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Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.

A Thanksgiving Gift

Right around the time I was married, my mother was taken to the hospital because she felt terribly, strangely ill. My mother, who was always the one who didn’t get the cold that was going around, who rarely took so much as an aspirin, was suddenly the pale, waxy thing in ICU with tubes running out of her body and machines whirring near where her head lay on a plastic pillow encased in a thin, cheap case. My mother, an eminence at work, a strong-willed, fierce, energetic and optimistic person who gave the best parties and saw the best in everything and everyone was gone. Not dead, just transformed into an invalid with congestive heart failure and a kidney that was “blown” from the years she had refused to take prescribed medication for her hypertension.  She was stabilized, she would eventually need dialysis, and we all scrambled to adjust to the changes.

Those changes included holidays, because it was too hard for her to continue to plan and execute the triumphant festivities she had orchestrated for decades. She had always loved the planning of a great party, keeping a special book in which she wrote the details of ordinary, Friday or Saturday night dinner parties as well as the more opulent holiday meals. She needed to remember that she had tried the peanut soup as a started in 1974 and that no one liked it, and that one of the guests had a shellfish allergy and would be unable to eat oyster stuffing.  There were at least three events during every holiday season: Thanksgiving dinner, the Tree Trimming Party, and Christmas dinner and not one of them was a come-as-you-are/paper plates & plastic forks/Brown ‘N Serve Roll kind of affair.

The house had to be cleaned before the dinners, the “good” china removed from its zipped, padded storage boxes, the crystal glasses hand washed, the silver polished, and the linens retrieved from the drawers where they were rested, clean, starched, pressed, rolled and tied with ribbons after the last epic feast. Centerpieces were ordered after consultation with her “flower lady,” who knew the rules: no baby’s breath, no carnations, nothing that was not tasteful, creative, and stunning. My brother and I rolled our eyes as we slogged through the cleaning and the polishing every year, but even we had to admit that there was a kind of magic in sitting down to a table with a magnificent arrangement of fragrant greens in the center, candle light reflecting off the silver and glasses as we sat down and put our starched napkins on our appropriately dressed laps. She made magic.

It all changed, of course. I got married, and learned to cook; I could make parts of a holiday meal, my sister-in-law made other parts, and we had a new paradigm, a less formal gathering enlivened by the presence of babies and children as our families grew. My mother was sick, though; she had to go twice a week to the cavernous room where she sat to have a machine do the job her kidney could no longer perform. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he was exhausted, she was still gray and easily tired, and making magic became very heavy lifting. We tried having Thanksgiving catered one year, and it was just strange; we sat in my parent’s house like guests, receiving food prepared by a fleet of invisible strangers that was good, and very fancy, but not quite right. We tried to throw the tree trimming party once, and saw the effort and the hours of revelry left my parents hollow-eyed and so tired that they went to bed while we were still filling trash bags with plates and cups. It turned out that my mother had only ever had one working kidney, and she needed a donor kidney or she was going to die. She was, for the first time in her life, depressed, and no longer able to be the warm sun around which our family orbited. She hated the dialysis, and the painful shunt in one arm; most of all, she hated losing control of her life.

The Thanksgiving that my son was three, we accepted an invitation to attend a dinner at the house of friends. They had a huge, annual spread to which they invited strays, those people who were alone, far from their people, or without people. It seemed strange to give up on our family tradition, but my brother’s family was going to be out of town, and my parents agreed that they would join us, or that if they were too tired we would make plates for them and make sure that they had some turkey, some sweet potatoes, and some of our Southern hostesses legendary cornbread dressing. It would be okay, I told myself, it would just be different.

 Two days before Thanksgiving, the beeper went off – the one given to my mother by the transplant team. There was a donor kidney, which meant that my mother was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Grand Rapids, an hour away. My father and I followed, not talking in the car as we sped through the cold, dark Michigan night. We knew that the kidney came from someone who had died, and although we were not supposed to know the identity of the donor, we had accidentally pieced together a news story about a young man killed on a motorcycle. My thoughts were complicated as I sat in the passenger seat; I thought about my own little boy, and about the fact that someone else had lost their own boy days before the holidays. I thought about the tight, painful nexus of life and death that made their terrible loss a chance for my mother to regain her life.

My father and I spent the night in hard, orange plastic chairs, although I spent long minutes in the chapel. I was not particularly religious, certainly not Christian, but there was something about the waiting, and the uncertainty that made it comforting to believe that there was some higher power looking benevolently down from the ozone. The surgeons came in early in the morning, bleary-eyed in their scrubs, to tell us that it had gone well. The kidney was in place, it should work, but there was always a chance that she would reject it. There would be more days in the hospital, many more medications, and tremendous caution. We entered the treacherous emotional land of wait-and-see, but when we were allowed to see her she was pink again after years of being gray, and even her voice was stronger. My father stayed with her and I went home to have Thanksgiving with my husband and son.

She continued to improve, and by the time I found myself at our friend’s house, surrounded by card tables and strangers, I was allowing myself to feel hope, even as I mourned for that other family, the one that was waking up not to a day of football and overeating, but to another day of enveloping shock and grief. Before we all sat down to eat, our host asked us all to take part in one of their traditions in which a kernel of dried corn was passed to everyone assembled; when the kernel came to you it was your turn to express gratitude. I would, at any other time in my life have dismissed this activity as sentimental pandering of the worst kind, but on that day, in that place, it was as natural to me as praying had been two nights before. The kernel passed to my son, who said he was “grateful that Grandma got a kidney.” There were, of course, tears, and a smattering of applause; it was a Hallmark moment. When he reached up to put the tiny thing into my own hand, I silently thanked the other family, the one that had shown such compassion to a cruelly unjust universe, and given us back a mother, a wife, the center of our own cosmos.

“Me too, Sam.” I said out loud, “me too.”


Thank You.

This is the day when Americans focus on all the things for which they are grateful, as part of Thanksgiving. I am always grateful for my family, the roof over my head, the good food I eat, my access to good medical care, the availability of meaningful work, free speech, and a whole set of less important (things like my stand mixer and my iPod).

I also have one big surge of gratititude every year for the young man who died and gave my mother years of life. About a week before Thanksgiving in 2002, my mother was on dialysis, and had been approved for a kidney transplant. Her kidney had failed several years earlier, as the result of poorly controlled hypertension, and she then began years of dyalisis which involved the insertion of a shunt, and thrice weekly sessions hooked up to the giant machine that cleaned her blood. She could no longer travel, she was often exhausted, and after a long life as a dynamic and involved person she felt useless and hobbled. She was on “the list,” but could not receive a transplant unless a donor was found who was a good match. My brother and I couldn’t donate because of our family history of hypertension and diabetes, which made it inadvisable for us to give up our own kidneys.

About a week before Thanksgiving that year, the “transplant beeper” went off, letting us know that a donor kidney had been found. In the middle of the night my father, mother and I drove the 60 miles to the hospital where the surgery would be performed. We were greeted by the surgeon, my mother was wheeled off to be prepped, and my father and I settled in on hard plastic chairs for the night. Off and on during the night, I prayed for my mother, the surgeons and attendants, my father’s spirits, and the family of the donor, who we knew had been killed in an accident. The next morning we were allowed to see my mother, already more pink and less yellow than the day before. The surgeon was cautiously optimistic, and although she would miss Thanksgiving dinner at home, we would all have much to be grateful for.

We subsequently discovered that the donor had been a young man attending a local high school who had died in a motorcycle accident. As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain that the boy’s family endured then, or that they feel to this day. I imagine that this week is always as sad and difficult for them as it is joyous for my family. I  hope that they know that by choosing to donate organs they gave many people the gift of years of loving their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, parents and children. There is nothing “right” about losing a child on the brink of his adult life, but if there is anything good, it is that so many lives were saved by the loving choice that his family made during a time of tremendous pain and grief.

Have you signed an organ donor card?

My Yiddeshe Thanksgivings

Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s  Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.

My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s  recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).

The arrival snacks and Wednesday night dinner being only the warm-ups,  Thanksgiving day started early with turkey(s)  in the oven, and every surface in the kitchen covered with bowls, bags of potatoes, stand mixers, thawing bundt cakes and cans of chicken broth.  My two great aunts (the other two “Gabor Sisters”) were at their own homes in Youngstown and Warren,  packing up their contributions to the dinner, and then putting on beautiful suits, silky blouses, and Ferragamo shoes with a one-inch heel and a bow  before being driven to Ashtabula. (Neither of them ever drove, and they were astonished when I could not only drive a car, but fill it with gas into it without the assistance of my father or brother).

We were not a family that came to a holiday table “comfortable;” men wore suits and ties, women wore skirts or dresses, and I liked it that way, even though it was complicated to get ten people clean and dressed in a house with only one bathroom. When the group expanded to include my paternal grandmother, a petite and quiet Catholic woman of pure New England stock, she fit right in among the Hebrew Herd with her customary pleated plaid skirt and sweater set. Years later, I was first shocked, and then disappointed to find myself a Thanksgiving guest in a home where sweats and jeans were the order of the day.

My brother says that if you think of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” make the Jews Hungarian and Russian, rather than Polish, remove the heavy Eastern European accents, and situate them in Ohio instead of Baltimore, you have our Thanksgivings. With as many as 30 people in attendance some years, there were card tables added to the long table in the dining room, and run through the living room,  nearly to the front door. All of the tables were covered with starched white linen cloths, the china, silver and crystal were real, and the food seemed endless. There were always the American classics: turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, gravy and pie, but The Tribe cannot be limited to the pallid and the Puritanical. In addition to the Anglo classics, there was always a magyar culinary presence, including a kuchen or two filled with chopped nuts, cinnamon and sugar, and at least one noodle pudding (Dorothy’s without apricots, or Harriet’s, with). Any remaining Puritanical influences were obliterated by the noise level, the bursts of laughter, and the annual photographing of my mother’s fastidious, slender and elegant Aunt Anne captured mid-bite, one hand raised to ward off the camera. Squanto and company might have felt at home around our table, but I am fairly certain that Governor Bradford and his austere and God-fearing  colleagues would have run as fast as their buckled shoes would allow.

After dinner, there were hours spent just sitting at the table, talking, and picking at leftovers. When I was very young, my grandmother would pat the seat next to her, and I would sit with her sipping “kashi” (a tablespoon of coffee, a cup of cream and five spoons full of sugar) and listening to what was, actually, the oral history of my mother’s family. As my grandmother and her sisters ate “slivers” of the cakes and pies on the table (all three of them earnestly believed that 10 “slivers” added up to less caloric damage than one actual “slice”), I heard about Great Uncle Allen making the sandwich with peanut butter and petroleum jelly for my mother and uncle, about my paternal great-grandfather keeping kosher upstairs but cooking bacon for himself in the basement, and about kind-to-a-fault Sam, the other Great Grandfather who was a lawyer and represented the downtrodden in exchange for chickens and kindling. Eventually, the out of town relatives would pack up and leave in a cloud of Jungle Gardenia and hot pink lipstick kisses, and my grandmother would collapse on the couch as her housekeeper Mildred cleaned up the kitchen.

There was, of course, football on TV (although Jews do not, as a rule, play football, they do watch football), and over the course of the evening, dress clothes would be put away in favor of casual (and loose) clothing. Often, we would walk the short distance to Ashtabula’s main drag to watch the Thanksgiving Parade, including (in a cultural twist that made perfect sense in the context of my immediate family) the arrival of Santa in his sleigh.In later years, my father and I would take long walks after dinner, both of us quiet types who were a little jangled after the hours of sound, high-intensity interaction and rich food. We talked about all kinds of things on those walks, and for an adolescent girl there is no better thing than a private hour with an intelligent, attentive father in the cold air and solitude of a winter walk. We returned to the crowded house refreshed, calmed, and ready to rejoin the political arguments, the football watching, or the debate about what really happened to Frieda’s samovar.

Eventually, we would get hungry again and make a plate of whatever we liked best, arriving at and departing from the dining room table alone or in groups like some time-lapse documentary about The Life of a Table. Only my grandfather was exempt from the traditional post-potlatch culinary diaspora; my grandmother always made him a Nice Brisket Sandwich from some mysterious and never-ending source of perfectly cooked brisket. He was not a fan of turkey.

Those Thanksgivings were the celebrations of a family with real immigrants only a generation away from them, demonstrating their gratitude for this country in ways unimagined by the Pilgrims. They were big, warm and delicious celebrations  in every possible way, and there is not a Thanksgiving that I don’t remember those people, most of them gone, and that house, still standing but no longer open to me. Our group is much smaller these days, and the party has moved to my parents’ house; I am now the cook, and Rob has largely replaced Mildred as the clean-up crew. I’m thinking that this year we need a noodle pudding on the table, and to tell some of the old stories after dinner, so that Sam can learn them osmotically, as we did. I am thankful for all of those people, living and dead, who made me what I am, and who live on in vivid memory.  I think they’d all agree that a rugged band of Hungarians and Russians whose children and grandchildren have married every possible variety of Not Jewish can permit a little Chinese Ancestor Worship.

I take that back; they wouldn’t “all agree” about anything. It was against their religion.