Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

My parents have lived in California’s verdant Central Valley for nearly a quarter of a century, since they retired from careers in education, sold their house in the New York City suburbs and pointed their Cutlass Supreme westward.

Their home is a three to four hour drive south of us, depending on the traffic on Highway 99 through Stockton, Modesto and Merced. Their subdivision was built right on the edge of the “rangeland,” where herds of cattle chow down on the tall grass that sprouts up when it rains and the brown stubble that remains when it doesn’t. Driving through the middle of it on Highway 145 looks every bit like Kansas or South Dakota.

Now that my parents are 86 years old, I worry about them living out on the wild prair-ee. Mom recently made it through surgery and a cancer scare, while Dad hobbles around, bent over but still managing to mow the lawn and drive into Fresno every Monday for all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster. He had a doctor appointment this week after his foot turned red and swelled up so much that he could no longer wear his usual tennis shoes and had to resort to a pair of open-toed sandals. Kaiser adhered to form. Yeah, you have gout and arthritis, so what else is new? Stick out your arm for a shingles shot and get thee gone, old man.

Don’t try to tell Dad about the connection between gout and excessive consumption of shellfish. You’d be wasting your time.

Mom had to come north to Sacramento (40 miles south of here) for her surgery and now for periodic follow-ups with an oncologist. During one such trip last week, my parents stayed overnight at a Sacramento hotel and we drove down to take them to dinner at Sizzler. Salad bar for three of us and (of course) shrimp for Dad.

Mom’s birthday is coming up on Saturday, and we hoped my parents would meet us halfway for dinner. Unfortunately, Dad and his hurting foot aren’t up to the drive. I’ll be down south in San Bernardino for work this week, and we’ll likely stop by to see them on the way home.

Just the other day, Mom heard Dad singing in the bathroom. She walked over to investigate and found him merrily crooning a tuneful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

“It’s not my birthday yet,” objected Mom. Cuz, y’know, the big day is not for another whole week. No sense in rushing things.

Dad explained that he wasn’t singing to her; he was merely washing his hands. Two verses of the birthday song guarantees you the 20 seconds of ablution necessary to keep the coronavirus away, he reminded her.

What a world we live in!

No Gifts, Please. (This Means You!)

Do not buy me a gift.  Ever.  Please.

 

I don’t do gifts well.  Perhaps this means that something deep in my psyche is irreparably warped.  But it is what it is.

Just the thought of receiving a gift gives me a headache.  I will either have to take care of it, pay taxes on it, or feel guilty –  first while it sits in a drawer, unused and collecting dust, and then later when I give it to Goodwill or toss it unceremoniously into the trash.

In other words, you’re wasting your money and my time.

Call me ungrateful or whatever the modern term for that sentiment might be.  But don’t waste your energy on one as unappreciative as I am.

Courtesy demands that I thank you profusely for your gift, even as I’m thinking about how to get rid of it.  I learned in childhood that polite society requires that we be good liars.

I am not a materialistic person.  I am not impressed by things.  If there is something that I want enough, I’ll go buy it.  Most of the time, I don’t bother.  Let’s face it, everything is junk these days, usually made in China.

Even your best intentions will blow up in my face.  So stay away with your boxes, bows, ribbons and gift cards.

As a case in point, consider the gifts that my parents bestowed upon me for Hanukkah and for my birthday.

Hanukkah:  My mother sent me a nice Hanukkah card with a $50 gift card to Barnes & Noble tucked inside.  This seems innocent enough, generous even, and certainly thoughtful of my bibliophile tendencies. Well… Let’s examine the effects of the law of unintended consequences, shall we?

First, both the envelope and the inside of the card was addressed to me only, not to my wife (who, I might add, enjoys books as well).  More than likely, Mom did this because my wife is not Jewish and does not  celebrate Hanukkah.  (Psst… I don’t celebrate any December holiday, Mom.) But did my mother send my wife a Christmas card?  Nope.  Has she ever said “merry Christmas” to my wife in our 21 years of marriage?  Nope.  It’s not like Mom has never sent Christmas cards to her Christian friends back east.  As for us, we don’t send any variety of holiday cards to anyone.  Perhaps we should try sending Mom a Hanukkah card and see if she sends anything back?  I don’t know.  Let’s just say that the whole thing justifiably pissed off my wife royally.  I deeply wish she hadn’t sent me any kind of gift.

Oh, wait, that’s not all.  When I finally got around to visiting a Barnes & Noble this month (we don’t have one in our immediate area and had to drive out of town), I found that the books that interest me most (economics and American history) cost twice what I could buy them for on Amazon!  I purchased one book and some desserts from the café, and the card is nearly depleted.  What a waste.

Please, Mom, no gifts.  Signed, your ungrateful brat of a son.

So, let’s talk about my birthday.  Mom bought me a shirt-and-tie pre-packaged combo at a big box store.  Wrong size!  “You can’t win for losing,” said Mom deflatedly when I broke the news to her.  Fine, no big deal.  We tried to exchange the shirt for something in the right size.

First, we learned that the store didn’t have any shirt in stock in my size.  No worries, we’ll just buy a new wallet and tie instead.  No dice!  The store will not accept any returns or exchanges without the original receipt.  And even if we had said receipt, a friendly employee informed us, they wouldn’t take the shirt back because Mom had removed the UPC from the packaging.  Now I have the unenviable task of asking Mom what she would like us to do with the shirt.  Should we give it back to her? Donate it?  Truly a lose-lose situation.

Is this a good time to mention an acquaintance’s restaurant gift card that has been gathering dust for months?  Or the cute game that I think is languishing in a drawer somewhere in this house?

Listen up, everyone.  No.  Gifts.  Please!  This means you, well-intentioned relatives and friends!

Save your money and save our time and energy.  Everyone wins!

Mom’s 82nd Birthday

MADERA

On Friday we drove down to the Central Valley, about four hours south of here, to celebrate my mother’s 82nd birthday.  My sister and her two adult children drove in from the Bay Area and we all had lunch at Mom and Dad’s on Saturday, followed by dinner out that night and then cake and gifts.

My sister announced that she did not bring a gift because Mom hates anything she gets and either returns it to the store or allows it to sit, abandoned and unused.  While I don’t approve of the smarmy attitude, Sis has a point.  Mom has often said that she doesn’t need anything because anytime there is something she wants, she just buys it.  Now, my parents, while not wealthy by any means, live fairly modestly and have a comfortable retirement.  They have always objected to consumerism and acquisitiveness in general.  They say they’re doing fine because they never wasted money on frivolity.  They taught me well, as I see most purchases for the inanimate objects that they are.  Early on, I learned to value people rather than things.

Case in point:  I own one pair of shoes, the ones that are currently on my feet.  When they begin to wear out, I will buy another.  Why do I need more than one?  I find clothes pretty boring.

I am glad that my parents don’t require financial help from anyone, but they do need assistance in other regards.  Over the weekend, Sis replaced the tricky overhead lighting in my parents’ kitchen while my nephew the engineer worked on getting their computer working again.  Dad loves his computer, which allows him to spend hours each day browsing classic cars on eBay Motors.

When pressed, Mom finally admitted that she would like some dark chocolate.  Sis and her kids made a Trader Joe’s run, netting Mom a couple of Big Blocks and other assorted fodder for her sweet tooth.  As I am a bad son who never gives proper attention to these things, my wife had kindly found a book on nutrition (among Mom’s favorite subjects) during her shopping rounds last week.

I am pleased to report that the fighting and fussing that typically accompanies visits from my sister were largely absent this time.  Well, except for her reference to the time Mom’s sister (long gone), who had begun losing her teeth, went running down the street, wrapped in a muumuu and yelling at the top of her lungs.  But that was a minor glitch.

Mom wanted her birthday dinner to be at Cheesecake Factory, but the place was packed to within an inch of bursting (Fire code?  What fire code?) with teeny-boppers who wouldn’t think of yielding a seat in the lobby to a senior citizen, and we ultimately decided not to wait an hour and a half for a table.  We retrieved the cars and headed for Macaroni Grill, where we were seated immediately.  That was a lot easier for me, as I’ve only dined at Cheesecake Factory once, prior to my vegan days.  They serve a veggie burger (hold the cheese and mayo, please), but is it really free of dairy products?  At Macaroni Grill I have a tried and true standby, pasta and mushrooms with garlic and oil instead of butter.  Having a regular dish at certain restaurants may sound rather unimaginative to some, but animal products are everywhere, so the vegans among us will undoubtedly appreciate my point of view.

The moments that make me most uncomfortable during visits with my parents are the inevitable apocalyptic references.  Those with aging parents know what I mean:  The conversations about decline and death.  We all want to believe that our parents will be healthy and happy forever.  We want to remember younger versions of our parents, before surgeries and pill bottles and a litany of aches and pains.

My parents mentioned that they would leave their home to any of the grandkids who would live there.  None of them will, of course.  Mom and Dad live out on the rangeland, where fields of cattle much contentedly on the waving grass before being murdered and turned into steaks and Big Macs.  The place has always reminded me a bit of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska.  They live less than a 30 minute drive from downtown Fresno, but the nonagricultural parts of the Central Valley economy, never all that robust in the first place, took a particularly hard hit ten years ago during the recession and have never really recovered.  Mom acknowledges that living there would be difficult for people of working age due to the lack of well-paying, stable jobs.

Dad insists that he will be the first to go.  While the idea of his demise is in itself distressing to me, the thought of having to deal with Mom (a very difficult person) afterward is downright scary.  We live in a tiny mouse hole of a place and have no way to take her in, and we certainly aren’t able to move out to farm country.  Even if we could afford a two-bedroom apartment (we can’t), Mom would be miserable without trees to plant and rose bushes and tomato plants to potchke with.

I am aware that Mom is already lonely.  Her superannuated cat died just before Christmas and my father, whose hearing has become quite poor, likes to sit by himself and stare into space or sit in his darkened office, keeping company with the glow of his computer monitor.  Despite the work involved, I could see how much she enjoyed our visit.  Dad had even vacuumed the carpets throughout the house.  Mom did a lot of shopping and cooking, sending me home with jars of my favorite homemade mushroom-barley soup.

I need to try to live in the present and not fret so much about the future.  I should count my blessings.  When I reminded my boss on Friday morning that I would be leaving at noon to travel to Mom’s, she shared that it was her father’s 91st birthday and that she would be heading to Stockton after work to visit him in a nursing home.  He has recently suffered a pair of debilitating strokes.  While I squirm like a bug thinking about what the next few years might bring, I realize that this is one of those times when I really do need to rely on my faith.  Let go and let God, as they say.

Ultimately, I know that my very wise wife is correct:  Whatever is supposed to happen is what will happen.

 

Toxic Birthday

manure

Visiting my parents has increasingly turned into a toxic experience.  It destroys my peace of mind, brings back dozens of bad memories and is even dangerous to my marriage.  All this goes double when my sister is in attendance.

The photo above doesn’t even begin to express my feelings on the matter.

Last weekend, we headed south to California’s Central Valley to celebrate my mother’s 81st birthday.  On Saturday, my sister and her two adult children came for the day.  I particular looked forward to visiting with my niece, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years even though she lives only two hours away.  When I first arrived in California in 1995, she was five years old.  It’s hard to believe that she’s now in her twenties, an accomplished artist and hardworking Starbucks barista who is struggling to finish college.  Her parents divorced just as she was preparing to start high school, which turned her life upside down.  She has always had a tight bond with her brother, and the two spent years living with their father and his second family.  Recently, however, my nephew, a Silicon Valley engineer, moved out of the parental home in the face of constant arguing and bickering over visits by his mother and his grandparents.  This has been particularly hard on my niece, who has an extreme (probably unhealthy) emotional attachment to her brother.

The issue of where to go out for dinner should have been settled by the birthday girl.  My mother, however, seemed to be completely shut out of this decision making process.  My sister started carrying on about how Outback Steakhouse, which she knew is a favorite of my parents and my wife, is the most unhealthful choice possible and out of the question.  My niece ended up deciding on dinner because she counts every calorie and is therefore somewhat limited.  I thought every place served salad and fish, but what do I know.  As to the vegan in the family, well, let’s just say that I know enough to bring my own food when I visit my parents.

We ended up at Red Lobster, my niece’s choice and my father’s favorite.  My parents dine there once a week anyway.  I was able to get by with steamed broccoli, a baked potato and a salad without dressing or croutons.  My mother ordered her favorite fried filet of sole, even though she keeps kosher and I have reminded her on several occasions that RL fries with lard.  I kept my mouth shut and let her enjoy.  After all, she’s 81.  Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that, once you get to that age, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want without anyone hassling you.

On the phone with my mother the week before, I had asked her for ideas for a birthday present.  My father’s birthday is always easy:  The man likes beer.  But my mother doesn’t drink, likes to make her own clothes and doesn’t appreciate wasting money on frills and nonsense.  So I was surprised when she asked for chocolate.  Milk chocolate, she informed me, she doesn’t like.  (This was news to me, as it was her secret vice throughout my childhood.)  “Dark chocolate,” she told me, “but not the bitter kind that you eat.”  My mother is aware that, although I am a Type 2 diabetic, I have a proclivity for indulging in low sugar, nondairy chocolate that is mostly pure cocoa.  It is very bitter indeed, and I enjoy it a little too much.

The very fact that my mother would ask for sweets is amazing to me.  In years gone by, she would claim to have no interest in candy or other junk food, although we all knew that this was far from the case.

Still, I thought we could do far better than merely buying a box of chocolates.  To me, that sounds like something you bring to a sick person who is in the hospital.  I had a better idea (or so I thought).  My mother has gotten into baking in the last few years.  She whips up wonderful apple pies, has tried her hand at challahs (although not to her satisfaction) and even baked cookies recently.  I thought I’d capitalize on this interest by finding a baking cookbook.  After all, she recently told me that she’d borrowed some books in this vein from the library and that they didn’t seem to have what she was looking for.  We headed for Barnes & Noble, where I found cake books, cookie books, French baking books, dessert cookbooks and just about everything in between.  (And, by the way, I was amazed at the number of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks I found on the shelves.  Too bad I don’t cook.)  The only problem is that most of the prices ranged from $40 to $90, which we found to be rather steep.  I suppose I am severely out of touch with what these things cost.  So, chocolate it is.  We found four or five different types of dark chocolate, from solid chocolate bars to chocolate-covered blueberries.  This turned out to be a win-win situation.  We actually got my mother what she wanted without blowing our budget.

I was delighted to have an extended conversation with my niece during dinner.  I expressed an interest in her work and was regaled with stories of the life of a barista.  It saddened me somewhat when I realized that, in the course of an hour, we talked more than we have in a decade or more.  If I email my nephew, I know he’ll email me back.  My niece, however, doesn’t operate that way.  She has neither the time nor the patience to bother with email.  It would be nice if I could take advantage of this opportunity to expand the dialogue and develop more of a relationship with my niece.  However, I doubt that this is a reasonable expectation.

Alas, things went downhill from there, as they always do when my family gets together.  My sister, who is an unemployed sonographer, began telling horror stories of her experiences working in hospitals (the one about the woman hiding a bag of Oreos under her sagging left breast was interesting, at least).  And then she began arguing with my mother and the screaming matches began apace.  My mother and my sister have a particularly toxic relationship that has been going on for years.  Sis calls my mother nearly every night to cry on her shoulder about her woes, and the conversation invariably deteriorates into an argument.  The next night, she does it again.  My mother refuses to stop taking my sister’s calls.  Mom says I don’t understand because I don’t have children of my own.  Perhaps this is a good thing.  This is one thing that I have no desire to understand.

My niece became more and more perturbed at the verbal violence that ensued between her mother and grandmother.  She is a sensitive sort and not as steeled to this passive-aggressive crap as the rest of us are.

It is difficult to adequately describe the extent of the vitriol that went on between my sister and my mother without providing examples:

#1

Sis: [complaining about the stuffiness in my parents’ home as we were lighting the candles on Mom’s birthday cake]  I’m dying!  I can’t stand it!  I’m gonna have bronchitis!

Mom: [yelling] So go outside if you can’t stand it!

#2

Sis:  I was really concerned about your memory!  Don’t mock me!

Mom: Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when I get Alzheimer’s.

Sis: You won’t know when you have Alzheimers!  You were reading to me and it sounded like bubrbubrbubbbb!

What else?  Oh, there was my mother’s description of how to choose a cucumber at the supermarket:  “It should be long.  You should squeeze it and it should be hard.  You want a stiff cucumber.”

And there was my sister’s description of her visit to Iceland.  She expressed regret that she was unable to locate the Phallus Museum in Reykjavik that she had heard so much about.  About the only species not represented, she read, was human beings.  She suggested that this should be remedied by her ex-husband offering his for a specimen, since he wasn’t using it anymore anyway.

This was in front of her children, mind you.

Ever the glutton for punishment, I texted my sister today to ask her how her new job was going.  I remembered that she was scheduled to start work at a Bay Area hospital on Wednesday.  There is no new job, she told me.  They checked her references and rescinded their offer.

Her previous job lasted all of two weeks.

It’s never her fault, mind you.  The fact that she is a loudmouth and can’t get along with anyone has nothing to do with it, either.

So I offered to show Sis how to apply for a job with state government, a solid job with great benefits and a good retirement package.  It doesn’t pay enough to meet her needs, she informed me, and anyway she’d be bored out of her skull.  She’d sooner continue being a nomad, running about the country as a traveling sonographer doing six- to eight-week stints in the Midwest.  Besides, she’s running after some guy in Santa Cruz now and doesn’t want him to get away.  If worst comes to worst, she says, she can always stay with my parents for a couple of months.  I reminded her that she didn’t last three days the last time she tried such a thing.  Inevitably, she makes my mother so upset that my father has no choice but to throw her out.

I guess you just can’t help some people and trying is an exercise in futility.

Oh, and now we’re all supposed to meet at my parents for Passover.

Do I want to subject myself to this after recent events?  Heck, no!  It’s always the same.  But here’s where the good old Jewish guilt creeps in.  How many more opportunities will I have to spend Passover with my parents?  What if this is my last chance?

But then I remember that I told my mother how grateful I was that Pastor Mom had gone out of her way to bake vegan hamantashen for me on Purim.  “Pretty soon you’ll have her converted,” was her reply, prior to making disparaging remarks about the fact that Pastor Mom used my sugar-free preserves instead of the traditional poppy seed filling.

Of course, I shared this with my wife, and no surprise that she about blew a gasket.

There is something, dear readers, called self-preservation.  So I think I’ll take a rain check on a family Passover this year.  They’ll just have to sing Khad Gadya without me.

Oh, how I look forward to breaking the news to my mother!  Maybe she’ll stop speaking to me for a few months again and we’ll all have some peace for a change.

Still Life with Birthday, and Chocolate, and Angst

Birthday Cake

What a lovely domestic scene.  It’s Sunday afternoon at the parsonage.  In the living room, my wife is folding freshly-washed laundry, Pastor Mom is dozing in her easy chair, my little grandniece has toys strewn all over the floor even though she’s only been here five minutes, and I am sitting on the couch with the laptop and a pile of paperwork, trying to catch up and prepare for Monday morning.  My niece is at the kitchen table doing homework for her college classes.  “What’s a dislocated worker?” she asks me, and I yell into the kitchen that it’s someone who has been laid off.  We’ve left the front door open, and the breeze wafting into the living room reminds us that it’s nearly spring.

“Phone?  Phone?”  The little one begs my wife for her mobile.  My niece gives the okay and our two year old pride and joy begins playing her favorite videos of wildly colored “surprise eggs” being opened for the toys inside to be revealed.  This time it’s the one with one hundred Christmas eggs.  My grandniece has been mesmerized by this stuff for months.  Despite the Christmas eggs, I think she finally realizes that the holidays are over.  Halfway through January, she was still making the rounds of our home, wishing each of us “Me’y Kismiss!”

Today Little Miss brought her pink Frozen backpack with her.  Aside from the eggs, her other fascination is with Olaf, Elsa and all the rest.

When I step into the kitchen to make some PB&Js, I see that my niece is reading aloud from a textbook for her humanities class.  She is clearly struggling with some of the academic language and we begin chatting about perception, reality and context.  Somehow we flit from Descartes to Freud to Santa Claus.  She reads a paragraph about turning humans into objects and I volunteer that the ultimate example of this is murder.  She gives me a quizzical glance and I explain about turning a conscious being into a corpse, a mere object.

She asks me how I “remember all this stuff.”  Did I have some super method of studying when I was in college that allowed me to retain everything for years?  Do I have a photographic memory?  I assure her that nothing of the kind is true and that, in fact, I am a horrible studier and didn’t do all that well in school.  Certain things just stick with you, I volunteered.  My wife agrees and begins reciting snippets of Shakespeare that she still remembers from high school.  She mentions my father, who, at the age of 81, can recite from memory dozens of lengthy poems that he studied more than half a century ago.

I was delighted when my niece showed up with her daughter unexpectedly late this afternoon.  She needed us to perform babysitting duty long enough to allow her to finish her homework assignment.  Even with the attentions of my wife, my mother-in-law and myself, the little one kept wandering into the kitchen to be with her mom.  In her silliness, she began biting the tablecloth, making a hole in it.  For this transgression, she earned a tearful time-out and a detailed explanation that we eat food, not tablecloths.

I don’t generally see my niece very often, even though she lives just down the road.  With work and college and raising a two year old, she doesn’t have time to breathe, much less to visit family.  On Monday nights, she works the graveyard shift and we keep the little one all night.  She has her own bed here in the office, but partway through the night she always wakes up fussing and we take her into bed with us.  We lay three across in contented familial somnolence until I roust myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work.  I am gone to Sacramento by the time my niece comes to retrieve her daughter.

So it was a bit of a surprise that I got to visit with my niece two days in a row.  Last night, she was here along with her daughter, her mom and her two brothers in honor of my birthday.  Earlier in the week, my wife told her that she planned to shop for a vegan dessert for me.  “Can I make him a cake?” she asked.  The result was one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, with chocolate icing, no less.  My wife and I drove over to Little Caesar’s and brought back pizza for everyone.  My grandniece was in a happy mood, running amok and basking in the attentions of uncles and aunts of all ages.  My niece is taking some kind of exercise class for her phys ed requirement, aerobics or yoga or something, and she tried out some of her moves with her mom in the middle of the living room floor as the rest of us egged them on and indulged in lots of laughs as they bent, stretched and lunged.  My nephew picked up the little one, turned her upside down behind his back and walked around the house holding onto her feet, calling for her and pretending he couldn’t find her anywhere.  We could hear the giggles from one end of the parsonage to the other.

We couldn’t find any candles, but they all sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and I opened bars of vegan chocolate and gift cards for Starbucks and iTunes.  My best present was the one wrapped in lavender tissue paper that my grandniece eagerly tore apart for me.  It was a framed photo of her first drawing, one that will proudly grace my cubicle at least until she is old enough to find it thoroughly embarrassing.  We talked about maybe home schooling her, and with all of us assisting, did we think we could actually pull it off?  Yes!

I don’t actually try the cake until the guests have left and I have made myself a cup of hot tea with almond milk.  The cake tastes as incredible as it looks, and I text my niece that I would gladly pay to have her bake this any time at all.  “I hope I get to eat this every day in heaven,” I blurt out to my wife.  “You don’t even believe in heaven,” she replies, and I grin stupidly.  It is such a blessing to be so loved by family, to drown in it, to blow its bubbles out your nose and mouth and bathe in its pure wonderfulness.

My parents couldn’t make it because they don’t like to stay overnight, and it would be a long ride home in the thick Central Valley nighttime fog that is a hallmark of our California winters.  We will head south to visit them at their home next weekend.  My Bay Area nephew wishes me happy birthday via email, writes me all about his new job at a Silicon Valley startup and we begin conspiring about what we will do for Grandma’s 81st birthday next month.

Pastor Mom’s 70th Birthday

70th cake

The past week or so has been an emotional minefield for me.  The witch’s brew of unemployment and family problems is a bitter potion that goes down hard.

I survived six job interviews in nine days, spending three of those days on the road tracing the map of California for which this blog was named.  I have already received a rejection notice from one of those employers.  Of the five remaining, two were in-person interviews and three were phone interviews.  I will undoubtedly be waiting for weeks to hear about callbacks for the in-person interviews.  As for the phone interviews, those employers say they are sufficiently open-minded to hire a manager sight unseen.  Theoretically, that means I could receive a “When can you start?” phone call at any time.  Realistically, however, I’m not likely to hear from them for months, if at all.  You might be surprised at how many employers never even bother to extend unsuccessful applicants the basic courtesy of a rejection email.

But it has been busy on the home front, too.  We have spent weeks planning and preparing for a celebration in honor of Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday.  Somehow, we managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for the event.

122

Most of Pastor Mom’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in attendance and a good time was had by all, despite the many challenges we faced in our efforts to pull it off.  The plan was to serve spaghetti, salad and garlic bread in the church social hall, washed down with lemonade and sweet tea and followed by birthday cake and cookies.  About 60 guests RSVP’d that they would be in attendance.

For starters, we were unable to cook the spaghetti and sauce in the social hall’s kitchen due to problems with our gas line.  We’ve known about this issue for some time, but expected it to be resolved well in advance of the party.  This did not happen; when the county inspector came out to approve the work that was done, he found leaks in the gas line.  That meant that the gas could not be turned on and sent us straight to Plan B:  Cooking the food in the parsonage, hauling it over to the social hall, and keeping everything warm in a series of crock pots.  Thanks to an enormous amount of labor by my sister-in-law, my niece, my wife and Pastor Mom herself, we were able to make it work.  Imagine working in a small kitchen without air conditioning on a 100°F+ day, with all the stove’s gas jets blasting under stewpots and the oven cranking away.  Even the social hall was warm.  We have a brand new air conditioner out there, but when the weather is this hot and the place is full of people, much sweating is bound to ensue.

As it turned out, we didn’t have nearly as many guests as expected.  Only about 35 people showed up following a morning full of calls and texts from those who had to beg off at the last minute.  We’re talking about people who woke up this morning to find their entire family ill with the flu.  People whose vehicles broke down on the way here.

bakery

My wife and I headed up the freeway this morning to pick up the cake and cookies at Sam’s Club, located two towns away.  We arrived past the appointed time, but the cake still wasn’t ready.  The guy at the bakery department suggested that we finish our shopping, as the cake should be done in about five minutes.  When we returned to the bakery, still no cake.  We ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for a cake we had ordered a month ago. Happily, Sam’s Club agreed to give us the cake for free.  We checked out at the register and were heading for the car when my wife examined the receipt and noticed that we had been charged for the cake after all.  We couldn’t understand how this happened when the bakery department had written NO CHARGE in large letters on the box.  Back we went to demand a refund.  “Oh, the clerk gets in trouble if he doesn’t scan the box,” was the explanation we were provided.  “Bakery should have covered over the bar code.”  Don’t you just love it when a store’s idea of customer service consists of making excuses?

no charge

We rushed home to get the cake in the refrigerator.  The guests would begin arriving soon.  Among those guests were my parents, who drove up from the Central Valley.  They had initially made a hotel reservation, but then decided to just stay for an hour or two and head home.  That meant more than seven hours of driving for them today.

Truthfully, we weren’t sure whether my parents would actually show up.  Last week, we stayed over with them at their home for two nights on our way to southern California and back again.  The problem is that my mother is highly opinionated and does not hesitate to say exactly what she thinks even when it is extremely rude to others.  Let’s just say that she has made more than a few uncalled for remarks regarding my wife’s family.  My wife, God bless her, held her tongue for as long as she could.  Just before we left my parents’ house on Thursday, however, my mother started in again.  My wife just couldn’t take it anymore and let my mother know how she feels about it.  I believe that my wife was totally justified and I don’t blame her an iota.  After all, we’ve been married for 16 years, and my wife has been heroically putting up with my mother’s sharp tongue for all that time.  Sooner or later, things have to come to a head.

So I was a little surprised when one of my nephews informed me that my parents had arrived.  And that’s when things turned rather sad for me.  First, my wife’s great-aunt came over to our table to tell me that she had just received a call informing her that her son-in-law had been found dead on the floor.  He was only 58 years old.  I asked if he had been ill and she said yes, he had diabetes and one of his legs had already been amputated below the knee and he had heart problems and wore a pacemaker.  I have always had a strong sense of empathy that makes me say “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  But in this case, the similarities to my own health situation (heart problems, leg problems, diabetes) made me feel as if I were looking in the mirror two or three years from now.

And, well, this was a seventieth birthday party.  When you’re a kid, a birthday is exciting not only because of the gifts and all the attention fawned upon you, but also because a birthday means you’re one year closer to being able to do all the adult things you want to do.  As the decades go by, however, birthdays begin to represent something entirely different:  They mean you’re one year closer to the finish line.  And the feeling is never stronger than when it’s a seventieth or eightieth birthday party.

My parents, who are both 80 years old, sat across from me at one of the long tables in the social hall.  My father won’t admit it, but he is almost certainly in the early phases of Parkinson’s disease.  His hands shake so badly and he has trouble keeping food in his mouth and off his face.  My mother, who told me the heat was making her ill, didn’t want any food other than lemonade and a slice of birthday cake.

Then my father mentioned that at Pastor Mom’s 80th birthday party, ten years from now, he would be 90 years old and probably would be unable to drive.  “You’ll have to come pick us up and bring us to the party,” he said.

“You mean you’ll have to dig us up,” my mother added.

“You may have to dig me up to drive you,” I responded.

“Nobody’s doing any digging,” my wife wisely added.

“I can dig it,” I retorted, smartass that I am, hoping to lighten the mood a little.

But the death in the family of my wife’s great-aunt, combined with the gallows humor at my parents’ table, had descended heavily upon me.  I remembered what a wonderful time we all had at the eightieth birthday party for my wife’s grandmother.  We had planned on doing it again for her ninetieth.  She almost made it, too.  She passed away just a few months shy.

I remember the times that my wife and I visited her grandma in the nursing home, how the staff would force her to get out of bed, how she would sit in a wheelchair in the hallway with nothing to do, how half the time she barely recognized us when we came in, how she begged and pleaded to get out of there and come home, and how near the end, Pastor Mom finally did take her home.  And I wonder what will happen in the next ten years, whether my elderly parents aren’t already heading down that very same road, whether I will end up visiting them in a nursing home as well.  I watch my father’s hands shake as I tell him about the rejection letter I received this morning, and I notice the black spots on his head where cancerous growths were recently removed for the third or fourth time.  I wonder how long I will have him here and what will happen to my mother who can’t control her tongue after he’s not around anymore.  Lord, you’ve got to help me, because I don’t know how to do this.

And, who knows?  Maybe I won’t have to deal with any of this after all.  Maybe my health problems will get the best of me and I’ll end up the same way as the son-in-law of my wife’s great-aunt.  Maybe I’ll never get to find out how this story ends.  And maybe that’s for the best.  Because I don’t know that I have the emotional strength to bear it.

Because this is one movie in which there is never a happily-ever-after before the final credits roll.

Mom’s Birthday

birthday cake - March 2014

MODESTO

There is an eerie feeling of the past returning to haunt you when you enter a restaurant in which you haven’t set foot in years and are seated at the very table at which you often sat all those years ago.

We used to live here, but that was three moves ago.  When my wife and I were first married, this was one of our regular places.  It wasn’t unusual for us to recognize people we knew as they were heading out the door or hurrying past our table on the way to the rest room.  And as we ordered our coffee and tea and appetizers, I could feel the ghosts of meals past that populate this place.  The time that my niece dined with us and challenged my Jewish rejection of the divinity of Jesus.  The time we ran into one of my bosses not long before she was fired and, soon after, died.

We were celebrating my mother’s eightieth birthday, albeit in a much more low-key manner than we marked the same milestone for my father back in November.

It is difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that both my parents are now octogenarians.  They don’t seem to fit the profile, either in visage or in spirit.  They still perform physical labor on their land, build and fix things, travel all over to visit their children and grandchildren.

It’s more than that, of course.  At some level, we continue to see our parents as we did when we were children, regardless of intervening time and tide.  In our hearts, they will always be young and vital, as when they were the primary influence on our lives as impressionable infants and toddlers and school-age children.

My father removes a black and white photo from his wallet and passes it around.  My parents standing next to an old car, about a year and a half before they were married.  Age seventeen.  The same age that my niece is now.

We place the candles with the numbers 8 and 0 on the cake, light them, sing when Mom blows them out.  She will reenact the same ritual tomorrow in the Bay Area with two of her grandchildren.  My sisters, who reside in Texas and New Mexico, couldn’t make it.

As Mom opens the gifts (a wind chime in the shape of a bird, gardening gloves, a planter, a knitting bag), I can’t help but reflect on how many more of these times we will have together.  We want to believe that these celebratory occasions will just go on and on forever, but we know better.  Try to live in the moment, I tell myself.  Enjoy it while you can.

My mother can be a difficult person.  But I know that I have likely tried her patience at least as much as she has tried mine.  Today, she is in a delightfully upbeat mood, complains about nothing, does not bicker with my father.

As the party breaks up, we say we will see each other again next month, making tentative plans for Passover.  My mother continues to express bewilderment at my vegan ways; I try to make menu suggestions.

And then it is all over and we walk out to the cars together, some of us heading north, some of us heading south.  We have met halfway to celebrate this birthday, and it is then that I realize that we will meet halfway in all things for the rest of our days.  My mother tells me about her computer problems and laughs when I tell her about the Yiddish song I have been singing to my little grandniece.

As we prepare to part ways, she presses something into my hand, makes a mumbled remark about gas.  When I join my wife in the car, I open my palm to find three folded twenty dollar bills.