Saturday, February 16, 2019

An Unexpected Gift

My Mother was a perfectionist and often critical of me.  But my father was not. He could be authoritarian, stubborn, angry, but never critical of me.

When I was seven or eight, he used to take me with him on the road when he went to solicit his orders at the Mom and Pops in the Hill District.

My Dad was a wholesale grocer; he owned his own company, had workers, but I'd often see him schlepping cases into the stores. He'd hoist a 100 pound bag of rock salt on his shoulder or a case of Bumblebee tuna. Often he'd have me carry in the candy, chewing gum, cigarettes, even a light case.

His mother had died when he was four years old and his father was extremely frugal which translated onto my Dad. Since he dealt in canned goods which sometimes got rusty, he'd hold up a rusty can of Argo peas and order us kids to, "Use it up."  This was his favorite refrain.

At the same age of seven or eight, my parents enrolled me in Hebrew school at Temple Sinai. I  remember one day seeing in my book of Bible stories an illustration of Hager and Ishmael in the dessert by a well.  Another showed Esau and Jacob near a large pot of soup. This was the story of how Esau sold his birthrate to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.  These black and white illustrations swept me away.

From then on, I dreamed of going to Israel. When I was 12, I entered the National Bible Contest. After studying and competing for 3 years, I made it to the finals in New York City; the first place prize being a trip to Israel. The principal of our religious school, my Mother, and I boarded a plane for NYC.  I came in third in the US and Canada, but did not win the grand prize.

Back home, my Temple wanted to reward me and gave me a scholarship  to a one week summer leadership Kallah in Cleveland Georgia.

My Mother and Father took me to the Greyhound Bus station in Pittsburgh to see me off on the 21 hour ride. Before boarding, my Dad told me to wait a minute. He disappeared into the crowd and came back with a fluffy pillow that he had bought from one of the vendors. This gift took me totally by surprise.

I got a window seat and slept against the pillow all night, all the way to Cleveland, Georgia.

This is where I met my beloved Steve when I was but 15 and he was 17.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Grandpa Morris and the Trial of Adolf Eichmann

I always thought of Grandpa Morris as tender hearted. But that impression changed when Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents and brought back to Jerusalem to stand trail.

"If it were up to me," Grandpa Morris said to me, "there would be no trial.  I would cut a square inch of skin off his body each day and watch him rot to death."

I was in my early teens and had been sleeping over at my Grandparents' home for the weekend. I was shocked.

Grandpa Morris' entire family had been murdered by the Nazi's - his parents, those of his brothers and sisters who had not made it to America, his cousins, everyone except for one niece, Fransiska, who had survived Auschwitz.

Grandpa's devotion to his family was part of family myth.  He would patch his sweaters at the elbow and send every bit of extra money back home. I'd watch him fold a sheet of carbon paper over the dollar bills so that the cash would go undetected by censors.

There was another story about Grandpa as a small boy. Once he was out in the fields working and found a strawberry - he carried that strawberry in his hand all day and finally brought it back home for his mother.

So I didn't know what to make of his words about Eichmann.  Surely, he must be right, I thought. But when I questioned my mother, she said, "We can't stoop to their level."

Still, the rawness of his emotions got to me. That day was the closest I ever came to my Grandfather.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

My Brother Bobby

     You may be wondering why Bobby always wore a baseball cap.  Even now,  I can see Bobby sitting in the "Camp", a tiny room between the bedroom and the bathroom, a space, nothing more than a cubby hole. Wearing his tortoise shelled round glasses and his baseball cap, he is thumbing through a stack of his beloved "Weekly Readers" which he has compiled into a book between two cardboard covers. He's laced them all together with the help of a long shoe lace. There he sits at age seven looking professorial.

     But why the baseball cap, you ask? Well here's the story.  To save money, my Dad would cart the three boys off to Mr. Kahn's for a haircut - Mr. Kahn was an old Jewish barber who lived in the Hill District, the Black part of town in Pittsburgh. His haircuts were fifty cents a cut.

      Problem was Mr. Kahn used an electric clipper and would shave the boys almost bald. This way they wouldn't have to come back too soon.  The twins' hair grew quickly, but somehow Bobby's did not. So Bobby wore his baseball cap to cover up the shame of being bald.

     Bobby has other peculiarities. He often walked on his toes. We called him "Toey" and we taunted him saying, "Hey Toey, come down off your toes." He also ate mud or grit from in between the bricks of our house. Was it for nourishment?  Was he missing an essential nutrient in his diet? 

     Bobby was exceptional in math - if the twins got stuck with math homework, they could turn to him. Bobby played the viola in the high school orchestra and was accepted at the University of Wisconsin. He was the first in our family to leave home, moving to San Francisco. Bobby was gay. He died at the age of fifty-five from a heart attack, too young to go.

    Though peculiar in his ways, Bobby was at ease in his own skin. He enjoyed life with friends and good entertainment.  He was frugal like my Dad.  He left each sibling an unexpected inheritance which was a boon to me in my hour of need.

    I can still see Bobby thumbing through his Weekly Readers and sorting through his President cards. He could tell you the year each president was born. Bobby was funny too, doing imitations of neighbors and family. He had Mrs. Greenberg, an eccentric red headed neighbor who wore peddle pushers down to a T. And he imitated Grandma Helen with her European accent spouting her favorite refrain, "Guess who I bumped to?"  upon returning from a walk down Murray Avenue. Bobby's imitations never failed to delight us. Forty years later, we were still bursting at the seams listening to Bobby.

     Oh, how I miss him. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Window of a Flower Shop

I was twenty and my sister was fourteen when we traveled to Israel on our own for the summer. We worked on a kibbutz in the heat of those dry days. When it came time, to go back home, I told my sister that I was staying.

When she reached the front door of our family home, my parents said, "Where's your sister?"  She told them that I'd stayed in Israel.

That October, I was wandering the streets of Jerusalem, when I spotted a sign on the window of a flower shop.  It announced a two week yoga class that was to meet for an hour each morning in the gym of a nearby elementary school. Then and there, I determined to attend.

At the gym, I was greeted by a thin dark man from India, now living in Mauritias, an island off the coast of Africa. He traveled and taught. Before you knew it, he had taught us many yoga poses, the most challenging being the headstand. He taught us to lean against the wall for support, so that we wouldn't topple over.

Back in my dorm in Kiriat Yovel, I diligently practiced all the poses. Returning to class, I remember telling my teacher, "I like the headstand, but I am afraid of the wall.  He replied, "This fear of the wall is from another life."

Today, everyone talks of past lives, but back then, I had never conceived of such a thing.

At the end of the two weeks, a reception was held to honor our teacher, followed by light refreshments and then questions and answers. I was too shy to ask a question, but afterwards I went to say my goodbyes and to thank him.

There was something troubling me; tears came to my eyes.  I said, "Swamaji, I love living here in Israel, but I deeply miss by brothers and sister back home."  Taking my hand, he replied, "Don't you know, we're all brothers and sisters."

This teaching was transmitted directly to my heart - it did not pass Go, it did not collect two hundred dollars. His message carved itself into a place in my heart and would not let go.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Songbird

Chasing and chasing in the whirling wind,
the songbird can not remember her song,
the willow weeps, the running waters waver.
Everything that was once lush, languishes.

Hunters and gatherers, our longing hearts
desire, ravage, and hunt,though some days,
we stay close to the fire gathering what comes.
"I will somehow welcome what comes," I whisper.
Hardly are these words out, when the songbird
begins to hum her tune, the willow wipes her tears,
and the wondrous waters flow merrily on their way.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Angels Sent

After Chemo, surgery, and radiation, my hair
returning, like a silver glaze,
I'm once more on the open road,
traveling home from Boston.

From Harvard Square to South Station,
then up the twenty concrete steps to the
Amtrak area - no escalator this time.

I'm clumping up the concrete steps,
hoisting my copper-colored suitcase,
struggling with each few steps when,
right on cue, as if from Central Casting,
a Sikh man in lavender turban gently
wafts my luggage to the landing.

At the landing, I thank him with "Sat Nam."
At this, his eyes brighten to a golden glow.
As I move on, I feel his gaze
following me.

Our angels, where do they come from, and
how do they know when exactly to appear?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Visit From A Peacock 2

Dear Mummy lay dying in the jungle
amidst fronds, primordials,
birds of paradise in robes
of orange and red, flowering
jasmine, hibiscus, tuberose,
the waving leaves of banana trees.

Dear Mummy lay dying not far
from my brother, but in her own space.
On the morn of her death, I tried
to feed her, but she swallowed
only a spoon of applesauce.

A peacock slept outside her room,
always on the same branch
of the same tree. That morn,
he strode across the threshold
of her room spreading feathers
of indigo and turquoise.
Circling, he screeched his song
and was gone.

When the hospice nurse arrived,
she bathed Mummy; then sweeping
her back and forth in the sheets,
alerted me that her last breaths
were drawing near.

I perched on the bed, holding Mummy,
At that indelible moment,
my brother appeared, grief wrinkled
onto his face.

For all the fury of her life,
Mummy left with radiance.
"Goodbye my sweetheart, my friend,"
I said. The peacock had also
managed to say his goodbye.