Archive | April, 2014

Building Projects Are Family Friendly

30 Apr

Whenever my parents came to visit, I always had a list of jobs around my house and yard that needed to be done. My Dad was not the type of person to sit around and do nothing. If he did not have a goal, he would just get too antsy.

Over the years he helped my husband put together bookcases, desks, closet organizers and more. They planned and dug flower and vegetable gardens. And spent hours together walking through home improvement stores and buying much needed equipment!  My Dad and husband loved going to home improvement stores together.  If they spent less than $100, I thought it was wonderful.  Most times they spent much more.

One year they built a giant closet organizer for my walk-in closet. They went to the home improvement store and brought home information on how to do it.  We designed it. Then my husband and Dad bought all the shelving and hanging poles, and spent a few days putting it together. I have had the best use out of that one project.

My son enjoyed helping as well. The first time he really got into putting something together, besides Lego sets (which he was quite good at completing), was when he was in seventh grade. I think it was because he was taking ‘shop’ in middle school. He got the urge to really build and use tools in that class.

My son builds his first project with my husband and Dad.

My son builds his first project with my husband and Dad.

The first project they all worked on was a desk that needed to be put together for my computer. My Dad, husband and son set up a command center on my dining room floor near the stairs. Why there? I am not sure. I think it was because my dad could sit on the stairs and direct.

They pulled out the instructions, got some tools and spent the next hour happily bonding through building. It was fun for the three of them. And, eventually, they actually finished putting the desk together.

These type of projects were easy. All the pieces came in a box. They only had to assemble it. My husband and son put together three bookcases for our basement family room with these box projects. There were drawers and closet doors, which was a bit more of a challenge. But they were able to complete their mission.

Building his first independent project for the cats.

Building his first independent project for the cats.

My son wanted a bigger challenge. He wanted to build a place for our cats to hang out. We had seen some of the cat platforms in the pet store. But the one he wanted was expensive. At the same time, I was reading a magazine for cat owners, in it was the instructions on how to make one at home.

That was all information my son needed. He begged my husband to help him build it. So they took the magazine to the hardware store and bought all the needed supplies. It took several weekends, and several trips to the store. But the time they spent together building the cat hideaway and platform was worth much more than the money spent to make it.   An added benefit is that the cats love it.

The cats loved the finish project.

The cats loved the finish project.

But my son is not the only one to get the building bug. My daughter was often right there with them putting things together. She had the patience to actually read the instructions. Her Dad and brother were more likely to go by instinct. Her help was always appreciated, as she used her calm to keep them on target when the building was not going exactly as planned.

When my Dad had a more difficult time putting things together, my daughter, who went to college near by, was the helper. But she was more than just a builder, she was often a tech support. Spending a weekend with her grandparents meant also fixing the computer, the internet connection or a television’s reception.

She was not the only one to help, but since she actually stayed with them, they often saved up chores for her to accomplish when she visited. My brother-in-law and nephew were the usual tech support because they lived close by. But I think they enjoyed the ‘vacation’, when my daughter could take over for a bit.

Cousins putting together a coffee table.

Cousins putting together a coffee table.

Years later, my nephew moved to Kansas for his master’s degree.   My children and I took him shopping for a coffee table. It came, of course, in a box. The three of them had a great time putting it together. Their Grandfather would have been so happy to see them on the floor with the pieces and the screws and the directions. I sat on a chair and directed…taking my Dad’s role.

Building is fun. But more important, in our family, it brings us together for a glorious time as we reach a common goal.  Dad would be smiling.

Speaking Yiddish Always Brings Me Holocaust Memories

28 Apr

My maternal grandparents were from Poland and Galicia. They came to the United States in the 1920s. Met and married when Grandma was 19, Grandpa was 29. At home they spoke to each other only in Yiddish, although both learned to speak excellent English. And Grandma was a ferocious reader in several languages.

When I stayed with them, they spoke Yiddish to me as well. As a young child I could respond and easily speak to them. But that ended when my parents realized that my siblings and I spoke and understood Yiddish. They had been using it as a secret language to discuss finances and personal matters. So the order went out…stop speaking Yiddish to the children. My Mother, in later years, would tell me that she regretted making that demand.

But Yiddish connected me to my grandparents. And I studied German in high school and Hebrew in college. Then I spent a year in Israel at Hebrew University. While there I spent so much time with my great uncle and great aunts, who spoke Yiddish at home. So my Yiddish slowly improved, and I became more fluent.

The kneeling sailor is speaking to my Mom;behind her my Uncle; behind him my Grandma.

The kneeling sailor is speaking to my Mom;behind her my Uncle; behind him my Grandma.

My Grandma’s family was lucky. She went to Europe in 1931 with my Mom and Uncle and stayed for six months. When she returned to the US in 1932, she told my grandfather that they had to get everyone out. And she started the process. She was able to get visas for her father and sister. They made my great aunt younger than her real age, so she could come in on her father’s passport. Her brothers and their wives were not as fortunate. But they did survive the war.

My great aunt Tova, my great Grandparents Gimple and Chava. The man driving is an Uncle. And the horses and cart they bought with the money my grandparents sent. They all perished.

My great aunt Tova, my great Grandparents Gimple and Chava. The man driving is an Uncle. And the horses and cart they bought with the money my grandparents sent. They all perished.

My Grandpa’s family was not fortunate at all. They all perished. My grandparents did send his parents money and visa to come to the US. But they could not believe what would happen. They took the money and bought a horse and cart. They did not want to leave their other children and grandchildren. And my grandparents could not get everyone visas.

My mother used to tell me that every morning after work, when he found out that his entire family was murdered, my grandfather would sit in the kitchen and cry. He was a baker…up all night. But before he went to sleep for the day, he cried for all he lost.

In the meantime, my grandparents thrived in the US. They had two children, five grandchildren; two businesses, both a bakery in New Jersey and a bungalow colony in the Catskills.

Grandma wrote to her brother in Israel often. When I went as a college sophomore, I spent a year of college at Hebrew University. I had a cousin who was my age, and my great uncle and aunts (one uncle had died in the 1950s.) I met a few other relatives who had survived the Shoah. But no one ever spoke to me about it. I was young. But my Hebrew and Yiddish were improving rapidly.

Then when I was a junior in college, I took my Grandma to Israel with me during winter break. She had not seen her brother in 42 years. We spent a month together. A month I will never, ever forget.

The phone calls at the hotel would be in Hebrew. Someone would call and speak to me. “I understand the Tova S. is here,” they would say. “Yes,” I would respond. They would then ask genealogy. Who were her parents? Where did she live? When all the right answers were given, I would hear. Yes. She is my mother’s or father’s or someone’s cousin. And they would set up an appointment to meet with us: to see my Grandma.

And the holocaust became real to me. Each person in Yiddish told my Grandma their story of how they survived the Shoah. And who had died during that horrible time. If I did not understand a word, Grandma would translate. Sometimes they would tell me the word in Hebrew. Day after day, week after week, I heard so many stories.

But then came the worst of all. Rafael came. I knew him and his wife and daughter. His mother and my great grandfather were siblings. Rafael and his wife had never spoken to me about their experiences. But when Rafael saw my Grandma, it was an outburst of pain and crying from both of them. Rafael was my Grandma’s first cousin. His sister, Tova Malcha, had been my Grandma’s best friend. And Tova Malcha had not survived. When Rafael and Grandma met their memories overflowed. Not only on death, but on the lives they had left behind.

At that moment, at that time, my Yiddish was at its best. I understood all.

After Rafael left, I asked Grandma why no one had ever told me these stories? Why I had not met all these people who kept showing up? Why Uncle had only introduced me to a few of the relatives when I spent my year there?

There was no answer.

When we returned to the US, my Grandpa was so happy to see Grandma. “Never leave me again,” he said. He did not come with us, because he refused to ever leave the United States.

She never left him again, till she died.

And I never speak Yiddish or hear Yiddish without the images and sounds of that month in Israel and the Shoah ever present in my mind.

Why I thought An Iguana Urinating on Me Was Good Luck

27 Apr
The offending iguana before he was chased.

The offending iguana before he was chased.

I knew the moment the teen-aged boy chased the iguana that something was going to happen. The lizard had been happily sunning itself on a ledge about five feet above me and to the left just minding its’ own business and watching the ocean.

I was sitting on a little ledge below taking photos of my husband and a few others in a pool with two giant green turtles during a supervised turtle encounter. This was a preserve for all turtles on St. Thomas that were injured. Most were returned to the wild, these two were too badly injured to ever leave.

The shade and the breeze made sitting there perfect. While walking around the Coral World sea park, I had been warm and a bit uncomfortable. But here I was so comfortable that I put down my water bottle and focused on taking photos, until the iguana started running from the teen.

It went scurrying on the ledge above me. I looked up at the teen, and in my best mother voice said, sarcastically, “Thanks, that was really nice of you!” He got the message and left. The iguana did not leave. He was still, with his tail hanging over the ledge. I had nowhere to go, as I was sitting just above the pool in a restricted area on a small ledge. So I went back to taking photos.

My ledge.

My ledge.

Then I felt it.   A rain of urine fell on my arm and back, as well as landing all over my water bottle. I jumped up, luckily before the rest came out. I think I shrieked because everyone in the turtle pool looked at me, even the turtles. They actually swam over to where I was standing and popped their heads out of the water to look at me.

The turtles came to check me out after I screamed.

The turtles came to check me out after I screamed.

Sorry,” I said, “but an iguana just urinated on me.”

“I took some tissues out of my purse to clean off my arm. I could not reach my back. The biologist apologized. “For what?” I asked. “This is life. He didn’t do it on purpose. I was just startled. And my son is going to love this story.” We all laughed.

We always had lizards at home when my son was growing up: geckos, newts and snakes. He wanted a bearded lizard, but I ended that idea. So having an iguana urinate on me and defecate near me was not a big deal, just disgusting!

But the strange thing is being urinated on brought back a memory of my Mom. I was in college, but home for a vacation. My Mom and I went shopping on the Avenue in West New York. She was telling me about her days in college at the New Jersey College for Women, which was part of Rutgers. (Later it became Douglass
and then just Rutgers.)

In any case, she told me about the time she was walking to class and a bird pooped on her. She was so upset. She could not decide whether to go back to her room and shower again, or go to class. Class won out. When she told her mom, my grandma, her response was that when a bird poops on you it is good luck.

The best part of the story, as she told me, a bird pooped on my Mom, as we walked down the Avenue, all over her top. We were both so shocked and just started to laugh. We cleaned her off with tissues and continued on our way.  Later, when we told what happened to my Dad and siblings, we went inside. We were afraid if we told it outside, another bird would come along.

So when the iguana urinated on me, after I got over my shock, I wondered, “Good luck?” And I decided, “YES!” It brought my Mom alive for a minute as I remembered her bird encounters, which brought a smile to my mind.

And it provided me a wonderful story that I know my son (and daughter) will love!

Becoming An Adult in Three Weeks My Senior Year of High School

22 Apr

When I was a senior in high school, and my sister a freshman, we were on our own for three weeks when my parents went to India. It was the trip of a lifetime for them, as my Dad was asked by the Indian government to help with the fledgling textile industry. Years later he would sometimes bemoan this trip as a foreshadowing of the death of the US textile industry, which lead to the demise of my Dad’s business.
But in 1973 it was an exotic trip. My Mom took a leave from her job teaching in West New York. She cooked and froze meals for weeks preparing for my sister and me. She worried that we would not eat.
My brother was on winter break from college but was already obligated to drive my maternal grandparents to Florida and spend several weeks with them. (They never went again. )
I had many emergency numbers to call. We had lots of family and friends to worry about us in my parents absence. My Mom had even made arrangements for a teacher friend, Lola, to call us each morning to be sure we would not be late for school.
The first night we were home we had 18 phone calls from people checking on us. 18 times we had to jump up and get the phone. There were no remote or cell phones then. Only the phones in the kitchen and my parent’s bedroom. My sister and I started fighting over who would answer the phone. We knew if we did not answer people would worry.
Each morning my Mom’s friend called. So did several others. It was almost impossible to get ready for school we spent do much time answering the phone. We finally asked them to STOP!
I was in charge of driving us to school each morning and be on time. We did fine!
And those prepared meals… We never touched them. We were invited out to dinner every night. By the end we did not want to go, but people were trying to be helpful so we went. We had lots of interesting conversations and meals, but we had lots of homework to do. When my parents came home jetlagged, my Mom did not have to cook for weeks. We just ate those meals.
Even the teachers at North Bergen High School were aware of our situation. My sister and I were good students, but Mrs Whitehouse spoke to me each day to be sure we were fine. And we were.
We did it. My sister and I kept up our school work, were always on Time, kept the house clean and the car running. Well one time I left the car lights on and a friend of my Dad’s helped us out.
My sister and I would laugh at a the backup emergency measures my Mom had put in place to keep us safe and fed. ( Much like the measures I would do for my children. We do become our mothers. )
When they came back from India they had many stories to tell. But so did we. Those three weeks turned me Into an adult. I knew from that point on that I could succeed in anything.

Focusing on the positive in times of sorrow

14 Apr

I sit in a courtroom called up for jury duty. It is a strange day. April 14. Snow is falling. Tonight begins Passover. It is Monday morning.

Last Wednesday night, I chaired an interfaith event for National Council of Jewish Women, Kansas City Section. Women and men of many faiths came together to learn about divorce in Judaism, Islam and Catholicism. It was an interesting debate, and indicative of Johnson County, Kansas. Peaceful discussions.

On Saturday night I went with my family to the Jewish Community Center in Overland park to see a production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” We saw how bigotry and racism led to the death of innocence. The sold out audience was riveted by the presentation. Was this show an indication of what would come?

Sunday, an act of evil disrupted the peaceful world of Overland Park and Johnson County, Kansas. A demented, bigoted man entered the parameters of the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom, a retirement center, and murdered three innocent people. A grandfather and grandson, a woman, none of them Jewish. But they were participating in events at the places where Jews gather. I cannot understand these acts.

But I refuse to focus on the hatred this individual embodied. I chose to focus on all the love.

I chose to focus on the women and men to came together to learn about interfaith issues. I chose to focus on the sold out performance of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I chose to focus on the outpouring of love to my family from all over the country and the world from family and friends, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, text messages. Tears and anguish from both Jewish and Non-Jewish friends. All saying we love you! All saying we are shocked. And all who live here know how good the Jewish Community is.

I should have been preparing for Passover last night. But we were all in shock. We had planned to celebrate my niece and nephew’s birthdays. And we did. Because we were going to focus on the good.

Overland Park is a wonderful spot to live, to raise children, to feel part of a community.

The Jewish Community Center is part of my life. I served as a board member for nine years. I am on the advisory board. My children grew up there. They went to the preschool, to the day school to the camps. My husband and I exercise there several times a week. We attend shows and presentations.

Hatred such as this man’s invades the soul. But I refuse to let it make me fearful. Sad, yes. I will always think of those who died and their families. But I plan to focus on the love.

As I sat in the courtroom, I knew I would be excused. Passover is tonight. I have a holiday to celebrate and I will. I have family and friends to be with, a community of love. And I will be embraced.

The Joy of Jerry

13 Apr

Silly Uncle Jerry…as soon as my daughter could string three words together, this became her name for my sister’s husband. Silly Uncle Jerry could make her laugh by just entering the room. She anticipated that he would do something silly.

His booming baritone voice would vibrate through the room. Singing songs from Broadway shows, quoting lines from old movies, making references to obscure topics…that was Silly Uncle Jerry’s usual behavior. He used his wonderful voice for years volunteering to read books for the blind on a local New York radio station.

When he read books to the children they were entranced by the different voices he used. One time when they were stranded in an airport for hours, my brother-in-law pulled out a bunch of books to read to his own children, soon he had an audience of dozens of children and parents also stranded. He just kept reading.

Jerry in a calm Hawaiian shirt.

Jerry in a calm Hawaiian shirt.

Jerry’s bright Hawaiian shirts echoed his bright and cheerful inside spirit. He had dozens of designs and colors to wear for any occasion. There really was no time that he was not comfortable in a Hawaiian shirt. (Okay, he did wear a suit to his wedding and all the bar/bat mitzvot.)

It was Silly Uncle Jerry who sat on the floor with my daughter and took a corner of her blankie and held it the way she did. It was Silly Uncle Jerry who called her Larabee, and would say, in the tone of a Maxwell Smart character, “Larabee….Get me the Chief!”

As more children arrived, including two of Silly Uncle Jerry and my sister, he became the ringleader for fun and excitement.   Raining in the Catskills with nothing to do? Wait, let’s put on swimsuits and run around in the rain. Wait, that is not enough, let’s play follow the leader in the rain.   Four little children under the age of eight running around in the rain with a giant bear of an Uncle having a great time!


Jerry and the children in Follow the leader.

Jerry and the children in Follow the leader.

But then the leader, one of the little boys, decided he had to go potty….so he ran over to the woods, pulled down his suit and pees….and the other two did the same thing.   My daughter ran away and screamed as she came up to the porch and into the house. Silly Uncle Jerry fell to the ground laughing hysterically. It was perfect. But he got up and set a new follow the leader rule…”No Urinating when being the leader!” My daughter went back outside.

Jumping for joy in the rain.

Jumping for joy in the rain.

It was Silly Uncle Jerry’s love of comic books that made him send comic books to my children for their birthdays. I wonder if he knew that reading comic books is what got his nephew to finally read. Eventually my son read manga and then regular books. Now he is studying computer animation. All this started with an uncle’s love of comic books.

When my daughter decided to go to New Jersey for college at Drew University, I knew she would be safe as my siblings and parents all lived no more than an hour away.

When she and a friend got stuck without a ride, after a program away from the university, in a horrible rain storm — the busses and trains stopped running — it was Silly Uncle Jerry to the rescue. He picked them up, drove them back to school and then home, skirting flooded and closed roads and spending hours to help. In the meantime, my sister was at home dealing with a flooded basement.

It was Jerry who could lighten up the spirit of a room, when people were feeling blue. He could make his eyes bulge out and run through a Marx Brothers’ or Laurel and Hardy routine.

Silly Uncle Jerry was not just family funny, he was a professionally funny man. Part of an improv comedy troupe, the Lunatic Fringe, he was perfect because of his quick thinking and tremendous sense of humor. Every once in a while Uncle Jerry and his comedy group would perform in Madison, NJ, area. My daughter would meet up with my sister, have dinner with them and then go to the show. She tried to see as many performances that Silly Uncle Jerry was in that she possibly could. He was in shows all around the New Jersey and New York City area, appearing in regional theater, like the Garage Theater, and off Broadway.

That was they way Silly Uncle Jerry lived. He was a big bear of a man, with a heart as big. He would do anything for his children and his nieces and nephews. His family and friends made his life complete. Most of all he loved to make life fun for his wife and children and sisters.

But it was he who left us way too young. And left a hole in the fabric of the joy of the world. April 18, he would have been 54.

We miss him.

But the joy of Jerry stayed with those who will always love him and the memory of him. Whenever I see someone in a Hawaiian shirt, I think of Jerry. And, in his memory, we — his family and friends — wear brightly colored Hawaiian shirts on his birthday to keep him with us on that day! And for a few hours he is here with us.

Lunatic Fringe:

Garage Theater:

My Mother’s Sunday Dinner Experiments

7 Apr

My Mother was a lovely wonderful woman, but she was not the best cook. She could make certain meals well and she made them over and over again. Her inability to cook was inherited from her mother. My Grandma T. was a horrible cook. Her hamburgers would sink to the bottom of your stomach and stay there. My Grandpa ate everything with ketchup in an effort to swallow. But she did have a few things that she made very well. And those, like her mushroom barley soup, were wonderful.

However, neither my Mom nor my Grandma were very interested in cooking. There were so many other things to do in life. So we learned to eat whatever was put in front of us, and not complain.

I think my Mom began to feel guilty. It was the 1960s. All moms cooked and stayed home. My Mom went back to work to teach elementary school. I think she felt badly that she was not home immediately after school and not doing what all the other moms did.

No matter the reason, one day my Mom made an announcement. Every Sunday from then on she was going to try a new recipe. A food she had never cooked before, and we were going to try it.

We had sukiyaki one Sunday. My Dad was a veteran of the Korean War and had spent time in Japan. He always spoke about eating sukiyaki. So Mom made it…once.

We had lasagna. It was a really hot day. And the kitchen was like an oven after she made the lasagna. So she decided we would eat it on paper plates, as she did not want to wash dishes afterwards. I will be honest, lasagna is not a food that should be served on paper plates. We ended up having to use three or four each to keep the lasagna from seeping through. Also, the paper kind of oozed into the lasagna.   Not our favorite.

There were a few casseroles she made that we did love. But these were old favorites like hot dog casserole and hamburger casserole. When she made these, we were happy. But these Sunday meals were becoming a blight on our lives.

Then came chicken with brussel sprouts.

Before I get to the meal itself, I will start my saying I had spent the weekend with my grandparents at their apartment and bakery in West New York. They also carried some grocery items. I wanted an O Henry candy bar for a snack. My grandmother said, “No,” because she knew I was going home for dinner. But to ease my sadness, she gave me an entire box of O Henry bars. I think there were 12 or 18 candy bars in the box. My brother might have been there that weekend as well. Because I see the two of us with the O Henry bars.

Back to Sunday dinner: I arrived home in North Bergen in time to set the table and help my Mom get ready for the big reveal. I still remember because on Sundays we ate dinner in the dining room and not in the kitchen. So we had to walk the food carefully from the kitchen to the dining room.

We knew immediately that this was going to be a disaster. The smell was horrendous. And the sauce was this ugly shade of puke green. We all looked at our plates in dread….even my Dad, who usually supported my Mom in her efforts.

My Mom came in, sat down, and said, “Everyone has to take one bite and swallow it.”

So we did. We each cut the smallest piece we possibly could, put it slowly in our mouths between gags, and ate the green chicken with brussel sprouts.

My Mom then stood up, went into the kitchen and returned with the garbage can. We all dumped the food from our plates into the trash. We were very quiet. No one said a word. No smiles of joy, nothing. My Mom had never thrown food away.

Mom then pulled out the box of O Henry bars and gave each of us two. Wow, O Henry bars for dinner! It was wonderful. (By the way, I have never, ever wanted to eat a brussel sprout.)

She turned to my Dad and said, “I am done. No more Sunday dinner experiments.”

We did not cheer, but I know I felt like I should.

You think I would have learned a lesson from my Mom’s experiment and this experience. But I guess until you do something yourself, you never learn. I am also not the most exciting cook. I have several meals that I make really well. And some that I have learned from friends that are easy to cook, and I make those.

But like my Mom, I felt that my children were not getting the experience they needed by tasting different foods. So I too, started Sunday dinner experiments. I actually went to a couple of cooking classes that two friends taught. (I got in trouble for talking, but really I was just trying to figure out what all those cooking terms meant.)

I made new recipes for about two months. Then I stopped. No one wanted to eat the new foods. They wanted the comfortable, family favorites.

My daughter, however, is a good cook. She makes all sorts of soups and interesting foods all the time. I think that came from her paternal great grandmother. My Grandma E served the most delicious meals and desserts.   So I am happy in believing that she will never try the Sunday Dinner Experiments when she starts a family.