Monday, December 29, 2008

Darkness & Light

My half-sister's father died in his early 30s, when my sister was only 7. She and my mother moved to New Jersey and, a few years later, my mother married my father and had me.

I grew up under the shadow of this man I never met. He was the reason that my father wasn't my sister's biological father. And he was the reason that my mother always got sad a certain time of the year. As I child I saw many many pictures of him and, despite the fact that his death was in fact necessary for me to exist, I felt close to him.

Because of him I understood at a very tender age that it was possible to die young--a harsh lesson that I learned several times over as several of my parent's friends, all in their 40s, all with with children, passed away during a few horrible years in the 80s.

Why am I thinking about all this now? I had a great Chanukah with Chamudi--the best ever--and am feeling happy and healthy and excited about the future. But a few recent tragedies are weighing on my mind.

First there's our friend's girlfriend, in her 30s, who had a brain anurism last month and in now convinced that she's in 2001--before she had her children, before she divorced her husband and met our friend.

Then there's the personal history I just read in the New Yorker written from the perspective of a grandfather raising his daughter's three young children after his daughter dropped dead of a rare and undetected heart problem. I wept through the entire thing.

Then there's a co-worker, a father, who died last week in a motorcycle accident.

Finally there's that poor Chabad couple, the Holtzbergs, z"l, so brutally murdered, and their 2-year-old son, just the same age as Chamudi.

All of this amounts to a bit of gratuitious contemplation of my own mortality as we finish the Festival of Lights and bring in the secular New Year, and heightened anxiousness over my time on this earth. What if my recent inability to call up some words is the beginning of some sort of premature mental decline? What if my muscle ache is more than a muscle ache? And the like.

Having children heightens our experience of everything in life, and mortality is no exception--my life matters more because it matters to him. And when I contemplate him living without me I hurt deeply--both for him and for me. What would his life be like? Would he ever be the same?

I'm just about ready to move away from these dark thoughts and embrace my exuberant preschooler at this end of his school day. Because the only bright spot in this kind of maccabre contemplation is that it reminds you--without the mark of tragedy your own life--to live and love as fully as you possibly can.

Happy New Year from Ima Shalom.

Monday, December 08, 2008


It’s embarrassing to have more than six people over for Shabbat dinner. Six is the Ikea fold-out table capacity; add the card table, and we fit nine. We’ve got four matching chairs and four miss-matched, and the roller desk chair. This Friday night we hosted eleven adults and three children. Yep. Four more people than we had seats for.

We didn’t mean to. People I adore accepted invitations, to my delight, and then asked if they could bring….other people I adore. Plus, I wanted to honor a friend with whom I had a bumpy start.

In fact, she’d asked to join a public pot-luck meal I was hosting last year, and I turned her away. I was already at 10 guests. I had a newborn. Though she’d been new in the community and my rejection had hurt her feelings, her kindness was undiminished. She’d proceeded to babysit the two times I needed it most, and has given me free tickets to a theater where she works.

I've never lived down the shame, and honestly, I wasn’t going to turn away any guests this time.

So we brought out the wood stool I made with my own hands in high school, and a jumbo-sized pampers box, cleverly disguised by a table cloth (until my daughter wanted to play with her “blan-keet” and revealed the ugly truth). Etc. etc.

By some miracle, everything worked out, except the main dish could have been cooked 10 minutes longer.

But what made the whole thing especially miraculous for me what that I had a sprained foot, and couldn’t do most of the prep on Friday. What would I have done without my love, who swept and mopped and cooked and took my daughter to services so I could prop up my foot and let the swelling go down and the advil kick in?

Let’s be honest, I would have managed it. But I would have been a lot less gracious (and a lot less clean). We would definitely have had a buffet. And I might have turned people away again. And I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

Look, it’s embarrassing to have graduate school furniture three and a half years into a real job. Yes, I had a baby alone, finished, published, or had accepted for publication three books of translation and two books of poetry, and am almost done with a book of scholarship while teaching 9 new classes outside my area of specialization. You can’t do everything. Right? But having a home to which you can welcome those new in town, those visiting, and those dear friends you love, should have been near #1 on my priority list.

Lucky for me, I have a partner who is open to my need to feed people and fill the place with more love than it should (probably legally) contain. This, in my opinion, is the reason to be in a relationship—to have a partner that will help you be a nicer person.

So when we move, we are definitely getting a big table and lots of chairs. And not the folding kind, either. Grown-up chairs.

Now I just have to think about the foot injury. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but somehow I’ll have to find a way to stop running to catch the bus in heels. Look, when you’re 5 feet tall and have baby-feeding boobs, you’ve got to wear heels if you don’t want your students looking at your chest instead of pondering the extremely clever things you’ve just said. [When do breasts go back to their pre-baby size?]

And if you’ve got a baby, you’re probably going to be running to catch the bus. That’s just life. Oh well, I figured out how to seat 14 people on 10 chairs, now I’ll figure out the shoes-bus thing.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Keep Your Voice Down

Over Thanksgiving at my parents Chamudi had his usual highjinx--"I climb this" "I jump that" "I dump this"--and I had my usual responses, including the all-time favorite "I'm going to count to 5" and the old-standby of just picking him up and moving him.

My mother and her childhood friend (Don't you love parenting as a spectator sport?) thought it was hilarious. "It's so different," they said, recalling--with what seemed like nostalgia--how their mothers used to yell and yell and how they'd go from one house to another trying to figure out who yelled louder.

Mom's a yeller too--no doubt the product of her own yelling mama. Like Nana before her she's also a loving, caring mother, so I, like Mom, just accepted it as part of the deal.

And then there's me. I've got it in me...I definitely do. When Chamudi gets naughty and super-willful all I want to do is rage at him. I feel so angry and so disrespected and this cute little two-year-old who I love more than life itself.

But I've got something else in me too. Maybe the memory of what it's like to grow up in a loud household and the knowledge that Abba--who grew up with a mild mama--doesn't see a place for raised voices in a happy home. Or the knowledge that by reasoning with Chamudi I'm both teaching and modeling self-control. Whatever it is I swallow my anger the best I can...and I'm always, without exception, glad that I did.