Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cardinal Sin

Husband has been off from work since December 24th and that should mean a lot of things: togetherness, bliss, quiet time, romance. Of course, it hasn't.  Instead it's meant this one thing instead:  football.  My nemesis.

Sometimes, in moments of despair, I think, How did this happen to me? How did I end up married to someone whose idea of a really fun, relaxing day is watching football? After all, I'm one of seven sisters, for goodness sakes. That meant no brothers watching football in the house growing up. My father was an immigrant from Poland - that certainly meant no football. He could never understand the importance of American sports - compared to life and death in Siberia during the war? Bah! And because he died right before I turned fifteen, I then lived in an all-female household. No football at all. My whole life was somehow football-free, safely tucked away from the misery of listening to screaming fans on football fields yelling and drinking and eating and throwing punches over the outcomes of games.

Then I married Husband almost seventeen years ago.  Well, actually, I started dating Husband nineteen years ago.  Two years of all the warning signs.  Two years of hugging him and having him position me just so - so he could see the TV with the football game on over my shoulder or over the top of my head. Two years of primitive satellite dishes already beaming football games from all corners of the globe into whatever house we were living in until we moved into this one and a TV that now has about two hundred channels.

And now there's Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter.  Those traitors.  Husband has brainwashed them into loving football. He has taught them all the most minute play information, the philosophical differences between a first down and a fourth down and what you'd want to try for and what you wouldn't if, let's say, you weighed about 300 pounds and wore tight knickers each day to work. And Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter (even my daughter - who should rightfully be shopping with her mom at the mall) sit there glued to the set, analyzing each game with Husband, fascinated by who will make it into the play offs by wins and who will make it by being the wild card.

And to make it much, much worse, Husband has bought tickets to the Cardinals/Green Bay game here in Phoenix this Sunday and nothing, but nothing, will save me from my fate. I have to go. 2:15 kickoff on January 3rd. I can't bring a book and I can't bring my laptop. Bar Mitzvahzilla wants me to wear a cheesehead and Daughter wants me to wear a Cardinal jersey. They should be glad if I get in the car without first being tranquilized.

But here's what I'm going to do: breath deeply, smile happily, know that this should absolutely be the last game I have to go to in my lifetime (I'm averaging one every thirty years), be a good mom/fan/wife for four interminable hours. And then? Never again.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Snowman Cometh

Up until three days ago, Daughter and Bar Mitzvahzilla had never seen snow.  This is kind of funny because we come from a family with a legacy of snow.  My dad, a Holocaust Survivor, spent the war years living in Siberia. Instead of that making him cautious about the cold, instead that made my dad the opposite, quite flippant. When I was growing up in Chicago, he compared the weather there with the weather in Siberia and found Chicago's weather a heatwave, heading out each day with no hat, no gloves, and a flimsy jacket.

He'd say, "Cold? You think this is cold?" We'd nod because with the wind chill factor it was about twenty below zero. "You should have felt the cold in Siberia! Cold is when you get a bucket of water, throw it in the air and, before it gets to the ground, it freezes!"

My mother, who spent the war living in the Eastern European forest with no coat or shoes, had a different perspective.  She had a terrible fear of being cold. She was the one who'd wrap us in miles of scarves, who crocheted mittens for hours, and who knitted sweaters until all seven of us looked like we were wearing the striped flags of obscure countries, our clothes made out of whichever color yarn she got on sale. 

But Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter know nothing of cold.  They are Arizonans - Phoenix, Arizonans. So we decided to do something different for our winter vacation.  Normally we consider only the bottom half of Arizona for a winter vacation because Husband and I shun the cold.  But this year we decided to introduce the kids to snow.

They had a dreamy idea of what it would be like.  Fluffy maybe, like billowing cotton balls? Tiny doilies skittering through the air?  Like pillow stuffing, feathers? Cold doesn't come into any of their descriptions.

We're driving up the Interstate, we get past a certain elevation and there it is - white stuff just laying on the ground.  Other travelers from Phoenix are pulling over in excitement and letting their kids sled down the roadside hills almost into traffic. We pull over somewhere safe and the kids go plummeting into a snow bank. Fluffy? Yes. Pillowy? Uh, okay. Cold and wet? Yeah.

Here's what I find out on this trip.  I find out that I am apparently not too old to make a complete idiot out of myself sledding down hills and capsizing, over and over again.  I find out that Husband, five years older than me, thinks he can head down a hill like a bullet, but then he pulls all his back muscles.  I find out that it's never a good idea to stay in a hotel with "sleep number" beds because the kids will play with the motors over and over again until they break them and they're stuck in a concave position, further putting out Husband's back.

Tonight is our last night away, the last dinner out, the last bundling on of gloves, hats and gigantic coats just to walk to the car and then from the car into a restaurant.

Three days ago the Snowman Cometh but tomorrow the snowman goeth.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pimp My Honda

I’m sitting in my driveway on a cool night watching Daughter cruise down the street on Bar Mitzvahzilla's bicycle. I’m getting baleful glares from her because she’s stuck riding his bike - it’s a red and black Mongoose and has racing stripes. She’s not especially girly, but still. She doesn’t want to be seen on this contraption. As a matter of fact, Bar Mitzvahzilla has abandoned the bike to her.

In the caste system of unspoken eighth grade politics, it’s apparently not cool to ride a bike anymore, or not a Mongoose anyway. Bar Mitzvahzilla remains undecided on what type of bike will be cool enough not to make him lose face. He's mulling this over and it's quite a puzzle.  All he really knows for sure at this awkward age of fourteen is what kinds of cars are cool.

His first choice: a Lamborghini. I advise him he is not getting a Lamborghini.

He sighs heavily, frustrated by the fact that we don’t have any cool cars in our household.

“Mom, why don’t you drive a Mustang or a Camaro?”

I have to think over, mull over the impossibility of driving around in a car that makes teenage boys want to race me.  I try to explain this.

"Then why not dad?"

I think about this.  What would it take to get my very practical husband into a Mustang or Camaro? Probably a midlife crisis.  Right now my husband’s idea of a midlife crisis would be to do something really wild, like not take out the garbage can on trash day.

How did my Jewish son develop such an affinity for muscle cars? His forebears on my side of the family drove peddlers wagons in the Old Country. My father drove a series of wood-paneled station wagons that, even after he sold them, would just keep showing up at our house, embarassing nightmares from our past, loaners from the repair shop he had sold them to. My mother, at seventy-nine, careens through town in a souped up Toyota Matrix.

On my husband’s side of the family, Bar Mitzvahzilla's obsession with muscle cars is even more bewildering. Husband’s father was a mild-mannered pharmacist, a non-driver, who had to take three buses to his job each day working at a drug store in downtown Milwaukee. He finally got a car when Husband was a teenager.

So, no, Bar Mitzvahzilla's not getting a Lamborghini, or a Mustang, a Camaro or his other choice, a Challenger. My husband says his own Honda will be just the right age to be passed down to Bar Mitzvahzilla when he turns sixteen.

He's at first horrified. Then he starts mulling over customization opportunities: custom wheels - spinners? Custom paint?

Wood paneled sides?

Friday, December 25, 2009

My Mother's Merry Chrismukkah

Here's proof that somehow my mother and I have switched roles and I've become her mother:  I'm the big Jew in the family and she's rejected all of our traditions.  Now she's constantly on the defensive with me, trying to justify her lack of adherence.

Two days ago Bar Mitzvahzilla, Daughter and I went over there - that would be on December 23rd. I knew from other Decembers that it would be a shock walking in, but still.  My Holocaust Survivor mother's house, filled with Christmas tchochkes.  And she's so proud of them, trying to take the kids on a tour of Christmas in her family room.  Did they notice the Santa with the full sleigh of Christmas cards from all her old real estate clients she never told she was Jewish?  Did they notice the tinsel, the little Christmas tree, the garlands, the lights, the reindeer, the candles?

My kids and I stood there like triplet biblical Moses', our mouths hanging open.  We were appalled. She realized the kids didn't want a tour of the winter wonderland, and then she looked at me and said, "What?"

"Ma, look at your house! What kind of role model are you for the kids?  You're their Jewish bubbe! And you're a Holocaust Survivor! You're supposed to be my backup here."

She said, "I have something for Hanukah." And she pointed to a thin, scraggly piece of dreidel garland, covered with dust, nearly obscured by the blinking Christmas lights nearby.

This is how I know that my life has descended into irony, that I've crossed the final line, and that I'm raising my mother, and badly.  I can't make her a Jew.  I don't even know how I made myself a Jew.

One time when I was a kid in Skokie we found a tiny, white, plug-in Christmas tree in the alley behind our house and we snuck it inside our laundry room.  I remember the hemming and hawing, trying to figure out the best way to ask mom if we could keep it - like it was a load of heroin we had stashed in the basement. Finally we told her and she came for an inspection.  It was a cheerful little thing, blinking on and off like a migraine headache.  She said, "You can keep it if you hide it down here.  Just don't let your grandmother see it."

And we sat there, for a couple weeks at least, mom sewing, the little tree blinking, me playing Barbies.  Ar least until the day my dad burst in and found it, snapped it half, and hid it in a non-Jewish neighbor's garbage can. Even our garbage had to be Jewish.

My mother now has a blinking tree.  My dad - long dead - gets me.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shopping Till Midnight

Even though I'm Jewish and Hanukah's over, I've got to admit it:  I'm still shopping. I love shopping in the days leading up to Christmas.

Here's the truth:  It's the only time of the year when the entire world shops the way I do all year long.  And, even better, the stores are along for the ride - coupon specials every day!  Stores open till midnight!  Extra store clerks everywhere you look!  It's a shopaholics paradise.

I used to work in downtown Phoenix and got stuck in huge traffic jams driving on my way to work every day.  What amazed me was that right when all of us downtown workers were heading to our jobs every morning during rush hour, there'd be all these people who had no business being on the road - like tourists or retired people - during rush hour too, just clogging the place up.  That's how I feel sometimes, being a Jew shopping after Hanukkah's over with the Christmas shoppers.  Shouldn't I really stay home and stay out of their way?  Why am I enjoying the ambience of the frenzied shoppers when I really have no business being out there?

Here's the secret about this midnight pre-Christmas shopping:  there's actually no one in the stores.  Well, there's me and the store clerks all restocking for the shopping bonanzas of the next day.  At least in Phoenix - and I've tested this quite a few times now - the idea that the stores are staying open for throngs of shoppers to stay in there is a misconception.  There's only me, really.

I can always find a legitimate reason to be in there.  This week it's kind of important:  snow gear for the family to head up to Flagstaff for our annual jaunt out of town when Husband closes our store. So I need to be shopping, really.  And, other than the midnight shopping, I really need to be out there with everyone running amuck, with all my awesome coupons clutched in my hand, all the lines stretched out before me. 

And, no, I don't need a gift receipt.  Or a box.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Picture at Age Ten

Ten years ago Daughter was a baby just learning how to roll over.  Today she's a pre-adolescent. That went kind of quickly.

Here's a present day picture of Daughter:  she's grown taller but hasn't gained weight.  Her hair is growing out at the rate of one inch per year. She has a perfect memory for everything I ever mentioned in passing that I might be able to do with her some time and no memory at all for anything she ever absolutely promised to do, like her chores. 

Her new thing?  The silent treatment.  Now this is kind of funny because we're Jewish which automatically means we're really loud and can't shut up when something bothers us.  But since she's sneaky and wants to get a lot of attention, she's figured out how to stand out in this family where no one can hold anything in.

First she gets a martyrd look on her face and then she stops talking.  She swiftly moves beyond silently miffed to traumatically silent.  After a lifetime of this child filling the air with conversation, it's pretty noticeable when she stops talking.

When she's really mad she slams the door on her way out of a lot of rooms, apparently enjoying the thud of the door and the sudden end it causes to all conversation.  Sometimes she charges into her bedroom, but she doesn't slam the door there.  She knows if she does we'll remove it from its hinges.

When she's done this about ten times and has finally managed to get some displeasure out of me, she says, "Well, aren't you in a grumpy mood today!" and then she slams out of that room.

I think way, way back, to Skokie.  To seven sisters separated by eleven years.  When we fought - which was often - we'd end up a huge ball of clawing girls rolling through the hallway.  Or one sister would throw a lamp or a hockey puck at another sister.  No silent treatments, just fist fights.  And no slamming doors.  Not because we wouldn't have enjoyed the satisfaction of it but because our mother had installed carpet too thick for the doors to shut at all.

I think, surely I can't be riled by a ten-year-old? I lay down the law, tell her I hope she's enjoyed herself but I'm not planning to be given the silent treatment for the next eight years.

And she nods her head, goes back to childhood and starts talking my ear off again.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eight Greedy Nights

Well the eight days of Chanukah are over at sundown today.  It's been exhausting.

Because I had such a ludicrous Jewish upbringing, I've always tried to make my kids' Jewish holidays incredible, including Chanukah.

My Chanukah as a kid:  all the motley crew of cousins come over - there are the foolish cousins and the egghead cousins, the bucktoothed cousins and the Bryl creamed cousins.  Some of them are actually being raised Jewish and expect that there will be a lit menorah.  My mom is under pressure now.  She has to pretend she's raising us Jewish.  She has to find our menorah and candles. 

She snakes her arm into the cabinet above our stove and finds what passes for a menorah in our house:  a miserable, metal, tilting thing that Goodwill would throw out.  Then she snakes her arm up there again and finds a box of candles.  Since it's stored above the stove, the candles are melted together into one blob.  It's a candle brick now, and she has to snap off the candles that she needs, one by one. Broken candle shards.

My mother, being Old Country, is mystified by the idea of Hanukkah presents. When pressed, she enlists the aid of my grandfather.  He gets a great idea, laboriously rises on his diabetic legs and fishes around in a pocket so big it's like Mary Poppins' purse - I'm thinking he'll probably pull out a floor lamp. He comes up Eisenhower dollars all around. Chanukah gelt.

I go off to school very excited by this whole gigantic silver dollar thing, this whole Zayda as Mary Poppins thing, this whole mystery of the blessing over the candles thing. I'm confronted, however, by the children of non-immigrant families all showing up with presents identical to each others, like they had coordinated it or something.  They all have lovely Jewish stars on necklaces.

Flash forward to parenthood.  Flash forward to eight greedy nights.  The kids and I set up an elaborate eight-day calendar every year, Bar Mitzvahzilla on one line and Daughter on the other, the days of the week on the top. Then we assign themes. Not all are gift nights, one is tzedakah night, where we give to others, and another is menorah night, where we light just about every menorah in the house and start a veritable conflagration. Last night, the lighter not working, Husband helpfully lit a blow torch to help me light the menorahs.

Flash forward to a lifetime of lists now that are like a time capsule of my kids' lives:  Lego Day, Spiderman Day, Hello Kitty Day, High School Musical Day, and now, much to my chagrin, Xbox Day and Moshi Monster Day.
And flash forward to the thing I love the best:  my light up menorahs sitting on my front window sills lighting up our windows just a little, telling the world about the miracle of Chanukah.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Germ Factory

I had planned my mom's visit to my house for my Chanukah party very carefully.  She'd been sick for a while, with the kind of cough that sprays you through the phone, so I thought, surely she'd understand a touch of germ paranoia now!  Especially in this season of the miserable H1N1, when everyone knows the danger of spreading germs.  Surely even my mother will be on board now with my requests not to pick at the food. 

She always makes fun of Husband and me for this exact issue.  Her version of science, pre-1940, indicates
that she only gets sick from cold not from germs.  Of course, she spent World War II living in the Polish forest without a coat, so maybe that's understandable.  But basically, if she can't see it, it doesn't exist.  Meanwhile, she's sick all the time.  My family - I blame Husband - goes with modern scientific theory: cover your mouth when sneezing, don't share germs on purpose.

My mother doesn't believe in any of this.  Loudly.  Her standard answer, perfected over the forty-nine years of my life to an ear-splitting shriek is, "You think you're so smart, Linda!  Well, I raised all seven of you and managed not to kill anyone!"

So she comes over for the Chanukah party and there are a lot of seating options.  She can sit at the long, long kitchen table, far away from the food serving area.  She can sit on one of the couches, also far, far away from the food serving area.  But no.  She sits on a bar stool, right on top of the food serving area, the better so that she can pick at the food. With her fingers.

In my larger family, the family with the seven sisters, for some reason hands are serving utencils.  There's some connection here with dieting that I haven't quite figured out yet, like if they pick, pick, pick at the food with their fingers - no plate - the calories don't count. Because if someone says, "Did you have a piece of cake?" The answer can legitimately be "No." No piece of cake was obtained.  The cake was just picked at until crumbs remained on the platter, but no legitimate slice of cake was placed on a plate and consumed, like a real human being.  So, no calories. 

In my family, platters of meat disappear this way, containers of potato salad are demolished, and, yes, cakes vanish into thin air.

So my mother sat there, sick, picking at all the food, glaring at me if I glared at her, refusing my offer of a plate or for me to make her a sandwich, seat her at the table, a choice chair perhaps - anywhere!  Then I noticed everyone at the party was picking except my little family of germophobes. 

And I thought, okay, obviously I'm the lunatic here.  What did it matter anyway?  Since we knew this was going to happen, husband and I, Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter made sure and isolated ourselves from those germs:  we ate before the party.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Latke Come Lately

My mom was in charge of making the latkes - potato pancakes - for the family Channukah party at my house last night. Would the latkes make it to the party? 

All day I was subjected to a barrage of phone calls advising me about the latkes' progress.  First it was the sheer volume of the potatos - how many pounds - twenty, thirty, a truckload? Then the misery of the peeling.  The agony of the chopping and the woe of the grinding.  I was happy to hear that she wasn't using a hand grinder anymore but still, she was out of date, using a no name blender that she bought with S&H green stamps in the 60s.  It broke in the middle of grinding.  Could I bring her mine?  Sure mom, I'm just getting the house ready for the fifty people who are coming over tonight. No problem. 

While over there I saw the latke factory she'd set up:  her ancient, black, ten-thousand pound skillets sitting on her uneven electric coils.  The cooking spray she had pulled out of a cabinet to convince me it'd be safe to eat her latkes even though the pans were coated deep with oil. The latkes, after fried, sleeping smashed and smushed on top of each other in casserole dishes in her oven melding into one huge, square latke, the super duper latke of my dreams, coming to my house in three hours. 

But would they make it?  My mother had been sick and holed up in her house for two weeks.  She'd been avoiding all fresh air since she was certain that air was the cause of all her problems.  How would she manage to get to my house without breathing the outside air?

She drives over, the latkes steaming in her car, the serving dishes wrapped in towels - some secret old country method of heat-preservation - and then she gets trapped at the gate into my neighborhood.  It's not like I'd actually expect her to be able to enter a gate code.  I don't.  I know she and Stepfather could never in their lives figure out what a pound key is.  Something about the key pad and telephone hanging there just don't compute with them; apparently, they expect an operator to get on the line.  To avoid this, I gave them their own gate opener, which they still can't manage to operate.  Pretty soon there are people backing up behind them all the way onto the main street.

So she calls me from her cell to tell me she's trapped.  Can I leave the party and lope out there with my gate clicker to open it for her?  Can I send Bar Mitzvahzilla out there on a latke rescue mission, looking for Mom and Stepfather in her souped up Toyota Matrix and let them in?

Suddenly she says, "Oh, never mind, Linda.  The gate is opening!  It worked!" And she hangs up on me, the Toyota - latke express - creeping along on its way till she pulls up.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The House that Technology Forgot

On Wednesday I stopped by my mother's house, just for a moment, I swore.  My mom's sick and I was bringing her some magazines, a little care package of sorts, and checking on her just to see how badly she's bungling up her medical treatment.

I promised myself I would not get roped into fixing her whole world at once, as I noticed the cacti in her front yard falling or dead but still propped up with huge slings and stakes, the ham radio antennae strung in the palm trees, and the broken locks on her front door.  No, I would stick to the tasks at hand.  Magazine delivery, medical monitoring.

My mission was accomplished, I was ready to leave.  Suddenly, Stepfather came into view.  A nice man, he's been my Stepfather now for nearly twenty years now.  The secret to their marital longevity?  Mom yells, he's deaf.

He said, "Linda, could you take a look at my computer for a second?"

A seemingly innocuous question from anyone else.  But I'm not that dumb:  this is a trap.  If eighty-four-year-old Stepfather asked me to look at his computer for a second, I might just never leave their house.   Stepfather can touch the wrong key on his computer and the power grids in three states go out.  Maybe I'm remembering this wrong, but I believe he once fixed the light switch in my mother's bathroom so that each time we turned it on, the toilet flushed. 

I gave him a weak smile, "What do you need help with?"

"Just a password."

So I went into Stepfather's lair, which is kind of his computer room and kind of my mom's sewing room at the same time.  The printer was loaded with different colored paper from every flyer that had ever been dropped off at their house.  He reuses everything.  He was reducing his carbon footprint before it even became fashionable.

The computer was not as bad as I imagined.  It was set up to make everything as hard as possible for him to find.  Kind of like if you thought books were your main reference tool and the computer was a backup for the books instead of the other way around.  I fixed the password and, I couldn't resist, I gave him a few shortcuts, and then, I was gone.

Past the broken lock, past the ham radio wires, past the falling cactus.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rained Out

Last night seemed to be a typical night around here.  At first. 

I was working in my office, which is really our living room.  This means that, in addition to my desk and computer and about a thousand books, my so-called office has two couches in it.

Then Husband decided that he'd come and join me since occasionally he likes to see me and I tend to write late at night.  So there goes one couch with Husband stretched out from end to end.

And then it started raining.

I don't know what it is about the desert but rain is never normal here.  This is what it's like:  first it never rains, like for six months.  It's so dry that, just like in the old Westerns where there are tumbleweeds rolling down the street, we actually have tumbleweeds rolling down our street.  It's so dry that even the cactus are thirsty. 

Then suddenly it rains.  And it doesn't rain just a  little bit, like a splash to give everything a nourishing sip of water, turn the desert green and move on.  No, it's a torrential torrent.  Like all the trees break off like twigs in our neighborhood.  We wake up to a scene from a nuclear holocaust - debris everywhere, tree strewn across roads, powerlines down, houses crushed.  From a rainstorm.  What if we really had weather?

So I was sitting at my desk listening to the thunder cracking overhead, the rain sluicing down, and the wind shaking the house and I thought it didn't sound good.  Best case scenario would be that the power would go out.  The worst case scenario would be that the house would crack a million tiny shards, I would search for Husband, Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter in the shards, and we'd float away to safety on the river of our street.

None of this happened.  Though I looked up and who was there?  Daughter.  Of course.  Because who would you want to be with in a torrential rain but a mom who needs a snorkel and mask just to swim in a pool?  I got her settled in on the empty couch and she began to drift off.

The, after a particularly loud crack of thunder, Bar Mitzvahzilla showed up.  And now we had a math problem:  two couches, three people.  So I decided to let the kids share, one head at each end. 

Turned out this didn't work too well.  Of course, there was a certain amount of entertainment value to Bar Mitzvahzilla in having his feet splayed out in Daughter's face - now this was a comedy routine he could enjoy endlessly. He could also pretend to stretch and smash her nose, over and over again.  Daughter fought back in her own way, laying like a piece of beef on the couch, immobile.  Both kids wide awake.

My writing for the night?  Rained out.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Desert Ruins

My mom's been burrowed up inside her house for about a week, since it got cold in Arizona. This would be fine except that, based on how it's built, it's probably colder in there than it is outside.  Her house, built in 1973 with construction methods that can only be called a little primitive, was built to keep cold in and heat out, not really helpful in the winter.  There's basically the wall of cinder blocks, then there's the sheet rock, and then there's my mom, shivering inside and wearing a coat.

When we moved to Arizona, we had quite a job finding a house.  There were seven girls - six unmarried - and my parents, so we needed like ten thousand bedrooms.  In Skokie we had somehow gotten by with three bedrooms, which made for a very intense home life.  There were the Parents in one bedroom, and then there were the seven daughters split into the two remaining bedrooms: two sets of clawing, fighting sisters battling it out for every inch of space.

The whole move of ours turned out to be quite a shock anyway.  Going from four seasons to two seasons, from snowstorms to duststorms, from trees to cactus, was all quite a shock. And going from a home that had some substance, like a basement and a second story and bricks, to a house that looked like a flat domino that had been thrown across the surface of the desert, that took some getting used to.

My parents searched and searched.  The house had to be just right:  not too close to the Jewish community, not too far.  Kind of more in a Jewish expatriot community.  One day, after we overheard our own real estate agent use an anti-semitic term to refer to negotiating, my dad stormed out of the house we were looking at.  There, across the street, was a billboard for the neighborhood in which we ended up:  Rich Rosen's Hacienda Del Sol.  Perfect.  A street of sixteen houses, all filled with Jews.

We just needed some basic information.  How many bedrooms?  Five.  Was there a pool?  Yes.  That was it.  Who needed to ask about construction methods?  It was Arizona, not the Antarctic!  We drove back to Skokie, loaded up the car and moved.

Add thirty-six years to that and there my mother sits still.  The billboard gone.  The expatriot Jews back to their homelands, my mother's house, built like a refrigerator, a crumbling ruin around her ears. 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bar Mitzvahzilla vs. the Burger

We went out to dinner tonight.  Bar Mitzvahzilla ordered the largest burger the restaurant had:  two half-pound hamburgers on one bun with a combination of french fries and onion rings on the side.  When it showed up, it was about eight inches tall.  Husband and I looked on in amazement.  How would Bar Mitzvahzilla fit this monstrosity in his mouth?  Who would win?  The burger or Bar Mitzvahzilla?

He made a quick job of the onion rings. Made it half way through the french fries.  He picked up the burger and tried to eat it.  Bar Mitzvahzilla is not the most coordinated fellow on the planet.  He's also fourteen, an age where his limbs all seem too big for him and everything seems slightly out of whack. 

Husband - the engineering type - was giving tips and advice from his side of the table. 

"Flip the burger over so it has a lower center of gravity and more stability," he said. 

I look at Husband.  Is he going to set up a rope and pulley system to get this thing into Bar Mitzvahzilla's mouth next?  Maybe he'd like the crayons the restaurant gave Daughter and the kid's menu to write on so he could come up with some quick algebraic calculations and devise a system of consumption?   

Finally, Bar Mitzvahzilla put the burger down.  A little worn out but still hungry, he began trolling for food on our plates.  First he ate half my quesadilla, then he mooched part of Daughter's hotdog, then he ate the contents of the bread basket in the middle of the table. 

In the box of take home food?  Two half-pound burgers.

Score:  Bar Mitzvahzilla 0 Burger 1 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Clowning Around

My mother is sick, but just like everything else with her, this illness is unique, it can only be handled in her own way.

First she refuses to go on antibiotics.  This goes on for days and days.  Then she suddenly decides she needs antibiotics but rather than go to the doctor, she treats her house as a pharmacy of first choice.  She searches the house from top to bottom and finds one old, moldy bottle of pills left over from who-knows-when that's laying in the bottom of a drawer somewhere with a label on it that's barely legible.

She calls me up.  "Linda!" Coughing and hacking right into the phone.


"What are these pills I found?"

She reads me the name.  I'm not sure, but I think it's a bottle of pimple medicine one of us took.  From the 1970s.

I try to tell her this but I'm interrupted by more coughing and hacking.

I say, "Ma.  Are you there?"  I remind myself never to touch her phone when I come to visit.

She gets back on the line.  "Can I take the pills?"

"No.  Do I have to call poison control to get them away from you?  They're forty years old."

"Okay.  I'll look for something else."

I'm about to tell her to stop clowning around and go to the doctor to get some medicine from this millenium but I'm drowned out by the coughing and hacking. I hang up. New mental note:  stop by mom's.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Deck of Daughters

My mother has two interesting characteristics when it comes to the weights of her seven daughters:  she has complete myopia for any weight gain, and she has supernatural, xray vision for any type of weight loss. 

I've been both fat and thin, or rather, I've been both thin then fat, then thin, then fat, then thin.  Multiply that times ten, because this went on for twenty-five years, so I know what I'm talking about here.  When I was fat, my mother saw only the good in me, which was very, very nice.  She was complimentary, encouraging, and accepting.  Rather than see me miserable, she'd go out shopping with me for a fat wardrobe.

But if I lost a microscopic fraction of one pound, she was all over it like a wolf.  In my twenties I'd slunk in the house from my weekly torturous weigh in at Weight Watchers and I don't really think she had a spycam on my house, but let's just say that somehow the phone would ring immediately.

"How'd you do?" No beating around the bush for my mom.

"A pound, Ma.  I lost a pound."

Then I'd hear her real estate amortization calculator clicking and clacking in the background as she did the complicated math.

"If I average your gains with your losses and amortize that out over 52 weeks, by this time next year, you'll be down thirty pounds. Can you imagine?"

And I'd kind of get a little caught up in the fantasy. "Thirty pounds?"

"Just in time for the wedding!" For awhile there in the 1980s, our family seemed to be having a lot of weddings. "Maybe we should buy a dress now. Saks is having a sale. You don't want to wait till the last minute." And then, caught up in the excitement of that one pound weight loss, I'd buy a dress that never fit me, ever.

But she's not fooling me, what she really loves is thin.  Not too thin, like not anorexic. She doesn't want to worry about us dying, after all.  But to have a bevy of daughters to brag about, to brag about the size of clothes we wear, this is what really lights her fire.  Forget the personal accomplishments!  Forget the college degrees, raising our children, forget everything.  Let's get down to the important stuff:  what size are our pants?

And, of course, that's what happens to me.  I'm at our Thanksgiving Day party and I hear the yell across the room, "Linda!  What size are your pants?"

I glare at her wondering if she'd like me to take them off so she can examine the size label herself? 

But I know that to my mother, her seven daughters are like her resume - our beauty or lack thereof, or thinness, or lack thereof, are a direct reflection on her.  She wants to have a card deck of beautiful thin daughters to fan out in front of everyone she talks to to show what she made.  A full deck, a straight flush, a deck of daughters.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Month of Eating


Husband hasn't stopped eating since Halloween.  That's a month.

First it was the Halloween candy.  I had to be the neutral mediator between Husband and the kids in the issue of Who Gets All the Candy?  If the kids weren't willing to give Husband all the Kit Kats and the Peanut M&Ms, he was threatening to take away every bit of candy in the name of healthy parenting.

That candy lasted two weeks.  Then came some kind of pre-Thanksgiving Day sale at his favorite grocery store involving huge quantities of ice cream, again a problem with the kids.  Husband wanted all the ice cream but the kids rightfully believed that the ice cream should maybe involve them.  Again, I interceded.  Although I do think Husband gave in too easily possibly due to a hidden stash in our freezer in the garage. 

Then I baked all the bananas in our house into banana bread.  That was some kind of ape festival around here but there was enough to share. 

Then came Thanksgiving Day itself which, somehow, was all about the desserts.  A little turkey, a lot of desserts.

Through it all, Husband stood next to each food table, a conveyer belt nearly set up next to the food which then ascended directly into his mouth.  There was nothing he wouldn't eat.  He ate and ate and ate and then took a plate home to eat later. 

And then, since there's absolutely no justice in this world, my husband, who should weigh about four hundred pounds, but actually weighs about 155, and should have gained an extra hundred pounds this month alone, noticed his pants - size 32 - were getting a little snug, so he cut back for a couple of days and got back to normal, 152.

And now onto December. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An Immigrant Thanksgiving

Because we were a family of immigrants, we never got Thanksgiving quite right when I was a kid in Skokie.  It's not that we didn't want to give thanks - trust me, being a family of Holocaust Survivors welcomed to the United States post-war, there was no shortage of thanks.  The problem was the food. We just didn't understand the food.

We understood turkey. We preferred chicken, but, fine.  Turkey could be dealt with.  It was a kosher animal, after all.  No problem with the turkey.  The problem with my family were always the other dishes, like the desserts, which we grouped in our minds as not quite Jewish. 

Pumpkin pie? No. Dessert to us was only coffee cake and it was never actually sliced.  It was served the exact same way it is now:  put in the center of a table of hungry, dieting women all holding forks and, voila, ten minutes later it's gone.  Pecan pie? We were firm about this.  Absolutely the only nuts in our family were humans - all the strange inbred Jews who emigrated as one block, hairnets on their heads, frowns on their faces, purses stiffly carried from room to room, no English. I spent years not knowing whom one woman was who came to every party on my mother's side.  Finally I asked.  She was one of my aunts. 

My mother's now been in the U.S. for sixty years; we should know how to do this by now.  But today, at our Thanksgiving dinner, besides all the other stuff, here's what I saw:  Turkey, Matzah Ball soup, Challah. Is this some kind of immigrant Thanksgiving?  Or maybe we're half pilgrim and half Jewish, half American and half Lithuanian, even after all this time.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hold the Mayo

My mother and I have an ongoing argument going about medical care.  The main topic of our argument?  Mayo Clinic.

Like other seniors, my mother swears by Mayo Clinic.  If she stubs her toe, she goes to Mayo Clinic.  To her, Mayo Clinic, and the Mayo Hospital we have here in Phoenix, are like those one-stop clinics they have in drugstores now.  There's no problem too minute to go shlep out to Mayo Clinic to have an expert see it for her.  She'll pop in any time.   

Our argument always starts with some kind of medical discussion, maybe I need an evaluation of some type or one of my kids do.  Her response? 

"Go to Mayo Clinic!"

"Mom, you know Mayo Clinic isn't covered on my insurance." It's never once been covered on any insurance I've ever had.

"I don't care.  Pay for it yourself.  You have plenty of money."

Why does this make me nuts?  Is it because now I'm in two arguments?  There's the one about Mayo Clinic and then there's the new one about whether I have any money.  To not go to Mayo, I have to prove to my mom that I'm poor.

"Mayo Clinic isn't the only place to go in the world, Ma."

"It's the best!"

There's a pause during which I fume and try to figure out where she got this prejudice.

My mother's history with doctors is unremarkable.  As a young mom in Skokie she treated almost exclusively with her obstretrician, the one who delivered six out of seven of us, and who apparently failed to adequately discuss birth control options with her. Then there was the pediatrician who used to show up at our house and examine all seven of us in a row, mixing up our names. Later, when I became a sickly asthmatic, she used to drive like a bat out of hell to a town two hours north of Chicago and a doctor who had one of the only nebulizer machines in existence in 1973, so huge it took up an entire room. She'd take over the waiting room regaling the other patients with the dramatized Story Of My Asthma while I spent the day with the nebulizer.

No Mayo Clinic. But did Mayo Clinic beckon to her from Rochester; did she think of it as the clinic of last resort if, finally, the gigantic nebulizer didn't work, if, finally, I turned blue with the lack of oxygen?

Then she says, "And anyway, the food in the cafeteria at Mayo Hospital is the best food anywhere. Bob and I try to eat out there at least once a week."

"Ma, it's a hospital cafeteria."

"They have a chef."

Okay, that's it.  The conversation has descended into inanities.  Also, I'm dangerously close to finding out exactly what she ate at each meal and I'm not going to fall into that trap. 

"Well, maybe we'll try it some time."

"The Clinic?"

"No. The cafeteria."

Her turn to fume.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Apple of My Eye

My daughter is very thin. People look at from Husband to me and back again and then declare without any qualms that she gets her thinness from Husband.  Apparently, my body is teeming at its restraints, just waiting for me to overeat one day at which point it will suddenly bulge out and I'll be wearing a wardrobe of circus tents.  When I was fat I used to go to Weight Watchers - twelve years in a row without ever achieving Lifetime Member status - and the leader would say, "You didn't gain it in a month, you're not going to lose it in a month!"  But she didn't know me.  I did gain my weight in a month, each time.

But not my kids.  Daughter's weight, for example, hasn't changed in a couple years, and it's a weird weight, 59 pounds.  Every time she gets on the scale, exactly 59 pounds. And her hunger is odd.  She's not just hungry before meals, that would be too normal.  Instead, she stands up after meals full but then immediately announces that she's hungry again.  I say, "What? You just told me you were full!"  And she says, "I'm full of what I just ate, but now I'm hungry for something else."  The strange, twisted labyrinth of the ten-year-old mind - both full and hungry at the same time.

In the immigrant household in which I grew up, there were none of these nuances.  We sat and ate with our only desire being how quickly we could escape from our mother's constant food pushing.  She stood by the table, waiting for a plate to empty - like a vulture perched overhead - and then swooped in to fill it immediately.  This is how a few of my sisters ended up chubby; the skinny sisters ran from the table as her spoon was descending. And it didn't help that dinner was the standard Eastern European Jewish diet:  anything made out of rendered fat, or out of animal parts that we weren't sure were actually edible.

There was no eating after dinner was done. Mom shut down the kitchen, like it was a store. And anyway, being an immigrant, she didn't understand the concept of desserts.  In her small town in Eastern Europe there were no such fancy concepts as "desserts."  You ate or you starved, nothing in between.  If she was feeling extravagant, fine, we could have an apple.  Wildly extravagant?  Fine, she'd bake some apples.

So Daughter finishes another meal tonight, announces that she's full.  Stands up.  Walks over to me a second later and tells me she's hungry.  What can she eat?  I don't even try to offer her more of our dinner.  I say, "Baked apples?"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait

My Mom was going out to eat with my sister's family the other night. I wanted to see if I could swing by and drop off some stuff before she left.

"We're not going to be home."

"But you still have an hour before you have to be at the restaurant."

"We're leaving now."

"But Ma, it takes five minutes to drive there.  What are you going to do with the other fifty-five minutes before they get there?"

"Well, we have to park."


"And walk in."


"That's it."

"How long could it take to park and walk in a restaurant?"

"Well, Bob's driving."  Right. Half an hour to pull into a parking spot and half an hour to find the door.  Not that I'm that much better.  Today we went on a high school tour with Bar Mitzvahzilla and I led us to the wrong parking lot, like on the garbage bin side of the high school, not the front door side.  We had to hike a mile to get to the door.  Then we went to his basketball game after school and I directed Husband to the wrong school.  So I can relate to this stuff.

But an hour to drive five minutes? 

There's no arguing with my mom.  I tell her I'll drop the stuff by the next day and agree with her, saying "You'd better hurry up."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cursed Purses

As usual, I'm hiding something in my closet.  Being a compulsive shopper means that I'm always hiding something, normally behind the large, pink-zippered bag that holds my now-seventeen-year-old wedding dress.  That bag is so big and bulky it will hide anything.  Then I wait for just the perfect moment to reveal the newest incredibly dumb purchase.

What's the purchase this time?  A purse. 

It started like this:  I had to go to the rich, snooty mall in town to get my planner refill - one of the stores there is the only one that sells it.  I was only going to get the planner, that's it.  I knew I'd be down in the area right after my writing class last Thursday.  1st problem:  when I left the house I took some cash with me "just in case."  2nd problem:  I had looked up the website the day before to see if any of their new handbag styles caught my eye.

Here's what happened.  I walked in, got the planner.  Cast wistful eyes at the handbags while lurking around the glass display cases.  Asked to see one particular bag.  Tried it on.  Tried it on with my stuff in it.  Clerk convinced me that even my netbook could fit in it since it's the size of a pice of luggage.  Imagined how my life could change from carrying this purse with my netbook in it.  Bought the bag.

I blame this cursed purse obsession on the poverty of my teen years, the majority of which were spent hanging up on collection agents, perhaps a unique experience for a Jewish family.  To have a similar experience you'd have to have a father who died suddenly with no life insurance, a store that went bankrupt, a mother with no income, and a bunch of debt.  Let's put it this way, when I was fifteen I put a coat on layaway.  I finally got it when I was sixteen, just in time for the following winter. It was out of style by then and I had gained forty pounds.

So tomorrow I'll just own up to it, shove over the pink wedding dress bag, and take it out and enjoy it.

Either that or return it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Remember Your Coat

I was at our school's yard sale yesterday.  I'd just taken off my coat and put it inside my car.  Just then I noticed Stepfather walking toward me, having just gotten out of his car. 

He was carrying a coat.

"Hi, Bob. I'm glad you made it over here," I said.

"Here, Linda."  He handed me the coat.

"What's this?"

"Your mother told me to bring you a coat.  She said you wouldn't be wearing one."

He continued on past me while I stood there holding the coat.  How did she know when I took off my coat?

I could be on the top of the Himalayas with a team of other climbers on a six-month climb, but the minute I'd slip off my coat, well, look over there!  Who is that climbing rapidly up the slope toward us?  Why, it's my mother, bringing me a coat.  She has a sixth sense, a cosmic ability, or maybe she's embedded a microchip in me somewhere, to sense my coat-wearing status.

I put the coat in my car.  Later she showed up at the yard sale bundled up in a wool jacket and scarf even though by then it was a sunny 75 degrees.  Obviously, her radar works well.  She spotted me across the field, then yelled at me, "Linda, why aren't you wearing the coat I sent with Bob?"

But then, right before I answered, she saw a new problem - one involving her descendants.  Bar Mitzvahzilla and Daughter standing there.  No coats.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Car Talk

The four of us - Husband, Daughter, Bar Mitzvahzilla, and me - were stuck in our car for a while tonight driving across town for a play, and here's the interesting thing I suddenly remembered about being in a car with Daughter:  she doesn't stop talking.  If she's got an off button, I haven't found it in the ten years since she was born.

I was talking to Husband about something that seemed interesting to us but which, apparently, was not interesting to Daughter.  So she brought up something that was interesting to her.  Were we aware that she can recite all the multiples of seven, all the way to eighty-four?  And that she can do it really fast?  Faster than anyone else in her class? 

Well, no, actually, we weren't aware of that, but -

And then she's off and running.  The multiples of seven up to eighty-four.

So we give her the requisite amount of attention for her speed multiplying and then, while she's taking a breath, we try to resume our conversation.  Of course, we're not going to be that lucky because she's not taking a breath just to breathe or anything.  She's taking a breath so that she can start reciting multiples of nine and then fives and then twos.  And the twos she can recite to infinity.

Husband and I give up on our conversation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just the Fax, Ma'am

My mother and Stepfather are going on a month-long cruise to China.  Ignoring the question of how they will live in a windowless cabin -  they never pay for windows - the size of a closet for a month without killing each other, this trip requires some modern technology that my mother doesn't have.  It seems that nowadays, booking major travel requires two things:  a credit card and email.

So she calls me up in a panic to tell me that she and Stepfather need my help.  My mind courses through the type of help they normally need from me:  house-watching, mail-getting, pill-sorting, doctor-arguing?

But no, it's something much more insurmountable for my mother.  She tells me that Holland America wants to send her a fax.

"A fax, Ma?  Are you sure they said a fax?"  My mom stopped learning about technology after fax machines were invented.  After all, the fax machine was the world's perfect office machine.  Imagine being able to transmit documents over a phone line by pressing a button!  There was a time in the early 80's when that fax machine of hers was screeching day and night in her busiest days in real estate.  How could anything ever supplant that?

But there have been a few inventions since then.  Like the Internet.  I figure out that she needs me to get an email from the cruise line.

I say, "Sure, is that it?"

"You'll print everything they send?"

"Yes.  We have a printer, Mom.  And paper in it."

The next day I call her.  I tell her I still haven't gotten the email.

She says, "Well, they probably haven't gotten my payment."

"How long could it take to get your payment?  Didn't you pay with a credit card?"

"Oh no.  I sent a check."  What, by carrier pigeon?  "Bob and I don't use any credit cards." 

Well at least she's not going nuts out there with her consumer debt.

"Okay, Ma. After they cash your check I'm sure they'll send the information."

"And then you'll give me the fax?"

"Right.  Then I'll give you the fax."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I Drive, She Whines

On Saturday, Daughter and I dropped Bar Mitzvahzilla off at his cousins' house far, far, far across Phoenix. It's a multi-freeway drive to get there, but Bar Mitzvahzilla was going to have a complete nervous breakdown unless he got to go.

This is because things are pretty cool over there. Unlike our house, which is like a lockdown prison since we took away his PlayStation, over at his cousins' house he gets to game until his eyes roll back in his head or until his thumbs sieze up in attacks of tendonitis. First he and his two cousins murder and commit mayhem on the XBox or PlayStation 3 and then, when they're done killing on the screen, they grab their Nerf guns and stalk each other down the hallways of the house. This is supposed to be fun.

But once we got there and he flew out of the car, after he and Daughter battled the whole way there, it was just Daughter and I out for the day with a little extra time. I immediately thought, Free time!  No teenager nagging me to death. A world of possibilities opened up.  Should Daughter and I go shopping to a far away store?  Should we go hiking on one of the pretty Arizona mountains?  Should we go for a drive, a walk, have a nice chat?

Instead, here's what happened. I drive, she whines. First there's some vague headachey thing going on. Then she decides she's hungry.  Then she decides she's getting carsick.  There's a little vague moaning. Does she want to shop?  No. Hike? No. Drive, Walk, Chat?  No, no, no. 

So I drive, she whines, all the way home.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Give Me All Your Pop

I go to a party at my sister's house.  My mother is planted like a tree in a chair at the head of the table.  She is not going to move an inch all night. 

It is true that at our family parties, a chair is hard to come by.  Once you get one, you need to stake it out, make it your own.  You leave it at your peril.  Sometimes, annoyingly, the two skinniest sisters will show up and insist on sharing the chair with you. 

So, since my mother is ensconced on her throne, she needs to be waited on hand and foot.  Someone who doesn't have a chair to maintain and occupy needs to get my mom's food.  Later, another chairless person needs to get my mom's dessert.  Suddenly, she eyes me up.

"Linda, give me some of your pop!"  She pushes a coffee cup across the table at me.

Of course she's using a coffee cup because, to my mother, anything is a drinking vessel.  In Skokie we never had a matched glass in our house.  We had drinking glasses that were one of two things:  either they were yahrzeit candles - memorial candles - after the wax had been burned off, morbidly being used by the living, or they were from the S&H green stamp catalogue and we had broken most of the set.

I dutifully pour her some pop.  Suddenly, she screeches, "Stop!  That's too much!" after I pour an inch.

Then a minute later.  "Linda!  More pop!"  She thrusts the coffee cup at me.  I give her a baleful glare.  I only have the one can of pop and I also can't leave my chair.  I'm guarding it.  But, she's my mom so I pour.  Again she shrieks for me to stop.

And then a minute later she does it again.  "Linda!  More p-"

My head whips around.  This is worse than taking care of a two-year-old.  I take my can and put it in front of her.  Finally!  She got the whole thing away from me.  She happily empties it into the coffee cup.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pharmacist Amnesia

I'm at the pharmacy. I've spent a lot of time here over the years. I'm not only on the auto refill program but normally when I get up to the counter the pharmacy tech needs a hand truck to get my prescriptions from behind the counter to me.

But there's one thing always interesting about me and my pharmacy experience:  they never know who I am.  Everyday is a new day of pharmacy clerk amnesia.

I could stop by there every day of the week - and I'm not exaggerating - to pick up medicine and each time I am asked for my name. Then I'm asked to spell my name. Since I apparently have a lisp of some type - a surprise to me - I am asked over and over again to repeat the letters S and F that may be in my name or address. There are five.

This is all done by Nice Clerk. Nemesis Clerk handles the customers before me with a friendliness that makes me get a little enthused about getting up to the counter. I'm ready to banter! I'm ready to commiserate! I'm pretty much ready to bark like a dog and roll over, anything to keep Nemesis Clerk happy.  But when I get up there, his demeanor has changed. He looks at me with dull eyes, a flat mouth. "Spell your name," he says. Then, "Is that S as in Susan or F as in Frank?"

It's like Communist Russia here in the tundra of the pharmacy counter. There's no arguing with Nemesis Clerk. He's got a mean streak and I know which side of the counter I'm standing on. He's on the side with my medicine.

When I was a kid in Skokie, we had an excellent relationship with the mom and pop pharmacy near our house.  If anyone in our family experimented with shoplifting, the eagle eyes of the owner's wife would spot us doing it, make a note of the item stolen, and quickly add the item onto our mother's charge account.  My mother, oblivious, paid and was probably happy no police were involved.  We grew up in the aisles, moving from chocolate bars to Kotex pads to cigarettes as we got older.

Once I got asthma, if I ran out of medicine, the pharmacist would spot me a few pills till I could get a new prescription instead of letting me die.  That was nice.  Especially because my mother wasn't so good at this whole thing - like figuring out when I was going to run out of medicine and stop breathing.  This was a good arrangement.  So much easier than arranging my funeral, that is.

This pharmacy?  I've gone here over twenty years.  They have no idea who I am.  I spell my name, lisping through the letters.  Nemesis Pharmacy Tech heaves over my package.  I leave clutching my medication.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Amateur Doctor

I'm on the phone with my mother - do I ever see her in person? - and she starts coughing. It's a disrupt-the-phone-call cough. Finally she gets back to me. I say, suspiciously, "Are you okay?"

"Sure I'm okay. Why?"

"You were coughing."

"That wasn't coughing."

"It was coughing. I heard it. You nearly made me deaf."

"It was nothing. A little mess up on my inhaler. I'm supposed to take two puffs twice a day but I decided to take one puff three times a day and then I forgot the second puff so I went back on it and decided to do two puffs in the middle of the day and none at the start or end of the day. Once I straighten it out, I'll be better."

While I'm trying to do this inhaler math in my head, she starts coughing again, right into the phone, enough to bring over a nebulizer, or a ventilator. It ends with the sound of running water. I'm thinking, where is she talking on the phone? In the bathroom?

She comes back on. I say, "You're sick."

"Sick? I'm not sick."

"Ma, you're sick." I know this because, despite the fact that I'm nearly thirty years younger than her, we both have eighty-year-old bodies. We're health twins, asthma twins. We not only have asthma in common but now that I'm getting older we also have arthritis, osteoporosis and cataracts in common. Actually, with some of these things, I'm worse off than her.

And anyway, I'm an amateur doctor. I could have been a great doctor and could have gone to med school if not for that cadaver thing, and my grades in college, and the fact that it took me five and a half years to get my BA, and that even when I got my BA it was in History. But other than all that, I'm a pretty good amateur doctor. Just by the sound of that cough through the phone, I've mentally prescribed an antibiotic for my mother: Ceftin, 500 milligrams, twice a day.

This is a little bit of a switch for us since when I was a kid, my mother was the amateur doctor, but she wasn't a very good one. She only had one thing to cure us with: a whiskey compress. No matter the injury - from psychosomatic ones to broken bones, she puttered around in the kitchen, pulled out a schmatta (a rag), found some whiskey and Saran Wrap, and wrapped up the offending part in a stinking liquor tourniquet. Then she left us to steep in this cocktail on the couch alone, protecting us from further injury by isolating us from our six sisters.

This time, my mom's fighting off my diagnosis. She outlines her own plan, involving an elaborate dance with her inhaler - one puff here and one puff there, like perfume.

Or maybe she'll just make a really gigantic compress and wrap it around her lungs.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Last night was the end of us trick or treating in our neighborhood.

We've lived here a long, long time. As a matter of fact, when Husband and I moved in, childless, in October 1993 there were four occupied houses out of 89 in our subdivision. Of course, there were also about twenty under construction with dirt and nails everywhere, poured foundations, walls rising up built out of two by fours, and debris. It was like living in post-World War II Dresden. So that first year we thought, Only four people live here. Certainly it's safe not to buy candy. No one will come. Of course, the doorbell rang. The mean neighbors across the street showed up uttering the only words I ever heard them say to us in the fourteen years they lived there, "Trick or treat."

Even though I'm the child of two Holocaust Survivors and you'd think that pitch black nights and scary figures banging on doors with sudden demands would bring back bad memories for my parents, causing them to ban Halloween, it didn't. Not to mention the whole death thing. My parents made every decision based on "What are the Americans doing?" So, if the Americans were dressing their children up as ghouls and sending them out begging, that's what we did. Also, it didn't cost any money. To get a costume I was basically sent into my older sisters' room to find one - which meant every year I was a hippy. Also, we came home with this free food as a result of this bewildering panhandling, a definite bonus in Mom's eyes.

Last night our neighborhood was a ghost town, and I don't mean a fun, Halloween ghost town. So we ditched it for a different neighborhood nearby, becoming Halloween crashers. There we found the motherlode: roving bands of kids, dressed up adults, parties in the driveways, hay-filled wagons set up to take kids from one block to another, decorated houses, even cauldrons boiling over with dry ice "smoke." A firetruck came by with all of its lights on and the firefighters came out and passed out candy.

Bar Mitzvahzilla and his friend, on their last Halloween before high school, found a house that was giving out whole candy bars and couldn't help themselves, they had to go there over and over again until the homeowner sent them away. Inbred chutzpah. Daughter, who has a short fuse for just about anything, had finished earlier, but once she saw that whole candy bar, that was it for her. She walked up to the door of the house in a trance, cupped her hand for the candy - she was so sure she was done she hadn't even brought a bag along - and came running back, clutching the candy bar like gold.

And then it was done and the lights went out one by one, the legend of the whole chocolate bar living on forever.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Moving Hanukkah

My mother is very happy because my cousin from Chicago is coming to visit. I'm happy too because when my daughter and my cousin's daughter met two and a half years ago, they had an almost surreal connection. They were instant best friends. And, from the second they met, my daughter could not rest knowing that my cousin's daughter was somewhere in the world and not with her, so she stalked her all over Phoenix - when they stayed with my mother, when they stayed with my sister, when they did anything that wasn't with us. Finally, exhausted from all this stalking, I drove over to my sister's house and picked them up. This time it's mandatory. They'll be staying with us.

So my mother's happy. Cousin and her daughter are coming. Cousin's staying with me. My house is a mile from her house. She has the gate opener for my neighborhood gate and a key to my house so she can barge in any time. Everything is perfect.

But then she says, "I told your cousin that you'll be having a big Hanukkah party for the family."

Okay, this is true. I'm in charge of Hanukkah for our family, probably because, after 36 years in Arizona, I'm just about the only one in the family who doesn't have a Christmas tree. Admittedly, I'm the big Jewish fanatic in the family. I own about 100 menorahs, have quite a dreidel collection. What other people do for Christmas, I do for Hanukkah.

But I smell a rat. Hanukkah is a little early this year. I believe Cousin's coming after it ends.

I say, "Ma, when's she coming?"

"I don't know. I think December 19th. The week before Christmas."

My mother, the Holocaust Survivor, dates everything by Christmas.

"But Ma, the last day of Hanukkah is the 19th, so the last candle is the 18th."

"Who cares how many days Hanukkah has? Eight shmeight! Why can't it be closer to Christmas this year?"
Does she think I can find a ten-armed menorah?

"Ma, I'm not moving Hanukkah."

"You think you're so Orthodox! I'll tell you what's so Orthodox - when the Nazis killed everyone in my town."

Since I grew up with my mother throwing the Holocaust at my head every morning, noon, and night, this certainly isn't going to sway me. We've been through this before in my family, with everyone in my family wanting to move Hanukkah onto the more convenient Christmas - everyone has the day off anyway! - or moving Passover to Easter, or combining the two.

I ignore her invocation of the Holocaust. I say, "Look, I'll have the party on the last day if you want, but I'm not moving the holiday."

And, faced with my implacable will - I'm the Jewish mother, she's the reluctant daughter - she gives in, pulls out the calendar and makes note of the date.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Swept Away

Even though Bar Mitzvahzilla would prefer to live his life with his nose in a fantasy/sci fi book, or with his thumbs on a PlayStation controller, since he turned fourteen he's had to do one new thing: he's a carpet store employee.

Unfortunately for Bar Mitzvahzilla, since we own a carpet store and Husband slaves away at this carpet store (I do the glamorous administrative work from home) he got this automatic part-time job the minute he turned fourteen and could be put on the payroll. Of course, if he had applied for the job, he would have been our last choice: a lazy, reluctant fourteen-year-old boy? No. And somehow, the $10 per hour pay, despite having a very lenient boss who loves him enough not to fire him, despite having the other employees treat him like the Heir To The Carpet Store, Bar Mitzvahzilla can't stand going down there.

Of course, I can relate to this. I come from a long line of working class merchants. One of my grandfathers was a shoemaker and the other owned a tiny trucking company. My own father owned a commercial laundry in Chicago and a produce market in Arizona. He believed wholeheartedly in his children working at his businesses. He just didn't believe in paying us.

Luckily, I was dying of asthma in Chicago and so completely weaseled out of working at the laundry. But no such luck with the Arizona produce market. I got reasonably healthy once we moved to here and, once my Dad died, I was shackled to our store as readily available teenage labor. Rate of pay? All the produce I could eat.

So I try to put a cheery spin on it for Bar Mitzvahzilla, telling him how lucky he is that he's got a job and Husband's so patient and actually pays him in money, not carpet, to work there.

But Bar Mitzvahzilla fails to see it my way. He insists on reading and working at the same time. He takes the broom in one hand, a fantasy sci-fi book in the other, and then he swings the broom across the floor, scattering dirt and dust and carpet fibers everywhere. He rests the broom for a second against the counter so he can turn the page of the book, and then he starts reading again. He picks up the broom with his free hand and swings it again.

I escape, leaving him to the Wrath of Dad.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Eat, Talk, Cough

Here's what happens when I'm on the phone with my mother. First, since she's multi-tasking, cooking and talking (one chicken breast, boiled), then eating and talking, then coughing and talking, she drops the phone repeatedly. When this happens, this is what I hear: first a horrible clunking sound as the phone slips out of her hand and hits the ground, and then her voice from far away, yelling at the phone - as if I'm inside of it - where it now lays on the floor, "Linda! I dropped the phone! Are you okay? I'm coming!"

This happens several times. It happens so many times that I finally start yelling back from my position inside the dropped phone, "Are you there, Ma? Pick me up!"

Our conversations are interrupted by these drops. Or the coughing - my mother only coughs and hacks into the receiver, never around it. I have caught colds from her coughing on me through the phone.

Now there's a new horror that's been introduced to interrupt our regular calls: my mother's cell phone. She actually only got the cell phone so she could go up to her summer home in Flagstaff and have phone service. Normally once she gets back to Phoenix, she turns it off permanently. To her a phone is still something attached to a house and once she's back in her house, that's it, she doesn't need a cell.

But this year, everything has changed. She has her cell phone on all the time. She even remembers to charge it and has it sitting right next to her house phone. My mother is finally experiencing true bliss - she can get calls simultaneously from two people at the same time all through the day and night. A perfect situation!

So I'm on the house phone with her when I hear her cell phone ring with a ring tone of "Lara," the theme from Doctor Zhivago, her favorite song ever. It's like calling a teenager, the fact that she knows how to program a ring tone. I hear her answer.

I get to listen.

"Hello?" There's a little delay. Then, "Wendy!"

It's my cousin Wendy from Chicago.

My mom comes back on with me. "Linda, it's Wendy from Chicago!"

Right. I heard her because I'm actually inside the telephone sitting in her hand. Anyway, the minute I hear my cousin's name, I know it's the end of my phone call. Local daughter versus out-of-state orphaned niece - I don't stand a chance.

Then my mom says, "You want to ask Wendy if she's coming here in December?"

I have to actually think about this for a second. How exactly would I do this? We're on my mother's two different phones. What does my mom think, that she's a switchboard operator? Is she planning to smash the cell phone on top of the house phone and tell us to yell to each other really loudly?

"You ask, Ma. I don't think she'll be able to hear me."

"Okay, I'll call you back."

She drops the phone as she's hanging it up. As I hang mine up I hear her yelling, "Sorry."

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The other night I was up late when I heard running footsteps through the house. I jumped up to investigate and found Daughter running down the hallway. I followed her till she came to a stop at the door to the garage. She began fumbling with the locks, unable to unlock them. Apparently she wanted to go out into the dark garage at midnight.

Of course, I knew she was sleepwalking. Well, not sleepwalking, but sleeprunning. I instinctively knew that in her upright, but sleeping, mind, she had not anticipated encountering a locked door and that locked door might as well have been Fort Knox. Sleeping Daughter could not unlock it although Awake Daughter is quite agile. I also knew, from my family's history, that you don't argue with a sleepwalker and you don't try to wake them up. You obey them. I unlocked the door and went into the garage with her. She looked around but whatever she had expected to see wasn't in there. I took her back to bed.

I come from a family of sleepwalkers. Many nights when I was a kid in Skokie one of my sisters and I would pass each other on the stairs of our house - me going up and she going down, both of us sleepwalking in opposite directions. We did amazing things sleepwalking. She would climb on top of the tall dresser in the twins' bedroom and regale them with amusing stories until, in the middle of one of them, she suddenly fell back into a regular sleep. Her head would tilt forward and she'd nearly fall off the dresser. The twins would have to leap up from their beds to catch her. My sleepwalking was a little more boring. My sisters tell me that I'd just walk up the two staircases from the basement, sit on the edge of their bed seemingly awake, and have conversations in which I made no sense, speaking jibberish. Then I'd fall face down into the covers.

My mother, superstitious from being raised in the Old Country, knew that you never disturb a sleepwalker. Apparently, if we were disturbed while sleepwalking, we could get trapped in that in between world we were in - not awake, not asleep, mobile, immobile. So she'd go along with whatever the we wanted and then ease us back to bed. She'd get my sister down from the dresser, pick me up from my splatted position on the bed, and tuck us back in.

So this is how I know what to do the night I check on Bar Mitzvahzilla in his room and he is busy sleepwalking - well, sleepclimbing - from the top bunk on his bunkbed to his bottom bunk. I stand there, cringing, ready to catch him but not willing to bust into his sleeping world, as he places one foot unerringly under the other and makes it down.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Here, Kitty

We finally went shopping for a pet. This was pretty amazing for us since Husband and I have Post Traumatic Pet Syndrome. When either of us even think about getting a pet, the first thing on our minds is not my chronic asthma, it's not the kids' springtime allergies and wondering if they'd be allergic to a pet too, and it's not being tied down to an animal just when our lives are getting easier. Instead this is on our minds: our former beloved cat dying an agonizing death from kidney disease when Bar Mitzvahzilla was just a baby.

Since Bar Mitzvahzilla was a dangerously tiny preemie who took ten weeks to come home from the hospital, we certainly had our hands full when he came home in October, 1995. There was an apnea monitor for the baby, an IV for the cat. An oxygen tank for the baby, injections for the cat. Doctor visits for the baby, veterinarian visits for the cat. Carrier for the baby, carrier for the cat.

Unlike the baby, who thrived, busting out of those little unisex preemie outfits like Superman, the cat did not, despite our best efforts to keep her alive. Finally, we had to let her go. We called the mobile vet, laid her down in Husband's arms and the vet gave her the shot to put her to sleep.

So when we see a cute little kitty, we don't just see the kitty. We see the grown up cat, the responsibility, we see the vet visits, and, unfortunately, we see the end. We're not a exactly a barrel of monkeys when it comes to cat shopping.

Based on our checkered past, when we finally went to the Humane Society last Friday to check out the cats, there wasn't much chance of us leaving with one. First there were the four of us and our individual expectations of a cat, then there was the lurking ghost of our dead cat. There was also Husband's list of required attributes for a new cat, which basically meant that the kitty would have to be a reincarnation of our old cat.

Ultimately, none of this came into play. We walked in, we picked out a cat to see. The kids pet the cat, both of them lifting their hands in horror at the cat hair clinging to them and swirling in the air around their heads. Then they began sneezing: six times, seven times. Then they put their cat hair-covered hands to their mouths to cover their sneezes. More sneezes.

We ran for our lives.