Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Attempt to Catch Up with the Last Three Months of My Life

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This is the longest period of time I have gone in several years without writing a blog post. My life has been so full and hectic that my journal has gotten away from me, and I have missed writing it and feel like a delectable portion of my life has somehow escaped, although heaven knows I have really enjoyed almost every moment of it. I had started writing a post the day after Neri’s graduation from AHA, but never finished, so I have included that part and continued on with what I can remember from there…
Since my last blog post, I attended the end-of-year party for Faith’s class at the lovely home of longtime class member, Ellen. Ellen’s kitchen has just been refurbished and was done beautifully. About 20 class members attended, bringing a delicious and varied assortment of potluck dishes—everything from salads to desserts. With her usual aplomb and literacy, Faith took us through some of the intricacies of life during the period of the Jewish expulsion from Spain. We spent some time discussing the life of Hannah Mendez, a fascinating and powerful woman of that time. Years ago, I read the Naomi Ragen book, The Ghost of Hannah Mendez, which is an exciting fictionalization of her life. I adored the novel! Saul arrived home late from his first day of teaching summer session at CHC, and we headed out to visit our friends, Ruth and Giora, in their new home in New Jersey. Because we got off to such a late start, we encountered a tremendous amount of traffic during rush hour. Finally arriving, we were delighted to find them very well settled into their magnificent and spacious new place. They had finally sold their previous home in a 55-and-older community which had strangled them with restrictive policies and invasive regulations. We discussed our lives, children, and plans for a satisfying retirement and fulfilling old age (we hope!).
My son Ari’s “little brother,” who was three years old when Ari was a high school junior at American Kibbutz High School in Israel, graduated from high school, after a year on a basketball scholarship, in Greensboro, North Carolina, from the American Hebrew Academy (AHA). Needless to say, we racked up even more miles attending the ceremonies. Neri’s mom, Efrat, had come to the U.S. a week early so that she could tour for a while. Saul, Ari, and I picked her up at Newark Airport on Sunday, May 22, and she stayed with us for a week while Ari returned to DC, and Saul taught summer session. Her English was quite good and we managed to communicate, with the addition of me throwing in a lot of my Hebrew nouns. I know the names for lots of things, but can’t speak a word because of my lack of ability to use verbs. I had lots of computer publishing work to do at the time, so during the mornings she took long walks around the neighborhood, learned about the working farm museum (Roth Farm) across the street, and met the farmer and his wife. In the afternoons, when Saul was finished, we visited shopping malls, toured downtown Philadelphia, including Chinatown, visiting The Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Zoo. We took her to our favorite, kosher, vegetarian, dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, Singapore, where the Chinese proprietor, Peter, whom we have known since he opened his doors 25 years ago, greeted her with a “Shalom,” and surprised her with his knowledge of Judaism and Israel. Although the kibbutz where she resides is totally secular, she eschews pork and seafood products and was disgusted by the idea of a Philly cheesesteak. She was very conservative about trying new foods here. She seemed very interested in suburban landscaping, habits and lifestyle, which are very different and very isolating compared to the social nature of life on the kibbutz, even a kibbutz which is no longer officially a kibbutz and has lost many of the communal habits of the past. We had a great time together, and, because of her questions, I did quite a bit of soul-searching about aspects of my life that I just take for granted.

Neri’s graduation was quite an experience! We drove with Efrat down to DC on Friday after Saul’s last summer school class, (Efrat and I waited for Saul in his office at school and toured the college a bit), rendezvoused at Jess and and Alex’s in Baltimore for Shabbat dinner, and stayed with Ari for two nights, touring DC, before driving to Greensboro, NC, on Sunday for the graduation on Memorial Day. We arrived early in the afternoon on Sunday and were absolutely amazed by the beauty of the campus, which was designed by architect Aaron Green, who was hired to create the campus using organic architecture, a design philosophy conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright in which local building materials are used, and buildings are integrated into, and become part of, the natural landscape. We were impressed by the quality of the faculty and students that we met, and were hosted for hors d’oeuvres in the beautiful, on-campus, home of one of the Israeli faculty members’ family before the awards presentations the evening before graduation. After the awards, we dropped off Efrat and Neri at a nearby country club for an evening of festivities with the graduating class families and retrieved them later in the evening, after we had dinner together at a nearby barbecue restaurant, Smoky Bones, returning to our hotel rooms with Efrat and Neri. We attended graduation the next morning after breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and had lunch in the school cafeteria. After that, we jammed everything that Neri had accumulated during his year in the U.S. into the back of the SUV and began the long 5-hour drive back to DC. We stopped along the way to have dinner at a Cheesecake Factory in Fair Oaks, VA. The next day, Saul and I drove home, while Neri and Efrat spent the following 10 days with Ari in DC until it was time for them to return to Israel.

We met on the morning of Friday, June 10, at the house on Imperial Drive in Cherry Hill that Jess and Alex were supposed to be buying and moving into immediately. What happened that day fatefully impacted the rest of the summer and ultimately our lives. It was like a family reunion that day. Present for the home inspection were Saul and I with the three girls, Jess and Alex, Alex’s mom Elaine, Efrat, Neri, and Rochelle, the real estate agent. We were all excited about the house and the ease with which everything had finally fallen into place. After the inspector left, all of us had a wonderful Shabbat dinner at Elaine’s in Cranberry, NJ. Ari returned to DC and Efrat and Neri returned home with us so that we could drive them to Newark airport for their flight home to Israel that Sunday. Neri was due to start his mandatory three-year service in the army a month later. When we returned from the airport, Jess arrived with the three girls and their summer wardrobe to begin “Camp Bubbie and Saba.”

Camp Bubbie and Saba began early this year, on June 12, and ended late, on Thursday, September 1, when Jess arrived for lunch with Elaine, Alex’s mom, and helped to finish packing up all their stuff from the summer. An hour after they all left, I came down with 103° fever which eventually turned out to be from cellulitis caused by a mosquito bite on my foot that I received on our last evening together. Sami had asked if we could go to Owowcow for ice cream. She had gone there earlier with us and Ken and Randi without her sisters, who had gone home for a few days. We had delectable ice cream sitting outside in the dark, in the country, at picnic tables. I am just now recovering from the ordeal, but the memorable evening was worth it.

This was Yona’s first year of camp with us, and we were a bit limited in our activities by the lack of attention span of a two-year old and her tendency to have monumental temper tantrums. When she was good, though, she was very, very, good and it was a source of delight and wonderment in watching her encounter new experiences for the first time. The weather was iffy the first few days and we launched the summer with an exciting visit to the Crayola Factory and lunch outdoors at a cafĂ© down the street, which left us and the girls in a great anticipatory state of mind for the rest of the summer.

We were to have three full weeks before our family vacation in Orlando began. During that time, we spent many days at Beachcomber’s Swim Club, visited The Franklin Institute, baked and cooked together on rainy days, worked on the beautiful dollhouse that was given to us by our friend, Natalie, and often visited the big castle playground where Yona could sit on the swings for hours. Just by chance, we were lucky enough to be there on the one day each summer when the fire department shows up for an hour or two to create a giant, moving, arc of water for the summer day camp kids to play and cool off under. We all got soaked, gladly, on a scorchingly hot and humid summer morning, and followed that with water ice at Rita’s.

Two major problems colored our summer darkly this year. The home inspector discovered, on June 10, that the beams underneath the house on Imperial were rotted and that the all-brick house would have to be jacked up and the beams replaced. Beth, our extremely competent family engineer, strongly advised against getting involved in this procedure, pointing out all the things that could go wrong. Thankfully, we had retained a wonderful real estate lawyer, recommended by our cousin, Anne, who helped us out of the deal and was a blessing when it came to dealing with all the complications that followed as Jess searched to find another satisfactory home. It was crucial to Jess that they be moved in somewhere in Cherry Hill in time for Alex to begin his new job on August 1, and for the girls to be registered to start school in September at the schools they would actually be attending permanently. Considering the housing situation right now, that would have seemed to be a snap, but as it turned out, became quite complicated. One house that they wanted had a tenant who could not move out in time, one that seemed to be available in time turned out not to be and the owners would not negotiate on their high price, one on which they put a deposit, turned out to have been sold the day before, unbeknownst to the realtor, one that was just about to go on the market needed too much work. With each passing encounter, hope diminished and time seemed to be running out. In the midst of all this, we began a two-week Orlando vacation. Jess found the house they wanted days before we left. Rushing through everything, we were assured that all our paperwork was in order before we embarked on our long drive. As it turned out, each day of our vacation was spent scrambling to provide some other piece of paper that the mortgage company suddenly decided was necessary. Thank God for email and pdfs! We did not find out for sure that the mortgage was approved until the day before we were to return home.

We had an incredible vacation in Florida. We stayed in the house next door to the one in which we had been staying two years ago when we had to cut our vacation short to rush back to Mom’s bedside as she began “actively” dying. It backed up to the edge of Summer Bay’s lake and so provided great privacy and beautiful sunset views as we used our in-house pool. The weather was mostly sunny for the whole two weeks, and we were lucky enough to have a few days where the temperatures were high eighties and low nineties as opposed to the usual high nineties. The girls, as last time, reveled in the craft programs at the clubhouse down the street. The huge wading birds that we fed last time were still in evidence and Sami would look for them every day and rush out to feed them bread crumbs. We found some great restaurants and had delicious and unique breakfasts at First Watch, and a variety of dinners at seafood, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese and Thai restaurants. We also discovered a chain called Sweet Tomatoes that was perfect for our family, and was only a 15-minute drive from our house. It was a buffet with incredibly fresh and organic local produce and salads, house-made soups (at least two of which were vegetarian), specialties and baked goods, including gooey brownies that were to die for and real ice cream (not the cheap soft serve), all for an incredibly cheap fixed price. We happened upon it when Anne flew down for a few days to join her son Max and his friends for the final space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral. They had won tickets in a lottery. We all met there and gorged until we couldn’t move. The servers there couldn’t have been nicer, as well.

We bought three days worth of tickets to Disney World and saved money by not buying park-hoppers this time. Each day, we visited a different park, but did not go to Animal Kingdom as we had been there many times before. We first went to the Hollywood Studios park because it is the least-crowded of them all. This time, we avoided the parks on July 4, and were glad that we did. Our wait times were not terrible and we were able to see all the major attractions before we were too hot and tired and needed to return home. On the day we went to Epcot, the weather was temperate enough, and we found enough places to rest and rejuvenate that we were able to spend the entire day there without returning home. We had a nice, sit-down dinner by the lake at an outdoor table in a British-themed restaurant as the sun set and the fireworks began. We visited areas of The Magic Kingdom where we had not ventured before, catching some new shows as well as a retro one in a revolving theater that has not changed since I saw it at the New York World’s Fair back in 1964. Everywhere we went, Izzy was in her glory because she was finally tall enough for all the wild rides. Sami, who was fearful at first, began to enjoy some of the wilder rides, too. I was mortified when I dropped my new sunglasses as I got into one of the cars on one of the most popular new rides with a long, long line. They fell in such a way that they jammed, upright, in a tiny crack between the moving sidewalk sections. The ride was shut down for a few minutes while a mechanic was consulted about whether it was safe to continue operating. They decided it was safe and left the sunglasses there because the mechanic could not figure out how to extract them and needed to wait until closing before trying to figure out how to remove them without damaging the machinery. I hope it wasn’t as bad a problem as it looked to be at the time.  Although I was practically tearful in my apologies, and I know I caused great difficulty, the people managing the ride were as pleasant and cheerful as could be and were apologizing to me for not being able to retrieve my sunglasses. On our day at The Magic Kingdom, we went home in the afternoon for a brief nap, and returned in the evening for additional rides, a light dinner and fireworks.

The three days at Disney in the heat were enough for Saul, me and Alex. Jess and Ari spent a day at Universal Studios, especially to check out the new Harry Potter park. They loved it. Saul and I took the older girls to the splash park at Summer Bay a few afternoons when they grew bored with our own little pool. Summer Bay also had a great July 4 fireworks display, which we could see close up by just walking to the end of our street. By taking a wrong turn one evening, on our way back from a restaurant, we discovered a Disney employee parking lot where we could just pull into the back, find a good spot, and watch the fireworks from The Magic Kingdom whenever we felt like taking a short drive. A few times, Saul, Ari and I went prowling for real estate nearby. Hearing the statistics about the number of foreclosures in Florida cannot begin to approach the dismal reality of driving through certain developments there. There are incredible bargains to be had, but it is difficult to know which newly-built developments will become tomorrow’s slums. We had a great time in Orlando, and we hope someday to be able to take family vacations that way on a regular basis.

The other problem that clouded our summer was our air conditioning at home. Two weeks before we left for vacation, our top-of-the-line, four-year-old system ceased to work. We paid over $9,000.00 for the system and it has never worked properly from the first day. We won a lawsuit in small claims court this year against the original installer, J.A. Smith, but had to drop it when we discovered that we could not answer an appeal ourselves without a lawyer. We hired a lawyer and paid him $600 to answer the appeal, but then dropped everything when it appeared that the lawyer’s fees would run more than the $3,100.00 we had been awarded by the court. Our trusty people at Renaissance kept putting us off. Josh had broken his hand and had more work than he could handle. I told them that if the system was not fixed by the time we returned from vacation, I would be going elsewhere. We also called customer service every day for a week at Lennox, who made the system, and emailed them. They finally returned our call when we threatened to get a lemon lawyer to represent us. (The lemon lawyer, btw, would not touch a case for something so small as a $9,000.00 HVAC system.) Lennox finally sent three engineers, who spent three hours evaluating the system to figure out what was wrong with it, but refused to speak with Josh at Renaissance because he was not a licensed dealer. Then they sent a report, which arrived late, after we had already left on vacation, saying that the system had been installed improperly, could be fixed, and that they would not honor the ten-year warranty because of the improper installation. They supposedly listed everything that needed to be fixed. We returned home from vacation to some of the hottest weather this area has ever seen—over 100 degrees for over a week and in the nineties at night. We had air conditioning from our other 18-year-old system, in our bedrooms at night, but staying in the rest of the house was unbearable, and it was even too hot to go to the swim club. Josh did not get the system fixed in time, and we contacted our home warranty company about the problem. The home warranty company sent, at our request, a Lennox-certified dealer to look at the system (Alpha Mechanics). When he was done, I had little confidence that the problem would be fixed in any kind of timely manner. He wasn’t sure that he was a Lennox dealer to begin with, spent an hour on an automated phone system trying to speak to someone at Lennox and then was kicked out of the system, and he gave me no indication of how long it would take to get it fixed. In desperation, I found a highly-rated HVAC company on Angie’s List and called them that evening. I was willing to pay almost anything to get the system fixed promptly. Sila sent a rep within hours. We met with him that evening and he promised to have the system up and running within two days. A workman arrived the following afternoon and said that he would have the system up and running by the time we returned from a synagogue event welcoming Jess and Alex to the community that evening. Saul helped him fish some wires through the walls and we gave the guy dinner before we left so that he could continue to work until it was fixed. Later that evening we received the distressing call that he was not able to fix it, that it would cost almost $2,000 to fix, or they could install a new Lennox system for $9,000. If we fixed it for $2,000, they would only guarantee it for two more years. We slept uncomfortably on the dilemma that night and I decided that there was no way I would ever buy another Lennox product. Saul paid them $1,500.00 for the seven hours of work and parts. Later, when we complained in a report on Angie’s List, they agreed to settle for $750.00 and returned our money once I took down the bad report.

To salvage what we could of Camp Bubbie and Saba, we packed our suitcases and moved down to Ari’s in DC where we had fun for a few days visiting the Smithsonians, the National Zoo, and playing with Legos and other building toys at the National Building Museum, while I wrangled with the problem, explaining my dilemma for two hours to a sympathetic ear at Angie’s List. They were very helpful. In the end, we had to rely on the company that the home warranty had sent originally. A few days after we returned home, they sent an experienced guy, who fixed the problem in two hours for the cost of our deductible. Amazing how many thousands of dollars can fly out the window if you take a wrong step in one of these matters. We purchased a contract with Alpha Mechanics to service our HVAC systems from now on.

Jess and Alex were able to make settlement relatively smoothly and move into their new house a week before Alex was due to begin work, as they had hoped. And the girls were registered for their schools in Cherry Hill in a timely fashion, which had been Jessica’s one goal in all the uncertainty. There were quite a few bumps. Jess had the beautiful hardwood floors refinished before they moved in, but the refinishers had failed to cover the air conditioning vents while they were sanding. For two days, Jess had no air conditioning until it could be fixed. The plumber who came to fix a leaky pipe and install a new high-efficiency washer and dryer had to be called back the same day when the air conditioning guy punctured a plumbing pipe that had been run through the air conditioning vent. Then all hell broke loose when a clog developed from the tree roots on their heavily wooded lot invading the pipes. Raw sewage backed up and ran out of the toilet in the powder room contaminating large areas of the dining room, laundry room, office, and most of the powder room. Half of the newly refinished hardwood floors had to be removed, and the drywall in those rooms cut halfway up the wall and replaced. The beautiful breakfront from Saul’s mother was a total loss because it was standing in sewage for a day, and Jess also lost the vanity from the powder room. Within a month, her new house was to be totally ripped apart. Luckily, homeowners’ insurance is paying for most of the repairs and replacement, except for the replacement of the sewer line that runs from the house to the street. Jess and Alex have to pay the several thousand dollar cost of replacing the line, but once it is done properly, they will never have a problem again.

On top of all that, Hurricane Irene hit and knocked out their power. Their sump pump stopped and their basement filled with four inches of water. They bailed for a few hours until the power came back on  and the sump pump finished the job quickly.

We did have a few good weeks. Before all this happened, we had a lovely Shabbat dinner there, joined by Beth and Larry. I helped the girls bake a spectacular coconut cake for dessert, and they spent a few hours making figures for the top out of marzipan, a substance that Sami recently discovered at the supermarket. I realized when she asked me about it that it is the perfect medium for her creative urges. As we carefully packed the cake for the journey to NJ, Beth made a comment about how great it would be if it collapsed because we could just dig in and have a big hunk before dinner. She was hungry. We were all shocked when we opened the box that she had been very prophetic. The cake had collapsed in such a manner as to be beyond repair. Beth did get to eat a big hunk before dinner with her hands and so did Larry. Izzy had a temper tantrum when Jessica interrupted her attempt to take a big bite before dinner. Luckily, we have before and after photos, so the work on the marzipan figures has been preserved in some way.

On July 24, Elaine had Maury’s unveiling, over which Alex ably officiated. About three dozen friends and family members gathered on a wickedly hot Sunday morning. Afterward, we had lunch together in a private room of a nearby Bertucci’s.

Additional highlights of our summer: Pajamarama at Barnes & Noble; Kids Concert at the Abington Art Center; seeing Spy Kids in 4D; new Smurf 3D movie with Yona on my lap; an earthquake that struck while Saul and I and the girls were having lunch with my friend Roxy on the second floor of Wegmans, (ironically, Ari, who, in DC, would have been nearest to the epicenter in North Carolina was away on business in Southern California); driving to Ocean City, NJ, to dip our feet in the ocean for an hour and then a few days later, just before Hurricane Irene struck, taking the Sami and Izzy there for a glorious afternoon on the beach, giant slices of pizza for dinner, rides at Pirates’ Cove, and ice cream at Kohr Bros.

When we were teenagers, we used to go to the beach for a day because we couldn’t afford to stay overnight. In describing this to the girls, we became aware that they had never been to the beach for just a day, and that they didn’t realize it was within the realm of possibility. They absolutely loved their day at the beach and showered happily when we got home very late as I had demanded even though they were dead tired and half asleep.

We had free carousel rides for Sami’s birthday at Plymouth Meeting Mall and dinner at King Buffet. We found great food including a huge bowl of vegetarian udon at the upscale food court in King of Prussia Mall, and the best gelato ever. Yona loved pink kitchen at Pottery Barn Kids there just like her sisters always did. The synagogue and the neighbors in Cherry Hill were wonderful in welcoming Jess and Alex to the community. We celebrated a special birthday for Beth at an incredible party/barbecue prepared by Erica and Adele. The girls met lots of the Cherry Hill neighbors and kids at parties held for them, and lots of families and kids from the synagogue festivities. We discovered a new favorite ice cream place, Owowcow in Ottsville. The girls learned how to install real ceramic tile by installing a glass tile floor in their dollhouse. They made wonderful kiln-fired ceramics at Beachcombers, and learned lots of new art skills.

We had an incredible summer, despite all the tensions and upsets. Ari started a new job which he seemed to like very much and went on vacation for two weeks with us between jobs, so at least there was no tension there. Everyone stayed healthy until the very end, we bonded with Yona, and we created wonderful memories that are sure to last a lifetime! What more could we ask?

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