Monthly Archives: September 2016

Finding My Voice with Help from the Jewish World

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“It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly shots rang out!” 

Poor Snoopy! For all his “dogged” attempts, Charles Schultz’s beloved beagle has not yet published his novel. Thanks to The Jewish World, however, I have been more successful. I have published a book.

Actually, it was a bright and sunny day in June 2013, when Josie Kivort, Hadassah Capital District’s Chapter Campaign Chair, and I paid a visit to The Jewish World’s office. For the past several months, we were serving on the committee to plan the organization’s annual Special Gifts event. Jim Clevenson, the publisher of the Schenectady-based biweekly, Josie, and I met to discuss the timeline future press releases and advertisements.

I had communicated  with  The Jewish World  mostly through press releases. For years, I had worked on publicity, first as a volunteer for several organizations in Clifton Park and later as part of my responsibilities at the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center in Troy. We had been in “virtual contact” as  I had been sending the newspaper  articles that I felt would be relevant to the Jewish community.

During our discussion, I mentioned to Jim that I had retired three years earlier. Jim asked if I would be  interested in doing reporting for the Jewish World.

“I have  done enough press releases for a lifetime,” I told Jim. “However, would you be interested in publishing some short non-fiction pieces about my life as a Jewish woman, wife, and mother in Upstate New York?”

Jim agreed to give the idea a try, and he told me that I should send the articles to Laurie Clevenson, his sister and the paper’s editor-in-chief.

My first article appeared in the August 27, 2013, school opening issue. “There Goes My Heart” recalled how saying goodbye to my children—whether putting them on the bus the first day of kindergarten or dropping off at their dorms their first day of college or waving them off as they got in their own cars and drove cross country to new jobs—always brought me to tears.

I had asked my mother if the farewells ever got easier. “Oh, Marilyn,” she said. “Every time any one of you gets into the car and drives away, I think to myself, ‘There goes my heart!’”

So started my regular contributions to The Jewish World. Every two weeks, I wrote a story and submitted it for the newspaper’s consideration. Growing up as the only Jewish family in a small Upstate New York town; experiencing anti-Semitism on my first teaching job in the Capital Region of New York; participating in a playgroup for our two-year-olds; adjusting to retirement; leaving the home we shared for thirty-six years to move to Florida—these many once-private moments became very public columns.

Initially, I was  afraid I would run out of ideas. As the months progressed, however, I found that even the smallest event— biking up a steep mountain in the Rockies, visiting the Portland Holocaust Memorial, changing my granddaughter’s diaper—could morph from an idea to a story. Family and friends shared their experiences, and, with their permission, wove them into my articles.

Not that the stories always flowed easily from my brain to the Mac laptop. “Writing is easy,” wrote sports writer Red Smith. “All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” I often found myself up at midnight before a deadline trying to polish what I had written. But, like some people I knew who devoted hours to quilting or photography or golf, I devoted hours to my writing.

When I moved to Florida in 2015, I joined SOL Writers, a group of women who met twice a month to share their drafts or to participate in a free write. A few of the women were published authors; others, like me, had dreams of expanding their audience. I brought in pieces I had either completed or were working on for The Jewish World. The women were not afraid to criticize but they were also generous in their praise. “You seriously need to think about putting these essays into a book,” one of my writer friends suggested.

In March 2016, I got up enough courage to contact Mia Crews, a professional editor who would be responsible for formatting the manuscript, designing  the cover, and uploading the finished product to Amazon.

Nothing prepared me for the amount of work required to go from a collection of stories to a polished book. I started editing. And editing and editing. I thought I was close to finishing before we left for our summer trip out west. However, I worked on it on the plane to San Francisco, at nights in different hotels up the Oregon Coast, and during every spare minute during our six week stay in Colorado. I enlisted Larry’s help, and we sat together on the couch in our rented condo going over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb while  two political conventions and the Summer Olympics played on the television.

When we got back to Florida, Mia and I completed the final revisions, On September 3, my sixty-sixth birthday. There Goes My Heart was launched on Amazon. I had done it! I had written a real, live book with, as a friend commented, with a cover and pages and nouns and verbs and everything!

”A writer only starts a book,” wrote Samuel Johnson. “A reader finishes it.” Thanks to Laurie and Jim Clevenson for giving me the opportunity to publish my articles. Thanks to you, my readers, who have helped me reach the finish line of my lifelong dream.

 

Bubbe Butt Paste and Other Love Stories

Soon after my daughter Julie and my son-in-law Sam told us they were expecting our first grandchild, my husband Larry and I discussed what grandparent name by which we each hoped to be called. 

Larry determined quickly that he would be called Zayde, Yiddish for grandfather. It was a family tradition, he stated. His father’s father was Zayde Max, and his own father was Zayde Ernie to his seven grandchildren. 

Choosing my name didn’t come as easily. My friend Lynn, whose granddaughter lived in Israel, suggested the Hebrew moniker Saftah, but I didn’t think that would work for our future grandchild, who would be living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado at 9100 feet above sea level. The paternal grandmother, who had a four-year-old granddaughter, already had dibs on Nana. Additional members of the Grandmother Club told me about their sometimes unusual titles: MeeMaw, GG, G-Ma, CiCi, NayNay, Gemmy, and even (Graham) Cracker. Although Bubbe went well with Zayde, I dismissed it as too old fashioned. I pondered the numerous options over the next few months. 

Larry and I were in Colorado the day Julie went into labor. While waiting for the Big Moment, we took a hike up to Rainbow Lake, a lovely spot a mile up the mountain near Julie and Sam’s home. On the trail, we ran into another couple who, noticing Larry’s Syracuse University hat, told us they were also from Central New York State. After chatting with them about the Orangemen’s basketball team and the amount of snow that fell the past winter, Larry and I told them about our grandchild’s imminent birth. They congratulated us, stating how much they themselves enjoyed being grandparents. 

“What do they call you?” I asked the woman, whose name was— ironically—Julie. 

“Grandma,” she said. “I waited a long time for grandchildren, and I am proud to go by the standard name.” 

That sealed it for me. Meeting a Julie from Syracuse on a hike the day my grandchild was born was b’shert—meant to be. I would stick with the classic “Grandma.” 

Larry and I were introduced to our granddaughter an hour after she was born. When I held her in my arms in the hospital room, I was in heaven. I was finally a grandma! I enjoyed every moment of that summer and the three visits over the next year. 

By the time we returned to a rented condo for another Rocky Mountain summer just before her first birthday, our granddaughter was talking. We secretly hoped that, along with her rapidly expanding vocabulary— Dada, Mama, dog, bear, boo (blueberries), yesh, and dough (no)—she would learn and say our names before we went back to Florida. 

Happily, over the next six weeks, we spent many hours with her, not only with her parents but also without them as exceptionally willing babysitters. As she sat in her high chair eating her meals and snacks, I determinedly coached her. 

“Dog,” I said, pointing to Neva, who was waiting patiently with her tail thumping for the next dropped morsel. “Grandma!” I said, pointing to my chest. My granddaughter would smile and laugh and offer me her smashed banana or mushed piece of challah. Nothing in her babbling, however, even came close to “Grandma.” 

Four days before we were to return to Florida, Larry and our granddaughter were playing on the floor with her blocks. “Zayde!” she suddenly stated emphatically. Larry’s face lit up like the Syracuse University scoreboard. She said it again—and again. From that moment, Zayde became her favorite word. She called out “Zayde!” the minute Larry walked into the room, and she yelled it out if he disappeared behind a closed door. Talk about melting a grandfather’s heart! 

As happy as I was for Zayde Larry, I was a little—well—make that extremely jealous. My efforts to hear Grandma—any version— intensified. “Grandma!” I said every chance I got. As the hour of our departure got closer, I became desperate and switched tactics. “Bubbe,” I tried, deciding an old sounding name was better than no name at all. 

The morning before we were to fly back to Florida, I babysat my granddaughter while Julie and Sam were at work and Larry was returning the rental car. After her morning nap, I lay my granddaughter on the dressing table to change her diaper. She looked into my eyes and clearly said, “Bubbe!” “Yes! Bubbe!” I cried. My granddaughter had spoken, and I was going to be Bubbe! I was over the moon! I immediately shared the news with Larry. Our granddaughter said the magic word again after lunch and after her afternoon nap. When Sam returned home from work that evening, this 

Bubbe was bursting with joy.
“And she repeated this every time you changed her diaper?” Sam asked somewhat hesitantly.
“Every time!” I said. “She clearly said Bubbe!”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Marilyn,” Sam said. “But she wasn’t actually calling you Bubbe. It’s her world for butt paste. She has had some diaper rash this past week, and—well—she likes to hold the closed tube after we finish applying it.” 

“Butt Paste!” Larry chortled. “She is calling you Butt Paste.” 

The day after we returned to Florida, our Colorado family FaceTimed with us. The minute our granddaughter saw our faces on the computer screen, she yelled out, “Zayde!” 

“And look who is with me!” said Larry. “It’s Bubbe Butt Paste!” 

Sigh! 

It took another two months to realize that our now sixteen month old granddaughter  could not say the “gr” sound. “How about you call me ‘Gammy?’” I asked her.  She smiled broadly and said  “‘Gammy!’”

Six years and more grandchildren later, I am now a confirmed Gammy. But I will be happy to receive their smiles, their laughs, their hugs, and their unconditional love—no matter what I am called.

First published in The Jewish World, September 1, 2016

There Goes My Heart

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Adam, Julie, and I head for the school bus Adam’s first day of kindergarten, September 1983

The first week of September in Upstate New York is a time for new clothes, sharpened pencils, and bright yellow buses that reappear on neighborhood streets like clockwork two days after Labor Day. School opening is an important time for the children. It is also a bittersweet moment for the adults who are saying good-bye to them.

My first vivid memory was my first day of school. My mother walked me up the hill to the big brick building that housed all the grades for Keeseville Central. I quietly sat at a table stringing colored beads in Mrs. Ford’s kindergarten classroom. My mother wordlessly slipped out the door. I didn’t cry.

I was supposed to be the last of my parents’ three children going off to school, but that plan failed. My sister was born three months before I entered kindergarten. Bobbie was a shining example of the little “surprise” many pre-birth-control women in their mid to late thirties experienced just when they thought diapers and formula were behind them. I am not sure if my mother pushed Bobbie in the carriage into the classroom that morning. I am sure dropping me off only to return to a house still equipped with a crib, a high chair, and a playpen was an ironic moment in my mother’s life.

When it came time to send my son Adam off to kindergarten, I had mixed feelings. I was happy for him to be starting on his next adventure, but my mind was filled with concerns. Would his teacher, who had a reputation for being strict, be kind to my son? Would he overcome his shyness, make new friends? My fears were certainly not alleviated when within the first week he didn’t come up our driveway after the school bus pulled away. My phone call to the school triggered an alert to the driver, who found Adam fast asleep in the back the bus. Somehow, he did survive his first year. Life before school became a distant memory as Julie followed Adam up the school bus steps three years later.

What was so much more difficult for me was sending Adam off to college. The summer before, I shopped for comforters and dorm sized sheets and enough shampoo and soap to last him four years. The thought of his leaving the house and our no longer having four at the dinner table caused me to tear up all summer. A week before he was to leave, I was cutting up several pounds of chicken breast when I burst into tears. “I will never have to make this much chicken again!” I sobbed out loud to an empty kitchen.

The night before we drove him to the University of Rochester, most of the purchases were still in bags with the tags still on them. Unlike me who needed to be packed and ready days in advance, Adam was happy to just stuff things into suitcases and plastic bins at the last minute.

The four of us lugged his life in Rubbermaid containers up the five flights of stairs—why did my children always get the top floors of their dorms?—and Adam quickly settled in. My last memory of my son that day was his leaning back on his chair in front of his desk, proclaiming “I am going to like it here!”

Once Larry, Julie, and I got back into the car for our trip home, I felt such deep pain that I thought someone had wrenched my heart out of my body. I cried from Rochester to Syracuse. I finally stopped when Julie commented sarcastically from her perch in the back seat, “You have another child, you know!”

Sending Julie off to Williams College three years later was a little easier—maybe because she was the second child; maybe because she was only forty-five minutes away. We dropped her off in Williamstown and got her situated in her fourth floor—of course!-dorm room. By the time we pulled into our driveway, we were giddy with excitement over our new-found freedom. We knew that both children were happy in their college environment. That knowledge, coupled with the realization that we longer had to worry about the daily angst of their high school lives—homework, car pools, dates for a dance—made the transition into our now empty nest smoother.

Still, each time our children came home, I found their inevitable departure difficult. After sending Julie off to college for her final year, I asked my mother if she ever got used to saying goodbye. “Oh, Marilyn,” she said. “It never gets easier! Every time any one of you gets into the car and drives away, I think to myself, ‘There goes my heart!’”

So, each year on the first day of school, when I see the school bus filled with children with their new clothes, their sharpened pencils their bright back packs, I will be thinking of my first day, my children’s first days, and my aching heart.