Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Long, Dry Summer

When I was in high school I spent a month each summer with extended family in Chicago. Each summer I would reappear in my old Skokie life like an apparition, and to strangers I was a very rare thing indeed: the Arizona cousin. "There are Jews in Arizona?," people would say, like I was the Loch Ness monster and maybe they should take a picture. Then I'd suffer through an examination from head to toe while they assessed whether I was really this thing I claimed to be, this Arizona Jew. After a few times, I knew what was coming next, the question: "If you're from Arizona, why don't you have a tan?"

Since I've lived in Arizona since 1973, I'm going to claim a little bit of expertise on this topic, though I'll readily recognize that there were people here before me, like the Neanderthals. Let's put it this way, when I moved to Arizona, kids in my eighth grade class rode horses to school. That was a little too country for me. The big event in Skokie before I moved had been getting a Star of David necklace for Hanukkah; the big thing in Scottsdale in 1973 was going to a weekend tent revival.
So here's the big secret that people in the rest of the country might not understand: people in Arizona don't have tans because when you live in Arizona, you actually don't go out in the sun at all, at least from May through September. You are positively paranoid about the sun. You wear SPF 1000 inside your house in case some sunlight gets through the window, on which you have a sunshade anyway. When you go driving anywhere, like even to the corner market, you carry a jug of water, because if your car breaks down you could die of dehydration before help arrives. Your children wear Transition lenses on their eyeglasses because you're afraid of them getting cataracts before their time, like when they're teenagers.

It's very dry here. So dry that when I moved here, I didn't understand why bottles of lotion were constantly being passed around among women who would swoon at the sight of them, reaching for them with their hands shaking in ecstasy. Now I understand. Each morning I take my shower and then I slather on lotion from head to toe. If I didn't do this, my whole body would actually crack into a million tiny pieces and fall to the bathroom floor. Then comes sunscreen for my whole body, secret anti-aging wrinkle creams, more lotions, more sunscreens. I end up so greased up that when I get in my car I actually slip right out again.

Soon I'll be heading to California where people actually leave their homes and have outside lives. It seems unbelievable, but I'm going to feel a breeze on my face. And when I meet Californians they'll look at me and get a quizzical look in their eyes; they'll look me up and down, and then they'll say, "If you're from Arizona, why don't you have a tan?"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Little Cabin in the Woods

When Husband and I were in Northern Arizona recently we went to visit my mother and stepfather who stay up there for the summer in my mother's cabin.

Of course, my mom wanted us to stay with her. I hadn't seen her cabin for about four years but that horrific memory was enough for me to make up any excuse to get out of it, despite her telling me that since her last burst pipe incident, the place looked great. I think I told her we were packing a lot of Viagra for our trip. That was the end of our invitation.

My mother has a blind spot where that cabin is concerned. There it sits, on the main road into the national forest, headlights lighting up the windows and forest vehicles zooming by making a racket, and she thinks she's living in the center of peace and tranquility. It's made out of beige clapboards with a peeling porch and a circular black-top driveway with weeds poking through, but what does she see? A log cabin in the woods.

But that's just the outside. When we got there I noticed that her decor included every piece of furniture that had left my house, my six sisters' houses, and her own house, in the last 30 years. In the main room there were three rocking chairs - including a glider rocker - along with a pink arm chair and ottoman, and two leather couches. There was an enormous cow-patterned rug on top of the carpeting. The walls were covered from top to bottom with pastel Southwestern art and hooked rugs of sunsets made in the 70s. In the only open space in the room stood a portable evaporative cooler as tall as a human being, blowing so loudly that it drowned out all conversation.


I asked her if she could turn it off. Then I counted all the seating. I said, "Ma, are you expecting a crowd? You've got enough seats here for nine people but there's only the two of you each night."

"Well, you never know. Someone might come up. Doesn't it look great? I found a place for everything!"


"My neighbors - they have junk in their cabins. Junk!"

"Hard to believe. Junk?"

My husband was on red alert because, like a dog, he can enter any home and immediately sniff out its problems. The last time we stayed at the cabin, we walked in and within 5 minutes he was on the roof fixing the TV antenna and then crawling beneath the house. I swear, he was burying a bone. This time he had the place pegged: leak in the hall bath, no water in the evap cooler, rotting porch. He was holding back on fixing things, though, because we had to get back to town. He sat down on rocking chair number three but refused my mother's offer of fruit salad. She was eating it with her hand out of the serving bowl.

Soon my mother yawned. My stepfather yawned. It was 5:00. Time for dinner and bed. We took the hint, made our excuses and left.

We heard the fan going back on as we crossed the porch.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Road to Nowhere

With the kids are away at camp Husband and I headed out of town and out of the heat up to the cool pine country.

I've lived in Arizona since I was 13-years-old and the odd thing is that there are still some things around here that still haven't changed since I was 13-years-old. Like there are grizzled cowboys running around with bolo ties and ten-gallon cowboy hats and who don't know that Jews still exist. They say, "Like in the Bible?" And I say, "Yes, like in the Bible." There are still pick-up trucks on the road that belong in museums, and we still just have one main Interstate going up north, I-17.

You know how sometimes you hear about some horrible thing that happens on a highway that backs traffic up for hours? I always think about the people in the cars, like what did they do out there? Did they have water? What if they had to go to the bathroom?

Well, now I know, because this happened to Husband and I as we were heading up to Flagstaff for a romantic three-day sojourn. When we were passing through one of the carved out mountains - half a mountain on one side, half on the other and a roadway in between - traffic suddenly stopped. It stayed stopped for two hours with no notice from anyone - no Highway Patrol coming by to talk to us, no Red Cross bringing us bottles or, something we could have used more, Porta-Potties. This is all we knew: there was black billowing smoke up ahead; there was a helicopter with a long swinging bucket pouring water on that black billowing smoke up ahead; and behind us, there was a 50-mile back-up of cars. Oh, and a bad sign: there were news helicopters in the air above us.

Here's what people do when this happens. First they stayed in their cars with their air conditioning on, after all, we weren't very far from Phoenix and it was 100 degrees. Then, after a while, people started getting out of their cars, walking around and talking to each other. A few cars up ahead, some cowboys started having an impromptu hoe-down with the occupants of another vehicle nearby. Women and men started making for the hilly roadside for some kind of brush cover for necessities. People got out of their cars to smoke and Husband and I watched their lit cigarettes nervously, waiting for one of them to ignite another brush fire on the side of the road.

Husband was busy mulling over in his mind exactly whose fault it was that we got stuck in this. Had I taken too long to get ready, as usual? Did I just have to go exercise that morning? Should he have filled the car with gas the night before? Had he armed too many fake sirens for our empty house or had he hooked up too many vacation plugs for our lamps so our lights would go on and off while we were gone? Maybe it was overkill to go inside the house and then lock the garage from the inside and come out a side door?

I'm not a pessimist, but I figured we'd be spending the whole three days of our trip right there, at mile marker 249. I magnanimously agreed to save Husband's life by sharing my water bottles with him when I saw that he had brought only Diet Dr. Pepper for himself. I was about to call the hotel in Flagstaff to cancel our reservation when my mother called. She lives in Flagstaff each summer so she was waiting for us at her cabin. I told her what happened. Did she give me soothing words of comfort? Ideas of how to fill my time? No. She said, "You should have left the house earlier!" Thanks mom.

Finally Husband chased down a highway employee who told us it would be a few more hours. Of course, right after that we began to move. The people who were out of their cars began running to get back to them. We slowly rounded the curve by the fire and saw the ground scorched on both sides of the roadway with the firefighters standing by the roadside in their gear.

I waved as we drove past.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Carrying Baggage

Since neither my husband nor I ever went to overnight camp as kids, we kind of botched up a few things as we sent our kids off last Thursday.

First of all we sent the kids with real luggage, like the rolling king of luggage you would take on an airplane. We got to the the synagogue rendezvous point and, trust me, there was no baggage like this besides our kids'. Their bags stood there - green, bulky and square, with roller wheels on the bottom - while every other bag was a soft-side duffel. When they head off on their camping trips into the forest, my children will need a valet.

I can't help it that I was raised like a wolf. My mother's idea of summer camp in Skokie was to shoo me and my six sisters out of the house into the garage to play all day. We'd wait for the milkman; then we'd wait for the pop man. Or maybe some boys would ride by from the other school district and we would chase them - that one activity could occupy us until school started in September. That was a typical summer.

Since my parents were Holocaust Survivors, they didn't quite understand the concept of summer camp. First of all, the word "camp?" Not good. Concentration Camp, Displaced Persons Camp, Labor Camp - those were camps. After all, they had both come out of the DP camps after the war. Were they expected to send their own children there on purpose? Of course not. Also, it cost money. My parents only spent money on food and shelter. If there was any money left over, my dad bought a new station wagon.

My parents also couldn't understand why we'd be interested in the deprivations of camp. Why would I want to give up living in the lap of luxury in Skokie in a three-bedroom house with nine people, sharing a bedroom with four sisters and sharing the bathroom with seven? How could I give up the authentic immigrant feistiness of my family - the fistfights over a salami, murder over a matzo ball - to go live among American strangers?

But on camp drop-off day, my kids are oblivious. Even paranoid Bar Mitzvahzilla, who will micromanage his underwear, doesn't care about having baggage that clearly shows not only is he a novice at this, but his parents? Novices too.

Their bags get on the bus, they get on the bus, and they're gone.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My Mother's Forest

My mother called me up recently to tell me she had heard about a movie about the Jews who had hidden from the Nazis in the forest during World War II, just like she had. Have I heard of it?

She runs all these things past me because I'm the Super Jew in the family. Of course, there's a very low bar on Jewish adherence in my family. In this family, just subscribing to the Jewish newspaper means I'm some kind of Jewish fanatic.

But I do keep on top of the Jewish world, so I say, "Sure, Mom. It's called Defiance. It came out awhile ago - over six months. I just bought it on DVD."

This gets her very excited because if my mother can combine her two favorite things in the world, the Holocaust and television, this is a good thing indeed.

She says, "Can I borrow it?" And I say yes even though I haven't watched it yet. I bought it because of my family's history and because I know I should watch it, but, really, I have no intention of watching it. Having been raised in my mother's Holocaust immersion school of child-rearing, I can't stand to purposely subject myself to it. But to my mother? Pure unadulterated pleasure. Nothing can be better than two hours of complete abject misery - watching and crying, crying and watching.

I bring it over to her house and she says, "Oh, good! I'm going to watch it right now! Can you put it in the machine? You want to stay and watch with me?" I swear part of her thinks that maybe she'll see someone she knows.

Of course this wasn't even tempting to me. I say, "No thanks. Two hours of Jews being chased through the forest by Nazis who are trying to kill them? That sounds like my childhood."

"What? You were safe in Skokie!"

"Ma! You told us about it everyday in Skokie!"


Later she tells me she watched but she didn't like it very much so she stopped before the end. It wasn't exactly what she thought it would be like. It wasn't exactly about the part of the forest she had lived in; the family portrayed wasn't exactly like her family; they didn't live through exactly the same experiences she had lived through. So when another of my sisters came over to her house, my mom loaned my movie to her.

Then she turned on Schindler's List instead.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Underwear Trauma

The packing list for camp says that we should send 10 pairs of underwear, but I know my boy. In 24 days of camp he will change his underwear once. Still, I'll be optimistic and send 8 pairs, one for every three days. Bar Mitzvahzilla was specific on one thing, though. I needed to buy him real boxers, not boxer/briefs and not, for goodness sakes, briefs. Boys are apparently standing by, ready to sound the alert if he's wearing the wrong underwear.

My daughter, on the other hand, was planning to go to camp wearing her size 4 Toddler underwear from 5 years ago which still fits because she is a Skinny Stick. Everyone tells me she gets this from my husband's side of the family since I'm obviously some kind of hippopotamus who could never have provided genes to such a skinny child. All of her good genes are assumed to have come from Who Knows Where? But not from me. So Daughter was oblivious, planning to pack these Dora The Explorer, Strawberry Shortcake, even Monsters, Inc., underwear and go off to camp with kids who, yes, would be watching her underwear too.

Underwear is a topic I understand because I have traumatic underwear memories. I may have grown up in Skokie with Jewish parents, which should mean that I was coddled somewhat, but my parents were Holocaust Survivors. Holocaust Survivors don't coddle their children. They know children are resilient - mine both lived through the war as children - so they coddle other things, like briskets and the living room couch, which they carefully cover in plastic. In our household, money was spent on food. If there was anything left over, it was spent on decorating. Not underwear.

Because of this, I'm a little underwear-sensitive.

In 6th grade we had to change for gym class every day in the locker rooms in my junior high in Evanston. Little did I know it, but my underwear were being monitored very closely by some of my classmates. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - yes - each day of the week, the same pair of underwear, until they hooted and hollered about it. Luckily, someone even poorer than me came to my defense. She said, "Linda probably just has a bunch of underwear that all looks the same." I looked over to see if they believed her because, of course, it was a lie, and they did. But I knew that it was the only free pass I was ever going to get.

I can't have my daughter live through any underwear trauma, and also, at the rate she gains weight, she could just possibly go off to college still wearing her Care Bears. I have to put a stop to it. So I take her to Gap and show her what real 9-year-olds wear for underwear (well, she actually wears the size for 6-7 year-olds). Then I show her the underwear with the days of the week on them. Her mouth hangs open. We buy a lot of underwear. When we get home, she empties all the Toddler ones out of her drawer.

Now that I've got the underwear issue handled, I can move onto the next item on the list. Socks. Certainly socks can't cause me as much trouble as underwear. Can they?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The other night I asked my mother to give Bar Mitzvahzilla a ride home from a restaurant where he'd gone to dinner with my sister's family and my mother and stepfather since it was on their way home. Hours later he finally got home.

You know on Christmas Eve when the TV stations run those updates showing the Santa Claus radar tracking maps, with frequent news reports on Rudolph and Santa's progress throughout the world, the radar blipping as they go? That's what it was like trying to get Bar Mitzvahzilla home that night.

We had assumed my 79-year-old mother would be driving. With her lead foot, we expected him home fast. But it turned out that my 84-year-old stepfather was driving the car, which meant that it would take at least a half hour to back out of the parking spot at the restaurant. The left turn out of the parking lot, with cars whizzing by, that could take another hour, until he was sure it was safe to proceed. Sometimes the best driver in the car is the 13-year-old, and he doesn't even know how to drive.

Then my stepfather decided he needed to make a quick stop at Home Depot for some nails. Right before closing on a Sunday night.

Putting my 84-year-old stepfather in a 50,000 square foot Home Depot looking for nails is kind of a multi-year task. He gets distracted easily. He walks slowly. Proud, he won't ask for help. The combination of my stepfather plus Home Depot can result in only one possible outcome: Lost Forever. Send out the search and rescue teams, issue the emergency response system bulletin. Grandpa is heading into Home Depot and he may never be seen again.

Bar Mitzvahzilla, meanwhile, was enjoying sitting in a car in the 111 degree Arizona heat with his grandmother, listening to her mutter darkly about grandpa's whereabouts. The text messages I received reflect that he may have been kidnapped - there was one "Help" and one "S.O.S." But then my mother decided to take some action. She was going in the store to find my stepfather.

By that time, I was seriously considering whether Husband and I should do a swoop-in mission to rescue Bar Mitzvahzilla. After all, he was heading into the black hole of Home Depot with my mother to look for my stepfather. I could find him in there ten years from now, living happily with a wife and children in a garden shed. But there was no chance to consider this. His call crackled as he entered the store yanked along by my mother on the warpath. I could hear her yelling at me next to him, "You tell your mother that I lived in the forest during the war. I can find your grandfather!"

Turns out they found him easily. Bar Mitzvahzilla said he was heading to the self-checkout with a package of nails in his hand when my mother cornered him, her voice ringing out across the store, "What's the matter? You forgot about us?" Of course, being just about deaf, he couldn't hear her, but everyone else could.

He proceeded calmly to use the self-checkout, which meant he soon disabled the register, and then, when an employee came over to help, my mother got some real enjoyment. She told the employee that she knew she'd find her husband in there because she had lived in the forest during the war and you don't know lost until you're running from the Nazis in the forest. And on top of it, she's the mother of seven daughters and you don't know how many things seven daughters can lose.

My son said that the employee didn't exactly know what to say to this. He thanked them for their purchase and they left, the manager locking the door behind them.