Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

All families have their inside stories. They become so familiar that family members don’t have to tell the whole story for everyone to start to nod or smile or laugh or shudder. Some of my family’s stories involve me. And they are not always complimentary.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me set the stage.

For Jews, no event says “family” as well as the Passover Seder. Families, such as my extended family in Savannah, Georgia, join together each year in small or large gatherings to celebrate the start of Passover and begin a week of matzo therapy. Families often have certain rituals that they follow during a seder—certain activities, certain melodies, certain foods, certain seating arrangements. Newcomers are blended into these family gatherings (especially significant others and in-laws), but they are expected to adapt to the traditions already established. Some of these traditions go deep and are carried on to next generations. The seder that Audrey and I hosted two nights ago is filled with mostly Savannah traditions, though Audrey still insists that her family’s melody for the song “Ki Lo No-eh” is the only right one to use, so we usually sing the song twice.

One of my first family Seders. I'm the second from the left,
with the extra-large yarmulke. I'm focusing on the food, not the camera.
One of those newcomers to my family was my cousin Debbie, who attended her first Savannah Seder after she began dating my cousin Joel when she was 19. That first Seder featured a dramatic event that has impacted on my place in the family’s Passover history. But it must not have traumatized Debbie since she later married Joel, moved to Savannah, and often hosts our family’s seders at their home.

Debbie is an important part of my story today, which is intended to set the record straight. According to Debbie, I have been improperly maligned all of these years. Just how have I been maligned? Exhibit 1: Just last week, my cousin Richard sent me an email wishing me a Chag Sameach (happy holiday) and hoping that I would not spill any gravy this year. That’s my reputation: I’m the person who spilled the gravy at a seder almost 50 years ago. I may never live down the event in the minds of most of my relatives, but Debbie remembers things differently, and I plan on calling her to the stand if we ever stage a family trial to clear my name on the charge of carpet defilement.

Here’s how I remember the event. The family seder that year was held at the home of my Aunt Dot (my mother’s older sister) and her husband Fred. (It is important to note that our hosts had recently installed new, bright white carpet in their living room-dining room area. You can probably see where this is going.) My part of the extended family (my mother, father, brother, and me) were seated in one corner of one of the connected tables and not directly in the center of the action. There were probably 20-25 people in attendance all together. We were far enough to the side that when the platter of brisket, covered in delicious, messy gravy, was passed to us, we had to reach out pretty far to grab the platter.

Here’s where memories fade a little. Either I reached out for the platter and handed it to my father, or he reached out for the platter and handed it to me. In either case, we didn’t handle it very well. The platter moved quickly from hand to floor, spilling gravy onto the white carpet. My Uncle Fred, a man noted for being meticulous, went into action even before the gravy reached the carpet, shouting to his son-in-law, “Bill, get the chemicals!!!” This meal was not about to progress any further until the carpet was treated with stain removers.

No one was laughing at the time, but for years afterwards my cousins would chuckle as they recalled the event, and no one ever handed me a platter at future seders without issuing a warning to me and a heads-up to the person passing me the platter. Hence, my cousin’s Richard’s email comment.

Brisket still on a platter and not yet heading toward the carpet

Here’s where the story gets interesting, at least in my mind. . . .

I decided to retell this story as my Passover blogpost this year, and mentioned my intent to my sister-in-law Sandy. She was at a different seder in town that year but knew about the event, as it turns out, because Debbie was staying at her house during her first visit to Savannah. “When Debbie got back to my house, she said, 'You won’t believe what happened,'” Sandy said.
So I called Debbie to check her memory of the evening, and she said, “Sure. That’s the night that Uncle Abe (my father) dropped the platter of brisket.” Uncle Abe and not me!!! Perhaps I was innocent after all. Perhaps I have been improperly maligned lo these many years. As Debbie recalled her version, I could at last chuckle about the event that had given rise, incorrectly it seems, to my reputation as the family gravy spiller. Why, I wondered, had my father never stepped forward to proclaim my innocence? I suspect that he never realized that comments were being made about me on the sly. Or perhaps he never even remembered what happened that night. Sadly, I can’t ask him.

Now I face a dilemma. I could try to set the record straight in order to avoid future “don’t spill any gravy” comments, but that would just point the finger at my father. And to be perfectly honest, I think both of us should share the blame for bumbling the brisket that night. And is it really possible to reverse a long-running family tale anyway?
If the Obamas invited me to their Seder,
would they worry that I might spill something?
Perhaps one Passover in the near future, our New Jersey branch of the family will travel to Savannah and join in the larger family seder. And perhaps I will proclaim my innocence then. But I’ll bet someone will still suggest that a sheet of plastic be placed beneath my chair to protect the carpet. And we’ll all laugh together. It's a family tradition.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Parent Surplus

“Adopted. Big Deal; so was Superman.” 
Chris Crutcher, Whale Talk

Audrey and I attended a wedding a few weeks ago. The father of the bride, a long-time friend, offered the first toast. With good humor, he welcomed the assembled guests to the union of individuals representing the Far East (his daughter was born in Korea and adopted as a baby), the Middle East (our friends are Jewish), and the Holy Roman Empire (the groom was Italian Catholic). So this was more than a “mixed marriage”; it was a union constructed on many different levels.

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan share cultures. Did they envision
a marriage of Asians, Jews, and Italians?
At the wedding reception, we were seated next to a couple from Teaneck, who were also old friends of the bride’s parents, though we had never met them. It turns out that they were connected to the bride’s parents in another way—they too had adopted two children as infants.  Of course, adoption was a big part of our discussion at the table. And part of the discussion involved difficulties their children had had dealing with being adopted. Even though the children had never known their birth parents and had no real issues with their adopted parents, they still felt a sense of abandonment that had proved painful as they went through their teen years. Now in their twenties, both children seemed fairly content. Yet the parents were still wary of possible flare ups of discontent. Is the concern of adopted parents regarding occasional flickers in the connection with their children (pre-teen, teen, and beyond) that different from those of non-adoptive parents? It’s not a question that I can answer. But I would guess that adoption adds another dimension to the width of the generation gap and a little more angst for parents.

A few days later, we traveled up to our vacation home in Vermont. I stopped into the office of the townhouse complex to speak with the manager, a young woman who had only days before completed the legal activities required to adopt the two young children of her sister. For various reasons, the sister had been unable to take care of her children, and the aunt had stepped in. It was not an easy decision to make; the aunt was not married and needed to change her work hours and look for a bigger place to live in order to accommodate two more family members in her everyday life. She seems thrilled by the decision, and is certain the children, ages 3 and 5, are willingly accepting her as their number one nurturer. I commented that the children were fortunate to have her in their lives. She said the good fortune went both ways. So this seems to be a win-win proposition, but with a twist. The children are certain to interact with their birth mother over time. How will their psyches be affected?

I received one positive response to that question from reading a biographical piece about the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s mother was only 16 when he was born. His birth father was married to someone else and never played a part in his life. His mother married when Jackson was one, and the new husband formally adopted him and gave him his last name. During an interview many years later, Jackson was asked if he resented his birth father’s actions. His reply: “People say I had a father deficit when in truth I had a father surplus.” How nice is that!

Jackson’s comment made me think about something I once said to a friend whose wife was expecting their second child. I warned (alerted? predicted?) that one + one adds up to far more than two where children are concerned. And maybe where parents, birth and adoptive, are concerned too. I hope that the children in Vermont will feel that having two mothers in their lives will feel natural and comfortable for them. Plus, if they ever go into therapy, they can have two different mothers to blame for their being screwed up. Freud would be proud! 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Apples and Oranges

I have often heard the expression, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Some events of the last week, however, have convinced me that my apples may have fallen in another orchard all together.

My children— the apples of my eye—have been far from home in recent days. Brett has been skiing in British Columbia, exploring an entire mountain and, I’m sure, recklessly schussing downhill while making few turns. This is unlike his parents, who are seldom reckless when skiing or doing anything else.  

Brett also discussed the possibility of doing some heli-skiing while at Whistler (being lifted to some remote area via helicopter, then being debarked to begin a ski descent in the wild). Luckily, I believe that he gave up on that notion, mostly because of financial constraints rather than out of common sense, or out of a desire to spare his poor parents some heart palpitations. We have been viewing the photos on his Facebook page daily, in part to assure ourselves that he stayed earthbound the whole week. It is hard to tell, however, based on this photo.  

Brett at what looks to be the top of the world.
 Did he get here by helicopter, we wonder.
Amanda, meanwhile, has been exploring in the Far East with business school colleagues, learning how Japanese businesses are run and visiting such other exotic locations as Seoul, Hong Kong, and Macau. Today, after she was safely back in Atlanta, she sent us a video of her latest adventure in Macau. (See photo below and attached video link if you have a strong stomach). As she descends downward on a bungee cord from 700+ feet in the air, Amanda can be heard proclaiming, “Holy shit” in excited tones. Her parents, on viewing the video, used almost the same expression (and a few others) but sounded more stunned than excited. Did we really birth these children?!?  

Now, down deep, I am happy that my children are adventurous. I am even happier that they wait until after they have done something crazy before telling their mother or me about it. We are not consoled, however, by the deep seated belief that they are going to keep doing such things and we’re going to keep wondering just what tree they may have fallen out of.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Romantic Adventure?
Confession 1: I am a romantic, or at least I like to think so. Confession 2: I am not a daredevil. Now, you’re probably thinking that romantic and daredevil are not opposite sides of a continuum. And, in most cases you would be right. Except two weeks ago, when Audrey and I celebrated our 40th anniversary at a romantic spot that only occasionally caters to daredevils—the Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, Vermont.
Audrey and I have a history with the Mountain Top Inn, which is why I chose it as the place to celebrate our anniversary. We used to go there for cross-country skiing vacations when we were young marrieds, and on one of those trips, Audrey was newly pregnant with the embryo that would become our son Brett eight months later. That trip was memorable for another reason, too. Temperatures hit -20 degrees with wind chills of around -60. So, how stupid were we to be there at that time! I might suggest that it was the daredevil in us acting out, but it was probably the fact that we had committed the time and money to the trip (when both commodities were not in abundance for us) and were not willing to give in to Mother Nature. But, boy, was it cold!
In a romantic gesture, I surprised Audrey many months before our anniversary by making reservations to go back to the Inn. Since we have been married so many years, I also booked one of the few rooms with a king-size bed, figuring that we could cuddle if we wanted to but would have lots of room to spread out otherwise. That’s not anti-romantic, is it?
As trip time neared, we watched the weather reports closely to be sure that there wouldn’t be a repeat performance of that time 32 years before. After all, our blood does not flow quite as strongly or warmly as it did then. The forecast was for temperatures in the teens and twenties that week. Not bad, though it had been much warmer earlier in the month. This should have set off some warning bells in our minds. Experienced skiers, or people who have lived in northern regions for a while, know that during periods of warmth, snow melts to form little puddles or slushy piles. When temperatures then drop, the puddles and piles become ice. Add some wind, and the icy patches become super slick. In other words, ideal for daredevils. Refer back to confession 2 above to see why this created a potential problem for us. But we went along blithely to Chittenden for our romantic adventure.
We arrived on a Sunday morning, noting that the car’s thermometer reading had been steadily dropping since we crossed the border between New York and Vermont. According to our dashboard, it was 7 degrees outside, but luckily not too windy. Cold, sure, but not Icelandic. We put our bags in the room and took a quick look-around. The place was as Vermont-quaint as we remembered, though the blazing wood fires in the parlors and dining rooms had been replaced with gas substitutes that give off light and a little warmth but not that woodsy fireplace smell. But I am quibbling. It was really beautiful inside; romantic, you might even say.
Then we donned our long johns, turtlenecks, sweaters, and neckpieces (assuming the layered look) and prepared to battle the elements on what we remembered as well groomed ski trails. We asked the staff in the ski lodge for suggestions of the best trails for formerly experienced, but now out-of-practice cross-country skiers to attempt. “Everything’s pretty icy out there,” we were told. “Trails 1, 2, and 3 (trails were numbered from low to high in terms of difficulty near the Inn) should be ok.”
So off we went, like lambs to the slaughter. We headed toward Trail 1, which had a nice groove in which to place our skis and glide forward. Then the groove ran out at the first slight uphill, and we were on open snow, -er ice. We fought bravely to the top of a very modest hill, and breathing heavily, surveyed the scene. “We’re here, we’re on skis, we’re tough,” we told ourselves, and then kept moving. We took a look at Trail 3, which we had been assured was gentle, but it seemed to be mostly uphill. That was somewhat problematic, but not too worrisome, until you realized that old maxim, “What goes up, must come down.” Unlike with alpine skiing, in cross-country, the downhills are what get you. Your skis have no metal edges, so you rely on your ability to edge your skis into the slow to help you stay in control and slow down. But what if the surface is too hard to edge into? Oy! We got to the top of Trail 3 and worked our way very slowly back down the other side of the hill. Instantly, we had become daredevils!

Watch out for non-daredevil skiers, too!

As we stood shakily at the bottom, I watched another skier come downhill toward us at a much faster pace than ours. I heard him repeating several times out loud something that sounded to me like, “Please, don’t die yet! Please, don’t die yet!” shouted in a French Canadian accent. Obviously, he was a man whose thinking matched my own perfectly. He stopped near us, and I asked if he had said what I had heard. He laughed. Audrey commented that I was just projecting my own thoughts on the man. Ha! My own thoughts were, “Please, let  me go inside. Please let me go inside.”
Luckily, cross-country skiing warms you right up!
We managed to make it back to the lodge, removed our skis, and then walked on slightly icy roads back to the Inn. When temperatures reached below zero that night, we knew that the ski trails would probably be just as treacherous for us the next day. We did start out skiing shakily, nevertheless, then took someone’s suggestion that we switch to snowshoes. I wasn’t so sure. The last time I had donned snowshoes, they seemed big and clunky. I felt a little like Clarabell the Clown tramping along in the snow. Nowadays, however, snowshoes have gotten to be nearly the same size as regular shoes. They just let you stay on the surface of a snow bank without falling in. Even better, they can grip on an icy surface, such as the ski trails at the Mountain Top Inn. With our classy new footwear, we stomped romantically for over a kilometer to the lake that spread out frozen and snow-covered below the Inn. We snapped some pictures, and then tramped back up to the Inn, out of breath but not fearful of eminent death.

I like to think of this as our winter sexy look!
Audrey and I didn’t waltz our way into each other’s hearts as we celebrated our latest anniversary. Instead we clomped side-by-side in snowshoes up and down hills. Are we romantics, or what!