Monday, December 26, 2011

Let the Frying Begin

Spin a hand-made dreidel. Happy Chanukah!
You might not have noticed me had you walked past my dining room table the night before Chanukah began, but there I was, obscured by rolls of wrap and ribbon. Ticking off names as I went, I tucked and taped stacks of gifts into pretty packages, all the while feeling the pressure of this season of presents.

While frying the first round of latkes, I wondered, with Chanukah gift-giving being such high pressure material, whether it was safe to be standing so close to the flame. Well, that and the fact that I will probably smell of hot oil for the next eight nights no matter how often I shower. 

At best, gifts are cherished for a lifetime. At worst, they are returned to the store. Most, though, land somewhere in between, genially received and appreciated, but presents with little lasting presence nonetheless. For children especially, even the top items on their wish lists tend to be of the moment, savored for a short while, then quickly outgrown and forgotten.

I’m sure I also had wish lists when I was young, things I believed I wanted so much it hurt to imagine not getting them. And I’m certain that there were years I received them. But what I remember most are the gifts that disappointed or bewildered, occasionally even embarrassed – the book I’d already read four times, the hand-knit sweater that was more pillow than cardigan, the new slip given when guests were present.

I’m no pessimist, so why is it that I cannot recall what I so desperately wanted in Chanukahs past, but can remember so many of the things I wish I’d never received?

While frying yet another batch of latkes – this time cheese, not potato – it dawns on me. The experience of getting a gift chosen from the top of my wish list ended with the tearing of the wrapping paper and my first shrieks of delight. Soon, maybe almost immediately, I moved on to wanting something else. As is often the case with a young soul, the longing was much more satisfying than the fulfillment.

The items I did not want, the ones that disappointed, stay with me because they were more than gifts that missed their target. They have had a much longer shelf life, providing a lesson in appreciation and the knowledge that you can’t always get what you want. But even bigger, the unwanted gifts often transformed over time into humorous stories that make up my personal Chanukah lore, the tales that I share with my own children when I give them a gift that fires askew.   

So on I plod, doling out assorted tchotchkes and baked goods to teachers and rebbeim, relatives and friends. And to those most difficult to please, my children, I give hoping that maybe, just maybe, something will result in at least the faintest squeal of delight.

And if not? I will wish that they at least inspire a good story, another layer of who our family is, a lasting presence in the men my boys will, G-d willing, become.   

Chanukah Sameach! Happy Chanukah!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mistaken Appearances, or My Year as Monica

Every girl needs an escape hatch.
Here's mine, made of paper and ink on a steel door.
I’ve always had the kind of face that reminds you of someone. Maybe your fifth grade teacher or your sister-in-law’s neighbor or your college roommate. Or maybe, even worse, someone, but you aren’t certain exactly who, and you are going to stare at me until you figure it out.

When I was young, I’d hoped that this little quirk of mine signified something remarkable, that it would enable me to assume identities not otherwise available to me. I could imagine that I was a Mediterranean goddess turning heads, not a suburban Jewish teenager flipping the pages of a book. I could even foresee a celebrated career as a secret agent, known in certain circles for my chameleon-like, undercover abilities.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, and along with it my fantasies of foreign service intrigue. I soon became my work, my home, my spouse, my children. I had so many real identities to reckon with, who had the time to imagine a parallel life? And once over the threshold of adulthood, I didn’t want to pretend to be someone else anyway, so eventually it neither bothered nor inspired me when you mistook me for your mother’s hairdresser.

At least until the second glances from complete strangers began in earnest. I was stopped. I was gushed over and consoled. My black beret was complimented. At work, I was excluded from a group photo with the visiting prime minister of an emerging nation. Something big was up.

This was 1998 and it seemed that I looked very much like the most famous of White House interns. 

Transfixed like the rest of the country, I watched the news as the blush-inducing, presidential scandale unfolded. I debated how exactly to divide my sympathies, yet stood by my vote. Then, forever limiting my hair-covering choices, I swore off black berets entirely. 

Now, thirteen years later, no one stops me to ask if I’m Monica Lewinsky. That moment in time is, thank G-d, all water under the bridge.  But out of the blue it comes back to me:  To keep her cool while on page one, Monica would knit. Yes, a girl needs a door through which to flee her reality – whatever it may be – and crafting – whatever your game – makes a perfect escape hatch. 

I can’t help but wonder, though, whatever happened to that Mediterranean goddess I didn’t become. Maybe she’s at her computer somewhere, staring longingly out her window onto the sea, writing a blog while she waits for the last load of laundry to dry before heading up to bed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Grandma and Grandpa, all dressed up behind a glass plate

Customized Square Plate
Jeopardy Trumps Granddaughter

For the years that our time here on earth overlapped, my Grandma Sadye lived in the Bronx. The first apartment I remember had heavily-painted kitchen cabinets that never fully closed. Grandpa’s cigar burned in an ashtray, and British hard candies gathered in cut crystal bowls that dotted each and every surface.

Her last apartment created an entirely different collage of memories. Grandma was the tchotchke queen, an acquirer of delicate things: creamy blue Wedgewood, Bennington pottery bought with Grandpa on anniversary trips to Vermont, Rosenthal cake stands, and that crystal, much of it gifted to her by lifelong friends. Above all, though, she cherished Grandpa’s tokens of affection and the cards colored for her by her grandchildren.

She sang to her philodendron and African violets as she took them for walks around the apartment. Who was I to question the source of her green thumb? She hid her jewelry in the freezer and her bus money in her bra, and she never left the house without lipstick, even to go down to the laundry room. She always wore a smile, too, undeterred by the arduous, daily commute on public buses to the nursing home, where she spent her days with my grandfather, who had long forgotten who she was.

When I visited, she would wait in the doorway of her apartment as if the queen were coming for tea and all of my childhood problems, adolescent anxieties, and adult stresses would evaporate. She called me shayne punim, especially when I didn’t feel particularly pretty. She was my guardian angel and I was her pearl and I was the luckiest girl in the world.

Still, I could not call her during the sacred hour when “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” aired. She would perch herself on the couch, sipping her cup of Sanka as Alex provided the first answer. Then she would knit as she watched, her wrinkled hands working the wool into cardigans until Vanna had turned over her last vowel.

And so she was until her first tumble out of bed in the middle of the night, the one which derailed our every confidence in her ability to live alone. There was time in an assisted living out of the Bronx, and later, a brief stay in a nursing home. Then suddenly, she was gone, too short on earth as angels must be, leaving the scent of her violet talcum powder in her wake.

She bequeathed to me her heavy Persian coat, its strength and beauty reminiscent of her. An angel must hide her wings somewhere, I thought, when I noticed the coat was torn in the back beneath the arms. The tailor said, “Sorry, nothing to be done. The wool is too old and fragile.” But I knew it was because he feared he’d clip the wings that she’d hidden for me beneath the monogrammed lining.

They are my yerusha, my inheritance, from her, and it is she who continues to encourage me to fly in my own direction.

In memory of Shayna bat Mariyasha on the occasion of her yahrzeit

Friday, December 2, 2011

Color Me Happy

A garden behind glass for my Shabbat table.
This unseasonal weather has me befuddled. First, we get a snow storm at the end of October, then a string of balmy days leading up to December. Huh? Still confused but very happy, I broke out my flip-flops this morning – I LOVE my flip-lops -- and practically skipped in them to kickboxing. 

Shame, then, that the moment the October snow melted I ran out to tuck my garden in for its long winter nap. I trimmed the roses, pruned the lilacs and dug up the cannas. Threatening to replace them with animal-resistant evergreens, I took a stab – literally – at killing off the row of demolished hostas. They cannot defend themselves against noshing deer, but do they ever have bullish roots.

Against the backdrop of these clear, sunny days, the garden looks wretched. Except for the verdant boxwood, all that remains of its summer glory is a bouquet of what is essentially mulch -- brittle stems, forlorn branches, and mounds of soggy leaves in varying shades of sludge and burnt toast.

It reminds me of the time when one of my sons, then quite young, ran to me clutching my black-and-white baby portrait. He sighed heavily and asked if it had been difficult for me to grow up before there was color.   

Indeed, it would have been, I think, missing the flowers and their colorful chaos.

So I ignored the mountain of unmatched socks and the cooking for Shabbes that needed to be done today and attended instead to preparations for a new garden. I pulled out vintage paper images of flowers and greenery. I finely trimmed the thorns from tea roses and snipped gardenias from their branches. I cut coleus and poppies and dahlias and carnations.

As I delicately planted each of them behind glass, affixing them with sepia-toned decoupage medium, I was distracted only twice. The first time was by the buzz of the dryer, which I ignored. Later, I heard a loud thumping on my roof. Not the scratchy scampering of squirrels, but the sound of something heavier crawling around the perimeter. 

I should have been fearful and concerned. But surrounded by the fierce collection of pointy-tipped scissors in my studio and the cross-jab combo I had practiced during kickboxing, I felt empowered and continued decoupaging. It took a few minutes before I realized it was the guy who mows our lawn cleaning out the gutters, one of the few pre-winter chores that I leave to the professionals.

This warm, sunny weather notwithstanding, the cold winter – along with its dull palette of whites and greys -- is coming. I plan to don my flip-flops and hang out here in my indoor paper garden, even as the snow begins to fall. 

Hope you’ll join me.