Family threads

In a corner of my bedroom closet, stashed on shelves adjacent to the stacks of designer shoe boxes and cashmere sweaters organized by color, I keep treasured mementos of my childhood. There’s a 50-year old shoeless Shirley temple doll, dusty Morristown high school yearbooks , a raggedy Saks hat box filled with notes and cards, and a dented Russell Stover candy tin.

The oblong hinged tin with embossed watercolor tulips was rescued from my Grandmother Alice’s apt in NYC when she moved down to Florida five years ago. She was convinced to stay down south following a small stroke while visiting her children, and my aunts and I were packing personal things collected during her long lifetime. She wanted us to save everything and send it to her — books, scarves and bags and cooking utensils and pictures and tchotckes and all the things a person can amass in 93 years. As we were sorting her belongings and the hours wore on more things were being tossed than saved as we reminded each other of the small size of her room in the assisted living facility near the beach. Household items and accessories and photos were divided and distributed to the person who seemed to want it the most and we hoped she wouldn’t notice when they didn’t arrive. The tin box nearly made it into the trash pile. When I opened it I discovered a rainbow of wooden spools spun with fading colors of silk thread in crimson, powder blue, pale lavender, blush pink, saffron, and emerald. Aunt Linda, the youngest of five siblings and family historian, thought it belonged to my great grandmother Rivka. I like to sew and I could almost sense her hands on those threads and I claimed the beat up little box.

Later that day I was given the task of emptying some kitchen drawers of dish towels and aprons and many pieces of embroidered cloth. No one was sure where they came from, if one of my great-grandmothers had made them, or if they were purchased by my grandmother Alice. No one had ever seen my great-grandmother embroider. I didn’t make any connection to the box because the threads were much thicker. When the job was done and the apartment was emptied and abandoned, I left with some leather gloves, scarves, a handmade waist tied apron, a slightly worn cross stitched challah cover and a wine-stained muslin matzoh sleeve embroidered with seder plate foods. Grandma Alice’s things were set up in her small new room in Florida where she stayed until she died two years ago at 98. The box survives on my shelf even after seasonal closet purgings. I have tried using the thread for mending but it’s too old and thin and it breaks easily. The colors are darker underneath the bleached top layers. But I keep putting it back on the shelf.

On the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana this fall I proudly displayed the challah cover atop my seed-flecked golden homemade challah and I posted a picture of it on Facebook. Aunt Linda, a Facebook connection, called me and told me a story. She remembered a story my great-grandmother had told her and spoke of it with my grandma Alice after visiting her in Florida. She learned the background of the embroidered cloth. When my great-grandmother Rivka was a young girl in Poland, her mother,( my great-great grandmother Bubbe, ) thought that she should learn a skill in the event that she didn’t marry. At 13, Rivka was sent to live with a family to learn embroidery from the mother and to help care for the children. She was treated poorly, and was always hungry and treated “like a slave” until she finally came home after one year. At 18, still in Poland, she did get married. She met my great-grandfather Haskell, a tailor, when he came to her father Chaim’s shoe repair shop . I don’t know if she made my beautiful pieces during her difficult year. Or if she sewed them after having the first of seven babies at 19 (three died in childhood) and emigrating to America where she raised her family. No one recalls ever seeing her embroider again. But I can picture her hands threading a needle and embroidering in a stranger’s house in Poland, and later mending the clothes of her children, my grandmother, and great aunts and uncles. I can imagine my great-grandfather tailoring clothes in a new country to support his growing family.

I open that box and the faded colors of thread evoke sepia memories of great-grandma’s house. I’m five years old with a round cherry lollipop. My sister Lisa and I in matching striped dresses and pinafores. Tiny Bubbe , blind, with a hair net and boxy black side laced shoes, feeling our heads to “see” us. Grandma Rivka, already bent with age and only slightly taller than her mother, preparing in the kitchen . My grandmother and mother laughing and telling stories. My last memory of Rivka at 98, sitting in her favorite worn chair in her apartment holding my son, her first great great-grandson.

The chocolates in that box are long gone but it holds the sweet memories of our rich family history, stitched together by tailors and shoemakers and embroiderers — a cattle ship to America, silver candlesticks and kitchens smelling of homemade cookies and chicken soup and sounds of Yiddish and the warmth of grandmothers’ love and hugs and the generations of strong and beautiful long-lived women — that box reminds me of tradition and the unbroken thread that connects us to each other.



Thanksgiving Fantasy

It’s Thanksgiving. A holiday I love. I spent last weekend pureeing and freezing butternut squash soup, baking pumpkin bread and frying latkes – an unexpected edition to the feast — since it’s the first and last time in many years that Thanksgiving coincides with Hanukkah. I spent two days shopping for vegetables and multiple ingredients and packed them into the car and onto the kitchen counter. The 19 pound turkey was brined and I ungracefully lugged the pale pink bird in it’s embryonic-like brining bag into the downstairs fridge. Homemade raw cranberry sauce was pulsed and blended and left to marinate with oranges and lemon in the upstairs fridge.

I woke at 7 Thursday morning and turned on the Macy’s parade– the sound of marching bands and show tunes provided nostalgia and atmosphere while I chopped root vegetables, washed the turkey, and made two stuffings – one for in the bird and a new recipe with homemade bread cubes, turkey bacon and sage.

My husband spent the morning laying on the couch. To be fair, he was sick. He was coughing and pale and I didn’t want him anywhere near the food. But to be honest if he wasn’t sick he wouldn’t provide much help. He’s never cooked in the 25 years we’ve been married. He’s never even boiled water for pasta. No pancakes for the kids. No breakfast in bed. When guests come he warmly greets them but forgets to offer them a drink. He doesn’t think to hang their coats. He’s a guest in his own home. Since I do like to cook and entertain and I like to do it my way and only my way, it’s probably for the best.

As I continued the 5 hours of Thanksgiving preparation. I was making an artichoke dip and a balsamic dressing for the roasted root vegetables that his family looks forward to each year, when a commercial came on tv asking viewers to think about what they would do if they could do anything they wanted and money wasn’t an issue. He asked me what I would do. He made a comment about me opening a nail salon and I thought — he really doesn’t know me. I hesitated for a second and said I always wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. Or be a sketch comedy writer. Then I changed my mind and said I’d be a painter. I am at my happiest when I am creating something or painting and that I would love to be a respected artist. He made the point that if that’s what I wanted to do why don’t I do it? I made a mental note to myself to sign up for a painting class again. Then I asked him what he would do. I thought he might say he’d open a gym since he’s obsessed with P90x and would get to ogle fit and toned men and women all day long. Imagine my surprise when he said the following ” I would open a restaurant or bar. ” I was shocked. I was flabbergasted. I thought, he doesn’t know ME at all, but apparently he doesn’t know HIMSELF and I obviously don’t know HIM! I laughed. I might have snorted. “What are you talking about?” I said with confusion and a little disdain. “You hate to cook, clean, serve, or do anything having to do with meal preparation!”

“You don’t have to cook to have a restaurant,” he responded defensively. “The owner doesn’t play on the team.”

I suggested he practice his restaurant management skills by pouring drinks and serving food when the 10 guests (all his blood relatives) arrived in an hour. He declined. He continued his argument that he would be the maitre’d … the owner, the Bon vivant who socializes with guests and makes them feel important. He didn’t need to practice.
I realized this argument wasn’t worth winning. I had more cooking to do. The Honeymooners were on tv for him. The couch was comfy. And he’s not retiring anytime soon.

So in ten years, if you happen to pass a restaurant named Marty’s Place, go on in. A tall friendly man will be there to greet you. There will be a few original paintings on the wall by his supporting wife. But bring your own food, maybe even a beer — this is Marty’s Place, and after this holiday owning a restaurant isn’t MY fantasy.


Pilates Pro? NO!

I don’t like the gym. Ok- I hate the gym. There… I admit it. I don’t like sweating. It scares me to feel my heart beating rapidly. And my medium length curly hair doesn’t form the obligatory high pony tail that is de reguir for any upscale gym in NYC.

I know there are people who love working out – setting alarms to be on the phone to get that coveted spot in a spin class, waking up for 8 am core classes or snagging the coveted time for bi-weekly sessions with their personal trainer. I know that people like it from the large number of them I see all hours of the day in their form fitting exercise gear and neon bright sneakers. I’m just not one of them.

Unfortunately I’m married to someone who is. I knew that when I met him and I recall saying I’d go to the gym with him in our wedding vows. That was 25 years ago. And I lied. Every morning my husband Marty pops out of bed at 6:30 am while I roll over to put on a silk sleep mask and cover my ears with a feather pillow to drown out the pulsating sound of the Nespresso machine brewing his morning espresso.

But I am vain and I am middle aged — if I live to be 110. Although I’ve stayed thin and healthy my luck and good genes are bound to give out. And then there are those broken vows and I don’t want him getting any ideas in the broken vow area. So I occasionally drag myself to the gym or ride a bike or carry groceries and shopping bags and tell myself that it’s heavy lifting. But when I really want to punish myself I go to Pilates.

Pilates Pro Works is on 14th Street up two flights of stairs. The first challenge is getting on the toe socks that help me to maintain grip and balance and remind me of slumber parties in the 70’s. Between the sports bra mashing my breasts into a loaf, and the socks slicing into my webbed toes I am already pushing my comfort limit. Then it’s time to enter the class and choose a spot — surrounded by 9 other people on individual machines modeled on torture devices, outfitted with straps and springs and loops. All that is missing is the guillotine. An energetic and slim- thighed instructor half my age sticks on an earpiece and a mic and starts to blast heart-pumping top hits to get us moving – I think it’s just to drown out the sound of my gasping for breath as we warm up by jumping off and on the platform.

I’m warm in about ten seconds. I think it should be a requirement to have “Hi my age is ___” stickers on our spandex tops. I am guessing that everyone around me are in their 20’s. I want to take a break and yell “I am 55 and have osteopenia!” but there’s no time for a break. I am stretching and pulling and trying to stay on the machine. It’s not easy. One misstep and those straps will have me tied up like Houdini.

The ponytailed girls on my left and right have on no makeup. The ponytailed guy in front of me doesn’t either. I have on lipstick and mascara so they don’t call the morgue. They are glowing with the flush of exertion. I am pouring sweat in a full on hot flash.

The music continues. Our peppy leader is shouting over the beat – “get off the machine, put one leg on the platform, the other leg on the table, add a spring, take off a spring, let go of the strap, Use your legs to pull the table together!” Let go of the strap!? If I drop that strap I’ll split in two. As she sees the look of terror on my face she smiles as if to say “you older people just do your best”.

Our next move is crossing the straps and pulling the handles over our heads. As I raise my arm I surreptitiously sneak a look at my watch. Class is half over. I can do this. Maybe. Ten more reps and it’s time for the next move. Keeping my hands in the handles I step off and on the platform while doing curls. That must have killed ten minutes. I sneak another look at my watch as my arm comes up close to my face. The second hand has barely moved. My watch must be broken. Time is moving as slowly as an hour at DMV. But at least there you can sit and read a magazine.

I’m 55, I’m 55, I’m 55 — I am saying it in my head like a mantra. I picture myself looking good on the beach at that Cancun destination wedding in December. I think of my son poking my Pop-n-fresh belly the night before when my jeans slipped down. I think of the young salesclerk who offered me the senior discount at the Garden of Eden market. I think of my grandmother Alice and imagine her trying this at 55 and I smile to myself. She and her mother and her grandmother lived till their late 90s without ever setting foot in a Pilates studio.

Ashley or Jackie or whichever Dominatrix is teaching the class sees me smile. Oh no – not good . I don’t want her to think this is easy. Maybe I should try and look tired and pained so she eases up. But I don’t want to wimp out in front of my younger, perfectly shaped, Lululemon-ed classmates. So I go on.

I try to finish strong but I am beginning to look like a limp piece of spaghetti . I dare to check my watch again and thankfully, there’s just 5 minutes let. I can make it to cool down. At last class is over. Even the ponytailed girls look a bit relieved. They wear their sweat like a trophy and they swing their damp hair as they pat their faces with a towel. My hair is now rivaling Diana Ross in the 70s and my shaky legs make it difficult to get down the steep stairs – but taking the elevator is too shameful. I hold the railing and jerkily make it outside.

The next day all pain is forgotten – at least until I try to sit on a toilet and I wear slip on shoes so I don’t have to bend. But I am proud of myself for making it through. And if I am going to live till 98 like my predecessors I want to look good as long as I can. I just might have to do this a few more years. I go online and buy another package of classes. Maybe I should suggest they offer me the senior discount.


Baby crave

I miss babies.  I don’t miss the sleep deprived nights that turned me into a bleary eyed crying zombie, or the non stop diaper changing that resulted from a schedule of breast feeding every two hours.  I don’t miss the feeling of being on high alert 24/7 listening for every breath, making sure they were sleeping in the safest position, and wishing they had come with an instruction manual. 


I do miss the buttery smell of their baby breath, and the sweet moments in between when my baby boys felt like they were my treasures to hold and protect and the feeling that I was the most important thing in the world to them.


Now they are big and independent and their breath rarely smells like butter.  They have other people and things that are important to them, and they do not want my protection.  They definitely don’t want my advice. 


Riding the subway recently, I sat wedged in between the railing and a young mother and her daughter.  The little girl was smiling, adorable, with long dark braids and tiny little crocs on her chubby feet.  She was burrowing into her mother, nuzzling her head into her mother’s neck.  The mother was kissing her head and they wrapped their arms around each other.  I wanted to reach over and grab her from her lap and cuddle her too.  I contained myself.


That night I came home and my sons were watching TV on the couch.  My husband was in a chair. I sat fairly close to Justin who is almost 23 – closer than the minimum twelve-inch comfort zone I normally allow before I get the “look” .    After a comment about my short leopard print PJ bottoms being trashy looking, he relaxed and seemed to be ignoring me as I pretended to be interested in the Miami Heat/Spurs game they were all watching.


And then it happened. Justin laid his head on my shoulder.  I didn’t respond — afraid to scare him away like I had come upon an animal in the wild.   It only lasted a few seconds, but it was there.  And then it was over.  Older, bigger, but letting me know he was still my baby.  It was enough.