Dad on Mother’s Day

We did good —
he whispers to me,
out of sight and hearing from the others
at our Mothers Day dinner —
but who is that sitting next to you?

Oh honey, I’m so glad you’re here –
I smile back.

They are young men with lives —
he continues —
and they love you.

Stay, will you, so we can talk later?
And can you talk to them too?

I don’t know how —
he answers after a while —
Did I ever know how?

And I try to remember
what we spoke of back then.
The four of us at the table.
The two of us in bed.

Afterword to Then Again

Reading Diane Keaton’s cleverly constructed and unapologetically revealing memoir Then Again I’ve spent more time reflecting on my life and feelings than her actual story.  Friends regularly accuse me of going off on tangents.  To me, my rambles all are on track.  Some books are favorites because of where they take my thoughts. It is a surprise and often a disappointment to reread one of these favorites and discover it isn’t what I remembered.

*

I feel validated when an author states my obvious.  It’s disappointing when we’ve used the same words.

I feel pleasure when the author articulates emotions and feelings that are in my stomach and in my heart but haven’t yet been put into words by my head.

I also enjoy being struck by an opposing view when it causes me to pause and rethink.  I can handle seeing the black and white turn grey

Diane Keaton has done all three.

*

Then Again, like the Jacqueline Kennedy interviews that I wrote about in an earlier post, was a gift.  This was a gift from my older son’s girlfriend.  They just recently decided to go their separate ways.  It’s a difficult thing for a couple to do, especially a couple that worked so well together.  I’ll never know why.  Hopefully they both know why.  But that is part of the baggage this book carries for me.  Bittersweet baggage, because she is a delightful woman (and he a wonderful young man).

My other son has a new girlfriend who, and I’m not sure if this is because I just read Diane Keaton, reminds me of Diane Keaton.  I don’t know her well enough to say that their personalities are similar, but she seems to have the same presence.  She’s delightful too.

*

Diane Keaton’s mother kept 85 separate journals, and scrapbooks.  Her writing started with letters to her husband while they were separated after the war.  He was in Boston in the Navy. She was 24, in California, and had just given birth to Diane.

I kept an on-and off diary starting in high school, wrote copious letters in college, and influenced by Anaias Nin in the seventies, began years of a passionate outpouring of what I remember as drivel, whining, and moaning about the lack of exciting boys/men in my life, or their rejection of me, and my utter alone-ness.  Finally I stopped writing.  Things must have improved.

During one visit to my parents’ home, my mom brought me up to the attic and presented me with a box of things that I had left there while I spent a year in France.  Included in that box were the journals.  Oh my god, I thought.  Did my mom read these?  What would she have thought?  I didn’t open them, but brought them home.

As my children grew, however, so did my anxieties about what was actually in those journals.  If I didn’t want to read them for fear of what they contained, how would my children or my husband, react to them   One day they went out with the trash.

As an archivist by profession – this was total heresy.

Sometimes I wonder what was in those journals and if I wrote well – but never enough to regret not keeping them, even after reading about Diane Keaton’s mother’s scrapbooks.  The future has always been more important than the past to me.

*

The last chapter of Then Again is Diane Keaton’s reflection on the final chapter of her mother’s life – her death.  Like my mom, Diane Keaton’s mother had Alzheimers Disease.  We believe my father did also.  But neither of my parents have been as debilitated by the disease – at least not yet.  I can’t bear the thought of my mom curling up and shrinking away.  It could happen. Maybe we’ll be lucky and one day she will just lie down to rest on the couch as she always does in the afternoon, but not wake up.  The disease shows very little mercy.   I have not yet been able to put my emotions and feelings stirred up by this chapter into words.  Diane’s story with her mother has been no help to me.

*

I was supposed to read this book.  Diane Keaton’s mom would cut out photos and headlines from magazines and she would copy quotes from everywhere.  One day she had a cover from a New Yorker thumb tacked to her kitchen bulletin board.  It read “ Is it possible to go backwards and forwards at the same time?”  Yes it is – just as it is possible to grow younger and older at the same time.

Brothers-in-Law

My dad David and Uncles Eddie and Elliot home on leave, 9/5/1943

Several years ago my basement flooded and many of the family treasures were lost or damaged.  The days of sifting through papers were bittersweet.  My twenty-something boys came up for a long weekend to go through the boxes I had marked as “Morgan’s Life” and “Alex’s Life.” They contained drawings, writings, school papers, letters, whatever I thought precious enough to save for them when they grew up.  It was a sad and joyful weekend of hard work — emotionally and physically. My sons were amazed at how clever they were as little boys!  They told me they would love to go through the papers again, but not until the next flood.

Here’s a gem I found among my father’s papers.  It’s an undated letter from my mother’s sister’s boyfriend to my father during the war.  My mom and dad are Mil and David.  Her sisters and their beaus are Thelma and Eddie and Shirley and Elliot.  The little girl is my older sister.

______________________________________________________

Hi ya fella,

I hope this finds you well.  I am alive.

Hey, don’t call me those names.  I’m lucky if I can write a note home now and then, beside the fact that we are now not allowed to say anything.  We are busy — to make a terrific understatement.

I guess you must have heard of my good fortune – the thirty day leave.   It was like water to an old desert cat in a sand storm or land to a sailor in any kind of storm.  In short and to put it mildly, it was great.

A picture for daddy, 1943

Now comes the flattery. Dave, you are the luckiest guy in the world, that kid of yours is just a dream, she’s beautiful.  She’s got more sense than I have (maybe an insult but considering her age).  She’s so sweet you could just eat her up.  I spent half my time with her.  I just can’t put into words what I thought of her.  For the first time in my life I can truthfully say that I love a child. She’s not like the run of the mill.  She doesn’t cry and pout all the time or make a pest of herself.  In a nutshell, she’s wonderful.

I came home fully intending marriage in a year of receiving 20% sea duty pay and all I only saved about $250.  As you can see, that is nothing to boast of.  In the past few mos. in the Pac. I have saved easily that much.  I got 2nd class giving me $96 base pay & 20% plus $10 for extra service (running motion picture equip).  I save about $86 per month, I could do worse.  So we got engaged.  All of which leaves me very unhappy, because I have been kicking myself ever since for not getting married when I was home or not saving dough when I could, well no use crying over spilled perfume.

Elliot, Thelma, David, Shirley, Eddie, Mildred

Getting back to an interesting subject, everything at home is as well as could be.  I saw your family a few times and Doris quite a few, all fine.

Getting home to serenity and peacefulness is quite a shock though pleasant. I hope you can experience it soon.  I know that whenever Mil or Shirl looked at me they saw you & El, but it was beyond my control, though I wish it weren’t.  I probably caused them more grief than happiness by my very presence.  If so I’m sorry, but I just hope you get home first this time just to square things.

If possible let me know where you are now.  Take care of yourself,

Ed

Elliot, Eddie and David with the parents of the sisters, their loves, 9/5/1943

Our Favorite Chinatown Restaurant

I have a favorite Chinatown Restaurant. Me?

When I was a little girl my parents brought me to Chinatown in Manhattan.  I don’t remember what we did there but I do remember feeling frightened.  Nothing was familiar — the sounds, the faces, the smells, the signs, the crowds.  It was sometime in the fifties.

Now I go to the city at least once a month, and I stay with my friend Lee in his apartment on Mott Street.  Lee is not Chinese.  He inherited the apartment from his late wife.  He feels Chinese.  I don’t. This is my second Chinatown experience, and I feel just as much a foreigner.

We have two dogs – a sixty and a one hundred pounder. They are large dogs and very conspicuous in Chinatown and so are we. We take them down to Columbus Park and if the weather is good and we have time, we walk them out among the city and state government buildings and parks.  We are more or less just part of the city outside of Chinatown.  My dog has leash aggression and the whole time we’re walking I’m on a vigilant lookout for “other” dogs.  For two country dogs, they do very, very well in the crowded streets of Chinatown, where so many of the people are elderly and slow and there is so much food out on display in the markets in the streets, and incredible smells coming from the trash bags along the sidewalks. Most people smile at them.  The dogs are less intimidated than I am.

Lee and his wife frequented two restaurants, both owned by the same family.  They were very friendly with the owners, and they would joke about matching their children up.  When we go in for dinner or for meals to bring back upstate, they recognize him, and now me.  It is always nice to be welcomed into a restaurant with a big “hello again” smile and the food is great.  One of the great days in my friend’s “getting used to being in Chinatown without his wife phase,” was the day he approached the owner to work with him on the menu for a banquet for some family that were in town.  Sitting around the table with the waiters bringing out one delightful, authentic dish after another and with his family beaming, made him feel as though he really was Chinese.  (Our neighbors know him for his excellent crispy noodles and stir fry and we’ve been joking about opening up Lo Fan’s Noodle Shop in the mid-Hudson Valley region.)

Last fall we went to Hsin Wong, one of the two restaurants, and noticed a big “B” in the window.  New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had initiated a new two-step restaurant inspection process in 2010 that requires restaurants to post their ratings in the front window.  My son Morgan has a career in public nutrition and food policy and I had read about this program with interest, as I read anything which makes me feel more connected with my sons, when it first was announced.  He had worked in kitchens a good part of his high school and college life, and had told me stories that I don’t want to repeat about kitchen conditions.  I thought the city was doing a great service by conducting the inspections and letting diners know the results.

But now, I was confronted with a dilemma.  Did I want to not eat in this less than pristine restaurant that I had eaten in with relish before?  Did anyone that we knew ever get sick from lack of sanitary practices in Hsin Wong?  There was a lot of conflict here.

Of course we went inside, had a wonderful dinner, bought our see yu gai  and Chinese broccoli and went home.  We were correct in following our instincts.  After all Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, Commisioner of the Department of Health, wrote that:

“In the first year or so of grading, we expect that most restaurants will earn a B grade. Restaurants with B or C grades should improve their overall food safety practices, but the Health Department immediately closes restaurants with conditions that may be hazardous to public health.”

The next time we were in Chinatown we went out to eat and found Hsin Wong closed.  No sign literally or figuratively of what happened – just a overhead metal gate where chickens and roast pork used to hang.

We went to Yee Li, formerly known as The Big Wang, the other family restaurant down the street, chatting with the owner while we ate.  He told us that they had lease renewal issues at the Hsin Wong and that was that.  Besides, even I was quite aware since my short re-acquaintance with Chinatown, that stores and restaurants were always opening and closing.  Business there had dropped considerably since 9/11 and the “fortification” of the NYC police headquarters made it difficult for downtown workers to get to Chinatown for lunch.

We were in Chinatown just last week, and much to our surprise we found a big C in the window of Yee Li.  Oh no.  What will the owners do?  Clean up or close up?  We don’t know any of the facts and it is better not to even venture a guess.  We had another wonderful meal and brought back chicken and pork and ribs and had friends over for dinner and everybody is feeling good.  No General Tso’s revenge.

But we are curious what will happen to Chinatown.  The city has recently designated it as one of its more than 60 “Business Improvement Districts”  and there is a movement among local groups and committees to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

The apartment house on Mott Street shares a stoop with a popular restaurant.  The shop on the other side of the door sells fans, hats, Chinese jackets and dresses, t-shirts, tote bags, and scarves that drape over onto the stoop.  Every time I walk out onto the street I squint in the bright sun and I look around and wonder how I got to be where I am.  We’re going down for Chinese New Year.  We’ll sit on the fire-escape and watch the dragons.  I can’t wait.

________________________________________________________________________

We were down for a visit a few weeks ago.  Yee Li has it’s A!  — April 2013

Christmas 2011

Christmas is not my holiday.  This is my 64th Christmas.  It is there, every year, whether I’m looking for it or not.

I do not remember individual Christmases.  Some passed by as just another day. Some were filled with happy children and good food.  Mostly however, when I think of Christmas the specifics are blurred, and my body reacts to feelings of jealousy, incompetency, guilt, and confusion.  Christmas is always sooo big that it is hard  not to be caught up in it – trying to find a place to fit in even if you don’t believe.

My experiences are not that unusual I’m sure.  I was a bright Jewish girl in a predominantly Catholic grammar school.  Much to my displeasure my mother would not allow me to participate in the annual Christmas pageant.  I sat alone in the auditorium during rehearsals while my classmates practiced walking down the aisles carrying candles and singing carols.  They played bells and made decorations and chatted about their trees and wish lists.

My next door neighbors would invite me over to help them trim their tree and I would return home to unsympathetic parents with my stories of how I helped stick cloves into oranges and sprinkled sugar on cookies.

My parents caved in finally and one year allowed me to put a wooden shoe by the side of my bed before I fell asleep and they filled it with candy.   I also remember going to see the department store windows on Fifth Avenue – full of teddies and snow, and animals, and lights, and I think we also went to Rockefeller Center one year  I wonder if they did this out of love for me, not wanting me to feel so different.

When I moved out on my own and had my own apartment it took me several years before I got up the nerve to put up my own small Christmas tree.  I bought eggnog and exchanged gifts with friends.  I never told my family because some of them would think of this as treason, not standing up to the Christian takeover of the season, not supporting the Jews who chose to not even acknowledge secular Christmas.

Then of course, I fell in love with Clark, a non-Jew, one who’s mother loved Christmas, decorated her home, shopped with fervor, cooked and baked, and brought out the holiday dishes..  The first year we had them at our house for the holiday I was a bundle of nerves.  Do I leave the menorah up?  Do I buy decorations?  What do I cook?

When we had children it was even harder.  I was happy they loved our sons so much that they showered them outrageously with presents, but at the same time, I never knew how to reciprocate or how to balance one set of grandparents’ Chanukah with the other grandparents’ Christmas.

Our little family created our own Christmas traditions.  We’d set up the tree on Christmas Eve – this started mostly from my not wanting to crowd out Chanukah when the two holidays coincided. It made our Christmas Eve very special.  We’d cuddle in our family chair and read Polar Express; we’d open one present.  After a wild morning opening presents on Christmas day, we’d go to a movie – it often was the newest Star Trek – and then we’d return home for a good dinner.

After my husband’s death in 2006, my sons and I continued to get together for Christmas.  It was his holiday, and it is their holiday too.  This is the first year that I am not with them. I am happy that Morgan, my elder son, has a girlfriend who shares her family Christmas with him.  It is a much better Christmas than I could give him now.  My younger son, Alex, spent Christmas with members of his band.  I think he was looking forward to doing this.

Without my boys Christmas has little fascination to me and I feel out of sorts.  It is there, trying to poke itself into my life, but somehow I can skirt around it a lot easier.  Yes, I brought my sons presents and yes, we will get together sometime in January to celebrate our memories of Christmas with Clark.  We will never let the holiday go because of our love for him.