Thursday, October 29, 2009

October 2009

Okay, so it is now the end of October and I still haven’t gotten back into my regular routine of writing a post every few days. I guess because my life has changed so drastically since Mom passed away, I am still adjusting. Because Saul is also adjusting to a new school year roster, we are both a little crazy trying to keep up with everything.

I recently spent a whole evening electronically scanning very old photographs that were in a small box in my father’s night table drawer. My mother had not disturbed the contents of that drawer since we moved into our new home over 16 years ago right after my father’s death. As I adjusted them in Photoshop, backgrounds became clear and I found myself poring over them looking at every detail. Some were almost black from age when I began. Adele and I (but mostly Adele) have been going through carton upon carton of Mom’s old papers that had been moved up to the attic. They are a jumble of old newspaper clippings, photos, greeting cards, letters, little scraps of paper, booklets, programs, etc., mixed in with life insurance policy information, stock information, and who knows what else? We are finally coming to the last two cartons. Last week, Saul had to call our trash removal company to send someone back because they had not removed all the bags of our paper recycling.

I mentioned to my friend, Roxy, that there are photos of my very young father with a girlfriend named Jeannette. She said that her mother would have gotten rid of those immediately. In keeping with my mother’s remarkable nature, which did not include jealousy in any shape or form, I told Roxy that, as a child, I remember trekking to the home of Jeannette and her husband, Herman, during summer vacations in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I could never understand why I had to spend hours sitting quietly in their living room when we could have been at the beach. They lived in nearby Ventnor, and my parents maintained a friendship with them until Jeannette died in middle age. As a teenager, I remember that my father was very broken up by her death.

Some of the photos have interesting notes on the back about time and place. There is a photo of my father’s mother and father standing under a tree in Fairmount Park, which was near their home in West Philadelphia. There are precious few photos that exist of my grandfather because he died of a diabetic coma at the age of 47.

Also among the stuff in the attic was a group of wartime photos that belonged to my mother’s brother, Jack, who was stationed in the Philippines. In addition, there was a folio filled with letters that my parents wrote back and forth to each other during the war. Neither Adele, nor I, dare to remove and look at a single one until we finish the tedious job of sorting through every scrap of paper, or we might not finish the job. The distractions are great, and reminiscing is a favorite pastime of ours. When I get to the letters, I plan to scan them so that we have a permanent record of them. My father was an excellent and prolific writer, so I can’t wait to read them.

During this month I have returned to attending my friend, Faith’s, weekly Bible-study class which Mom and I attended together for many years. I had not attended in two years because of my break with the synagogue a few years back, and then Mom’s failing health. I was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm from the regulars, who have been attending for many years. The class has grown much larger, now, and there is a scramble for chairs among the latecomers, quite a difference from twenty-five years ago when occasionally I was the only one attending. Faith has now branched into an introduction to the Talmud.

Two Sundays ago, we were invited to brunch at our friends’ home, (Ruth and Giora) whom we scarcely see anymore, and who live in New Jersey near Lion’s Gate. They made a wonderful spread and we reminisced with Faith and Ruth and Harold about all the years we had taught religious school together and about all the families and children we knew and how they had matured. Afterward, we paid a brief visit to Saul’s mom. This time, she was with the group watching television together and was not as swollen as on the last visit. I know that seeing her gradual loss of memory is especially disturbing to Saul who fears he will follow in her footsteps because of the stroke he experienced two years ago. We all fear this for ourselves, but she seems contented with her life, and the facility is a beautiful environment.

Last Shabbat evening, we celebrated Larry’s birthday with a meal that he had selected. We had homemade challah, butternut squash soup; deviled eggs; homemade baba ganoush; romaine salad with craisins, cashews, and sesame dressing; chicken paprikash; kasha and bow ties; gezer chai; and chocolate sheet cake made with cocoa from Trader Joe’s. Last year, I had made Larry’s favorite cake with Special Dark cocoa from Hershey’s, but he didn’t like it as much. It was very good made with Trader Joe’s cocoa.

Ken and Randi were supposed to come to dinner, but Ken was not feeling well and went home to bed early from work. At the last minute, I called our friends, Mort and Elsa, and they were able to join us, making it a very convivial evening.

As it turned out, Ken has the flu, along with many people in his office. The tests have not come back to indicate whether it is the H1N1 strain. He has been in bed for several days now, running a fever, but yesterday when I spoke with him, he was happy to hear that tests showed that his lungs were clear and the fever was beginning to disappear for most of the day. We all are quite stressed right now about H1N1 because of its virulent effect on young people. Only people below the age of 24 were given the vaccine (because of the scarcity of the vaccine) at Saul’s college, where it has made an early appearance. A new protocol has arisen for sneezing into one’s elbow, and each class begins with wiping down doorknobs, computer keyboards, and desks, with sanitizing wipes that have appeared in stations all over the college. We are praying that the virus does not mutate and turn into something that might cause a pandemic in a future wave.

Last Sunday, Saul and I spent the whole afternoon in the garage, organizing his considerably large collection of tools and hardware and clearing away trash that has accumulated, to make way for bringing in the plants and trees on the deck to protect them from frost for the winter. By the time we finished, we were achy and congested from all the dust and dirt, but felt a great sense of accomplishment for having gotten a long-neglected project out of the way.

Today, we are preparing for the trek down to Baltimore and DC for the weekend. I spent the past week baking my seasonal pumpkin-face cookies and I need to get them to my children and grandchildren. Other people calm and center themselves with yoga and meditation. I bake cookies. At this point, I think I should be doing yoga, meditation, and prayer as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

September 2009

As I am writing this, we are well into October, and I really liked keeping a journal that was current, so I will try to capture the essence of my month, which disappeared before I knew it. I also can’t wait to get back into my kitchen again to take the time to play in my “laboratory” with my foodie experiments and hopefully use some of those end-of-summer fresh herbs that will be gone in a week or so. I did get a chance to put up some hot pepper relish with a small pile of assorted varieties that Beth harvested from our garden.

Ken had a barbecue for friends and family on Labor Day, a relaxing and warm, feel-good day with good food and the chance for us all to say Kaddish together and remember Mom.

In the course of going through Mom’s things with the family after her death, we came across many old photos and letters that we had never seen before. One of the old letters was from my mother’s uncle to his three brothers and sister (my grandmother) about the arrangements for the tombstone for his mother (my great-grandmother for whom I am named) at a cemetery, not far away, but which I had never visited. When I mentioned to Larry that I had found this letter and planned to visit her grave sometime, it turned out that most of his family is interred there and he had wanted to visit for a long time also. On one beautiful sunny Sunday before the High Holy Days, and after a few nasty days of rain, we decided to make the trip. I found the grave of my great-grandmother and one of her sons and his wife (not the one who wrote the letter) and Larry found the graves that he had sought out as well. We took photographs of the gravestones and went to another very old nearby cemetery as well for other relatives of Larry. Since we were in the neighborhood where Saul’s father is interred, we visited that cemetery as well and said the Kaddish prayer. After that we had lunch together. I think we were all really glad it was such a beautiful day because walking around an old cemetery and contemplating your own demise is quite a downer. Stuck in my brain is the image of what was once someone’s costly and imposing gravestone, almost completely covered by the branches of a nearby 15-foot hedge, and wrapped in vines. All that was visible on the tombstone were the words “gone but not forgotten.” Everything else had disappeared under the thick invasive foliage. How ironic! In time, even the most powerful rulers and civilizations are gone and forgotten.

Our only weekend at home during September was so that we could attend the late night services at MBI-EE for Selichot, a forerunner to the High Holy Days. As is our habit, we met our friends Faith and Larry for dinner after Shabbat (this year at Cheesecake Factory) and then continued on to the service. As a precursor to the service, we viewed outtakes of the powerful documentary, The Power of Forgiveness, featuring Elie Wiesel with group discussion accompanied by the incisive viewpoints of Rabbi Howard Addison.

For the following four weekends, we traveled to Baltimore every Thursday afternoon to be with our children and grandchildren as all of the holidays fell on weekends this year and Saul does not teach on Fridays. Because I am allergic to Jessica’s pets, and because Ari’s home in DC is staged for sale, we stayed at the Marriott Resort in Hunt Valley almost every weekend. Ari found a deal on the Net that included a third night stay free and breakfast, which was in a lovely, white-tablecloth restaurant on the premises, and involved an ample buffet as well as omelets and waffles cooked to order, lox and bagels, and fresh fruit, as well as all the usual array of breakfast options. The service was incredibly friendly and helpful. We also enjoyed the use of an indoor, heated pool, along with Jessica and the girls, Aaron and Stacey and the kids, and Alex’s mom, Elaine.

The reason for the “almost” every weekend was because after we had made our reservation for the Yom Kippur weekend, we were notified the day before we were to arrive that the hotel was hosting a horror buffs’ convention and that people might be walking the corridors in costume. I was uncomfortable staying in a hotel with a thousand people who loved horror movies enough to participate in a convention, not to mention the effect this might have on Sami, who will not go to the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian because she is afraid to look at bones. At the last minute, we made arrangements to stay at a Hyatt in Owings Mills, but, although closer, it was not nearly as nice or as good a deal as the Marriott. At their indoor pool, we were joined by Elaine and two little girls who are friends of Sami and Izzy. Ari stayed at the hotel also for the first two weekends. When we went back to the Marriott for the following two weekends, the staff told us that the horror convention people were very well behaved and low-key. Whatever was unusual about them, evidently went on in their rooms behind closed doors.

Alex, as usual, made amazing meals for us all through the holidays. Some of the highlights included the best roasted carrot soup any of us have every tasted, fresh grilled tuna and sea bass, sushi, braised corned beef, baba ganoush, curried tomato soup, and incredible salads of many different types with a variety of homemade dressings. I made the desserts and special holiday round challot, including date bread, apple butter sandwich cookies (I cut these in the shape of apples with a small apple cutout to expose the filling which is made with applesauce rather than pumpkin), carob cake, oatmeal peanut butter raisin cookies, Presley Bella Angel Food Cake, and a cheesecake for one of the dairy meals.

We were able to help decorate the sukkah with Jess, Alex and the kids, and were joined on Sukkot weekend by a long-lost childhood friend of Jessica’s named Beth, whom she connected with on Facebook over a year ago. The weather at the beginning of Sukkot was the best I can ever remember with the exception of the first Friday evening, when we were chased inside for dinner by raindrops right after making our brachot (blessings). My niece, Beth, joined us and slept over at Jessica and Alex’s for the last weekend during Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. On our last weekend, we met Ari on the outskirts of DC on Thursday evening after work to enjoy an exceptional Indian restaurant called Bombay that had been lauded in The Washingtonian magazine. We also dined with Beth at Michael’s Noodle House in Rockville, MD, which was not quite as good as on previous visits, which may have had something to do with the dishes we ordered. We are still exploring their menu. One day, Jess, Ari, Saul and I had lunch at a Korean mall near Jessica’s house and walked around the food court to choose our lunches. Jessica had a beautiful bento box with fresh sushi and sashimi. We also caught the movie, The Informant, with Matt Damon, which was entertaining, but could have waited for viewing on television. During the drives back and forth, we purchased and read the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, on CD, very gruesome and a bit disappointing, although the subject matter is right up our alley.

During the shloshim period of thirty days after the funeral, which this year led up to Rosh Hashanah, Saul and I went to say Kaddish for my mother every day. Between trying to catch up with my work which I had neglected as long as possible, arranging to be with a minyan every day, preparing desserts for the holidays, driving back and forth for the 2 to 2-1/2 hour journey each way to Baltimore and Washington, cleaning and staging our home to be shown by realtors while we were away, packing, unpacking and laundering proper clothing for the holidays, and sorting out my mother’s possessions (she saved everything!), it is no wonder that I have not had a lot of time for blogging as well. Jamie, with Presley in tow, spent two afternoons helping go through Mom’s clothing. Randi came and spent some time, too. Adele was here almost every day and went through drawers, closets, and boxes in the attic. Beth has been helping us to purge by putting our extraneous furniture and miscellaneous stuff up on eBay and Craigslist for sale.

Our home looks wonderful, but it is very, very quiet now with Mom gone and the girls back at home for the school year. Right now, I am finding that to be a good and soothing thing after the year-long daily parade of aides, nurses, social workers, relatives, and friends through the door. At times, though, especially on dark, rainy days, depression sets in and I now have the luxury of indulging it sometimes. Then I remember that I should be savoring every minute that life is good.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Lost and Found Month of August, Part 4

Please let me clear up some mistakes from my last blog post. The date posted may confuse because when I begin a blog post it lists at that date no matter how long I work on it. Usually, I copy the whole thing and paste it into the finish date, but I forgot to do that last time in my hurry to post. Also, Ari pointed out some minor misinformation in that he and Jessica were flying from Dulles and not National Airport in Washington, DC. National was an easier place for us to return the car. Also, he reminded me, having done most of the driving, that we were almost equally uncomfortable in Georgia as we were 35 years ago because I-95 was undergoing major reconstruction and we were driving through very narrow “cattle chutes” with tractor trailers, bumper-to-bumper for almost two hours. The Shoney’s was in South Carolina, just over the border from Georgia.

Now, on to my final blog post for August. I plan to zip through the whole month of September in one post and begin to catch up with my bi-weekly posting schedule this month, so that I can remember, without wracking my brains, what I actually did each day.

Haley’s wedding reception on Saturday evening, August 22, was beautiful, despite the rain outside. Under the soaring and intricate ceiling of a lovingly-restored antique building, all was warm and cheery. There is a saying in Judaism that, if a wedding procession and a funeral procession were to cross each other, the wedding procession takes precedence. There is almost no priority in our religion that should interfere with creating a happy environment for a bride and groom. We had assured Ken and Randi, and Haley and Erik, that the wedding would take precedence over all other considerations. Religiously, we were in a sort of catch-22. We had lost our mother, but we would not be officially and halakchically (in accordance with Jewish law) in mourning and bound by the traditions of mourning until after her funeral. So, we rejoiced in their happiness—we ate, we drank, and we danced, knowing that death comes all too soon and occasions for happiness are all too fleeting.

On Sunday morning, Haley and Erik hosted a brunch at their home in New Jersey for family and friends before leaving on their honeymoon. Our drive there was strange and wonderful. We had not been together as a family, just the four of us, for a very long time, possibly since Jess and Ari were teenagers. When we went through the front door, I instinctively turned around, waiting for Mom, as I have unconsciously been doing for years and did it again on my way out, although I knew she would no longer be a part of my life. I wonder how long I will be turning around, waiting for her, before the habit disappears?

Since we were already in New Jersey, and not far from Lion’s Gate, where Saul’s mom resides in an Alzheimer’s unit called “Safe Haven,” we decided to pay her a visit. Her condition appears to be deteriorating each time we see her. We no longer find her sitting with the group in the common area outside her room watching television. When we knock on her door, she has a chair pressed up against the doorknob, which she has to remove before we enter. The facility puts wheels on all the chairs so that the staff cannot be locked out by this move, but although the apparently heavy mood-altering medication keeps her spirits up, the old paranoia keeps creeping in to disturb her. She has gone from the skin-and-bones that resulted from forgetting to eat before we moved her out of her home, into our home, then into Jessica’s home, and then back to us again, to being quite fat now that she does nothing but sit, eat, and sleep. Her feet and ankles are extremely swollen. She has difficulty maintaining a conversation in English now, and appears to have lost her other languages almost completely. When she opened her door to us, she was all smiles to see us, but frequently, her conversation would trail off and she would forget what she was saying. Often, her conversation made no sense. She seemed to grasp the gravity of our conversation for a few moments at the end of our visit when we told her that Mom had died and that the funeral would be taking place in the morning.

Mom had pre-arranged to have a graveside service, not desiring her family and friends to undergo the sometimes harrowing experience of a long processional drive to the cemetery, so we all drove ourselves to Roosevelt Cemetery where many of our family are interred, arriving shortly before 11:00 a.m. I would not have chosen a graveside service under the circumstances because I feared that the noontime sun in August might take a toll on some of the more elderly participants. I had arranged for extra chairs to be set up under the canopy and was very glad that I had. We also arranged to have a case of water bottles with us nearby. As it turned out, the weather was not unbearably hot and a cool breeze made the day more tolerable.

Alex’s parents, who had been babysitting during the wedding and on Sunday, brought the girls with them to the cemetery. Jessica felt that seeing the reality of death was preferable to what their imaginations might have cooked up had they been barred. They brought notes that they had drawn with them to put in Mom’s grave. Izzy balked, though, because she did not want to drop her note into the grave because it would get dirty. Jessica put their notes on top of the coffin, but the breeze blew them off into the grave, anyway.

Rabbi Howard Addison, our rabbi, gave her eulogy, and recited the appropriate prayers. Having known Mom for many years, he spoke eloquently about her warmth and grace and about her love for her family. On Sunday evening, Saul, Jess, Ari, and I decided to jointly write a eulogy for Mom. Jessica was the only one of us capable of reading it without breaking down. That is her nature and her gift. Ken spoke also. The following are the texts that we read:

Last night, we all sat down in the home that we shared together with our mother and grandmother for the last 16 years to share some of our favorite memories.

We have always joked that, on a 20-minute subway ride, she would know the entire life history of whoever chose to sit next to her, and she would share stories about all of us as well. Complete strangers opened up to her because of her naturally benevolent disposition and could feel that her curiosity and compassion towards them was sincere and not of the busybody sort. From the sandwich lady on the corner in front of her office, to her closest friends and relatives, everyone could sense that she genuinely rejoiced with them for every success in their lives, and truly felt their pain when things weren’t going so well. She loved being among people, particularly her family, and everyone loved her in return.

We all fondly remember the many Shabbat dinners she spent with our family, which began many years before we came to live together. We kids remember spending countless hours exploring the many hidden treasures of her basement, and long walks around Melrose Park with Bandit. And so many people here have been serenaded at one point or another by Safety Songs like “When you Ride a Bicycle,” and “Ice Skating is Nice Skating.”

All throughout her life and even up to her last breath, she took almost every bit of what was probably more than her fair share of adversity, absorbed it without bitterness, and converted it to compassion and consideration. She was fiercely independent and self-reliant, and did what she knew in her heart to be right no matter what anyone else thought.

Our lives have been so enriched by having her just down the hall to always offer those magic words of advice, wisdom, encouragement and love that somehow made everything seem better. Her openness to new ideas and experiences grew out of her love for us, and her desire to accommodate our diverse interests. Over the years, she developed tastes for sushi, Indian and Pho, but never did warm up to eating anything that could look back up at her from the plate. And in her final years, when getting around wasn’t so easy, she soldiered on with us through a veritable monsoon, just to fulfill her life’s dream of attending the Rose Parade in person—even if that was the first and only time it ever rained in LA for the Rose Parade.

One of our favorite quotes from Pirkei Avot, a book of Jewish proverbs, states: Eizeh Hu Ashir, Hasame’ach B’chelko, which translates roughly to: He who is wealthy is he who happy with his portion in life.

One of her most admirable qualities was that she never felt or expressed jealousy toward another human being her whole life long. How many of us can say that we never felt a twinge of envy when a friend or sibling received a blessing we had sought, but which was denied to us. What an incredible legacy for us all to emulate!

Her life was so interwoven with ours, that we now find ourselves overwhelmed with a flurry of memories and anecdotes too numerous to expand upon here today. We did want to share, however, just a few sound bites of what we will call “Evelynguistics.”
  • Who want dad’s roll?
  • Just a half a cup.
  • That’s why there’s chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
  • Don’t give Phil any D-E-S-E-R-T (to which Phil quipped, “It has two S’s, Ev.”
  • I’ll learn how to kick that high.
  • I’m only eating the small M&Ms.
  • Bom-Bom-Butz Keppe
  • I’m not asleep.
  • I could a make a meal out of this.
  • Wear it in the “besta” health.
The following is the text of Ken’s eulogy:

I am humbled and privileged to stand before you today and say I am Philip and Evelyn’s son.

This truly remarkable woman has always been Mom to so many people, not just my wife, my sisters, and their husbands. She has touched so many. She has been Evelyn, then simply and lovingly “Ev” to my father and those closest to her. Aunt Ev…, Mom…, Grandmom…, and GG to the rest of us. The people in her life have always been her greatest joy. Always a giver. Always providing. Always caring and nurturing. Always sharing. Always helping. Always doing for people. Always offering her boundless energy.

Our mother has passed on. She is not here… but I still see her clearly. She can’t speak… but I can hear her words. She can’t reach out and touch me… but I can still feel her inside of me…, and inside all of you.

Her energy and light ARE NOT diminished. They have grown. Look at her family and friends. You can feel it here today. We all experience this thing called life… (L-I-F-E as my mother would say) …and wonder what it is all about. Very wise people have offered a host of explanations. Evelyn has already shown us the answer.

Life is energy. Energy grows in each of us. It doesn’t die, it can’t be destroyed. Standing here today, I know she is still giving us her wisdom and energy. The advice is crisp and clear. Give your energy to everyone you touch and it is multiplied. She gave it to her parents, her brothers and her sister, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and to anyone that was fortunate enough to have known her. Her energy lives on. It grows with each passing moment. It sustains us.

There are many memories that will live on. These are the essence of what my mother lived for. They are her legacy. In her own words, which became her mantra, she had no regrets. She would say during the most trying times, “color me happy.” Today, I am sure this is true. She is with those she loves. Mom, we love you too.

Following the Kaddish prayer, as we arranged, people were given the option of leaving before the the coffin was lowered into the grave and the surrounding paraphernalia removed. The family then proceeded with shovelfuls of dirt, piled alongside, to fill in the grave to the top. It is considered a mitzvah, or obligatory good deed, to participate in the covering of a grave as it is an act for which there can be no earthly reward. We are lucky to have many strong, robust family members who participated in this task, which was not easy considering the heat of the day. After that, we proceeded back to our home where a repast was waiting. Our friends, Larry and Natalie, had waited for ample trays of smoked fish, bagels, cream cheese, veggies and danish pastry to be delivered from nearby Pumpernick’s Deli and had set up coffee, tea and drink stations and a washing station outside the door, as is customary. While it may seem ludicrous to have to deal with such concerns after losing a loved one, food is an important part of our rituals, because it is a symbol of the affirmation of life when one might be tempted to withdraw from it.

Beginning with that Monday evening, on which Alex conducted a meaningful memorial service, (which started a little late because our friend, Michael, went home to retrieve his shofar so that we could hear the poignant sound of it daily during the month of Elul preceding the High Holy Days), we received a host of visitors for the rest of the shiva period. Mom’s sister’s rabbi, Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, conducted a wonderful service for us, as did Rabbi Addison. We had many friends who came to offer condolences from Temple Sinai, from MBI-EE, and from Adath Jeshurun. Relatives, neighbors and friends of Ken and Randi, Adele and Larry, and ours, provided lunches and dinners for us and sent or brought bountiful food packages. Far away friends and relatives called to tell us stories about our mother and father in their younger days. We were surrounded and sustained by our loved ones for that whole week.

After that, the school year began and Adele and I began the tedious process of going through Mom’s things and her files so that we could choose and distribute favorite items and provide needed information for Ken, whom we had chosen to be our executor. During the following thirty days (shloshim) Saul and I went to services every day to say Kaddish for Mom. Adele came almost every day to go through copious piles of paper, and Ken began the process of sorting it all out.