She Was Only a Bootlegger’s Daughter: In Memory of My Father

“She was only a bootlegger’s daughter, but he loved her still…” an old song goes.

***

I notice the mannerisms and instinctive moves I have after my dad who died two years ago today. I smile. I cry. I remember him in my body and soul.

This morning, in the shower, I turn the water off and before I reach for the towel hanging over the shower door, I run my hands over my body in energetic downward and outward moves brushing off the excess water.

He used to do that before drying off to reduce the wetness of the towel. Probably a trick he learned during his days in the army in Norway or from when my family spent weeks at a time on our wooden boat in the summer, sailing down the Oslo fjord. Smart.

I am in my car with one of my sons next to me in the passenger seat. I instinctively reach over and hold his leg, by the knee, and stroke it, gently yet firmly press on it, as if to say things like “Do you know how much I love you?” and “I love that we are here together,” without using words.

He used to do that to me when I sat next to him in the car. Loving.

In my kitchen preparing dinner, I peel the carrot holding it in my left hand and slowly and rhythmically rotating it as the peeler works its magic all around in smooth motions, leaving the orange root clean and glistening .

Pappa peeled vegetables just like that. Thoughtfully and deliberately.

It’s 10 am and I feel overwhelmed by everything I am not achieving, not getting around to, even though I have said I planned to. I briefly entertain the idea of not getting dressed, opening a wine bottle, and staying at home all day reading and sulking. Forgetting the pain of all that unaccomplished and the disappointments.

My father spent days, weeks, months and years like that. Not so smart, but I understand…

The love I feel for my three sons is so full and so filling, I think to myself, if I accomplish nothing else, having raised these beings whose company I enjoy and who seem to be able move about in the world relatively competently with kindness and a sense of humor; if that is ALL there is and will be, I am contented.

I am my father’s daughter.

He felt contented with the love he gave and received from his two daughters.

Feeling this love, he was able to just be, in the mess of it all. Wise.

“I am only a bootlegger’s daughter…”

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The Tiny Cross-Dressing Dancer in My Bag

Imagination going wild at 7am. No booze, no drugs, no accompanying euphoric experience like spectacular nature or sex. Just me reflecting on the small woman who is a man in my bag.

The short, stout store owner, perhaps in his mid sixties and with a halo of mad professor-like white hair, gently but ceremoniously pressed the tiny pink wooden cut-out figure into my hand. For having brought in a new customer to his fabulous furniture and home decor store in Fairhaven, CT, he is now bestowing me with “a prize!” “Is it edible?” I had blurted out instinctively, hopefully, as he reached into a jar. It was just after lunch and a small sweet treat would be perfect. I looked at the object his warm, small hand had just transferred into mine.

“This is me doing the happy dance,” he begins, “I am thankful for what you have done for us!” I quickly glance down at the pink doll in my open palm; it has tiny hands reaching for the stars, a narrow waste and long slender body whose silhouette is whimsically cut as someone wearing women’s clothing. My gaze still on the graceful creature measuring no more than one inch and weighing maximum a quarter ounce – if I ever could guess that kind of lightness – and while I was calculating his imaginary prowess, he quickly added, “I’m wearing my wife’s dress.” “Ah…” I emit, as if that explains it all, smile and look up to meet his twinkling countenance, and out of my mouth falls, “there’s a name for that you know” followed by a wink, which thankfully, he takes for what it is intended as: a gentle and good humored response to an unusual comment and mental image. This little jovial pot-bellied man, doing the happy dance dressed up in his wife regalia.

I mean, had I not been me, he might have scared me away by now.

“I don’t care what you do with it,” he continued, “but you might carry it in your handbag, and when you see a friend or a stranger who does something that makes you happy, pass it on to them.” I, of course, love the concept of “pass it on,” especially when it has to do with gratitude and kindness. I clutch it in my hand reaching for my porte-monnaie buried somewhere in the bowels of my disorganized handbag. I open my wallet, flip to where I keep my little laminated card with the travel-prayer in Hebrew, and tuck the figure in next to the good karma spot.

Meanwhile, my friend learns that the shop-owner is originally from Belgium, (they switch between German and French just to show off their linguistic nimbleness, to which my cross dresser adds Dutch, and so “wins.” Men…), and my friend is told that the owner’s 98 year old mother still travels between Europe and the US several times a year, with her little dog nonetheless, to her home that she has kept over there, “since before The War.” Ah! Nobody can mention “before The War” within earshot of me, without there following a quiet pondering of what might have happened to that family, or that woman, during that time, and what side she might have been on, and how has she emotionally “stayed” there, if she was Jewish, or how does one live with oneself, if one had been a collaborator.

It seems in the imaginary, the majority of people, who are neither victims nor perpetrators, can easily fall between the cracks. It’s the strangest thing.

So by now, I’m trying to figure out if my charming and loquacious drag queen is a landsmann, a fellow tribesman, or not, and instinctively drop into the tribal lingo test. I wander over toward the shelves displaying beautiful ceramic items and tell him how “it’s meshuganneh” that it has taken until now for my friend, his new customer, who has lived in New Haven for most of his adult life, to discover this gem of a store. I’m thinking that if his family goes back to “the old country,” even if they were fancy, educated city folk, he’d be familiar with some Yiddish jargon. He looked at me quizzically with a slight tilt of his head and said “what?” I repeated, “It’s crazy that it has taken this long….” and our conversation continued while I admired the goods, fumbling a bit making small talk while many whacky thoughts bounced around in my mind.

It could be he is simply hard of hearing. A Jew hard of hearing. It happens.

I wonder how many people in this world carry around self-representations of this delightful character in their bag. Many years ago, my friend Jodi once introduced me to this store, and she has since become a regular customer and is on quite jovial terms with the eccentric owner and his wife. “Does Jodi carry a mini-cross dresser around as well?” I ask myself. She never told me about it. It probably didn’t stir up a whacky story for her, that she felt compelled to share. She stuck it in her pocket book, forgot about it, busy as she is saving lives at the Yale New Haven Hospital.

What can I say. Perhaps that’s the point with writers and the writer’s mind: these insane imaginary journeys always take the front seat, despite ourselves, and we have to heed their right to be born. To some, they may seem like a waste of time. Like day dreaming. But the storytelling that have the capacity to make our hearts skip a beat from joy, wonder or fear, is just that: a chance encounter that begets a story.

“Every character deserves the open destiny of life” (Grace Paley)

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A(-nother) Moment of Awe

Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

That’s me being awed during these awesome “Days of Awe;” the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur; a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent.

I don’t think of them really as “sins” as much as actions or reactions I may have had in the past year that could have or should have been different. Sure, I can imagine a few of my behavioral faux-pas as sins, quite easily in fact, if I think of them in the context of the Yom Kippur prayer-book language, but since I’m resolved to be more compassionate, toward myself included, I choose not to use that language.

As a creative and emotional person, I am already prone to daily moments of being wonderstruck, to be amazed and at a loss for words (hence all the tears and maybe the laughter, too). To be awed by my surroundings is not unusual for me: people, places, and happenings, even the seemingly most insignificant ones, can easily leave me awestruck. This is perhaps what makes me at once a challenging partner, friend and parent, yet in the same swoop a deeply engaged and caring one.

And funny. And loud.

But yesterday I was especially quieted, and particularly awed by my octogenarian friend Leo, a Holocaust survivor. To such a degree was I feeling overwhelmed by reverential respect after something Leo said while we were sharing our lunch, that my heart skipped several beats, and I sounded like – if there was any sound at all – the onomatopoeias above:  Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

On Yom Kippur it is customary to light memorial candles that burn for 24 hours. Special memorial prayers are said for our beloved departed ones, both privately and communally, to heighten the appreciation of the unique holiday spirit. It’s all about life and death, prayer for redemption, that sort of stuff: who shall live and who shall die, who by sward and who by fire…you catch my drift. Imagine the significance for these words and images for someone who has lived through the trauma of the Nazi death camps.

In between mouthfuls of his favorite Subway sandwich, Leo mentioned that his aide had not been able to find any memorial candles, that they were all sold out, everywhere. “Somebody cleaned’em out” I quipped. “Sure” he said, “there was a two for one sale!” I knew I had one at home, in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, left from last time (they were on sale!) and so I offered him mine. I would always be able to track down another one for myself before the big day.

Since my one, significant loss in life – my father died nearly three years ago – I have lit a candle for him on Yom Kippur and other fast days. Although he was not a Jew, I chose to ritually enter into the private and communal act of remembrance “à la manière juive” since this is, after all, how I have chosen to live my life.

“Oh, thank you sweetheart,” Leo offered, “but I need twelve candles!” I looked a bit puzzled up from my salad that I was only picking at to keep him company, and before I could begin to realize what he meant, let alone ask, he matter of faculty reminded me of the sober statistics of his life. In a voice sounding like a patient teacher kindly enumerating the mathematical facts – so often repeated for the students at a loss and who just can’t grasp it – as if the facts were the bare bones reality of the most incomprehensible highest truth: “I light eight candles for my brothers and sisters [who were children and killed in the Holocaust], two for my parents [also killed in the camps], one for the woman who saved me [a righteous Polish Christian], and one for Norma [his late life partner].”

I fell silent. In less than a nano-second it seems images of my own children flash before my eyes, as well as my sister and myself as children, and my parents as I have been blessed to know them and love them all my life. It was “just” another moment – but a profound moment – of awe, mixed with fear AND wonder at all the kindness, resilience and courage, as well as with all the impossible heartache, evil and desperation a person can carry with him in his life, and even more admiration that this person can still have the capacity to wake up in the morning and chose to greet another day with a smile; making friends, loving his neighbors and finding enough hope and dreams to hang on.

I wish all of you, too, the ability to be able to find some awe in your days. Pick a day, any day. It’s important to feel the awe.

Days of Awe

New Year Resolution? Compost and Compassion!

It’s the Jewish New Year (5775 for those counting or curious) and I say BRING IT ON!

Bring on the giddy renewal of a new year, and all the hopes and dreams it can and should hold.

What happened right before Rosh Hashanah makes me believe that change is always possible, and that love, compassion and small efforts are really the key ingredients to making hearts sing.

What happened was so small, yet brought me to tears: For the first time since I became Jewish, some 26 years ago, my non-Jewish mother (in Norway) texted me: “L’Shanah Tovah! Hugs to all from Mormor!” Now THAT is just special when your Norwegian speaking mom makes the effort to send a greeting in Hebrew: Imagine the auto correct texting battle on her iPhone in Oslo. Not that she hasn’t supported my choices in life; not that she isn’t aware of the various Jewish Holidays, but that small effort made a huge difference in how I was able to enter the holiday period with what felt like a lifted spirit.

It’s the small things that matter. I will bring this memory with me into the new year, and with more compassion toward others and even myself, I hope to bring on some small but meaningful changes.

Shanah tovah

***

And the compost, you ask?

As I was cooking up a storm for the various meals I was hosting for the holidays, I looked at the ever growing mounds of vegetable and fruit peels, cores and ends in my sink and decided to no longer toss all these goodies in the trash or down the garbage disposal. Finally – after how many years of serious meal preparations? and a constant nagging feeling that it is just wrong to throw it all in the garbage – an internal voice said “If not now, when?”

My friend has a big compost unit in his garden, and I have now seen the magic in action and up close; how the “gold” is produced over time. I simply could not bring myself to throw all the stuff away, although my old muscle memory made fun of my newfound idealism, and I had to more than once pick stuff back out of the trash to put it in the compost pile. Old habits die hard. But they can be “finished off” with a small effort.

So I say Compost and Compassion; my two invigorating buzz words for this New Year of 5775.

Compost

Want a Fan Club?

Buy This House in Our Neighborhood

There’s a house for sale on our street, and it’s not just any house, nor is it just any street. If you buy it I (can almost) guarantee you will gain an immediate fan club. Talk about a fringe benefit! Your new neighbors will likely come up to you with big smiles and greet you, some perhaps bearing gifts, welcoming you and thanking you for taking on the project. They will tell you about our great block parties, the progressive dinners we have had, and you will feel loved and appreciated.

Our street is in the historic part of town, graced with many stately and charming homes that owners seem to take a particular pride in resorting,, and where you can sense a palpable awareness of the value of maintaining older homes.

It sits there on the corner of our block ­­– once a stunning pale yellow colonial with white trims and charming eaves, neat and lush laurel shrubs lining the white picket fence – but over the last few years it has been uninhabited, and now looks forsaken and sad, as if its soul once walked out the door and never returned.

As the fence has peeled, the shrubs have became unruly and the shutters drooped, we, the neighbors, have watched with sinking hearts while the unforgiving players of time and seasons have made their marks on this former bright pearl of the neighborhood.

But like natural pearls that lose their luster, this unique house too can regain its former splendor once it receives the right care; a clear vision coupled with the will to restore a once graceful home, and some good old TLC.

And I bet once a family moves in and breathes its energy into the walls of the house, the dailiness of life will quickly bring about the long needed transformation. And there will be a supportive troop cheering on the metamorphosis, no matter how long or slow it will be.

Maybe we’ll will start a fan-page on Facebook and follow the process with encouraging comments and inspirational quotes.

But hey, no pressure; welcome to our neighborhood!

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Bursting at the Seams

As I am swiftly approaching my 49th birthday, I’m bursting at the seams in more ways than one. In a figurative way, I am bursting out of the 40s, hanging on (by my claws?) to this last precious year as a “40-something” which I plan to relish to the fullest. I so want my 40s, all of them, to have been fabulous. But the truth is, they haven’t been.

The other bursting is taking place down here on the battleground, where the dailiness of life happens, where I am literally bursting out of the seams of my clothes.

Four years ago, while going through my divorce, I was thin as a bean. “Wow, you look great!” I heard from left and right, and so in a manic attempt at convincing myself that it was all happening for a reason, I created a mental connection between the skinny me and the “a-okay.” Funny thing is, I was miserable, of course. But it felt great to be slender, even fitting back into my wedding gown from 23 years prior, which I wore to the Purim Carnival that year with the sign “mail order bride” dangling morosely from my neck.

Today, shimmying into my stretchy jeans, cursing under my breath at what I’d like to call the shrinkage factor of the dryer cycle, I’m puzzled at the bursting. I am happy, I tell myself. I have come such a long, long way, I confirm, doing a quick mental inventory of all the self-improvement, mindfulness, yoga, hypnosis and therapy sessions I have been part of in the last four years. I am doing what I love, my children are healthy, I am loved. Breathe in, breathe out. My bra feels tight, damn it.

True to form, in my over-thinking mind, I begin to ponder: Maybe I’m not happy. I may be telling myself that I am, when in fact, I may be faking it. With all the awful recent world events that social media brings too close, too often, it’s enough to make the most balanced Zen chick weepy, compulsively pouring the scotch and piling on the French cheese on those gluten free organic crackers. And then there are all those lingering haunting thoughts about one’s past: “what it I had just…” Maybe in this life of mine, bursting as it is with goodness, blessings and possibilities, I am also lying to myself?

However, deep down I know that what I am bursting with, is not just empathic pain for the exterior world, but also, still, the emotions of the slow and arduous path to my own emotional recovery. I also recognize that, like the glistening and plump seeds bursting forth from the cracked open pomegranate, the traditional fruit of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, from which yields a glorious nourishing elixir, I have the ability to feed my soul with the stuff of my bursting.

If I only put my mind to it.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait until December 31st to make my New Year’s resolutions, because the Jewish New Year is right around the corner. Moving forward, I want to be compassionate, not to bear down too hard. The resilience and enthusiasm I know is part of my temperament must carry me forward, and I will burst ahead with more gratitude, and less tears, at what truly seems a sacred life.

Bursting Pomegranite

Fifteen Religious Jews Jumping in a Lake

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?

But it isn’t. It is was what I saw the other day.

Imagine you’re taking a walk along a remote dirt road on the south side of a lake in rural Maine. You notice it’s green everywhere, the air is fresh; it smells of moss and moist earth.

Suddenly you hear a car approaching, the way tires sound on a pebbly road, and you prepare to step over to the side as what you now notice is a van, no wait, two vans with New York plates approach.

As the vans pass you, you see that they are full of young, religious Jewish dudes, with their payot or side curls flowing freely, and their black kippot or skullcaps propped loosely on their more or less shaven heads. The driver, a pimply, blond, round faced guy leans out of the window with a cigarette between his lips.

They slow down and ask us if we know of any public access here; they’d like to swim. My friend, who is also Jewish, but to them looks like just a “regular” guy (jeans, t-shirt, a cap) walks over to the window of the car, leans in and assesses the peering dark eyes, the cramped in young male bodies, and says “Shalom aleichem!” This startles the driver greatly, who exclaims, incredulously, “You’re Jewish!?”

They think they are the only Jews in Maine.

After a few introductory remarks, just to eliminate all doubt of imposture, my friend leans in again and says, in the tone of loving zayde or grandfather, “Come out here guys, so I can see you!” whereupon they all gladly pour out of both vans and begin to gather chaotically around us. Some have towels slung over their shoulders, they are all wearing tzitzit, the required fringes that hang down from their everyday undergarment, casually and loosely worn over white t-shirts. One guy is wearing a dark, blue terry cloth bath robe.

There’s laughter, questions, some light up cigarettes, others pace nervously between the cars, some smile at me while yet others shy away from my gaze when we answer their inquiries about where the best spot to swim might be. They tell my friend to come join them for davning – prayers – at their camp in the next town over, and stick a note in his hand with their phone number scribbled on it.

We know well where a great spot for swimming is. We direct them. We point and explain. As they climb back into the vans, they thank us, and we hear laughter and excitement as the drivers struggle a bit to turn the vans around on the narrow dirt road, and then they honk as they drive off.

When we approach the turn in the road, on the other side of the lake, where we had suggested they give the swimming a try, we hear them; shrieks of joyful sounds cutting through the woods, splashing water, and loud music. Religious, up-beat music blasting from the speakers in the vans.

The sight was worth a million dollars. There were the fifteen religious Jews having the time of their lives swimming, basking, splashing, jumping, dunking and diving. A couple had swum out to an orange, plastic, floating pier and were dancing on top of it. Holding each other’s arms and dancing the way you might see religious Jews dance at a simcha or a celebration.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in the lake; it was such a great and refreshing vision to see them enjoying themselves freely and wholeheartedly, basking in some of God’s finest natural surroundings, far away from their native Brooklyn.

And that’s when it dawned on me why they may have been especially happy: With the Jewish day of morning just behind us; Tisha B’Av having ended a couple days before, and the Sabbath coming the next day, the young men were also using the spring fed lake as a mikvah, or a ritual bath. Getting ready for the holiness of the day of rest, and perhaps marking the possibilities born from new beginnings after a solemn fast day, which Tisha B’Av had been, they were indeed rejoicing.

Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. I was lucky to meet them that day.

Two male friends jumping off dock into lake in mid air