Three Visits With My Parents

Mahzor

Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”

Patio

On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.

Sheep

Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!

 

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The Dreams of Old Men

Bay Bridge

The elegant lines of the Bay Bridge, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland.

SAN FRANCISCO

As I have visited the famed City by the Bay only a handful of times over the years, it always seems new to me.  It’s a case of what Joseph Heller referred to as jamais vu — it’s as if I’ve never seen the place before.

I first encountered San Francisco in the 1980s, during a visit with my sister, who had recently married and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.  Guidebook in hand, I boarded a northbound Caltrain in San José, determined to hoof it around the city to all the famed tourist spots.  I visited Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium, took a cab ride down twisting Lombard Street, communed with the ghosts of poets at City Lights Bookstore and tasted the culinary delights of Chinatown.  I got on the plane back to New York with an avocado sandwich in my carry-on, singing “California Dreamin'” and vowing to return.

Two months later, I flew west again, this time with my parents.  I rode the cable cars (standing up and hanging on for dear life, trying my hardest not to lose my Fisherman’s Wharf lunch), stuffed myself into a chocolate coma at Ghirardelli’s and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with my father.  Dad, a lifelong student of infamous American mobsters, could not pass up the excursion to Alcatraz.  I stayed behind, as I don’t much care for the turbulence of boat rides.

Ten years later, I moved to California.  And yet, I hadn’t been back to San Francisco since, unless you count passing through on the freeway or flying into SFO airport.  But this week, I found myself back in downtown SF, conducting two days of training classes.  To have seen me gawk, you’d think I’d never been there before.  Sunrise over the bay, the incredible geometry of the Bay Bridge, the late afternoon fog slowly rolling in from the ocean to slide a shroud over the high-rise buildings in the business district.

But before we headed up the peninsula to the Golden Gate, we spent the weekend with my parents down in California’s Central Valley.  We went out to dinner with my Mom and Dad twice, drove them down to our niece’s birthday party in the South Valley, and had some interesting (and mildly uncomfortable) conversations about the fact that they’re getting older and how they’ll handle their house and property.

The one conversation that moved me the most, however, occurred at sunset on Saturday night, while we were sitting on folding chairs, just the two of us, out in the driveway catching the evening breeze.  The sun slowly sunk behind the house across the street, but Dad, in his poetic way, informed me that the sun was setting over the ocean.  We watched the stars come out, and he pointed out the planet Venus, then the Big Dipper, Orion the hunter, and the W of Cassiopeia.  We were wowed by a shooting star that screamed across the sky.  I noted several light planes crawl across the heavens, red lights blinking.  “They’re very far away,” Dad told me, “at least five miles.”

And then he reminded me that he, too, once flew such planes.  He told me it’s been 40 years since he’s taken the pilot’s seat.  Flashback:  I am about 14 or 15 years old, summertime, out for a day with Dad.  We played handball on the courts at the school where he was a driver education teacher, got haircuts, and had lunch before he took me out to the airport and showed me a Cessna up close.  He wanted me to get in and go for a spin, but I was petrified and refused.  He was disgusted.  My mother had forbidden me to ever go up with my father, for fear we’d both be killed.  She was unhappy with his hobby and, eventually, forbid him from going up either.  I still remember how upset he was.  Unfortunately, it was not the only time that he agreed to give up dreams to satisfy her.

I thought this was all in the distant past.  Until Saturday night, when Dad confessed that he’d been surfing the web to look at planes for some time now, and that he’d like to purchase one.  He reminded me that pilot licenses never expire.  He might have to go up with an instructor once to show he still knows how to do it, he suggested.  And then he really got into it, explaining that planes, like cars, have fancy electronics now that didn’t exist back when he flew.  “GPS was science fiction,” he told me.  You had to plot out your route and map it out with a pencil on the chart.

My father is correct that many things have changed in 40 years, with technology not the least of it.  But one thing that undoubtedly has not changed is my mother’s attitude.  I was too cowardly to ask how he intends to get over that particular obstacle.  Could it be that he’s finally reached an age at which he’s daring enough to defy her fiery will?

“They say young men have dreams and old men have memories,” he said.  “I’ve got news for you.  Old men have dreams, too.”

Dip a wing when you fly over our house, Dad.  Just like you did when I was a kid.

I’ll be watching for you.

SF Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over San Francisco Bay

Lunch Shaming

Cheese Stick

Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I read this week in the Sacramento Bee that there is a thing called “lunch shaming.”  This can take a number of forms, but it involves kids, including little ones in first and second grade, who come to school without a lunch or any money to buy one.  What the school does about this situation varies greatly from one district to another.

Some schools advance the kid the money needed to buy lunch.  Others let the kid go hungry.  Apparently, however, many schools take a middle road in which they provide kids in this predicament with a “basic lunch” such as a cheese sandwich.

The shaming comes in when kids are embarrassed when they don’t get the same hot lunch that their peers are eating but instead are stuck with a bland alternative lunch.  Most of the class may be enjoying pizza and salad, but the hapless kid with no lunch money is given some cheese sticks and crackers or a cheese sandwich.  Some school districts have elected to stop this practice and let the kid have the regular hot lunch.  And here in California, a bill has now been introduced in the state legislature prohibiting schools from providing moneyless students with an alternative lunch.

Interestingly, the Bee article failed to mention the shaming that occurs when a poor kid brings his lunch from home, which turns out to be something sparse — such as a plain cheese sandwich.  When I was in school, eons ago, lots of kids faced this situation and no one thought anything about it.  Of course, the school can’t do anything about that because it has no control of parents who send their kids to school with a crappy lunch.  What they do have control over is what they give those kids who come to school with no lunch at all.  Gee, if I had known about this back in the day, I may have conveniently forgotten to take my brown bag sandwich on a day when the school lunch menu showed something good was being served.

Apparently, the shaming gets worse.  Schools have taken a variety of draconian measures to collect lunch money from parents who fail to load money onto their children’s accounts.  These range from sending letters home with the kid to posting lists on the wall to stamping a kid’s arm with the words “Lunch Money.”

To their credit, many school districts have given up on such tactics in favor of contacting the parent directly via email or phone calls.

So what is causing kids to arrive at school without any lunch or money?  Many parents, of course, are very poor, qualifying their kids for free breakfast and lunch.  The problem is that parents forget to fill out the paperwork necessary for their kids to get on the program.  My guess is that some parents have other things on their minds (like surviving another month) and that others just don’t give a darn.  Then there are those parents who don’t read very well and are unlikely to understand any paperwork set in front of them.

An aspect of this story that particularly fascinated me is the price of a school lunch.  When I was a kid, it was 40 cents.  If we brought a lunch from home, we could buy a half-pint of milk to go with it for four cents.  My parents would keep a penny cup on the dresser in their bedroom, from which we were expected to remember to extract the four pennies necessary to buy milk.  Today, however, the typical price of a school lunch is $2.75.  This is almost a sevenfold increase over the intervening decades.  I can understand parents being unable or unwilling to pay 55 to 60 dollars per month for their kids’ lunches.

So what should the schools do about this situation?  Many say that kids should not be punished for the shortcomings of their parents.  While not depriving kids of food just because their parents make poor choices resonates with me on a visceral level, ultimately the sins of the parents are always visited upon the sons.  Kids cannot be taken away from their parents just because they happened to be born into poor families.  So one way or the other, the kids are the ones who suffer.

I propose that the answer to the “lunch shaming” problem is to provide all schoolkids with free breakfast and lunch.  The feds, state and local governments, and the school districts will have to work out the fiscal arrangements needed to pay for this.  Neither the kids nor the teachers nor the school administrators should ever have to be concerned about whether a student will end up with an inferior lunch or no lunch at all.

As for those who would criticize my “welfare state” attitude, I say hands off the innocents.  Our youngest Americans are our future.  Jeopardizing the future of our nation by tolerating kids who are not prepared to learn because they have nothing to eat is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest nation on earth.

 

Back in the Old Days

TURLOCK

Sunday afternoon.  Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south.  My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.

I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun.  Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair.  We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body.  Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart.  You have to wonder what’s up with that.  Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for?  Maybe she needed the cart to lean on.  The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine.  Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.

My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad.  We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing).  Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.

It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before.  I need to hear these while I still can.

This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II.  He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.

Then there’s my dad’s take on history.  During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years.  A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work.  Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench.  Then he died.  There was no Social Security.  No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves.  Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property.  How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.

My father seems to long for those days.  His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of  “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”

I have some questions.  Was it really like that?  Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days?  How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year?  And what about his wife?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other.  I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.

Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together.  The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind).  We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness.  After all, family members often don’t get along.  And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.

It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.

 

Boston on My Mind

Massachusetts sign

My sister moved from Dallas to Boston today.

She’s a teacher, so she waited until the end of the school year to resign.  Then she got on a plane and went, leaving her husband behind to rattle around in their big, empty house with their two cats.

Not that her husband is home all that much, anyway.  He’s an executive who half the time lives on planes and in hotel rooms.  He spends one week out of each month in Germany, and has for years.  My brother-in-law will fly up to Boston on the weekends and stop there on his way back from his trips to Europe.

It’s not like my sister went to Boston for a job, although she does intend to look for one there.  Right now, she’s staying at the home of friends who have decamped to Cape Cod for the summer.  With her extensive experience in education, I have no doubt she’ll be employed again when the new school year begins in the fall.

The reason my sister abruptly moved 2,000 miles away is her daughter, my niece.  She is struggling with anorexia in Beantown and is not doing well.  We all fear she will starve herself to death.  I have no idea what words to use to describe my feelings on the matter.  It’s like a big blank space.  What can one possibly say that would be even approach being meaningful?

My niece has now been through two programs, expensive residential programs that are designed to teach her proper eating habits, how to prepare balanced meals and how to keep her inner demons at bay.  As if such a thing were possible.

I don’t have much contact with my sister (it’s a long story), but I did call her while she was visiting in Boston recently.  She reported that at least my niece eats some ice cream in the evenings.  Did I mention that my niece now weighs about 70 pounds?

I wrote two letters to my niece earlier this year, addressed to the residential treatment center where she was then staying.  I was nothing but cheerful, omitting mention of my wife’s surgery and my problems at work.  I regaled her with tales of my adventures in Scrabbleland.  I sent her cute cat pictures.  I discussed birthdays and vacations.

No response.

Not that I really expected to hear from her.  I mean, what is she going to say to an uncle whom she barely knows?  I’m locked up for my own good, I hate it here, and your pathetic efforts are not helping?  I know you hated that place, Rebecca, and I’m glad you’re back home now.  Yeah, I heard about the thing with the bacon.  Um, we’re Jewish and, well, it’s not like they never heard of Jews in Boston, so I don’t get it.

The doctors and therapists advised my sister not to move in with her daughter.  So she’s giving my niece her space, hoping to make Shabbat dinner for her on Friday nights and to be nearby if needed.

I always thought that anorexia was a problem faced by middle school aged girls who think they’re fat.  Just call me stupid.  Not that you can entirely blame me.  The first time I ever heard of anorexia was back in my college days when, home for the summer, I would sneak peeks at my sisters’ teen mags.

These days, I’m told that anorexia is a form of mental illness that is often a lifelong affliction.  I don’t know that it can be “cured,” at least not in the sense “make it go away forever.”  I haven’t read up on it because, quite frankly, I’m afraid of what I’d learn.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to wrap my mind around a brilliant young woman, valedictorian of her college class, who appears to be hellbent on a long, slow suicide.  Whose fondest hope seems to be dissolution into the ether, to make herself disappear piece by piece until, like the Cheshire cat, there is nothing left but the smile.

Should I write my niece another letter?  Should I just forget about the whole thing, chalk it up to an old fart’s lack of understanding of twentysomething problems, remember her as the cheerful, vivacious 12 year old that she was when I traveled to Texas to attend her bat mitzvah more than a decade ago?  Should I heed the serenity prayer and learn to accept the things I cannot change?

At the end of next month, I will be in Massachusetts for a week to compete in a national Scrabble tournament.  I will be about a 90-minute drive from my niece and my sister.  Should I go visit them?  Will I just make matters worse?  Should I conveniently omit to mention that I’ll be in the area?  Will I feel even worse if I see my niece?  I already feel like crud in making it all about me when it should be about her.

My elderly mother is sad that it has come to this, but blames the whole thing on my sister’s and brother-in-law’s unhealthy attitude toward food.  Ultimately, I think this may hark back to my niece’s paternal grandmother, who is thin as a stick and despised her husband’s obesity until the day he died.  When my niece was growing up, her mother and grandmother made sure she was aware of the dangers of becoming fat, with the apparent implication that food is the enemy.  My sister and her husband were pescaterian for a time, then began eschewing “fish meat” and went vegan.  Today, I hear, they eat fish again.  On top of that, my sister and her mother-in-law are both gluten sensitive, so there are a lot of things that they won’t eat.  I get it; I’m vegan and gluten sensitive, too.  Not that it’s done anything to change my lifelong obesity.

My niece has two brothers, neither of whom exhibits anorexic tendencies.  For reasons that I do not understand, apparently anorexia is disproportionately suffered by women.  Could this have something to do with body shaming, with women aiming to succeed by living up to some warped body image concept dreamed up by men, involving waiflike girl-women hopped up on pills so they can strut their stuff on the runway and appear on the covers of magazines to the approval of leering male gazes?

Surely it’s more complicated than such a simplistic explanation would suggest.  Not to brag, but my niece is not some airhead; she’s a talented biochemist with a bright future ahead of her.  At least she could have a bright future ahead of her if she weren’t so intent on turning herself into a puff of smoke that is here one moment, then suddenly carried away on the breeze, up into the clouds to disappear from view forever.

 

Recall

 

Saturday afternoon.  I am over in the next county sitting in the waiting room of a giant auto dealership, waiting for one of our cars to be serviced.  We have two vehicles, completely different models and manufacturers, but both have been subject to recalls in recent months.  Lacking a mechanical bone in my body, I don’t even try to understand what electronic thingamajig has to be replaced or adjusted to avoid having our vehicle go up in flames or self-destruct in some other equally dramatic fashion.  While I’m there, they can change the oil and check our alarm system that keeps going off, at least according to our landlord.

Funny thing about recalls.  It used to be that when a product was recalled, it meant that you could return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.  While this construct continues to apply to hummus, kids’ toys, power tools and gardening equipment, somehow the concept hasn’t caught on with big ticket items like automobiles.  Giving me my money back seems like a reasonable form of demonstrating contrition for screwing up.  I’m sure the dealership isn’t thrilled about having to conduct free repairs on hundreds of cars, but presumably they are being compensated by the manufacturer.  As for me, my Saturday is now shot and there is no compensation to be found.

They have the A/C cranking at the dealership and the waiting room is freezing.  My allergies, already having kicked into overdrive (gotta love springtime), decide to have a little party at my expense while I am a captive audience.  I’m glad I remembered to bring a handkerchief.

I brought a thick book with me, but rather than improving my mind, I am allowing it to turn to mush by messing around on my phone.  The place has wifi, so what the heck.  In walks a man and his developmentally disabled teenager, who sit across from me.  Every time I cough, the boy looks straight at me and asks “Are you alright?”  His father does not admonish him.  Perhaps I am nothing but an inveterate meanie (or just an incorrigible old fart), but my thoughts are not particularly charitable at this time.  About the third or fourth time that I cough and he asks the same question, I blurt out “Yes! Are you?”

Then my mother calls.  She wants to fill me in on the blow by blow of the Chabad Seder she attended on Monday evening.  This is followed by the details of the community Seder that my sister attended over in the Bay Area.  I should mention that I have very little contact with my sisters (believe me, it’s for the best), so Mom feels compelled to fill me in on the minutia of their lives.  I roll my eyes and say “yep,” “uh-huh,” “that’s good” and “wow!” in the appropriate places.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that specializes in outreach to Jews scattered all over the world, particularly those in remote locations where little or no Jewish life is available.  They encourage donations, but unlike other synagogues, never require anyone to pay anything to attend a Passover Seder in the spring or High Holy Day services in the fall.  Although I strongly disagree with many of their beliefs, I continue to support them and am proud of their inclusiveness in that they turn no one away, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, religious or secular, poor or rich, old or young.

I have attended several Chabad communal Seders with my parents, most recently last year.  My mother’s description of the disorganization, the bad food and the strange characters in attendance sounded exactly like what I remember.  She complained about the constant conversations that prevented her from hearing the rabbi and caused her to keep losing track of what blessing he was saying and what everyone was supposed to be eating at any particular point.  The Seder attended by my sister was no better.  Having had bariatric surgery (years ago now), she could not tolerate the food and kept having to leave the room to upchuck the bite or two she managed to get down.

I cough.  My mother asks if I have a cold.  The kid sitting across from me asks “Are you alright?”  Grrr!

My mother is fed up with the Chabad Seders but she says it’s better than sitting at home and having a Seder with just my father (who has no interest in anything religious).  However, she points out, my other sister (the one in Texas) did exactly that with her husband this year.  Instead of a big family celebration, it was just the two of them.  Next year, Mom tells me, she is making the Seder in her home.  I quickly check the date on my phone and find that it falls on a Friday night.  Yes!  I’ll be there, I tell her.  (And think to myself:  God willing.)

Who knows what will happen between this Passover and next?  Will I still be around?  Will both of my parents, who are in their eighties?  It occurs to me that it is not only cars that are recalled.

My mother and father begin arguing in the background.  He wants to go into town to do some shopping and she says no, it’s too late in the day already, she’s going to start dinner.  They can go tomorrow, she tells him.  No!  He doesn’t want to go tomorrow, he’s going to mow the lawn then.  Mom:  We can go before or after!  Dad:  No!  I’m too tired to go if I mow the lawn!  Mom: Okay, then we’ll go Monday!

These two have been arguing about everything for nearly 65 years.  I am amazed at how they have managed to stay together, particularly when I remember the knock-down, drag-out screaming matches they used to have when my sisters and I were kids.  The many fond memories I have of my childhood can never make up for that.  It doesn’t help that their current conduct reminds me of that past ugliness nearly every time I visit or talk with them on the phone.

And yet.  They’re my parents.  The ones who raised me.  The ones who put up with me when I was not at my finest.  And I know that they’re not going to be around forever.  I am getting old and am not in the best of health myself, so I have to laugh when I realize that I’m at the point of wondering who will go first, me or them.

Despite all I’ve been through, I know I will take it hard when they’re not around anymore.  By the same token, my father has let me know in no uncertain terms that he will never forgive me if I die before he does.  Note for a future post:  Do dead people need forgiveness?

I hope it is God’s will that we all make it long enough to attend that Seder together at my  parents’ house down in the Central Valley on March 30 of next year.  I plan to take the day off work and arrive the night before.  I can help make the sweet haroseth and then set the Seder plate by referring to the Hebrew embroidery on my grandmother’s matzah tosh (covering for the three pieces of ceremonial unleavened bread).

I tell Mom I have to hang up because the car is done.  The dealership tells me that I should replace my battery and air filter, that two of my running lights are out, and a couple of other things that sound like automotive Greek to me.  How much?  The guy punches numbers into a calculator and tells me it’ll be about $320.  Are you kidding, man?  I text my wife, who is up north with her family for Easter, to confirm that we’re not buying their bullshit.  Car guys, geez!  Shysters all, who live and die by the upsell.

I pay for the oil change and head for the door.  I cough.  “Are you alright?” says the kid, followed by an enthusiastic “bye!” as I walk out.

“Bye!” I respond.  “Have a great day!”

May all our recalls be of the automobile kind, fixable in an afternoon.

 

Removal

A “removal” used to mean moving a dead body from a home or hospital to a funeral home in preparation for burial or cremation. In President Trump’s America, however, the term has come to refer to deportation from the United States.  Still, when I think of “expedited removals,” the image that comes to mind is one of a black hearse screeching up to the curb and guys in dark suits with bad haircuts running up to the front door with a gurney.  Somehow, boarding passes for Guatemala and El Salvador never quite make it into that picture.  Nor do handcuffs, heavily-armed guards and midnight knocks on the door by la migra.

Perhaps substitution of the word “removal” for “deportation” is appropriate, as President Trump appears to be treating undocumented immigrants as dead tissue that must be excised to save the American body.  Like Kevin O’Leary on TV’s Shark Tank, it’s as if our president is telling our immigrants “you’re dead to me.”  He somehow wishes to purify us by eliminating from our midst those who risked their lives in a bid to escape to the land of the free.  And I venture to say that I’m not the only one who finds recent events disrespectful to those who didn’t survive the journey, who never made it to freedom.

The Bible speaks of the “uncleanness of death” (tu’med met in the Hebrew) that comes upon those who touch a corpse until such time as they sprinkle the water of purification upon themselves.  Num.  19:13. Does our president really believe that ridding ourselves of those who arrived here in desperation, “yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty, will serve as some sort of purification?  Is this particular brand of xenophobia some sort of Marseillaise under which we are fighting against an impure blood polluting our furrows?  The whole concept leaves me rather aghast.  I only hope that our president has a relationship with God and that he is reminded of the injunction of Leviticus 19:34, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (KJV)  Indeed, we were all immigrants once.

The immigration follies have been going on in one form or another for well over a century.  My grandfather, who arrived on our shores in 1923, held a passport from a nation in which he was not born, in which he never resided, and which, in fact, did not even exist.  This legal fiction allowed him to satisfy the quota for that year and that, apparently, was enough to get him through Ellis Island, where his sponsor picked him up.  Then, as now, laying it all on the line for a new life involved dancing into a gray area between what was legal and was humanly right.

Grandpa was a Polish Jew, which, in those days, essentially rendered him a stateless person.  Poland did not recognize the citizenship of Jews, although that did not stop its government from drafting Grandpa into its army.  And so, the “nationality” field on his passport reads “Israeli.”  My mother still has it, packed away in a box in the back of a closet. The fact that the modern nation of Israel did not come into existence for another quarter of a century did not seem to bother anyone at the time.

My grandfather, a tailor by trade, became a furrier in Manhattan’s garment district and began a long life as a resident of New York City.  When I was little, he lived three floors below us in our rent-controlled Bronx walk-up, and later, after my grandmother died, about a block away with his new wife.  He learned English, studied for the citizenship test, and became a naturalized American long before I was born.

Many years later, in his old age, he finally visited Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall and relaxed on the beach at Netanya.  Having died in the year that Reagan took office, I have to wonder what he would think of the shenanigans of late.  I have no idea how Grandpa felt about Reagan, but I am hard pressed to imagine him voting for a Republican.  On a windy day this past May, during my first visit to New York in more than 20 years, I visited his gravesite in Queens.  I took photos for my mother, who wanted reassurance that her parents’ graves were being cared for.  I recalled childhood days of utter boredom, at this very spot, waiting endlessly for my mother to finish her visit, knowing nothing of her grief that years failed to erase.

My mother grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where she had the pleasure of sharing a pull-out bed in the living room with her older sister.  The girls were expected to speak English at home, and English was the only language that my grandparents used with their kids.  When it came to conversations with each other, however, my grandparents lapsed into a medley of eastern European languages. Mom recalls how, through the bedroom door at night, she and her sister could hear the murmured cadences of Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German. And she remembers how, even in their English conversations, they often spoke of something mysterious called “the HIAS” (pronounced “high ass”).

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and shelter to Jews newly arrived on our shores after having escaped Russian pogroms and, later, genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.  They had a dormitory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a setup on Ellis Island, where they often lent indigent immigrants the $25 landing fee.  In looking up the history of the HIAS online, I was shocked to learn that they’re still in existence, fighting against the anti-immigration policies of our current administration.

It’s reassuring to know that there are still organizations out there speaking for those who have essentially been rendered voiceless and left for dead.  As for my grandpa, if he were alive today, I believe he’d be donating his time and money to support the HIAS and others who work to make an American life possible for those who find themselves in the same difficulties that he once faced.