Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Merchant of Phoenix

I come from a long line of merchant Jews. We're kind of the middle class type Jews, not the rich ones and not the Torah scholars. We're the ones who own stores and laundries. As a matter of fact, my father owned a laundry in Chicago. My grandfather? A shoemaker. My great-uncle? A tailor. My great-grandfather? A woodcutter. Like in Little Red Riding Hood.

Once my relatives came to the United States, they were a little pushy about their occupations. They knew that the riches of America were theirs for the taking, but first they had to take them. That meant that they had to let people know what they did for a living, how their product or services could change the customers' lives, how things could be so much better with clean laundry, a well-made pair of shoes, or a finely tailored suit. 

Of course, I was mortified by my relatives. I felt if they had just been American-born, they would not have been so pushy. They'd have been more polished, more reticent, maybe less embarassing. To me.

Since I'm a little slow, I want to tell you what I figured out today that made me think that maybe I have to be a little pushy today on my blog. On Poetica Magazine's website where I'm the Blog Editor, I'm hosting a writer this week who writes quite movingly about interviewing children of Holocaust Survivors and how she's spent some time reading the literature they've been producing. So all day long I've thought, "Oh, that's me, right? Children of Survivors and the literature they're producing. Me." Gulp.

And since I realize that Holocaust Survivors like my mother are becoming rare and soon all the world will have are the children of survivors and the stories we have of growing up with our parents, I wanted to do something I would normally shy away from doing: direct you to two venues where my writing is appearing in March. Even though that's, um, pushy.

I haven't written too much on this blog about how crazy it was growing up one of seven sisters in Skokie, where it was assumed that my mother was deranged for not stopping at two children. After all, what was she trying to do? Repopulate the world after the Holocaust? One of my stories, called "Seven Sisters," an excerpt from my (unpublished) book Seven Sisters is appearing on my friend, Sandra Hurtes', website for the month of March. Spend some time while you're there looking at Sandra's work. She's a brilliant essayist and child of Holocaust Survivors whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and is forthcoming in Poets and Writers. I highly recommend her collection of essays, On My Way to Someplace Else, which can be purchased on her website.

If you can imagine what it was like having parents whose greatest thrill was going on vacations to visit other Holocaust Survivors all across the country so they could sit and cry for hours over all the misery in the world while their children stuck to plastic-covered sofas, then you can imagine what my childhood was like. A story of mine about vacations with my parents, called "Holocaust Vacation," is being published in an anthology of the work of Children of Holocaust Survivors coming out in March, called Mizmor L'David (Psalms of David). Even ignoring my own work, the Anthology is filled with some fascinating cutting edge work from writers who are children of survivors.
There, I did it. Now we'll get back to our regular programming.

Do you come from a long line of merchants, like me? What are you doing with your writing life? Any ambitions? Does anyone know a great literary agent?

Friday, February 26, 2010

What's Cooking?

After years of proving over and over again that I can't be trusted in the kitchen, of proving that I can't actually formulate a balanced meal for my family, or calculate getting that meal to the table at precisely the time the family might reasonably be hungry, an amazing thing has happened: Daughter has started cooking.

This happened slowly. The first hint was when she'd be watching TV and, instead of watching Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, she'd turn on The Food Network. At first I thought this was because I was so pathetic in the kitchen that she just wanted to see food - even on TV. But that wasn't it, because she was always eating while watching these shows.

Then she eagerly started watching the competition shows, the cake bake-offs, the meal in a box shows, the outdoor kitchen shows.

Finally came her demand:  she wanted to cook dinner for us. Of course this involved me doing all the chopping, Husband doing all the cooking, and her supervising from on high, the recipe/menu/idea person. She wasn't actually going to get her hands dirty or anything. Anyway, would you trust a ten-year-old with a big knife?

I don't know why I never took to cooking. I definitely took to eating. I guess I was just more of the instant gratification type of eater. When I wanted it, I had it, like with a spoon and one jar of peanut butter and one jar of jelly. No simmering over a hot stove for this appetite.

So Daughter made up a menu with an appetizer, a main dish, a side dish and a dessert and then she put me to work preparing, put herself to work making a secret sauce for the fish, and put Husband to work grilling. Her secret ingredient for her secret sauce? Soy sauce. She only uses soy sauce and she only makes her sauce for fish.

You know how normally when your kids give you something to eat, especially something pretend - like when they hand you a plastic burger - you have to pretend everything is really delicious? Well, weirdly enough, when Daughter's made something, each time it's really been delicious. We were wary, we were skeptical, we were reticent, but each time we've tried her recipes it's been great. Now we're eager. We sit down at the table, which must be fully set each time, and all of us are appreciative of the ten-year-old chef in our midst who's wrestled the cooking duties from mom.

Of course, we're almost out of soy sauce and our blood pressures are sky rocketing, but still.

Are there any tasks you'll willingly hand over to your kids, or that your kids are showing an affinity for already? Do you mind being pushed aside as an incompetent nincompoop? Have you tried our "secret?" Soy sauce on fish?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten Things That Lead Me to Believe That I'm Jewish

Since I got the Sugar Doll Award from Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy, I need to tell you ten things about myself that you may not know. So I thought I'd tell you ten things about me that have led me to believe, conclusively, that I just may be Jewish.

1) I'm married to a guy named Howard. Not only this, but when I was in Jewish Singles, all the guys were named Howard. I could only differentiate them by the adjectives I attached to their names - like Fat Howard, Thin Howard, Boring Howard, and Cheap Howard. Which one do you think I married? (Okay, all joking aside, I married Thin Howard.)

2) I have a Jewish wedding contract (a ketubah) that says that if we ever get divorced my husband has to give me a divorce settlement of eighteen cows. I'll have to check with my HOA, but I'm thinking we're not allowed to have livestock here.

3) I clean the house from top to bottom before a party, let everyone destroy the house at the party, and then I clean it again.

4) My eating disorder? Fat. My twelve years in Weight Watchers showed a net gain of twenty-five pounds rather than a loss.

5) My grandmothers' names? Goldie and Sosha. My grandfathers? Yaacov and Gershon.

6) My choice of my childrens' names was not based on what I or my husband liked, but by checking out the names of our dead relatives.

7) I crave smoked fish.

8) I will actually move from my house to a different house to make sure my son gets into the right high school.

9) I grew up not knowing exactly what I was eating - in English. I only knew the words in Yiddish. The base ingredient of every dish? Rendered fat. 

10) When it rains, my face disappears inside the exploding Jewfro that used to be my hair.

What is an undeniable fact that you are who you are, whether you're Catholic, Mormon or Baptist? What gives you away and is so apparent you can just forget about hiding it?
Thank you to Big Little Wolf for awarding me the Sugar Doll! Although she's way too smart for me, I try to make my my limited brain cells concentrate once a day and go visit her wonderful blog where she always makes me think and I always find a lively discussion.

The Sugar Doll is passed along to one or more terrific writers who connect, contribute, entertain, enlighten, and otherwise make our day. Each person who receives it may then choose one to ten others to whom it is given. The recipient is required to post “Ten things you don’t know about me.” I'm passing my Sugar Doll along to Chris at A Deliberate Life, whose honesty and  determination have taught me a lot since I began reading her blog, and to Kristen at Motherese, whose finely-tuned mind and fascinating conversations remind me that this motherhood journey is not for the faint-hearted.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Be My Neighbor - Motherese

Today I'm guest blogging on Motherese, an amazing blog written by Kristen, an amazing woman, with a post about being stuck in the middle with Bar Mitzvahzilla - he's not a boy and he's not a man.

If you want to be a part of lively, fascinating discussions and if you'd like to remember in the middle of your parenting years that, yes, indeed, you still have a brain, go visit Kristen at Motherese.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mirror, Mirror

My favorite makeup tool is also my least favorite makeup tool: a tiny magnifying mirror I bought that has suction cups and attaches to my regular makeup mirror.

So it's like this every morning:  I take my shower. I do the thousand tasks that have to be done to maintain hygiene. Then I sit down at my vanity. I look in my makeup mirror - the regular reflection side -  and everything looks okayish. 

Then I decide to destroy my life. I flip the mirror around and look over to the suction-cupped mirror, which must be about 100X magnification. I don't really know. All I know is that suddenly a pore that looked oversized to begin with is clearly the size of the Grand Canyon. And there's a lot of hair. On my face. And I'm a female.

Why do I have this tool, you wonder? Well, for the eyebrows, actually. It couldn't be more useful there. Somehow, despite a body that grows a pelt each morning, my eyebrows, overtweezed since I was fifteen, will not grow out. So I'm growing them out into a special shape - boomerangs. This is taking a while - a year the last time I checked. The trick is only to look at my eyebrows, not the rest of my face. No one who's teetering on the edge of fifty should look at her face in 100X magnification. My head, in this mirror, is literally the size of the Goodyear Blimp. It's disheartening.
I'm learning though. Since it's both my favorite and least favorite makeup tool, out of necessity I'm learning to be quick about it. Check the eyebrows, check the hair that doesn't belong on the fairer sex. Pull open a drawer of medieval-type instruments to deal with the problems. Then flip it around to being just a mirror again.

And there it is: my face, normal-sized, pores just large - nothing anyone could fall into - hair just where I want it to be. I think.

Anyone else look a little scary in a magnifying mirror? Am I the only one who overtweezed years ago into oblivion?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ship to Shore

There's this book I used to read my kids called "Are You My Mother?" In it a squawky-looking bird falls out of his nest and goes looking for his mother so he can find his home. It's the kind of book young children love and parents find a little repetitive since the bird has to find the wrong thing over and over before he finds the right thing, saying, is this his mother? Is that his mother? Is the steam shovel his mother? The kids love it because most of the things the bird questions are very obviously not his mother so they get to yell out a resounding, "No!" each time.

Fun, I guess, unless you happened to have misplaced your mother, as I have.

February 6th she went gallivanting off with Stepfather, bound for South America on a Holland America cruise. That day sister number one got a phone call. They were on the ship resting and they would be sailing shortly. After that? No word.

So I'm like that squawky bird, faintly irritable, looking for my mother.

I get somewhere early and am waiting in my car so I think, hmmm, I've got a bit of a wait; should I call my mom? Or I gather up tidbits of news and I think, I need to tell my mom about this. I think I'll give her a call. Or I get home, plop on my bed, the phone nearby, and I think, okay, time to give mom her daily call.

But maybe it's about time I faced the fact that it's not really her daily call at all - it's my daily call. Because I end up calling everyone else - just like the bird in the book - is this sister my mother? Is Husband my mother? Who will fill in during the cruise month? Who wants to hear all my stupid crap, the odds and ends, the accumulated junk that only a mother could be interest in?

I'm not the only one feeling vaguely disoriented. First there were some inquiry-type emails going back and forth among the other members of our seven sister litter. Then we started getting alarmed. I had a vague concern about the boatload of senior citizens marooned in South America, perhaps all completely computer illiterate, all arriving in the ship's "Internet Cafe" and wondering how they could order some Folger's.

Finally, at sixteen dollars a minute, one of the twins got a message to her, attached as the greeting to the  manicure she had to purchase just to communicate at all. Then our mother called. She left a message. They're having a great time. They're rounding the tip of Peru. Don't call back.

How annoying is it when you miss someone and they don't miss you? Or you are missed but you're having too much fun to think? Do you save up conversational odds and ends for certain people? Have you read this book to your kids?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Hunt

Today Daughter and I were on a search for a book that she had read before. The only problem? She couldn't remember the name of the book.

We went to the library. Librarians are, of course, the most amazing people in the world. They know every single book ever published and they love, love, love books. And children's librarians, wow, what can I say?

So Daughter stands there like a ten-year-old (okay, she is a ten-year-old) and she's hemming and hawwing and giving silly plot details like, "there's a pumpkin up on a telephone pole in the book and they've got to get it down," and the librarian is being so patient, so sweet. And then she gets a partial title out of Daughter. Something about mysterious emails. She uses that to search and finds it. The book, as it turns out, is called, "Deep Doo Doo and the Mysterious E-Mails." It wasn't in the library, so we put a hold on it for when it's turned in and left.

Then we decided to see if we could find it at two bookstores. Maybe I just have too much free time?

Some of us bloggers have some writerly ambitions, myself included. So here's my heartfelt recommendation as a mom, a reader, and as a writer: don't give your book a really stupid name. I spent a good amount of time yesterday spelling the word "Doo Doo" to a mottley group of both surley and helpful store employees at both Border's and Barnes & Noble. At each place I found myself standing at the customer service with Daughter and each time I knew I looked like a normal human being; I was dressed like a normal human being, until suddenly, in consultation with Daughter, I had to say, "Is Doo Doo one word or two?"

The result? Book on order at the library. Used book on order for spoiled daughter from Amazon booksellers. And yet another note to writerly self: if you give your book a really dumb name, it will go out of print more quickly.

Is there some stuff you say or do with your kids that makes the adult in you wonder what exactly you're doing? Love librarians? Do your kids ever love the books you loved at their age? 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Brace Face

Bar Mitzvahzilla got his braces back on two weeks ago. At this point in his orthodontic career, I truly can't even keep track of exactly what's been done to his mouth. I know he already wore them once because I have a school picture of him wearing them two years ago. And, of course, I remember writing a really big check to the orthodontist.

I also remember a mounted retainer and an arch expander. I remember waiting for his molars to fall out. And I remember vague threats from the dental hygenist about how if he didn't improve his brushing, his gums were soon going to cover his teeth and there'd be no teeth left to put braces on.

After that, it was all a blur.

So he got upper-only braces this time and you would think that they had amputated a limb. Moaning and wailing, he couldn't eat. He was gumming his food, moaning, wailing, bringing home his lunch box full, and he's fourteen - the age of insatiable hunger.

I tend to be a little unsympathetic about orthodontia. After all, I spent a total of five years wired up, three as a kid and two as an adult. Part of that time was to fix the crooked chiclet teeth I'd been born with and to yank down the fangs that were growing in the middle of my head. I was happy to wear the braces then, happy to know that soon I'd look like a regular human being instead of like I might end up on display in a circus.

The second time was part of treatment for jaw surgery I had at age twenty-nine. It was especially fun to wear braces right then since it coincided with my divorce. I was easily the only woman in Jewish Singles in 1989 wearing braces like a twelve-year-old.

This inability of Bar Mitzvahzilla to cheerfully withstand discomfort bothers me a little. I can't talk him out of it by relating mine and others' many acts of courage in the face of debilitating medical problems. A teenager, he's sure he knows everything in the world. Maybe in ten years? It worries me because even though I know he's nice and caring and a wonderful kid so far, there's this thing that whines inside of him, the plaintive wail, this thing that stops him from being able to measure his pain of braces against, say, the victims of the Earthquake in Haiti.

There's no real answer. I make him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while and glare at the contents of his lunchbox that keep returning day after day.  Then, when he finally gets used to it, I unzip the lunchbox one day and notice it is empty.

Do your children have the ability to handle pain or discomfort cheerfully or does the way they handle it ever make you worry about their inner character? Any orthodontic stories? Fangs? 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Horse Power

We moved to Phoenix in 1973, when I was thirteen years old. Things were a little primitive around here. Of course, I had come from Chicago, where things were pretty urban. There were the dirt roads. There were the pick up trucks. And there were a lot of cowboys and horses, but not exactly how I had seen them in the movies. These cowboys lived in the houses around the school I went to and when it was time to go to school each day they'd ride their horses there. It was a little bit like living in a Western movie.

We also owned a scrubby acre in north Phoenix just like everyone else, with the back part given over to a bunch of tumbleweeds, the middle section holding the house and swimming pool, and the front being a vast expanse of rocks, which we called a lawn. However, since my family was filled with teenaged drivers, the empty part of our acre was also filled with something else: cars.

This area of our acre, generally crowding around the garage, looked a little like a used car lot. There was a 1969 Ford Town and Country station wagon, a 1970 Chevy Impala, an exploding gas tank Pinto station wagon, a bland, beige 1975 Chevy Nova, one sister’s orange Karmann Ghia, and our father’s 1970 Chevy Silverado Truck. All parked, all molding in the Arizona sun. My sisters would pick one each day to drive, guessing which one might work, which might take us the miles to school and then to our family produce market.  It was an important decision. There were absolutely no service stations for miles.

Luckily my mother had one ace up her sleeve to rescue us from every situation: her AAA card. With it, she could get us towed off any roadway. And it was transferable to any member of her family, so during our teen years we almost ran AAA into bankruptcy with all of us breaking down all over Arizona in the various household cars, in our boyfriend’s cars, in Mom’s boyfriends’ cars, at least one a day all over town, the tow trucks’ flashing lights beating a path to wherever we were stuck.

Once towed, we never knew where to take the cars for repairs. It's not like we had any money. If only we'd had a horse. Normally they were just towed back home where they’d get deposited steaming, overheating, and clunking. Then we’d just let the cars simmer, let them lie fallow and stir in their own juices. We’d hope that maybe the cars would heal themselves. So they'd sit there dormant and stagnant, with us hoping that if we went back out there in a couple weeks, put the key in the ignition, they'd work. And the strange thing? Sometimes they did.
Before I ever knew how to drive, I knew how to open a radiator cap gingerly and put water in it to stop it from exploding or power steering fluid to stop it from groaning around corners. My first car after college  graduation college was so broken that the driver's side door didn't open; when I went to job interviews I had to crawl out of the passenger's side in my suit, over the center console.

And even though it's been over twenty years since I had a really bad car, the legacy of being seen as trashy because my car was trashy has stayed with me. Each day when I go out to my car in the garage and I see it I'm filled with gratitude for what it's not. Let there be no mistaking it: I love you, Car.

Did you ever drive a car you dreaded to get in? An absolute embarassment? Are you still traumatized by the memories like me? Did any of your classmates ride horses to school like mine did?

I didn't mean to, but I guess this is my second entry in the Momalom Love It Up Valentine's Day Challenge. Thanks, guys, for letting me reflect on how grateful I am for not having to drive those old wrecks anymore!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love of a Mother

Twins, Mom and me, the baby, in 1960.

Dear Mom,

It's occurred to me lately that you just may not be immortal. Besides depressing the hell out of me, this has  made me realize that writing a love letter to you just may be the best topic for me to write about for the Momalom Love It Up challenge.

I sat beside you on your lumpy couch this week and became concerned. Very concerned. First of all, you, who never stop talking, weren't talking. Second of all, your TV, normally blasting out old Westerns from the 50s, was on mute. One sister told me that you tried to change the TV channel with the phone. And even though we handled this little medical crisis with a quick change in medication, it brought to mind your fragile mortality; after all, you'll be eighty in June. So here's the deal:  I may be turning fifty in four weeks, but I'm not ready to be an orphan.

Flash back thirty-five years ago, to March 1st, 1975, six days before my fifteen birthday. Dad dies suddenly,  leaving you a forty-four-year-old widow. From then on - all the way till now - I am waiting, with paranoid anticipation, for the other shoe to drop, and you're the other shoe. One parent disappears around the horizon with no warning, no goodbyes, his clothes still hanging in the closet, his shoes just standing there, his wallet and keys on the dresser, his car in the driveway. Gone. Who's to say it can't happen to the other parent?

And, of course, it can. So I've guarded you these past thirty-five years. I've been your amateur doctor, calling you daily, living nearby, writing your story, trying my best to live this Jewish life. But I can't stop you from aging, can't stop little pieces of you disappearing one by one, and I can't stop you from eventually disappearing altogether. No matter how meticulous my care and that of my sisters, it will happen and then, when I reach for the phone each day to talk to you, ready to share my successes and my failures, I'll have to pull my hand back from the phone, remembering that you're no longer there.

I've written about you a lot on this blog. I've poked a lot of fun - at your wreck of a cactus-strewn acre in Scottsdale, at the way you pack, the way you drive, the way you talk on the phone. But when you strip it all away, the humor, the writing, the blog, there's only one fact that's left standing: I wouldn't be able to write about being a mom without having known the love of one.

Happy Valentine's Day, Mom.
From your number six daughter, Linda

Do you ever feel your parents' mortality like an oncoming train? Did you ever have a loss that made you wary, like things were suddenly very precarious? How much are you still and always a daughter (or son) and how much a parent? Or do you instantly turn back into a kid when you talk to your parent?

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Seventeenth Anniversary Gift: The Super Bowl

There was this thing just nagging at my brain, something I just couldn't figure out. What was it that was bugging me? I knew it was something important.

There was Husband's hubub - his fury of preparation for the Super Bowl this weekend. How he's been working a lot of weekends in preparation for absolutely, positively having this Sunday off. There's been the usual countdown to the game, the other teams falling away, the kids and him enrapt in each game in our family room while I write in my office.

But something was bugging me. Then I realized what it was: our seventeenth wedding anniversary falls on SuperBowl Sunday.

Being married to whom I am married to, was there even a chance in the world that we were going to go out on Sunday? All of his machinations, all the scheduling and rescheduling, the elaborate dancing about on the calendar - had he even noticed? How big of a shrew would I be exactly to bring this up?

This is what I remember. It was 1992. Husband and I were Very Seriously dating. We were actually in love, which was pretty amazing because I had plunged off the cliff of leaving my first marriage in 1989 not knowing if anyone would ever love me again except for my ex-husband who assured me, as I was leaving, that no one ever would. And then, in 1991, I met Husband, and, by 1992, love indeed. We went shopping for rings. I even kind of designed my ring. Then he went down there and picked up the ring. And then? Nothing happened.

I don't know what he was waiting for. The ring was in the house, I was in the house, but the ring was not on my finger.

Finally, I just picked up the phone and scheduled a fancy dinner out for us at a nice restaurant in North Scottsdale. That seemed to jog his brain into some activity. He brought along the ring and proposed. If I had left it completely up to him, I'm sure seventeen years later I'd still be sitting on his ratty old couch in his ratty old house in Tempe, rolling my eyes and waiting to get that ring because Husband can't actually coordinate anything. Except, apparently, for the Super Bowl. That he can schedule.

So I'm going to have mercy on him. I'll plan our dinner out - on Saturday night, the day before our anniversary. And then on Sunday, my gift to him:  I will sit down like a proper wife and I will stay there, next to him, glued to my seat, watching the Super Bowl.

Any excruciating proposal or engagement stories? Any conflicting special days?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Destination - South America

My mom called me a few weeks ago and asked me if she could borrow one of my suitcases. Because I'm the daughter who lives closest to her, I'm the one she calls first for everything. If I can't help her, then and only then, will she move back onto her daughter list, calling everyone else.

But a suitcase? Sure. Husband and I are virtually leg-shackled to Phoenix since we own a store, so we can never get out of town, leaving our suitcases unused in our closet. 

I said, "Sure, when do you need it?"

She said, "Right away."

"Where are you going?" I knew she was leaving in a month for a cruise to South America, but where was she going right then?

"Linda! We're going on the cruise!"

"Wait a minute. Are you telling me you need the suitcase a month ahead of time for your cruise in February?"

Silence. Busted.

"We need to start packing."

"A month ahead of time?"

"I'm going to wash all my clothes and then fold them and see if they fit in the suitcase. Then I'll decide what I'm taking. If they don't fit, then I'll see what I can fit, wash it, fold it and fit it again. Then I'll try it all on right before the cruise to make sure it fits, wash it, fold it and pack it one final time. Then Bob will take the suitcases down to a place and have them weighed full so we'll know if we have to pay the airline."

What did I ask her again?

But now it's February. Her trip is days away. She sits in her house, strangely immobile. I call her to check on her, to see if she feels okay. She says she does but she's not leaving the house. I hesitate before asking why. Do I really want to know why? Do I really have to ask why? Why do I get hoodwinked into these conversations over and over again? But I can't help myself. We're attached like twins, this mother and me.

And of course, the answer is that she packed all of her clothes and now has nothing to wear. Also, she doesn't want to risk getting sick in the cold January Arizona air by going outside.

I say, "Ma, today it was 72 degrees."

She says, "To you that's nice. To me, it's cold."

I nod my head. What'd I expect? I tell her I'll come by this week to say goodbye. She says, "Hurry already. We're busy!"

And I do it again. I ask her, "Busy with what?"

And she says, "Final packing." 

Are you a last-minute packer or more the girl scout type? Am I the only one who gets sucked into conversational quagmires? Are you attached at the hip to your mother?