Happy Mother’s Day

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That I am here today, is to honor the memory of my beloved mother Helen Lubliner z”l”. Besides being beautiful, she was gracious, kind, discreet, generous and above all a lady. Though she survived Auschwitz, she rarely spoke of those horrors. Instead she chose to speak about the beautiful Jewish life she had before the war. She especially loved to talk about the Shabbosim, the sense of family she got looking around the Friday night table with all her married siblings and their children present.

Like most survivors, she understood that her survival was a miracle.   And though she told few stories, there was one she recalled many times throughout my life.

She and her sisters Frania and Bronia, had been transported to Auschwitz in a stifling hot cattle car. Her sister had worn a dress with a red design. When the Nazis had them strip down for “inspection,” red dye marks from her dress had bled onto her body.

Understanding that any defect was a sure ticket to death, my mother and sister kept moving back in line, desperately using saliva and urine to remove the stains. As they worked, they kept moving, until finally, her skin was clean. At that precise moment, the gloved hand of an SS officer came down, dividing the line in two. Those standing in front of the hand were sent to the gas chambers.

Some might say it was the red dress, others the heat or the push back in line. But my mother credited G—d for her survival.

When I asked her, “why did you try so hard to survive when it would have been so much easier to have given up? To end the misery by throwing yourself onto the electrified barbed wire or having yourself shot?

“Because I had to have you,” she said, referring to me and my older sister, Sandra.

She had to become a mother.

Even though it’s been almost 10 years since she passed away, there is not a day that goes by that I do not remember my beautiful loving mother – whether I am baking with her cookie cutters or lying in bed, watching snow fall recalling her description of standing, as a prisoner, barefoot in the snow.

With a mother like mine I have learned to take nothing for granted — a full belly, an undisturbed night of sleep and the freedom to be a proud Jew, in full view of the world.

 

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Remembering Sandy

IMG_0095It’s been a year since I received the call that would break my heart.   I saw it coming.   My sweet “little sister,” Sandy Masor Zimmerman, the one who married my cousin Harry who in truth was always more like a brother, had died.

Her illness was unforgiving and in the span of a few short months, she went from being the always optimistic, sunny, fun  redhead we knew and loved, to someone beat up by a cruel illness.

She left behind her husband and two boys, Evan and Zack, and her brother Harold  and his wife Amy, along with many nieces nephews and cousins.

When I visited her in Los Angeles, she spent a lot of time sleeping. I’d walk around the house, looking at the many photographs that told her story.  Most were of her with the people she loved most, her husband and two teenage boys, redheads like her. There were framed black and white photos of her deceased parents, and her one brother as a child, and later with his wife and children. Bookshelves were crowded with photo albums, catalogued with numbers and dates, a visual narrative of a past for a woman who was fighting for her future.  Sandy’s presence was everywhere.

The platter of needle pointed mini pastries, textured and beaded, sat on the kitchen table, a wink to her weight watching ways.  Cash coupons, rewards for accruing credit card points, were hung from her cupboard. Shopping was her sport and bags filled with sale items from A list stores was to her, a personal triumph. Sandy studied genealogy, and after years of painstaking research into the histories of her and her husband’s families, she had her findings bound into leather volumes.  Sadly much of the book was taken up with stories and documents about the Holocaust.

Sandy loved all things Jewish, and was a great supporter and lover of Israel.  She led campaigns to raise money for many causes in Israel and encouraged her sons to spend time in the Holy Land.

This year, after we celebrate the Passover holiday together, members of our family will travel to Poland together to retrace many of the steps she wrote about in her book.  We will commemorate what must never be forgotten and then travel to Israel.    There is comfort in knowing that this is something that would make her smile.

OREOS – A New Currency

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Jonah lumbers in unsteadily, using the tips of his fingers to carry a 32 sports bottle tray of water by its shrink wrap.   At first glance he looks like any other six foot two, 30-year old delivery person.   But he is accompanied by a woman who prompts him every step of the way.

“Here Jonah,” she says pointing to the space I had cleared in the garage. “Put it here.”   It’s a good day and he listens.

I give him a hug, after all I am his mom, and invite him in for the non-monetary tip he knows to expect —   Oreos.  Cookies.  Now that’s a language Jonah understands.

Jonah is non-verbal, requires 24/7 supervision, and has no attention span or impulse control.  He has severe autism and even in the best economy hasn’t been able to handle a job— not that we haven’t tried.   Still I don’t know that I can blame him for running away from every paper shredder and hanger sorter he has been handed.

Throughout the years we tried our best to think “outside the box,” to be honest about who Jonah was and what he was capable of doing.   And though we worked hard to encourage use of language, interaction and independence, the gains he made, modest at best, often left us feeling like we were banging our heads against the wall.

At one point we talked about starting a farm cooperative perhaps in partnership with one of Michigan’s many universities. Jonah likes animals and being physically active, especially outdoors.  Staff could be drawn from students interested in special education, psychology, social work, various therapeutic fields. Agricultural students could run the farm while business students could manage the accounting end of things.  But when I proposed the idea to the administrators who oversee such decisions, I was told, “the days of funny farms are over.” By that time, having doors slammed in my face had become old hat.    

As Jonah approached his 18th birthday we struggled but eventually set up for him, a  good long-term living situation with fitting roommates and responsible caregivers.  That he lives less than a mile from our home didn’t hurt matters.

Still there were 16-hour days to fill, no small challenge considering that Jonah is a shoot from the hip young man who does what he wants, not what he is told.   Work programs rightly consider him “too high maintenance” for hire, and day programs, while willing to take him, remain depressing warehousing affairs.  What could we do? 

One afternoon as I was loading heavy cases of bottled water into my car, I thought of my able-bodied Ashton Kutcher look-a-like son. If I hated lugging bottles in and out of my trunk, certainly there had to be others who felt the same way.  What if Jonah and his aide, the one he is always required to have, delivered trays of water bottles to homes and offices?

Jonah is a longstanding devotee of warehouse clubs with their free food samples and aisles of items he loves to look at in food magazines and catalogues. Heavy lifting is often considered therapeutic for people with the kind of sensory issues Jonah has, and besides water bottles being unbreakable, they are rarely urgently needed, an accommodation that would be helpful on Jonah’s occasional “bad days.”

“We could do this,” I told my husband.

I put up a website, made cards and hung posters accruing a list of 35 customers, many of them friends and neighbors. All really do appreciate the service Jonah provides. The money he makes in tips, which is negligible after paying for gas and mileage, is almost beside the point.  He is busy doing something purposeful within the community, becoming reacquainted with people who haven’t seen him in years.

Nothing is perfect.  So many variables go into shaping a life and Jonah’s story is his alone. But despite the skyrocketing autism statistics, the advantage he and others of his generation have, is that they are being raised in parental homes with families who can have a hand in staging improved futures. 

Even today, it is hard to look at Jonah and not wonder what he might have become, as a person, husband, father, and professional. But at 29, I see, a reasonably happy and content young man munching on an Oreo, and am grateful for the perfect compensation we have figured out for his little bit of a job.

The Things We Take for Granted

IMG_0463My son Jonah is 30.  Ashton Kutcher handsome. Silent.  A human being who has never sinned in his entire life.   And yet over the years his autism has given us a run, (I should say at breakneck speeds) for our money. Sleeplessness.  Seizures. Unexplained self-injurious behaviors.   But last night, during our weekly visit with him, he had no idea what kind of gift he gave me.

Typically he comes to our home every Sunday night for “Shabbos dinner.”   Every Friday night I prepare a Thanksgiving-grade meal, with plenty of leftovers.  From homebaked bread, soups, and main courses, to  desserts, Jonah  gets his “Shabbos meal, a couple of days later.

Yesterday our schedule was such that we went to his house to visit him.  It was 8 p.m.   He was falling asleep on the couch watching a Disney movie.   He allowed me to snuggle up to him, (not a given when someone has autism) and sat  holding my hand and resting his leg on mine.  Then, after a few minutes, he stood up, walked to his bedroom, got into bed, pulled up his blanket and went to sleep.

He read his body cues.  He knew what he needed and followed suit.  By himself.       Understanding that bed is the best place to sleep.  No one told him it was time for bed.  It was, an 100 percent independent activity that he chose.

It may not seem like a leap for someone who is tired to get into bed and go to sleep.   But seeing him do this filled me with joy. He lives a life with shadows, one on ones, someone always supervising him.  He has to.  He doesn’t understand danger and needs that level of supervision.   But that he was able to judge his own exhaustion and do what was necessary to properly address it, was something I’d never really seen before.

It’s not often that a parents will say, “my 30 year old son was tired and went to bed.”   But that’s what he did.  I kissed him goodnight, the way a mother of a small sleeping child might, and left feeling like I had been given a gift.   A show of independence, a rarity in my adult son’s life.

Winter Valentine

imagesIt’s February 10, and for the past two months all I’ve heard is how hard the winter has been.  It’s true, we’ve had more than our fair share of snow, ice, below zero temperatures.   But if complaining could change the situation, maybe I’d consider engaging in such discussion.  Instead, I turn off the weather reports, layer up, leave the house looking like the abominable snowman and embrace the pristine beauty and cold temperatures that are Michigan, Winter 2014.

So how, with all the ice, do I manage the long walks I have taken almost daily since my first child was born over 30 years ago?

I call them ice cleats– although their formal names are Yaktrax,  Stablicers,  a discovery that allows me to plod on in the frigid temperatures.   And I have to say, these rubber/wire contraptions not only have prevented me from slipping and sliding, but have allowed me to observe some breathtaking winter beauty in what is otherwise, a drive by neighborhood.

This past weekend “hospitality Maestro” Danny Meyer was profiled in the Wall Street Journal.  He commented on the great lesson he learned from a college professor regarding walking.

“He told me that we learn at an inverse proportion to the speed at which we travel.  If you’re in a car, you’re going to see some things.  If you’re on a bike, you’re going to see more things and if you’re walking, you’re going to see a whole lot more things—and that’s where great ideas come from.”

As a writer, I couldn’t agree more.

Without my cleats, there would be no safe winter walking.  And though I am not one to celebrate Valentines Day, I thought I should publicly declare my affection for the ice cleats which have allowed me to walk freely for many Michigan winters,   and are something I believe every safety minded person should consider owning,

The “Holiday” Lady

imagesIn every community there is a woman who, year round, dons a seasonal ornament on her coat or blouse, close to her heart. November’s turkey, February’s Valentine, March’s four-leaf clover, Easter themes for April — whatever the occasion, she celebrates with a display for all to see. I call her, with affection, The Holiday Lady.

She is a surefooted yet soft-spoken senior who corrects people who call her by abbreviated versions of her given name, Margaret or Rosemary. She votes the same ticket every election, keeps low-interest bearing CDs at the neighborhood bank and has gardened the same patch in the back of her house for more than 40 years. In large noisy cities, you might find her packing fudge squares in one of the few remaining old-fashioned candy shops. She could have been one of Jimmy Stewart’s Bedford Falls neighbors in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Many of the decorative knickknacks she wears are homemade, the few exceptions gleaned as irresistible bargains, the kind one finds in the marked down pile of post-holiday sales. But each piece is unique and cherished and prompts her to recall people and events from her past. Though her uncomplicated gestures seem laughably provincial to some, she is a powerful reminder of who we are and what we come from. And for this reason this woman, so indifferent to the spotlight, stands as a powerful symbol for me.

In my childhood The Holiday Lady stood in sharp contrast to my two immigrant parents with their thick European accents and inviolate sense of ethnic pride. I remember thinking of her as the grandmother to Dick and Jane in my first grade reader. I’d imagine the three of them baking pies from handpicked blueberries while a large pot of soup simmered close by. I envied that wholesome sense of Americana that I only got to read about in books.

During my adolescence I resented the symbol of The Holiday Lady, and her seemingly plodding dispassionate life. I saw her as someone dangerous in her passivity; deluded by her allegiance to ordinary old style values. I would contemptuously call her a greeting card company invention, a mass-produced model of someone with little to think about and no sense of real purpose or commitment.

Now, as an adult slowly approaching the senior side of my years, this woman evokes a new dimension of feeling. Whether she is the greeter at the local warehouse club or sits next to me in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, there is a new respect for her steadiness and calm. It’s no coincidence that ad agencies use her generic face to conjure images of home and hearth, wholesome simplicity, a sense of nostalgia. She has come to represent a quiet steady heartbeat; a reassuring counterpoint in a world that often feels like it has gone awry.

There will never be a shortage of people who are happiest carrying placards, phoning in angry opinions and writing heated diatribes.

The Holiday Lady, however, will continue to concentrate on the ever-changing seasons and the next ornament she will wear to remind us that there is always something to celebrate. And if it happens that she lives in a big city, chances are she’ll be hand pouring seasonal candies in a store that some will call “vintage,” others a thorn in the side of the modern world.

Driving “Foreign” in Motor City

Here is 2002  essay I came across recently.  It was never published — but I thought was an amusing look at the dilemma of driving an import in a city known for its cars.

Post  your thoughts.

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Is it chutzpah to drive imported automobiles in a town that posts signs that read  “no foreign cars” at union halls?  That was our dilemma when we first moved to Detroit, land of the Big Three.

We loved our Swedish cars, yet our vehicular needs changed along with our address.  My husband’s Saab was designed to accommodate skis but wasn’t large enough to handle warehouse club quantities or large pieces of lawn equipment.  And though my family-friendly Volvo performed unfailingly for over 140,000 miles, our carpool crew demanded more space than a five-seat car could offer.  We’d have to make a switch but would we once again buy foreign or follow the suggestion left on my husband’s dirty windshield to “buy American.”

A minivan made the most sense.  We visited an international array of showrooms, played with motorized seats, listened to jazz on nuanced sound systems and treated dashboard buttons like children let loose in a penny arcade.  Not surprisingly, each make and model, from Chevrolet’s Astro to Toyota’s Previa, had its perks and quirks.

But Chryslers, with their Detroit pedigree and raves from consumer magazines outperformed the rest.   The test drive was smooth, the look something I’d grow  accustomed to and the price reasonable, given the high demand. I was an enthusiastic buyer and pulled my ’97 candy apple red Chrysler Grand Caravan LE into a garage that suddenly felt Lilliputian.

Over the next months I worked my biceps trying to parallel park and drove past “compact car only” parking spaces in city garages.  I discovered the pleasures of third row seating, especially when the children got rowdy, and loved the roominess which allowed me to, on impulse, buy an antique armoire for pennies on the dollar.   Though I missed my old car, I grew fond of my new soccer mom image with the accompanying crumb-crusted seats and forgotten apple cores.  Then the problems began.

While the turn of a key in my Volvo produced a sweet compliant song of “at your service,” my minivan started a yearlong kvetchathon.  This was a vehicle that didn’t want to be bothered by cold morning carpools or the stop and go life of an errand running suburbanite.  The car’s high pitched noises made pedestrian heads turn and let our neighbors know we were coming from blocks away.

I spent many mornings waiting in the service department, drinking bad coffee, reading old magazines and talking to mechanics I got to know by name.  Besides minor repairs that were still under warranty, my van “squealed,” “screeched” or “squeaked” depending on who wrote up the work order. I’d get a brief reprieve only to find myself back with another variant of the same problem.  If headache cars were lemons, mine was citrus king.

Friends insisted that I just had bad luck and to try again.  I, however, wanted to be rid of the nuisance the van had become. After selling the van back to the original dealer, cynical me started all over again.

Naturally every salesperson’s pitch,was the same, “superior product.”  But I didn’t need biased opinions.  I wanted a guarantee that I would not be getting the last car off a Friday afternoon assembly line.

“Buy an Odyssey,” the Honda salesman said, “and we’ll provide a loaner every time you come in, even for maintenance.” No more bad coffee or vending machine cookies,  I thought.  The offer clinched the deal but this time instead of buying, I would lease.  I’d live with this set of wheels before agreeing to marry.

Five years of hassle-free driving has made me an Odyssey loyalist.   What many of my Detroit neighbors fail to recognize however, is what Japanese automakers, with factories in 13 states and 56,000 employees, contribute to the American automotive scene. In fact those who think I have chutzpah should know that my minivan, while a product of a Japanese company, was actually assembled in Canada with American parts.

“Put Away Your Phone”

Last month I spent time in Manhattan helping my daughter, an NYU student, settle into new digs.  We enjoyed our runs to Bed Bath and Beyond, Kmart and the Container Store. We picked up cheap, but pretty odds and ends at Marhsalls and TJMaxx.  After a slow paced summer in the Midwest, I actually enjoyed the “too much” that is New York.

I was struck by all the people  texting while walking, being  doubly efficient with eyes glued to illuminated screens, able to radar anything or anyone that might get in the way of them and a keystroke.

It’s the kind of behavior that, when it’s all around you, can sway your thinking. So I wasn’t surprised, when on a walk back from Trader Joe’s, (Best place.  Longest lines.) my daughter’s thumbs roamed her phone’s tiny keyboard like a seasoned pianist.

When I was my daughter’s age and lived in the city, there were still phone booths, maybe even some with dials. “Who needs expensive Broadway tickets,” I used to joke, “when the best shows are the streets of Manhattan.” Everywhere I turned there was something worth noting —  a new restaurant I wanted to check out before it closed, (which was usually in the blink of an eye);  eye catching flower displays surrounding the perimeter of 24 hour delis, beautiful  but seemingly  out of place, beside the drab, littered sidewalks:  designer clothes by Puppia, Cloak and Dawggie, for dog owners willing to spend on their canine companions.

“Put away your phone,” I finally told my daughter. Besides becoming  a target for troublemakers, I thought about all the New York moments and sights she’d miss if she was staring at a screen.

I expected protest, a rolling of the eyes, but to my surprise she said, “you’re right,” and with the push of a button, her screen went dark.

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OPEN WINDOWS

Living in Michigan, I have enjoyed the privilege of opened windows.  There is something wonderfully luxurious about lying in bed and hearing the sound of autumn leaves rustling in the wind — a simple pleasure I never had growing up in New York.

My childhood home in Queens, New York, was burglarized several times in the late 60’s. Even though small ranch homes like ours rarely had alarm systems, my parents had one installed.

images-4Initially, sensors that needed to be aligned, were mounted on our window frames.  But after a thief carefully cut out a glass pane, and slid into our house, special tape to monitor motion and vibration was applied to all glass.

Every night we went into lock down.

I’d fall asleep to the sounds of our home, the furnace kicking in, a toilet flushing, my father snoring loudly from the bedroom across the hall. The only outside noise, with our windows sealed and locked, was the thunderous roar of low flying planes landing  at La Guardia airport nearby.

Sometimes the alarm would go off in the middle of the night, rousing us from sleep, upsetting us all as we checked windows to see if someone was trying to break in.  It took a while for my parents to figure out that air traffic was causing the problems.

We took to setting the alarm only when everyone left the house.  Still there were no open windows, especially at night.

And I had no idea what I was missing.

Dispatch from the Grocery Aisles

I don’t celebrate Halloween but I do food shop regularly. And after filling a bag with a mix of crisp, super delicious, locally grown apples,  I rolled my cart past large colorful displays of candy.  Every kind.  You name it, they had it.   A junk food paradise.

It’s rare that I succumb to buying the chocolate dipped and nutty middled.  But when the displays are placed so that they are unavoidable, and on sale to boot, there’s trouble.

Like every  shopper I am a sucker for a bargain.   Especially for something I really love, like the ubiquitous peanut m&ms.  (Ever wonder how those yellow packages make it to the most rural gas stations in the smallest and most remote towns?)

Old-time-general-storeAnd in past years, I have succumbed to the strategically placed lures using the discount price as my rationale.

It finally occurred to me that a $2.39 bag of peanut m&ms for $1.88 is not really such a bargain.  Especially for someone, so efficient in her eating, that she never had to worry about the candy “melting in her mouth, not in her hand.”   Turns out the modest expense cost me dearly in  calories.

That’s why this year instead of candy,  I bought a bag of mini carrots.  I know.  Not even close.  But both, (and this is a stretch), capture the orange and gold of the season,  and were on sale.