Visiting Hell With Mom

IMG_2966I have never been to these places, but these places have always been with me.

They were with me on the day I was born, a trifling 19 years after my mother’s liberation. As they beheld their infant daughter, my parents mulled over names but when there are so many dead to name for, how do you choose? The oldest, the closest, the youngest, the most tragic?

They were with me in 1966 when I was a three-year-old living in Israel. As the din of war drums began to sound, my parents anxiously packed our bags returning to the US earlier than planned, forgoing the dream of Aliyah (settling in Israel) because, as my father explained, “Your mother can’t fight another war.”

They were with me when my mother informed me early one school day morning, as I choked down a bowl of hot farina, that I was now the protagonist in her recurrent nightmare in which, first she, and now I, was being pursued and ultimately shot dead by the Nazis. What makes the nightmare darkest mom, you as the victim or me?

They were with me on the day I met my husband, also the child of survivors who when I suggested that one day we might have to sew gold coins into the linings of our jackets and flee, nodded understandingly.

They were with me on the days I birthed my three sons and my first thought upon seeing them was that by the sheer act of living I had triumphed, but by giving life I had spit on Hitler’s grave.

They were with me when I taught my sons who they are and where they came from because that too was an act of defiance.

And this week I am here in these places with my mother.

And today, although I know that these killing fields are sacred for the dead who are memorialized in them, this is, after all, only a place; a place where the birds sing and the trees rise and sway majestically over the forest bed.

And today, I realize that I didn’t need to see these places to know them, to feel them, to taste them, to smell their putrid stench because these places and the people lost here have been with me always.

I will never return to these places, but these places will always be with me.

Tell Your Children This

Many people have asked what they should tell their children about the 2016 election. There are all sorts of issues surrounding meanness and bullying and I’m not sure how I would handle that discussion with young children but here is what I will tell my older sons.

Boys-

Your candidate lost. You feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under you and that you are on shaky ground. The 2016 campaign and election were not typical but nonetheless you have just witnessed the democratic process at work. And even if you don’t agree with or understand the result, the process itself is a thing of beauty. It worked in 2016 as it has for over 200 years and as it will continue to work because as divided as the populace of our country is, the state of our union is strong. The president-elect, our current president and the defeated candidate all spoke humbly, graciously and appropriately. Here are some takeaways:

1) The process is bigger than any one man or woman. Your father and his law firm joined thousands of others manning election hotlines to assure that the process was fair.

2) You don’t need to like or agree with the positions of the person holding office but you need to respect the office of the presidency.

3) Complacency is a luxury we can no longer afford. Everything we hold dear is on the table. Fight for it. If there are rights you want to preserve, fight for them. If there are political candidates you want to see in office, work for them. If there are people you know who need your protection, take on their cause. Let the sting of defeat motivate you.

4) We largely live in our own bubble buoyed by those around us who agree with what we say, on social media and in the real world. We need to get out and listen but listening is not enough, we need to really hear what people are saying. It’s easier to turn away. Don’t do it. Stay engaged. Be part of the conversation.

I believe that your father and I and our peers are of the generation that must die in the desert before reaching the promised land. There are just too many of us who cling to old notions about race and gender. I believe that you and your generation will make this world  fairer, more color blind, and more accepting of the fact that gender should not define us or limit our destiny.

I do not despair because you my boys will get there.

As ever,

Your proud mom

How Not to Apologize

To my children (and everyone else):

How not to apologize

  • Your opening salvo should never be, “I never said I was a perfect person.” No one would argue the point but this opener lets your listeners know that you really don’t think you need to apologize but you’re being forced to do it.
  • Beware of the “constipated face look,” the one that convinces us that you don’t have a clue what you did wrong. If you can’t look contrite, don’t bother.
  • Don’t let anyone else write your apology. Bottom line-if you can’t muster up something sincere, in your own voice, without reading from a teleprompter, don’t waste our time.
  • Don’t say, “I did something bad but so and so did something worse.” No, just no. When you’re saying you’re sorry, no one cares about the terrible things anyone else did.
  • Don’t say, “Let’s be honest,” because clearly that means that you are about to unload a heap of dishonesty.
  • Don’t say, “This is a distraction.” If it were only a distraction you wouldn’t be apologizing. We weren’t born yesterday and we know that this is a Hail Mary attempt to change the subject.
  • Don’t say, “I’ve done some foolish things but…” Leave off the “but.” I’ve done foolish things and then, a period. It’s a complete thought.
  • Don’t say, “Anyone who knows me, knows my words don’t reflect who I am.” Again and again and again, NO-what do your words reflect if they don’t reflect who you are?

Instead, try this alternate apology-

I’m sorry. There is no excuse for being a misogynistic pig. There is no excuse for demeaning women. I am absolutely mortified that my wife and daughters, or that anyone else’s daughters, sisters, wives, mothers or female friends have to be subjected to the verbal garbage that spewed unfettered like putrid sewage from my mouth. Going forward, I will try to be a better person.

While Waiting to Board….


You look tired and overwhelmed and miserable. You’re standing in front of me at the airport on a long line of people waiting to order food and drink. 

The baby in the stroller is flinging herself backward because she has clearly been wronged in some visceral, gut-wrenching way or maybe just because she wants to be set free. The toddler with his runny nose has unfurled both of his grubby little paws in fully prone position up against the glass enclosure contemplating the array of pastries being offered.

“Please,” you beg him “don’t wipe your hands all over the glass.” “A donut,” he starts to yell, “I want a donut.” “No,” you say firmly, “a donut is not a thing to eat early in the morning.” “BUT MOMMY I WANT A DONUT,” he shouts. “Please pick something a little healthier like a croissant,” you plead. There is really nothing you can do and with a line of people behind you, you heave a heavy sigh and say, “The donut please.” I know you think you’ve lost the battle but my young mommy friend, it’s just another skirmish and don’t worry you have not lost the war. You have chosen to live to fight another day and it’s the best decision you can make given the circumstances.

My hands are free. I have nothing to carry but myself. On this day I have no one to constrain my travels and it’s easy to forget those days. It’s easy to forget the chasing, the mollifying and the endless cajoling and negotiating. I think about saying something comforting to you but I’m sure a heartfelt, “this too shall pass” will be meaningless to you in the heat of the moment so I ruffle the boy’s hair and smile benevolently at you. 

If I could speak to you now I would tell you that these days will eventually pass. You will smooth the edges off of these early childhood memories. You will forget exactly how tired and frustrated you were and instead you will remember the sweet little hands and the cherubic little face that have over the years become surprisingly long and angular.

The worst stories will became war stories, family lore. Someone will say remember when junior screamed that he wanted a donut for three hours while juniorette was attempting harakiri in the stroller and you will all chuckle because you won’t forget that it was hard but you will not remember how truly, deeply, bone wearying it all was. 

And, someday your grown son will stand next to you tall and very adult-like and you will approach the food counter together. You will decide to throw nutrition to the wind and order a donut. Your son will say “Really mom, a donut for breakfast,” as he orders his yogurt and fruit. 
Then you will pause and wonder, when exactly did he stop careening down airport aisles unthinkingly bashing into other travelers? When did he become a person who is smart and focused and sensible? When did he start judging YOUR eating habits? 

And heaven help you when did you become the older mom, the one who pats toddlers on the head and smiles benevolently at their exhausted young mommies?

Conversations With A Friend

My friend Marlene Kern Fischer and I were having a little fun one day and wrote this in tandem.

 

We met in college and became friends but not the best of friends. Years later we reconnected over the loss of an infant. A condolence call was placed and so began a dialogue that has continued for twenty-six years, through landlines, portable phones with telescoping antennae, nascent car phones and BlackBerrys to our current smart phones. Neither one of us remembers much of the substance of that first conversation, but we do remember that we laughed.

Over the years the topics we have beaten to death could fill volumes but as we often acknowledge to each other, the highest and best use of our conversations would be to put people to sleep. If the CIA perchance tapped our phones, we offer our sincerest apologies to whomever had to do the listening. Our discussions were repetitive, grandiose, mundane and largely trite, but occasionally insightful. Most importantly we always made each other chuckle and those chats sometimes made the difference between losing our minds and hanging on by the slimmest of threads.

As our lives evolved so did our conversations:

Husbands Then

“Hubby is traveling this week. He’s going for three nights. I can’t do this by myself. I’m going to die.

“Maybe if you hang on to his leg, he won’t go.”

“It’s worth a try.”

Husbands Now

“Hubby is traveling this week. Wooo hooo. He’s gone for three nights-YES.”

“OMG-you’re sooooo lucky, no laundry, no meals, no snoring.”

 

Children Then

“These little ‘angels’ don’t listen to a thing I say. I can’t take it.”

Children Now

“These big ‘angels’ don’t listen to a thing I say. I can’t take it.”

 

Fertility Then

“When are you going to start trying for number two?”

“You?”

“Soon, I’m dying to have another one and I want them close in age.”

“What do you think the perfect age gap is?”

“Holy hell, hubby has the chicken pox and a fever, no baby this month.”

“Yikes, sorry. There’s always next month.”

Fertility Now

“I had a nightmare that I had a baby.”

“Oh my God, Nooooo. That’s not just a nightmare, that’s actually the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Could you imagine?”

“NO, and please don’t make me try.”

 

Toys Then

“So excited, going to the toy store this weekend to pick up a plastic kitchen, plastic car, plastic slide, plastic activity garden, plastic pool, plastic basketball hoop, plastic workshop, Beanie Babies, Beyblades, video games, DVDs, Webkinz and maybe some Legos to keep the kids entertained. I hear there may be a snow day next week.”

“Nice. Let me know what you think of the activity garden. We’re thinking of getting one as soon as we can get the plastic play house and ride-on toys out of the family room.”

Toys Now

“So excited, getting a dumpster this weekend to get rid of all the crap we have accumulated because it no longer brings us joy.”

“I don’t understand that joy thing but I’m jealous. I can’t wait until we get our very own dumpster.”

 

Moving Then

“Our apartment is getting tight.”

“Where are you moving to? Westchester? Long Island? New Jersey?”

“Not sure. We’re going to look at all those places.”

“I guess we should pick the best spot for the kids.”

Moving Now

“I can’t take the cold anymore. I am afraid of falling on black ice.”

“Where are you moving to? Boca? Arizona? California?”

“Not sure. We’re going to look at all those places.”

“I guess we should try to find a place close to the kids.”

 

Sleep Then

“Baby kept me up last night. Slept for maybe a total of two hours. I’m so tired.”

“Same, he got up every hour on the hour. I won’t survive this.”

Sleep Now

“Sweated all night. Slept for maybe a total of two hours. I’m soooooo tired.”

“Same. I thought the heat was on 110 degrees but I checked and it was at 62. I won’t survive this.”

 

School Then/First Child

“What do you need to get into the Ivy League?”

“Grades, scores and tons of extracurricular activities. You better get on it girlfriend.”

School Now/Third Child

“Have you figured out the new PSAT?”

“No, I haven’t had a chance to look. He’ll figure it out. He can always get an online degree.”

 

Over the years, we’ve argued, we’ve agreed, and we’ve agreed to disagree. Now, as the substance of our chatter shifts to aging parents, parenting older children and an impending empty nest we realize that the thing that has always mattered most was not the topic, but the conversation.

Can You Hear Me Now?

IMG_1047

Today I watched my mother’s world narrow or perhaps I just finally realized how narrow her world had already become.

I took my mother to an audiologist and an ear, nose and throat doctor. Her hearing has been failing for years but today she’s having the first hearing test she’s had in about five years. Unfortunately, the test confirms my fear that her hearing loss has fallen off the proverbial cliff. She’s gone from a moderate hearing loss to a profound hearing loss. It’s a big leap descending into a free fall of hearing deficit.

Seated in the testing booth she’s asked over and over to repeat the words the audiologist says to her. She tries, oh how she tries, but she can’t seem to come up with the correct answers. The audiologist tells her to guess the words, so she guesses and she’s mostly wrong and worse than simply being wrong she knows that her guesses are long shots and that she’s doing badly and her face is a mask of effort, frustration and resigned dejection.

But, she’s a compliant and polite patient so she smiles and she nods pleasantly, but she doesn’t have a clue what they are saying to her. She’s always been a pleaser; she wants you to think that your speaking effort has not gone unrewarded and that she understands what you’re saying. “Look, if I talk to her like this, she’ll understand every word I say,” says the kindly doctor, speaking loudly and slowly, carefully enunciating each word as he squats directly in front of her so that they are face to face. “Why did he talk to me like I’m a dummy?” she asks me later.

I’ve been to a lot of doctors with mom over the years and there’s been bad medical news before, but I haven’t had this much angst in a while. I know she wants to “do well” on this test. It’s important for her to do well, but this time she just can’t because although she hears the sounds, the words have become inaccessible to her. The professionals explain that it’s like tuning a radio, you can raise the volume but if the reception is fuzzy, you still won’t know what the broadcaster is saying. A new hearing aid may help, but not a lot.

Words are who we are. Language is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have the ability to shape thoughts and sounds in a way that informs, inspires, entertains or motivates others. How much of ourselves do we lose when we can no longer hear and appropriately respond to what someone says to us?

And when the appointment ends, as we walk toward the car she says optimistically, “You don’t need to hear to watch ‘Dancing With The Stars.’” “Yes, that’s true,” I am about to reply but instead I turn, look her full in the face, smile and nod.

The Blessings of Today

images-1

Yesterday I watched the live stream of the funeral of an eighteen-year old boy named Ezra Schwartz, son of Ari and Ruth Schwartz. Ezra was studying in Israel for the year and was returning from working on beautifying a natural reserve dedicated to three teens kidnapped and killed by terrorists last year, when a terrorist gunned him down. It’s a tragedy that hits very close to home because I too have an eighteen-year old son who spent three months in Israel last spring. Additionally, I was born and raised in a community only twenty minutes from Ezra’s and I have spent time in Ezra’s community which in so many ways is a replica of the community in which I currently live.

During the funeral, some of the eulogists touched on the milestone events that Ezra’s parents will miss, the wedding that Ezra will never have, the family that he will never father. There are no words for how gut wrenching it was to hear those speakers.

Last night my eighteen year old came home from college after being away for three months and today we spent much of the day together and as the day wore on, I found myself thinking, with an ache in my heart, of all the things Ruth Schwartz will miss; not the big things like weddings and births but just the simple delight of being reunited with an eighteen year old son.

She will miss the unique joy of an eighteen-year old boy, as I have for the last three months. I missed the evolution of my son’s facial hair of which he is so proud, brought to us courtesy of No-Shave November, the sort of facial hair, which more closely resembles dirt than it does a beard. I have missed finding empty drinking glasses all over the house because each time an eighteen-year old boy is thirsty, he takes out a fresh glass and leaves it precisely where his thirst has been slaked. I have missed the dirty clothes squirrelled in a corner of the room, oh so close to the hamper, but just NOT in it.

I missed the bald faced statements that epitomize this arrogantly sure, yet fiercely uncertain time of life when one day they know exactly what they are about and the next day they have not a clue. I missed the “on demand” feedings of a young body that needs to be fuelled often and copiously. I missed the daily comings and goings; the breezing in and out of the house with, “I’m meeting X here and Y there.” I missed looking across the table and feeling love wash over me for this creature solidly caught somewhere between a boy and a man.

And because in my son’s temporary and short-term absence, I missed all these things, I know that Ruth Schwartz does as well and from one mother to another- I can only say how deeply sorry I am for her pain. On this Thanksgiving eve I am as grateful as I’ve always been for all the blessings of life, but this year I will count my blessings more carefully and hold them more tightly.

If this tragedy teaches us anything, it is, that all any of us really have is today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Next Chapter

IMG_0011-2

This weekend we dropped number two son off at college. This is not my first rodeo so I was somewhat prepared for the flood of emotion that comes with this process. Despite the fact that I’ve been feeling weepy for the last week or two, the actual separation went surprisingly well, even though I did feel that familiar lump rise in my throat as we watched him walk away.

If we moms had to explain to our kids why we get misty-eyed, we’d say, or as I can only speak for myself, I’d say:

My heart is so full of love for you that it aches like a physical pain and it’s that almost unbearable fullness that brings tears to my eyes.

I will miss you and almost everything about you, your sense of humor, your long, rambling convoluted diatribes, even your closed bedroom door. But it’s not just you I’ll miss, it’s the light and life you brought into this home and your friends who also became dear to me over the years.

I will miss the way we were. Things will change between us now. We will always be mother and son but I will become an increasingly less important person to you, as it should be.

I will worry about you because I desperately don’t want you to ever feel lost or alone but I am certain that you will experience those “lost and alone” days. Everyone has them. Thinking about the times that you will not be okay and the fact that I can’t make you okay makes me terribly sad.

I am not worried that you will not succeed. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I have no doubt that you will succeed and that success will lead you further from me. Again, it is as it should be, but sad, nonetheless.

That moment when you walked away from us, we went one way and you went the other. You walked into a bright new chapter of your life where the possibilities are almost endless. I was walking away from a piece of my heart and the poignancy of that moment is not lost on me.

I know that we will all soon adjust and I will be able to see this more clearly as a beginning for both of us and not as an end and, as we drive away I look back and hope that I’ve done most things right or right enough, that you make wise choices and that fortune goes your way more often than not.

What I Wish I Had Known

IMG_0025

With high school in the rear view mirror, my middle son prepares to embark on a three month pre-graduation trip, and as he gets set to fly the coop, here are five things I wish I had known as I held that six and half pound bundle in my arms eighteen years ago:

1) The child they hand you in the hospital is not a blank slate.
Not by a long shot. That infant you take home has all the trappings and qualities of the adult he will one day become. You cannot make them in your own image. My children were uniquely themselves, in a way I couldn’t even fathom, on the day they were born. All you can do is help them become their best selves and embrace them as they are.

2) This parenting gig is not a sprint, it is, most definitely, a marathon.
You are going to be parenting for a long, long time. If you enjoy it, it’s a journey and if you detest it, it’s a very long haul but either way you need to preserve your stamina and your children’s stamina, so don’t talk to your first grader about college and don’t worry about it either. Believe me, you’ll be jumping off that bridge sooner than you think.

3) It’s hard to screw this up. By the time I had my kids the word “parent” (to parent) had morphed into a verb. We were all “parenting” rather than just being parents. When I was growing up, “parent” was solidly a noun, as in what you become when you raise a child. And then it got so complicated with attachment parenting, helicopter parenting, no-rescue parenting. The battles raged on about breast versus bottle, co-sleeping versus not, potty issues, working versus stay at home parent issues. There was so much external noise that I almost missed the inner voice, the one that really mattered, the one that whispered, “He’s yours and you know what’s right for him.” Listen to your gut.

4) Define the qualities that are most important to you. It’s easier to look backward than forward. Try looking forward and thinking about the qualities you want the eighteen-year old version of your baby to possess. These qualities will be different for everyone, so try not to judge others. Some people feel that learning a musical instrument is critical, and others place a premium on sports or religion. Don’t try to convince someone else that your ideas are the only ones or the best ones. If something is important to you, insist that your child puts quality effort into it.

5) It takes a village or at least a few other mothers. In each of my children’s lives, I’ve been truly blessed with fellow moms who have literally saved me. From my first bout with post natal depression to the strangling fatigue of sleepless nights-I couldn’t have done this alone. With my first child, we moms pretended that the playgroup we organized when they were three weeks old, was for the babies, even as we lay them drooling on the floor barely able to hold up their heads. At the end of the day, that group was about the moms more than the kids. You need a lifeline, reach for it and you will be enriched beyond measure.