Sunday, May 30, 2010

Spitting Image

One day recently during the Momalom 5 for 10 challenge, I was sitting on my bed looking through old pictures of my dad. Daughter was sitting beside me.

I knew what I was looking for: one of the iconic images of my dad. The one in a trench coat and a hat, so unusual for a man who never wore a hat in Chicago, even on twenty below zero temperature days.

It had already been an emotional week of writing. What is it about being given writing triggers and then reading so many entries from so many people and connecting your thoughts to theirs? And I had come fresh from reading an entry from Momalom's Mom who had written about the glory of being a grandmother, about what it feels like to look at a grandchild's features and see the features of your own beloved parents there.

But then it hit me as I was looking at this picture of my father from postwar Germany, from the time period when he lived for six years in a Displaced Persons camp; it hit me that I had seen him much more recently than 1975. I felt confused for a moment, like I was seeing him for the first time. I looked at the young picture of him again, kind of looking at it from every angle.

Then I realized. Of course I had seen that face very recently. As a matter of fact, that face was sitting there beside me on the bed at that exact moment. My daughter. How could I not have noticed it?

I felt a little breathless. Stunned at both my blindness and my lack of vision, at the idea that I couldn't see something right in front of me, so close to me. My daughter's been here for ten years with my own father's features and I never noticed it.

I know it's just genetics, but to me it feels like something bigger, a lot bigger. Something eternal. My daughter, born in 1999, my dad, dead in 1975, and yet, completely connected.

So even though in some way I'll always be standing distressed and disbelieving in the foyer of our Scottsdale home on a miserable day in March 1975 hearing the news that my dad had died, here was proof that not all of him had. Here was proof that there was something so much bigger going on that the fifteen-year-old me could safely leave the foyer now.
Have you ever been surprised by whom your kids resemble, like I was? Do your kids look like anyone unexpected? Do you only look to yourself and your mate for lookalikes, not farther back?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


When I was in high school, I discovered houseplants. This was right about the time we were learning how to macrame pot hangers in our art class, which I guess is a tell-tale sign that I went to high school in the 1970s. Macrame as a course of study. 1970s.

I took art all four years not because that's what hippies did, and, yes, I was a hippie. There were only three choices at my high school: Cowgirl (no Jewish girl was a Cowgirl, trust me on that); Cheerleader (fat, cellulitey Jewish girls weren't Cheerleaders, trust me on that too); or Hippie. So even though there was nothing very hip about me, that's what I was.

I wasn't an artist either, yet I kept taking art, looking for a type of art I'd excell at. Turns out I was really good at macrame, though it had limited use. How many pot hangers did my mom need? A hundred? A thousand? Was she willing to mount row after row of those hook thingies in the ceiling so I could hang up  lines of them in our family room? I made so many macrame pot hangers that I figured I needed something to go in them - like plants. So I got some plants. Big ones.

This soon proved to be dissatisfying for me. Big plants, I figured, were near the end of their life cycle. Someone else had grown them. There was no challenge in that! I wanted something I could grow myself. A puppy of a houseplant. Maybe a fetus of a houseplant. A four-inch pot perhaps. Or maybe a clipping from someone else's plant. Or maybe, just maybe, a seed?

So here I am, thirty plus years later, and, still fascinated with this idea of starting from scratch, I've started what I'd loosely term a "vegetable garden" in my kitchen. Right now there are tiny seedlings growing in teensy pots. I can't really tell one from the other, but so far it's looking like we're going to have bumper crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and strawberries. In about five years. 

And in my own way, I've finally moved on from that early Hippie label, moved on past all the labels of high school. I'm a farmer now. And off to the store to buy some jute. Macrame anyone?

Am I the only one who learned how to do macrame in school? Fond memories of art classes? Do you have a green thumb? Have you ever planted a vegetable garden?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Piloting the Pilot

Last Sunday we picked up Bar Mitzvahzilla from the airport after his week long eighth grade trip to Washington DC with his class.

Everything went well, or just as expected. We got to the airport and found all the other parents milling around waiting for the kids. We spotted our boy, who seemed to have grown five inches in the one week he was gone. I got tearful, of course. Daughter was in quite an awkward spot. They normally live in a constant battlezone but she had actually missed him like crazy and spoken with him on the phone like a normal human sister, so what would their new relationship be like? Humans or opposing armies? Awkward or back to normal?

I warned her, "One day you and your brother are going to be grown ups and you're going to have to speak to each other like real people, not like fighting siblings all the time. Start now."

Then we got back in the car, drove out of the parking structure. Suddenly my husband starts fumbling with something. I see it's a walkie talkie. From like 1972. It's gigantic and has an antenna and he has to almost hang it out of the car window in order to get some reception. This is as modern as he gets in the day and age of iPhone and iPads. A Vietnam-Era walkie talkie so that he can listen to the pilots talking to the control tower.

The kids and I all look at him like he sprouted horns. Then we look at each other, all of us thinking what a geek Husband is because, of course, a trip to the airport means one thing only to him: listening to the gigantic walkie talkies and being at one with all the pilot lingo. Husband was a licensed pilot before he was a licensed driver, though he hasn't flown in all the years I've known him. Right now, unfortunately, the closest he's getting to a pilot is that we're actually driving his Honda Pilot.

I think of his other hobbies. The weather maps always pulled up on our computer at home so he can predict what the day will be like. The collection of albums that he's absolutely, positively going to transfer onto CDs, except that now CDs are out of date.
I sigh and think of my advice to my daughter. One day the kids will be out of the house and Husband and I will be alone so I'd better start treating him like a real person right now, not just a geek.

I say, "Cool, honey. Watch the road."

Does your spouse or partner have any hobbies that border on the geeky? Anything that makes you want to roll your eyes?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Second Summer of Yes

I'm anticipating a difficult summer, a repeat of last summer, which I optimistically called The Summer of Yes, though that was before I lived it. 

What a brilliant idea, after all! A summer in which my kids would have to say "Yes" to all my goofball ideas of great activities! Let's go to Taliesin West, kids! Let's go to the Jewish Museum! Let's go to the library, let's go to Arcosanti, let's go antiquing and to romantic comedies with mom! Yes, yes and yes!

This is not exactly what happened. Daughter was onboard if ice skating and Peter Piper Pizza were included. Bar Mitzvahzilla? Apparently he thought it was the Summer of No.

He told me he only wanted to play on his PlayStation. All summer, nonstop. As in, "Mom, can you just drop me off at home?" And then, "Can I go on the PlayStation when we get there?" Well, from time to time we could run out to the gaming store and buy another game for sixty dollars. Wow, that was nice of him, to let us spend time together.

About three years ago, I decided to override my husband's wise counsel and bought Bar Mitzvahzilla a PlayStation 2 game system. He was already twelve and was apparently the last child anywhere in the Western Hemisphere who didn't have a gaming system. He was already a social outcast - there were legions of boys who weren't interested in coming over to our house to hang out because there wasn't anything to do there - despite our basketball hoop and air hockey table. One time a boy came over and expressed astonishment that we had a nice house; the kids at school had all assumed that we were poor because Bar Mitzvahzilla didn't have a gaming system.

So I gave in, buckled. I said yes. I told Husband that we could keep this thing under control. It'd be used when friends were over only. And anyway, seeing my son stick out like such a sore thumb reminded me of myself as a kid, when friends came over with their perfect Barbies with store-bought Barbie clothes, and then I'd pull out what passed for a Barbie in our house: a Barbie body with a freckled Skipper head and one leg. And it was naked. I felt my boy's misery.

After two years had passed, I had to shovel past criss-crossed mounds of wires just to find my son somewhere tangled in the middle, the computer addict needing more, more, more. And just like they say happens with drugs, the purchases didn't stop with the Playstation. Soon there it was yes to the Wii, yes to the XBox, and yes to the iTouch, which I actually thought he'd use for music. Little did I know he could download games.

Sometimes things I don't want to look at closely kind of dance around the edges of my brain and then, when I finally notice them, my brain kicks back on and I can act swiftly. So when Bar Mitzvahzilla tried to opt out of every activity last summer in favor of staying home with his favorite friend in the world, the PlayStation,  well, that was it. It became the "Summer of No" all right, but with me saying No.

So I took it all away. He put up a good fight, asking me hundreds of times after the ban if he could use it anyway, waiting to tire me out, insisting he had nothing to do. And of course he had nothing to do. He had become the most boring child in the world, with no interests except gaming. With it all gone, we just had to wait and find out who existed under there.

But by the middle of the first week he was playing basketball in the driveway and then he put on his Rollerblades and zoomed around the neighborhood. By that Friday he became aware of the existence of other people in the world again, and actually had a conversation with his sister.

Who would have thought that it took saying "no" to get my kid to say "yes?"

Have any gaming troubles in your household? Budding addicts like mine? Have you ever taken it all away? Planning any amazing outings for your kids this summer? Doing any Mommy Day Camp like me? 
Yesterday was the release day for Aidan Donnelley Rowley's book, Life After Yes. Aidan blogs over at Ivy League Insecurities and has written her debut novel which is getting great reviews! Go to Amazon and buy it now and after you're done reading it participate in the book club discussion on Motherese about it!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Learning How to Lust

At Bar Mitzvahzilla's Bar Mitzvah

When my ex-husband and I walked into our marriage counselor's office in early 1988, the counselor quickly figured out our problem. Was it that we were sitting apart from each other? That there were no random touches or fleeting glances of intimacy? That we fought repeatedly and with unalleviated hatred?

She guessed our problem quickly. She asked us about sex.

We looked at each other like we were ten-year-olds. Sex?

Yes, sex, she said. How much sex do you have?

We hemmed and hawed our way into a lie - maybe once every two weeks or so. Yes, that was it. We nodded. Our first and only agreement in what would end up being ten months of marriage counseling.

In 1988 we actually had sex once the entire year.

I knew I was supposed to have sex. I was 28, for goodness sakes. And married. Married people were supposed to have sex. And I was raised in the seventies, a time period when virginity wasn't a prized asset, it was more like a barrier between myself and my full life as a woman.

The only problem was that before I met my ex-husband every time I tried to experience life as a "full woman" I erred. Used and dumped. Waiting by the phone. Dating guys who wanted me but whom I didn't want. Choosing guys for all the wrong reasons all the time.

Finally I met my ex-husband and he became my refuge. Not much in the sex department, but still. He called. He didn't use me. He would be there - like a Gila Monster, he'd be there clamped onto me.

How hard is it to leave a marriage when you've run from the sexual side of life, when you're afraid that you don't stack up, that maybe something about you just isn't good enough to have someone call and be there?  Someone normal?

I wasn't trampy after my divorce. I'd already been through my trampy phase. I was all tramped out. But I knew I needed a guy with a little oomph, some drive, some lust. I wasn't planning on laying alone and untouched on my side of the bed for the rest of my life as I had been during my first marriage.

So lust? Got it. Troublesome husband in the middle of the night? Got it. Passionate kisses out of sight of the kids but getting caught anyway? Got it. A husband who never let himself come second to crying babies, babies parked in our room, children coming to sleep in our room? Got all that.

A relationship that's strong enough, romantic enough, and, yes, lustful enough, that one day when the kids dash off to college, hopefully we'll remember why we're married.

This post is part of Momalom's Five for Ten series and the fourth topic - Lust. Click on over and join the community!

Friday, May 14, 2010


My dad, postwar Germany 1947

I'm not a poet, but when I first started taking writing classes some of my memories came out in prose and some came out in poetry, probably because my first professor was a poet and just being around her turned everyone in the class into a poet. So since Momalom's Five for Ten writing topic for today is memory, I offer up a poem I wrote about my father, about a moment in time, and about my thirteen-year-old self.


The theater’s dark.
Dad’s breathing next to me,
alive still for two more years.
Mom’s settling in next to him,
fluffing up her hair,
smoothing her dress,
and turning all her rings pointy side up.
My little sister,
her face flickering in and out with the movie,
sits on my other side laughing.

We’re just visiting Arizona.
My parents are shopping
for a flat, rectangular brick of a house,
no upstairs,
no downstairs,
sideways garages and pebble front yards,
all the houses strewn across the desert.
While my sister and I spend each day
floating in the sunshiny pool at the Holiday Inn
and plan what we’ll order that night
from the kids menu at Coco’s.

Dad coughs suddenly in the quiet theater
and a few rows up someone yells out,
“I hope it’s not catching!”
And suddenly I don’t want to move here at all.
I want to pack my two-piece bathing suit,
my nose plugs and my swim cap,
climb in the back of the station wagon
and head east, home to Chicago,
where the fathers all cough like they’ll be dead in two years
and everyone politely ignores it.

Do you alternate writing poetry and prose? Do you have any memories of insignificant moments that take on significance only in light of what happened later? Ever stood at a crossroads?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy Anyway

In April 2001 I went to see a neurologist about some headaches I'd been having, some with visual distortions. He didn't think much of the headaches. Headaches, apparently, were a dime a dozen and not truly indicative of a more serious condition. But the facial numbness I had? That was important. As a matter of fact, though he didn't tell me this then, the numbness ran right across my third facial nerve. He ordered an MRI.

One moment I was standing in my kitchen trying to get my five-year-old son to eat his breakfast while dodging the cereal my one-year-old daughter was throwing from her highchair tray, and the next moment I answered the phone call from my neurologist. Calling on a Saturday. He told me I had a brain tumor and that it was pressing on the third facial nerve. And then I sat down.

Even though I don't mind talking about this at all, I try not to bring it up. The problem is that it's impossible to mention casually; it stops every conversation dead in its tracks. And how would the topic come up, anyway? When people are talking about back pain, neck pain, am I supposed to mention my brain tumor? Who wants to be this big of an expert in anything?

Here's the deal: when you say you've had a brain tumor, even cancer patients feel sorry for you.

But this is what I realized right after my diagnosis: nothing had really changed. Yes, I had this really scary diagnosis, but not a bad prognosis: the tumor was benign and operable and would be removed in June. So the question was, what was my life supposed to look like between now and then? Was I supposed to moan and wail and be tragically afflicted every day of that two months? Or should I just live my life?

Since Momalom's Five for Ten writing topic for today is "Happiness" I thought I'd write about something inexplicable: I was happy anyway.

For the first time in my life, a life of secrets and privacy, of hugging pain and shame and medical problems close to me, I let people know what was wrong and, by doing so, an amazing thing happened to me. I let people care. Me, the person who had suffered through miscarriages in silence, not even telling my sisters or mother. At forty-one I finally understood that I had to allow myself to be both weak and strong, to be both sick and well, in order to be human.

Yes, there was quite the curiosity factor when I showed up at work again, everyone wondering why I was there when I had a brain tumor, but after the initial shock of seeing me look fine, seeing me laugh, seeing me work, seeing me okay - and sometimes seeing me not quite okay - things got back to normal. They could ask me when the surgery was, how long I'd be off, was I nervous? What could they do to help me and my family?

There was so much to be happy about, after all. I'd finally broken down the wall between me and the world and let people come in. And after the surgery and the, yes, grueling recovery, I went back to work and resumed my life with one addition: I started taking writing classes. Still alive.


Do you isolate or accept help and care? Have you ever suffered through something in silence, afraid to reach out? Have you ever been able to see that the situation is temporary but the happiness is permanent?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Courage (or Stupidity) to Try Again

Bar Mitzvahzilla at six months
After I had Bar Mitzvahzilla - all one and a half pounds of him - things were a little crazy around here for a couple years. There were the ten weeks he stayed in the hospital, the whole coming home with an apnea monitor and oxygen tubing thing, there was my postpartum depression that was so psychotic and so delayed, only hitting after he came home, that in some ways I still feel like if I write about it, it may come roaring back. There was the fact that, trained to sleep, or not sleep, on a hospital schedule, he didn't sleep through the night for a year and a half.

Bar Mitzvahzilla at one month
(actually lying down)
Yet, a year after he was born, when he finally looked like other babies and weighed what other year-old babies weighed, Husband and I started trying for number two. One of my sisters-in-law said to me, "Why would you want to go through that again? Why can't you just be happy with one? What if it happens again?" She was talking about the preemie thing. She had no idea that the only thing that terrified me about trying again was actually the postpartum depression.

I ignored her of course, because what if none of it happened?

Maybe I'm just stupid. Or maybe I'm courageous. Or maybe I just didn't believe that it could happen to me again, but all I knew at the time was that I felt like there was one more baby out there for me. There was a certain feeling of incompleteness right then and then there was completeness when she was born. I was prepared to try my best. And my best was pretty darn hard. And then - only then - if it wasn't meant to be I would happily raise my one child.

I gave birth to a little, old-fashioned Yiddishy looking baby. Anytime I was out among Jewish ladies, they'd  rave over her and remark upon her Yiddishe punim (little Jewish face). For fun I used to put a babushka (scarf) on her head and she always looked just like a Russian peasant baby from the 1800s, ready to be swaddled and put in a wooden cradle by a fireplace in a log cabin.

How did I get this little antique-looking child, one straight out of a medieval book of fairy tales? A plump, happy child, ready to eat the house? How did I get a child who slept so long and hard that I used to put my hand on her chest to make sure she was still breathing? She was my bonus, of course, after Bar Mitzvahzilla almost killed us.

A tranquil baby. A moony, dreamy baby. A little girl baby, the perfect companion for her brother, the courageous preemie who beat his way out of the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and taught his parents a little something about determination.

Do you have any baby pictures that you love above all others? Do you ever think your kids are throwbacks to some long-ago relatives? Were your kids different kinds of babies - difficult and easy?

This post is part of Momalom's Five for Ten series. Go to their site, meet Sarah and Jen, and link your blog up!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Human Garbage Can

Bar Mitzvahzilla is leaving for his eighth grade trip on Monday - a week in Washington, D.C. with his classmates. Gosh, a week without a teenager in the household. No talking back intended to wound our very souls. No slammed doors. No hovering, sullen teen, now taller than me, arguing with me in a voice that sounds like Barry White. What will husband and I do?

Um, celebrate?

So, to celebrate, we let Bar Mitzvahzilla pick a restaurant for dinner tonight. He picks Mexican food. We sit down at the table, the busser brings a basket of chips and, almost before anyone else can get one, Bar Mitzvahzilla has eaten all of them. Same with the second basket.

Because he's spent years coveting anything I eat and I've the fajita salad at this place, Bar Mitzvahzilla next orders this salad, though I've already given him a dire warning that he's probably ruined his appetite with so many chips. He scoffs at me. (Note: I also will not miss scoffing for one week.) Of course, he's right. There is actually no such thing as "ruining his appetite." He just continually stuffs food down his mullet before his brain has a chance to register that his stomach is full, then suddenly a distress signal is sent up from the stomach to the brain - while his mouth is still full - and he'll just stop chewing. He's done. That's it.

So he makes his way through the salad. Then he starts trolling for excess food around the table. Is Husband going to finish his burrito? Am I going to finish my taco? My Pico de Gallo? My garnish? Is there any refuse on the table he can perhaps lick up? It's like sitting at a table with a vulture. We hover protectively over our plates so he can't swoop in and grab our food.

While Husband and I are sitting across from Bar Mitzvahzilla tonight we both realize with rising horror that we're about to set our son loose on his unsuspecting classmates and they'll all soon be witnessing his table manners. The clutching of the fork like it's a spade. The overloading of the fork with too much food. The mouth opened wide like a bird, his braces glinting in there. The general multi-napkin mess that is his face after all this has transpired.

We begin some belated instruction: Smaller bites! Cut your food! Don't eat like you're starving! Slow down! Then we give up, exasperated. It's Washington, D.C.'s problem for one week, not ours.

Any ravenous children over at your place? How is the table manner-training going? Have you ever sent a kid off on one of these really big "field trips?"

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Inedible: Five Jewish Foods To Avoid

I'm not a wimpy eater. I grew up with all the traditional foods; after all, my parents were Eastern European. Everything on our kitchen table was unidentifiable. What was identifiable was somehow referred to only by its Yiddish name so that I could feel as foreign as possible in the neighborhood. For example, I only knew the Yiddish names for chicken leg (polka) and chicken wing (fleagle). This is how I ventured out of our house (which was actually part of Poland) into America (outside the door): unable to communicate with the neighbors.

I wasn't that picky. I liked herring, I liked smelly fishes, I probably could've eaten an onion like an apple as a kid, that's how foreign we were. But when certain foods showed up on our table, there was no way my mother was fooling me - I knew inedible when I saw it. Mysterious foods, nefarious foods, foods that we'd stir to take a look-see and there'd be a globule of some primevil creature bobbing to the surface and then a leaf. With all of them, my mother was exceedingly evasive about the ingredients which led to one response only: my mouth clamped shut.

Here, then, to supplement my recent list of Essential Yiddish words, are five Jewish foods to avoid. Don't be lulled by exotic-sounding Yiddish names and don't think you'll offend the hosts by turning these foods down. These foods are always being turned down.

 1) Borscht - This beet soup. It's red and chunky. Do I need to say more than that? 

2) Schav - This is cold sorrel soup. It's green and comes in a glass jar. It's the evil half-twin of Borscht.

3) The Glop from the Gefilte Fish jar - Each Passover I buy several jars of Gefilte Fish which come packed in something called "jellied broth," a gloppy, gunky, clear slime that I wash off each piece of fish before serving. My mother loves this stuff. She begs me to save her all the extra glop in one jar and bring it to her after Passover. She doesn't want the fish; she wants the glop.

4) Poopik - Here's a newflash: when I was a little girl grown ups would play with me pretending they were going to eat my "poopik" - my belly button. And guess what, it means the exact same thing when, a few hours later, I'd sit down at the kitchen table and my mom would say, "Who wants the poopik?" Today - yes, forty-five years later - I asked her what animal, exactly, she had stolen this belly button from. She said, "A chicken." It's actually part of the Yiddish food psychology to drive you a little crazy thinking about whether chickens actually have belly buttons.

5) Kishke - This is fat mixed with sugar and flour and then stuffed in a casing, which I believe it means it's stuffed in an intestine. This is something I grew up with and loved but, as an adult, how does one make this exactly? How am I supposed to go to the butcher and request fat or casings? How am I supposed to tell my family that tonight we're going to eat, um, fat? How many calories, exactly, is this fat plus sugar plus flour going to have?  So onto the inedible list it goes.

What foods were on your table as a kid that you considered inedible? Did you ever try them? Are there any foods you eat now that your own kids consider inedible?