Category Archives: Parenting

Bubbe Butt Paste and Other Love Stories

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

Larry determined quickly that he would be called Zayde. 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  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 other grandmother, who had a four year old granddaughter, already had dibs on Nana. Other 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, Sylvie Rose Massman, an hour after she was born. When I held her in my arms in that hospital room for the first time,I felt as if I were in heaven. I was finally a grandma!

We saw Sylvie several times over her first year. By the time we returned to a rented condo for another Rocky Mountain summer just before her first birthday, Sylvie 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.

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

Sylvie,” I said,  touching her on the nose. “‘Dog,’” I said, pointing to Neva, who was waiting patiently for the next dropped morsel. “‘Grandma!’” I said, pointing to my chest. Sylvie 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, Sylvie and Larry were playing on the floor with her blocks. “Zayde!”  Sylvie 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 very 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 Sylvie while Julie and Sam were at work and Larry was cleaning out the condo and returning the rental car. After her morning nap, I lay her on the dressing table to change her diaper. She looked into my eyes and clearly said,“Bubbe!”

“Yes, Sylvie! Bubbe!” I cried. Sylvie had spoken, and I was going to be Bubbe! I was over the moon! I immediately shared the news with Larry. Sylvie 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.

“Yes! Every time!” I said. “She clearly said Bubbe!”

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Marilyn,” Sam said. “but she wasn’t really 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, Julie and Sylvie FaceTimed with us. The minute Sylvie saw our faces on the computer screen, she  yelled out, “Zayde!”

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

Sigh! I am sure she will be calling me Grandma soon. Until then, I will be happy to accept her smiles, her laughs, her waves, and her unconditional love—no matter what she calls me.

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.

Moments in History: Educators, can you make history come alive?

In the early 1960s, The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show included segments entitled The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Peabody. With the help of a “way-back machine,” the dog genius and his adopted human son Sherman were whisked back to a moment in history, sometimes saving the day. As schools rev up to start the new year, I was thinking how much fun—and relevant—it would be if students could go back in time to a historic event, even as an observer. After I posted a request on Facebook, many shared with me of their own hypothetical adventures in time travel.

Steve Sconfienza, who has worked as both a pilot and a flight instructor, would take the way back machine to December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.There he would see first hand the moment that Orville and Wilber Wright became the first people to accomplish powered flight. For centuries, many had always believed that human beings could find a way to fly. On that historic day, the two brothers, whose interest in flight had been sparked by a rubber band driven toy helicopter their father had given them twenty-five years earlier, flew the first successful airplane. “Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft,” states Wikipedia, “the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.” Steve, a flier since he was sixteen years old, viewed the Wright Brothers’ accomplishment as “a real triumph of humanity’s reach for knowledge.”

Sherri Mackey, a woman whose deep faith has shaped her own strong voice regarding social issues, stated she would go back to the early twentieth century’s suffrage movement and be present for the certification of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. Sherri reflects, “I can only imagine the joy for women that had fought hard for the right to vote.” Sherri continues to work to ensure that that right is not somehow diluted by folks with alternative agendas. “We must teach our daughters to embrace their equality,” she stated,”and to protect and defend their equal rights just as diligently.”

Sharon McLelland dreams of  being at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore Maryland on November 1, 1938, to witness firsthand Seabiscuit’s victory over War Admiral At what was billed as the “Match of the Century, “Seabiscuit,  described in Wikipedia as “undersized, knobby kneed, and given to sleeping and eating for long periods” was the underdog who became an unlikely champion and regarded as a symbol of hope in a country that was fighting its way out of the Great Depression.  Sharon, who once lived near Pimlico, now happily lives near Saratoga Springs, “the queen of the tracks!”How fitting for a woman who as a child had pictures of Secretariat on her bedroom walls!

I would take Mr. Peabody’s machine to the debut of West Side Story on Broadway on September 26, 1957. Oh how I wish I were sitting third row center, when the world was introduced the this American classic! Seven years old and three hundred miles away, I listened to the cast recording my father had purchased for me the week Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece debuted. For years, I played and replayed the 78 rpm— “Something’s Coming,” “Maria, “and the absolutely stunning duet “Tonight”—until I wore out the groves. If I could be Somewhere,  it would be at the Winter Gardens Theater that opening night.

After decades of speculation as to who would finally accomplish the track and field milestone, Roger Bannister became the first person to run the sub-four minute mile at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, on May 6, 1954. Larry Shapiro became interested in track and field in junior high and  read numerous articles and accounts and the runner’s 1955 autobiographical account, The Four Minute Mile. As he has shared with me since we have know each other, Larry wished he had been there when Bannister crossed the finish line with a time of 3:59:4. For his efforts, Bannister was named the first-ever Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Just recently, Larry found on YouTube a grainy black and white video of the race with Dr. Bannister himself doing the voice-over. Larry was ecstatic. Fittingly, a copy of Bannister’s book still sits on our bookshelf.

Rabbi Beverly Magidson would be transported to Jerusalem after Israel’s victory during the 1967 Six-Day War. She would like to have stood at the  Kotel, when the Western Wall came under Israeli control. Late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin described it in a speech to Knesset in 1995. “Nobody staged that moment. Nobody planned it in advance. Nobody prepared it and nobody was prepared for it; it was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping — loudly and in pain — over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by Western Wall’s stones after 19 years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of ‘Hatikvah.’”At the time of the war, Rabbi Magidson was in high school and only vaguely aware of the Kotel’s significance. However, in 1969 she saw it for the first time at a quiet moment in the late evening, and it was a powerful spiritual experience.

When Woodstock, the iconic four-day rock/love fest, took place in August 1969, Barbara Peterson was a 29 year old stay at home mother with three young children. At the time, she was married to a controlling man who thought hippies were disgusting druggies, and she was a dutiful, strait-laced wife. This all changed in 1972, when Barbara divorced her husband, went to rock concerts, and became liberated.“That is when I really regretted missing that historic moment in cultural history.” said Barbara. She has thought about going back to the planned fiftieth anniversary event, but she said it wouldn’t be the same.

The Wright Brothers. Women’s right to vote. The first sub-four minute mile. West Side Story. The Western Wall. Woodstock. Historical moments that have resonated and remain important in individual lives. As the new school year begins, may our children’s teachers help students find their own iconic moments in history.

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality

 

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On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

My Dad, The Designated Driver

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Bill Cohen, my father, in his best Errol Flynn imitation!

A Father’s Day memory: It is 1956. My father is sitting behind the steering wheel of an idling sedan in the driveway of our house in Keeseville. Laura, Jay, and I are squirming in the back seat. Dad is smoking a Kent and listening to a baseball game on the radio. He gives the horn an impatient tap to hurry along my mother, who is inside the house diapering Bobbie and pulling together last minute items for our car trip. He honks again, more loudly. “Where is that woman?” he asks. “We’re going to be late.”

For over sixty-five years, my father was our family’s self-appointed Designated Driver. Born and raised in Queens, my father learned how to drive when he was fifteen years old at his grandfather’s farm in Burlington, Vermont. In 1940, my mother took her place in the passenger seat. By 1955, four children were filling up the remaining space.

Out of financial necessity, our family usually owned “gently used” cars. No matter how pristine they were when purchased, each vehicle soon lost the ‘new-car’ feel once our huge family—with an occasional dog along for the ride—took ownership.

These were the days before cars had safety features. No one wore seat belts; babies sat on mothers’ laps; Dad’s extended right arm held us back when we were forced to a sudden stop.

As the family grew, sedans gave way to station wagons. One or two of us children happily climbed into the back, where we bounced our way to a school function or the beach or a relative’s house or even to visits to our grandparents in New York City, oblivious to any danger. Fortunately, Dad was an excellent driver. He was never involved in an accident. And his only speeding ticket was when—as he never let me forget—he was rushing home from a trip to Plattsburgh after I was car sick.

Not that he wasn’t guilty of “pedal to the metal.” In the 1960s, my father was elected coroner of Essex County, New York, a position he held for over twenty years. When he got the call from the state police that he was needed to investigate an unattended or suspicious death, Dad would rush out to his car, put the Essex County Coroner sign in his window, slap on his “Kojak” flasher on top of the roof, and drive to the scene like a bat out of hell. If the call came in the middle of the night, one of us would often ride with Dad to keep him company. I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Dad careened through the back roads of Reber or Willsboro or Port Kent, praying one of the other three coroners in the county wouldn’t have to investigate our untimely demise.

Soon after they retired in 1981, Dad and Mom began spending half the year in Florida. Each year in mid-October, they drove the 1500 miles to their condo in Lauderdale Lakes. The week before Memorial Day, they took the same route back. Although they eventually took the auto train to reduce driving time, Dad continued his reign as exclusive—and excellent—driver.

As he got into his eighties, however, his driving skills declined. His hearing was poor, his reaction times were slow, and he relied too often on cruise control so he wouldn’t have to regulate the gas pedal. Concrete car stop bumpers in parking lots saved many an eating place from becoming an impromptu drive-in restaurant. Still, Dad insisted on taking the wheel, promising to limit his trips to nearby restaurants and stores.

In 2005, while visiting Mom and Dad in Florida, Jay and his wife Leslie made plans for the four of them to go out to dinner. The usual fight ensued. “I’ll drive!” Jay offered. “Absolutely not,” Dad countered “You’re my guest. I’ll drive.”

The route to the restaurant included a section on a multi-lane expressway. Dad was in the far left lane when he suddenly crossed four lanes to get to the exit ramp. “We watched in horror from the back seat,” Jay said. “Fifteen years later, I can still remember how Leslie’s nails felt as she dug them into my arm until I bled.”

After that incident, we children insisted Dad give up the car. We arranged for Mom and Dad to move into Coburg Village, an independent living facility near Larry and me that offered, among other amenities transportation to stores and doctors’ offices. They flew up to their new home, and Laura and Jay drove Dad’s car to our house. Dad’s Toyota would stay safely in our driveway until Julie picked it up and drove it back to Colorado that summer.

For the next few months, Dad complained incessantly about how we had taken away his independence. The day Julie came home to claim the Toyota, however, Dad pulled out of his wallet the registration AND an extra car key.

“You could have walked down the driveway and driven that car anytime you wanted to!” I said.

“I know,” he said with a wink.

After that, Dad grudgingly accepted his place in the front passenger seat when either Larry or I drove. Six months before he passed away, Dad got a brand new shiny red mobility scooter. When I came over to have dinner that night in the Coburg dining room, Dad was already sitting on his new toy with a huge smile on his face. Mom and I followed him as he navigated his way down the long hallway to the open elevator door. Entering a little too fast, he gently hit the back wall. “I’m fine!” Dad said with a wink. “I got this!”

Of course he was fine! My father was finally in the driver’s seat again.

From Diaries to Blog Posts

When I was fifteen years old, a friend and I attended a writer’s institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburg. That week was to change my life. It only took me fifty years to see it through to fruition.

Chris was my closest friend. She was a year behind me in school, but we were soulmates. Chris was brilliant, insightful, and understood me. We spent innumerable hours listening to Simon and Garfunkel, taking walks near our homes in Keeseville, and talking about life and our future.

In the spring of 1966, we found out that SUNY Plattsburg was holding a one-week writer’s workshop on its campus. The college was offering scholarships to local high school students. We both applied and both were accepted.

Our parents took turns driving the fifteen miles each day up to the campus. We took classes in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Chris gravitated towards poetry. I was more interested in personal essays and fiction, similar to what I had written for many years.

Since I could remember, I had kept a diary or journal. My first was a little blue book with a lock and key where I kept my innermost thoughts. I am sure my family, especially my brother, read it while I wasn’t around. Our cat thought it was a great chew toy, as the ends were shredded with teeth marks. I doubt if I had many profound insights as a pre-teen. It must have been important to me, however, as I kept it tucked away in my night stand for decades. It finally got tossed when my husband Larry and I did “The Big Dump” in our 2015 move to Florida.

After the first diary was filled, I replaced it with a marbled composition book. Although my actual life in our small town was fairly tame, my narratives were filled will angst and passion. Directly across from my “No Trespassing!” warning on the inside cover, I wrote my first entry dated November 15, 1965. “Life can be cruel at times. It can be bitter, unhappy, and unstable. What you once enjoyed becomes boring; what you thought becomes childish and immature.” Many of the entries dealt with my poor body image. “I weigh 127. I have to weigh 115! Breakfast: 1 egg, 1 toast 1/2 orange.” (“Oh Marilyn,” my adult self says. “Why were you so hard on yourself?”)

A few pages later, the journal recorded one of my first crushes: “I met Jim on the white hills of Paleface Mountain when he was in my ski class.” His face, which I thought would “always burn brightly in my memory,” is a complete blur.

Along with the self-condemnations and the crushes were also attempts at short stories. Most of them revolved around adolescent self-discovery. A teen and her family deal with a sick grandparent. A young man finds the shadow of a mustache. A sensitive soul experiences hurt when a three-sided friendship becomes two-sided, and she becomes the outsider.

One of the longer works was a story about a girl who spends so much time on hair, make-up, and clothing for a dance she forgets the important things—like how to talk to a boy. “Maybe if I had worn the blue dress,” says the first-person narrator as she gets ready for bed after she comes home, “someone would have asked me to dance.”

This was the story I worked on during our week at the workshop. The day before it ended, I shared it with my instructor and the class. After I finished reading it aloud, there was silence follow by loud applause “Please meet our future writer,” said my instructor. “She has a great deal of talent for a fifteen-year-old.”

On the last day of the conference, all the attendees met on a beautiful green lawn on the campus. Awards were given to the adult attendees for best fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I was given an award for best young writer.

Chris was thrilled for me, and she encouraged me to continue writing. That fall, I entered my junior year reassessing my future career goals. I had always wanted to be teacher, but this experience made me rethink that path and consider getting a degree in creative writing or journalism. My parents, however, strongly encouraged me to major in education. “Become an English teacher,” my mother told me. “You can still be involved with writing, but you will have your summers off. And when you have children, you will be off when they are on vacation.”

Feeling the pressure, I took the safer route and enrolled in the English education program at University at Albany. Chris was disappointed that I didn’t pursue creative writing. Her graduation gift to me was a large blank journal with a black cover. “For your writing,” she penned into the inside cover.

During my four years in college, I wrote innumerable essays for my coursework. For whatever reason, I never took one creative writing class the entire time. After I graduated, I taught high school for a short time. After I finished my masters in reading, I taught adult education classes, preparing people to take the exam for their GED or to have the reading, writing, and study skills needed for college. My favorite part was teaching how to write essays.

In the 1990s, I wrote a few articles for Schenectady, New York’s The Daily Gazette. It wasn’t until I retired that I started writing again. A chance meeting with the editor of the Jewish World led to the opportunity to spread my wings and write personal essays.

To my delight, Chris and I recently reconnected. We shared memories of the summer workshop, which for her provided a “long burning ember from the spark of the experience.” She journals, composes haiku, and develops resources for social workers. Meanwhile, she is thrilled that I am finally following the path we started together fifty years ago this summer.

Barbara Kingsolver, award-winning novelist, poet, and essayist, stated, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” And now is perfect for me.

The Simcha That Almost Wasn’t

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Bobbie and Emil at Marissa’s Bat Mitzvah November 2009

 

Every simcha is a cause for rejoicing. However, for the Cohen family, my niece’s bat mitzvah was an especially joyful occasion.

My sister Bobbie and her husband Emil started planning for their daughter Marissa’s bat mitzvah soon after their rabbi had given them the December 5, 2009, date. Since everything had worked out well at their son Michael’s bar mitzvah and party in 2005, they decided to have a similar service and a party at the same venue.

In May  2008, Bobbie received devastating news, Both her recent mammogram and ultrasound had come out normal, but Bobbie insisted of following up with a dermatologist to biopsy a small “cyst.” Everyone, including her doctors, were surprised at the diagnosis: she had breast cancer.

Bobbie called me on her way home from the doctor. She sobbed; I tried to console her; she asked me to be at our parent’s apartment that evening when she called them. My parents took the news especially hard. No one in our family had ever had breast cancer. How could this happen to their baby, their beautiful Bobbie? They told her that although  they were too old to be of much help, they promised that they would be there for emotional support and would pray for her recovery.

We all were sad that evening, but that was the last time I heard  my little sister cry. “There is a reason that everyone calls me Little Miss Sunshine,” Bobbie told me a few days later. “I refuse to be anything but positive. I will beat this.”

Over the next year, Bobbie underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy, radiation and reconstruction, but she remained positive. She cheerfully went to her “chemo parties” and continued her exercise regiment. She embraced wearing wigs, declaring, “My hair now looks good all the time.”  A few hours after having her mastectomy, she was on the phone chatting with family and friends. The support of her husband, children, family and friends helped. It was Bobbie’s positive attitude, however, that got us all through this stressful time.  “I am on a road with a few bumps and turns, but it will straighten out again,” she said. “Meanwhile, I have a bat mitzvah to plan.”

In the middle of Bobbie’s ordeal, my father’s health began to deteriorate. Just before he died, Dad received a phone call from his oldest grandson and his wife to tell him that they were expecting their first child. “It will be a boy.” Dad said. “Name him after me, but call him William, not Wilfred.” He passed away a day later, November 20, 2008.

Now my mother was dealing with Bobbie’s illness and the loss of her husband of sixty-eight years. Mom was philosophical about being a widow. “Life is about change,” she said. “Bill and I had a wonderful marriage, and I have to accept that he is gone.” She spent more time with her friends and family. She drew strength from both Bobbie’s optimism and the positive reports from the cancer doctors.

By the following December, everyone was ready for the chance to celebrate. Friends and family came from New York, Arizona, Colorado, and California. The youngest guest was five-month-old William, or Will, my parents’ newest great-grandchild. Before Friday night services, we all gathered in the top floor of the hotel to enjoy a huge  Italian buffet set up by Bobbie and Emil.

The next morning, Marissa did a beautiful job leading the service and reading the Torah and haftorah. Bobbie, still sporting a wig, looked absolutely radiant, and Emil just beamed with pride for his family, and Michael cheered on his sister. The party was a joy. My mother, not looking at all like a ninety-one-year-old widow, danced every hora and electric slide and cha-cha-cha. We took pictures of the entire Cohen family, with the four children and their spouses, the eight grand-children, and the seven great grandchildren. I was not the only one to shed tears of joy. “We were not only celebrating Marissa’s bat mitzvah,” my mother later reflected.”We were also celebrating Bobbie’s good health.”

My mother passed away fourteen months later. For the last ten days, Bobbie came in from Boston and was there at her side. My little sister, who had never taken a medical class in her life, turned out to the best nurse in the family. Bobbie took command and guided us in tending to her needs until Mom joined her beloved Bill.

In September  2015, Marissa left for college. Bobbie and  Emil are enjoying their empty nest, often going into Boston on weekends to take advantage of all the city has to offer. They recently visited us in Florida. I pride myself in my energy and stamina, but I could barely  keep up with the two of them as we explored Spaceship Earth and the World Showcase at  Epcot, rode the Tower of Terror and watched fireworks at Hollywood Studios, and took pictures with ‘Albert Einstein’ and ‘Steve Jobs’ at Orlando’s wax museum.  And through it all, Bobbie sparkled and smiled. And I thank G-d everyday that my little sister is healthy, active, and still our Little Miss Sunshine.

Purim Princesses

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According to an old Borscht Belt joke, all of Jewish holidays basically come down to one theme:  ‘They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!’ Purim follows the plot line: Haman, an evil advisor to King Ahasuerus, recommends that all the Jews be killed. Esther, with the help of her brother Mordecai, saves the day. We eat hamantashen and drink wine.

Purim has always been one of my favorite Jewish holidays. On March 18, 1973, Larry and I met at a Purim party organized by an Albany Jewish singles group. We were in a “shpiel” based on The Dating Game. He was King Ahasuerus; I was Queen Esther. Over hamantashen and punch, we discovered that we had a great deal in common and, unsaid, a mutual attraction. The rest is history.

But there is another reason I love the holiday: it is in many ways a fairy tale about kings and queens and love conquers all. When it comes to costume parties, most little girls want to be Esther. And I was no exception. Each holiday, my mother would find a pretty robe, and I would make a crown out of cardboard and aluminum foil. Voila! I was royalty!

Much to my embarrassment, I still love a good romance where  true love conquers all obstacles and the couple live happily ever after. Some of my  favorite movies—Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, Moonstruck— carry that theme. When we moved to Florida, I emptied my book shelves, only taking enough to fill a small bookcase full of my favorites. Not surprising, many of them follow the same plot: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and a very dog-earred Golden book version of Walt Disney’s Cinderella. I spent many an hour on my mother’s lap listening to that story and its promise of happily ever after.

Now that we live only forty minutes from Disney World, I have had many opportunities to experience the “Princess Phenomenon.” At stores throughout the parks, little girls can purchase Princess costumes. The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique offers salon services to “make one’s little princess… look and feel like royalty.” Throughout all the parks, Disney cast members—Disney’s term for all their employees— sweep past us dressed up in as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. At scheduled times throughout the day, one can have a picture taken with favorite Disney characters. Mickey, Donald, and Pluto have their share of people waiting in line for their photo opportunity. The one with the longest lines, however, are the princesses. I have not yet bought a “Cinderella” dress (I don’t even think one can purchase them in adult sizes). But I gaze wistfully at the long lines, hoping some day I can persuade Larry to wait for me while I have my opportunity to share a moment with one of them.

My fascination with princesses is small potatoes compared to many. According to wdw.com, more than 1,200 couples a year tie the knot at Walt Disney World Resort.  That is nothing to shake a magic wand at! And I can’t even begin to imagine the number of couples a year who honeymoon there. One can recognize them by the Disney bride Minnie Mouse and groom Mickey Mouse ear hat sets sported by many young couples.

What separates  Queen Esther from many of the Disney princesses is that Esther is not just a passive maiden waiting for the magic kiss of her Price Charming. Rather, she is actively involved in saving the Jewish people. In the Purim story, King Ahashuarus banishes his first wife Vashti after she refuses to show off her beauty wearing just a crown to a banquet room full of men “merry with wine.” After a search throughout the kingdom, Esther, a Jewish orphan, is chosen to wear the crown. The new bride learns from her Uncle Mordecai that Haman, the king’s evil advisor, is plotting to kill all the Jew.  Beguiling the king with her beauty at a banquet, Esther then reveals that she herself is a Jew and that her people are threatened.

On a recent visit to Disney, I saw an adorable princess outfit in a nine-month size, perfect for my new grand-daughter. I took a picture and sent it to my daughter. “What do you think?” I texted.

Julie called me  back immediately. “Let’s get one thing straight.   My daughter is not going to be wearing any princess outfits.”

To her relief, I told her that her father had already strongly encouraged me to put the princess outfit back on the store’s display.  I assured her that would limit my gift outfit choices to more acceptable themes, like hedgehogs or rainbows or, in honor of my son-in-law, the Denver Broncos.

However, I already have plans five years down the road of having Sylvie stay with me and whisking her off to Disney in a princess dress of her choosing. And the magical salon experience? Even I have reservations about the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

Or maybe, more in line with Julie’s thinking, I will share with Sylvie the story of Purim. I will tell her about a woman who is plucked out of obscurity to become queen of a large kingdom. She gets the man and the crown. Rather than living “happily ever after,” she uses her position to let good overcome evil. In the process, she became a Jewish heroine beloved centuries later.  And that story doesn’t require any magical kisses from Prince Charming.

Engaged in Engagements

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Charlie and Judy, 1971

Valentine’s Day! On this most romantic holiday, there will be many marriage proposals. Some will be simple and old-fashioned: After getting the father’s blessing, a nervous man will bring his girlfriend to a quiet intimate spot, go on bent knee, and pop the question. For others it will be a huge production that involves elaborate planning, intrigue, and at times a huge cast of characters to carry it off.  Thanks to social media, this intimate moment has recently evolved into a very public “how many hits can my proposal get on You Tube?” event. No matter how couples get engaged, each story is unique, memorable, and forever part of their love story.

Larry intended to ask me to marry him on a grassy knoll at the Saratoga National Battlefield. Unfortunately, seconds before he was about to pop the question, he was stung by a bee. His lip began to swell, and we left hastily to find an ice pack. Two weeks later, we were walking home from Rosh Hashanah services in Saratoga Springs. Larry started talking about where we would live and how many children he would like us to have. When I asked him if this was a proposal, he quickly said, “No!” A few minutes later, as we were putting our coats away in a bedroom at his parents’ home, he asked, “So you want to get married?” I said yes, we started to kiss, and Corky, the Shapiros’ dog, jumped up and licked my face. Very romantic. We didn’t even share the news with the family until Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast.

Thirty-five years earlier, my parents’ engagement came after a whirlwind romance. After they had been maintaining a long-distant relationship for less than six months, my father came down to New York City from Alburgh, Vermont, to see my mother for the weekend. They had just seen Gone with the Wind, and my father proposed while they were having dessert in a coffee shop. “We were blinded by the movie,” my mother recalled sixty-five years later. “He thought I was Scarlett O’Hara and I thought he was Rhett Butler. Of course I said yes.”

My brother needed more time and certainly more of a push. Jay had been dating Leslie for over a year when they stayed at my parents’ cottage on Willsboro Point on Labor Day weekend. On Sunday night, Jay suggested to Leslie that they take a walk to the rocky promontory overlooking Lake Champlain. The sun was setting, the crickets were chirping, and Burlington lights twinkled in the distance—Leslie was sure this was “The Moment.” Nope. Jay just walked her back to the cottage. The next day, on the car ride back to Ithaca College, Leslie pressed for a commitment. “Give me one good reason why we should not get engaged,” Leslie recalled. When Jay failed to come up with any, Leslie announced, “Fine! We’re engaged!” It certainly wasn’t the romantic proposal that Leslie was dreaming of, but forty-five years later their commitment and marriage are going strong.

Leslie wasn’t the only one to reverse the roles in the proposal process. After graduating from Oberlin, Judy and Charlie were living together, unusual and not universally acceptable in 1971. Judy got tired of lying to everyone at work about her “roommates” and dealing with her parents’ unhappiness with the situation. “I asked Charlie, ‘Do you want to get married?’” Judy recalled. “He said ‘Sure. Why not?’” They tied the knot six weeks later. Debbie and Jim, both who had previously been married, had been dating for about a year, Debbie finally said to Jim, “So are we getting married or what?” They said their ‘I do’s’ in Jamaica that summer. And Diane’s proposal came in the form of a promise that she would keep the kosher home Mark insisted on from any woman he would marry.

Another couple’s engagement came after the evening from hell. On a freezing cold December night in Baltimore, Becky and Mark had made plans to go to a concert followed by dinner at the Playboy Club. While trying to find the concert venue, they got hopelessly lost in a questionable section of town. The situation deteriorated dramatically when Mark’s old car, “The Purple Monster,” sputtered and stopped dead. They both got out of the car, Mark lifted the hood, and the engine burst into flames. Mark yelled to Becky, “Quick! Give me your coat!” Becky quickly ripped it off, handed it to him, and watched as Mark used it to smother the fire.

Mark walked to a pay phone to contact AAA, leaving Becky alone, nervous, and shivering in the car with her smoke-smelling coat. They never made it to the concert or out to dinner. When they finally got back to their apartment, they were tired, cold and hungry.

“Any girl that is willing to go through all of that with me and still come home cheerful is the girl I want to spend my life with,” Mark said.”Will you marry me?” By that time, Becky had warmed up enough to say a resounding “Yes!”

For Becca, it was a rainy November night in Buenos Aires when she knew she would spend the rest of her life with Rolando. Becca tells it best:

“Ever so gently he kissed me-as softly as the rain falling into the dark night. ‘We will be married,’ he said, his dark eyes looking deeply into mine,” recalled Becca. “It was not a question. It was not a proposal. It was simply and forever understood that we belonged together—no matter the distance. No matter the obstacles. And, to this day the sound of raindrops softly falling reminds me of the promise of our eternal love.”

Wow, Becca! Sure beats everything I have seen on You Tube. Happy Valentine’s Day to you, Rolando, and all the couples celebrating their love.

Marilyn Shapiro

January 27, 2016

Many Marilyns

Since I was old enough to remember, people have always associated my name with Marilyn Monroe. I am frequently asked if I was named after the former blonde icon. To this day, when new acquaintances or telephone business contacts ask me to repeat my first name, I often say, “I’m Marilyn, like Marilyn Monroe.” In truth, the former Norma Jean did not come onto the scene until after I was born. I was named after my Aunt Mary, and my mother chose my specific name because she loved Marilyn Miller, a stunning blonde who was one of the most popular Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Although not a popular name choice today, I have shared my name and life with several other Marilyns. When I was around five years old, our town held a beauty contest. A tall, blonde beauty named Marilyn was declared the winner. I remember feeling the sense of pride that I shared a name with Miss Keeseville 1956.

While going through Keeseville Central School, the only other Marilyn I knew was a classmate two years ahead of me. I always looked up to her as she was one of the sweetest, kindest, and most intelligent people I knew. In her senior year, Marilyn was named Yearbook Queen, the honor given to the most well-liked, respected senior girl. Again, I felt lucky to have the same name as the most popular girl in our small school.

While enrolled in University at Albany, I ran into a few more Marilyns. Two days after moving into our suite, Freshman Marilyn couldn’t get into the program she wanted at University at Albany due to some computer glitch. She called her parents and insisted that they bring her home. Less than a week later, the situation was rectified, and she returned to campus in another dorm. She later became a close friend of my cousin Marsha, and our paths crossed forty-two years later at Marsha’s sixtieth birthday party

Where the “Marilyn” coincidences began to really pile up was in my early twenties. Larry and I met at a Purim party. While sharing hamantashen, we also shared family history. Larry had a sister named Marilyn Shapiro, who, like me, was the third child of four children and the second girl. To add to the confusion, my sister-in-law kept her maiden name when she married. The family has had to distinguish between us by use of our middle names: Marilyn Pearl and Marilyn Renee. My preferred is my tongue-in-cheek version: “The Original” and “The New and Improved.”

From then on, Marilyns were more frequently part of our lives. At Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, Morah Marilyn took leadership roles in the Hebrew school, moving from teacher to education director. It didn’t even help to use last initials, as her surname also began with “S.” I finally got used to the fact that when people referred to a Marilyn at the synagogue, it was usually in reference to the Hebrew school Morah Marilyn and not Congregant Marilyn.

When Julie got married in 2007, another Marilyn came into the fold. Sam’s parents are Bill Massman and, you guessed it, Marilyn Martynuk. Despite the geographic distance between me and the Fort Collins Marilyn, we have become dear friends, and the four in-laws even rented a condo near Julie and Sam in Frisco, Colorado, the summer our granddaughter was born. We got used to answering to our name based on which husband was calling out to us. As this is Marilyn’s second grandchild, she already had dibs on the moniker of Nana Marilyn.  I am not sure what Sylvie Rose will be calling me when she starts talking, but for now, I will be Grandma Marilyn. It is my understanding from several of my friends who have duplicate machatunim names (Bernie and Bernie; Carole and Carol; Bill and Bill), grandchildren rarely have issues distinguishing between them.

During our move to Florida, Larry and I picked up another Marilyn. When we wanted to learn more about the Jewish club at Solivita, we got in touch with Shalom Club Marilyn She, like Morah Marilyn, is immersed in the Jewish community both through the community’s social club and through our new synagogue, Congregation Shalom Aleichem. When we met each other, we found out that we have another connection. For several years, Marilyn, now a retired nurse, volunteered at the Maccabean Games in Israel. In 1997, she and our daughter Julie were part of the United States delegation, Julie as a track and field athlete and Marilyn as a member of the medical team. While packing up our house for our move, Larry and I came across the 1997 Maccabean Games yearbook. There was Nurse Marilyn front and center in one of the pictures.

When I moved to our community in Florida, I joined a women’s writing group in our community, and I met my most recent Marilyn, a published children’s book author. We refer to each other as British Marilyn and Yankee Marilyn, and everyone in the group understands.

While in Colorado during Julie’s pregnancy, I would browse through the stack of baby books she and Sam had accumulated. One of my favorites was a well-thumbed baby name book. Since we were not to learn our granddaughter’s name until she was born, I spent quite a bit of time looking through the paperback, trying to guess which ones sounded like potential winners. Of course, I had to check out the authors’ take on my name. It was not exactly flattering. Despite the Miller and Monroe who had made the name popular in previous generations, the authors stated that this choice had lost its former “stardust.” “Marilyn,” they stated, “has none of the freshness or sparkle that would inspire a parent to use it for a millennial child.”

It was Marilyn Monroe herself who said, “We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle.” Fortunately, I have known many stars named Marilyn, and they all have brought light and sparkle to my life.

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