Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Car and Driver

Husband and I fight for several easily categorized reasons.

First we fight because I'm an inept fool in the kitchen and can never figure out anything nutritious to feed Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter. Despite this, and bewilderingly, they continue to grow. Husband isn't convinced by this evidence. He'd like to see some changes, like the introduction of the crockpot into my lexicon.

The second reason we fight is because after the kids eat whatever I pop out of the microwave, rather than them driving me nuts all night while I wait for Husband to come home, I park them in the front of the TV. Well, not quite. First homework and two chores, then TV. This allows Inept Mom to write. Of course, Husband thinks there should be no TV. I totally blame it on him that the last TV series I watched on an ongoing basis was Seinfeld.

These disagreements are almost manageable. The one area that can get ugly is when Husband is driving the car and I'm the passenger.

Husband's theory of driving is wound up with the preservation of the household vehicles - he wants them to last one hundred years. He wants us to drive our cars until they fall to pieces beneath us in the roadway and we're left jogging to our destination. To this end, his driving technique - he has a technique -is intended to reduce wear and tear to all car parts. He never wants to pay for repairs for anything that could have been used more tenderly.

To preserve the brakes, Husband will scan the roadway ahead - like ten miles ahead. If he sees the tiniest hint of a red traffic signal anywhere - like even with binoculars - he takes his foot off the gas and starts decelerating. Why speed up to get to a red light?, he asks. This creates quite a problem in the roadway. People start passing us and honking at us; suddenly there's an island around us, a slo-mo island.

He also takes courtesy too far. If we're driving past the entrance of a building, he's a little too meek. He'll scan the store; he'll scan inside the store. Is there anyone at the checkout stand who might be coming towards the parking lot sometime soon? If so, then he'll slam on the brakes, nearly sending me through the windshield.

I was raised in a family in which we never plan to keep our cars. When the payments stop, we get rid of them. We are constantly seduced by shinier, newer models, or we want a different color. If something breaks, that's it. We want that car towed away, never to be seen again, even if it just needs a battery. Since we're not rich people, this can cause some problems.

Husband only has one thing to say about my complaints: he asks me if I'd like to drive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

No One's Home

This is what my 79-year-old mother does when she wants to reach me. First she calls my home phone and leaves me a message. Then she calls my cell phone and leaves a message. Then she calls back my home phone and leaves a somewhat meaner message, telling me off for not answering the phone. And sometimes -yes - she will call my cell phone again and do the same thing.

My mother hasn't exactly embraced technology. She doesn't know how to use any type of speed dial, so she has painstakingly committed all the home, work, and cell numbers of all seven of her daughters to her memory. That's about 21 numbers for seven daughters. Throw in the numbers for her grown-up nieces and nephews and the few sons-in-law she believes are permanent (female-centric, she thinks all of our husbands are transient, even after decades of marriage), and the other random numbers rattling around inside of her head - the Social Security office, Holland America Cruise Lines - and that's a lot of numbers.

Except for a daily walk in the mall with all the other mall walkers bundled up against the mall air-conditioning, she sits in her house, falling into her concave sofa, laughing and crying along with the old Westerns blasting out of her TV set, her phone carefully placed next to her so she can answer it on the first ring or to call us anytime a new topic for nagging comes to her mind. It must be hard for her to conceive of a world in which I am not doing the same: sitting on my couch patiently waiting for phone calls.

The messages she leaves lead me to think that she believes I'm screening out her calls. She yells into the phone, "So, Linda! You can't pick up the phone? You're too good to answer the phone? I should call over and over again and you can't answer?"

When I was a kid in Skokie, my mother had the same phone problem. She was always easy to find. I'd walk in the house, look at our wall phone, see that it was missing its handset, and then follow the cord through the house to find my mother. Our original cord had been stretched and stretched till it had lost all of its loops and was miles long due to the need of this one phone to handle the whole household's calls in privacy. So I'd follow the phone cord across the kitchen, across the foyer, down the steps to the basement, and into our laundry room, where my mother would be hooked up to the phone like it was her ventilator, sewing.

Things change when your parent's older. Back then I would stand by her side, waiting for her to take a breath from her conversation, shifting from one foot to the other and watching my life pass by, just to ask her a simple question. Now she has to do the same with me, but she can't wait. She can't find my phone cord. I'm never sitting in one place sewing. So she hedges her bets, getting increasingly hysterical with each subsequent message left.

Of course, I call her back, mainly to put a stop to the harassment. I say, "Ma! Okay already! Whatever you want, the answer's yes!" And then she's happy. We chat awhile but I can tell her attention's not on me. The TV's blasting in the background with an old Gunsmoke episode. My mom tells me she can't miss this episode, she hasn't seen it since 1962. She has to go.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Contrary Mom

My mother came out of World War II not exactly as religious as she was going into it. This wasn't apparent right away - it became more apparent as time passed. First there was a little less adherence to being kosher, then there was no being kosher. First there was a little slippage here and there with other food, then suddenly, there was bacon on the table.

I was born into a household where Judaism was transmitted in Holocaust stories. This had the effect of sending all seven of us running and screaming from our house. For some reason, all of that horror flew in and out of my ears. I loved being Jewish. Because of this, I'm the black sheep of the family.
My mother has mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, anything that gives her bragging rights with our family back in Chicago is a good thing. So, when she wants to impress them with the idea that our family is still Jewish after 36 years in Arizona, she trots me out. She'll say anything to them - that I'm Orthodox, that I'm Ultra-Orthodox, that I moved to Israel. She's even told them that I published a book. Sometimes I love my mother's imaginary world.

But in our personal conversations, it's another thing. There, she slaps me down like a fly.

I can't say one word in Hebrew without my mother correcting me. I say the word "Ma'ariv" (part of the synagogue service) and, before she responds to what I've said, just to make me feel stupid, she corrects me, pronouncing it wrong herself, with a Yiddish pronounciation, "Moi-a-riv." She'll push the accent syllables around, anything to let me know that she was raised Orthodox in the Old Country and I wasn't.

When we were growing up in Skokie, my father made a firm decision: he was going to pay for seven weddings, not seven Bat Mitzvahs. Somehow this decision not to pursue Bat Mitzvah parties meant that we would be kept forever ignorant of every tenet of Judaism, except that at Channukah mom would pull down a teetering metal menorah, take down her one box of candles that had melted together from their spot in the cabinet over the stove, and she'd light it. Once. To my mother, Channukah was a one-day holiday, and it was always the 8th day.

So, it's nearly Yom Kippur. I tell my mother what we're doing for the holiday and she says, "You mean, 'Yoim Kippur.'" I switch to English and say, "Happy Holiday, Mom." Anyway.

Monday, September 21, 2009


This was our Rosh Hashana: first we were at services and they were the best services we'd been to in 14 years. I don't mean that anything had changed about them to make them new and improved, I mean that it was the first time in 14 years that Husband and I were actually able to stay at services as long as we wanted, without kids' tantrums, nap times, hunger, diapers, ennui, or something else deterring us from our goal.

It wasn't that the kids were thrilled about being there, or that I didn't hear plenty of their complaints about hunger and boredom. It's just that now they're old enough now that I can ignore them. Anyway, they were pretty quiet about their rebellion. We walked in, sat down, and all four of us picked up prayer books. Husband and I, however, were following along with the Rabbi, but our kids found the page we were on and then located the page we'd have to get to, then they counted the pages in between - 89 - and held them separately, watching them diminish over five hours.

After services ended, we had a little rest at home and then we went off to my extended family's Rosh Hashana party. This was a potluck like every other potluck my family has; the only thing that differentiated this one from the parties is that there was a plate with apples cut up on it in the middle of the buffet.

As the evening wound on, I found myself smashed into one of my niece's two couches, so close to the person smashed in next to me that I was actually having a conversation with his pores, when there was a sudden tumult over at the powder room. News filtered toward me: Bar Mitzvahzilla had been hurt in a game of tackle football outside. I kind of hovered on the seat, wondering if it required getting up or not. I've been fooled before. Could I supervise the injury from my coveted spot? Was Husband nearby so he could handle this?

Then I heard the words "cut" and "teeth" and Bar Mitzvahzilla's name again and I knew it was no use - I had to get up. I am the mom, after all. So I up and went over to the bathroom, took one look at the 2 inch long jagged cut on his chin, and I knew my lovely evening was over. Or at least, that the rest of it would be spent in the ER.

Bar Mitzvahzilla might be the size of a man and he might have the voice of a man, but right at that moment he was about 4-years-old again. He didn't care about any stupid, possibly-infected cut on his face! He only wanted to go back outside and play more football, apparently until someone gouged one of his eyes out. He said, "MOM! I'm okay!" But I gave him the look that brooks no refusals. I had assessed the injury. It needed stitches.

By 11:30 at night, we were walking out of the ER. By then Bar Mitzvahzilla had 14 stitches in his face and, if he grimaced just right, with the scar and the two fangs that have grown into the middle of his gum line he looked pretty horrifying. Of course, he was thrilled. If he could only grow something else - horns or claws - life would be perfect.

On our way home he showed a tiny bit of remorse. He said, "Oh shoot! Tuesday's picture day."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Missing Persons

My mother's decided she wants to write a blog.

Ignoring the fact that she has no idea how to even turn on a computer and still refers to emails as "faxes," she tells me she wants to do this. I don't know why, but I always treat these type of pronouncements as if they're really going to happen. I start trying to problem solve.

I ask her, "What do you want the blog to be about?"

She says, "I want to find my missing cousin." She nods. "That's what I'm going to write about. My missing cousin."

I've been down a few roads on this missing cousin issue. Basically, before the war, one of her cousins went off into Russia, adopted by a childless aunt, and was never heard from again. I've worked on this for my mom before. I've gotten so tangled up in Survivor websites that I thought I'd never get out. I've researched genealogy, I've written to the Holocaust Museum. She's not going to trick me this time. I'm not going to get into a big discussion about the missing cousin. I stick to the topic: the alleged blog.

"Ma, a blog can't be too narrow. You can't just write about your missing cousin over and over. Your topic should be a little bigger."

She mulls this over.

"Then it'll be about the Holocaust."

Okay then. That's a bigger topic.

Of course I know exactly what will happen. Each time I take my mother seriously about this writing thing, she sits down at her desk, ready to write. It's going to be the worlds greatest book. It will be better than anything I've ever written. This is because she's already written the book in her mind, she knows exactly how it will start and how it will end; she knows all the dialogue she'll put in it. All the sons-in-law spend weeks at her house setting up top-notch computer equipment, clearing out memories, setting up a printer, and making everything easy to use. She's officially ready to write. She sits down and puts her hands on the keyboard.

Then she writes one sentence.

Unfortunately, it turns out she doesn't like the sentence. It doesn't sound the way that she imagined it would in her head. Then she gets frustrated because of that sentence and because she doesn't know how to erase it - apparently, she's looking for some White Out to dab on the computer screen. She doesn't want that sentence sitting there forever.

Finally she turns the computer off - by unplugging it.

If she seems serious again, I'll probably do the same thing all over again. We'll get her set up with a computer. I'll buy her some books, like "Blogging for Dummies." Then she'll start writing.

This time I'll teach her how to delete.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I'm on my way home one night and since my mother lives only a mile from me - about as far as the umbilical cord will stretch - I call her to see if I can swing by with some magazines.

I stay on the phone with her till I'm standing in her driveway. Then I hang up and start walking towards the door, when something catches my eye. I look up. Really far up - like up to the top of her 30 foot skinny palm tree, and I see a long orange wire hanging down from the top to the ground, where the excess is coiled on the ground, like a lasso. Then I look back up to the top of the tree and I see that the orange cord is strung from the other side of the palm tree to the house. There I see a much more troubling sight: huge antennas mounted on top of my mother's house and strung up in the air over and around it. My Stepfather's ham radio antennas. Nothing like bringing down the neighborhood.

As I approach the door, my mother starts unlocking the inside locks while I start on the outside locks. There are a lot of locks. To make sure it's me, she turns on the flashing motion detector. Finally we're face to face. I say, "Ma, look what's in your tree!"

She cranes her head around the door. She doesn't like leaving the house. In the summer it's too hot and in the winter too cold. Any opening of the door and exiting from the house is seen with much skepticism - is it absolutely necessary? Does it require a coat?

She sees the cord hanging, then she looks up, up, up, and sees the other side strung to the house. She's not surprised. She says, "That's Bob's antenna."

"How'd he get it up there?"

"He has an arrow that he shoots out."

I try to get a mental image of this for a second: my 84-year-old stepfather, who looks a little like the farmer in American Gothic, sitting in the backyard surrounded by his World War II-era ham radio equipment, suddenly leaping up with a bow and arrow and shooting a line out with pure aim, his shot true, straight through the heart of the palm fronds. Then he gets back to the ham radio and marvels as a call comes in from Russia. Imagine that! Speaking to a person on the other side of the world! What will they think of next?

I give my mom the magazines. I leave before lightning strikes and burns the place down.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fish Tales

My kids want a pet. They'd like a dog but they know that's out of the question. Husband and I are not dog people, we're cat people. Okay fine, they want a cat.

This longing for a pet kind of ebbs and flows around here. My kids want one so badly for a while that they can't think of anything else. They argue over the fictional pet's name. They bring up convincing arguments, like how can we raise them their whole life without a pet? So there's this little frenzy and then, slowly, by Husband and I hemming and hawwing and procrastinating and mentioning my asthma and allergies and how Bar Mitzvahzilla's head nearly explodes every Spring with the blooming flowers, the topic winds down.

One time the excitement was so great that the kids and I went to Petsmart, looking for a pet that would be easy to care for, like a turtle. I felt we could handle a turtle. We'd had them when I was a kid in Skokie, tiny turtles that lived on a little plastic tray on our kitchen counter with a ramp winding up the middle of it to the grand surprise: a tiny plastic palm tree.
Each of our turtles got a lot of attention. First of all, there were seven sisters watching it and feeding it at all times of the day and night. Second of all, we had a dog who thought it was a chew toy, and a cat who thought it was prey. My mother was willing to put up with this to a point, but the pragmatic Holocaust Survivor in her won out every time one of these turtles would stop moving. She'd throw them out. One time one of these tiny turtles stopped moving and she didn't notice. We held an elaborate funeral.

There weren't going to be any turtles for my kids. I was quickly informed by an employee at Petsmart that you can't get those tiny turtles anymore. There are apparently a lot of laws around the whole turtle-owning issue now, so the kids and I ended up wandering aimlessly through the store, until we came upon the Beta.

I'll skip over the part of the story about how we actually had to go through about 4 fish till we found one that would live for more than a week. But when we found her - Kay the Beta fish - we finally had a pet. She was just the right kind of pet for us. No litter boxes, no walking her with a pooper scooper in hand. No highly-charged emotional relationship. The fish wouldn't be jumping around waiting to be taken for a run right after we'd come home, barking, or begging for food at the table. No. She was a fish - trapped in her bowl.

But one day after Kay hadn't been eating well for a long, long time, my husband showed up in our room while I was getting ready in the morning. He had a funny look on his face.

I said, "What's the matter?"
"It's Kay," he said.
"Is she okay?"
And he said, "I've got her in my pocket."

Honestly, even a fish was a big job for us. Feeding her, cleaning her bowl, getting my best friend to babysit her when we went on vacation, worrying about her - we just aren't sure about going through all that again. And the kids aren't settling this time: they want a pet mammal this time, one that doesn't live in water.
And my husband and I? We're just waiting for the frenzy to die down.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


My husband is from Wisconsin. This means only one thing: that the Green Bay Packers are an essential part of his existence. Even though he moved to Arizona in 1978. He's told me the story of the Packers many times, how they're a scrappy team, well-loved and cared-for by the town of Green Bay, and how there's a loyalty there that isn't found in other NFL franchises. And I get it, because he's told me this so many times, but I can't help it - when he talks football in any way, my eyes glaze over and I start backing out of the room.

Despite all the years I've spent trying to be a sterling example to my children of a football-despising, yet interesting and involved mother, my children have been converted over to the religion of football and Green Bay Packers mania by my husband. They love it. They even watch it on purpose when he's not home.

Just my luck, the Green Bay Packers will be playing the Cardinals right here in Arizona in January and my husband has the opportunity to buy four tickets to the game. He can't buy three, for just him and the kids. It's a set of four and guess who's the fourth?

When I was a college freshman at the University of Arizona, since I didn't know any better, I thought I thought that's what you did in college: go to the games. So for my first one, I shlepped over to the stadium with my dorm friends, climbed up about a thousand sticky steps to get to a tiny, hard plastic chair with people breathing down my neck behind me, and then watched the game. After a short period of time, I realized that the students sitting above me celebrated successful plays by dumping their beer on the crowd below. I sat there as long as I could take it: my feet stuck to the bleacher, wedged in a seat, with beer raining down on me.

When I got back to my dorm room I made a vow - much like the ones my Holocaust Survivor relatives always made around me my whole life - I said, "Never Again!" For the rest of my college career, I was apparently the only person on campus who didn't go to the games. The dorm would empty out, the campus end up desolate like a ghost town, and I would sit peacefully in my room, the roar from the stadium coming in my window.

Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter give me baleful glances. They want me to come. It's a family thing. Of course, they can't go unless I fill that fourth seat. I hem and haw but somehow I know that in January I'll be wedged in a hard plastic stadium seat, my eyes glazed over, my feet stuck to the concrete, with beer raining down on my head.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bat Mitzvahzilla Coming Up Fast

Daughter is turning 10 on Wednesday. This makes her, besides the all-important Double Digits, three years away from her Bat Mitzvah. She's already started telling me her preferences for her party just so that I, who apparently don't have anything better to do than spend three years planning her Bat Mitzvah, can get a head start.

Of course she wants the party to be wonderful like her brother's, where we invited everyone who we loved - and their kids - and watched everyone we adored adore each other in turn. Of course, she knows it's about the synagogue service, about starting to be responsible as an adult Jew for her religious observance. Of course, Mom! But, one little thing: can the tables on the kid side of the banquet room be arranged in a huge "R" for the first letter of her name?

I look at my budding Bat Mitzvahzilla and I tell her, "I just want you to know that I'm not changing the name of the blog, even when you say really nutty things like that."

She continues as if she hasn't heard me. "And what about huge glittery posters of my name on the wall all over the room?" I think in about a minute she'll ask me if I'm taking notes.

Planning my son's Bar Mitzvah party was pretty easy. All I had to do was avoid the horrors of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah party I went to in Skokie in the early 70s. First there were the stilted tables of 13-year-olds watching the grown-ups foxtrot. Then, when it was our time to dance -cued by the Mod music- there were the girls plastered against one wall and the boys, like one paralyzed massive iceberg, plastered against the other.

My definition of a good time was pretty loose back then. Running around the room or playing on the hotel elevator was good. Gossiping about the boys was good. Seeing a boy walk toward me as if to ask me to dance, but then chicken out, was good because then I could talk about that and micro-analyze it all night with the other girls who almost got asked to dance.

So, between what we did for Bar Mitzvahzilla's party and what I remember from when I was a kid, I figure I can handle this. I tell Daughter we'll have to talk about it when she's twelve. But she's pretty organized. She'll probably start a list now so she'll be ready.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My Hurricane

I used to have a really organized house.

When Bar Mitzvahzilla was little, we had him firmly under control. We had a bunch of plastic buckets of various sizes and each one was designated for a certain type of toy. There were buckets for cars, for blocks, for Legos, and one for action figures. There were a lot of buckets.

He had an amazing memory for the minute. If I picked up the tiniest Lego connector piece and said, "Where does this belong?" I could watch as his brain would go click click click and, like a computer, he'd figure it out. He'd say, "That goes with my Star Wars Death Star Lego set." And if I asked him where that was, he'd go to his room, pick up a Darth Vader helmet, 5 light sabers, 3 swords and 5 Bionicals, and find it.

Then the hurricane came into our lives. Our daughter was born.

She looked like a normal baby. 6 pounds, 9 ounces. Not a preemie like her brother. She slept a lot the first year. Little did I know that she was just storing up energy to bring the house down around our ears.

She was the nicest baby. A sweet, charming baby. Chubby with big red cheeks. Everyone who saw her - or at least anyone who was Jewish who happened to see her - said, "Oy, such a Yiddishe Punim!" Which meant that she had a beautiful little Jewish face - yes, chubby with big, red cheeks.

And then she turned one.

We were at a restaurant one day with her in a high chair and everything was pretty normal. She was putting all the olives on her fingers like fake fingernails, but nothing too odd. Suddenly, she stood up in the high chair. Apparently she had decided to leave. Alone. While walking into mid-air. That was the end of our halcyon days. I'm not sure she's ever sat down or stopped screaming yet.

My mother doesn't understand my leniency. She tells me, "Don't let her play! Tell her to stay in her room! Did you ever have toys all over the house in Skokie?"

Well, no Mom, as a matter of fact, I didn't. My mother ran a tight ship in Skokie. Despite having seven girls, there was never any evidence of us around. We were only allowed to play on the hard linoleum tile of our laundry room, but even there - in a room with a furnace, a laundry chute, and sponge-painted walls - everything had to be put away at bedtime. She wasn't raising kids, she was raising a house.

My house shows the effect of the hurricane to whom I gave birth nearly ten years ago. All spots at the table are neat and tidy except hers, which has a pile of crumbs on the floor beneath it. Nine forks have been thrown out with paper plates. Not one of her toys has ever made it into that neurotic toy bin system we once had. Her bed nearly rises from the ground with all she has hidden beneath it. Sometimes she surprises me by showing up out of her room dressed in a lab coat with a feather boa, a stethoscope, and a Magnadoodle briefcase, then setting up an office in our dining room. An office I don't disturb.

At night I go in to check on her and kiss her, if I can find her beneath the pile of stuffed animals. She lays there, her Yiddishe punim cheeks glowing, the hurricane gathering strength during the night to wreak havoc again in the morning.