There’s something both stark and magical about the time right before the holiday season opens wide and emcompasses us in a whole lot of baking, cooking, driving to the airport to pick up or being the ones picked up. Last year, we were encased in our pods, bubbles, and virus-avoidant clans, and although this year the door is more ajar with many of us vaccinated and welcomed into each other’s homes, we’re still not out of the pandemic woods.
It’s unclear whether this is the new normal for years to come or another transition phase of masking up to buy turkeys after recovering from being wiped out by a booster shot. Yet whatever it is, I have the distinct sense that we’re not going back to the old normal, and while I’m hoping for more safety and better health for all, there’s also something almost sweet about taking it slow, having smaller gatherings, taking care to protect one another’s health, and hopefully dwelling in more quiet time to just be.
For so many years, I rocked an inherent tension between wanting more solitude and quiet time to read, write, and consider life on the gravel road and also wanting so much to see family and connect more deeply with many cherished friends at one gathering after another. In my journal from 2019, I actually made a list of all the dozen-plus holiday gatherings — small parties, big-ass meals, large gatherings, many a restaurant rendezvous, and the like — and wrote underneath this list how tired I was and how much I wanted to just sit in a chair next to a pile of books in between micro naps. Last year,my wish came true with a vengeance.
Now those colder nights are slowly landing (after a much longer and warmer fall than usual), and tomorrow is Thanksgiving when a small group of close ones come over to eat and visit, socially-distanced but also together. Yet I don’t feel that slipping-into-sugar-and-crowds immersion I used to feel this time of the year. There’s something about a pandemic that sobers us the holidays but also makes times to connect even more lit from within.
At the same time, I’m more cognizant of those of us who might feel lonely, isolated, sad, or afraid. That’s also something that gets clearer through a pandemic. So while I can’t even pretend to dream up what next year will be, I can wish for you that the coming season is a time when you feel at home in the world and on the inside of belonging to yourself and to all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.
Twenty years ago it happened. Ten years ago I wrote this post. So much of it is still true, and there’s so much more to sayabout the heartbreaking state of polarity, divisiveness, and home-grown hatred in our country. About the pandemic-catalyzed resilience and mutual aid as well as abuse, addiction, anxiety, poverty, and despair. About all those gone, recently or a long time going. Also about the changes that make us better and better able to face our collective American history, especially the worst of who we’ve been and can be. About perseverance, innovation, and the love that abides. Especially about the love that abidesand the importance of memory. Here is my little love note for part of where I grew up, in the shadows of the towers that went up when I was growing up.
“Those god-awful towers,” my father said in disgust. He wasn’t alone: we all thought they were wicked ugly, too big, and besides, they would and did block the light from our neck of the woods, three blocks away, never mind that we were underground. Down the steps to the Fulton-Nassau Street station was a small arcade of stores, including our own, the Subway Stamp Shop, which my dad and grandpa ran.
I grew up spending many Saturdays and holidays there, emerging frequently for walks around the block, heading with Grandpa to Chock’full’o’nuts on the corner (where I would dip my chocolate donut in his coffee), forays to get ice creams of a slice of pizza, and trips to the bathroom, which entailed going to the building next door, getting the key, riding the elevator up eight floors, and walking down a long hall.
Below ground was a kind of kid paradise. There was a candy stand, complete with stacked rows of Chuckles and M & Ms. Need I say more? There was also a jewelry shop full of silver and glass, a shoe-shine place with an ancient Black man who always smiled at me and told me how beautiful I was, a barber shop where they spent more time reading the paper and complaining than cutting hair, and a fabled diner where I sat on a high stool inhaling grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate malts. Faced with the choice of spending the day helping my mom with housework in first our Brooklyn triplex and later our New Jersey Levitt house or coming to the store, it was no contest.
The towers started being built when I was an impressionable kid of six and were finished when I was nearly 12. To say everyone around us hated them was an understatement. It wasn’t just the shadow they cast but what they symbolized to my dad and other small business owners who tended to despise the ruling class, particularly those on the rung just above them who worked white-collar jobs in the towers and had impressive college degrees.
“College-educated idiots,” my dad called them and everyone else to whom the term the applied which, in his mind included millions. It didn’t help that between my three siblings and me, we amassed seven college degrees, the first generation in our family to not go from high school to largely a life of full-time work. My dad started college but was derailed from where it might lead him by becoming a father very quickly (to me) while having to balance multiple jobs in between his schemes — often successful, for a time — to make money, which included selling plus-sized polyester clothes at the Englishtown Auction, working as an antique auctioneer, some kind of tax shelter deal that didn’t work out too well, and occasionally buying out stamp and coin supply shops.
When the plane hit the towers, I reacted like most of us, shocked, but consoling myself with the only thing my mind could imagine: it was an accident. When the second plane hit, and then I heard from some construction workers on New Hampshire street in downtown Lawrence that the first tower “went down like a pancake,” I walked quickly to my car, shut the door, turned up the news and cried. I also raced home to make phone calls (this was before everyone carried a cell phone), first to find out if my brother, who worked seven blocks away was okay, then to call my dad.
My brother couldn’t be reached for a little while, but we soon heard he was fine — he walked the other direction from the towers to catch the ferry home. He was shaken but intact after feeling his whole building shake, windows breaking and then everyone oddly calm and organized in getting themselves outside and home.
My father, who had since moved the business to Pennsylvania, was incredulous. The towers we always hated were suddenly a broken object we loved. They no longer symbolized class warfare but instead a unity that enveloped us. Just as the signs around the world read, “We are all New Yorkers,” those of of us with downtown NY roots were now all Twin Tower people. “The whole world’s gone crazy. This is going to lead to big wars, a mess financially, the whole world falling apart,” my father said. Then he added his rhetorical response to the world: “What you gonna do?”
Yet most of what it led to wouldn’t include my dad. He was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, ironically enough, on September 11, 2002. I found out late at night when, coming from from a 9/11 service that I read a poem at, Ken told me my sister called and said I should call her back immediately. After calling her, I spoke to my dad, who said, “What you gonna do?” He died four months later.
Now it’s ten years since the attack. Most years since then, I’ve returned to the store, or at least tried to. The entrance to this part of the subway is usually closed (due to the damage and then the construction from 9/11), but still, I always get my picture taken in front of it. In fact, the first thing I do when going to the city is usually the pilgrimage to the site of the store. Posing with the entryway is like posing with part of the family. In the last few years, the stores in the neighborhood changed drastically. Gone are the small locally-owned clothes from India or sporting goods stores, little delis and pizzarias. Suddenly, there are all chain stores around, and I say suddenly, I mean mostly in the last year. The world where I grew up is layers beneath the one I see.
Yet several years ago, the entrance to the subway arcade was open. I ran down the stairs to find every store out of business and locked up, and the entrance to the subway gated and locked too. Standing there, on the cement floor in the middle of these ghost stores, I felt strangely at home. All of this world may be gone, but in my mind, I hear words like “Angola” and “pre-folded hinges” and “stamp tongs” and see myself at age seven, drawing abstract snakes at the big table of stamps under glass in a tiny store. My grandfather is chain-smoking, my father is arguing with his mother on the phone, and the store is crowded with a Hassidic man looking over stamps beside a Sikh in his turban and an ex-showgirl in her pancake makeup and heels. We were all subway dwellers, so far underground and away from how the future would rise and fall.
Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.
But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.
But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.
The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.
Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.
All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.
We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.
So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.
All my life, I heard the old folk song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” as “Go Tell Aunt Rhoda,” and since I had an Aunt Rhoda, this seemed very fortuitous indeed. Sitting on my porch so many years after encountering that old song, I’m trying to absorb the reality that it’s not the old grey goose that’s dead but my beloved Aunt Rhoda.
Ebullient. Joyful. Enthusiastic. All of that, plus a great laugh and spectacular soprano voice with a propensity for belting out musical numbers — that’s my Aunt Rhoda. My mother’s oldest sister, she and her family were an intimate part of our family’s lives, often living relatively close by whether we were in Brooklyn or central New Jersey. That’s no surprise given how close my mom and her sister were, and it was all to my siblings’ and my benefit to get to see Rhoda and Uncle Jerry as well as our cousins Renee and Michael constantly.
While we kids all played games, like pretending to be the Monkees or the Beatles, my mom and Rhoda downed coffee and talked for hours. Yet when one of us would poke our head in, Rhoda would call us, “What’s wrong, Sweetheart?” more as a song than a response (as my sister Lauren reminded us at the burial service that Rhoda often sang what she had to say). When Jerry was in the room, the rapid-fire wit and humor would overflow, and we’d be alternately cracking up and trying to singing along.
At family dinners or holidays, it was downright expected that at some point, Rhoda and Renee (who also has an amazingly beautiful voice) would harmonize on a Rogers and Hammerstein musical number or the like. Since she was rushed to the hospital last week, I’ve watched a little video at least six times of them singing “There’s a Place For Us” from West Side Story.
But her joie de vivre and grace wasn’t just when she sang. My last conversation with her, me on speaker phone with her and Renee (parked outside a Wal-Mart), took place earlier this month. Rhoda was ecstatic that, after 15 months, they were going into a store where she could power down the aisles after she spent the pandemic extremely isolated due to age, health issues, and the downright risk of living in an area (New Jersey) where the virus really took hold. I was calling to invite them to my mother’s 80th birthday celebration next November, and Rhoda was beside herself with joy about our whole family being together again and about celebrating her fiercely beloved sister.
All of her love was fierce, full, and unconditional. Renee, who lived with her and helped take care of her in so many ways for so many years, told us at the burial service that her mom was her biggest defender and most enthusiastic fan. Although Rhoda would famously roll her eyes at times, her love was never in doubt.
Now, after a short and unexpected illness, she’s gone, and in the last week, our family went from 0 to 100 on the Rhoda front, a panorama of worry, prayer, wishes, “tell her I love her” messages, goodbyes, and for most of us, a whole lot of travel. Back home after a whirlwind trip to New Jersey involving layovers in Detroit and Minneapolis, rental cars, trains and trams, and lot of walking, I’m now back to where I started: trying to grapple with the loss of my sweetheart Aunt Rhoda.
Wherever she is, I hope there’s singing involved as well as peace. Wherever we who love her are, I pray for the same, with love and gratitude for all.
Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.
“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.
It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.
Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.
I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.
Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.
She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.
The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.
For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.