Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scary Story

It was a dark and stormy night....

PhotobucketPerfect opening for a Halloween tale, but this was no tale--this horror story was very real. And unfortunately many of the characters are my friends and members of my family. I had originally planned on posting another article for today, but the events of the past week have left me feeling so unsettled, so not right with the world.

When the Wicked Witch, better known as Hurricane Sandy, bore down on the East Coast, she left a trail of destruction in her path that was insurmountable. Places my family and I had vacationed--Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore--decimated. My beloved home town of New York City--powerless, windblown, and flooded beyond belief. Towns in the outer boroughs, like Breezy Point in Queens, left broken and ablaze.

What’s to become of those places? Will they ever recover? Time will tell, but it will take lots and lots of time..and money, and blood, sweat, and no doubt, tears.

In years past, when many other disasters struck the East Coast, other hurricanes, 9/11, severe snowstorms, my husband, boys, and I were living in California. We were far away from our families and the distance, while not diminishing the intensity of any of the tragedies, did make it difficult for us to physically pitch in and help. We were here in spirit to lend our support across the miles. But at times, that support seemed hollow to us--we wanted to be here, but that was not possible. 

And now we are here, and even though the distance between Boston and New Jersey is a lot less than California and New Jersey, it still feels as though we are too far away to help. Six feet of water poured into my brother-in-law’s house, destroying two floors, and pretty much the rest of the house as well. My niece’s weekend home was also flooded, with the water reaching as high as the bottoms of her little girls clothes that were hanging in the closet. Boats were untethered and lost, the rest of the family lost power, and had roofing problems. Major damage to property, psyches, and spirits.

As strong and wise as we all think we are, at times like this, it becomes painfully obvious who rules the roost in this world--Mother Nature--and every once in a while when she feels we are perhaps getting too cocky, she unleashes her strength to underscore her power. Who are we to question? We can only pick up the pieces, as many as we can recover, and go on. A little bit whipped...a lot whipped, a little bit put back in our place. Things like elections and sniping, and negativity seem very trivial at times like this. 

So perhaps this weekend we’ll take the dog, and pack up the car with food and water, and tools and strong shoulders, and drive down there to help with whatever we can. We can do that now--we’re here. And next month, the Thanksgiving celebration we’d been planning on having will still go on (location still to be determined). We’ll all be together, because this time we’re here.

Oh, and the subject of the piece that I was originally going to post today: my fear of the water...guess I’ll save that for another time.

Monday, October 8, 2012

To A One Of A Kind Couple, On Their Anniversary

When I set out to write a piece about my parents in commemoration of their wedding anniversary, I approached it thinking that it would invariably be dark and sentimental. After all, they were Holocaust survivors, and they both experienced things that no human being should ever have to see or remember. Let’s face it, they carried a lot of baggage with them when they got off the boat in Boston in 1948...and I’m not referring to the valises they were lugging. 

Tieing the Knot Wedding Cake Topper They were married on Columbus Day (although in Germany, they didn’t know it was Columbus Day), October 12, 1947. Theirs were stories of miracles--it was a miracle that they survived, but I felt that the true miracle was that they stayed married to one another for over 50 years. They fought like cats and dogs all throughout my childhood, and on into my adulthood, but I don’t think either one of them would have been happy with anyone else.

They were from different countries, different walks of life, and sometimes I thought, different planets. My mom was short, fair, and platinum blond. Dad was tall, dark, and muscular. Not exactly two peas in a pod--but my mom would always blame their getting together on the war...”It did strange things to people.” 

There are many stories from my childhood that are not happy: screams of terrors past in the middle of the night, tears, rants, harsh words. But, when I went out to dinner with my sister and brother-in-law last week, and the topic turned to Mom and Dad...all the stories we recounted made us laugh! So, I wonder, is it OK to talk about Holocaust survivors and not mention the sad stuff? Because in my parents’ cases, in between the horror and the sad old-age “stuff” was lots of good stuff. There was us--my sister and myself--and our lives. Some semblance of normalcy had to be established because of us, and try as mightily to fight it as they did, my parents had to give in.

She liked to primp--he didn’t. He liked to dance--she didn’t. But he always wore the clothes she bought for him, and he always dragged her out to the dance floor. It is rather amazing that after the horrors they had been through, they could still dress up and go out on the town...and have fun. There’s a particular pink pouffy dress that I remember my mom wore to lots of Bar Mitzvahs. It was not light pink, no...Mom liked to make a statement when she entered a was hot pink...definitely hot pink. Strapless, and did I say “pouffy?” With her platinum blond hair done up, and her pink dress, she looked like a beautiful Barbie doll. Dad was not exactly Ken, more like Dean Martin. I have an actual photo of them taken one such night, but it’s somewhere with thousands of other photos of mine that are in a storage facility. No matter, I have that picture indelibly fixed in my mind. I don’t need a photo to prove it was true. 

And speaking of truth, Mom liked to stretch it...a lot. She never looked at it as though it were telling a lie--just decorating the truth. She was a huge decorator. We never asked her why her own life seemed so less than perfect that she had to “decorate” it, but it was understood that she did. She wasn’t as cunning and creative as was the character in Catch Me If You Can, but it is a shame she never picked up poker. Her bluffing skills were unmatchable. “You know,” she chastised a nurse in the hospital once, “I was a surgical nurse, and if I had ever treated a patient like your handling me, I would have been fired!”  A surgical nurse, a medical student, a singer. She was quite accomplished. In fact, we like to joke that my son’s musical ability comes from his grandma...since at one time she was a “musical prodigy.” 

Her stories were a big bone of contention between she and my dad. He understood she wasn’t happy with her lot in life, and he knew he was a big reason why. So, they argued about it...more times than I like to remember. And the more stories she would make up, the smaller she would make him feel. But my dad was no shrinking violet, and very often my sister and I were caught in between these two battering (figuratively) rams. 

It’s probably very hard to believe, but in spite of the Holocaust stories and the battles about money and ambition and their stature on life’s totem pole, there was lots of laughter in my house. My mom had a very dry wit--she was the queen of sarcasm. And my dad liked to play tricks on her. They had a large group of friends--all of them also survivors--with names like Yussel, and Moully, and Velvel, and Bruncha, and Manya. We could never tell whether those were their first or last names--that’s just what we called them. They would all get together and eat (always) and chatter away. They often spoke in Yiddish, which we girls understood, so there were very few secrets bantered about. But every once in a while some Polish would be spoken, and then we’d be in the dark, as would my mom, since she was Hungarian. And then there would be more drinking, and the voices would get lower.

Neither of my parents was very political. But there was one thing that got them going, and it was often most evident around the dinner table.  The scene around that table was the epitome of Americana: it was my mom and dad, my sister and I...and the TV--always on. We could be talking about anything--even something really important--until my dad would get a glimpse of something on the screen and then shout, “SHHH! Israel!!” And then it was all over. Israel trumped any dinner talk, no matter how earth shattering it might have been.

In addition to Israel, their world also revolved around us. It was obvious that we were their world, their entire world. Our existence proved to them that the world would go on...could go on. And if we ever did anything, as most children sometimes do, to disappoint them, they were crushed. And they let us know. Guilt trips were taken frequently in our home.

As my parents aged, their idiosyncrasies become more pronounced. My mom’s fancy dresses gave way to more flamboyant, quirkier wardrobe additions (there was the gold lame’ bib she would pull out at restaurants, but that’s another story), and my dad became more sullen. He no longer added to his dictionary of crazy, made-up words like, “chupaydina” (bizarre) or  “matzapanna” (imaginary food). Their lives revolved more around themselves and their illnesses than around us. And their grandchildren were now looked upon as a whole new set of miracles.

One of the last best memories I have of my parents took place just after my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. My father had not yet begun to show the effects of Alzheimer’s and my mom was still healthy and spry. This was their first time on the West Coast and they loved it. They looked up old friends they hadn’t seen in decades and sat around tables eating babka and strudel, drinking schnapps and slivovitz, and reminiscing about the old days--both good and bad. 

One night, we discovered a Hungarian restaurant in Hollywood, and as a surprise, we took them there for dinner. I don’t remember the entree, but I do remember the rigo jancsi, a luscious, chocolate cream cake...and the band with live music. It was Hungarian music. And that night, when my dad asked my mom to dance there were no protestations. It was Dirty Dancing, old-country style.The two of them whirled around the dance floor--they were happy and smiling, and for once, that happiness had nothing to do with children or grandchildren--it was just them. All the years, and all the burdens seemed to slough off, and they literally floated.

So, on October 12, while everyone else is thinking of Columbus Day, I will be thinking of that one of a kind couple who gave me life, and sending them a silent anniversary wish. I just know they’re together out there, somewhere. And if you should hear thunder or lightning on that day, just ignore’s probably them...celebrating.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Poppy Seed Cookies and a Remembrance of Things Past

As far as the revolving door of friendship goes, the older you get, the more spins it takes. People come and go in your life all the time.  Some go out for a spin and later, sometimes years later, come back for another go ‘round, and there are others who go through and never look back.

I heard some bad news the other day that was very unsettling. Someone I knew who had been one of those who went around my revolving door and headed out permanently was recently diagnosed with cancer. It hit me really hard because, even though we’d not seen each other in quite a few years, there was a time in our lives when we would see each other daily. Our children were the same ages and went to the same preschool. This woman and I were even pregnant at the same time with our youngest children. She was about a month farther along than I was, and when her time came to “jump off the diving board,” as I liked to put it, I remember I laughed and said, “it’s not fair..I’m ready to take the plunge but I'm still on the steps!"

One day not long after we’d both had our babies, I took her daughter home to have a lunch play date with my son. After I got the two older children settled in at the park with the box lunches I made for them, I carried my infant son back to the car with me to get his stroller. This was in the days before “clickers” were provided with every car you purchased, and when I went to open the hatch to get my purse, I realized my keys were locked in the car right next to it...and the stroller. So there I was: two toddlers, one of whom I didn’t even know that well, one infant, no purse, no stroller, no phone.(Remember, cell phones weren’t around 20 years least not for me.)

 Not wanting to alarm the children, I quietly begged for phone money from some guy who too was eating his lunch in the park. (I daresay it was someone else’s before he got to it.) He was outwardly dubious about my story, but he managed to scrounge up enough change for a toll call to my husband. Then I and my brood of three headed across a major thoroughfare--while I prayed we wouldn’t get run over--to a local coffee shop to make my call. As if I weren't feeling demoralized enough knowing that I was standing there with about 35 cents to my name, my son asked if he could have a gumball from the machine that was next to the phone. I guess my answer, “No, we don’t have enough money!”  was a tad too loud, because it prompted everyone sitting on their stools at the lunch bar to swivel around and take a look at the woeful wretch who couldn’t afford a gumball for her kid. It was definitely not one of my better days.

After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, my husband finally showed up, and we all finally went home. I was more than embarrassed to explain the situation to this little girl’s mom, but she took it in stride, and I never got the feeling that she held the incident against me. I’ve never forgotten that debacle, or how gracious she was about it.

 One other thing I’ve never forgotten about her were some cookies she made for a bake sale.  I honestly don’t remember what I brought to the sale, but I remember her very delicious, very simple, half-dollar-sized cookies. Shortbread cookies--golden brown along the edges, with just enough ginger and cinnamon to differentiate them from plain old shortbread cookies. They contain poppy seeds, and although I am not usually a poppy seed fan, they add a bit of welcome texture. These are icebox cookies--rolled into logs, chilled, and then sliced. The nice thing about them is that you can keep the logs in the freezer until you need them, let them thaw a bit, slice as many cookies as you want, and then return the log to the freezer for the next time.

When I asked for the recipe, it took a while to get it. (Uh, maybe she did hold that incident against me!) I still have the paper on which the recipe was written. The handwriting is very small, neat, and businesslike...just like this woman. I have held off from recopying it through the years, and merely fold it up and tuck it back into my wooden recipe file whenever I use it.  A recipe written in the originator's own hand gives it a vintage kind of feel. And I like that. And now it's even more meaningful. Originally called Poppy Seed and Nut Slices,  I’ve renamed them simply "M's Cookies."

My sister and brother-in-law were visiting this weekend to help celebrate my birthday. I can’t remember the last time we were together on either of our birthdays, so even though it wasn’t a milestone year (thank goodness!), it was a special occasion. 

I baked the cookies for my sister in my friend’s honor. I don't think I will be calling to ask about her health--too much time has past since we were in contact, and I think a call from me out of the blue would be jarring--and seem intrusive. I tend to shy away from awkward moments, not because I would feel unable to handle them, but because I wouldn't want to impose that kind of uneasiness on anyone else. I'll keep my distance until I feel the time is right...if ever. But I am thinking about her and wishing her well. 

It may sound strange, but people seem closer to me when I am either eating the food they’ve prepared, or eating something I’ve prepared on my own from a recipe they’ve given me. It’s almost as though they’re sitting next to me--watching.  

My sister loved the cookies, and I gave her a few to take with her on the long drive back to New Jersey. I bet they never made it home.

M’s Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup poppy seeds
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, poppy seeds, , cinnamon, ginger, and salt.
Gradually add dry ingredients to butter mixture. Add nuts on low speed and mix until all are combined.

Shape dough in 2 logs, about 1 1/2 inched in diameter. Wrap in waxed or parchment paper and chill for at least two hours. Once chilled, using a sharp knife, slice into 1/4-inch slices. Place one inch apart on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown, in a preheated 350-degree oven.