Archive | In My Mind’s I by Harriet Gross

Take the time to listen to our veterans

Posted on 22 January 2020 by admin

The headline of a story in the most recent Seniorific News, a free monthly paper always available at the Dallas JCC, caught and held my eye: “Last Witnesses to the Greatest Generation,” it’s called. That means me!
Those who served in World War II are commonly referred to today as “The Greatest Generation.” Other generations also have other names: My children are “Baby Boomers,” those born between 1946 (after the vets came home, married and started having families) and 1964. I’m a member of what has been called “The Silent Generation,” born in 1945 or before and including those who defended our country and saved the world from Hitler. Some of them have really been silent ever since they came home from war, but some have spoken out about their experiences.
I was born in 1934; as a 7-year-old, I learned firsthand about Pearl Harbor, and have clear memories to this day of Dec. 7, 1941, and the chaos that ensued. I knew that my mother’s five brothers all enlisted in an assortment of service branches (Army, Air Corps, Merchant Marine) the very next day, and were inducted immediately. I consider myself lucky to be one of those “Last Witnesses.” But that is also scary. How can we — who are aging or already aged ourselves — keep alive the realities of that time for the generations who have come after us?
My children knew their great-uncles well after they returned home, and heard their stories firsthand, and have never forgotten them. And my grandchildren and great-grands, members of cohort Generations Y and Z, are fortunate that one of my uncles — the youngest of the five — lived long enough for all of them to know him well, and to hear his stories. Because of his longevity (he was almost 96 when he passed away last year) we made up, for a too-brief time, a rare five-generation family. But were those youngsters old enough to understand those stories, and retain them? I doubt it. It’s now my job, as one of the Last Witnesses to that Greatest Generation, to keep those stories alive by retelling them as I learned them from that generation before me.
So now, I’m making a pitch here for the local Jewish War Veterans’ Posts, and their Auxiliaries. Every Jew who has ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces — any service branch, in any year — war or peace, any place — overseas or stateside — any amount of time — at any age from teen to senior, should be a member. As should every woman who has ever served in uniform, or kept the home fires burning while her husband or children were away on duty, or was widowed during her husband’s wartime service, or has outlived him since his return. Please use your Google to find meeting dates and locations in both Dallas and Fort Worth and just walk in: you will be warmly welcomed, and hear some great stories!
Someone once told me that the quality of a war is found in its songs. “Keep the Home Fires Burning” emerged from World War I, as did the “smile trio”: “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “Smile Awhile,” and “There Are Smiles That Make You Happy.” The Greatest Generation gave us “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer,” and “Roger Young.” If you don’t recognize any of these, please look them up. But I dare you to find any song from the Korean War that hit the pop charts, and those from Viet Nam that did were mainly about peace. However, the greatest song of all time — in war and in peace — for all of us is “God Bless America,” by our esteemed Jewish composer Irving Bailin, a Russian immigrant who adopted the last name “Berlin” to sound less ethnic. In 1911, who could have known? That not-knowing in advance is itself the biggest story of history!
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net.

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We are still the ‘People of the Book’

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

“Have You a Jewish Book Shelf in Your Home?” What a good question! I have it in print: the title of a small pamphlet from the Jewish Publication Society. It’s double-good: full of good words and good advice, starting with this: “A love of books and learning has always been a distinguishing characteristic of our people. Today, perhaps more than ever before, we need the spiritual stimulation of our own rich tradition and eternal faith…”
I’m happy to say — or maybe embarrassed to admit — that I have more than one Jewish book “shelf” in my home. The entire house has become something of a Jewish library, with piles of books of all kinds to be found just about everywhere. The shelves and desktop in my office have long-since been filled; the “overrun” is stacked on and under tables, and on several chairs and one ottoman dedicated to that purpose. Books also surface in living and dining rooms and on a kitchen shelf that holds several cookbooks — not well used, I admit, except for the two I will never part with: Sara Kasdan’s “Love and Knishes” from 1969, which taught me how to make the easiest and best chicken soup ever, and a 1941 gem by Mildred Grosberg Bellin called, quite simply, “The Jewish Cookbook — According to the Jewish Dietary Laws.”
My father started me off as a serious book collector when I moved from grade school into junior high. I‘d been reading for years, even before I started school, but he put the necessity into what he wrote in my “slam book,” that personal autograph-type album we students passed around so we’d always remember our classmates as we moved up and out of one educational setting into another. In contrast to the usual lighthearted remarks on its pages, Dad offered this: “Education is not a mere means to life; education is life itself.” And so I read on…and on…
I can’t stop adding to my ever-growing collection, but I’ve stopped worrying about it: I give many books that relate in any way to the Holocaust to the Ackerman Center at UT-Dallas, to be used by students of the Shoah. And I will give all the rest to the new Legacy Midtown Park, now under construction, whenever it opens for occupancy. Because I hope to move there myself at that time, I’ll know that in its library — one of the promised residents’ amenities — I can find any book I would want to reread. Good planning, yes?
JPS is quite specific about how every family should begin taking part in its “Jewish Books in Every Jewish Home” effort. The first essential volume must of course be a Bible. Second is “History of the Jews: From the Earliest Time to the Present,” a six-volume set that could fill up most people’s shelves all by itself! The author, Heinrich Graetz, is credited with being first ever to tell our people’s story from a Jewish perspective.
But now, time for “true confessions”: This is not a recent pamphlet I’m referencing. It’s dated 1936 (when I was 2 years old!) and offers an array of books for sale to JPS members at special reduced prices, so that almost everyone would be able to stock a family shelf even so soon after the Great Depression: $1 for most adult titles, 75 cents for children’s. Yellowed and with crumbling edges, my treasure recently surfaced as I looked into an accordion folder I hadn’t even looked at for many years. But a quick peek on Google shows me I can still buy Graetz’ six-volume history of Judaism from earliest times to the author’s “present” (which was more than 120 years ago), published between 1891 and ‘96 and still in good condition, for $75 to $100.
I’m sure today’s Jewish Publication Society would deem this collection a worthy addition to my own overflowing, space-consuming “Jewish Book Shelf.” And maybe my ancient pamphlet would be welcomed into its own collection…?
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net.

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Visualizing 2020: the grand scheme of things

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

At the start of every secular New Year, I think about Janus, the old Roman god who gives our January its name. Janus could look in two directions simultaneously, and see both backward to the year just past, and forward to the year to come. I’ve often wished we could do the same, which might help me solve what I’ve always found a Jewish mystery…
It’s this axiom attributed to our renowned scholar Akiba: “All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” I follow that statement with two questions: Who foresees? Who grants permission? And then I add my third question: Permission for what? An array of possibility follows!
First: it would seem logical that G-d would be the foreseer. (Remember Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof,” bemoaning the “heavenly plan” that rendered him poor rather than rich?) But then, would G-d also be the granter of permission for changing His own plan? Or maybe that power of change is granted to each of us! As our lives unfold and we learn today more than we knew yesterday, we may echo Robert Frost, whose poetry points us toward at least considering “the path not taken.”
Yet maybe it’s us ourselves who also hold the power to foresee! The results of some self-selected courses of action are clear before the actions start. For someone (and there have been far too many such “someones” lately) who sets out to attack people at prayer in their houses of worship or shopping in a supermarket, or who shoots a fellow driver in a fit of road rage — the outcomes of those actions should be clearly visible well in advance. The opportunity for advance change seems to be wide-open, doesn’t it?
Another poet — not so well known — once wrote something that makes a distinction between what he called “ordinary vision” and “clear sight.” Virtually everyone has the first; the second is the ability to look ahead, which is equivalent to visualizing the future. And those who see it can help shape it in their own directions. Is that foresight a G-d-given gift to just a chosen few? Or do all of us possess the power to make such changes in advance? Or maybe it’s possible that G-d has given us the power to change our own behavior so that it culminates in what He originally wanted?
These questions sound very philosophical, but they are actually grounded in everyday reality. And that last, biggest question may be the hardest to answer: If it’s G-d who foresees, but also grants us the power to look ahead and change our own courses of action, can the truth really be that whatever we finally change to is what was foreseen in the first place? This is a conundrum that I’ve been trying to resolve ever since, so many years ago, a good friend who was well schooled in Talmud and the art of “pilpul,” our distinctively Jewish method of discussion and debate, presented me with that little bit of Akiba written on a little bit of paper that I taped to a corner of my desk and have shaken my head over ever since. Do you think any of us really has much choice about anything?
But we are not a defeatist people. We have come through so much, for so long, always attributing our successes to the power G-d has given us to exert power of our own. We celebrate that power every Purim when we read the story of how Esther changed her own behavior in order to change the future of her people. Our people! And we sang about it so recently at Hanukkah: “Rock of Ages,” the story of the power of people — our people! — who changed ordinary behavior into super-ordinary achievement.
“All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” Every year, I conclude that G-d sees further ahead than we do, and powers our changes to His own ends. What do you think?

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Cheering for Max but sad about anti-Semitism

Posted on 02 January 2020 by admin

I’m more than thrilled that the Dallas Morning News has chosen Max Glauben as its “Texan of the Year” for 2019. If you haven’t yet read his full story in last Sunday’s edition, please go to your computer ASAP and find it online. His is an incredible tale of a child who used mind, strength and faith in God not only to survive the Holocaust against odds beyond comprehension, but to emerge from it as a person who continues to use those powers of survival in the service of ongoing education. He is a one-man force, working to make sure that such horrors and losses as he experienced never come to anyone, anywhere, again.
I applaud. But it is through tears now, as I read so often in the same paper almost every day of new acts of anti-Semitism. Pittsburgh, my hometown, was not an isolated incident, just big enough and first-time enough to make headlines everywhere. And now, it seems such headlines have the horrific side effect of encouraging others to act the same. What will it take to let us Jews live safe Jewish lives?
My grandparents emigrated from Europe before the turn of the 20th century, running from persecution, yes, but mainly running toward a new life that offered the promise of Jewish safety. And the United States delivered, at least in the main, on that promise. They lived in a ghetto of their own making in an area that was also home to a growing population of African Americans, and were content there. But their children wanted more, and better. My parents moved to the fringes of another area that today is still known as primarily Jewish, but the street on which I lived was divided, with an invisible line separating Jews from Italians. And our children moved on, and out, not just to other primarily white Christian neighborhoods in the city, but far from the city itself. And what we see now is ugly anti-Semitism in that city, and in so many others.
Has Max Glauben been laboring in vain? Does our wondrous new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Center labor in a lost cause? Will we — not just us Jews, but all people of goodwill — ever be able to overcome those whose will is evil?
Max’s honoring as an individual reminds us to honor all who survived then, and who survive today, against increasingly evil odds, to live lives of productivity and at least seeming normality. But there has always been this underbelly of anti-Semitism in our beloved America. And now, we must not only admit it; we must somehow unite against it.
My father, born in America, trained first as an engineer, but couldn’t get a job because Jewish engineers were unwelcome in the 1920s and ‘30s. In our “safe” neighborhood, where I was raised from early childhood, the German American Bund made its presence known late in the ‘30s, paralleling the rise of Hitler, and energized its school children to make life miserable for their Jewish peers. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Jewish soldiers who had served our country with honor in World War II hesitated to speak freely of what they endured from Jew-hating Christians during those years. Yes, it was a stressfully dangerous time for all in uniform, but even more so for uniformed Jews.
So today, I am scared. But now, I wear an obvious Jewish symbol around my neck every day — a star, a mezuzah, a hamsa, an Israeli coin. I tell people I do this because If someone wants to shoot a Jew, I don’t want that person to kill some “innocent” Christian by mistake. I’m only half-joking about that.
Let’s cheer for Max. Let’s honor the few other Holocaust survivors who remain to stand with him today. But let’s always remember the many who died then, and in times before, and are dying today, just because of being Jews. Like us.

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Holiday notes: an intimate pick-me-up

Posted on 18 December 2019 by admin

Hanukkah started for me this year with a holiday letter from my old friend Tom. That’s what I’ve always called him, although for many years as a Protestant minister, he’s been more properly referred to as “Reverend.” We met when both of us were teenage delegates to the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth.
The above was a once-in-a-decade event originated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909; it continued until 1970, with the last during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Somehow or other, Pennsylvania chose us in 1950 — probably recognizing Tom’s work with youth in his church and mine with groups at my local Jewish center. And so, off we went to Washington.
What did we know, in our solidly middle-class homes, about the problems of America’s youth? We dutifully attended meetings and workshops, took copious notes, later made required reports of our scanty learning to the leaders of our sponsoring entities. But Tom and I have agreed, over these many years, about how futile it was to include “youngsters,” which as high schoolers we very much were, in discussions of policy recommendations.
We traveled by train, were housed in a hotel with other young delegates from across the country — under careful chaperonage, of course — and what I’m sure was remembered best by all of us was shaking the hand of President Harry Truman!
Tom was two years ahead of me in his high school, a fair distance from mine on the other side of Pittsburgh. But I went to his graduation and he came to mine when he was already in seminary, preparing for his lifelong calling. Each year since, we’ve had annual “reunions” through our exchange of holiday letters.
This year’s information was more poignant than usual because of two losses: my sister, and Tom’s wife Lois, his organist throughout their decades at the Orthodox Presbyterian church in Rhode Island which called Tom to minister after his ordination. When they retired several years ago from full-time work, they frequently filled in for ministers and organists at other New England churches, also finding new delight in volunteer ushering for concerts and theaters in venues close to their home.
But eventually the time came for “real retirement,” and at the urging of family — mostly children and grandchildren who had somehow wound up in Minnesota — they migrated to a suburb of Minneapolis, enjoying a relaxed lifestyle in the senior-care Christian home that met all their needs, including most especially the religious ones.
But the old saying rings true: “All good things must come to an end,” as did the life of my friend’s dear wife. However, although Tom is saddened, he managed a bit of wit in this year’s letter, saying how he especially misses Lois now because they had always written previous messages together. Then he proudly pointed out how his family order has continued: His father was the first Tom, so my friend became Tom, Jr.; in the years since, Tom III and Tom IV have been born; most recently, there was the arrival of Tom V, the first — but surely not to be the last — great-grandchild.
I’ve just read an article in Good Housekeeping in which a woman details her many reasons for no longer sending Christmas letters or even cards with brief notes: They cost too much to buy, duplicate, and stamp for mailing when so many faster, easier, cheaper and kinder-to-the-environment (think the loss of trees) means for holiday communication are now universally available. She even rails against family photos, since they can be exchanged easily and often by cellphone. And she is absolutely right! However, I will continue to cherish the old-fashioned way, writing with a pen the personal messages I send to many whom I care about — especially those I can count on to send the same kind of personal messages, some even with pictures enclosed, to me.
May Tom and I live on — apart but still together — through our holiday letters!

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Realizing my significant other and losing her

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

This is an ode to that charismatic figure the “Significant Other.” Right now, at a time when I could most use one, I don’t have any.
When a person is in a marriage that’s at least tolerable, the partner qualifies as the most significant of “others.” I had a long first marriage; when it finally disintegrated, my two children were still at home and jointly qualified for that “job”: We shared all the household duties; my son was old enough to drive; life, although different, went on very much as it had in the past, for the next 10 years.
During this period, my daughter — a classic minimalist who was in charge of dusting — frequently reminded me that for every new thing that came into the house, two had to go out — regardless of size; this was very good advice for someone like me, who is a born collector. Life with two “Significant Others” was excellent, indeed.
Then both son and daughter found happy relationships with the “chosen two” who would soon become their spouses, so there were four to help me with all phases of the moving adventure, which that truly was: I pulled together everything that would be sent from our house to Dallas in a moving van, and they decided what they wanted for their own homes-to-be in the near future. {Side note of some humor: The only fight the two of them ever had over anything involved the old Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner I had bought when he was 4 years old and she was just starting to crawl. She won — and it is still working well for her as she prepares to turn 60!)
For me, then, it was a joy to have Fred, a truly “Significant Other” of the spouse variety for the next 35 years: someone to share, to help, to accept and understand almost everything — and to make light of those inevitable “almosts.” But then he was gone. And it’s no fun, I’ve found, trying to fill that role for myself.
This became completely clear to me during these past weeks, the final stages of my sister’s life. Now she has passed away, leaving behind very clear wishes which none of us in the family would dare not respect, not even the three rabbis, who tended to her even more tenderly than her doctors and nurses during those final weeks in hospice, who got to know her well enough in that brief time to understand that Ruth was the essence of novelist John Mortimer’s “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
She emphatically specified her desire for cremation; then, just as clearly, “No Eulogies.” Somewhere, somehow, she had broken with the Judaism so important in her earlier life. Why? That’s the major unanswered question for those of us living beyond her. Still, we can’t let her go without something…
So now, I’m packing for a trip to New York, for a memorial service at the temple that is the spiritual home of my niece and her family, where my grand-nephew became a bar mitzvah less than two years ago, where my grand-niece is already preparing for her bat mitzvah in less than two years to come. And after that, we will have a mini-shiva of sorts, when together, as visitors come and go, we will share photos from the treasure trove of family pictures Ruth had in her apartment. And I am putting in my suitcase the favorite headshot she used in her professional life, the picture of her as my bridesmaid so long ago, and an old snapshot of the two us as children, wearing identical skirts made for us by our mother.
My sister and I lived far apart, and far different lives, for many years. But now that she’s gone, as I’ve looked through so many other old pictures that I’ve decided should also go with me, I’ve finally realized this: that she has always been my most Significant Other.

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‘The Silent Generation:’ my sister and me

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

As I sat so recently with my sister, remembering, I was overwhelmed with our childhoods. It was like re-reading a very personal history book. I wonder how many of you now reading this can share these memories, since so many of our cohort — born in the ‘30s and ‘40s — are already gone, or like my sister, on the cusp of leaving us forever.
We can remember, and some of us actually inherited, the frugality of our parents, who shared a depression mentality. We lived through WWII using ration books…saving tinfoil for the war effort…seeing cars up on blocks because gas was limited and new tires were unavailable. Milk was delivered to our homes in glass bottles with tin caps that we took to school to make bells for Christmas tree decorations — Judaism wasn’t much recognized then, so we sang no Hanukkah songs in our public schools. Our mothers shopped for bread and produce curbside, from trucks (many still horse-drawn) that came around weekly.
We were children before TV; we “watched” radio by making pictures in our heads, and we played outside in vacant lots or in the middle of our virtually traffic-free streets, until the streetlights went on and our mothers called us in for supper. We went to Saturday movie matinees: newsreels and cartoons sandwiched between two feature films, all for a dime; adults listened to news on the radio — only three major stations — and avidly read daily papers that we looked at only on Sundays, for the comics.
Our generation was the smallest in number of children born since the turn of the 20th century, and Depression poverty remained more than a memory for many. Our mothers bought margarine packaged with a little yellow pill to break up and mix in, creating fake butter. Polio became a crippler among us. We saw our fathers go off to war, and our mothers hang flags with blue stars in our windows, one for each serviceman. And sadly, sometimes a gold star, for one who would never come home.
There was no more than one telephone in a house, for the whole family. There was one bathroom — one toilet, one tub for everyone, no matter how many. Typewriters were manual, not electric. Clothes might be washed in machines, but they were hung outside on lines to air-dry.
The name Hitler meant nothing to us. Adults at home gathered around the radio in respectful silence to hear President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” but those didn’t mean anything to us, either. When did we finally start to grow up? Maybe not until we joined our grown-up world in celebrating war’s end, stringing crepe paper through the spokes of our bikes to make rustling sounds as we rode around, shouting wildly and happily but not really understanding why. Without the television that came later, we had little knowledge of what the wide world outside of our very little one looked like.
And then, we really did grow up. New houses filled the once vacant lots on our streets, the places where we had caught fireflies in jars on warm summer nights. Suddenly, there were new roads for the new cars, and plenty of gas and tires for them. Rationing was over. Our world overflowed with opportunity for us to grow up in, and grow up to. But we were naïve to believe there would always be more where this came from; the idea that shaped our adult lives was absolute faith that our futures would be secure.
Of course, we learned better as adults. We were the last generation to have no fear for the safety and security of our own homeland, even as we saw wars across the world. “Our” war was over, we had come through it unscathed, and we ran eagerly into this surprisingly different future that those of us still here are dealing with today. However, we also remember Bob Hope: “Thanks for the Memories…”

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Ring, ring: now hear this

Posted on 20 November 2019 by admin

I have tinnitus. It’s something that puts strange sounds in the way of normal hearing.
Nobody knows the cause. Long exposure to loud noises is often cited. Or an explosion. But I haven’t experienced any of those things, and still I have tinnitus.
Generally, tinnitus is known as ringing in the ears. But mine is like the ocean, consistently lapping at the edge of hearing, wiping out what’s normal. Sometimes it almost, but not quite, resembles buzzing. Sometimes it sounds like operatic music. When I can actually identify my favorite aria from “The Pearl Fishers,” I know it’s my brain behind all this.
People ask me, “How long has this been going on?” I have no answer. It seems like I’ve had it forever…
And there’s no cure. I now have new hearing aids that make sounds designed to block out the tinnitus, and they do help me hear much more clearly. But the sounds they make by themselves — like ring tones — are constant, and annoying in themselves. I have broken the bank to get aids that offer peace and quiet along with two types of ring tones — loud, and louder.
Does all this bother me? Of course! But what bothers me even more is how the name of this malady is pronounced. As a word person, I want the correct answer! I have always called it TINNitus, emphasis on the first syllable. That used to be standard in the medical field. But in recent years, tinnEYEtus — with emphasis on the middle syllable — has become the vogue. When I consult with a hearing professional these days, there’s an unspoken battle going on: Neither of us will back down and change the way we say the name of the problem we’re discussing. And I’ve been seeing a lot of those professionals recently, as the problem is growing worse, sometimes reaching the point where my watery sound blocks out everything else.
But — guess what? The word person I am renders me almost as concerned about the problem’s name as I am with the problem itself. Doctors out there — not just audiologists: Please tell me what you say these days!
Now, as winter approaches, I’m also trying to put my question into the context of the coming Jewish holidays. How do you pronounce the name of our eight-candled menorah celebration? CHUNakah, maybe? Or HUNakah? Maybe you are old and Orthodox or young and Reform, but those affiliations don’t seem to cause differences in pronunciation; I know people in each of the above groups who say the word in each of the above ways. Dropping that difficult-for-some guttural sound in favor of the easier “hun” is a choice, and so, I guess, is that between tinEYEtus and TINNitus.
Or how about our modern-day drift from Good (or Gut) Shabbos to Shabbat Shalom? I don’t argue about these; I’m almost afraid to approach discussion of them. Maybe there’s something going on similar to what I often did in college: give back-of-throat “CHA” lessons to my non-Jewish friends who were finding it a necessity to know German as a prerequisite for getting into medical school.
Maybe next year I’ll try focusing on ShavuOTE vs. ShavVUus, or SimchaS vs. SimchaT Torah. I think the linguistic battle lines were drawn somewhere between old Eastern European Yiddish and modern Israeli Hebrew. That’s an easy answer to my questions about us. But for that bothersome other question of how the non-Jewish world says our Jewish words, it’s more like that old song: You say toMAYto, and I say toMAHto, and never the twain shall meet. I remember once tuning into a Christian radio broadcast that turned Hanukkah into ChaNOOKa. And Yom KippUR became a herring: Yom Kipper. But I guess a lot of us say it that way, too, don’t we?
My own problem’s name, no matter how it’s pronounced, comes from the Latin verb tinnire: “to ring.” And now, I have that with ring tones!

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Touching moments for my sister and me

Posted on 13 November 2019 by admin

It was a harrowing but necessary and worthwhile visit, the days I recently spent with my sister Ruth in New York. I was there to ride with her as she moved from a now-useless rehab facility to the hospice that has become her final home.
Her previous assisted living apartment was a first move from her own apartment in Scarsdale. But now she is in the city proper: in Calvary Hospital’s Palliative Care Institute, the first place people see as they leave Hutchinson Parkway to enter the Bronx.
Yes — Calvary. It sounds very Christian, and it is. Has always been, during a very long history. But that’s the hospital only. All faiths, and none are fully accommodated, are represented in hospice care. As Ruth was being moved into her room, an aide was moving out, carrying the old cross that hangs on a wall in every room until it’s no longer needed or wanted.
To care properly for its Jewish population, there is a kosher kitchen with food available at all times — not just for those living there, but also for their visitors. And among the staff are three rabbis. I met one of them during my visit; my niece Diane, who shares daily visits in rotation with her husband Charles, has met one of the others and is looking forward to talking with the third. They bring their children, ages 14 and 11, with them; Tommy and Laura are used to Grandma as she is, and are glad to see her. And although Ruth doesn’t speak much anymore, she is obviously happy to see them as well.
I myself am having trouble adjusting. Ruth is my only sibling, and is five years younger than I. But because we grew up in the same place, with many of the same experiences, I was able to “tease” some things out of her — some memories that, with prompting, floated briefly to the surface. And although she has virtually stopped talking, there was one incredible exception, so very apropos as Hanukkah approaches this year: When I asked her if she remembered, if she could recall, the years we spent in Sunday School in the little shul that was closest to our Pittsburgh home, she recited this, in toto: “I am the chicken fat — fry in me when hot. Watch the golden latkes dancing in the pot.” This was her line in a kindergarten playlet for the holiday, so many years ago! Then I knew that her brain is still functioning, although not very actively, but can be brought to life — at least briefly — by drawing on the incredible power of memory.
And then, there is this: I did not get to meet her doctor that day, but his name on Ruth’s door was familiar to me: Goldszer. This is very Jewish, but not very common, and I knew a woman with that name long ago; she was one of the folks who played bridge with my mother. So I asked niece Diane to ask him if he might know, or even possibly be related to, Bicky Goldszer. “Not ‘Becky,’ I emphasized. “BICKY.” Diane’s first post to me after I returned home might have been a shock to almost anyone else, but never to a born-and-bred member of Pittsburgh’s tight-knit Jewish community: Bicky Goldszer, now deceased, was the doctor’s mother!
When I next go to New York’s Calvary hospice, I will meet that doctor. When that will be? I don’t yet know. I’ve told Diane I’ll come again whenever she thinks I should, which needn’t wait for any ending, but will be if I can do something for my living sister. I trust my niece’s judgment because it’s based on true love for her mother and constant observation. So now, I just cry quietly while drawing new meaning from an old observation by John Milton, Britain’s great poet of several hundred years ago: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

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Being there for my sister

Posted on 06 November 2019 by admin

I write this while at my desk at home, thinking of where I’ll be next week at this time — in Scarsdale, New York, staying with my niece and her family so that I can spend time with my only sister, my niece’s mother, who is in the process of moving (or “being moved” is more accurate) from a rehab center in nearby Rye Brook to hospice care — place as yet to be determined. Her time, according to her doctors, may be very short. Or not. 

For sisters, the only two children in our family, the five years in age between us put us into virtually different generations — we really didn’t “catch up” with each other until both of us were married and had children. But even then, time was different, as it is now: I already have two great-grandchildren; she has two grandchildren, the oldest of whom is just in high school. 

We were never in the same school at the same time. I was married and a mother by the time she graduated from college, and our college experiences were very different: I chose the big university in the city; she chose a small women’s college, because she believed — early on — that girls were held back by teachers who favored male students. 

My sister did well in her undergraduate setting, despite the fact that she is — and has always been — bipolar. It’s a tribute to her ability to cope, to accept counseling and medication as lifetime necessities, that she went on to get two other degrees: a master’s in history and an MBA. But despite the latter, her work was always in high school history teaching. She did well, but not as well as she might have done had she not been subject to the mood swings associated with her condition. 

I was already married and mother of two when she came to Chicago to live — not with me, but near me; unmarried young women were not encouraged to go off on their own in those pre-feminist days. She shared an apartment with a friend from school, but there were many mornings — especially in the dark ones of Chicago winters — when I had to be at her place to roust her out of bed and make sure she was dressed and ready to go to school. Her students loved her; when she taught in New York’s Spanish Harlem after her own marriage, kids who had little or no use for school would cut all their classes except hers. For them, she was a performer; she learned rebel yells and folksongs, accompanying herself on the guitar. And once, when someone stole her hubcaps during a school day, those students offered to go out themselves and steal some to replace them!

Not all the memories are bad, but not all are good, either. We were never quite “the same”; it was always Big Sister and Little Sister. She herself had two daughters, but they were close in age, only one year apart in school, so they were friends as they grew up. However, they suffered in adulthood as their mother separated them: She depended on one and cut herself off from the other, making the one she depended on just as dependent on her, and cut off from her sister as well. 

All families are different. I know that. None, I suspect, are really “normal,” whatever that is — if you can get into them and truly know them. My sister hasn’t spoken to me for several years, no matter how hard I’ve tried to reopen the doors of communication that she herself closed. But today, when she can no longer speak, her daughter — the one she hasn’t talked to in years — tells me that my sister keeps the Shanah Tovah note I sent to her this year on her bedside table, and smiles when she looks at it. 

I wish my family were different in a different way. 

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