Mom’s Birthday

birthday cake - March 2014


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.


How Are You? I Am Fine!


I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.

We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find:  Advertisements, junk mail and trash.  Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two.  It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.

If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month.  And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full.  Ah, that sounds lovely!  You send me trash?  Back at ya, losers!

My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail.  She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day.  She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us.  She hates federal holidays because… no mail!

I fail to see the point.  Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text.  Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone?  You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox?  Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.

Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch.  I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.

But before that?  I haven’t a clue.  It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.

Part of the reason for this is technology, of course.  It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails.  Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds?  And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office?  Plus, email is free!  My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp.  See what I mean?

Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters.  Just think of it!  You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen.  And then you have to think of something to say.

Perhaps you do have something to say.  But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!”  Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post.  In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.

Or for any other reason, for that matter.

If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call.  Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook.  My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.

I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter.  Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.

I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common.  I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters.  I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then).  Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe.  But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad.  Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.

When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco.  We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.

In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp.  The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week.  I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut.  Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there.  Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew.  I would routinely begin them with “How are you?  I am fine!”  Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.

My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel.  He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth.  He probably succeeded, too.  Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of.  His tag line was always the same:  “There goes Global Sobel!”  It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.

When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida.  We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail.  I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery.  And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments.  Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it.  She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail!  Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested.  I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep.  I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book.  The poor woman tried!

Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State.  Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom.  Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.

Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools.  My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior.  When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!”  When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad.  “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.

Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed.  After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa.  As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.

And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.

My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor.  She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her.  When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?

You can count on it, my dear.


Five Birthdays

We had a lovely birthday celebration with the family last night.  Even my parents drove up from Madera, this being the first time they’ve visited since we moved here at the end of September.  Our little grandniece, who didn’t seem to know what to think of so many people showing up in our living room, ran amok with excitement, showing off her dancing skills and basking in the attention that comes from being fawned over by her grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts and uncles.  The experience wouldn’t have been complete without her dumping something over (why should this day be different than any other day?), and when my nephew opened a large bag of chips, they were all over the carpet in less than five minutes.  Out came the vacuum cleaner.  We love our Dyson!

So, this is what it’s like to be 55.  It doesn’t seem possible.  Someone’s cigar-smoking grandpa is 55, not me.  Other than my physical limitations, I still feel like a teenager.

My wife and I are fortunate; we both look much younger than one would expect based on our chronological ages.  In my case, I think that having been obese since childhood and having extremely pale skin has helped promote the illusion of youth.  Until I was past the age of thirty, I was still able to pass for a minor, particularly if I looked sufficiently disheveled and sported a baseball cap worn backwards.

At the party, my parents reminded me that I am now officially a senior citizen.  I now qualify for the senior discount at restaurants.  Well, not so much anymore, I pointed out.  Many businesses require proof that you are 60 or 65 years old before they’ll grant the 5% off or whatever paltry discount they offer to seniors.  Although I don’t feel any different, reaching 55 is the sort of milestone that inspires thoughts of one’s mortality, a new appreciation for the dwindling number of grains in the hour glass.  True, we may not have as much ahead of us as we used to, but we have a rich legacy of experiences behind us that we have the opportunity to share with others.  Or, from the perspective of the younger generation, we have an infinite stock of boring stories to tell while they roll their eyes in exasperation.

The ghost of birthdays past paid me a visit, bringing along a stock of memories of celebrations of days gone by.

20.  On my twentieth birthday, I was still slogging my way through college, just starting the spring semester of my junior year.  I was on academic probation, having come very close to flunking out.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work; it’s just that things other than the classroom had attracted my attention.  I was an editor of a well-respected student newspaper, an endeavor that occupied most of my time.  Not only did this interest me far more than my studies, but it gave me an excuse to spend most of my time away from the ubiquitous cloud of pot smoke that surrounded the bozos with whom I was forced to live.

To celebrate the occasion, my parents and youngest sister made the 2½ hour trip up to see me on a Sunday.  My other sister was at the same school with me (she was a freshman).  All of us went out to dinner at Red Lobster.  Little Sis, a high school sophomore who was really catching on to this cooking thing, baked me a wonderful chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and a stripe of heavenly chocolate goo between the two layers.  I still remember that she presented it to me on a pretty forest green plate that had graced my parents’ kitchen for a couple of decades.

30.  My family arranged quite the party for me on my thirtieth birthday.  I was a few months away from completing graduate school in Massachusetts.  The party was hosted by my sister and her husband at their condo a few miles outside of Albany, New York.  A number of my friends from grad school made the trek from New England along with their significant others.  Sis of chocolate cake fame was now a wizard in the kitchen, and her husband possibly even more so.  The two of them cooked up a storm, and the guests appeared with everything from gag gifts to presents that overwhelmed me with their generosity.  A case in point:  My parents related that they wanted to present me thirty of something, finally settling on thirty ten dollar bills.  In case you were wondering, that is a small fortune to a graduate student without a penny to his name!

40.  I enjoyed a somewhat subdued birthday, as it fell just three weeks after my wedding.  My wife and I were fairly celebrated out at that point.  We were living in California’s Central Valley, where we both worked for the phone company.  We drove to the Bay Area on a Saturday night to have dinner with my parents, my eldest sister and her husband (now divorced) and their two kids.  They took us out to a fancy seafood restaurant that was also a fish market where whole and fileted dead sea creatures could be purchased for home consumption.  You know the kind of place:  Wood plank floor, boating memorabilia on the walls, guy in a white uniform scaling fish at the counter.  The horrible stench of dead fish struck us in the face and about bowled us over as we walked in the door.  You know it’s bad if I can’t stand it.  My poor wife, whose stomach is unable to tolerate even the mild odor of fish, was ready to toss her cookies.  For added ambience, my sister’s kids behaved like holy terrors, showing off their prowess at using their hands rather than utensils to stuff their mouths and display their full cheek pouches.  Then they dove under the table to engage in a wrestling match.

50.  I was working as a researcher for a small company with about a dozen employees.  Aware of my obsession with Scrabble, my cohorts schemed to come into work early and cover my cubicle with a giant happy birthday sign, each letter cut out of construction paper to resemble a Scrabble tile.  My sister called to inform me that I share a birthday with Oprah Winfrey and to ask why I hadn’t made my first million yet.  A few months later, I was just happy to be receiving an unemployment check.

55.  All of which brings us up to the current day.  I received some rather nifty gifts at the party last night.  For one, I think my hankering for eating out will be satisfied for a while.  In addition to two gift cards for Olive Garden, I snagged a gift card for Starbucks, another for Sonic (um, I have a little cherry limeade addiction) and yet another for McDonald’s.  (I don’t eat at McD’s, but I have developed a habit of visiting their drive-through for two large coffees.  It’s a lot cheaper than Starbucks and, to my taste, just as good.)

I also received two large cans of nuts (pistachios and cashews), four bars of my favorite dairy-free, 85% cocoa butter dark chocolate and a box of tea.  So I think my snack cravings will be satisfied for a bit as well.

The best gift of all, of course, was having many of our family members gathered round for the occasion.  You really start to appreciate things like that when you get to my age.

And I’m glad I like veggie hot dogs, vegetarian chili, salad and chocolate pudding pie.  Because I think I’m going to be eating leftovers for the next week.