Sunday, November 25, 2007

give it to me straight, people

does this scream 'howard hughes' to you?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

man of steel

since my great-grandmother passed away, i've taken to calling my great-grandfather on sunday afternoons.

it's not easy to find a time that fits into both our schedules. disbelieve me if you like, but my grandfather doesn't exactly sit around. he reads his paper, he compares music, he goes visiting, attends events, davens at shul, goes to his meals, watches the game. the way we figured it there's about a half-hour between three-thirty and four on a sunday that he's available. perhaps this will sound like a familiar story to you, what with my father's mother (known in vernacular as the mother of my father) having so many 'affairs' herself. but it isn't the same kind of busy at all. i'm not sure i can explain even to myself why this is so.

it sounds strange to me now, but i always saw my great-grandfather as this kind of indestructable force. when i was little, my great-grandparents babysat for us all the time. my grandfather drove us to school, he folded our laundry, he took me on the slide - there was nothing he couldn't do. my grandma would sit on the couch and have tea-parties with us or sing to us, but it was my grandfather who would hoist us over his shoulder and put us on the top of the slide, or reach up and carry us down when we occasionally panicked. the two of them were just a part of my house. when he was angry he could bellow like anything, but i don't remember him being angry at us so often. i just know that when he was even i wised up, and i was something of a snot in my early grade school years.

it never, ever occurred to me to worry about my grandpa. nothing made him cry. nothing ever frightened him. there were no stairs he couldn't climb. i think even then he would talk about when he was gone, in the annoying and abstract tone adults take when they want to communicate to you vague life lessons for 'when you're older.' like, 'when i'm gone, you'll wish you'd paid more attention to this tape i made of my organ playing', or if that failed to get your attention, 'listen! years from now that tape will be worth money!'

i say it's strange now because then i didn't realize not everyone got to have great-grandparents. people made the term sound really old, but i never found anything particularly old about either of them. for crying out loud, the man lifted more laundry baskets than i did. my grandma was a little different; she used to fret about things. i don't think she let me go down the stairs by myself till i was eight. but my grandfather? i remember telling my counselors in summer camp that if they didn't play the game i wanted to play i'd run down the block and recruit my great-grandfather to beat them up. and then being mystified by their doubled-over laughter.

there was a time when i was 12 or 13, a brief, brief window of time, when i was old enough to communicate with them as people rather than guardians and they were not yet so old as to have lost any of the capabilities they had when i was young. these are the days that i will probably always have in my mind when i think of my great-grandparents. i used to go over to visit them on shabbos afternoons, usually by myself, climb up to their apartment over my regular grandparents. my grandma would be sitting on that awful green couch, looking through coupons with a magnifying glass. my grandfather would be reading the paper in his stiff armchair. and i would sit in the space between them, on the couch next to my grandma. and i'd just probe one tiny bit - "grandpa, did you read the article about the-" and he'd go off on a complete and informed tirade about something, while my grandmother tried to steer the conversation back to something she actually cared about. they'd get out picture books and she'd clip my bangs with bobby pins like the hairdresser she'd been and my grandfather would recite jokes straight out of bob hope's 1960's-era autobiography with the communist yellow binding.

or i'd come on a weekday or something like thanksgiving and find him in the back bedroom with his organ - his "fun machine" - playing a tune which quite frankly sounded ghastly to me. i would sit there myself many times when i got bored downstairs, frustrated with the keys; i could never get any sound out of the bottom half, where he could make flutes and violins and hawaiin guitars (even though they all sort of sounded the same with your eyes closed.)

i think i was in tenth grade when my great-grandparents moved into the nursing home. it happened overnight. he had a stroke that left him with some speech problems, which i don't hear much in his talk anymore, and a bad leg he still can't walk much on, a bad arm; my grandmother, never an easy-going woman, could not be left to herself, and her arthritis was pretty bad. their move to the home stunned me at first, and then, when i saw for myself over repeated visits that being in a facility hadn't really changed who they were, my alarm lessened. okay, so he couldn't walk so good. still, you'd have had to be an idiot to pick a fight with my grandfather. nobody was going no place.

i don't know if you want to consider it luck that i was already away in college when my grandmother began slipping away. every time i came back she would be slightly more confused, slightly more sleepy, slightly more deaf. out of all us kids, she retained her recognition of me and the boys the longest because i think we'd been part of her world for longer, and she could touch my curly hair and know me at once, and then she'd talk to me. but that was a different kind of talking. i watched my grandmother become a little girl again, come down to the simplest and brightest emotions - "you're so beautiful!" "i'm so happy!" - and then fade away. for years i didn't speak to my grandfather very much because whenever i visited, i spoke to my grandmother. i remember thinking vaguely that my grandfather was alright and he'd understand, but she needed to see me and hold my hand.

and then, you know, there's new york, and school, and work, and the things you worry ceaselessly about when you lose perspective of things. months went by when i didn't speak to either of them. i made it home the day before my grandmother died, but i didn't see her. my father still says that that's probably a good thing.

but anyway, as i said, her funeral woke something up inside of me. my grandfather cried. after 67 years of marriage, of course he cried, but somehow i didn't want him to. i didn't want him to cry. i didn't want him to not be able to get up the steps to my grandparents' house, the steps i watched him go up a million times with no problem when i was a kid.

and that realization has only grown when i talk to him on the phone on sundays. it has taken 18 years, but slowly, i am realizing that nobody is made of steel. and it terrifies me.

thank G-d, my grandfather's alright now. usually when i'm speaking to him and he says, 'what? i can't hear you,' it's because my cell phone, whose battery is not nearly as long as my grandfather's, has given up the ghost after thirty-six whole minutes off the charger. but even though i know this, it always leaves me with a sudden spark of panic. for the first time, i see my great-grandfather as something fragile and tenuous, though he gives me only the faintest signs of weakness.

we have more in common than you'd think. we both live in facilities of some kind. we compare the food and have a kind of loser's competition over who eats worse (i'm winning). we talk about my classes and my friends and his friends and his classes that he took in high school or that my mother took or even my grandfather. everything kind of runs together. i have found lately that i can't get off the phone with him, even when i know i should, that i must be wearing him out.

i just want him to stay the way he is, who he is, forever, and always be just a phone call away. but that's the thing about being a great-granddaughter and not just a regular one - you tend to come in a little late in the action. and it's normal for people to leave you a little bit at a time in their old age; we usually think of it as one of the happiest endings a person could have. but i feel like it's not fair. a little part of my brain is sitting in that theater going, 'hey, listen! i'm going to be here awhile, i got a lot ahead of me! stick around!'

in the meanwhile, when i get off the phone with him lately, i'm like this. i am happy to have the grandfather i've always had, this man who is a cornerstone of my family, who has seen two or three or depending on how you count them five world wars, who was there before all of us yet still shoots the breeze with me over my teenage angst for however long i want.

if comic books could come true, i would have one of those freeze-guns or crystal tanks all the evil supervillains always seem to have, where they can preserve the people they love for all time. but i guess life was never meant to be that way.

the funny thing is that he still thinks i'm calling for his sake.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

congratulations on your future engagement

(cautionary note: as they say on noggin, that famed preschooler network, 'this is me, this is me; this is me and my energy.' this post reveals more about me than perhaps is wise, and i debated whether to leave it up. in the end i decided to keep it because i think even an emotion that is unworthy or unbecoming of us is still legitimate. still, reader discretion is advised.)

a girl from high school called me up today, while i was studying for a jewish history midterm on my bed.

i saw the number and did a double take - we hadn't spoken more than a word or two in passing in almost three years. not that we fell out or anything; she was the kind of girl i used to stay up all night talking to on shabbatons, that i would write long, long six-part letters in sticky notes to during class. she was one of the few girls i used to give my poetry to in high school (miraculously, she survived). in many ways, she had been my guide.

"perel!" she clicked when i answered the phone. "tell me everything about life. tell me about school. tell me about work. i'm soooooo bad for not calling you..."

this took me by surprise. it's my experience that a person calling you for the first time in three years generally has a good reason. and truthfully, i didn't begrudge her either the absence or the call. it was as much my fault as hers that i hadn't made an effort to keep up with her, and it hadn't even bothered me as much as i might have thought it would; hers was a friendship which shaped my high school years, but seemed sort of anchorless without the common ground of high school and shared experience to hold us together. and i knew how awkward it can be to need something from someone you haven't spoken to in awhile. still, i warmed to the sound of her voice, falling into our old conversational patterns like i hadn't yet left for stern.

eventually, as i ultimately knew it was bound to, our talk moved toward our engaged classmates. she was buzzy with excitement. "can you believe it?" she breathed over the phone. "one girl's wedding this week, and just last week another girl got engaged! doesn't it blow your mind?"

i had to confess that it did not blow my mind. like most beis yaakov (or wannabe beis yaakov) girls, we had had a running bet in my class who was going to get married first. the two currently engaged had been in my top two; therefore i considered myself to 2 and nothing. i asked her how she felt about it.

"happy and excited," she replied promptly. "excited out of my mind. how about you?"

i hesitated. and then, i think, i proceeded to make a series of mistakes.

we had been talking for a little while by this point, and i was so glad to be speaking to her again. she is a very sweet and forgiving person, and in high school she always managed to draw my confusion and objections out of me through long, delicate probing. i hadn't been a person to speak my mind, but to skulk off quietly on the edge of the field at recess, i think because even i didn't always understand what was bothering me. and she would take me by the hand and patiently lead me back to the circle where the other girls were sitting, cross-legged, picking dandelions and grass and talking.

so, forgetting the three years that separated us, i said, "i feel like it's happening too quickly."

there was a frown in her voice. "happening too quickly? what do you mean, happening too quickly?"

i said in a rush: "well i know that they're very capable girls and their parents checked the guys out and i'm sure they'll be happy and fine and everything, but you know, i just feel like there's so many layers to these girls and they're getting engaged to people after two weeks, how can they know..." i couldn't finish, unsure of where i was going. "don't you feel like it's a little sudden?" i asked lamely.

"no," she said, her voice surprisingly firm. "i don't think it's sudden at all. that's the way they do it. it's very chok-chok."


"i mean, it makes more sense to do it this way. in the old days that's how they did it. the parents check them out very thoroughly and make sure it's going to line up, but it isn't like it's emotional or anything, that it has to take months. you find out if it's going to work and there isn't all this time wasting. if you're worried that he doesn't know the girl - it will be a pleasant surprise for that lucky chusun, that's all." she sounded stricken. "it's logical, perel. don't you remember how that girl used to turn around to us in class and always say how much easier it was in the old days? it isn't about emotion."

i could have kicked myself. i knew this already. the lectures came back to me over her voice; long afternoons of married teachers intoning: 'what ruins american marriages today? disneyland. everyone thinks they're going to have a marriage like disneyland, like hollywood in the movies. marriage is not about disneyland. that's why when you make shidduchim...'

and suddenly it hit me: the girl on the phone was completely right. my classmates didn't need to date forever, because they were not waiting to 'fall in love' with someone. ('fall in love', i remembered one of my teachers enunciating contemptously. 'does that sound like the way G-d would want you to plan your future? where's the intelligence in that?') these girls getting married didn't need to love their husbands at the onset. so four weeks or six weeks, what did it matter? it wasn't so much about the individual for them as what he represented and what he had the potential to be.

blinking, disconcerted, i resettled the phone on my shoulder and stared at my reflection in the mirror on the back of my bathroom door: sweatshirt, pajama skirt, notes spread out over the floor, desk and bed. "yeah," i said vaguely. "i guess you're right."

there was a hint of dissatisfaction now in the girl's voice as she spoke, a little bit of distance, as though she too was unsettled by my non-ecstastic reaction, but she went on bravely anyway. "on a related note, i was talking to one of the other girls and we think that it would be a great idea for the whole class to do something nice for each bride. you know, like to have a gift from the whole class for everyone. like a little tehillim or something. don't you think that would be sweet?"

i shrugged. "yeah, that sounds like a good idea."

"right. i was checking up the prices on comes to about twenty-four dollars a person. you don't think that's too much, do you?"

feeling cheap, i said, "it depends. if that's the only thing i'm getting them, then no, i don't think so. if i was going to bring them another gift it might be a little high."

"no no no. i don't mean twenty-four dollars every time. i mean twenty-four dollars TOTAL. the way i figure it is like this. there's twelve of us, right? and each tehillim costs thirty-six dollars. but if we buy all twelve of them at the same time, we get a discount, and each tehillim will only be twenty-four dollars. then it would come to two dollars per girl, or twenty-four for everyone."

i have never been good at math, and part of me started thinking at this point, 'ok, so roughly the price it would cost if each girl went and bought her own tehillim.' but slowly i zeroed in on what i really wasn't getting. " want to buy twelve sets of tehillim now?"

"yes. preferably this week."

"so...we'll have them before people get engaged," i said, trying to keep up.

"exactly." she sounded relieved. "because you know how impossible it would be to try and keep track of it for every single girl once you have kids and a house to run. it would just be impossible, perel. and you know what would happen, would be the girls who got married last would have nothing done for them, and we just didn't think that was very nice."

i sat on my bed, staring at my reflection.

why is it that everything keeps feeling like middle school? aren't experiences supposed to widen and deepen as you get older? yet somehow even vast, life-forming things like marriages sound and feel the same as surprise birthday parties or class ditch days to me. sitting on the pine needles while the other girls danced around our measly bonfire on lag b'omer, watching them, transfixed, wanting to be part of their dance, knowing i would only embarrass myself. the girl on the phone came over to me and tugged me up that day.

"come on, perel," she said, a mischevious glint in her eye. "we can't dance unless it's the whole class."

"i don't know how to dance," i said, smiling apologetically.

she waved a hand dimissively. "well then we'll have to teach you, won't we?"

and for the rest of the night she stood with me, gluing my eyes to a line, illustrating with such patience and kindness how to move your feet over and across and from side to side. for hours the two of us away from the dancing, her moving so gracefully, my attempts to imitate her completely fruitless. "i can't do it," i said at the end. "i guess my body just doesn't move that way."

"it does," she insisted. "one day you'll get it. you'll see."

i look the same now as i did then. i don't know if it's because i haven't changed much, or if it's because it simply hasn't been that long. four years, five years. her voice sounds the same; it has that same warm lightness.

and it's like her to think of those outside the circle. why does it have to sound so much like the last girls picked for machanayim? there you could find me, standing awkwardly alone between the two huddles of girls, gawky and tall in my slumpy turtleneck and pleated skirt. did you befriend me out of pity? a part of me wonders, but i feel ashamed. it is kindness to think of others. it doesn't have to be pity.

her conspirational whisper, next to me in the grass: "we're all going to donate two dollars for this girl's surprise birthday party. you know, the summer birthdays. it's not fair, they never get parties, so they're never going to be expecting it. we'll spell it out in her english binder." an elbow in the ribs. "don't you think that's a good idea?"

yes. yeah, that'll be fun. that's a great idea.

twelve sets of tehillim, waiting in the basement! waiting for the day! isn't that a good idea? waiting for--


no, it isn't.

"i don't think so," i said. "i don't think it's a good idea."

distracted. "what do you mean, it isn't a good idea? what's the matter with it?"

"why don't we do it as the occasion arises. i like getting everyone a tehillim, i think that's nice, but you know. there's no need to buy twelve of them now. why don't we buy for the two girls who are already engaged, and as other girls get engaged, we'll buy some for them."

"but do you think that we should all have to pay twelve dollars a person more now, and have to collect the money again every time?" she asked patiently. "that's not an easy thing to do. people are going to have kids..."

"we'll worry about the kids when we get there. but you don't know how long it's going to be. maybe i'm a little superstitious, i don't know what it is. i just don't like the idea of having them pre-bought, sitting there, waiting for something which...which might be a long time in coming for some girls..."

i realized at this point that i should not say the rest of what i was thinking. but i had already said enough. for the first time, the voice on the other end of the phone was completely silent.

when she spoke again, it was subdued, almost chilly. "perel," she said, "you are my friend, and you know i respect your opinion and i'm always interested to know what you think. but i don't understand...i don't understand why you are so negative about this. aren't you happy that they're getting married? it's something to be happy about, not worried. it seems silly to wait to buy every set of tehillim separately when it's going to cost more. i don't understand why you're...saying the things you're saying. what are you so afraid of? we're all going to get married sooner or later, right?"

we said our goodbyes, made arrangements for the money, and hung up our phones. business concluded. my studying lay across my lap, waiting sadly for me to attend to it. but i was still staring at the mirror on the door, the smooth feel of my phone between my fingers.

i could almost see her if i squinted, reaching down to me in the firelight, pulling me up, the smile on her face. explain it to me. teach me the song they're all singing. no, i can't strum to that. i don't know the tune.

we're all going to get married sooner or later, right?

i couldn't bring myself to say it, even though the words were so loud in my head:

but what if we don't?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

a little thing i like to call 'continuity'


You have Two. New. Messages. First Message Sent Today, Thursday, November. First. At. Eight. Twenty-Three. PM:

"Pereleh, this is your Grandma Rose speaking. I just wanted to call you to remind you that you are coming to me tomorrow for Shabbos. So don't forget to come to my house, and make sure you should get on the right bus. And meantime also make sure you should ask the busdriver he isn't changing the schedule when they change the time because they are stupid that way.

Ok bye."

Next Message Sent Today, Thursday, November. First. At. Eight. Twenty-Five. PM:

"Pereleh, listen, it's your Grandma Rose again. Also you shouldn't forget that I am babysitting for your father's sister tomorrow from eleven to twelve o'clock in the morning. So if you want to come in the morning, forget about it. I know you don't usually come in the morning, so now you have a good reason not to.

Ok, barring anything else that comes up, I'll see you tomorrow. Bye."