Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

December Birthday Post

December is birthday time for so many of my dear friends, relations and for yours truly. December is a time when all of us tend to take stock, to make amends, to look ahead with hope and back in gratitude. Right now as I approach my middle fifties, I’m thinking about legacy. What have we received from those who have come before us and what will we leave behind in our wake? My mother left a trail of shoes. Here’s why…

My mother hated her feet. They were size ten, widened and flattened by four pregnancies, with toes curved around each other, enlarged at the joints. In the sixties, when everyone wore sandals, she searched for a style that hid her toes. At the beach or by the pool, she wore plastic bathing slippers.
“Bubbe bought secondhand shoes from a pushcart for my older sisters and me,” she’d remark during every frequent trip to the shoe store when I was a child. “By the time I got them, they were hand-me-down, hand-me-downs. Our shoes gave us bunions and ruined our toes. I swore if nothing else my kids would have new shoes and pretty toes, just like yours.”
In the beginning of her dementia, when we thought she was “just depressed,” I took her shopping at the wide shoe store. “Nothing’s right, nothing’s right...,” she muttered over and over, her head oscillating in despair. We squandered half a day until finally settling on a mauve, leather, flat-shoe with Velcro strap. Laces and buckles were no longer an option. They were too confusing. With these shoes we trudged through the mud of depression,
and tiptoed the quick sand at its demented foundation. Her shoes fell through the cracks when she did. They were always getting lost. But on the days when her mind returned, so did her shoes. She demanded the help she needed to put them on. Shoes were her dignity.
When she moved into an assisted-living facility, I packed up her beloved home of 52 years. I counted 37 pairs of shoes in her bedroom closet and assorted singles. There were shoes that looked cozy and comfortable, just like her house. I found the shoes she’d worn to my wedding and the muddied shoes she’d worn to visit her mother’s grave, her running shoes and her swimming shoes, and her Sunday morning slippers. Right up front, sat the black patent pumps she’d worn the previous fall at grandson Joey’s wedding. Those shoes looked ready and waiting for their next dance. For a few minutes I basked in her presence, captured in shoes.
Toward the back of her closet, I discovered shoes that smelled new. Purchased on a whim, with rigid straps and narrow toes, they were unrealistic for the shape of her feet, but classy and adored anyway. I’m sure she couldn’t bear to wear, or discard them. These shoes were life’s disappointments, with gaping holes between what was desired, and what was delivered. Like a disintegrating brain in the middle of an exuberant and well-deserved retirement, they betrayed a painful discontent. I threw these shoes out.
So when it was time to give the funeral director some clothes for her service, I found the blue dress with white trim around the ‘Nehru’ collar; the dress she’d bought for her third son, my brother Myles’s Bar Mitzvah thirty years previous. The neckline would look nice in a half-body open casket, and Myles would be pleased. Since the top half of her body was all that would show, I figured that was all she would need. I was wrong.
A few weeks after her death, she visited my dreams as she had been in her prime: energetic, high-spirited, bursting with love and gratitude. She came back to thank me for taking care of her when she could no longer take care of herself. I was grateful for this gift from her spirit.
A few months after her funeral, she visited again. This time she came back steeped in demented hysteria. She came back demanding her shoes. In the dream, I searched the house for her shoes, every string in my body’s fiber tight with the familiar angst, trying to make things right by her. She waited in the car, fraught with anxiety that never let up. I knew it well. For two sick years, I took up the slack when it seemed as if she’d explode. In the dream, I never found the shoes. I woke up and realized that I had buried her without them. I knew the ones she wanted. The black patent pumps she had danced in at Joey’s wedding. Just before she got sick, she danced with her second son, my brother Lanse at his son Joey’s wedding.
What a glorious day that had been for her. She was already concerned about the state of her mind. She confided to me weeks before the wedding, “I wish it was here already.” She knew she was just holding on. She knew what was coming. She held on long enough to make a speech, dance with her son in her new black patent shoes and be the elegant grandmother she wanted to be.
Those shoes, boxed in the attic, complete with shoe stretchers to keep them wide, still wait for their next affair. But this never occurred to me on the day before her funeral, and there are some things you can’t do over again. So, she went out barefoot the way she came in, but worn from living. A pebble of guilt remains in my shoe, although it diminishes as the years pass and the stain of her dementia wears off. My mother’s black patent shoes remain in my attic, a testament to a life in full. And, “if nothing else,” my daughter will have new shoes and pretty toes, just like mine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Back-To-School Fashion Romp

What a way to ruin a perfect summer vacation. It happens every year. The return of the dreaded ‘Back to School’ signage casts a gloomy pall over the month of August, announcing the death of summer. The only redeeming quality, I always felt, about going back to school was the license it gave to shop. Please join me on this fashion romp through the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Standing in line at the Marianne Shoppe, Northeast Philadelphia, I am passed the baton.

My best friend Sueann’s older sister Arlene speaks. We listen.

No more miniature golf, bowling or Barbie - start shopping!

Sixth, seventh, eighth grade girls,
we learn to covet conservative colors,
maroon, pink, cranberry but not red,
and white socks are for fairies - get it
straight or you’ll be jive, which is not good.

Initiated into a John Romaine jungle of Ladybugs,
Injuns, Weejuns, Pandora, Velveteen,
initial pins, opal earrings, pierce your heart, pierce your brain.

These things cost money.
More money than our absent fathers collect in their stores and trucks.
Our mothers call themselves twos and threes,
earning pin money from the neighborhood government employer.
Shopping for widgets, they defend our nation.

We try on stretchy bras.

Underpaid, under-lived salesgirls whine,
“You? A bra? Whatya gonna stuff it with cherries? Hmmm?”

Giggling at wayward straps in history,
we search for more things to hide them under.

bikinis for every day of the week,
knee socks not anklets then stockings,
garters, make way for pantyhose, not tights.

We learn to accessorize, glamorize galore,
velour, Nehru, turtlenecks, medallions,
cigarette holders, cigarettes of all kinds.

Standing in line at the Marianne Shoppe, Northeast Philadelphia, we are passed the baton.

Ninth, tenth, eleventh grade girls,
to burn it all in the cool eternal freedom flame,
in the name of hippiedom,
groovy, seldom seen visions of
forests, trees and babbling brooks.

We shag
hair, rugs, dogs.

Bless the beasts
and children
and women
and our older brothers
and cousins fighting
some war somewhere.

Iron your hair.
Unleash the chains of your belt.
Add peace signs.
No more purses of mahogany with
matching case for keys. No more bugs
on sweaters, pins on skirts, try suede
fringies with beads, granny glasses and gowns.

Not a brassiere in sight,
same salesgirl sighs,
“You’re gonna droop and sag and be soorrrrreeee”.

We open our eyes,
pull the fringed purse strings,
tune in, turn on,
drop out of the shopping circuit,
save an occasional trip to the thrift
for flannel shirts from the fifties and
World War Two accessories to
camouflage ourselves from ourselves.

These are the clothes that travel
with us through vines, webs and ivy covered walls,
accessorizing here or there
to pass in hallowed halls of
corporate America, Micro Centers,
organic supermarkets, and the
cinema verite multiplex.

Standing in line at the Marianne Shoppe, Northeast Philadelphia, twenty-five years later, sagging and sorry,
caught without a suit for my father’s funeral,
I am passed the baton.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day

You don't have to be French to celebrate Bastille Day. Here is a memory of a Bastille Day past.

“At least, he died with his boots on!” my mother said. Leave it to Mom to find something upbeat to say about a schnook like Frank Rizzo. Mom admired that in a man -the ability to die and be done with it.
We were in line for the loo at Reading Terminal Market with my aunts Jean, Lena and Bessie, when we heard the news that Frank Rizzo had just suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He was preparing to run for mayor again (this time against newcomer Ed Rendell), and collapsed at his campaign headquarters. Ed Rendell went on to become a two-term mayor of Philadelphia, then Governor of Pennsylvania.
This was after lunch on July 16, 1991, and before our visit to the Museum of American Jewish History. My older aunts were back from Florida. I thought an outing to this museum would speak to them, acknowledging their role in American history as the children of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Aunt Jean had been a toddler, Aunt Lena an infant in 1909, when they crossed the ocean in their mother’s arms, and settled in Philadelphia. Here was an exhibit about their experience, to make them feel acknowledged. My mom and dad, lifelong Philadelphians, always relished a trip downtown, especially when a meal at one of their old haunts was on the agenda.
Mom wore her white-patent go-go boots that day. She and I had matching pairs back in 1967, when I was eleven. Mom’s still fit. I suppose she plucked them from the depths of her closet in a spirit of rugged individualism; despite the hand-knitted sweater and hand-me-down pantsuit she wore to please her older sisters. And despite the fact that go-go boots became passé in 1968. Anyway, it was midsummer, the time for white shoes.
A celebration of Bastille Day was occurring at Reading Terminal Market, delaying our visit to the museum. Mom, Dad, I and my aunts always ready for a party, joined the revilers, as if we knew what we were celebrating. Mom practiced her high school French with actors, sporting berets and ruffled aprons. Having never been to Gay Paris, she was content to make do with a faux French field day in Philly. Aunt Bess kept serenading us with, “Que sera sera...” until I mentioned that she was singing in Spanish, not French. So, she hummed it for the rest of the day. I carried our croissants and cafe au lait to a table across from a woman and man in business attire, rapt in discussion. Aunt Jean sat down and immediately launched into a celebrity sighting. “Gladys Knight! Gladys Knight!” She wouldn’t stop pointing until the woman at the table across from us looked up, and acknowledged her, first with a worried look, and then a smile. I sunk in my chair.
“Thanks for the compliment, although I’m sorry to disappoint you,” the woman responded. “I’m not Gladys Knight.” She returned to her discussion, and we to our croissants. But Aunt Jean kept following people with her eyes as they walked by, half expecting The Pips to show up after a short break.
As we were leaving I heard Gladys confide to her associate, “Y’ know, my family thinks I look like Gladys Knight. She’s not just some crazy, old, white lady saying we all look alike.” I shared this with my family in the car. Aunt Jean beamed.
“See, I’m not just some crazy, old, white lady,” Aunt Jean kept repeating. She felt acknowledged. We hardly needed to visit the museum after that.
At the museum, we procured a wheel chair for Aunt Bess. She tired easily, which we would later find out was due to a growing stomach cancer. But for today, “hmm hmm hmm, hmm hmm...” Aunt Lena forged ahead, accustomed to leading and protecting her clan. Dad, despite his recent knee replacements and cancer surgery, insisted on pushing the wheel chair. He had been a professional boxer in his youth. This formative experience now proved invaluable for fighting his ultimate opponent, prostate cancer. In his zeal to prove his worth, pound for pound in the arena of aging, he sometimes over compensated. Like on this day for instance, when he pushed Bessie’s wheel chair in fits and starts, licking at Lena’s heels, until Lena screeched, “Ouch! Abie, how many times do I have to tell you..”
Lena and my dad harbored a lifetime of resentment toward each other. He resented Lena’s overprotective control of her family. Lena resented that he was never the provider she’d expected for her baby sister. Today they were duking it out in subtle nudgings with a wheelchair.
As usual, none of this dented my mother’s enthusiasm. She approached each display with the exuberance and curiosity of the baby sister and lifelong learner. This was her role in the family. Of ten children, she was the only one to graduate high school and further her education. The older children had to leave school in the eighth grade, to keep the family afloat during the Great Depression. Mom never stopped showing them her gratitude and joie d’ vie.
Returning home to Philadelphia, after ten years away, gave me the opportunity to appreciate days like this with my parents and aunts, before illness and death separated us. Bessie and my dad died the following year in 1992. Aunt Jean died in 1995. Lena and my mother lived on until 2004. Lena forged through the indignities of aging in stoic denial. The only reason she died at the age of 95 was because her favorite doctor was out of town, and she refused to take antibiotics prescribed by a visiting physician.
But Mom did not die with her boots on. Her off-the-cuff response to Rizzo’s death back in 1991 was prescient of her own impending barefoot demise. After ten exuberant years of retirement, she kicked off her go-go boots in 2001 and sunk into the deep depression that camouflaged her demented brain. Nothing she could wear could hide the fact that she wanted to die. Jealous of her friends dropping like flies, “They’re the lucky ones,” she’d say, while her life lingered on in a liminal, living hell.
But, if Mom, like Frank Rizzo, had died on Bastille Day in 1991, in her white-patent go-go boots running around Reading Terminal Market, speaking French and eating pastry, I know that my shock at her swift and untimely loss would have been just as difficult as her slow, painful decline. As her caregiver I learned that we cannot choose how or when we die. However, if given the choice, I’d prefer not to die with my boots on, or to suffer the barefoot descent to oblivion. I’d like to be given time for a clear-headed assessment, time to appreciate what is and what was, and time to hum what will be, will be.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Aunt Jean

On July 4th, smother your hot dog with "the works" - mustard, onions, sauerkraut & pepper hash. Here is a recipe mixed in with some history which I hope you'll relish!

Aunt Jean read philosophy on the #50 trolley as it bounded down Fourth Street in fits and starts toward Passyunk Avenue. Rocking back and forth in her seat as if she were praying, she read and swayed until the brakes squealed and wheels ground to a screeching halt for the fifth time. Then she closed her book, grabbed the pole beside her and stood erect, climbed down the steps and walked the block to Lenny's Hot Dog Stand, where she sold sandwiches.
On Saturdays when I was ten, I rode the trolley and walked to Lenny’s along with her. She fed me, before I walked on to my art class at Seventh and Catherine Streets in South Philadelphia.
Aunt Jean stuffed hot dogs, fish cakes, mustard, chopped onions, sauerkraut and homemade pepper hash into warm buns, and handed them over the counter to customers she addressed as "Baby" and "Doll."
"Hey Baby, what can I get you?"
"Something to drink doll?"
She must've said this at least 50 times a day, never wearing out her smile.
“Eydie Gorme! Sugar, no cream, right?” Aunt Jean complimented her customers, citing a slight resemblance to the popular celebrities of the day, to make them smile.
Aunt Jean wore pink, frosted lipstick to match her painted fingernails. Her hair was set and heavily sprayed to a ‘J’ I thought, with a flip at the bottom. Her uniform was white, embroidered with "Jean" in red above the chest pocket. Her freshly polished white shoes were flat, wide, and made for comfort and support as she stood all day in a ten by twelve foot trailer, at an open window above a slight counter. Inside were steam ovens with stainless steel doors and black knobs on top, which she flung open with a large pronged fork to pluck moist doggies and plump patties of potatoes and fish.
Babobop! The doors bounced and settled backwards, as steam enveloped her, and the acrid smell of hot fermented cabbage and freshly chopped onions permeated the air, inside and out. She must've smelled that in her dreams. Sauerkraut was kept in a bowl in the oven. Its overflow doused the steaming hot dogs with a signature tang. But pepper hash was what scored Lenny's Hot Dogs its local fame. Bubbe Ida's recipe from the old country - a few carrots, a whole green pepper, a head of cabbage, white sugar and distilled white vinegar, all chopped together.
“How much sugar and vinegar?” New employees would ask.
"Sh'terein! Just throw it in!" Aunt Jean said with a slight wave of the right hand, repeating her mother's Yiddish words and recipe.
She arrived early each morning to light the urns and chop vegetables. This was her job, performed as if it were a chosen profession.

On Tuesdays before I started kindergarten, Aunt Jean emerged from her cubicle of sweet and sour steam, to spend her day off with me. We had a standing date for breakfast at Linton's on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia where we lived.
On Tuesdays, Aunt Jean wore black. Her blouse was off-the- shoulder and her skirt was flared out by the stiff, layered crinoline beneath. It sounded crinkly, as if I were forming snowballs, when I pressed against her skirt. Her black heels clopped on the street in short, quick steps. We took my stroller in case I got tired, but I usually walked beside her, holding on to the handle. We would need the stroller later to hold our purchases. We didn’t bother with sidewalks as we made our way toward Castor Avenue. The up-and-down of sidewalks was hard to negotiate with heels and a stroller. We walked in the street, alongside the curb. Aunt Jean trusted that drivers would see us. Indeed, they often slowed down just to look at her.
Aunt Jean liked her coffee black, her toast dry and her cigarettes unfiltered.
“Short stack, side of toast, hold the butter,” Bea, our steady waitress, announced over the microphone to the cooks, as we entered Linton’s.
Heaping dishes of sunny side up eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and thick pancakes with a scoop of butter on top that looked like melting ice cream, rolled out of the kitchen on a long conveyor belt. We always sat where I could follow the route of my perfectly plate-sized stack. I couldn’t smell much of anything except for cigarette smoke. Aunt Jean took long, languorous drags on her cigarette, held the smoke in her chest, then exhaled with a deep sigh. She relaxed back into her chair. The cigarette sat perched on the elegant pedestal of her consciously positioned fingers and tapered, painted nails. I knew that she had taught piano with those fingers, and I’d seen her play duets with her daughter. What I didn’t know at that time, was that she had been offered a career as a classical pianist in New York, when she was a young woman, but her mother was afraid to let her go. Instead, she was paid to improvise on the keyboard in silent movie houses in Philadelphia during the nineteen twenties.
“Can you teach me to play piano?” I’d ask.
“I don’t have the patience to teach or play any more,” she said from behind her smoky curtain at Linton’s.
“But, how about you?” She’d lean forward, holding her cigarette like a pointer toward my face. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“An artist,” I ‘d say, while doodling on the paper placemat.
“What do you like to draw?”
“Stars,” I’d say, showing off the blue, intersecting lines on my paper canvas.
“They sparkle, just like you! You’ll be anything you want because you’ve got personality,” she’d insist.
Then we’d walk out of Linton’s and down the avenue singing, “’cause you got personality, walk with personality, talk with personality, smile with personality, charm…”*
We’d end up at Woolworth’s five and dime store, where she bought my crayons. For herself she chose a new lipstick, perhaps a bottle of nail polish or a stiff, sandy emery board.

Aunt Jean and I remained close for 35 years, until she died of emphysema. In her later years, I became her confidant. She told me about her husband Leon.
“He said he was sickly, and didn’t want to have children. So I had three back-alley abortions, and almost bled to death the third time. When I became pregnant again, the doctor said, ‘You better have this baby.’”
“When you’re young, you do dumb things,” Aunt Jean said. “I could've had four children, like your mother.”
The fourth pregnancy resulted in a daughter whom she adored, fretted over, and raised alone. Her daughter was born with a hip deformity and had to wear a bar separating her legs for the first five years of her life. She needed to be carried, and her sickly husband wouldn’t carry her.
“Divorce him. What good is he?” Jean’s sister Lena advised.
“I liked him well enough, but Lena kept nagging,” Jean said. “And perhaps she was right. He wasn’t much help.”
So she divorced him. Aunt Jean and her daughter moved in with her parents, never asking for child support from Leon. Meanwhile, sister Lena remained unhappily married for 55 years.
“When I turned 50, I got a nose job and started going to dances,” Aunt Jean said. “I met a man and we dated for awhile, then he told me he was married with children. And yet he went to singles dances! We continued until I said, ‘Enough. Enough, already!’ I never dated again. All my life, I lacked confidence. I joined the library, thinking books would help.”

Aunt Jean sold sandwiches most of her life for her brother Lenny. She read self-help and philosophy books while shuttling to and from work. She took care of her nieces and nephews on her days off. She gave her money to her daughter and grandchildren.
When she retired, she kept busy and remained social by making weekly dinners for her family. Osteoporosis robbed her bones of minerals and stature. Her hands shook wildly while salting the soup she prepared for her family. At eighty, she cut a familiar figure in the neighborhood, bent over her shopping cart for support, pushing slowly and carefully toward Castor Avenue. She’d return home with it full of groceries for her weekly soiree.
Aunt Jean pushed ahead toward each new day, filling her life with simple pleasures, deflecting her larger dreams. When I consider the forces that helped shape her life, I can understand why. Aunt Jean grew up in an immigrant family. Her parents arrived in Philadelphia from Russia in 1909. Jean was four. They lived in tenement slums, until they got a foothold. She and her nine sisters and brothers depended on each other for emotional support, while their parents struggled to feed and clothe them.
“F’moch dinah pisk! Shut your mouth! Open your eyes. Watch. Listen. Learn. Don’t make trouble.” This is what Jean heard.
This impacted Jean’s life decisions. She didn’t want to disrupt anything or make trouble. She just wanted to please. Her attitude towards her dreams was inherited from her struggling parents. Who are we to dream such dreams? Just be good-natured and fit in. That’s all she could hope for. She knew it wasn’t enough. Still, she couldn’t oppose the people she loved. Simpler became easier for her.
I fight this tendency in myself to fall back on what is easier, diluting my spirit. But I feel we all have guardian angels, and Aunt Jean guards my dreams. At times in my adult life, when I have felt deeply overwhelmed by a task and ready to succumb to the prevailing winds, she has visited me. She arrives early in the morning, lights my urn and sings the song in my heart. I awaken and walk into the day with confidence and personality.

* Lloyd Price topped the rhythm & blues and popular music charts in 1959 with his song, ‘Personality.’

Recipe for Pepper Hash

My grandmother Ida Kravitz, was one of the early hot dog vendors. During the Great Depression, she was known as Mom, selling hot dogs with the works - mustard, onions, sauerkraut and her own recipe of pepper hash (she couldn’t afford the pickle relish) from a pushcart on the corner of Fourth and South Streets in South Philadelphia. She charged five cents and included a complimentary orange soda. She supported a family of thirteen from her efforts. In the late forties, she sold the business to her son Lenny, who created a chain of hot dog stands lasting through the seventies in Philadelphia and Margate.
The economy has changed again. It’s rare now for Mom and Pop to succeed in the free market. Hot dogs have changed for better or worse depending on whom you talk to. One thing remains the same. The recipe for life that Mom carried across an ocean from Mother Russia is still contained in a forkful of pepper hash. Life can be sweet and sour. If you respect, honor and make something beautiful of it, while it may bite, it will never lose its appeal.

Mom’s Pepper Hash

One head of cabbage, minced
Two large green peppers, minced
Two large carrots, minced
One cup sugar
One cup distilled white vinegar
One half cup water -or more if vinegar taste is strong
Salt to taste

Prepare vegetables. Add dry and liquid ingredients. “Sh’terein!” Mix and taste as you go. Smother your hot dogs with “the works” -mustard, onions, sauerkraut and pepper hash.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

South Philly Southpaw

Father’s Day will come and go. Some will spend time with their fathers; others will remember or try to forget. Fathers give the gift of life and, if you are lucky, they give more. If you are really lucky, when they are gone you have something memorable to say or display. Sometimes as children, we don’t appreciate what we have. Often as teenagers, we keep our hearts sealed from our parents. But memory saves us from ourselves. We grow older and our memories become the stories we savor and share.
I’m thinking about a story my dad shared with me not long before he died. He was a professional boxer in the 1930s and ‘40s, long before I knew him. My dad was “Irish Abe,” the South Philly southpaw who boxed his way through larger cities and smaller towns. As the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled into the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Fifth and Wolf Streets in South Philadelphia, Dad spent Saturdays in synagogue with his father and Sundays in church with his baseball buddies. When he was 12, his father died. Dad’s life became consumed with sports, and trying to make a buck to help his widowed mother. At 15 years old, he established himself as an amateur fighter, won 50 fights and many titles. The local parish priest attended the fights and recognized him. Dad recalled, “The priest jumped into my corner and remained there throughout the three rounds, cheering and yelling for the boy from his parish.”
The following week the promoter of the show presented Dad with a pair of boxing trunks - blue on one side with a white stripe and Star of David. The other side was kelly green with a gold stripe and harp. The Jewish kid, Abie Kauffman became Irish Abe of 5th and Wolf. Then, in his senior year at Central High as a lettered athlete, Dad turned down a baseball scholarship to Penn State and chose instead to go pro as a boxer when he was offered what in Dad’s view was the once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.
Professionally ranked as a lightweight contender, he fought anybody and everybody for twelve years. The promoters matched him in all categories, regardless of weight because he could dance around his opponents, give the audience a show and go the distance. One time though he went too far. Somewhere down south in the 1930’s, two locals grabbed him before the fight and taunted, “I hear you’re a Jew-boy. I ain’t never seen a Jew-boy before. Show us your horns! Come on, Jew-boy show us your horns.” He was matched up with the local favorite and asked for his show, but was told to “throw the fight, fix it for the homeboy and don’t tell or you’ll never get outa here alive, ya stinkin Jew.”
Dad rebuffed, “My name is Abraham. I come to fight!” And that’s how they read it in the morning papers the day after he beat the hell out of the homeboy. He got out of there fast, and never went back.
Irish Abe went north to New York and west to Chicago fighting the likes of Ike Williams and Willie Pep. He believed that Ike Williams might have been the best fighter of all time, since Ike fought and beat Joe Louis and Ray Robinson. Dad didn’t always win or even get the decision, but the promoters liked him because at the last bell, he was usually still standing.
From his chair in the living room 50 years later, Dad welled up with tears when he spoke of the “squared circle.” He said, “There is no question in my mind that a one-on-one situation like boxing can bring out the best in all of us.”
Although Dad was a stoic through the painful challenges of old age – knee and hip replacements, wrist cartilage removal, dependence on a pacemaker and hearing aid, Dad sobbed when he told me this story from his youth. In the end he braved his ultimate opponent, prostate cancer, and lost the fight.
What did I get from my father? I inherited his muscular frame but not his drive. I can approximate his dimpled smile, but I can’t shine it back at him; as I wish I had done more often in my teens. I can display his photos, tell his story and let my heart go the distance.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Wishing Well

This is the time of year when my thoughts return to camp. As a child, Camp Council was my second home. My experiences there were formative. You can imagine how I felt a few years ago when I came upon the wishing well.

On a sprawling suburban lawn in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, sits a wishing well. To passersby, it looks as if it was built to compliment the sunny, stone colonial home beyond it. It’s a pleasant accent to the well-manicured lawn. But a closer look will reveal names carved into the top ledge of the well. These names are unrelated to this home or any of the other homes in the neighborhood. Trace the timeworn cement embossed letters with your fingers and travel back to a time when this same wishing well, in this same spot, sat in the center of Camp Council. Camp Council existed from 1925 until 1986 as a summer place for urban, Jewish youth from Philadelphia.
When I attended camp from 1963 until 1974, it was all girls. For me, it was a refuge from the taunts of my three brothers and the other boys on the block who only let me play sports with them when their older brothers were not around. Apparently, playing stickball with girls was an embarrassment. At camp, I became an athlete, a swimmer, gymnast, singer, and a writer of spirited songs and poems - about camp. This was my home away from home where I developed self-confidence, experienced acceptance and even popularity. Where I had the nerve to sing in a talent show and the nurturance to learn with alacrity any new skill presented. This was where I actually enjoyed being a girl among girls and witnessed girls who were strong and tough, who could hammer nails and hit a softball really far. Also, I saw girls with beautiful long hair and incredible singing voices who could play guitar, piano and sight read music; and girls who could make a Friday night service meaningful to a ten year old, with stories and songs about friendship, nature and the nature of friendship. I came away understanding that I could be any one of those girls, and I would be valued.
Camp seemed worlds away from home, although the actual distance between them was thirty miles. Things happened so differently there. Camp was my Oz, Northeast Philadelphia - my Kansas. This realization began during my first summer at camp when I was seven-and-a-half. It was July Fourth. We had an evening activity of skits and songs. All day there were rumors about fireworks, but none so far. At the conclusion of our final song, we had milk and cookies and headed back to our bunks to be tucked in with a goodnight kiss. Still no sign of fireworks. The lights went out, the counselors left, the complaints began.
“No fireworks!! If I were home... I’m never coming back here again...” I couldn’t
believe this was how this day would end. I said a silent prayer for fireworks. The voices trailed off as sleep overcame us. All of a sudden, we were awakened by, “Attention all campers and counselors, attention all campers and counselors:
Put on your bathrobes and slippers, and hurry down to the softball field for
fireworks!” I couldn’t believe it. This would never happen at home, where bedtime meant bedtime! In seconds, we were racing to the field in the dark. I remember the older girls with their hair wrapped around orange juice cans, wearing fuzzy slippers, and bounding down from the hill. I remember marveling at that big sky filled with light, as I sat on the bench at the third baseline. I remember the rush of night air through my pajamas and the excitement of the unexpected at the eleventh hour. I got the sense that anything can happen if you want it badly enough. I returned each year until I was eighteen with fireworks in my heart for camp.
In 1972, during my summer as a junior counselor, we built a wishing well - the junior counselors’ gift to the camp. Uncle John guided us through every layer of stone but we did much of the grunt work. We lifted heavy rocks out of the stream by the campfire site, loaded them into a wheelbarrow and hauled them to the office circle where we built the wishing well. I was sixteen. I felt so strong and healthy, mixing cement in the midday sun, and watching the stone wall grow higher and higher, as did our appreciation of each other and ourselves. When the well was finished, and we carved our names into the top layer of cement, we felt - accomplished.
So let passersby think that the wishing well is just a lawn ornament on somebody else’s property. Council Campers know that it leads to a bottomless source of laughter, song, friendship and an enduring spirit that you can access simply by thinking about camp.

Back to Camp Weekend:May 23-25, 2009
Attention all campers, families, friends, and anyone who has ever wanted to go to camp, or go back to camp:
Please join the ‘girls’ of Camp Council for a back to camp weekend of fun, frolic and forever-young feelings. Come away with us to Camp Golden Slipper in the Pocono Mountains from May 23-25th, 2009. From the pajama breakfast until the campfire embers die away, you will feel transported back to the magical summers of youth. Your inner child will thank you and so will your children and grandchildren. So bring the gang for swimming, boating, singing, sports, crafts and general silliness. All meals and lodging in bunks included. And of course, all the bug juice you can drink.
Call Fern @ 610-494-2848 for more details. See you soon!!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Too Happy Mother

I wrote this a couple of years ago when Amity was ten. It only gets worse!

I am an embarrassment to my ten year old daughter, Amity.
She says, “Here Mom, take the cat’s cradle.”
She extends her complex world of string to me. She’s critical of my clumsy interception. I can’t hand off without losing the design. I love trying. She’s critical of that, too. “Just do it Mom, don’t be so happy about it.”
My enthusiasm, which once bolstered her attempts to walk and spurred her efforts to read, now makes her cringe. The age of double digits arrives with an attitudinal shift.
I wish Amity could’ve known my mother in her heyday. She was the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever known.
“I’m going to the opera tonight, root-toot-toot!” my mother crowed to my best girlfriend’s mom.
“Root-toot-too-oot,” we mimicked her, scowling at her joy.
She was way too happy for two ten-year-olds to handle. It was embarrassing, having such a happy mother. Mom cherished her nights at the opera. It was her escape from the mundane life she’d come to expect; her ticket to ride to the rapturous places in her heart and dangle her toes in the creative spring. She came home warbling.
Children are naturally effusive, but as they grow, learn to suppress strong emotion to appear mature. They equate maturity with seriousness, and expect their adults well done, never rare. Sudden eruptions of happiness rattle them.
Last weekend, Amity and I enjoyed the show Wicked for the third time. This is something we can still share. But now, she warns me as the curtain rises, “Don’t get too hyper, Mom.”
She knows the moments when I’m likely to rise from my seat in an attempt to defy gravity. She’s already preparing to hold me down.
She whispers things to me like, “Check out the set changes,” and “That didn’t happen last time.”
She retains contact in an attempt to curb my enthusiasm. I refuse to acquiesce. Wicked is my current root-toot-toot.
I suspect that Amity’s embarrassment will separate us throughout her teenage years. But later when life extends its complicated designs, I hope that together we’ll embrace the root-toot-toot moments.
Happy Mothers' Day everyone.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Easter Bonnet by Tracy Kauffman Wood c. 2008

Hope you enjoy reminiscing with me about the trials of the season. Happy Spring!

At Northeast Philadelphia’s Solis-Cohen Elementary School in the 1960’s, the annual Easter Parade was a rite of spring. From September through March, we students yearned for the day when the new season’s light found us marching around the school auditorium in our Easter bonnets. There were tall Uncle Sam hats and deep bowls of artificial fruit, tables set for ten and tiny jeweled boxes, tool benches and beauty parlor scenarios all balanced on the heads of a collective student body that was 95% Jewish. The coveted prize for our creative efforts was that the chosen people, the kids with the best Easter bonnets, would be photographed by Mrs. Bell for The Chronicle, our school newspaper.
School was an otherwise restrictive place. The creative spirit was subdued in favor of filling our minds with facts. In the classroom, we were required to sit with our hands folded. In the hallways we were admonished to, “Keep your hands to yourselves!” But here was a day when we were encouraged to use our hands to create a bonnet, displaying our creative selves. We revered this day and kept it holy.
For most of the children in our school, Easter and the related festivities, was not about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We didn’t know from this. Sure, we dyed eggs with food coloring and vinegar, made Easter baskets out of construction paper and fake grass, and greedily inhaled the delightful aromas of jellybeans and chocolate, canceling out every other classroom smell. Who wouldn’t adore these rituals that culminated in a parade?
The problem was it all happened to coincide with Passover, the Jewish celebration of freedom and renewal, observed at home. One ritual of the season was to rid the house of chametz - any leavened bread or food not specifically made for Passover, including the contents of Easter baskets. This heightened my fascination with the world of Easter candy turning it into a guilty pleasure. For me, Jewish suffering meant having to eat the cheap, chocolate-covered jellies that passed for candy at Passover. Why bother when there was a world of pastel, candy coatings to explore?
The Easter basket was not hard to relinquish. The paper was flimsy, the grass messy and hard to contain. The hard-boiled eggs needed to be eaten or they’d rot. So I dipped them into the salt-water tears of our Passover seder. I sang Let My People Go, opened the door for the prophet Elijah and invited all who were hungry to come and eat. But all of the rituals of the Passover meal could not satisfy the saccharine urges of my springtime flirtation.
In this season, my spirit could only be set free by the miraculous arrival of the marshmallow peeps - a local, seasonal product on the shelves of Famous Delicatessen. The soft, sugary pink and yellow peeps chirped a heavenly message to me on Easter Sunday when I was sent on an errand for smoked fish. Squishy and deeply sensual, their birthday cake fragrance was in direct opposition to the briny, deli smell that usually overcame me as I entered the store. You could press on them through the cellophane and they would respond. Once you had a bird in hand, you could bite off the head, (with or without front teeth) clench the sandy sugar between your back molars, and allow a moistened glob to slide down your throat. What an escape from the confusion of the season. I was tasting paradise, while fleeing Egyptians. But this flight was fraught with guilt. They were definitely not ‘Kosher for Passover’. To absolve myself, I decided to create a homeland for the marshmallow chicks and all of their sugar-coated descendants in my Easter bonnet. What a great, sanctioned excuse to experience the forbidden sweets.
I chose a straw hat with a deep, scooped out rim - perfect for a pastoral scene. Feathering my nest with multicolored Easter grasses, I buried the leftover hard boiled eggs from Passover in layers of tangled grass. I pretended that the eggs hatched into hollow, chocolate bunnies - the children of Israel with pink noses. They romped through my hat dodging jelly beans and foiled, football eggs. I taped chocolate marshmallow rabbits with long ears around the circumference of the rim as soldiers to protect their homeland. The peeps, pink and yellow between mounds of chocolate, were set free and in their element. So was I.
A heavenly aroma descended upon me as my mother and brother lowered my Easter bonnet onto my head, come the morning of the parade. They spotted my trial stroll around our living room to make sure I could manage such a large hat. They attached strings
with clothespins on each side for me to hold, so I could keep the bonnet centered. There was a palpable air of excitement in my classroom that morning. My classmates and teacher knew that my Easter bonnet would be a contender.
With our heads covered, we ascended to the auditorium. It was a sunny day and the dappled light from the windows seemed to be singling out, not the brightest nor the most beautiful people, but the art kids - the most creative children in the school. I, and my fragrant, bounteous, and heavy hat was chosen, as were nineteen others. Mrs. Bell placed me in the front-row, center of her photographic composition. Even the chosen kids were admiring the scenario on my head and smacking their lips as we held our positions on stage. Mrs. Bell, looking through her camera and not quite satisfied, asked me to move slightly to my left. I was sitting on my sleeping calves dreaming of fame next year in Jerusalem. She became impatient with my slow progress, put down her camera, placed her hands on my shoulders and in one jerking motion, moved me to the left. Except only the top half of my body moved. My legs stayed where they were, my neck twisted and my hands were not gripping the clothespins of my bonnet. My peeps and all their descendants were cast about in a sudden and violent diaspora spreading across the stage and down the slippery, sloping aisles of the auditorium.
A collective “Oh my G-d!” swept the room. Children lunged for chocolate and chased jelly beans. Teachers were forced back into control mode on a day they assumed would be restful. My sugar-coated promised land went fallow. The more benevolent souls began gathering and returning my candy. Mrs. Bell moved me to the second row, left corner of the picture. I made it into the pages of the Chronicle looking startled. I’d been cast out of the land of milk chocolate and Bit o’ Honey to a border settlement. I ate the scant remains of my hat in the girls bathroom at recess.
The following year I wore a white lampshade on my head with a single strand of black jelly beans dangling from its middle. Simple yet elegant, and very popular with the Agnostics.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This just in!

Good news! My poem 'She who carries' received second place in the Ardmore Poetry Festival. You saw it first here. To read it again, please scroll down. Yeay!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

She, who carries

Saigon, 1998

She, who carries the heat and the sea,
is handed to me in a heart beat proud
and strong.Where tiny lungs labor through
time’s phlegmy chest. Rattled breath sacrificing
ying, ying of the ancients,for the comfort
that ah, da da brings. She sings,past the
clutter and our ancestral emphysema.She brings
the heat and the sea, and the promise of continuance.

“Sit up child! Soon you will be a Barbie.”
They prop her up, wipe her nose.

“She, Vietnam?” they ask us.
“Yes,” we submit.
“She’s lucky!”
“We’re lucky!” It’s plain to see.
In our first unbridled cyclo ride,
grappling iron fingers grappling with new life.

Ardmore 2008

She, who carries the heat and the sea,
slender tween sings and sways to a beat proud
and strong. No trace of labor or sense of lack,
as she casts a line toward adolescence.
Deep within her form, like so many flecks of rice,
polished by the ages, her first unbridled cycle
speaks the promise of continuance.

She, who carries the heat and the sea,
seasons her language with salty shards of youth,
melts chocolate hearts in her palm.
Her blood remembers
the heat and the sea,
where generations of fish spawned
generations of family under thatched roofs,
saluting the heat of dawn,
swaying with the tide at dusk.
She carries their blood,
but her memory is free.

She, who carries the heat and the sea,
beholden to no one, breathes
confidence, speaks her mind,
grapples with new emotions.
She will be, what she will be.
But the blood that flows from her
heart to the sea, carries me.
Lucky. Lucky.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

White Noise (for Tony)

sleeping son
of faded stars, blue
blood rhythms seething.
Ensconced in layers of dusty
sheets, blankets of camphor and
must. Generations of gentiles carefully
coiffed screech to a muted
halt in this black room
with white noise.
you shrug, I am
Atlas, robust and red.
When dreams are accessed,
dust must fall. Daily our rhythms
meter, teetering on the brink.
who will release
the shudder, the ancient
worry, exposing our pastures
for green. Future is written in
sepia-toned captures of dreams.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Merrie's Threads

Merrie’s Threads

I know a gal named Merrie
with a spirit like... Christmas.
Well, a secular christmas,
big, bawdy, unbound.

She is merry,
living on a thread of hope.
Give her an inch,
she’ll take a yard
and wrap it ‘round those she loves,
tight, and hang on for dear life.

She bargains...
“Dear Life,
I love you, I want you
I have a simple dream for more life-
A house in the country for me and my kids,
to watch them grow and flower.
I love to work, making pictures and money,
so I shouldn’t have to ask any more.
That’s all I ask.”

She tugs for more thread,
and rushes toward the cure.
“You got it, I’ll take it. I’m there!”
She wraps the thread around all that is left of
her four-foot-ten-inch body,
becoming invincible, living on hope,
devouring doubt.

She grows big, bawdy, unbound.
“I’m still here!” she shouts. “I am life itself!
How can this stop me? Can we party now?
I’ll take some more of that!”
She takes till she’s full of hope and nothing less.

She’s a girl on a thread so long,
it must be extended from heaven-

Ancestors hard at work,
trimming hours, days, weeks, months,
years off of lives already lived.
They don’t need them any more.
They want her to have them.

She gathers up her hand-me-downs from heaven.

“Schmates,” her grandmothers whisper.
“Zie Gezunt. Wear them in good health!”

Proudly she wears their hugs and kisses,
till they’re worn out.
Then, yanks for more thread
and gets it!

Only heaven knows how long the thread is,
but when there is no more,
there will still be hope-
the worn, warm, comfortable clothing of the soul.

January Post to Remember Merrie

I am dedicating my January post to my cousin Merrie Renee Choder Johnson, who passed away in January of 2007. Merrie left behind her three beautiful children, her devoted parents, family and friends. Our lives are forever changed for having known her.
Her courageous battle to stay alive gave me an appreciation for the gift of life, and for the heroic person she became because of her illness. I have posted my poem, ‘Merrie’s Threads’, written when it occurred to me early in her illness, despite a world of love and prayers, that Merrie would not triumph over breast cancer. I thought ahead to her funeral, and what comfort I might bring. I’m grateful I was able to share this with Merrie on her thirty-sixth birthday, and was able to perform this, receiving a direct infusion from the ancestors, later that year at her funeral.
I am posting her obituary, as well as a brief visual biography. Merrie was a visual person, a photographer by trade, and this would be her favorite part. Photo credits go to the family collection, Tracy Kauffman Wood, Merrie Renee Johnson, and Anthony B. Wood.
Thank you for allowing me to share this with you. I ask if you are able and so inclined, to please make a contribution toward curing breast cancer, whether it be through the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, 125 S. 9th St., Suite 202, Phila. PA 19107, or by
learning about the work of the Center for Advancement in Cancer Education 300 E. Lancaster Avenue - Suite 100 Wynnewood, Pennsylvania 19096 , or any other way you’d wish. Let’s re-enliven, and fulfill the hope that fueled Merrie.

Merrie Renee Choder Johnson 4/7/70 - 1/4/07

Merrie Renee Choder Johnson

Merrie Renee Johnson (Choder), 36, died of breast cancer on Thursday January 4, 2007. She is survived by her three children, Megan, 15, Zachery, 14 and Casey, 9. Also, she is survived by her three devoted parents, Sybil Weinstein, Alan Choder and Dennis Weinstein. She leaves her brothers, Greg (Rae) Choder and Daniel (Alyson) Weinstein and her nephew Joshua.
Merrie fought a courageous and unforgettably determined battle against cancer. She was diagnosed in September 2001, with Stage Three breast cancer. The seriousness of this diagnosis never diminished her positive, hopeful attitude. She was determined to be a survivor. And she did survive with gusto and a boisterous spirit for almost six years. She never gave up hope as the disease ravaged her body. She simply adapted to the changes in her body resulting from constant treatments. She wore her bald head and flat chest proudly to tell the world, “If I can get through this, so can you!” She focused on what could never be taken from her-her love for her family and love for life itself. She became well known to the clients and staff at the Oncology Unit at Abington Hospital because when she wasn’t being treated, she was there to chat, joke and bring treats to the other patients. She was proactive in her treatment and her doctors and nurses appreciated the strength, energy and optimism she brought to their collective fight. In December, the hospital awarded Merrie a grant, so that she could be home with her family for Christmas with the necessary help she needed.
Merrie was an artist and comedian. She and her brother Daniel, would turn family dinners into slapstick farce. Everyone remembers Merrie smearing her young daughter Casey’s face into a plate of food before the toddler could start eating and do it herself. With her tremendous regard for family and art, and her whimsical spirit, it made so much sense that she became a wedding photographer. Her clients and colleagues will remember Merrie Renee as a high spirited, hard working perfectionist who obviously loved her job. She began her career working for Lindelle Studios, and grew her own business for ten years well into her battle with breast cancer. She only stopped working recently when it became physically impossible for her. She was supportive to her colleagues and competitors always giving them referrals when she was not available. Her wedding clients usually ended up as friends. Merrie gathered a community of friends and family around her like water droplets gathering strength and merging on a window pane. She leaves us all with her tremendous spirit full of joy, hope and love.