Archive for the 'Holidays' Category

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

I just got home from a pre-Mothers’ Day brunch with Jackie, Dianne, Judy, Cathy and Edie. It’s become an annual ritual where we share stories about our mothers, complain about their faults and, less frequently, extol their virtues. I am somewhat of an anomaly in the group and am occasionally referred to as a Normy, or someone who is out of step with the other group members.

Today’s brunch topic was “nurturing.” Defined as caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone, we all shared stories about our mothers that fit that definition. My story may have stretched it a bit, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

When I was fifty, I lived in Los Angeles with Ila and our three kids. My mother, Celia, having years before rejected our suggestion to move to Southern California, still lived in her two-flat brownstone in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side.

My father had, some time before, passed way in the same year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. The end of more than sixty years of marriage had left my mother alone in her home. My brother watched over her, but most of her day, and all of her nights, were spent by herself.

In addition to family life cycle events that brought me and my family back to Chicago, I would occasionally come to town on business. I’d often stay with my mother and sleep in the spare bedroom, the same room that, as a teenager, I had shared with my grandmother.

On this particular visit, my plane was an hour late. Our now ubiquitous cell phones had not yet been invented and making a pay phone call from O’Hare Airport seemed like too much of a stretch. So I hustled a cab and I arrived at my mother’s doorstep around eight that evening.

The brownstone’s entry door had a glass panel that allowed a visual inspection of her visitors before buzzing them into the hallway. I pressed the buzzer and waited. The door opened and my eighty-year-old, five-foot two mother appeared.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are welcoming while others express irritation. Some are contrived while others are sincere. Some are hidden while others are expansive.

As I looked at my mother’s face through that glass panel, her smile showed relief, welcoming and love. I had seen that smile a thousand times and had always felt warm in its embrace. She buzzed me in, we hugged, and I was home.

My mother came to this country in 1925 as a teenage refugee from Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine that then boasted of a population of about seventy-five thousand people. Beset by pogroms, my mother’s Jewish family suffered the usual set of indignities and, more to the point, state-sponsored murder.

Arriving in Chicago and speaking little English, Celia went to work at the Brach Candy Company where she was proud to often remind us that she had risen to the exalted position of “fore-lady.” Although she learned to speak English, her eastern European accent was etched into our conversations. I was never quite convinced of her reading skills even as she turned the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her handwriting was shaky and her signature nearly illegible. But she excelled at adding up columns of figures entered on the paper bags that customers took home, stocked with the food purchased at my father’s grocery and deli.

She made many of the items at the deli including chopped liver and coleslaw. I’d watch her make potato salad as she peeled the Idaho spuds that were still boiling hot. Any thought of health department rules were cast aside as she dipped her arms into the huge pot up to her elbows to mix the mayo and other tasty ingredients into the soon to be savored, high calorie delight.

When I was a kid, our home, a three bedroom flat in an Albany Park ghetto, was everyone’s home. Seeming strangers stayed with us for a day, then a week, then a month. When Celia wasn’t working at the deli, she was cooking at home. Without complaint, she fed all who came, washed their underwear and made them feel at home.

Parties, both planned and unplanned, were more often than not held at our place. Complete with food and drink, they went on late into the night. I often found my ten-year old body at rest on the cot in the dining room while a penny-ante card game went on at the table next to my bed.

People came and I watched. I saw my mother welcome all who entered through her door. I heard her greet them with genuine happiness and a smile on her face. I heard her laugh and I watched as she made sure everyone had what they needed. And only when everyone else had their share did she take hers.

I don’t remember much of what she said to me as I matured. Perhaps because she didn’t often tell me what to do or how to act. But I learned from watching how she treated others. How she never complained about having too little or working too much. How, even on the toughest days, she had a genuine smile for her husband and for me.

My mother would not have known the meaning of the word “nurturing” but she practiced it every hour of the day, every day of her life. And I am who I am because of her.

Happy Mother’s Day mom. I love you.

Fireworks on the Fourth

It was like the big bang, the birth of the universe. Booming, flashing and bright as the sun. That’s what it was like, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at Nordhoff High School.

It had been a long day, starting with the parade down Ojai Avenue. A taste of small town Americana that forces the corners of your mouth to perpetually curve upward and your hands to wave at every passing antique car, sleek coated stallion and smiling participant. I was continually reminded of our family camping trips to small towns where the county fair was the highlight of our adventure. Dusty, disorganized and unprofessional. But loveable, kind and welcoming.

I hadn’t been to the Ojai parade in many years. I’d been lodging a silent protest ever since the fourth had fallen on a Sunday and the parade organizers had shifted the parade to July 5th to accommodate church-goers. Unfair, I had thought then. But time erases all wounds, and my childish pouting had long ago ceased to be important.

Jackie had, in her can-do fashion, latched onto lawn chairs in the shade, along with free food and drink. Right up front and personal, where we might as well have been in the parade. Periodic breaks to greet passing friends made it seem even homier.

The parade ended around noon and we had time to visit the local Asian massage parlor. Little English is spoken there, and business is transacted with electronic devices, accompanied by a fair amount of hand waving and pointing. Not the best massage in town, but probably the cheapest. It’s mildly unwelcoming on the outside. Inside it’s surprisingly large, dimly lit, quiet and mysterious. Sort of like an opium den that’s had a Martha Stewart makeover.

Jackie’s friend, Susan, was visiting from San Francisco and staying at a motel near the high school. Because of the expected not-so-Ojai traffic jams, we decided to park at the motel and walk the quarter-mile to the fireworks. We picked up Susan and got a five second tour of her room where the three of us filled the available space. The jacuzzi tub next to the bed seemed particularly threatening . But the nightly room charge was cheap, unless you based it on the cost per square foot.

We walked to the high school, showed our tickets and donned a wrist band whose purpose was never revealed. We entered the stadium infield, found an unoccupied spot of grass, spread our blanket, and jockeyed for position. I was dubbed the Cream of the Oreo and was accordingly allocated the enviable position between the two women.

Having completed these logistics, we arose and searched for the source of the hypnotic odors wafting through the air, promising us assuredly unhealthy food. Drawn like moths to a flame, we tracked down two food trucks that had been nearly cleansed of all greasy deposits. Reading the menu and fearing for our lives, we retreated to our blanket and settled in for the nearly two-hour wait while the sun set and darkness became pervasive.

Lying on the grass, I had the distinct feeling that I was about to be trampled by small children. I wondered if I blended in too well and wished I had four bright orange Caltrans pylons to set about me. Even a small Ethiopian flag on a pole would be better than risking the maiming of irreplaceable body parts. Amazingly, I escaped major injury even though children (and quite a few inebriated adults) seemed blissfully unaware of the aging body spread before them.

It was getting darker but not yet inky-dark. Susan, complaining of stiff joints, went off to sit on the stadium bleacher benches. Alone, but for two or three similarly incapacitated persons, she remained there for the balance of the evening. This was an unexpected gift for Jackie and me, since we could now wrap ourselves in the blanket to supplement the inadequate cold weather gear that Jackie had insisted we did not need. Keeping warm against the descending night was brightened by the prospect of cuddling. With that special bonus, I was no longer concerned about the time spent waiting for the show to begin.

A ten-minute warning burst from a loud-speaker so close to my head that I thought I was wearing Bose headphones attached to my iPhone and set to max volume. Then another announcement blast erupted with five minutes to showtime. Just time enough to figure out the mechanics of the glow sticks I had purchased earlier. Mechanics that a four-year-old could have handled faster than me. Sticks aglow, we wrapped them around our necks and clipped the ends together. It was eerie, as we appeared to have our heads disconnected from our bodies. Much like Charles Laughton in the Canterville Ghost 1944 movie where he terrorized unwelcome visitors, including Robert Young, by carrying his seemingly cut off head in a silver tray held in front of his chest.

The show began. Slowly at first, then growing in intensity. Laying on the blanket, head looking straight up into the sky, I felt like I was in the show, not watching it. Bodies were involuntarily inert, barely getting “Oh my, look at that” out of our mouths before the next volley. Periodic booms that I usually complain about, were a welcome companion to the flashing and bursting of the fireworks. Kids who would normally display extreme attention deficit disorder were stark still, as though mesmerized. Aging adults, who thought they had seen it before, were enthralled. We were all viewing a cosmic birthing from within the birth canal.

And just when the show needed an extra lift, the finale arrived as if from another planet. Multiple rockets and bursting bombs filled the sky producing gigantic, multi-limbed alien life forms. Sonic booms again assaulted my ears and isolated my brain from the rest of my body. My only connection with reality was Jackie’s warm body touching mine. I felt like a kid again.

Then it ended silently, like the spinning down of a treadmill in cool-down mode.  It gave me time enough to absorb the grandeur without feeling like I’d overeaten. We lay silently on the blanket, not ready to end the night. People around us began to rise slowly from the chilled, damp ground. There was no sense of urgency to leave the site of the spectacle. No rush to our cars. Taking time to re-enter life. Strangers spoke to other strangers, wasn’t that something!

Yes, it was. And there could be no encore, for this had been perfection.


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