Given recent events, I thought this blog entry was important to revisit. I am in the process of writing some additional pieces that involve race and police. I think this piece is a poignant example of our history.
Note: After last week’s entry (“What are you?”) several people shared their experiences with race and ethnicity. I invited them to write them up to share on the blog. Gary, my husband, took me up on the offer. One of the things that Gary and I bonded over when we first met was talking about our experiences growing up in similar neighborhoods – he was just east of JFK airport, while I was just west of it. Here is his story – in his words. Thanks, Gary.
I wanted to share a story about my favorite bicycle. I was in seventh grade when this happened and to me it encapsulates so much about racial issues growing up in New York City in the early 1970’s. At that time, the neighborhood I grew up in, Rosedale, was much like Canarsie. It was largely Italian and Irish and Jewish. There were no…
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.
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?
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!
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.
Halloween has come and gone. Since we were out of town, I didn’t have to buy candy, so I dodged a bullet. Leftover candy is irresistible. Even if I bought things I didn’t like… wait, who am I kidding? There isn’t much candy I don’t like. I did miss getting to see the little ones dressed up as mice or rabbits or bumble bees or whatever adorable costume they and their parents devised. But, it isn’t the same without little ones of my own.
So many memories of Halloweens past….
When our children were growing up, we decorated (to be more precise, Gary decorated). Gary usually picked a theme and he would create elaborate scenes. One year he got dry ice and set up a witch’s cauldron. He made a giant spider using black Hefty bags and wire hangers, painted tennis balls red for the eyes, and set it up on the lawn. The next year he made a giant spider web. That spider and web were re-used year after year until they fell apart. His decorations were clearly homemade, and there was a charm in that. Without our kids to amuse with his creations, Gary doesn’t bother anymore. I don’t blame him. I loved that he did it for all those years. The only decorating we still do is carving pumpkins – and this year we didn’t even do that.
In the past, we stocked up on candy for the many, many, many trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell in our suburban subdivision that was perfect for scoring a huge haul. Every year I would buy at least 10 bags of candy and then Gary would pick up more on his way home from work – God forbid we should run out!
Gary, Leah, Dan and I each carved a pumpkin; we lit them with votive candles and put them on the front porch. Gary would roast the seeds and enjoy them during the week that followed. Leah and Dan had homemade costumes, too – again courtesy of Gary who could do wonders with a box. I think Dan’s favorite was his ATM machine with the bag for the candy attached inside from the slot where you could make a deposit. That box still sits in his bedroom closet. Leah’s favorite was dressing as a chewable grape Tylenol. Gary turned to his trusty cardboard boxes to make the pill and I supplied a Halloween-themed turtleneck. That one is likely in landfill somewhere.
Dan as a toothbrush
Leah as a grape Tylenol
Unfortunately, due to recurrent ear infections both kids were quite familiar with those little purple (but tasty) pills. Lucky for them, though, they were never sidelined for Halloween – I believe each was able to trick-or-treat every year until they decided they were too old for it. That was not the case for me.
Halloween was a totally different experience for me growing up in Canarsie in the late 1960s. My children waited until it was getting dark to go out. We had to be finished by the time it was dark. We rushed home from school, changed into costumes and out we went. It was not safe to be out after dark – not just on Halloween, but any day of the year.
I don’t recall ever carving a pumpkin. We may have had some decorations – perhaps paper cut-outs of witches or ghosts that hung on the front door.
My Canarsie neighborhood was good for trick-or-treating. The blocks were short, the houses were close together. Each time you climbed the front stairs, there were two doorbells to ring. None of that mattered, though, if I was sick. Somehow October was a cursed month for me, and it remained so well into adulthood. Invariably I had an ear infection and fever. Okay, not every year, I did get to go trick or treating sometimes, but it happened often enough that it became a thing.
On those occasions when I wasn’t able to go, I would dress up in my costume (most often as a princess), sit on the steps of our foyer and wait for the doorbell to ring. Since my grandfather worked in a bakery, he brought home giant cookies for us to give, but those were for friends and children we knew. Everyone else got a small candy bar. One time an older boy who I didn’t know saw the array of cookies and he stepped into the hallway and grabbed a couple as I yelled, “Those aren’t for you!” He made off with them, there was nothing I could do. I was so upset I went in and told my mom I didn’t want to hand out the candy any more. I don’t know why that rattled me so much – some combination of feeling powerless and disappointment in humanity. That was just who I was, even as a seven-year old.
On the years when I had to sit out trick-or-treating, my brother Mark would carry a second bag for me. I’m sure that roused suspicions and may have earned him some unwelcome comments, but he did it anyway. I had a paradoxical relationship with Mark. On the one hand, I spent almost my entire childhood dreading his teasing, his caustic jabbing at me. “Your shoes look like canoes!” (a comment about my big feet) “You were adopted!” A barrage of remarks that would get under my skin immediately.
Mom or Dad would have to separate us multiple times a day.
“Don’t even look at him!”
“Go to your room and close the door!”
Mom still wonders how we all survived it.
On the other hand, though, he went trick or treating for me. Mark was often my protector. It was fine for him to harass me, but not for other kids in the neighborhood. If I tripped and fell over a cracked sidewalk, he would stamp on the offending slab as if to punish it for hurting me. And, for all the teasing, we would do stuff together. Our older brother Steven couldn’t stand our squabbling and preferred solitary activities or being outside with friends. That left Mark and I to watch wrestling or baseball or F Troop on TV, that is when we weren’t banished to our separate rooms.
Another Halloween has come and gone. On to the next holiday, stirring up more memories.
I was listening to a podcast the other day. The interviewer and the guest are both recovering addicts. The guest was talking about her recent relapse and how it all started with being bored. As a performer, she often has odd hours free. For her being at loose ends can be an invitation to drink. She will say to herself, what the hell, I can just have a nip.
Though I am not a drinker, this resonated with me. For me, faced with unstructured time and no particular task at hand leads to food. A well-worn pathway in my brain is triggered. One of my first thoughts is: what can I eat? I imagine for some that is a completely alien thought – as thinking about drinking is for me. But maybe it leads to some other self-destructive behavior – online shopping anyone? It got me thinking about boredom and its perils.
When I was a child if I went to my Dad and said I was bored, he had a singularly unhelpful suggestion, “Bang your head against the wall.” It was a quick way of dismissing me. It reflected his belief that being a parent didn’t include being an entertainer. We were expected to solve our own problems and make our own fun. I’m not endorsing that approach. I never used it on my children. But there is a legitimate point: there were always books to read or tv to watch. Sometimes that wasn’t appealing.
So, what is boredom? There are always things to do. Especially as an adult. Household chores await. Projects need starting. Paperwork is piled up. A closet can be cleaned out. Or, I can take a walk or call family or friends. Boredom must be a state of mind then.
Are there people who are never bored? My husband may fall into that category. His work life is so busy and all-consuming, in both time and mental energy, that the little free time he does have is critical for decompressing – exercise, gardening, communicating with our children and his parents. Not much is left over.
But some people who live busy lives can still be bored. Sometimes when I was at work, and my schedule was quite full, I knew I was going through the motions. I wasn’t really engaged.
Maybe that is the key – engagement. Finding activities, people, places, work that engage your brain so it can’t wander off into trouble.
One challenge to that is when you’re between tasks or appointments. Let’s say you have plans at 2:00 in the afternoon and now it’s noon. Do you start a project? Do you kill the time doing crossword puzzles? Do you continue eating lunch well past the portion you need for nourishment? This can even happen at work. There were countless times that I finished preparing for a meeting only to have it postponed an hour. Then what? A trip to the vending machine?
This might not seem like a serious problem. There are real challenges in this world – many people are burdened with worries about money, safety, health, shelter, etc. But I’m thinking that being bored, being unfulfilled or not engaged, can lead to some of those problems. Just look at what started this whole train of thought – two recovering addicts talking about boredom as a trigger to use their drug of choice.
I know from my years of Weight Watchers that there are ways to disrupt that well-worn pathway to food. There are many other possibilities instead of snacks. The challenge is to stop long enough to change direction. I’ll keep working at it. As with many of life’s trials, I need to adjust my thinking.
We didn’t see my paternal grandparents that often when I was growing up, especially compared to my maternal ones. Of course, it would be difficult to do that since we were basically living with Nana and Zada, while Grandma and Grandpa lived on the other side of Brooklyn. They didn’t drive and Canarsie was very inconvenient to get to by public transportation, so it was up to my Dad to drive us to visit. Dad had a strained relationship with them, but my mother believed that family connections needed to be nurtured. It was at her insistence that we visited them once a month.
They lived in an apartment on Prospect Park West. The huge park by the same name was right across the street from their building. We didn’t often venture into the park. On those few occasions when we did, we found the ground littered with shards of beer bottles, cracked pavement and only one working swing. Instead we amused ourselves inside, sitting next to the window counting cars by color or model, or watching TV. Grandma worried that we’d hurt ourselves on the marble coffee table in the living room so fooling around was kept to a minimum.
Grandpa sat in a club chair in the living room, reading the Forward (the Yiddish language daily newspaper) and smoking a cigar. He wore glasses and a hearing aid; even with that he didn’t hear very well. He didn’t initiate much conversation, but it was clear from his smile that he was delighted to see us. Grandpa was mostly bald and maintained a carefully groomed moustache, and overall appearance. Between his accent and manner, he offered a stark contrast to Zada. Zada was a storyteller and bon vivant. Zada was comfortable chatting with his grandchildren (or other visitors, for that matter) wearing only his boxer shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table having a meal in that state of undress. On the occasions that we slept over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Grandpa wore pajamas and a robe. I suspect he did that every night, even when he didn’t have guests. Grandpa was buttoned up in all respects.
The apartment on Prospect Park West had two bedrooms – one for my grandparents and one that used to be shared by my aunts. Dad, I think, slept in the living room or maybe on a cot in the dining room. I noted that, like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Grandma and Grandpa had twin beds separated by a nightstand. Another contrast to Nana and Zada and my parents, each of whom shared a large single bed.
Grandma wasn’t particularly known for her cooking, but we certainly didn’t go hungry. She had some specialties notably blintzes – rolled crepes filled with cheese or berries. She particularly enjoyed watching my brother Mark eat them with great gusto.
Grandma had a sharp mind. She could add numbers quickly in her head without resorting to pencil and paper, a skill I saw put to use any time we went shopping. She also had a good sense of humor, quick with a quip and a hearty laugh. My brothers and I spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with her and Grandpa. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were on television ringing in the new year. The highlight of the night was Grandma dancing the twist. It was so incongruous: Grandma was short and stout, she had no waist to speak of and an ample chest, but there she was doing this ‘modern’ dance. She was actually barely moving. We all dissolved in laughter. We would beg her to do it again. And she would.
How young is too young? Or put another way, what is the appropriate age for children to…..fill in the blank. As parents we were always debating these questions. To walk to a friend’s house by themselves; to ride their bike in the neighborhood alone; to cross the street; to see PG-13 movies; to wear make-up or get their ears pierced. So many decisions. There are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be.
My parents were permissive in this regard. I’ve touched on this before on my blog. I saw violent movies when I was quite young. I was allowed to read anything I wanted – I don’t recall ever being told to make a different choice when I went to the library with them or if I picked up a book that my older brother was reading. The only time my reading was limited was when I went to check out The Grapes of Wrath when I was in elementary school and the librarian told me it wasn’t appropriate. I vaguely remember arguing with her briefly before giving up.
Some of those parenting decisions are influenced by where you live and what the norms are in the area. Certainly, growing up in New York City is different than growing up in suburban Albany where my children were raised. Of course, technology has changed things, too. Our kids were in middle school before some of the social media issues started to emerge.
Generally, Gary and I were on the same page with these decisions. We agreed that our children would not have a television or computer in their bedroom (this was before laptops, i-pads or smart phones; they were in high school before that became an issue). We wouldn’t buy Eminem’s CD for Dan (he was ten when the Slim Shady LP came out), no matter how much he begged. We knew he heard the music at friends’ houses, but we wanted to be clear that we weren’t sanctioning it. It wasn’t the language we were concerned about, it was the misogyny and casual treatment of sex and violence.
We may have made some errors in judgment, but at least we made them together! One example of what may have been poor decision-making involved Daniel. Daniel was born with a certain skepticism. He never bought into fairies or magical thinking. He was on to the fact that we left money under his pillow when he lost a tooth; he never went for the idea of a tooth fairy. Though it wasn’t part of our tradition, he never believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. Out of respect for friends, family and neighbors, we never taught our children that there wasn’t a Santa, we simply told them that we didn’t celebrate those holidays. Unfortunately, Dan came to his own conclusion before some of our friends’ children and he shared his ideas (not to be cruel, he thought they already knew). That led to some awkwardness.
Knowing that his skepticism led him to have a mature sense of humor at a young age, we let him watch a George Carlin HBO Special when he was ten or eleven. I knew the humor would appeal to him and it did. But, I think it was too much too soon. In retrospect, we should have encouraged more innocent comedy. I don’t think it helped Dan’s anxiety level to hear Carlin’s cynicism and biting observations so young, even if we all laughed and appreciated his skewering of the establishment.
Though we were almost always in agreement in our parenting decisions, there was one specific time that Gary and I were not on the same page. We had agreed that we would not pierce Leah’s ears as a baby. We wanted it to be her decision. By the time Leah was eight, she was asking to get earrings. Dan was born skeptical; Leah was born headstrong. She was quite persistent. I explained that she needed to be more mature so that she would follow the instructions for the care of her ear lobes and to be sure that it wasn’t a passing fancy. That explanation bought me some time, but by the time she was ten, she was convinced that she was ready. I thought she probably was; Gary didn’t.
One evening we were at the mall. Leah was nearing 12 at this point and I had been putting her off in terms of the earrings. Dan and Gary went to look for something while Leah and I went in another direction. We agreed to meet up at a certain time. As Leah and I were walking, we passed a kiosk that offered ear piercing. Leah stopped and asked me again. I took a deep breath and made an executive decision that she was mature enough. The woman did it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Leah handled the pain without much reaction. She was proud of herself and excited.
We met back up with the boys. When Leah showed Gary the small gold posts in her ear lobes, he was furious. I hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. When Gary is angry, he retreats; his silence is more penetrating than harsh words. At first, he was mad at Leah too, but he let go of that in a reasonable amount of time. Most of his fury was reserved for me. He may not be over it yet (20 years later).
Looking back at it, if that was the worst of our differences in parenting styles, that’s pretty damn good. That isn’t to say we didn’t have other arguments, but at least not about those issues.
It will be interesting to watch the next generation navigate their parenting path.
When I arrived on campus at SUNY-Binghamton in August of 1976, I was 16 and emotionally fragile. I emerged from the disaster that was junior high school and had grown more socially competent through high school, but I was still a bundle of insecurity. Plus, though I didn’t understand this about myself yet, I was prone to depression.
Thankfully, when I moved in to Cayuga Hall, I met Merle. It isn’t really correct to say that I met her because that implies that I didn’t know her before. Merle went to my high school and we were in many of the same classes. But Merle was out of my league. She had a posse of friends. She was captain of the booster squad, co-leader of Arista (the honor society), in the top ten in our class. [Editor’s note: since I posted this, Merle called to thank me and also to correct me. She was not captain of the booster squad! She was just a member of it. I stand corrected. :)] She was pretty, petite and seriously smart. I may have given myself partial credit for being smart – at least in English and Social Studies (my grades in math and science were very average), but I was none of those other things. In fact, feeling unfeminine and unattractive was my Achilles heel.
So, though I knew Merle, at the same time, I really didn’t. Imagine my surprise when we bonded over our shared struggle to acclimate to campus life during college orientation. Thus, began a beautiful friendship.
I learned there was a reason Merle had so many friends. She listened attentively, she empathized, offered great insights and gave useful suggestions. And to top it off, we laughed our asses off. We took one class together – Anthropology. One time we disrupted the class with our laughter, the professor stopped and glared at us. We tried to rein it in.
I came to college so young and inexperienced – in every sense of the word. I was wound up pretty tight, afraid to try things. Merle was a whole six months older, maybe not much in the scheme of things, but she had a much more adventurous spirit. I needed to loosen up and she helped me do that.
Much of our time, in the beginning, was spent commiserating about our roommates. Both of us were tripled; both of us were in a dorm room that wasn’t connected to a floor (the door to our rooms opened to the outside – hers on the first floor, mine in the basement). One of her roommates was quite beautiful and knew it. She lounged naked. She entertained her boyfriend at night, thinking her roommates were asleep. Merle wasn’t. It made for lots of things for us to discuss, and more to laugh about.
We signed up to be trained as counselors for High Hopes, an on campus help line that mostly gave referrals to students if they had questions or problems. Merle, I think, had already decided to be a psych major. I thought it would be interesting and believed it was an important service. The training was great. They taught us to reflect (using Carl Roger’s approach) when listening to someone’s issues because it helped the caller to clarify what they were thinking and feeling. That was one of the most valuable skills I learned in college.
We also attended a lecture about homosexuality as part of the training. It was 1977, before AIDS, before gay characters were on television, most lived in the closet – mothers were still being blamed for it. The lecture opened our eyes to something we knew very little about. A mutual friend of ours was in the process of coming out. In fact, Merle’s older brother, came out to her around that time. I went with Merle to visit him in San Francisco in June of 1978. I have great memories of that trip. I learned so much about opening my mind and heart to differences. He took us to the Castro, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way at the time, I began to understand that love is love is love….
We also went camping in Yosemite. I had seen mountains beyond the Catskills when I went with my parents to Rocky Mountain National Park years before, but Yosemite Valley and the majestic Sequoias were sights to behold. Merle’s brother and his friends brought food, but it was mostly vegetarian. While it all tasted good, Merle and I snuck off to share a ham and cheese sandwich when we were at the gift shop. We were kindred spirits even if we inhabited very different bodies.
Leaving for California
In Merle’s brother’s apartment
Merle and her brother Eric
Merle in Sausalito
I write this today because yesterday was Merle’s 60th birthday. I am happy and proud to say that we are still friends. Through the loss of parents, the birth of children, the ups and downs of marriage and career, we have shared a lot. I still rely on her empathetic ear, her insights, her suggestions and her laughter. I hope I have returned the same.
I have learned countless lessons from my friendship with Merle. Not the least of which is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. All those years ago I was intimidated by the cover. It turned out that while she is all of those things, popular, beautiful, petite, and smart, she is also warm, kind, vulnerable and funny. Here’s to continuing to celebrate life’s milestones and being there for each other during life’s challenges. Happy birthday, my friend!
Why do adults ask children that question? Are they expected to know? On the one hand, the question can prompt some introspection and perhaps a realization that they have a future which they can/should consider. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming because of all that the question implies.
I envied kids who knew what they wanted to be. Evelyn, my classmate in elementary school, wanted to be a doctor. Though I lost touch with her ages ago, I know through the wonders of the Internet that she achieved her goal.
A lot goes into achieving that goal, starting with knowing that’s what you want. Then, you have to navigate the path, and, finally, you need to have the resources and wherewithal to complete it. None of that is easy. But, for those who don’t know what they want, or for those who want a career where the path isn’t well-defined, the process can be quite fraught.
Readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was young. I read Marv Albert’s book, “Krazy about the Knicks,” in which he described his journey, starting with “broadcasting” games from his seat in the stands of Ebbets Field. Inspired by him, I wrote up every Knick game in a notebook (I still have that notebook).
I was worried that being a girl would hinder my prospects. I wrote to the Yankees when I was 14, and had just gotten my working papers, asking for any type of job. I wrote that I was strong enough to be a vendor in the stands, carrying Cracker Jacks or whatever (not beer, since I wasn’t of age). I got a polite rejection letter. As I’ve shared on the blog before, I continued writing sports through college when my enthusiasm for it vanished without explanation.
When I was even younger (less than ten years old), I tried my hand at writing a short story. As was often the case, I was in Nana’s kitchen while she visited with her two brothers and their wives. They were seated at the marble table, having coffee and chatting. Mostly I listened. But Uncle Morris and Uncle Jack were kind enough to engage me in conversation. They always asked about my interests. I must have mentioned that I wrote a story. They wanted to read it. I ran downstairs to retrieve my story; a couple of pages handwritten on loose-leaf paper. I presented it to them and left, too embarrassed to be present while they read it. When they finished, they called me back upstairs. They had bemused smiles on their faces. They asked where I had gotten the idea for the story. I have no recollection what it was about. I do remember feeling terribly self-conscious. They weren’t unkind, but given my level of insecurity as a baseline, I gave up writing fiction.
I still wanted to write, though. I had a good friend Cindy who shared my sensibilities. When we hung out, we would write fake newscasts (long before Weekend Update on SNL) and tape them on a small cassette recorder. We laughed so hard we cried. I don’t know if it occurred to us to share them, but we never did.
One time, Cindy and I decided to try something different. We worked on a play. I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember Cindy making a suggestion that created major conflict between the characters, I think jealousy between siblings. I was so impressed that she could come up with that idea. At that point I knew enough about storytelling to understand the need for dramatic tension, but I had no idea how to construct it. Once again, I internalized the message that I didn’t have the talent to write.
I think I grew up looking for evidence that I didn’t have the goods to be a writer, even though another part of me felt driven to do it. I learned sportswriting didn’t satisfy the urge. An unformed notion that I needed to write still lived inside me, but I didn’t have the confidence and I didn’t see a defined path to continue pursue it. I got a job instead.
It is one of the great challenges of growing up – finding that path. Finally, at 55 years of age, four years ago, I went to look for it. Fortunately, I realize I haven’t finished growing up.