Happy birthday, Sweetie Pie!
May today be free of traffic and telemarketers, grouchy people and bills in your mailbox. May you get good cable reception, so you and your sister can watch Veronica Mars while eating Indian take-out. May you go to bed feeling loved by family, friends; the world.
I’m glad you got my birthday card. Apologies that all my love couldn’t fit into the envelope. To make amends, let me tell you a story. Conveniently, it is about you.
The year: 1994. You are eight, and like many kids watching the Winter Olympics, you are dazzled by the ice dancers in their sequined costumes and heavy makeup. They jump and twirl and perform moves that you (and the rest of us) don’t understand: axel, sow cow, lutz, etc. But no matter.
Amid the cheers of the crowd, you hear them call: “Julie! Be me! Be me! You can be me!” And thus, for a few glorious (and expensive) weeks, you became an ice skater.
Dad and I signed you up for lessons, rented and then purchased skates. We bought you a pretty pink outfit, the kind even mommies covet. You were not grace in motion (forgive me!), but you didn’t know that. Nor did you have to. It was your right as a kid to not link your dreams to your abilities. That’s something grownups do.
One night I walked into your room to tuck you in and you were crying. I sat and asked you what was the matter.
“I don’t want to be alone,” you cried.
“I’m right here.”
“No, I mean when I go to Colorado.”
“Where the skaters go.”
Ah, yes. Colorado Springs, where many famous skaters train and live — without their parents.
“I’m going to miss you so much.”
I nodded. “I’ll miss you too.”
“Can you move with me?”
Hmmm. What to say? I had come to a fork in the parenting road and knew that what I said would have a significance that extended beyond the moment.
But which road to take? The one that bee-lined toward the “Real World” (aka “Get Real World”)? Or the one that meandered, its edges sprinkled with seeds, any one of which could sprout?
I made my decision. “Sure, I’ll move with you,” I said
“What about Dad?”
“He won’t mind?”
You nodded. We hugged. I rubbed your back, kissed your cheek. You went to sleep. Months later, you stopped skating and began gymnastics. Another seed, another sprout.
Today, the thought of our moving anywhere together would be more nightmare than dream. (For both of us, by the way.) And so we live an hour from each other. I am far enough away so you can forget I’m around, but close enough for me to skate over when you need a kiss, a hug or rub on the back. Call me anytime.
So happy birthday my tattooed Olympian. I love you, love you, love you — and then some.
When I was a kid, funerals were my favorite gatherings. Strangers would appear at the door, bearing platters of smartly folded cold cuts and pretty pink boxes of pastries. When they heard I was Judy’s girl, they’d look at me and ask my age. “How can that be?“ they’d ask accusingly, which always confused me. Why would I lie about my age when there were better things to lie about?
These strangers would then turn to my mother and accuse her too: “Six years? We haven’t seen each other in six years?!” But instead of defending herself, my mother would hug them.
The strangers would then whisper, “How’s She/He holding up?” My mother would point, and we’d all turn our heads. There She/He would be, the surviving spouse, son or daughter, surrounded by attentive ears as if it were story time at the library.
Oh, but it was story time, with everyone taking turns telling tales that made people laugh, cry, cry, laugh. I’d observe and think, “What’s with these people?”
Over time and the course of numerous funerals, I learned that these strangers, indeed tribes, were family. Via bonds and tethers, we were connected, and via funerals, we reconnected.
The first funeral I attended was for my 97-year-old great-grandmother, Babu. I was five and didn’t think she was particularly great. She spoke only Yiddish, wore thick glasses and was missing a leg (diabetes, I later learned). She gave me the creeps.
Next up, Grandpa Al, who dropped dead on the street while pushing his hot dog cart through Manhattan. Turns out, he wasn’t my grandfather but the man my Grandma Dora took up with when she could no longer stand her alcoholic husband (aka Grandpa Benjamin, who died before I was born.)
My family didn’t like Grandpa Al and had to scavenge for good things to say about him.
“Well, he did take her to Florida that time,” they recalled. Florida wasn’t Paris, of course, but it was a big deal for a woman who had lived in shtetls all of her life: one in Eastern Europe, the other in the overcrowded Jewish slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Florida had been her one and only vacation.
I was about eight when Grandpa Al died. I remember walking over to Grandma in the funeral parlor and her pulling me to her ample bosom.
Let me say here that like many Old World grandmas, she was all bosom. Only when she wore a belt could I locate her waist. And so when she pulled me to her and squeezed tightly it was as if I were being sucked between couch pillows. I couldn’t breathe. I panicked. I started to cry.
Finally, she let go, and when saw my tears, she cupped my face. “Ah, kinder, kinder. It’s okay to cry. You loved him too.”
Next up: Uncle Harry, the kind of uncle you kiss hello and goodbye and forget in-between.
At family gatherings hosted by Aunt Mollie, his wife, he’d sit at one end of the long table, its seats crammed with three generations talking over each other. Aunt Mollie would sit at the opposite end of the table, close to the kitchen, so she could ferry platters to the raucous masses.
Somehow, amidst the shouting, Aunt Molly could make out everything her husband said, and she would scream, “Shut up, Harry!” Poor Uncle Harry. He couldn’t even say, “Pass the salt” or “How ‘bout them Yankees?” without getting yelled at.
I was surprised, therefore, when Aunt Mollie wailed at his funeral; you’d think she’d be happy now that he had finally shut up.
But people are like that, I’ve since learned. Something about grief balances relationships. What they once hated about someone loses its potency. What they once loved sharpens, cutting their hearts in two.
Cousin Barbara, Grandma Dora, Uncle Victor, Uncle Jack, Grandma Ida; my father. No longer a child, I was no longer an observer but a participant, mourning with the grownups and sometimes even helping with funeral arrangements. I came to understand the undertow of grief. How, when people die, they take a piece of you with them. Sometimes this is sad, other times a relief, which makes death — and life — so very complicated.
Last weekend, I went to a memorial service for a friend’s husband. It was held in the small country church he attended as a child and where his ancestors are buried; he’ll be in good company.
A few people stood up and shared memories that made us smile. But I am old enough now to know that memories aren’t enough. They can’t lie next to you at night. They don’t snore or buy milk on the way home. They don’t remember your birthday; they can’t comfort you when your heart shatters. My friend was going home alone. At some point, we all are alone.
When I got home, I swapped my black pants and heels for jeans and sneakers. I ran an errand. I thought about my friend and how I might help fill the vacuum in her life. There is little I can do, of course — except to appear at her door bearing smartly folded cold cuts and pink boxes of pastries, to sit beside her for story time.
I’m not sure I mentioned, but I have another blog: WriteDirections.com; It’s for writers. I just posted a piece called “Beware of Pestimists.”
Pestimists are those obnoxious, persistent voices that are determined to keep us in place, or even set us back. They are unhelpful and hurtful.
As I reread it this morning, I thought–crap! I should follow my own advice, which is applicable not just to writing but to all aspects of my life. Perhaps you can apply it to your life as well. Possible?
The good thing about this change is that you can now more easily read the blog on cell phones and tablets. The bad thing about this change is, well, it’s change. I don’t like change — at least not when it comes to techno-geeky (eeeeky!) learning curves.
So hang in there with me as I relearn how to upload pics. Throw in a few prayers as well!
U.S. Mother’s Day was created in 1908 by Anna Jarvis, whose mother had died three years prior. Jarvis envisioned it as a day to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their kids. (A single day? Ha!) She herself had no children; nor was she married. But she lobbied hard to make it a national holiday. Part of her argument was that American holidays were biased toward male achievements.
By 1912, states, cities and towns across America were celebrating Mother’s Day. Jarvis founded the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the day, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official: It would be celebrated the second Sunday in May.
And thus the doors to commercialization flew open. Consider:
But let’s get back to Anna Jarvis, who set all this in motion. It was she, after all, who had in 1908 gained the financial backing of Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker to organize the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, WV. That same day, Wanamaker held a celebration at one of his Philly stores; thousands attended. Smart businessman that he was, he recognized the holiday’s financial promise. Other businesses did as well.
Over the years, Mother’s Day worked its way into the hearts and pockets of Americans. Jarvis was horrified. Where once she was the holiday’s fiercest proponent, she became its fiercest opponent, denouncing the holiday’s gross commercialization. So great was her opposition that she blew much of her life savings trying to remove Mother’s Day from the national calendar. To no avail, of course. The holiday has become a $20 billion industry.
So as Mother’s Day approaches, let’s remember Jarvis and the true meaning of the day. Instead of jewelry and a fancy dinner, try a cost-free hug or what more than a third of women say they really want: something homemade (theweek.com).