerri and Lisa came up with the notion of sneaking out – everyone was supposed to eat in the cafeteria (maybe they were afraid we wouldn’t come back!). We decided we would go to Lisa’s house, where no one was home, since it was only a couple of blocks away. We would make sure to get back in time for our next class.

The big day arrived, and we successfully escaped. We were feeling triumphant as we hurried to Lisa’s house. We were walking down Avenue K when we heard a car horn and some hooting and hollering. We all turned to look. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was flesh pressed up against the rear window. They were butt cheeks! We shrieked and ran. We were afraid the car would follow us. We got to Lisa’s house –  laughing and terrified at the same time. One of the girls knew that it was called being ‘mooned.’ I had never heard of that. Some kids may have been exhilarated by the adventure, but I took it as a sign that we shouldn’t have snuck out. I didn’t leave school for lunch for the remainder of the year.

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Nana and me. At the beginning of my journey to womanhood, maybe a year before Nana died.