Category Archives: Childhood in America

“Latkes and Paper Birds” or “How I Took Back Christmas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1995, the year my father died, the eighth candle of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. I could not have been more relieved. Though my father had died months earlier, as the December holidays closed in I was feeling increasingly anxious and ambivalent. How would I, could I, do Christmas without my father? For me, Christmas revolved around Dad.  Of course, my mother did all the baking, all the cooking, as well as the bulk of the shopping. But everything was orchestrated by Dad. The tree, the decorations, the annual four-letter-word-enhanced battle with the strings of lights, which would devolve each year into a massive tangle in their box. The music on the phonograph—from early morning gospel (despite Dad’s atheism) to Handel in the afternoon, to late night Louis Armstrong. It was all Dad. Who was, after all, the child of Christians—real ones. For whom Christmas was not about gift-giving and shopping and cookies and sweeping up glass because the damn cat got into the tree again.  No. Christmas, for my paternal grandparents, was about the guy himself. Jesus. It was His Day. And for my grandmother—who died long before I was born—this involved Church. And cooking and gifts and keeping the dog out of the tree. But first and foremost Jesus.

So with Dad around, I could embrace Christmas for what it was to my family. An annual tradition of sharing—gifts, music and food. Inviting loved-ones from around the area, telephoning loved-ones too far-flung to see in person. Taking the time to pause and love one another. My mother participated wholeheartedly. Being Jewish was her history, her family background, but not about religious affiliation. Besides, there was nothing in my family’s “Christmas” traditions that went against Jewish culture or values. (See above: love, food, music, sharing.) My parents had co-created a unique family culture during their long marriage and Christmas—Williamson-style—was just part of it.

We did Hanukkah too—there was a Menorah, dreidel, chocolate gelt and actual gelt coins which came tucked in little pockets of specially designed cards. And of course, latkes.

But Hanukkah is neither the Jewish Christmas nor the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah may be the most famous Jewish holiday as far as gentiles are concerned; it’s the one all of them know about. Because it coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on a commercial meaning in the same way Christmas has. (Why should Jews be left out of the December shopping frenzy?)

It starts for little kids in school. In planning the Holiday art project. Children are asked—not are you Jewish?—but which does your family celebrate, Christmas or Hanukkah? (Now, they are including Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but they didn’t even when my children were little.) The teachers just want to know how many trees to cut out, how many Menorahs. But what is created is a false sense of balance. They have Christmas; we have Hanukkah. So it’s fair.

But the analogy is half-baked. Hanukkah is not as to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. We have our High Holy Days and Hanukkah is not one of them. Instead, it is a beautiful holiday commemorating a miracle, celebrating freedom.

But this mini-rant wasn’t the point of my post.  The point was Christmas 1995—my first without Dad—and the coinciding last night of Hanukkah.

For some time, I had been struggling to justify celebrating Christmas as a Jewish person. What right had I? On the other hand, as a person of color, constantly questioned about my claim to Jewishness*, how could I call myself a Jew if I grew up celebrating Christmas anyway?

Clearly, the problem was celebrating Christmas itself. If I took that off the table, I’d have nothing to explain, nothing to justify. So how convenient was the timing of that eighth candle? I think it was a relief to my mother also, not to have to recreate the Williamson Christmas without Dad at the helm. It would have been too sad. Too soon.

What we did instead was throw a big, beautiful latke party. We invited all the friends of the family who used to join us at Christmas—most of whom were Jewish anyway.  There were about three or four Hanukkiahs but no Christmas tree. There was loads of food and plenty of music—klezmer, Jewish folk songs, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena! As well as some Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful, healing night.

And for me, it was a send-off to Christmas itself. My father was gone. I had new traditions to make. Christmas was part of my past. It was time to say goodbye. Things went on smoothly from here. I got married to Jon, who was Jewish—more culturally than religiously, like me. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with family in a low key sort of way, ate Chinese food on Christmas, took it as a given that our future children would do the same. We’d explain Christmas the way many Jewish families do—as a holiday for others. I didn’t miss Christmas; neither would they. As American conspicuous consumers, we’d make fanfare and share gifts for Hanukkah.

And so we did, until our children were one and three.  Something changed my mind. No, it wasn’t a visitation from some spirit of Christmases past. It was a shopping mall, frankly. One of those spectacularly American, sprawling malls, where you can buy everything from fine furs to motor oil. I went to this mall with a friend—another mother of two, who was there to do her Christmas shopping.

And, while I can think of nothing more bah-humbug-eliciting than a mall at Christmas time, there was something there that touched me. It was not the Christmas Carols, pumping aggressively from every speaker; not the endless array of oversized wrapped faux-presents or oversized branches of faux-holly or gargantuan faux pine trees sporting gargantuan balls and lights. It was not the cloying scent of too-sweet cookie samples on trays outside every chain bakery in the place, or even the mile-long line of sweating parents with screaming children determined to sit in the well-worn lap of Santa. (What’s wrong with that man? My daughter asked, pointing at the red-suited sage.)

It wasn’t any of that. But it was sort of all of it. All around me—as far as the eye could see—was stuff my dad would have poked gleeful fun at. The cartoonish decorations, the over-the-top promotions, the music, the urgency in the eyes of the shoppers (acquisition as a competitive sport!), the music, the clawing one’s neighbor for a spot in line to see Santa, the absurdity of the whole thing, would have just tickled my dad to pieces.

As I walked through it all, pushing my son in the stroller, checking occasionally to make sure my daughter was holding on tight, I found myself flashing back.

I’m five or so, Christmas shopping with Dad, heading for Gimbels on East 86th Street, to buy my mother a present. Normally I love Gimbels because of the lights and colorful scarves and exotic smells of perfume, but today I am frightened because of the men in red suits who guard all four entrances. They have white hair and beards and say Ho-Ho-Ho in a deep, throaty growl. When we get close to one of them, I begin to scream and refuse to take a step further.  My father is used to this. Each year, he and my mother assuage my fear of Santa Claus by assuring me that he is only pretend. Well, this guy looks pretty real to me. My father slips guy a five dollar bill to make himself scarce long enough to get me into the building. Inside there are no more scary men, just beautiful things to see and touch and smell. At home, my mother is baking gingerbread men that I will decorate later. Then I will fasten my special family of paper birds with wire feet to the lower branches of our Christmas tree.

All these years later, pushing a stroller through a mall in New Jersey, it occurs to me that I still have that family of birds—or my mother does—somewhere in a box, wrapped in tissue along with the other decorations from my childhood.

And it also occurs to me that maybe—regardless of my religion or lack thereof—these birds and the traditions that went with them are still part of me. And part of my children’s birthright.

So, before I left the mall, I bought my children each a painted wooden Christmas ornament—one in the shape of a toy train, the other shaped like a dancing doll. Later that night, I shared my epiphany with my husband, who understood—about my dad, about the birds, about my wish to share it all with our kids. Let’s get a tree, he said. We’ll do this.

And from that year on, we did. Christmas—in our modified, Rosenberg kind of way.

_________________

*In truth, the two components of my ethnic identity have never felt mutually exclusive to me. But as a social work grad student, for whom the topic of racial identity came up in class just about every day, I kept finding myself in a position of having to explain and frequently defend who I was. How can you be black and Jewish? If you claim Jewishness, aren’t you also claiming whiteness and rejecting your blackness? If your Jewish Grandmother rejected you, how can you in any way identify with her culture? And so on. It is one thing to know who you are inside, but another to be put on the spot to explain it every day. I did not always have the right words ready to defend myself. Why bother? To whom did I owe an explanation? Ultimately, to no one but myself.

 

 

 

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.

Not Everyone will Like You–and That’s OK.

Yesterday, which happened to be Father’s Day, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Empowerment Celebration at a wonderful organization called Sister to Sister, which provides professional women in my town with an opportunity to mentor teenage girls aspiring to college and careers 

I decided to post the body of my talk because even though it was aimed at high school girls, I think it fits here. The theme is knowing and liking who you are, regardless of how others may feel about you.

 

??????????????????????????????????????This is June, a season of moving up, moving on, graduating, saying good bye—if only for the summer. It’s a good time to say to yourself—so what is next? What is next for me and how can I make the best of it without getting sidetracked by negative influences, without listening to people who might bring me down and stand in my way?

So in the spirit of father’s day, I’m going to share with you a piece of wisdom my dad gave me.

I was about ten at the time, and I had a lot of friends. Kids liked me, because I was silly and made them laugh. Grown ups liked me because I knew when to stop being silly and at least look like I was paying attention. Things went along pretty well until I went to Gymnastics camp and I had to room with two of my teammates who were a little older than me. These girls, Cece and Lila, they didn’t let me hang out with them, they made fun of me for being homesick, and when I finally made another friend, they made fun of her voice and made us both feel bad. Since I’d made another friend, camp got okay, but I still lived with Cece and Lila; I still dealt with their meanness every day.

Well, when I got home, I didn’t say anything to my parents about it at first. Then one night, in tears, I told my dad. We’d been talking about something else and I just unloaded on him. I didn’t usually talk to him about social drama, that was mom’s area. I don’t remember why I used him as a sounding board this time, but I did. Anyway, Dad listened carefully to my story, thought it over, and finally laid one on me.

“Not everyone,” he said, “is going to like you.”

Well. As you can imagine, this piece of information came as quite a shock. I was not accustomed to this kind of candor. I was used to my mom, who would have reassured me that no one meant me any harm, that I must have misunderstood their intentions. Not Dad. He got it. These girls did not like me and I would have to live with that, because sometimes there is just no changing someone’s view of who they think you are.

Dad wanted me to understand that who Cece and Lila thought I was didn’t matter. Cece and Lila themselves didn’t matter. What did matter was who I thought I was and those girls should have no bearing on that. I would never have Cece and Lila for friends, but I did have me. And as long as I liked who I was, I was going to be okay.

The thing is, to like who you are, you have to know who you are. What does that mean—to know who you are? It’s more than, hi I’m Jessica, I’m from Montclair, my mother’s family is from Trinidad and my father is African American and Irish. It’s more than I play the cello and I’m allergic to peanuts and I’m with T.J.. It’s way, way more than I’m with T.J. Sure, those things are part of it, part of who you are, but they don’t define you unless you want them to.

Who you are is what you love, what matters most to you, what you won’t stand for, and what you will always stand up for. It’s what you are passionate about, what you dream of, but also the little parts of your personal reality. I don’t like crowds, I get insomnia if I drink coffee, chocolate makes me happy. No one can change those parts of you unless you want to change them.

Who you are comes from within (that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true). How you feel inside, what you want in your heart, that sixth sense you have when something is not right for you. That voice that helps you decide between what feels good right now—like someone else’s approval—and what is going to lead to something good for you long term, like working hard in school.

A girl once came to me for therapy. This was about ten years ago. She was in a pretty good state over all. Got along with family, did well in school, but she was lonely. She liked going out and meeting new people, she loved to dance at parties, but since she didn’t drink or smoke weed, she never got invited to any. She did have friends at school, girls who didn’t drink or smoke, but they had no interest in parties. So her choices were either start drinking or else be bored. I’d like to say she joined a club where she found kids who were like her, but she didn’t find that until college. MHS is bit—you don’t always find everyone who is there. She dealt with parties where kids made fun of her for not drinking, or she hung out with the girls who didn’t like to dance. Still, she remained true to herself, and found ways to be happy in this. She knew who she was and had to be true to that.

More recently, I knew another girl who really liked this guy. They got together at a party and sort of became a couple. I say sort of, because in my day, you were going out, but I know the rules and definitions are different now. Anyway, she was with him for a while—just hanging out, kissing, but no sex. He wasn’t pressuring her at first, but after a few months, he started to and she started to feel like she should. And did, though she didn’t feel she was ready. What she didn’t know was that he had been giving his friends updates on his conquest of her. What she also didn’t know what that he had found a way to film what they were doing. What she didn’t know was that it was all over Youtube before she got home. And she hadn’t even wanted to do it.

She learned the hard way how important it is to be true to yourself. You know deep down when something or someone isn’t right for you. You owe it to yourself to listen to yourself.

Some people will pressure you to do things you don’t believe in. Others will judge you for holding those beliefs. Not everyone will like you. You have to be able to hold your head up and be proud and happy with yourself even when others are not. Never be afraid to stand out, never be afraid to take a stand.

This is a women’s organization, but in honor of father’s day I will close with a fatherly quote by Dr. Seuss (who, by the way, never had any kids of his own): Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

White Parents and Black Stereotypes

DadBabySilhouette[1]In this past Sunday’s New York Times, is an incredibly honest article entitled Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents, by Frank Ligtvoet, a white father about the budding racial identities of his two African American children: a daughter, aged seven and a son, aged eight.

Ligtvoet describes how the children—who have gone through various feelings about their identities, from “I’m not black,” to “I hate white people”—are beginning to emulate African Americans they see in their community, in various ways, from gait to style of dress.  The children, Ligtvoet explains have come to a place of accepting that they do not look like their parents (both white dads) and that they do look like others who are not part of their family at all.  Lately, both kids are trying to make sense of all that.

Ligtvoet describes a walk he takes with his children to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn.  The children are wearing new clothes that they have chosen, in their father’s mind, to “assert their blackness”: purple canvas boots, tight jeans and a black t-shirt for the girl, low slung black and yellow basketball shorts and a cap turned backwards for the boy.  (Remember these kids are seven and eight).  Dad walks several respectful paces behind his children, amused by their independence, proud of their pride, and I imagine, at least a little proud of his own comfort with their experimentation.

The Fulton Mall, when I lived in Brooklyn, was shopping center frequented mostly by middle and lower income blacks and Latinos.  Though it was barely a hop, skip and jump from pricy, predominantly-white Brooklyn Heights, you were clearly in a different world here.  There were no posh bars or restaurants.  The smell of deep-fried fast food hung heavily in the air during all seasons.   The streets weren’t so clean either; garbage cans stayed full to overflowing and construction sites didn’t see much progress for months on end.  About once a week, I would take the long walk from our home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District over there, pushing my daughter in her stroller, aiming to check out the deals at the Macy’s of Downtown Brooklyn.

From the article, it sounds as if the Fulton Mall may have gentrified, like other parts of Brooklyn, but is still largely African American.  I can only imagine the reaction of two gaudily clad little ones being trailed by a white man.  (If he were walking by their sides, holding their hands, I don’t think they would get so many looks.  Brooklyn is fairly progressive.)

My first reaction to this article was: good for this dad, he is letting the children discover who they are, letting them explore and experiment with their identities.  I still think that, though after sitting with the article for a bit, I found myself hoping that Ligtvoet and his partner aren’t embracing stereotypes and confusing them with black culture.  For example I don’t think shorts pulled down to the hips are “pretty cool” on an eight-year-old.  Ditto tight pants on a seven-year-old girl—particularly if she is walking far ahead of a parent, appearing to be alone.

But I am not one to judge.  As a parent, you choose your battles and your priorities.  Every parent in a multicultural family has to strike his or her own balance, particularly when it comes to the culture that is not his or her own.

The comments following the article were also fascinating, some of them laudatory, but many others harsh and chastising.  Two examples:

 “…these children are emulating gangsters, not “black” people.  Hats need to be worn outside only by men and boys and brim should face forward, any other way is a gang symbol in the black community, same with the yellow(gold?) and black shorts.  Wake up before you get these kids killed.”

“As an African American who grew up in the ghetto …my mother would have never allowed us to wear pants partially sagged and tight jeans … Be the parents of your children regardless of skin color.”

These readers do have a point.  I cannot imagine any of the affluent, black parents I know allowing their children to wear the kind of clothes mentioned in the article, especially at such a young age.  These parents are all too aware of the stereotypes of blacks in the media as lazy, dumb, violent—even if that very image is celebrated by many white teens (and some adults) as “cool.”   Black parents do what they can, as soon as they can, to keep their children from emulating this image, pervasive as it is.  They know it is not just a “cool” costume their kids can remove when it’s time to apply to colleges and interview for jobs.

Nevertheless, I understand where Ligtvoet is coming from.   As parents, we’re supposed to smile when our kids let go of our hands and stand alone for the first time.  This is true whether our kids come to us genetically or through adoption, whether they resemble us or not.  What I think this dad is proud of is the fact that his children are safe enough with him and trust him enough to experiment.  They know, regardless of how far behind he walks, that he is truly in their corner and that his love is unconditional.

A View of the Ball

In keeping with the theme of Childhood in America, here’s a piece about a boy struggling with vision loss in Depression-era Chicago. (A slightly fictionalized account of how my father got his first pair of glasses).

Drawing by George Ford from "Walk On" by Mel Williamson (my father)By the time Melvin was five the world had begun to fade.   It happened bit by bit in subtle ways. Lines of things once solid grew feathers; faces once withered and angled grew soft and smooth.  A golden lump in the middle of the rug stirred from a nap and became his dog.   Melvin had no language to describe to his mother and sister what was happening to him, no inkling it didn’t happen to everyone.  In 1928, routine vision checks were not performed in the public schools, not in Melvin’s public school.

Then came a day in 1931, when he was eight.  It was a beautiful day which for Melvin meant warm and light, the same day other people saw only through a scrim, a thin film of cotton.   Had it not been Sunday, it would have been a perfect day to meet the boys for a game—Melvin could run fast, even if he couldn’t see or hit the ball.  But there was no playing for Melvin on Sundays.  After church they all came home to feed the poor.   While his mother fried and baked and boiled and sautéed, Melvin and his sister would lay the banquet out on the front porch for the neighborhood children and families who had nothing—no money, no food, no father like Melvin’s father who worked six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday) as a porter on the Georgia Pacific, putting food on the table Depression or no Depression.    The poor neighbors would gather hungrily, collective gaze cast down in shame and gratitude.  Melvin was glad then, for whatever kept the world’s sharpness from his view.   He never wanted to meet the eyes of classmates who turned up.

Downstairs he heard his mother and sister chatting as they dressed, choosing hats.  His sister’s would be modest and yellow to match her dress, maybe a bit of lace and a small satin flower.  His mother’s on the other hand would be white with pink and lavender rosettes—brim half a mile wide so as not to be outdone by the other church ladies.  On the stairs now, Melvin heard the curtains swish aside, the window hinges creak, his mother inhaling deeply of the spring air.   Her assessment of the weather:

“Yes Lord; here’s a day made for praising Jesus!”

followed by his sister’s amen, which Melvin echoed entering the room.   Though he’d secretly espoused his own brand of atheism a few years earlier—(how to believe in a God who sets rich against poor, white against black, Gentile against Jew?  A God who cast a ball-playing boy’s world in fog?)—he wasn’t above feigning devotion to make his mother happy.  Her smile—especially up close, when she held his face and told him how good he was, how smart, how handsome—was one of the few things Melvin was sure his eyes still had right.

Melvin’s mother was in high spirits after church, feeling magnanimous enough to let Melvin go play ball instead of helping with the porch spread.   Down the church steps he raced, around the corner, past the library across from the empty lot.   He lunged into the street without checking for cars—there were so few in the neighborhood that looking both ways before crossing wasn’t a habit for most children.  In any case, had Melvin taken the trouble to check, what would he have seen?  In all likelihood he’d still have been hit by the 1928 Ford as it lumbered up South Parkway.   His mother would say it was a miracle he wasn’t killed, that his injuries weren’t even serious.   And no one could argue with her that He does work in mysterious ways.  In the hospital, Melvin was put through a series of tests to which he’d never have been subjected otherwise.   Including an eye exam.  A week after the accident, he was up and running as fast as ever before, only now he could hit the ball, thanks to his new eye-glasses that lifted the scrim revealing a world more detailed than Melvin could have imagined.

Spirit of 1976, A July 4th Memory (reposted)

I’m reposting last year’s Independence Day blog, just because it’s one of my favorites.  (Also still immersed in my “revise and resubmit,” so no time for a new one!  Happy 4th!)

bicent_disney2[1]It’s the bicentennial.  Our country is 200 years old which seems deeply significant to me because I am ten.  I feel this solidarity with the United States of America because we are both these perfect round figures.  I feel this bond with all ten year olds all over the country.  It’s as if we kids are the true Americans.  I don’t tell anyone I feel this way.  It is too momentous, too poignant to speak of.  To be ten.  To be an American. On July 4th, 1976.  It is a feeling I cannot explain.  It only is.

About a month ago—around my own tenth birthday—red, white and blue hats, flags, posters, beer mugs, buttons, t-shirts, sweatbands and sweat socks that say “1776-1976” went on sale and are subsequently everywhere.  My parents don’t buy any of it; they think the memorabilia is silly.  Are you a better American just because you wear a t-shirt that says so?  Still, when I ask for a Spirit of ’76 button and hat, they say yes.  Since I am a child, I’m allowed to be silly.

Since I am ten, and believe on some level that my being ten is as important as America turning 200, I think at first that when they say Spirit of ’76, they mean 1976.

My friend Tom—who is more a friend of the family than a real friend—is also ten.  My parents and his grandparents go way back; they have us out to their summer home on Fire Island for the July 4th weekend.  Tom and I might not otherwise be friends but we are routinely thrown together by circumstance.  Since we are kids, and there is a beach with sand and waves, since there is ice cream and a house with a cool balcony, this is okay.  Since we are not teenagers, the fact that we are different genders is not awkward.  Besides we’re not just the same age; we’re both ten year old Americans on the Bicentennial.

We arrive on the Island on Friday. Tom meets me and my parents at the ferry with his little red wagon and helps us carry our things to his grandparents’ home in Ocean Bay Park.  He and I take turns pulling the wagon as we chat.  We are eager to get into the waves, to go to town for ice cream, to see a movie, to do everything by ourselves, which we are allowed to do here on the Island, because there are no cars.

The independence makes me feel giddy.  Tom and I wake up at six for the next two mornings and go to the beach alone.  The adults are asleep, but told us we could go the night before.  No one told us to be safe.  We wade in up to our knees, looking for jelly fish, looking for special shells.

Later in the day we go to town in Ocean Beach to buy ice cream and Wacky Pack cards which we will trade later.  Tom gives me his bubble gum.

Saturday evening, while the grownups are having cocktails and recovering from a big day, relaxing on the beach, Tom and I are given five dollars apiece and sent back to town to see a movie which came out about a year ago: Jaws.  This is a big deal; to see a scary movie, a scary beach movie, without grownups to take us.  We walk along the beach to the theater: a big white house with a screen and folding chairs.  Ten dollars is enough for tickets, popcorn and sodas for us both.

The movie is truly terrifying.  Not just to a pair of ten year olds who know they’ll soon be walking home on the beach, but to everyone.  No one is jaded yet when it comes to horror films.  No one can predict that one day there will not only be Jaws 2, 3, 3-D and 4, but also Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chuckie, Saw and all their sequels.  We are not desensitized to the formula.  This stuff is all new.  So that every time the music reaches a crescendo and there is an attack, everyone in the house screams.  Loudly.   People call out urgent words of caution to the actors.  No one shushes anyone.  We are all in this together.

Later that night, I am afraid to go to the bathroom.  Fire Island is itself a sandbar, which means that in many homes, when you peer into the toilet, you are looking down a deep hole and can see the sea.  After seeing Jaws, peeing under these circumstances seems like a foolhardy thing to do.

I hold it in for as long as I can, then say some kind of prayer, sit and go.  No shark comes, so that the next morning, still alive, still gloriously ten, I am able to help the nation celebrate its bicentennial.  And at night, Tom and I run wild on the beach with a bunch of other kids.  We’re all holding sparklers which we’ve ignited ourselves.

Happy Independence Day to all.

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.