Category Archives: Faith and family

Still seeking the perfect gift: Holiday shopping!

As we gear up for Chanukah and Christmas, I am sharing on my blog a story I wrote for The Jewish World seven years ago.

I have never looked forward to holiday shopping.

It has little to do with spending the money. I don’t even resent the time in the malls with all the Christmas decorations and music and the token Chanukah menorah stuck sadly in a corner. My main problem is that I never feel up to the task of finding the “perfect” gift.

I have a few memories of shopping for the holidays when I was growing up.I had my stand-bys: “Night in Paris” for my mother, a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolates for my father. The first year my sister Laura came home from college, she gave me a beautiful cable sweater that I thought was the height of sophistication because it came from my “big sister.” Through my college years, finding funny and appropriate gifts for my suite mates made the days before we left for winter vacation enjoyable. 

It became more challenging once I married into Larry’s family. Chanukah was a much bigger deal than it had been in my family. My sibling and I had not exchanged Chanukah gifts for years, and here I was looking for presents for ten adults and the seven grandchildren. Even if we weren’t all together on the first night of Chanukah, Larry’s sisters seemed to know what to get everyone and have it delivered by mail if necessary. I just always wondered what to get everyone and second guessed all my choices. 

When gift giving became even more difficult was when, in 2000, I moved from the classroom into an administrative post. When I was teaching, we did a “Secret Santa,” which meant I was only finding little gifts for one person. Once I took on my coordinator position, the number of people to whom I gave gifts grew exponentially.  It would have been simpler if I had been a wonderful baker or a clever seamstress or a skilled woodcrafter. Unfortunately,  I had neither the talent nor the desire to pull together a “one gift fits all” idea and implement it by the time the holiday season arrived. Gifts reflecting my own holiday —sugar cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Star of Davids;  potato pancakes ready to reheat; a Chanukah bag with a dreidel, Chanukah gelt, and instructions on how to play—seemed inappropriate. 

So, I would land up wandering around malls or craft shows the weeks before the holiday searching desperately for gifts. I truly cared about the recipients and wanted to show that caring in appropriate gifts. I just was at a lost to find a “token” present that satisfied me.

Four years before I retired, I decided keep track of the financial impact on spending for just my workplace. I was shocked to realize that I had spent $500 on tchotchkes.* This had to stop.

So the following November, before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, I approached my fellow co-workers and asked if we could forego the gifts and instead make a contribution to a charity. They quickly signed on, and for the next few years, we pooled our gift money and sent a generous check to the Regional Food Bank. Everyone at my agency got a card with a note that said, in the spirit of the season, a gift had been made to the Regional Food Bank. What a relief!

The first December after I retired, the holiday season was mellower. Larry’s family got together for a Chanukah dinner, with all of us agreeing before hand that Chanukah presents would go to the two great-grandchildren but not to each other. We have continued that tradition.

My perspective on gift-giving also changed when Larry and I purchased a fully furnished home in Florida and needed to divest ourselves of thirty-six years of house. Larry took it in stride, but I struggled with the process until I realized much of the stuff we decided to leave behind was someone else’s treasure. The couple that cleaned our house fell in love with a chalk drawing of a draw bridge in Shushan, New York,  that she and her husband drove past every day when they lived in Columbia County. Several of my crewel pieces found their way to relatives’ homes, and a photograph of waves crashing on a New England coastline went to a dear friend whose family has had a summer home near Brunswick, Maine, since 1925. Our Early American deacon’s bench is now situated in our next door neighbor’s sunroom. Moments before we backed out of our driveway on Devon Court for the last time, Blossom took a picture of the two of us on the bench, smiling through our tears.  How I wish I had gifts from the heart to offer to friends and family all the time no matter what the season!

This year will be our first Chanukah with a grandchild. My first inclination is to shop for eight gifts  to be opened each night, but I know at even her very young age, Sylvie Rose doesn’t need more toys or more clothes. I have already promised her that, when she is a LITTLE older,  I will take her to  Disney World and buy her a princess dress. I have children’s books written and signed by a member of my writing group. My journal includes stories of her life, and I hope to share all these stories, some as part of a book,  with her as she grows. Those will be, like those special pictures and that deacon’s bench, gifts from the heart. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the November 12, 2015 issue.

A Father’s Day story: Boats, Bugs, and Bats

In June 2008, my father and I spent our last Father’s Day together. He and my mother had moved up to an independent living facility in Upstate New York four miles from me. Two years later, his health had deteriorated, and he passed away November 2008. People may remember Bill Cohen for his stores in Keeseville, his community service, his pride in his family. What I remember—and treasure—most about my father were the stories about him that my siblings and I share again and again. Many of them centered on boats, bugs, and bats. 

Having spent summers as a child with his grandfather Archik Pearlman on Lake Champlain, my father always dreamed of owning a boat. In 1965, he purchased a pink indoor-outdoor that my mother immediately “christened” Nisht Neytik, Yiddish for “not necessary.” During the summer, Dad rented space on a public dock in Port Kent, five miles from our house. And each Sunday, Dad would coerce us all to take a ride—when we could go. Unfortunately, the boat spent more time in the shop than in the water. And when it was in the water, Dad was always panicking about the weather or the gas situation. One time, we took a long ride out to a nearby island, and my father realized that we may not have enough gas to return. We were nervous wrecks until we finally pulled back into our slot.

In 1966, my parents bought a cottage on Willsboro Bay. Soon after, Dad purchased an outboard with slightly better reliability. Larry and I were married in 1974, and in 1975, we went up to the lake for Memorial Day. Dad gave Larry a pair of waders Dad had picked up second hand and asked him to put up the docks for the boat. Before Larry was knee deep, the waders-riddled with tiny holes filled up with water. Think Lake Champlain in May, when the water temperature barely reaches 60 degrees. Larry has never forgiven him. 

For the next several years, the boat was anchored either on the dock or on an anchor about 200 feet from shore. Dad still loved boating, but only if the weather was perfect. For hours before we were supposed to go out, Dad kept his ear near the radio next to his chair, which was set for the weather station. If there was the slightest chance of rain, he refused to go through with the ride. When we children and eventually our spouses were old enough to go on our own, Dad installed a CB radio in the outboard so he could check up on us every few minutes. In an blatant act of defiance, Larry would turn it off. Dad never forgave him.

As much as my father loved boats he DESPISED bugs. He kept a can of Raid next to his favorite chair on the back porch of the cottage and used it frequently—and liberally— to kill any passing fly or wasp. When the Raid wasn’t enough, he got a outdoor fogger which he used with the same careless abandon that he used the aerosol can. One beautiful summer night, Laura was putting food on our set table when my father passed by the outside of the window with the fogger in his hand. A potent cloud of pesticide permeated the air. Laura never forgave him. 

When the Raid and the fogger failed, Dad called in the Big Guns. He purchased an electric bug zapper and hung it on the limb of the huge oak in front of the cottage. As the sun set across the lake, we heard from inside the cottage a quick zap as the first bug hit the grid, then a second, then ten, then twenty. Before we knew it, every bug between Willsboro and Burlington five miles across the lake was headed for the bug zapper. It took about 30 minutes for the ten foot machine to become completely clogged. So much for Dad’s war against the bugs.

Dad was more successful with bats. The cottage was always a gathering place for the family. One summer weekend, Larry and I were in one bedroom; my sister Bobbie and her husband and Emil were in another; and my sister Laura was in another. In the middle of the night, I headed to the bathroom. As I reached for the toilet paper, I realized that a bat was sitting on the top of the roll. Trying not to wake anyone, I ran back into our bedroom and shook my husband Larry awake.

“There’s a bat in the bathroom!” I whispered.

Larry awoke groggily with a “Wha……t?” He climbed out of bed, checked out the bat in the dim light of the night light, and suggested we close the door and wait until morning. 

“But what is someone else has to go to the bathroom?” 

“What are you two doing?” Our whispered conversation had woken up my sister.

The bat, tired of squeezing the Charmin, flew out of the bathroom and began swooping through the cottage. 

“Damn!” I cried.

By this time, Emil, Laura, and Mom were wide awake. We watched the bat circle above us, all of us talking at once with suggestions .

“Hit it with the badminton rack?” 

“How about a broom?”

“Does Raid work on bats?”

“How about the fogger?

At that moment, my father, who can sleep through a five alarm fire a block from our house (Yes. He did. Keeseville, New York, February 14, 1964. But I will save that story for another time), finally appeared in the doorway of his bedroom in his teeshirt and boxers. Without a word, he crossed the room, grabbed the fishing net that he kept in the corner explicitly for this purpose, and in one fell swoop, caught the bat in its web. He opened the front door, shook the frightened but still alive bat out of the netting, and came back into the cottage.

“Now everyone go back to sleep,” my father stated. 

Boat lover. Bug hater. Bat rescuer extraordinaire. But most importantly, My Dad. Whether he is with me or not, I will celebrate every Father’s Day in his memory with love.

Note to my readers: While editing my blog, I realized that I had never published this story I had written in 2019 for Father’s Day about my beloved father, Wilfred “Bill” Cohen (Z’L). It’s a little late for Father’s Day, but it’s never too late to honor my father’s memory.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Manna From Heaven: Vanilla Ice Cream

My maiden name is Cohen. In all honesty, however, it should have been Cone. As in ice cream cone. As in my favorite summertime/anytime treat. As a matter of fact, if I were one of the Israelis wandering the desert with Moses, my manna from heaven would have tasted like Breyer’s Natural Vanilla.

My love for ice cream is in my genetic makeup. While I was growing up, a day wasn’t complete in the Cohen household without our dishes of ice cream. In the 1950s in Keeseville, our small town in Upstate New York,, choices were limited. Our freezer usually held one or two half gallons of Sealtest Neapolitan. Having all three flavors for six people worked out well. My father chose vanilla topped with a huge helping of strawberry preserves. My mother went for the strawberry. The four children took whatever we could scoop up with our vintage gray aluminum Scoop Rite ice cream scoop.

Our favorite food also played into all of our family’s special occasions. We dished out ice cream at birthday celebrations, Yom Kippur break-the-fasts, the first post-Passover meal, and Thanksgiving—what was apple pie without the a la mode! As an added treat, my parents would take us for ice cream at the Frosty Dairy Bar, a restaurant on Route 9 in Plattsburgh. Going there allowed us to go beyond Neapolitan, giving me my first tastes of “exotic” flavors like pistachio, chocolate chip, and cherry vanilla.

Fortunately, I met and married a man who, although not as fanatical as me, enjoys ice cream. He loves me enough to tolerate my addiction. Otherwise, I doubt if the marriage would have lasted. Our first date was a movie and a trip to Friendly’s. Larry had a chocolate Fribble, and I had a hot fudge sundae with—you guessed it—vanilla ice cream. It became our go-to place after every movie or play for many years.

Once we had children, we usually kept at least one half gallon of ice cream in the freezer, vanilla for me and Stewart’s Swiss chocolate almond for Larry—he still hasn’t forgiven Stewart’s for phasing out his favorite flavor. Once they could hold a kiddie cone, we would bring Adam and Julie during summer months to the Country Drive-In, a popular hamburger/soft-serve ice cream stand off Exit 8 of the Northway. Julie took Larry there every Father’s Day for a hamburger, fries, and an ice cream cone from elementary school until she graduated college.

My now-adult children don’t place ice cream as high on their favorite food list, but they take care of their mother. Julie and Sam makes sure they have Haagen-Dazs ice cream or gelato waiting for us in their freezer when we visit them Colorado. Adam humors us by taking us to Bi-Rite Creamery for a waffle cone whenever we visit him in San Francisco.

As empty nesters, we usually have a half gallon of vanilla ice cream in the freezer. I will have a small scoop once a week. Larry will indulge a little more often using his own “in-house ice cream routine.” First he softens the ice cream by putting the whole carton into the microwave for a few seconds. He then uses the Scoop Rite ice cream scoop we inherited from my parents to transfer one or two scoops into a cereal bowl. He squirts on Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate syrup, throws on a few Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, and tosses on a healthy handful of chopped walnuts and sliced almonds. When Larry was laid up with a leg surgery, I tried to cheer him up by ‘recreating’ his masterpiece. I failed miserably as I messed up the proportions of ice cream, chocolate syrup, and nuts. To be honest, I think Larry treats ice cream as another way to eat nuts.

For me, however, a simple unadorned dish or cone of vanilla ice cream is my favorite food, a link to my childhood as well as one of life’s great pleasures. Ice cream even has played an important role during one of the most poignant times of my life. When my mother fell gravely ill four days before she passed away, she lost her desire for food. I asked her if she wanted anything special to eat. She whispered, “Strawberry ice cream.” The cafe at Coburg Village, the independent living place where she was living, had none. The wonderful young woman working behind the counter, upon hearing the story, went up to the main restaurant and brought me back a huge dish of strawberry ice cream to honor my mother’s request. When I got back to Mom’s bedside, she ate three or four spoonfuls before she pushed my hand away. “That was delicious! Thank you!” That was the last food she ever ate, a true Cohen to the end. I can only hope that I, like my mother, will a long, happy, healthy life that concludes with the sweet taste of vanilla ice cream on my tongue.

Until we relocated to Florida, one of my favorite stops was the three-mile trip to the Country Drive-In for a vanilla soft serve. As a matter of fact, I needed to make a trip there to take a picture of my eating my cone for the Jewish World, It was a cold, rainy, day, making it quite tough to buy that cone and eat it. Someone had to do the job, however, and who better than Marilyn Cone Shapiro?