Saturday, December 26, 2015

What Does A Jew Know From Christmas

What does a Jew know from Christmas?
Her colorful candles do not pass muster.
Her dolly doesn't come from Santa.
No reindeer or jolly elves grace their house.
Chanukah carols aren't sung around a tree.
The silent night ridicules this child,
Yearning to not be an outsider.

A young woman peers in the window.
Her camelesque nose pressed against the glass,
Blurry flashbacks to some '50s myth,
A Donna Reed Father Knows Beaver blend.
Baby Jesus is hung next to the chimney with care.
Dinner is a potsticker on a pita.
But now she enjoys the solitude.

She journeys  to Cloud Nine. Eager to explore
His love for Christmas as well as for her.
She realizes she never missed much
His expansive love and generous spirit
Teaches being present means more than presents.
The night's silence is holy, calm and bright.
And that's what this Jew knows about Christmas.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Importance of Being Debra Susan

Note:  Deliberately leaving out my last name.

I am Debra Susan.  I am named for two brothers, Daniel and Stanton.  I know very little about them except that they were two thirds of identical triplets.  My brother, L., is the sole survivor, despite being the smallest of the three.

My mother told me that after the three babies were born, she was lying in her hospital bed when a grief stricken woman came to her doorway.  She asked my mother why her babies survived when her baby had been stillborn.  I don't think my mother had a good answer for her.  Little could she have known that she would soon lose two out of the three who had been born prematurely.

My mother told me that Daniel and Stanton caught cold before being placed in their incubators. They died from pneumonia at the age of two weeks.  L. is now in his sixties.

When I was in high school, a girl said to me, "You mean you have two brothers who are six feet under somewhere and you don't know where?"

I shrugged.  I was embarrassed that I didn't know what had happened to my namesakes.

I asked my mom.  She told me she had donated the bodies to science so they could study premature births.

My mother really didn't much want to talk about Daniel and Stanton.  I don't know if the grief was too much, or if she simply wanted to forget.  We only spoke about them one more time, when I was in my twenties.  At that time she showed me a document pertaining to their names.

My mother was a very pragmatic woman.  I imagine that if she grieved, she kept it to herself.  For my mom, life and death were a matter of fact, almost to the point of being cold about it.

Oddly enough, I never asked my dad about Daniel and Stanton.  Almost like I considered birth strictly a woman's domain.  In a way it is, since the mother is the one who does all of the growing and initial nurturing of a baby.

According to my mom, both my dad and my maternal grandpa tried very hard to convince her to try again. This time for a girl.  She must have resisted quite some time, because I wasn't born until little over seven years later.  I was my mother's only full-term baby.

I don't recall exactly how old I was when my mom told me whom I was named for, but I have often wondered about Daniel and Stanton.  I have questions that can never really be answered.  If they had lived, would I have been born?  What if I had had four brothers instead of two?  Would Daniel and Stanton had been like L, or would they have been different?  Do they watch over me, or is that just some story I tell myself to console myself?  Had they lived, whom then would I have been named after?

I don't know what the statistics are for women, who, like my mother, lose babies during or shortly after birth. I also don't know about what the impact is on children like me who grow up wondering what their lost siblings would have been like.  I do know that we are somehow important to our families.  We provide continuity.  In all likelihood we enable healing.  At least I'd like to think so.

For a long time I was perturbed that my mom and dad hadn't given me a more interesting name. As I got older, I often thought about changing my name to Danielle Stanley (for many years I thought my brother's name was Stanley instead of Stanton)  or perhaps using that as a nom de plume. Ultimately I decided that being  the ordinarily named Debra Susan suited me just fine.

It's important for me to be Debra Susan.  My being here and bearing the name Debra Susan directly and profoundly connects me to the memory of Daniel and Stanton.  Ties me to those two tiny beings for all eternity.  In a small way my being here honors their memory.

It doesn't matter that neither L. nor our older brother, B. know for whom Daniel and Stanton were named. They are as much a part of me as my husband is or my beloved Kid O and Kid Q.   I will never have  a sufficient explanation as to why they died as infants.  Perhaps being Debra Susan is enough.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Good Dad

"Here comes Uncle Mistletoe, " my dad  would cheerfully announce.  Although that was before my time, it was part of a repertoire of voices he did for me.  Talking Tree.  Elmer Fudd.  Bugs Bunny.  Daffy Duck.  He would also read me the Sunday funnies.  As I got older that shifted to naming 100 knights and their 100 horses, and with that, my dad introduced me to word play and puns.  He also gave me a love of shaggy dog stories.

When I was very little, my mom went back to work.  My dad would drop me off at my grandparents for the morning.  He would return around noon to drop me off at nursery school.  Sometimes he would bring tiny cupcakes with various plastic sticks in them, depending on the holiday. Shamrocks. Halloween decorations.   I remember my eyes growing wide as I stood in front of the coffee table, looking at those beautiful cupcakes. He would always tell me they were all for me.

"Give me some skin," he'd say to me,  as we crawled along in traffic on the way to one of his accounting clients.  Since I took things literally,  I would open up my palm, pretend to pinch a piece of skin and hand it to him.  Years later I realized he really was asking me to give him five.  I suppose that he never had the heart to tell me how badly I had misunderstood him.  

Sometimes he'd take me along with him to the eye care clinic where he was the part-time accountant.  I'd get to talk to the eye doctors, my dad's boss and  the bookkeeper.  Joining them for lunch always made me feel so grown up.

Somewhere between Iowa City and the Chicago suburbs, we sat in a restaurant off of I-80.  My dad apologized to me for not being around much while I was growing up. It was not his fault. He was working during the day and going to school at night, so he could change careers.  Even so it was gracious of him to tell me that.  He must have given some thought to how lonely I was. 

My dad and I had a kind of quiet companionship.  He would unwind from teaching by watching late night TV.  Since my bed was right above where he watched TV, I would adopt an "if you can't beat him, join him" attitude.  We would watch Johnny Carson.  Tom Snyder.  Dick Cavett.  Whatever talk show was on. 

Over the years my dad and I shared jokes.  We would give our best deadpan delivery, and wait for my mother to get the joke.  After a few minutes she would finally say with mock annoyance, "you two pixies." 

Two days after my dad died, we had a blizzard.  As soon as the memorial service was over, the California grandchildren went off to play in the snow. I can't help but think my fellow pixie just couldn't help himself.   

I wonder if my dear ol' Daddio is floating around somewhere.  I'd like to think that whenever we get hit by a  blizzard that he roars with laughter. I'd like to think that he saved me when the brake lines went out on our '89 Crown Vic.  I'd like to think he was riding shotgun with me, as I went through cancer treatment.  

One of my favorite memories was watching The Carol Burnett Show with my dad.  This sketch of commercials left us rolling on the floor particularly the part where Harvey Korman asks her, "How about calling my Aunt Bertha in Chicago?"  (starting at about 2:11)  Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, Harvey and my dad were second cousins.  His Aunt Bertha was my grandma's first cousin.  By the time that sketch aired, she had been dead for at least five years. That would have been some long distance call.  We were undoubtedly the only two viewers who enjoyed the unintentional irony.  

As long as I still have memories of moments like these, my fellow pixie will always remain in my heart.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good Husband

He is handsome in his Army uniform.  The two of them together look as if they had just stepped out of a movie set.  My mother doesn't think she is beautiful, but she is.  Her hair is perfectly coiffed and her cream colored suit is impeccable. They are posed with heads next to each other.  So much in love on their wedding day, 4 November 1945.

My father was madly in love with my mother.  He wrote her many love letters while he was overseas.  They are starting to crumble now, but they are still in a box.

"I have a pearl handled revolver," my mom used to tease.  My dad had a female boss at his part-time accounting job, and he had a female employee, too.  They would sometimes go to Chinatown, Greektown or Little Italy for lunch.  My mom knew she didn't have to worry.  He was very frank about the friendship he had with his boss.  She knew she could confide in him about what was going on in her family. My dad was, as my mother would describe him, "a quiet man."  He would listen and not comment.

My father always listened to my mother.  One of his brothers  insinuated that he was henpecked, but that was never my mother's intent.   At the urging of my mother, my dad went back to college.  Got his accounting degree.  Later on he went on for a Master's.  He got a degree in Data Processing, and changed careers from being the assistant general manager of a grocery store to  professor of Data Processing and Accounting at one of the Chicago City Colleges..  

Despite financial struggles at the beginning of their marriage, my mom says my dad was always generous.  Never once asked her to justify how much something cost.  She, of course, never was that extravagant. They had both gone through The Depression, and it made a lasting impression on them.

My dad tried to go into business more than once.  One business was alarm systems.  We had one installed in our home.  Once when it accidentally got set off, we had a scene that could have been part of a sitcom.  The unit was quietly removed.  Unlike the sitcoms, however, my mom made him feel like an idiot for his failures.  

In his later years, my dad would always say about my mom, "we're lucky to have her."  Even as he retreated into dementia, he appreciated my mother.  Even as he expressed his resentment towards her, he knew deep down that she was doing her best to take care of him. More than that, she kept her promise to him to keep him out of a nursing home.  

Shortly after he died, my mom told me he sang to her again just like he had  when they were courting.  I imagine one of the songs was Twenty-Four Hours A Day

Sometimes love can conquer dementia and aphasia for a final expression of devotion.  Even at the very end, he was the good husband.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Good Son

When my dad's identical twin brothers were born eleven days short of his first birthday, his mother almost forgot about him.  My dad used to tell a story about how he was rocking the cradle when one of a number of immigrant cousins came in and said in Yiddish, "such troubles for one so young."  There is a painting that is a reproduction of an old photo of my dad in short pants and Buster Browns standing between two chubby boys.  My dad is casting a furtive glance.  He grew up being outnumbered and outmaneuvered  by his younger brothers, who were favored by their mother.

My dad grew up to be The Good Son.  After his brothers moved away, he stayed and took care of his mom and dad.  When his dad was in the nursing home, he visited him every weekend. And when his mother would call up every Friday afternoon and say, in her thick Yiddishe accent, "I'm lonely," he never once refused her request to spend weekends with us.

Our weekends revolved around getting in the car on Friday afternoons and driving from our Southeast side home, up Jeffrey Boulevard to Lake Shore Drive and taking that all the way to where it ended on the far north side, and then making the return trip on Sunday afternoons.  That went on four, five years, weekend after weekend after weekend, culminating in sitting on furniture covered in plastic and watching Bonanza, the Lawrence Welk Show and Mr Ed before finally returning home.

When we moved to the south suburbs, my dad decided it was time for my grandma to move closer to his younger brother in Southern California.  We flew with her out to LA  December 1969.  My uncle came to the my mother's brother's house, and that was the last time I saw my grandma.  I don't think I even said goodbye.

"Uncle George called," I said to my dad as he and my mom walked in the kitchen door.  "Is he in town," my dad asked.  "No," I responded. "Grandma died."

"What is she doing here," he asked angrily, referring to my best friend, Sherry O'Connor, who had just come off the bus with me just a few minutes earlier. "You'd better go home," I said to her.

A year later I was walking through O'Hare with three men, two of whom were trading "You're so fat," insults.  "Who makes your clothes, Omar the Tentmaker?"  When my Uncle Harold, who was wearing Bermuda shorts and a t shirt, ended up on one side of a pillar and the rest of us on the other, my Uncle George leaned in close to my dad and said,  "He embarrasses me."   Both of my uncles, whom I rarely saw, had flown in for my grandma's stone dedication, which traditionally  occurs around the first yahrzeit of a person's death.

Summer of '72, my dad purchased an olive green Dodge Polara.  He chose olive green because my grandfather has been a lifelong employee of Illinois Bell, and that had been the color of their service trucks.  As he started to place plastic covers on the car seats, he stopped and asked himself what he was doing. The Dodge was the first of his cars not to have plastic seat covers.  

Shortly after my grandpa died in October '68, the Tribune published a nursing home expose.  My dad was consumed with self-doubt.  He asked me if he had done the right thing.  Given how stubborn his mother had been about not leaving their second floor walk up apartment, I don't know what could have done differently.  I don't recall much about the nursing home except that while it wasn't a cheery place, it didn't depress me, either. Depressed me more to see my grandpa catheterized and urine flowing from a translucent tube into a bag and barely able to speak.

I don't remember what he sounded like or was like as a person, except that, based upon the arguments my dad used to have with his mother, I gather that "Pa" was a quiet man who was easily intimidated by his wife. My grandma would neither consent to  live in an elevator building, nor would she consent to move to California where Pa could enjoy his last days in warm sunshine.  Right before Saturday visits, my dad would stop at the same small stand and buy my grandpa a corned beef on rye with mustard, so at least my grandpa had these small pleasures.  

My mother told me that "Pa" was very talented with fixing things, probably an asset to him as an Illinois Bell lineman.  My mother also told me that he had hoped that my dad would become an engineer like my Uncle George, but my dad didn't have the aptitude for it.  I imagine that my dad's occupation of professor of data processing was probably beyond his father's comprehension  

A year after my father retired as a professor at one of the Chicago City Colleges, my dad, who all ready has his father's disability, Parkinson's, had a mild stroke.  He rapidly spiraled into dementia after that.  Life had played a cruel cosmic joke on him by giving him his father's illness, and his mother's base personality that, in later years, made him almost as unpleasant to be around as she had been.  

What I choose to remember is the man with a great, sometimes earthy, sense of humor, tremendous sense of duty, generosity and a great deal of compassion. What I choose to remember is a man who took care of his parents, despite the fact that he lived in the opposite end of the city.  What I choose to remember is a man who loved his mother despite the fact that she didn't much care for his wife. I choose to remember a man who grieved his mother's passing when no one else would.  

Some might think that my grandma didn't deserve her son's love.  I believe my dad had enough compassion to love her because he knew she had had a difficult life.  I think she knew, on some level, that he was a good son.