My Uncle, Age 91 and Still Fighting

I’m back!  Big thanks to WordPress happiness engineer Megan, who managed to solve the seemingly intractable technical problems that have left me locked out of this space for months.  Merci, grazie, danke schöen!

I usually speak to my mother on the phone about once a week.  I feel like a terrible son when I tell the truth, which is that it’s more of an obligation than anything else.

To be honest with myself, I must admit that, as an adult, I remain stuck in childhood patterns of behavior when it comes to my parents.  If I don’t call for a couple of weeks, Mom will call and start the conversation with a sarcastic comment such as “Did you forget that you have a mother?”  Now, if I were my sister, who operates with no filter whatsoever, I’d likely respond with “I guess you reminded me, huh?”

As for my father, he hates to talk on the phone.  He’ll answer if my mother happens to be outside or in the shower, or if my parents are sitting on the driveway in folding chairs, enjoying the evening breeze, and he runs into the garage to pick up the ringing 1980 baby blue rotary dial phone.  He will pass the phone to my mother as soon as possible.  “Here, talk to your Mommy,” he will say and rush off the phone.  If my mother answers, she may, at some point in the conversation, cajole him into coming to the phone.  “Talk to your son!”

I don’t have much contact with family members other than my parents, and I like it that way.  I upset my mother when I tell her that I was forced to deal with them while growing up and that I’m happy that I no longer have to do so.  I have two sisters, one in Boston and the other in the Bay Area.  I typically visit or speak on the phone with Boston sister once every year or two or five.  Bay Area sister is much closer at hand and so is more difficult to avoid.  Boston sister will leave me alone, but Bay Area sister doesn’t grant me quite as wide a berth.  I guess I can’t complain, however.  I can expect her to text or call once every two or three months.  Fair enough.

This is not to say that I’m unaware of what is going on in my family.  Far from it.  My mother regularly gives me the low down and the skinny on everyone we know, from our relatives to the neighbors to her dentist.  There is really no news that my sisters could possibly share with me, as I’ve already heard it from Mom.

Occasionally, what I hear from my mother is disconcerting.  Like all families, ours has its dark spots, and the passing decades don’t seem to have caused them to go away.  On last week’s call, my mother was filling me in on the latest regarding my uncle, her late sister’s husband.  Apparently, his second wife, who is not in good health, has suffered a long series of falls.  I’m told she has many bruises on different parts of her body.  My mother mused aloud about whether my uncle hits his wife.  This doesn’t surprise me at all, as throughout my childhood, he and my aunt had a turbulent relationship during which they would batter one another.  My uncle is a little guy, maybe five feet tall, weighing about 95 pounds soaking wet.  My aunt weighed about 300 pounds until she developed cancer.  Despite their physical mismatch, my uncle was able to defend himself amply.  With his diminutive physical profile, he claims to have gained his pugilistic skills early.  And yet, from what I can tell, he was usually the aggressor.

My uncle was constantly getting into fights.  Unconfirmed rumors, whispered or spoken of in code so the children wouldn’t understand, involved arrests and scrapes with the law.  My uncle’s modus operandi involved throwing a punch at the slightest perceived threat, real or imagined.  As this wasn’t discussed openly while I was growing up, I sometimes wondered whether I was imagining it.  That all changed a few years after I graduated from college, when I attended the first wedding of my aunt and uncle’s only son (he is now on his third marriage).  As we were enjoying our salmon en papillote at the reception, my uncle downed a few too many vodkas and took to the floor to perform his signature Russian dance, the kazatsky.  A few minutes later, I observed him starting a fistfight with the father of the bride, right there on the dance floor.  At this point, someone called the cops and my entire family stood up and walked out.  The valet brought the cars before the police showed up (if they ever did).

So I guess I wasn’t imagining things after all.  Throughout my childhood, he and my aunt would engage in horrific screaming matches that would terrify my sisters and myself.  My aunt would yell at full volume to call the police, and my mother would try to calm her down.  These are some memories that I wish I could forget, but these scenes are, unfortunately, etched into my brain.

The thought that my uncle may be repeating this ugly behavior with his second wife, ill as she is, is both sickening and disgusting.  The kicker is that he is 91 years old!  And he is not in the best of health himself.

My uncle and his wife continue to reside in our old neighborhood in New York, although they purchased a home in south Florida several years ago for the purpose of avoiding the icy Northeast winters.  Mom tells me that they have now sold the Florida home because it has become too difficult to make the trip back and forth.  I am guessing that there are health issues that make flying problematic.  For a number of years, they would drive to Virginia in the fall, whereupon they put the car on the auto train and rode in comfort to Orlando.  The last time they did this, however, my uncle took sick on the train, which had to make an unscheduled stop for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital.  I am told that he had a minor heart attack and that a pacemaker had to be installed.  So now they’re done with Florida.

Mom informed me that, instead of selling off the furnishings in their Florida home, or simply selling the home fully furnished, they paid a mover to pack everything up and truck it back to New York.  Now they have two households full of furniture in one house.  What was unloaded by the movers remains in shipping containers, filling their garage, their spare bedroom, and every other room in their house.  My uncle says that his son, who resides in North Carolina, couldn’t come visit even if he were so inclined, as there would be no place for him to stay.

As for my uncle’s wife, she’s back in a convalescent facility again, for what I believe is her fourth or fifth stay.  She is engaged in physical therapy and recovering from her latest “fall.”

I wish there were some way I could tell my mother, without being unbearably rude, that I don’t want to hear the family gossip.  Tell me about your appointments at Kaiser, your trips to the dentist in San José, the trees and flowers you are planting, your latest experience at Red Lobster or the ongoing problems with your multiple lawn mowers.  But I can do without hearing about the bad behavior of my nieces, my sister’s hysterics and my uncle’s domestic violence.

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.  I realize that pretending that the family drama is not occurring is not going to change anything.  It’s just that I don’t want to hear about it, Mom.

That is, if you want me to keep calling you.

 

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Siamese, If You Please

I am not a pet person. (I’ve mentioned this fact on a number of previous occasions in this space — here and here, for example).  Today, however, I almost wish I were.  You see, our county animal shelter is full.

I’m not exaggerating here.  The Bradshaw Road facility out near Highway 50 is usually pretty close to capacity (they chalk it up to a combination of overpopulation due to a failure to spay/neuter and the general public attitude that cats and dogs are disposable).  But this is different.  They are full.  No vacancy.  No room at the inn.  Can’t take any more no matter how desperate the situation.  Nowhere to put any kitty or puppy that shows up at the door.

How can I adequately explain how desperate the situation is?  At the beginning of December, the shelter’s occupancy level was labeled “extremely full.”  This week, however, the Sacramento Bee reported that a local animal advocacy group posted the following on Facebook:  “The shelter is beyond capacity.  There is NO MORE ROOM!”

Because I am a hopelessly sappy sucker, I’d actually consider adopting one of these critters if I didn’t live in a place where no pets are allowed (except for the landlord’s pets — more about that later this weekend).  I’m lucky to have something to save me (and the poor dog or cat who got stuck with me) from my own folly.

Arthur   Ophia

Arthur and Ophia, two of the pit bulls currently available for adoption at the Sacramento County animal shelter.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the shelter being overflowing is that most of the dogs currently up for adoption are pit bulls.  Like German shepherds and labs, these dogs are big guys.  This means that they demand a lot of the shelter’s resources.  Also, they’re harder than a lot of breeds to adopt.  They eat a lot, they poop a lot, and they need a lot of space to run around in.  You probably shouldn’t have a pit bull if you live in a one-bedroom apartment.  Also, well, pits have a bad rep.  Some people are afraid to have them around babies and little kids. And every so often, you read a story in the news about some unfortunate who was mauled to death by his or her own pit bull.  There are plenty of people out there who love this breed, but pits are clearly not for everyone.

Then there are the cats.  This evening, I’m seeing 62 of them on the shelter’s website.  Six of those were recently adopted.  This is as opposed to 17 of the shelter’s 74 dogs having been recently adopted.  More than a few of the available felines are labeled as “barn cats,” which I suppose is an appeal to those who have mice to get rid of.  Then again, I suppose “barn cat” is a not-so-subtle hint that this is not a cute, cuddly kitty who is going to curl up in your lap and purr while you’re watching Netflix.

Oh, I should mention that there are also three rabbits and four chickens up for adoption at the shelter.  No goldfish, turtles, hamsters or snakes, apparently.

It’s no surprise that the adoptable chickens are not the egg-laying hens that everyone wants.  No siree, they’re loud, obnoxious, pugilistic roosters.  We’ve got plenty in our neighborhood, some of which have a predilection for crowing in the middle of the night.  My guess is that if these guys ever get adopted, they’ll go straight in the pot with a bunch of carrots and onions.  I see them for sale all the time in cages by the Mexican butcher shop at the corner of Main and Rio Linda Boulevard.  I can only hope that they don’t end up forced into illegal cockfighting, a fate arguably worse than being served up next to the mashed potatoes.  As for the rabbits, they need to hold on for another three months or so until they’re in demand as Easter gifts.  Otherwise, they may well meet the same fate as the roosters.

I have to wonder how many of the shelter dogs and cats will end up murdered — I mean “euthanized.”  As if I had to mention it.  You know what euthanized is a euphemism for.  Back in school, I learned that “euthanize” is from the Greek for “good death.”  But you know that half of what you learn in school is propaganda and lies.  I was well into adulthood before I learned that the correct translation of the Greek is “couldn’t get adopted.”

Some have registered surprise that an animal lover such as myself doesn’t have pets.  I mean, since I’m vegan and all.  And especially since I don’t have kids.  (As if pets can substitute for children.  People are so dumb.)

Honestly, I can understand why more people don’t adopt dogs and cats.  They’re a lot of work, they cost a lot of money, and then they die on you.  I had to laugh this week when I read an article about a dog that helped save a fat man’s life.  This guy weighed 340 pounds, was taking 15 different medications, and all efforts at weight loss had failed him.  He hurt all over and tried not to move any more than he had to.  (I weigh more than that.  You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.)  Apparently, he was spurred into action by an embarrassing moment when a plane he was on had to be delayed while they found a seatbelt extender large enough to fit him.  Haha!  I’ve got that one all figured out.  I don’t fly.  Oh, this guy had to travel for his job.  So do I.  Luckily for me, my employer insists on using the discount carrier Southwest, which has a rule that fat people have to buy two seats.  Score!  Now it’s cheaper for me to drive than to fly.  I’ll be laughing at my destination while the others are waiting hours to get through the TSA line.

So then this guy makes an appointment with a naturopathic doctor, who tells him to switch to a plant-based diet.  Again, haha!  Plant-based diets are certainly gaining popularity; even Kaiser encourages this now and has messages about it on their interminable “hold” recordings.  But after three years of being vegan, I can tell you firsthand that eating plants won’t by itself make you thin.  The article cited Bill Clinton’s diet, which I’ve read is not totally vegan despite his representations to the contrary.

Then the naturopathic doctor ordered this guy to go to the animal shelter and get a dog.  “Why a dog?” he said.  “Can I adopt a cat instead?”  The doctor responded:  “Have you ever walked a cat?”  Again, haha!  No, I have never walked a cat, nor a dog either.  As I see it, you have a nice fenced yard, you let the dog out, it does its business, it comes back in.  Or, like our landlord, you leave the dog in a large pen outside the house all day.  But going out in the dark of night (this time of year, I go to work and come home in the pitch blackness), freezing cold, wind and snow with a plastic bag and pooper scooper?  No how, no way.  Oh, and by the way, if I want to go walking for exercise, I don’t need a dog (or cat) to do that.

All of which brings me to my mother.  Her beloved Siamese cat, Taffy, left for kitty heaven a little over a year ago at the age of 18.  Taffy was originally my sister’s, but wasn’t doing well cooped up in Sis’s condo.  She drove Taffy and her meds down from the Bay Area to my parents’ house, in hope that the country air and space to roam about might improve her health.  It did.  Taffy took to her new life as an outdoor/indoor cat and throve with my parents for more than a decade and a half.  Now she’s buried out at the back edge of their property.

Taffy

Mom’s Siamese, Taffy, back in 2015.

My sister from Boston, who came out to visit this past week on the occasion of my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary, decided that the time has come for Mom to get another cat.  I suppose I can understand this, as she’s nearly always had a cat (or two).  There were entirely too many for me to remember, but I do recall a gray one named Pussy Willow, an all-white one named Snowflake, an orange hellion named Mewcus (eww), another gray one named Schwantzy and a huge white one with black ears and paws with the unlikely name of Baby Baldrick (who ran away to become a Canadian chat when we attempted to retrieve him from a kennel at a campground in Québec).  Mom doesn’t believe in spay and neuter, so we had cats that would have as many as three litters per year.  I remember my sisters and I standing with a boxful of kittens on Saturdays, yelling “Free Kitten!” until we were hoarse in front of Pathmark on Route 59.

Nevertheless, I think Mom, who is well into her 80s, should decide when she’s ready for another cat, not my sister.  But Sis pushed the issue, taking Mom to Petco to look at the adoptable cats, then to the local animal shelter, where over 200 felines were available for adoption.  Mom was impressed by the way that the cats had free reign over the place, prowling in and out of cat doors to visit each other in various rooms and out of doors, as well.  But she couldn’t seem to find exactly the one she wanted.  She said she doesn’t wanted a little kitten, nor does she want an older, lazy fat cat.  So what exactly did Mom want?

A Siamese.  Mom’s favorite cat was a Siamese named Pouncy who was run over crossing the road in front of our house when I was two years old.  She lives on in my father’s reels of Super 8 home movies.  After my parents retired and moved to California, Mom’s first cat was a dusky blue-eyed Siamese beauty named Bonnebeau (supposedly because she was beautiful and good).  Of course she wasn’t spayed, so Bonnie, an indoor cat, went into heat and meowed piteously to be let out to have at it with the neighborhood toms.  Eventually, she did manage to get out and celebrated her newfound freedom by taking off for parts unknown.

Unfortunately, Mom and Sis did not see any Siamese at either Petco or the animal shelter.  So my sister got online and showed my Mom pictures of cats, including Siamese, available for adoption from the Cat House on the Kings, over in Fresno County.

Then my sister got on a plane and headed home, after which Mom admitted that she doesn’t really want to deal with another cat.

 

Have a Merry Little Dysfunctional Christmas

Christmas Eve.

We just spent the last two days with family and we will again on Christmas Day.  We have a break in the middle for the purpose of driving up California’s Central Valley to maybe throw a load of laundry in and spend a night sleeping in our own bed before heading north to do it again with another part of the family.

Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary.  We had Shabbat dinner at their house on Friday evening, followed by an informal party on Saturday.  In between, we drove down to the rural area of southern Fresno County to watch my wife’s three year old grandniece open gifts.

Both my sisters, along with two of my nephews, were present for my parents’ big day.  Mom made up the hors d’oeuvres platter, my parents bought the cake at a local supermarket, and one of my sisters did most of the cooking.  She and her husband are pesco-vegetarians, but they accommodated my vegan ways by preparing tofu ratatouille, broccoli, rice and potatoes along with their salmon.  The carnivores in the crowd had meatballs and franks.

One of my sisters lives over in the Bay Area and commutes to her job in the Central Valley.  Working 12-hour shifts in a hospital, she has a crazy schedule and was lucky to get a day off to attend our festivities.  My other sister is a teacher in the suburbs of Boston, while her husband is a tech industry exec in Dallas.  All three of their kids are in Boston; two work in tech, while one is still in college.  After years in Dallas, Sis left her husband behind and decamped for Boston in June, mostly because their anorexic daughter was in and out of the hospital and Sis was worried sick.  Before long, my niece told Sis to buzz off, which, understandably, my sister took hard.  Still, she enjoys the Jewish community and liberal academic environment that Boston has to offer, a far cry from her red-state experiences in Texas.  Back in Dallas, hubby takes care of the house and the cats and is overseas for his job one week each month.  He visits Sis in Boston frequently.  The thought is that, eventually, they’ll buy a house in Boston.  None of us is getting any younger, and hubby is bound to retire sooner or later.  Meanwhile, Sis rents a room in a house owned by a couple she knows.  She complains that the room is drafty and is usually too cold in the New England winter.  But she loves her job and being near friends and her kids.

I am reminded of my parents, who were also separated for a number of years due to their careers.  My mother worked in places like Rhode Island and Utica NY while Dad stayed in the house in the suburbs of New York City, making a long drive to visit Mom once or twice each week.

What a way to live, huh?  I know that, these days, you have to go wherever the job is, but I always think in terms of wife and husband moving together.  Then again, I think of marriage as involving shared finances as well as a shared residence.  Yet my parents have kept their finances separate for decades.  I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m starting to hear that it’s not so uncommon.  Blech!

The funny thing about my family, that was really brought home to me during our visit this week, is that we have next no nothing in common.  From a common origin, my sisters and I have shot off in totally different directions in terms of geography, family and career.  I’m glad that I don’t see my sisters very often, as I can’t imagine us getting along for more than a few hours every year or so.  We simply have different worldviews, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re really from different planets.  Certainly I couldn’t ever see calling one of them to ask for advice on a problem.  For the most part, I prefer to have as little to do with them as possible.

The disjointedness of our lives became embarrassingly apparent as my sister from Boston attempted to encourage conversation as we all sat together in my parents’ family room on Saturday.  There were long pregnant pauses, during which three or four of us would be occupied by apparently fascinating things on our phones, the rest of us absorbed in our own thoughts or staring off into space.  Hospital Sis was sprawled out on the couch, nearly asleep.  Boston Sis would offer conversation starters such as “Who has an interesting story about their job?” or “Who has done something interesting lately?” or “Has anyone seen any good movies or TV shows recently?”  Most of these overtures fell flat after a minute or two, leaving us in physical proximity, but as emotionally distant from one another as we usually are geographically.

When it was time for dinner, we had to rustle up my wife and Hospital Sis, both of whom were fast asleep.  Mom decided to wake up Sis by tickling her, which devolved into loud accusations of rudeness from both sides, along with threats never to visit again.  Typical for us, I’m afraid.  As Trump is so fond of saying, “Sad!”  I don’t know why we bother to put on this dog and pony show, regardless of the occasion.  Mom is a firm believer that “blood is thicker than water,” that families must stick together regardless of the profound differences between their members.  Uh, enjoy?

Finally, when the cake and ice cream was served after dinner (no vegan desserts available, although I declined the offer of an orange), Hospital Sis resorted to web searching on her phone for a site full of courtroom jokes.  Some of them were quite funny, primarily at the expense of inept attorneys, and we all laughed at them.  Then Dad began to tell the same racist and dirty jokes that he’s told since I was a kid.

Soon, my wife and I drifted off to the family room to visit with my nephew, who told us stories about his life in the Bay Area.  Everyone else remained in the living room, from whence I could hear my mother telling family stories about her parents’ emigration from Europe to America, the same stories she’s told dozens of times, year after year.

I’m not coldhearted enough to say no to my parents when they want all of their children present on the occasion of their 65th anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussing and fighting, yelling and cursing at each other.  I know I’m not unique in this respect.  As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As if to prove the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, my wife’s niece called us on FaceTime while we were at my parents’ house.  She is 20 years old, has a 5 year old daughter, and can’t figure out what she wants in life.  I attempted to give her advice along the lines of being true to herself, as she thinks she led a guy on, who she now wants to let down easy, or maybe not.  Respect yourself and insist that he respect you was my recommendation.  We had the call on speaker, and I think we put on quite a show for my own family.

As if to add a punch line to a decidedly unfunny joke, we stopped for coffee on the way home today and proceeded to drive over a nearly invisible concrete divider at the entrance to a parking lot, blowing out one of our tires.  Right in front of a tire shop, I might add — a tire shop that was closed for Christmas Eve.

This makes two months in a row.  Last time, it was on a desolate stretch of interstate in the middle of the Arizona desert on the way to the Grand Canyon.  At least this time we had friends nearby who came to our rescue while the Triple A tow truck hauled off our vehicle to the only open tire shop in the area, about 15 minutes down the road.  We had one hour until the shop closed, just enough time for them to take off the flat and install a new tire, to the tune of $165.

Uh, merry Christmas?

 

 

Your Cat is Eating Your Turkey

HAYWARD

In early November, my sister sent me a text message inviting me to Thanksgiving dinner.  She recently purchased a house in the Bay Area and wanted to show it off.  I consulted my wife and then texted her back to say yes, we would come.  Her new home is less than two hours away and we didn’t have any firm plans for the holiday, so I figured why not.

Two days later, Sis texted me again to say that Thanksgiving was off.  My parents had visited her and apparently indicated that they would never return.  It seems that they were frightened off by the winding roads that lead to the mountaintop street where my sister now resides.

An hour later, my sister texted me again.  “Thanksgiving is back on.”  My parents had agreed to drive as far as a supermarket parking lot on the flats, where my nephew would pick them up and haul them up the mountain.

My parents stayed home anyway.  Dad recently contracted a severe case of conjunctivitis and, despite the use of eye drops prescribed by a doctor, he has been unable to open his eyes very far, making driving out of the question.  We offered to drive all the way there, pick them up, take them to Sis’s house in the Bay Area, and drive them home again.  They declined on the grounds that Dad is probably still contagious and no one will want to be near him.

As if it weren’t bad enough that my parents would be spending Thanksgiving alone, the fact that Dad is unable to drive has created much greater problems.  My mother, also age 83, hasn’t driven in seven years and expressed to me that she never plans to drive again.  She says she doesn’t feel comfortable driving, and that it makes her feel a bit dizzy sometimes, and that she’s just too old.  Nevertheless, she plans to renew her driver’s license when it expires in 2020.  She just doesn’t plan to use it.

My parents live in a rural area at the edge of the rangeland where the cattle graze.  I call it “the wild prair-ie.”  The nearest supermarket is about 20 miles away, although there is a small grocery store about four miles from their house.  I’ve been on the phone with my parents on an almost daily basis and they’re starting to complain about running out of their favorite foods.  It’s not that they don’t have food and are going hungry, it’s just that they’ve used up the items they need to prepare the meals they like best.  Not only that, but they need to prepare more meals than usual, as they aren’t going out to dinner several times per week as is their usual practice.

My parents celebrated Franksgiving, eating hot dogs and beans for dinner.  Mom was annoyed that they had no buns on which to serve the franks, although not as annoyed as Dad is that he is out of bananas to cut up in his morning Honey Bunches of Oats.  Yesterday, Mom reported that they are completely out of bread.  “Not even the frozen kind?” I asked.  My parents are famous for freezing many loaves of bread and defrosting a little bit at a time.  Nope, even the frozen stuff is gone, she told me.

I asked whether we should drive down there (seven hours round trip) to get them some groceries.  No, said Mom, they’re not out of food yet.  I offered that, if she provides us with her grocery list, we can probably have what she needs delivered to her door.  Then we checked online and learned that we probably can’t.  My parents’ location is just too rural.  I couldn’t find any online services that deliver to their zip code.  Most likely, the best we would be able to do is to have canned goods shipped to them in the mail.

Sis says she may drive down there on her day off and take my mother grocery shopping.  If not, my wife and sister-in-law will take care of it.  That is, unless Dad is driving again.  Now that Mom is putting the drops in his eyes instead of having him do it himself (and missing), things are looking a lot better.

We thought seriously about skipping out on my sister at the last minute and driving to the Central Valley to spend Thanksgiving with my parents instead.  However, Mom begged us not to.  She told me that Sis was already distraught that they weren’t coming and she’d be truly upset if we were to bag out on her, too.

I had no idea how right Mom was.

My sister urged me to invite all of my wife’s family to join her for Thanksgiving.  Most of them had other plans already, however, and the driving that would have been required is excessive.  Now, Sis has two adult children.  Her son resides in the same town and agreed to come early to help prepare the meal.  But her daughter failed to respond to her invitation.  Sis even called her ex-husband in an effort to browbeat him into coming and bringing his daughter along.  Of course, neither of them showed up.  My niece has some type of ongoing argument with her mother and doesn’t wish to speak with her at the moment.  As for my sister’s ex, well, he’s remarried and has obligations to spend the holiday with his own family.

Traffic on Interstate 80 was terrible on Thanksgiving morning, and it took us nearly an hour more than expected to reach my sister’s house.  At one point, we nearly turned around and went home due to traffic being at a dead stop for close to 15 minutes.  I’m glad we didn’t.  Other than my nephew, my wife and I were the only guests.

Mom called while we were stuck in traffic to find out why we weren’t there yet.  She said that Sis, having initially expected lots of guests, had purchased a 30-pound kosher turkey.  I didn’t know that birds come that large, so I wasn’t at all surprised to find that she had been exaggerating more than a little.

My wife had made a fruit salad the night before and I put together a batch of fresh guacamole.  We transported both in a cooler, along with my almond milk and a few other miscellaneous items.  Well, it turned out that my sister had prepared a feast.  Knowing my food restrictions, she served me sautéed tofu with mushrooms and onions, although it was my wife who actually cut everything up in preparation for cooking.  Sis also fixed me roasted vegetables and a dressing prepared with gluten-free bread and vegetable broth.  Both were delicious, and we had ample leftovers to take home.

After dinner, we retired to my sister’s living room, with its amazing picture window view of the bay, Oakland and San Francisco.  I suppose living on a hilltop does have some advantages.  Sis was stretched out on the sofa, my nephew busied himself watching videos about Japan on his laptop, and my wife and I relaxed in a pair of rocker-recliners while we chatted.  Sis was facing us, while my wife and I had a clear view of the kitchen, where none of the leftovers had yet been put away.

Soon, Sis made up some soy mochas while my nephew sliced the pie.  Actually, there were two pies, both Dutch apple, my sister’s favorite.  One was “regular” and the other was both vegan and gluten-free for my benefit.  The latter cost a hefty $15.  Curiosity got the better of my sister and she decided to try my pie first.  She took one bite, gagged, and spit it out.  She began yelling that it tasted like lemon-flavored sawdust on cardboard.  I assured her that there was no reason to be shocked.  That’s more or less what a commercial gluten-free pie crust tastes like.  Those of us who cannot tolerate gluten can either put up with it or not eat pie at all.  I’m told that there are homemade gluten-free pies that actually taste decent, but I don’t cook and am happy to get whatever is available.  This was the first pie I had eaten in about a year or so.

Sis gave me the rest of her slice of pie and we took the remainder of the pie home in its box, where I promptly demolished it.  It really wasn’t as bad as she described.

I should mention that my sister has two cats.  Butternut (alias Butt, Nut or just Squash) is a rambunctious orange tabby that sheds fur like there’s no tomorrow.  Sis rescued her from a shelter in Albuquerque.  Then there is Macchiato, whose coat features a crazy quilt of every cat color known to man on one side, while being nearly entirely white on the other side.  Macchi was rescued from a shelter in Boise, Idaho.  My sister moves around a lot.

Macchiato is fairly shy and made herself scarce during most of our visit.  Butternut, however, is extremely outgoing and insists on being a part of whatever happens to be going on at the moment.  When not perched on the coffee table or getting underfoot, she would jump up to her cat bed, high atop her scratching post.  There, she could be queen and master of her domain.

The availability of a particularly large variety and quantity of food was not lost on Butternut.  I decided that I had better describe what I was seeing.  The squash meister had jumped up on the kitchen counter and was helping herself.  “Your cat is eating your turkey,” I nonchalantly informed my sister.

“WHAT!!!” was her reply, causing my nephew to spring out of his seat and complain that his mother had nearly caused him a heart attack.  Sis sprinted into the kitchen, removed Butternut from the counter and chastised her severely.  Still, she did not put away the food.  Instead, she returned to join us.

We lounged in my sister’s living room, she nearly asleep and me admiring the twinkling lights of the city while listening to my nephew regale me with tales of working in downtown San Francisco. It didn’t take too long before I noticed that Butternut was at the carcass again.

“Your cat is eating your turkey,” I repeated.

“Don’t say it like that!” yelled my sister.  I guess I was supposed to jump out of my seat and make a hullaballoo instead of being calm about it.  Once again, Sis removed her cat, but not before Butternut had lapped up most of the gravy out of the measuring cup in which my sister had served it.  She made growling noises at ol’ Butt that I suppose were designed to teach her a lesson that her behavior was unacceptable.

And then my sister finally began to put away the food.  The turkey, she indicated, would end up in freezer bags and would take her many weeks to use up for her lunches.  Whereupon she began to portion out the remaining turkey meat, totally unfazed that it had been mauled by the filthy mouth of a cat.

 

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!

 

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.