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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Catherineandmeonher60th.JPGSorry to have posted a little late this week, but I spent most of Tuesday attending a funeral for the mother of a very close friend. (As seriously as I take this writing enterprise, what I really prize is my friends and family, and they will always have to come first.)
        While driving to the funeral, which was some distance away,
I heard a segment on NPR about a new book entitled World in the Balance, focusing on the search for an absolute system of measurement. (The U.S. is evidently one of only three nations in the whole world too backward and/or stubborn to yet embrace the metric system, the other two being Liberia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma).WorldintheBalanceBook.jpg
        And I thought to myself, well, at least there’s a universal standard of measurement among Jewish mothers. I’m not talking about feet (we stand on our own two), inches (we refuse to give one), or yards (where we keep the patio furniture and gigantic gas grill). I’m talking about our one basic standard of distance: We aim to live close enough to our children so that if one of them happens to get sick, we’re able to readily swoop to their aid with hugs, heartfelt sympathy, and most important of all, homemade chicken soup.SuperMomwithsoup.jpg
No, we may not be your classic superheroes, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. Rather, I fancy myself as more of a souper-hero – a Florence Nightingale for the Jewish soul and stomach, bearing broth, noodles, and maybe even matzah balls – able to vanquish viruses with a weapon far more potent than any ray-gun or antibiotic: Jewish Penicillin.
By that measure, I felt extremely fortunate when both of my children elected to attend college within about a 90-minute drive of our home. By the same token, I was not so pleased last week, when my daughter Allegra announced that the sniffles she had begun nursing while home for my birthday had revved up into a full-blown, raging cold.Allegrainpompomsweater.JPG
Although we were scheduled to visit her in NYC over the weekend, it was a bit too arduous to drive five hours round-trip before that to deliver a quart of broth or two. Also, as much as she was suffering from a minor, run-of-the-mill malady, we were more than a bit distressed because she was scheduled to sing with her jazz band on Saturday night. She had been hired to perform at a small but stylish French restaurant in Brooklyn called Belleville Bistro, and she was determined to make a favorable impression there.
Although she had landed assorted regular gigs while majoring in jazz vocal performance at New England Conservatory in Boston, since graduating in May and moving to ultra-competitive New York she'd struggled to find new places to perform. Believing that she would be booked regularly at this café if she sang well and attracted a sizable crowd, she had invited us and almost everyone in New York she knew. So imagine my angst at hearing her voice grow progressively more congested all week.
        “I’m fine,” she kept croaking hoarsely on the telephone. “All I need is a bowl of your chicken soup.”
If only I’d been a little closer and able to heed that plaintive call.Zabarsexterior.jpg
Of course there’s chicken soup to be had in Manhattan. All manner of delis and other food purveyors lurk on every block, not to mention that this is where you find the mother lode, the absolute Mecca when it comes to mouthwatering Jewish delicacies, Zabar’s.  And sure, if all else fails, you can always settle for eating soup from a can.Campbellschickennoodlesoup.jpg
My daughter lives on Roosevelt Island, however, a narrow spit of high-rise-studded land in the East River overlooking Queens, where there are few eateries and from which Zabar’s, situatedRooseveltislandtramimage.jpg on the Upper West Side, is a schlep and a half. Besides, when it comes to comfort, there’s no real substitute for your own mother’s soup made from scratch. And, in all humility, I must admit that you’d be hard-pressed to find any soup from any restaurant, even in foodie-heaven Manhattan, that can truly rival my own.
Given both its popularity and its medicinal qualities, I always prepare a mammoth supply each fall for Rosh Hashanah, then freeze multiple containers to be deployed instantly all winter at the first sign that any familyRefrigeratorafterthepoweroutage2.JPG member is feeling under the weather. As you may recall, however, I wrote about how devastated I was in early November when nearly all the contents of our freezer and refrigerator had to be dumped after we lost power for 10 days. As unnerving as it was to lose around $300 of food, I had put so much time and effort into preparing this priceless golden elixir that to sacrifice four full quarts of it, brimming with carrots, herbs and chunks of tender chicken, just about broke my heart.
In fact, to be perfectly honest (which is what I endeavor to do in this space), four full quarts of it spoiled because they melted and then refroze when our power was restored, but all four of them remain sitting in my freezer. I still don’t have the heart to throw them out.
You cannot eat chicken soup once it has defrosted and been refrozen, though. (My husband is a consumer reporter for a newspaper, and he verified this sad verdict after consulting some experts while writing about that massive power outage.) So if I was going to come to my daughter’s aid, I would have to start over again from scratch.chickensoupwithstethoscopeimage.jpg
As for whether chicken soup truly has medicinal value, I’ve heard countless reports both pro and con over the years. All I can offer is what I’ve observed myself anecdotally: Whether it’s the soothing heat, the healthy ingredients, or the heartfelt emotion with which it’s made, it never fails to make anyone who eats it feel better almost instantly.
So, now that I’ve no doubt whetted your appetite, what’s my soup-making secret?
The truth is, there’s no actual recipe. Soup-making, unlike baking, is not an exact science. I always make it about the same way, but I never bother to measure anything. Neither do I time the process with anything even approaching precision. But for those who have never done it, or done it well, I’ll describe as best as I can exactly what I do.rawwholechicken.jpg
Obviously, to make chicken soup you need to have some chicken. What kind and how much, though? Perhaps there’s some secret in that. I was told long ago in the butcher department of my local Jewish market, The Crown, that you’re best off using a pullet because its meat is sweeter. Who knows? I also would argue that whether or not you observe the laws of kashrut yourself, there’s nothing quite like a kosher chicken, which is far more expensive than your supermarket’s house brand or anything sold by Perdue, but probably far more flavorful too. Barring that, I highly recommend going the free-range route, if for nothing other than the ethics involved. Chicken soup comes from the heart, after all, so it should be made from animals treated in a relatively humane way.chickenpartscutup.jpg
Then there’s the thorny (or often feathery) issue of what parts to use and how much of them. Once again, not an exact science. But you’ll get more taste using chicken on the bone than boneless pieces. Also, no matter which you prefer, you need to have some dark meat, because after you boil the heck out of it, the white meat will be too dry to dice up neatly, and it will taste a lot like Styrofoam. I generally use two entire kosher pullets cut up – plus, my store sells chicken carcasses with most of the meat severed, strictly for the purpose of making soup, and I may throw in a package or two of those as well.
Chicken alone does not a chicken soup make, of course. Most supermarkets sell a pre-packaged mixture of fresh veggies in the produce aisle that will provide everything else you need. This typically consists of carrots,soupmixveggies.JPG celery, an onion, a parsnip, possibly a turnip, some parsley and some dill. You can also buy each of these items separately. It’s just easier and more cost-effective to go the prepackaged route. But if you do, I still recommend that you throw in some extra carrots and celery. Also more parsley and dill.carrotsparsnipsandceleryloose.JPG
Before beginning to cook, peel the onion and use a vegetable peeler to shave off the outer skin on the carrots, parsnips, and turnip. Wash the celery and parsley well. Also, discard any sizable pockets of dense yellow fat you see beneath the skin of the chicken; however much Jews may be known for having a soupçon of schmaltz (chicken fat) in both their cooking and their humor, you don’t really want an oil slick floating atop your soup, and it’s easier to banish it beforehand than to have to skim it off later.largepotimage.JPG
Did I mention that you’re going to need a very large pot, or preferably two of them? I find making soup to be such a messy, time-consuming ordeal that whenever I get around to doing it, I make a whole lot at once. Place the cut-up chicken into that large pot (or two). To this, add five or six carrots to each pot, two or three stalks of celery, one large or two small parsnips, a turnip, an onion sliced in half, and a generous handful or two of both parsley and dill, making sure to reserve some of each of these herbs to be added later. Then add enough cold water to cover it all, and then some.chickensoupcookinginpot.jpg
You also will need to add salt to taste (preferably coarse, kosher-style salt). But don’t overdo it. I think most people put way too much salt into soup because their palates are accustomed to Campbell’s, which is extremely heavy-handed on the sodium. Two teaspoons or so should do it.
Cover the pot(s), although for some reason my mother always put the lid on askew so that some steam could escape, and without quite knowing why I’ve always done that too. Cook on high until the water begins to boil, then reduce the temperature to medium-low so that the pot’s contents simmer consistently, just short of an actual boil. If you find that too much liquid evaporates, you can always add water later or as you go along.skimmingchickensoupimage.jpg
A foamy, grayish scum from the chicken will soon gather at the top of the pot. You need to skim this off repeatedly with a large slotted spoon until it’s virtually gone. Allow the soup to simmer for 1½ to 3 hours. (I know that sounds vague, but you will be able to see and taste when the chicken is thoroughly cooked and the broth turns a rich and flavorful golden hue.)
Now comes the real work. Allow your creation to cool briefly. Then remove everything except for the liquid, either by using tongs or a fork to lift out the solid contents or pouring the mixture through a colander into another large pot. I then throw away the turnips, the onion, most of the celery and parsnips (which will be mushy) and all of the parsley and dill (ditto). You can also discard the chicken skin and bones, being careful to reserve any meat.strainingchickenbrothimage2.jpg
The next step is key, if you ask me. Strain the broth through a fine metal sieve. Not just once -- at least twice. In fact, I generally do it three times, so that the broth is totally clear. Then I slice the cooked carrots into discs about ¼- to ½-inch thick and return them to the broth. Next, I add some of the cooked chicken – preferably the dark meat, as I said – by dicing it into small bites and also leaving some larger, irregularly shaped morsels. If you wish, you can also slice and throw in some of the parsnip and celery. Then, for both flavor and contrasting color, chop and add the remaining parsley and dill.carrotsslicedforsoup.jpg
Chilling the soup will allow any excess fat to rise to the top and harden. Skim this off before serving with either fine egg noodles, wider noodles, boiled rice, or matzah balls. (Make sure to store the noodles separately, though. Otherwise, they soak up the broth.)
That’s how my mother made soup. That’s probably how her mother made soup. And that’s how I made it for my daughter late last week.Harlaneatingchickensoup2.jpg
        Because I was incredibly busy – as well as having so recently been burned by losing all of my soup reserves in the freezer -- I made only a single pot this time. That yielded a little over a gallon: two quarts for Allegra, a third for her brother, Aidan, a fourth to keep for any emergency, plus an extra pint for Nice Jewish Dad because he was more than a tad peeved to be told that I’d made it strictly for our children to enjoy.
As long as we were going into the city to hear Allegra sing – and to deliver the soup, of course – I asked her if there was anything else she needed. When she noted that her apartment was much too dark, I bought a used floor lamp I found online on Craig’s List, then, deciding that its shade looked dingy, checked Marshall’s for a new one. “Anything else you could use?” I texted her from the midst of the housewares department.rhinestonelampinstoreupright.jpg
Not every young woman wants her mother decorating her New York apartment. Then again, I wasn’t exactly operating on my own. I soon found myself walking through the store taking photos with my new iPhone 4S that I would then text to her instantly. This lamp or that one? (“Rhinestones,” she wrote back, choosing an ultra-feminine light with a bejeweled shade.) What shade of brown for the bath mat and towels to match her roommate’s shower curtain? Suddenly, New York City didn’t seem so far away, after all.
I reconsidered that view when we awoke on Saturday to a full-blown blizzard, with 6 to 8 inches expected by mid-afternoon.  Allegra called to say that she’d understand perfectly if we chose not to come. By then, of course, we were already loading the car. Stay home? Was she kidding? We had an exciting concert to attend and some serious soup to deliver. Besides, there’s nothing we’d rather do than spend some time with either of our kids, even if it requires barreling down the highway for several hours in heavy, driving snow.
Yet I must admit it was slow going and the visibility was dreadful, particularly when the snow gave way to torrents of sleet falling on slick roads as we approached the city.AllegraonPattiesbirthdayJanuary2012.JPG
It was all worth it, of course. The moment we arrived, Allegra took one look at the two containers of soup I’d brought, bright sliced carrots and tidbits of juicy chicken swimming around in the broth like vibrantly colored tropical fish in an aquarium, and she squealed. Then she summoned her roommate to come see it, and they squealed again in unison.
Allegra met Emily more than 15 years ago, when they were first-graders together at a Jewish day school, so she had understandably promised to share the wealth with her. Neither girl had eaten all day, breathlessly anticipating our arrival with this booty. She reluctantly popped one of the two quarts into the freezer for safekeeping. Then, eager to display my other offerings, I quickly repaired with them to Allegra’s bedroom.rhinestonelampwithwallhangingfixed.jpg
The oohs and ahs continued as I unveiled one purchase after another. The lamp with the rhinestone-embellished lamp looked perfect alongside the Asian wall hanging suspended above her keyboard. It was also astonishing how perfectly the chocolate brown bath mat and towels matched that shower curtain, which I hadn’t remembered. She also loved the funkyBrownbathroomrugandtowels.jpg picture frame and travel mug I’d found in her favorite color, purple, as well as a black terrycloth bathrobe I’d nabbed on deep discount for only 10 bucks.
Then it occurred to me that I’d left the soup and various other food items that I’d brought sitting out on the counter. So I raced back to the kitchen to put them all away. Balancing the quart of soup, along with the noodles and a container of strawberries, I opened purplepictureframefromMarshalls.JPGthe fridge to discover that it was way too jam-packed to fit anything else inside. With four young inhabitants in the apartment, every shelf was crowded with grub, and no doubt weeks went by without anyone ever volunteering to clean out the refrigerator.
So I began to jockey things around inside, rearranging them one by one the way you move the squares on those sliding tile puzzles that predated the Rubik’s cube. I moved some yogurts and other short things that were taking up space on the top shelf, then stacked two containers of cherry tomatoes. At last, I had enough space to make a home for my soup between the Silk Almond Milk, the half-and-half and someone’s beer.soupinfridge2.JPG
That’s when it happened. Although I don’t know how it happened. The container of soup slid out from the arm in which I’d carefully cradled it, slammed onto the floor and shattered, sending liquid, carrots, egg noodles and chunks of chicken gushing across the kitchen floor.
Now it was my turn to sound off. But I didn’t squeal. I screamed. Then I began to cry.
“It’s OK,” Allegra assured me when she came running out to find me sobbing. (Wait. Who was the Jewish mother here?) “Maybe we can salvage some of the chicken and the carrots. I did just wash the floor.”
All I could hear from this, though, was that in addition to wasting half of the priceless soup I had so lovingly and painstakingly prepared, I had also just messed up her freshly cleaned floor. Which only led me to sob even more.Soupwithnoodlesspilledonfloor.jpg
There’s no use crying over spilled milk, they say. But what about spilled soup? The fact was that we had come all the way to New York not just to make this special delivery and to enjoy our daughter’s performance, but also to help her prepare for it and to help keep her calm beforehand. And my crying in the middle of her kitchen was achieving the exact opposite effect.Swifferimage1.jpg
So I pulled myself together and insisted on cleaning up the mess myself while she proceeded to print out copies of that evening’s music for the band. As crazy as it might sound, I first gathered up some of the solid ingredients and rinsed them repeatedly in a colander until they seemed almost as good as new. Next, I sopped up the sea of spilled broth with paper towels, found her Swiffer in the closet and rewashed the floor. Then I retrieved the soup that had been chilling in the freezer and heated up a big bowl for Allegra.Mychickensoupinbluebowl.jpg
“Heaven!” she pronounced it.
I still felt dreadful, though. She’d just spent five days waiting for that soup to arrive, and now more than half of it was already gone. Plus, she’d promised to share it with Emily. If only I hadn’t been such a klutz. Or if Id brought more of it with me.
Then it occurred to me. I had, in fact, brought more. It was sitting in the car in a cold pack, waiting to be delivered to Aidan. It seemed wrong to give all of it to Allegra and totally deprive her older brother. Then again, I had never even mentioned the existence of homemade soup to him. Why, although I’d packed a large bag of provisions to bring him, I hadn’t even bothered to make any arrangements with him to drop it off at his flat.
So I quickly texted him to ask if he was home, and also when and where we were meeting to go to Allegra's show together. He responded that we’d rendezvous at our hotel later on to take the subway together. I wrote back that I’d brought him some food.Aidanheadshot2.jpg
It was clear that he wasn’t up for an impromptu visit from his folks, though. “I’ll stop at your hotel in the morning and pick up the stuff. See you at 6:30,” he texted back.
And so I had my answer. Yes, it felt skeevy to favor one child over the other (and if making chicken soup for only one of them wasn’t favoritism, then I don’t know what is). Then again, Aidan wasn’t ailing, nor has he ever been quite the soup addict that his sister is. Chicken soup is actually her all-time favorite food. Why, when she was little we often thought she was a little odd, because whenever we went to a local old-fashioned ice cream parlor for dessert, she would typically opt to order a bowl of hot soup instead.
Besides, I had nowhere to store soup for Aidan overnight in our hotel. It would have spoiled anyway. So I retrieved that last container from my car and put it into Allegra’s freezer for the next time she felt sick… or in desperate need of a touch of home. Then, as guilty as I still felt, I resigned myself to whipping up another batch of soup for Aidan the next time we visited. For now, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
By show time, Belleville Bistro, in Park Slope, was indeed packed, not just with people dining there but also fans and dozens of friends who'd come specifically to hear my daughter and the other five musicians she had assembled for the occasion and dubbed "Allegra Levy and the Zaftig Quintet.”
Also, Aidan did accompany us as planned, and we treated him and his good friend Kris to a sumptuous French dinner, including a delicious endive salad with Roquefort cheese and roasted pears, confit de canard (duck leg) with gnocchi and broccoli rabe, a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and some exquisite desserts. So I no longer felt too guilty.EndivesaladatBelleville.jpgAidanandKrisatBelleville.JPG
Allegra, meanwhile, appeared to have recovered both her energy and voice in full. At least she put on an amazing show, along with her quintet of talented instrumentalists. Crooning countless numbers, from classic jazz standards like “Just You, Just Me” to many of her own original tunes, she ended each number to riotous applause. Almost everyone stayed till the very end, just past midnight, ordering enough food and libations to keep the ample wait staff in perpetual motion. The manager seemed so pleased that he sent over glasses of complementary dessert wine to our table.
         “Your daughter is incredible!” he declared to me more than once. He also paid her more than his customary rate. So I’m fairly confident that her musical mission was accomplished, and there'll be more such engagements to come.EttaJamessingingimage.jpg
        The highlight for me, though, was when Allegra performed a tribute to famed jazz singer Etta James, who had passed away earlier in the week. As she told the crowd, she had intended to pay homage to the legendary vocalist by singing her classic hit “At Last,” which has been riding a massive wave of renewed popularity in recent years, ever since President Obama danced lovingly with First Lady Michelle at one of his inaugural balls while Beyoncé Knowles belted it out.AllegrasingingatBellevilleBistrocropped.JPG
“But I read a quote that she was the absolute best at her music,” Allegra explained, “so to ‘cover’ her is almost not a tribute at all.” Instead she was going to sing a rhythm and blues song she’d written herself “because she was kind of the mother of R&B.” At this point, though, the audience began to murmur and protest with such audible disappointment at having to forego this timeless favorite that Allegra literally changed her tune.
we’re doing it,” she conceded.
And just as Allegra had swooned over that steaming bowl of soup, I finally got to wallow in what I had been craving so intensely all that week myself: the mellifluousPattieatBelleville.jpg tones of my daughter’s voice resounding with verve and passion (and yes, maybe just a soupçon of schmaltz), in a delivery so heartfelt that the crowd and I erupted with cheers and deafening applause. If you asked me, I’d have to say she did both Ms. James and her nice Jewish mom proud.
And whatever system of measure you may use, there’s just no way to quantify that.
Meanwhile, an attractive and lively friend of Allegra’s named Nora, along with her own lovely friendAidanwithNoraandSofia.jpg Sofia, ended up joining us at our table, and afterwards Aidan and Kris went out partying and dancing with them till 4 a.m. So I no longer felt sorry for him at all. I’m still going to make him that soup, of course. I’ll just make sure someone else puts it away next time.
To hear Allegra and the Zaftig Quintet performing one of Allegra's original tunes, “A Better Day," click on the link below (and I apologize for the background noise; the crowd was rather energetic):

11:19 pm 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Pattieinpartyhat.jpgWhat is it with me and birthdays? I love throwing parties… for other people. I’m vigilant, almost obsessive, about observing everyone else’s big days in a very big way. (Don’t even tell me when you were born, because I almost guarantee you’re going to end up in a foolish-looking, child-sized party hat in some garish hue opening a gift.)
When my children were young, I made such productions out of their annual events, between the entertainment, refreshments and all-important party favors, that you’d have thought I was a Martha-Stewart wannabe and/or in training for the bar and bat mitzvahs. And when I was a writer for many years at a magazine, I spent so much time planning  parties for the rest of the staff that people often referred to me as the birthday editor, as though that were another news category to cover, along with politics, culture and sports.happybirthdaycakeheldbygirl.jpg
        I guess I’m just driven to try to offset the monotony of everyday life by merrymaking on all possible festive occasions – not just Purim and Passover, but also Diwali and the upcoming Chinese New Year (as if there weren’t more than enough Jewish holidays to go around)… with the notable exception, for obvious reasons, of the birth of baby Jesus.
So you might well surmise that I just love birthdays in general. But – surprise! – you would be wrong. I hate surprises. Dread parties. I don’t even particularly like cake. (Although they may not hold a candle all that well, I far prefer cookies, pastries and pie.) And although I revel, like most mothers, in making a huge fuss over other people, the anniversary of my own birth fills me with dread. Why, as mid-January approaches each year, I feel such trepidation that you might imagine my own funeral were looming instead.
Am I that big a baby? (Clearly not, given the rather astronomical number of years I am celebrating.) That woe-is-me narcissistic? What am I so bent out of shape about?
I don’t know. I worry that people will remember. I worry that people will forget. Mostly, though, I’m just sad about getting older. Or – though I hesitate to offend anyone who may have more than a few years on me – I worry that I’m actually, already old.
Older than I was last year. Older than my parents were when I went to college… when I got married… and when they got divorced from each other and married again. They were such geezers to me on all those occasions. I still have the photos to prove it. How did I get to be even older than that, and what might I have to look forward to now?
        It doesn’t help that my birthday falls in the dead of winter, when all of the holiday hoopla is finally history, the weather outside is frightful, and spring, rather than being just around the corner, remains so far off, it seems you can’t even get there from here.Surpriseparty50simage.jpg
Then, of course, there’s the whole issue of what to do and whom to do it with. I get so morose as the day draws near that I’m utterly unable to plan anything pleasant to do. Then I find that I have no plans to do anything. Which just makes me feel even worse.
This year, I was especially busy over the weeks leading up to the blessed day -- both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I was completely distracted from the usual sources of distress, so overwhelmed with work that I didn’t have time to take stock of all of the wrinkles, bulges and assorted signals of impending senility. On the other, I had no time whatsoever to make any preparations. I didn’t even have time to sleep.
It will probably sound a little trivial to you, considering that (as I’ve lamented in this space not long ago) this was not true “work,” in that I was not being paid to do any of it. Neither did anyone’s life exactly depend on my completing any one of these tasks.PriscillaQueenoftheDesertmarqueecut.jpg
However, they were all commitments that I’d made, and when I promise to do something, I do it. To begin with, I’d promised to write the lyrics once again for my temple’s Purim spiel, and although Purim, like spring, seems light years away, the rehearsals began last Sunday. I was so consumed rewriting the words to nine disco tunes by Madonna, Cyndi, Lauper and Tina Turner et al from the Broadway hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (recasting them as “Young Esther, Queen of the Desert”), that I had no time to begin the many other tasks I had undertaken for the following week.
To wit: My book group, a.k.a. The Shayna Maidels (that’s Yiddish for “Pretty Girls”), was coming to my house the day before my birthday. When it’s your turn to host the group (and mine was actually long overdue), you don’t just serve as the hostess; you also lead the discussion by doing extra research into the author or subject at hand.
Also, being that my group consists of 13 Jewish women, we don’t just get together to schmooze about that month’s selection. We like to eat too – eat well, I might add. And as much as we have begun taking a potluck approach, the hostess provides all of the hot offerings, and so, basically, the lion’s (or lioness’s) share of the refreshments.
It would have been enough to read the entire 352-page book and straighten up the downstairs enough to receive a throng, along with writing and illustrating my weekly blog, as usual. But on top of that, there loomed an even more challenging undertaking.GayleFierer.jpg
At each meeting, when we Maidels select our next novel, there’s a lovely woman in the group, a lawyer-slash-grandma named Gayle, who often pipes up, “When are we going to read Pattie’s book?”
She’s referring to the book I finished writing nearly seven years ago, essentially a memoir in short-story form (not all that unlike this blog itself). I spent nearly a decade writing this hefty volume. My literary agent then spent a couple of years or so submitting it to a series of publishing houses, first large, then medium-sized, then small. (If you’re interested, two stories from the book, “The Ninety-Dollar Dress” and “On the Nose,” complete with photos, can be found on the navigation bar of this Web site.)blackdressintrophoto2.jpg
Some of the responses I received were almost worthy of publication themselves. “The piece were each so poignant, so vivid, and beautifully written,” wrote an editor at William Morrow. “Their cumulative effect is haunting, and I am sure that her pieces will resound with women of all ages, who have experienced the same heartbreak, complicated maternal relationships, and struggles with balancing a career and parenting.”
Another, at Doubleday, pronounced it “witty and funny with many insightful and often heart-wrenching observations,” adding, “this truly feels like a very intimate peek into the experiences of a friend.”
But alas, somehow it never sold, one of the greatest disappointments and failings of my life. Every single house ultimately found some reason or other to pass on it… although, as my agent recently attested anew, this was not necessarily his fault or mine.booksforsaleimage.jpg
When we started out with these submissions in 2005, publishing was in a major decade-long downturn,” he observed just last week. Yet just when things seemed to have hit rock bottom, they proceeded to plummet even further.  “In retrospect, that decade-long downturn now seems like the good old days,” he said. “Since then, the industry has gone from that long, slow swoon to a short sharp crash in 2008/2009.”
But, as they say, “Wait, there's more. The crash of 2008/2009 ─ those were the good old days, too,” he said. Borders survived the first debacle only to go bankrupt last year. Now Barnes & Noble is hanging by a thread. Printed book sales are down by half.vampireimage1.jpg
I don’t know if that’s why my book didn’t sell, or perhaps due to some innate flaw, like a lack of acute sensationalism (no murders, suicides, vampires or incest, although there’s more than a modicum of sex, since my agent kept urging me to spice it up).
Or maybe it’s just that no one’s really in the market for a first-time author in her 50s (did I mention that I’m getting old?).
I’ve been heartbroken having my work just sit there in a drawer, though (or more accurately, languish on my computer), and recently began to consider breaking down and publishing it myself, since the stigma of self-publishing has begun to wear off.
So when Gayle brought it up to the group again last month, as much as I balk at promoting myself, I suddenly realized that this could be an ideal opportunity. If a dozen other women read it, their feedback might prove invaluable. It also just might provide the renewed confidence and impetus I needed to get the self-publishing ball rolling.Kindleimage1.jpg
In order to have the group read it, though, I needed to figure out how to turn my manuscript into an eBook for the members who owned Kindles and other devices, as well as get hard copies printed for the three who still read things the old-fashioned way.
Plus I was determined to reread the book and make revisions, since it had been several years since I’d had the heart to read it and I could now view it with fresh eyes.
As I went through it, though, page by page, I began to grow more and more anxious about having these women read it, even if I do, on a weekly basis, totally bare my soul and all sorts of fairly embarrassing behavior to you on NiceJewishMom.com.thumbsdownwoman2.jpg
        After all,
 since the beginning of time, or at least my membership in the Maidels, there hasn’t been one book that every single one of us liked. We also don’t subscribe to our mothers’ old-school credo of tact at all costs, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” We tend to be brutally honest. So if some of my sisters in literacy liked it, others were almost guaranteed not to, and I might get to hear about that in excruciating detail.
Meanwhile, between reading the book we were going to discuss last week, writing my blog, and revising my book, I had to stay up until 3 a.m. three nights in a row. Whether or not I am actually old now, I’m way too old for that! I began to realize that I couldn’t stay up one more night. And even if I did, I wasn’t going to finish my book. Maybe I should just admit I wasn’t ready and ask to postpone it for another month.
Then I suddenly took a step back and thought, “What the heck am I thinking?”NoworNever.jpg
If there’s one advantage to having lived as long as I have, it’s knowing how easily things can go awry. As I often tell my kids, most opportunities you encounter in life are now or never. There are no rainchecks. There are few second chances. Some women in my group sounded less than enthused about my reading book. Others were already arguing over which book to read next. If I asked to delay, they might forget about mine. Not just for another month. For good.
I don’t know if it’s just a woman thing, but after all these years, I still have these belligerent voices in my head that manage to hold me back in life by often telling me, “You can’t!” Those voices can be pretty loud and persuasive, because they’re convinced that they are right. But no matter how long those voices have been yakking in there, there’s another voice inside me that is older and louder. And that voice suddenly yelled, “Quiet!” (Or as my Yiddish-speaking grandmother or great grandmother, neither of them shrinking violets, might have thundered, loudly enough to shush even thunder, “Shah!”)
“I can do this!” I told the voices. Then I went one better. “I’m doing it,” I said.

After all, what was this crazy notion that I had to suddenly rewrite a book I had spent nearly a decade poring over? The women who’d be reading it weren’t literary critics. And if I changed a sentence here or added one there, who would really care?
So I downloaded a program I found online and turned the book into an ePub file. Then I emailed the manuscript to Staples, and within less than an hour later I got a call. Three hard copies were already done.
The book discussion I led on Friday went well. The brunch did, too, although as usual we ate too much. But best of all was getting to distribute copies of my book to everyone (after I apologized in advance for all the sex scenes, which seemed to arouse no objections, only an eagerness to have me email the online copies to everyone asap).
It will be tough waiting until our next meeting, in late February, to hear the verdict. But one member named Renee was nice enough to email me with a preview that night. “I just read the 1st chapter,” she wrote. “You had me laughing…and crying…”
        Almost as good as "You had me at 'Hello.' "
And when I woke up the next morning, another unnerving countdown was over. It was my birthday. But now I actually had something to celebrate. Not just getting older. Getting something done.AidanandAllegraatTreva.JPG
Given how preoccupied I’d been all week with my assorted efforts, my children had pre-empted any half-baked plans I’d made to go into New York City to see them. Instead, they came home to see me. How excited I was to have all of us be together. However, I have to confess to doing something kinda stupid. (Why don’t those voices that always tell me “You can’t” ever manage to persuade me that “You shouldn’t”?)
OK, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but sometime late in the week I sent an email to both my kids mentioning some items that I wouldn’t mind having as birthday gifts.
In my defense, the last time I’d laid eyes on my son, in mid-December, he had shown up extremely late for a dinner with relatives, then confessed that he’d been out shopping, trying to find Chanukah gifts for Nice Jewish Dad and me. I wanted to spare him and his younger sister from going to any significant effort to hunt down gifts again. And face it, once someone reaches my age, how many things do they really need?Sephoramediumshoppingbagopen.jpg
Then again, there actually were a few small items I really did need… or want. For instance, a few years ago I bought one of those all-inclusive makeup kits from Sephora, and I’d been using it for so long that the makeup in it was making me sick. At least I’d been getting repeated painful sties in my eyes, perhaps because the eye shadows in the kit were now just jewel-toned Petri dishes, brimming with bacteria. I’d just discovered that Sephora had issued a similar new treasure trove of beauty products, featuring 33 eye shadows, a dozen lip glosses, etc. in a nifty case that folded up, all for 24 bucks. (OK, I know that makeup is artificial and overpriced, and that we should all learn to be proud of our unembellished facial features. But let’s get real. I need it. Badly. And 33 eye shadows -- 16 1/2 per eye? Who the heck wouldn’t want that?)TinaFeyBossypants.jpg
And since my son Aidan wasn’t going to get caught dead in a makeup emporium, it was only fair to request something a little less girlie. So I mentioned the book by Tina Fey called Bossypants, a reportedly hysterical bestseller by the incomparably witty creator and star of 30 Rock, which had just come out in paperback.
And to allow for some element of choice (for my kids) and surprise (for me), I figured that I had better pad the list a bit more. So I added a few more items, including a wildcard request for anything affordable by Marimekko. (That Finnish company’s bold textile patterns are back in and able to transport me instantly back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when they were kind of hip and so, relatively, was I.)Marimekkoposter.jpg
        OK, so issuing this roster of gift suggestions, however well-meaning, was a tad too reminiscent of those Christmas lists I often hear about (ever heard of a Chanukah list?). And yes, it was presumptuous to assume that anyone was that concerned about what to buy me (although it wasn’t exactly a state secret that my kids would pick up something).
That wasn’t the problem, though. The problem was that my daughter Allegra is an even better shopper than I am (after all, she learned from a virtual professional -- me; my role model was my mom, who in later years favored conventional garb in neutral shades like brown and gray). Also, Aidan had just been in Paris, where there is far, far better shopping than anything available in the whole US of A.
And so they had both already taken care of business by the time I’d issued my list. They also were offended that I seemed to be implying that they had no clue what to buy. Yet they also felt obligated to heed my suggestions, so now they had to rush out and buy me even more gifts.AidanonPattiesbirthdayheadshot.jpg
        Could that be why my son arrived late Saturday afternoon in a perceptible snit? Who knows? I ran to hug them shrieking with joy as they both debarked the Megabus in rather frigid downtown Hartford. But then everything that I said during the short drive home seemed to irritate my son to no end. So by the time we’d reached home, given my already fragile mood and my cumulative lack of sleep, I found myself dissolving in tears.BunniewithAidanandAllegra.jpg
Part of it, I think, was that my mother, however well-meaning and brilliant she was, always managed to become a butt of ridicule in our family by having outdated ideas or saying the wrong things. I loved her immeasurably anyway – we all did – but she was old and clueless and became our official buffoon, to be mocked and automatically disregarded. I’m also well-meaning, but I used to be kind of savvy. And young. I don’t want to be the village idiot. When did I become the idiot?PattieonherbirthdayJanuary2012.JPG
How unnerving it is when you know you should be happy, and you’re trying your damnedest to act and feel happy, but all that you really feel is miserable. And somehow the harder you try to look and feel cheery, the more miserable you become. Face it. You can’t really will yourself to be happy any more than you can will yourself to be in love.
I kept telling myself that my kids had put themselves out enormously on my behalf and they’d be gone by the next day, and I had better enjoy their company while I could. But once the faucet opens when you’re feeling teary, there’s no holding back the flood. And pretty soon, just from watching me sulk, no one was really in any mood to eat cake. Or cookies, pastries or pie, for that matter, with or without candles.AllegrainGrandmaBunniesminkcloseup.JPG
To make matters worse, since I’d been so consumed with my work all week, I’d failed to make dinner reservations, and now we couldn’t seem to get in anywhere. But suddenly, late in the afternoon, we got a call back from my favorite local restaurant, Treva in West Hartford Center, and we got all dressed up and went out, Allegra sporting my late mother’s mink coat to make sure that Grandma Bunnie got to come along.PattieonherbirthdayJanuary2012USE.JPG
And sitting at that dimly lit table, toasting with white sangria and eating fresh pasta and other mouth-watering Italian fare, I finally got that rush of birthday exhilaration, the one I had been craving and fretting would never come along. I gazed at the three faces across from me, and I thought, “I have two grown children who not only remember my birthday, but also are willing to give up a Saturday night of socializing with their friends and travel six hours round-trip just to celebrate with me… no matter how irritating I am.”
Then I got to blow out the candle… not on a cake, or cookie, or slice of pie, but a cocoa-dusted slab of tiramisu. Yes, I’m pretty damn lucky, as Nice Jewish Moms go.Pattieonherbirthday2012withcandle.JPG
Soon enough the presents came out, and it turned out that Allegra had already had the inspiration to buy me something fabulous from Marimekko (although not something minimal and inexpensive, as I had hoped) in addition to picking up that multipurpose, multi-hued makeup kit.MarimekkoLilipursecropped.jpg
And Aidan hadn’t just purchased a copy of that Tina Fey book (which isn’t the hoot and a half I had expected… it’s more like a hoot and a howl in every single sentence). He had bought me something in Paris, a rather hefty something, and then schlepped it back to London on a train, then New York on a plane, and then on the bus to Hartford… just to surprise me. And although it may not be exactly what you think of when you think of Paris, it was a sweet, novel and extremelyPattiesbirthdaykeyholderfromParis.JPG thoughtful gift – a colorful figurine meant for holding car keys from a hip Parisian housewares store, something that has already made my life better, not just because I don’t have to scramble to find my keys anymore, but because every time I walk into the house, I see it, use it, and instantly think of him.
        Along with the handsome new wristwatch Allegra had helped me pick out, my husband gave me an exquisite Asian teacup, complete with a detachable tea-leaf strainer and matching lid because, as everyone knows, I’m a confirmed tea-aholic. I especially liked it because the design featured a little girl with pigtails and a slightly larger little boy, which reminded me of my children when they were small, and of the days so long ago when I first became a nice Jewish Mom, albeit a slightly younger, svelter version.Pattiesbirthdayteamug2012USE.JPG
And when we got home, there was another present waiting, something I kind of gave to myself. Starting in my 40s, my mother began presenting me with a jar of a pricey face cream that she favored on my birthday every year. I resented it, of course – who wants to be reminded so directly, and almost like clockwork, that the wrinkles are coming out?
A year or so before she died, she called to tell me that the company that made this particular elixir, Estée Lauder, was discontinuing the product, so she’d bought out her local Bloomingdale’s six remaining jars, three for us each. For her, that indeed turned out to be a lifetime supply. I, meanwhile, have been struggling to make mine last. A couple of months ago, I resigned myself to the fact that my second-to-last jar didn’t have even a trace of moisturizer left inside.EsteeLauderfacecream.jpg So late last Saturday night, nearly three years after my mother died, I allowed myself to unscrew the lid of my last remaining jar and dip my finger into something silky and so precious as to be literally priceless – a mother’s love.
Yes, I know after this I’m on my own. But for the coming year, I have something to relish. It also makes me realize that maybe my mother, buffoon or not, hadn’t been all that clueless after all.
Now, five days later, I still feel ancient and decrepit. But all that Sturm und Drang leading up to the occasion is finally over, and I have quickly taken the change in stride. I’m already looking ahead, to Monday’s Year of the Dragon, followed by my friend Pat’s annual Super Bowl party on February 5th. Then the saints will come marching in – both Valentine and Patrick. (As a redhead, I think I have some legitimate claim on the luck and soda bread of the Irish.)
So I think I’m good until next January rolls around, at which point I’ll be all ready to give almost anything... if only I could be as young, hip and happy again as I am today.

9:50 pm 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

        Redheadwithmoveaheadsign.jpgSorry to be harping once again on the advent of a brand-new year – it does seem so almost-two-weeks ago – but as I struggle to remember to write 2012 on checks, I realize that I am also struggling with some other things. Bigger things. Like managing to focus forward and keep moving, instead of looking longingly back.
        I sensed I was going to have a problem when I had a strange dream three nights before the year ended. I shudder to even mention it, but my birthday’s coming up this weekend. And in my dream, as I deliberated over the options I had for celebrating, I suddenly realized exactly what I wanted to do. It became obvious that the only defensible way to spend my birthday was to go visit my mother; that just as I long to see my own children on their special days, it would mean more to her than anything to be with me, and that for me to merely phone her that morning and then go out and have fun with friends would be unforgivable.BunnieheadshotatHarlansbirthday.jpg
That epiphany of sorts was enough to wake me up, only to realize as I shook off the fogginess of sleep that my mother had died going on three years ago, and I would not be spending this birthday with her, nor any other. (And just for the record, let me assure you that I always did see her on my birthday, or as near to it as possible, especially after I became a mother myself and recognized that it truly did mean the world to her.)BunniewithmeinElizabethPark2008.jpg
I don’t want to bore you with a complete catalog of my nocturnal meanderings, but over the next two nights I dreamt vividly of my dog Zoë. In the first case, she was with me in the dream, until I realized with great alarm, still within the throes of sleep, that she was not curled up at the foot of the bed where she belonged. I instantly awoke in a panic, and my eyes searched the room for her in the muted early morning light, but she was nowhere in sight. And then the reason for this abruptly sunk in and pierced my heart like a sharp knife slicing through an overripe peach.Zoeinbedwithmeblurry.JPG
Of course she wasn’t there, or anywhere. She departed this earth back in February.
Yet that didn’t prevent her from joining me in my dreams once again the very next night.
I have never studied psychology and can’t say for certain why these two beloved beings were suddenly invading my subconscious. But I can hazard a decent guess. Along with the rest of the world, I was about to embark on a brand new year, and they didn’t want to risk being left behind in the old one. Or I was far from ready to leave them there.
As if that could ever happen.
I don’t know if everyone has as much trouble with change and moving on as I do. But I think I know where I got it from.Joryplatewithtoastandcheese.JPG
When my mother was still alive and in good enough health – meaning up until just before her 81st birthday – she visited my family often. And soon after she arrived, almost every time, she would make herself a slice of toast with melted cheese, then forage in my cabinet until she found a plate. And I’m not talking about just any plate. I’m talking about one of the oldest, dingiest plates in the house. A plate so scratched and worn that one might wonder why I hadn’t thrown it out long ago.
She wasn’t making an unconscious or arbitrary choice. Nor was it a matter of a nice Jewish mother thinking that she only deserved something defective, the way she might insist on having the smooshed piece of cake, or be willing to sit in the dark and suffer. We have plenty of beautiful plates to choose from, ranging from fine china to the white Dansk plates trimmed in indigo that we bought to replace the original set we received when we got married (which we threw out when they started to show wear). But she only wanted the scratched ones, and if she couldn’t find one she’d ask for it. “Where are the Jory plates?” she would call.JoryandmeatmyBrandeisgraduation1977.jpg
She referred to them that way because they were an ancient relic of my love life. When my college boyfriend Jory and I moved in together after I graduated in 1976, we purchased a sturdy, utilitarian, clear glass service for four – four entrée plates, four salad plates, four bowls and four mugs – for a mere 20 bucks. As fragile as glass may be, the set easily outlasted the relationship, and 35 years later it’s still mine, although given periodic incidents of breakage, only a few plates and a single bowl remain. All of these have seen clearly seen better days, though, meaning that after decades of being used regularly and run through the dishwasher, they are now anything but clear.BrandeisgraduationweekendwholefamilywithKaren.jpg
Why did she gravitate toward something in such shabby shape? It wasn’t that she preferred my old boyfriend to my husband. (She didn't.) Nor did she ever wish that I had married him instead. I can only surmise that they represented to her something familiar and safe. They brought to mind another time, a sweeter time, perhaps, one when she still was married to my father, both of her own parents were still alive, and many a future family or world tragedy had yet to take another big bite out of our souls.BLTimage.jpg
        Or, to put it another way, you’ve heard of comfort food, of course. Well, these were one step beyond that. These were comfort plates, able to transport her decades back in time and space, as well as to transmute almost anything placed on them into a form of macaroni and cheese, or her own personal favorite comfort snack (trayf though it may be), a BLT.Batmanplate.JPG
And  I know she was not alone. My husband, you see, almost invariably opts to put even the most elegant food I prepare onto his own serving receptacle of choice, otherwise known as the Batman plate, a small melamine dish imprinted with an image of the Caped Crusader, presumably given to our son Aidan, now 25, when he was a toddler, and now much the worse for decades of wear.
Meanwhile, I must confess that I favor my own comfort plate whenever I’m having a bite: an old Wedgwood dessert plate, embellished with the image of a mother rabbit tucking its baby into bed. This was given to one of my kids when they were born, and until this moment I must admit that I never actually stopped to read the fading inscription around the rim, apparently a quote from Beatrix Potter.PeterRabbitplate.JPG
“Peter was not very well during the evening,” it reads. “His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea: 'One table-spoonful to be taken at bedtime.' ”
How I would love to have my mother, whose name was, in fact, Bunnie, put me to bed now. Or to tuck one of my own precious progeny in and be able to keep him or her safe.
There’s nothing wrong with missing family members whom you adored, of course, or longing for better times gone by – better because they were with you.
 Unless, of course, it holds you back from going forward and enjoying what lies ahead.
        Then again, i
t can become a real problem when the people close to you are perhaps ready to move on, and your own nostalgia starts holding them back, too.
        Such is the case in our household, or so it appears it may soon be.LuckyandHarlanonSohoweekend1.JPG
As I wrote a few weeks ago, when we sublet a room in a Soho loft while visiting New York in mid-December, we ended up taking our hosts’ family dog for a long walk. Never mind that this particular canine was an aging rescue dog, and a rather ordinary, dejected and slightly deformed specimen, at that. While wandering the streets holding the other end of a leash, my husband found himself miraculously transformed.
He no longer felt invisible to comely young women and others he might pass. “I was no longer just some old guy,” he told me. “Now I was a man with a dog.”
When soon afterwards I created our annual holiday card, a photo-collage of the past year, he complained that I'd made a serious omission because I hadn't shown him walking Lucky, perhaps his fondest moment in all of 2011. A few days later, although he'd been as devastated by the loss of our beloved Zoë as I was, he started doing his own holiday shopping. And to my amazement, I realized that he was shopping for dogs.Zoeonourlawn.JPG
        OK, I must admit that
a few weeks ago, in a weak moment, I'd written to the breeder from whom we’d gotten Zoë, a purebred Portuguese Water Dog, telling her what had happened and asking to be alerted if there were ever another litter available. She had swiftly replied that some puppies from Zoë’s lineage would be born this month, and that, based on the way we had clearly doted on our girl, she'd be more than happy to place another one with us.
Then, last week, with a mixture of interest and horror, we had watched a segment on a news magazine show about a woman on Staten Island who’d had her dog, Trouble, cloned in Korea after it had died. She’d shelled out $50,000 to get an exact replica, which she had dubbed Double Trouble. (And that was actually only half the customary going rate, a relative bargain extended to her for letting the process be documented on TV.)CloneddogTroublewithtux.jpg
        As mind-boggling as her extravagance may sound, I must confess that I could relate to her basic sentiments. If I could have anything, I’d want Zoë back, or the closest thing to Zoë I could find.
Yet my husband said he feared that having a dog that looked too much like Zoë would make him sad every time he saw it. Also, although he might deny it, I'm sure he balks at the prospect of spending $2,500 on a puppy – evidently the current price for Portuguese Water Dogs – even if it’s a mere pittance compared to our getting a reincarnated soul from Seoul.
So he began researching other hypoallergenic breeds, since we have allergy issues in the family. And last week he came downstairs and said he'd decided on an Airedale and that he'd located a breeder who would sell us one.
This news came as a total shock to me. After Zoë had died, I'd vowed to everyone who asked (and everyone did ask) that we would never get another pet because she was the only dog for me. Also, although I had always found Airedales adorable to look at, I’d never once considered actually adopting one.Airedalesilhouetted.jpg
When I Googled the breed to get a better idea of what I might be in for, I found a photo of a perfectly manicured show dog. Sorry, but I’m just not the perfectly manicured type. My lifestyle is kind of loose. My house is hopelessly messy. And I never get my fingernails, let alone any other body part, manicured myself. I prefer dogs that are scruffy and overgrown. I also just want something to kiss, cuddle, call made-up nonsense names, tell my troubles to, spoil rotten with too many treats and take for long walks in the park.
And even then, as I said, I am not in the market for a new dog. Or at least I'm not quite ready to consider being in the market for one.
I began to soften this stance a bit, though, when my husband told me about Buster.Busterdrinking.JPG
Airedales, like Portuguese Water Dogs, tend to be extremely intelligent. But he had found a breeder in our state who claimed to have raised some dogs that were particularly resourceful. One, named Buster, had accidentally spilled his water bowl one day and then found himself extremely thirsty. So he had pushed a stool over to the sink and managed to reach out and bat at the faucet with his paw until the water had gone on, then helped himself. Evidently, he had been assuaging his thirst this way ever since.BusterturningonfaucetJPG.JPG
To quell my disbelief, my husband sent me a video of Buster turning on the faucet and guzzling straight from the tap. I watched him perform this remarkable feat on YouTube again and again. And each time I viewed it, another smidgen of my staunch opposition to ever getting another pet washed away and went down the drain.
(OK, here's the link if you don't believe me!)
My husband told me that this was no fluke, and that some of Buster’s siblings had learned to open the refrigerator. (I’m sure he was pulling my leg when he insisted that one of them would get a fork out of the silverware drawer first. But I was still intrigued.) The best thing about Zoë, to me, was that she clearly understood almost everything I told to her, provided that I broke it into small enough words and concepts. If I were going to ever consider another dog, I would insist on having a brand-new canine confidante, one to whom I could air my innermost thoughts. An Airedale just might be it.
I got anxious when my husband announced that he was going to visit the breeder himself. Worried that he might actually come back with a dog – and eager to survey these marvelous mutts myself -- I persuaded him to wait, promising to accompany him there over the weekend.Busterdrinking2.JPG
I must admit that I found myself getting a little excited as the day approached, and replaying that video of Buster and his bodacious thirst. I even joined in enthusiastically when my husband began proposing potential names. (Latke? Lulu? Tillie? Brett? Even if we were going to go with a different breed, we were determined to stick with a girl.)
The minute I woke up on Saturday, though, I realized I’d had a change of heart. I couldn’t stop barking at my poor spouse, whatever he did. I was nervous. Edgy. Irritable. Anxious. I don't know what had happened in my dreams, but misgivings had put a muzzle on my eagerness, replacing it with sheer dread.Speedlimit65withcars.jpg
I dragged my feet so much that we left for our appointment late. To make up for lost time, my husband began racing down the highway. In my opinion, he tends to drive too fast 100 percent of the time (which may explain why he thinks I always drive too slowly). But as I kept asking him to slow down, I wasn’t just being a nervous Nelly, as usual. I felt a frightening lack of control.
He had made all of the arrangements himself, chatting with the breeder for hours. I felt completely out of the loop. I also feared that I would be sabotaged in some way, and that he would walk in and agree on the spot to buy one of the puppies. He might even pressure me to bring one home that very day.ArnoldaleRoadhousewithAidanPattieandAllegra1991.jpg
I wasn’t just imagining this. He has a tendency to be highly impulsive. Sure, when we bought our first house after we were married, we looked for months. But one morning, just before we went to see another prospect, he took out our checkbook and declared, sight unseen, “We’re going to buy that house today.” It turned out to be a bit of a dump. But it was within our price range (unlike all the others he’d been dragging me to), and I was worn down. Yep, we bought it. We lived there for 14 years.
If we were going to get another dog, it might live for 14 years. So this was a major decision, and I didn’t want to rush into it. I wasn’t ready to take the leap.Airedalestanding.jpg
So it didn’t help that when we arrived at our destination, a harrowing hour’s drive away, the dogs that were paraded in were indeed ready to leap. Not to mention bound, wriggle, writhe and cavort. Airedales are particularly high-spirited animals by nature, and that is evidently what they do.
The breeder brought them in one by one because the females were in heat and the males were chomping at the bit to pounce on them. So we sat in the living room and listened to them bark somewhat ferociously in the adjacent enclosures inside a vast garage, sounding a little like crazed beasts.
        Then we met five of them, of varying ages, sizes and temperaments.AiredalesittingbesideHarlan.JPG
       If we were ever going to be pet parents again, 
I’d envisioned getting a new dog somewhat smaller than Zoë, who had tipped the scales at just over 50 pounds (thanks to my liberal hand with treats and table scraps). My husband had stated that Airedales were around her size. Hardly. They were huge!
Zoë had been so fluffy and soft to the touch that whenever I let someone pet her in the park, they would remark how silky her fur felt. These dogs had a double coat, and although their faces and long-haired legs were soft and fine, their backs were bristly and coarse. Stroking them felt a little like what I imagine it would be like to pet a porcupine.Airedale2.JPG
Portuguese Water Dogs are energetic, too, and we had relished walking Zoë twice daily. And yet in the last decade or so she’d become increasingly sedentary, especially in her final years, always content to sit beside me for hours while I wrote, read or watched TV.
Airedales, though, truly are a different breed. As I’d read on the Internet, “They are naturally lively and can be very rowdy [their underline, not mine] if they do not receive enough daily mental and physical exercise.” I’m sure these dogs got only the best of care, and granted, the breeder had just returned after being out all day at a dog show. But these creatures were bursting with so much pep that I felt a little uneasy. When they stood up on their hind legs and strained upwards, they were nearly tall enough to lick the breeder’s face. They were powerful animals, too. Most we met could easily have knocked me down.AstaandBunnie2.jpg
The clincher, though, came when I asked a key question. When I was growing up, our family dog was a combination wire-haired terrier and beagle named Asta, after the dog in The Thin Man series of movies. He was, sadly, more than a little neurotic, largely in response to my parents’ chronic battles and far from civilized divorce proceedings. But his worst quality, unquestionably, was that when he got loose, which happened regularly despite our best efforts, he would run for miles, and it was almost impossible to catch the frisky little bugger. During these great escapes he wreaked havoc on the neighborhood, breaking the leg of a little dog that lived across the street, mauling ducks in a nearby pond, and even attacking small children.
Then there was the time that I was chasing him in the car, shortly after I got my license at age 17, and I smashed into a post. I vowed then and there that if I ever had another dog, I’d make sure it was from a breed that didn’t run away. So when we got Zoë, I began letting her off the leash regularly so she wouldn’t be inclined to bolt, and she wasn’t. Throughout her life, I could unhook her and she’d just keep standing there gaping calmy at me.
The breeder admitted that Airedales were particularly prone to run for the hills, though. In fact, being hit by cars was their most common cause of death, she said, because of their innate wanderlust. Then again, she doubted I’d come across too many Portuguese Water Dogs who'd just stand there if you let them loose either. She looked almost as skeptical about my story as I'd been when I’d first heard about Buster and the sink.AstainTheThinManmovie.jpg
         Yet my
 oppositional attitude was suspended slightly when she proceeded to cross the room and return with a photograph of a small, wiry-looking pooch. “Who do you think that is?” she asked. I knew instantly, of course. It was Asta. Not my Asta. The real one. From the movies. I think she said she’d known his breeders. Or her parents had. In either case, it seemed a little uncanny to me, like one of those serendipitous things that are just too bizarre to be pure coincidence. Doesn’t it?TheSunAlsoRisesposter.jpg
As for the dogs themselves, I felt an instant affinity for one named Brett (coincidentally, one of the names we’d been considering, after Lady Brett Ashley, the promiscuous and sassy love interest in Hemingway’sThe Sun Also Rises). She exuded such empathy and intelligence in her eyes as she greeted me warmly, without hesitation. Yet she was an older dog that they were keeping, and not for sale.AiredalekissingHarlan.JPG
My husband was clearly smitten, though, by a puppy of 15 weeks who was available. Because they’d kept him for months, considering him for show purposes, he was already house-trained and well past the exhausting infant phase. He was a male, however, and I remained bent on getting another female, if anything. He also was extremely rambunctious, and his name was Joey. Was that the only reason my husband accidentally called him Zoë at least half a dozen times?
If we didn’t want him, then there was a new litter due by the end of the month that would be available in March. We could have one of those puppies, but they were in high demand, so we’d need to decide and fork over a check a.s.a.p.
All the while that we were there, I tried to present an eager, totally composed front. After all, the breeder was checking us out as potential adoptive parents for her pure-bred brood, just as much as she was trying to entice us. As soon as we got into the car, though, I lost it. And the moment we got home, I ran in and glanced over at the spot on the living room carpet where, only 10 months ago, I'd been cradling Zoë in my arms on her very last night of life when her heart abruptly had stopped. Then I ran upstairs, burrowed under the covers and sobbed.Stuffy.JPG
OK, so I didn’t exactly get into bed alone. For the first nine months after Zoë died, I began sleeping with a velvety little stuffed dog that my husband had bought for me for my birthday last January. Then, a month ago, another dog fell down during the night from on top of our headboard, where a small collection of stuffed animals is perched, and I began sleeping with both dogs. Sometimes my husband walks in from the next room and wonders who I’m talking to. Usually I’m not talking to anyone. It’s just the two dogs talking to each other. They are my little loveys, and they love each other, too.Loveys.JPG
I’m sorry to admit something that sounds so crazy and infantile. I guess I should be embarrassed. The only time I’m really embarrassed about this, though, is when I accidentally call one of them by one of the many pet names I used for Zoë. Then I apologize to Zoë, whose ashes are in a small, square tin sitting on a nearby armoire.
        Does it sound like I need a new dog? Does it sound like I'm ready for one?
  Later that night, it suddenly occurred to me why I had become so distraught that day. Aside from the terrible scenes of loss and heartache that the excursion had reawakened, there was the suddenness of it all. I felt as though I hadn’t been on a date in 15 years, and then I’d been taken to a stranger’s house to meet a handful of suitors and told that I had to marry one of them... right away. And if none of them would do, then I was being pressured to marry someone else entirely as soon as possible, and to commit without even meeting him.Airedalehead.jpg
And all of my suitors were from foreign countries and looked nothing like the companion they would replace. Nothing at all. They also all had very bushy beards!
And if you think that analogy is a little extreme, then let me point out that I not only spent much more time with Zoë than I ever do with my husband, but that in recent years she slept in bed with us every night. Sure, a new puppy would be tiny at first. But eventually it would grow… and grow. Why, having one of those behemoths in bed with us would be like sleeping with a horse!Zoeinourbed.JPG
In the days that followed, I continued to feel conflicted and traumatized. I know how much my husband wants a new dog. Maybe deep inside, as painful as it would be to risk letting one into my heart and eventually losing it again, I desperately want one too. When I think about it, I can’t quite imagine never having a dog to love again.
A real dog, I mean (although I wouldn’t want either of my stuffed ones to hear that).
I’m not quite sure I want a giant dog that can open the refrigerator on its own, whether or not it actually bothers to get down a fork. Nor a dog smart and agile enough to pry open the front door (which the breeder swore that many of her Airedales also could do). Then again, I’ve thought about little Joey a few times since, and I almost miss his eager little face, in a way.
It’s a big decision. As much as I still miss Zoë unbearably, I have to confess that it’s liberating to be on our own. We go away for frequent weekends now at will, without having to make arrangements for a pet or feel guilty about leaving one.NewYears2011022.JPG
Then again, is it fair to deprive my husband, who is not just ready to move on, but almost desperate to? He’s so determined, in fact, that instead of being impetuous, he seems prepared to compromise. Not to mention shell out some pretty serious bucks. Only last night he turned to me with a new proposal designed to meet me halfway.
“What if we got a brown Portuguese Water Dog instead?” he asked.
I considered it for a moment. At least it would be soft, cuddly, and familiar. Not quite Zoë, but Zoë-like. A clone, but with a look and perhaps personality of its own.
“Maybe,” I said softly, after awhile.Zoeondeck.jpg
I’ll keep thinking about that, trying the idea on for size until I perhaps feel ready to curl up with it, and feel comfortable enough to follow through without running for a snack served on one of those comfort plates. Either way, it is a brand new year. It’s time to move on, with or without a dog.
And wherever they are, my mom and poor Zoë shouldn’t be worried about getting left behind. They are the ones I reach for whenever I need to go back to a safer, kinder time. And the many memories I have of them will never fade or crack. Wherever I go, no matter how many new years, or dogs, may come, they are coming with me.

4:32 pm 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Word From the Weiss

HappyJewYear1.jpg        Happy New Year, everyone! Or, as I texted to my son Aidan in Paris on Saturday, “Happy Jew Year!”
Yes, Jew year. (And frankly, given our checkered, angst-fraught history, any new year of just being here is a good one for the Jews.)
        Also, yes, Aidan is in Paris. At least he was. Who knows where he is now? It’s not as though he’s texting me back night and day.
        He doesn't call. He doesn't write.
He doesn’t even Facebook or Skype.
        (Did he forget that he has a mother?)AidaninParispostcard.jpg

        All kidding aside, though, who can really blame him? After all, he’s 25 now. He’s busy and on vacation. And did I mention that he is (or at least was, the last that I heard) in Paris?
That may sound a bit extravagant, even over-the-top, as New Year’s plans go. (For our own celebration, my husband and I didn’t even venture outside our own front door.) But I think it was actually the ultimate in being sensible and prudent. Seriously. Let me explain.
It all started a few weeks ago, when Aidan mentioned that his good friend Kris was winding up work as some sort of assistant on the next Bourne movie, at which he had been employed for months. Kris, an aspiring movie director, is Aidan’s frequent collaborator on short film projects. (He’s also the only Jewish Kris I know.) “What’s he going to do now?” I asked.KrisLayngphoto1.jpg
Aidan said that he was going abroad for three weeks, based on Aidan’s advice. Aidan had told him that although he couldn’t seem to see it himself, he was clearly burnt out and needed a change of scene badly. Aid had also learned that Kris, at 25, had never been to Europe. So Aidan had persuaded him to go visit some relatives in London and Ireland for three weeks.
At this, I had to laugh. This is exactly what I’d told Aidan myself last summer, when he was concluding three years of working as a production assistant at the TV show Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which went off the air in July. He hadn’t been away in years. Why, he had barely set foot outside of New York City since finishingAidaninNYCApril2011.jpg college in 2008. He’d been working long hours, sometimes six days a week, and moonlighting with several other jobs. To my motherly eye, he’d been wallowing in exhaustion and misery for so long that he had lost sight of how demoralized he was, just as you can’t smell a strong scent (either good or bad) when you’ve been inside the house with it for too long. Like it or not – and smell it or not -- his frame of mind stunk. He needed a total break.AidanAllegraandMichelleinTurkeysmiling.jpg
That’s the argument I had used to convince him to join us on a family trip to Italy in July. In fact, I’d been so convincing that he’d agreed to first meet his sister, Allegra, and her friend Michelle for a few days in Istanbul when the girls were returning from Birthright (talk about a total break!). Evidently, somewhere along the way he had come to the conclusion that Nice Jewish Mom knows best, because he was now prescribing this foreign travel therapy to others.Aidanonhis25thbirthday.JPG
But as they say, “Physician, cure thyself!” Although Aidan had returned from our summer sojourn renewed and refreshed, the past five months had given him a grouchy new case of the Mondays. As I have noted, he returned to graduate school this fall, enrolling in a program to get his Master of Fine Arts in writing for television. From August through October he’d also been doing free-lance crew jobs on assorted movies and TV shows shooting in Manhattan, starting work at dawn and laboring long hours. Then all of this work had abruptly dried up, and he had been underworked and edgy.
Now he was on break for nearly a month. "Kris is going to London?” I said. "Why don't you go too?"AidanandJonahatBrowngraduation.jpg
He replied that airfare to London was expensive and, considering that he was out of work now, he didn’t want to spend the money. If he was going to go anywhere, he would visit one of his college roommates, Jonah, who is attending grad school in California.
But he soon discovered that Jonah, by chance, was also going to be in London for those same three weeks. The main reason Aidan hadn’t been anywhere in years was that he never could find a traveling companion with the time and means to join him. Now two of his closest friends were available and going to the same place at the same time.AidanandKrisonsetofHooky.jpg
        This, to me, was about as close to bashert (fate) as it gets. “You need to go too,” I said. Perhaps he and Kris, while traveling together, would come up with a fresh movie idea. But Aidan wouldn’t budge because of the money. (And no, I didn’t dare offer to buy his ticket. He’s been financially independent for years and won’t accept a cent from us.)
So I actually resigned myself, for once, to biting my tongue and minding my own business… until, that is, I intercepted an email that by pure luck ended up in my box (or by pure luck I actually bothered to read).
My financial adviser had written a note to his assistant asking her to move some money within each of my kids’ accounts. When my mother died in 2009, she left some investments to them, and the U.S. government required them to take minimum annual distributions by the end of the year. The adviser, my close friend Jake, had instructed his assistant to simply reinvest these funds, which amounted to nearly $1,000 apiece.AidanatBrowngraduationwithGrandmaBunnie.jpg
OK, this was beyond bashert. Also, way beyond Nice Jewish Mom’s meddling. This was Grandma Bunnie speaking from the grave, and I got her message loud and clear.
“No, wait!” I quickly wrote to Jake. Unless he had any overriding objection, I preferred that he not reinvest those funds. Both of my children, like many youngsters and other people today, were finding it extremely difficult to find reasonably paid work. How nice it would be for them to each receive a surprise windfall. Allegra was doing a noble but unpaid job teaching Human Rights to inner city high school kids in Harlem. She certainly deserved (and would doubtlessly welcome) money for holiday spending.  And in Aidan’s case, as I explained, it couldn’t be coming at a more opportune moment.
Jake not only readily agreed, but insisted on rounding the totals up to $1,000 even. The checks went out that very afternoon. Three days later, I was visiting Allegra in New York City when her brother happened to call, and I asked her to pass me the phone.Aidanheadshot1.jpg
He sounded as morose as he had been lately, maybe even moreso. “Uh, did you happen to get today’s mail yet?” I asked. Indeed he had. “Well, did you open it?” I asked.
“Why should I?” he replied. “There was nothing much in there.”
“Nothing?” I asked.
“No,” he said flatly. “Nothing special. All I got was some financial document.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, did you open that?”
“Open it?” he asked. “No, why should I? It was just… some financial document.”
“Right,” I said. “OK. Well, why don’t you open it anyway? Open it now, I mean.”
There was silence at the end of the phone. Then air escaping, like out of a tire. “Fine,” he finally said. “Hold on.” There was rustling in the background. Then tearing.
Then silence again.
“What the -- ?” Then the sound of something dropping. Maybe it was his jaw.
I began trying to explain what it was – about how annuities worked, and whatnot. But it was clear he wasn’t really listening.
“Uh, mom? I’m going on that trip,” he cried exuberantly, interrupting my discourse. “And I’m going to have an amazing time!”
OK, I’d like to tell you that the matter was settled then and there, and that he bought a ticket that very night. But sullenness and inertia have a way of seeping back in, especially in gloomy weather, which is pretty much all we get in December in the Northeast, and by the next day he’d come to his senses and was determined to just reinvest that money.Piggybankimage1.jpg
I guess that was responsible and prudent of him, and I guess I should thank my lucky Jewish mother’s stars that I have a kid who has the good sense and self-restraint to save for a rainy day. The frustrating thing to me is that when the rainy day comes – and I think it was already here, even though it was December, and by all rights it should’ve been snowing instead – he still doesn’t want to spend it. Is there a word that’s the opposite of hedonist? Or spendthrift? Let’s just say that frugal is his middle name.
Actually, it’s Simon. And if you’re inclined to enjoy life, don’t do what this Simon says. Or does, under normal circumstances.
I’d been so excited when he was going. Now I was heartsick that he wasn’t. But he’s an adult. It was his money and his life. And who am I to say what he should do?
        OK, maybe I didn’t stay out of it entirely. We have close friends who live in London. Close family friends, that is. Someone asked me recently if Jews have godparents, and I just laughed. Godparents? We have bubbehs and zaydehs, and Aunt Mildreds and Uncle Morts. That’s about enough people sticking their noses into our business, isn’t it? Especially since our actual parents (or is it just me?) don’t exactly keep a healthy distance.fairygodmotherjpg.jpg
But if my kids did have godparents, the Wades would be it. They are the people who -- if I understand this godparent business correctly – adore and encourage our kids almost as if they were their own, but never, ever nag or pester or smother them. The people who are a lot like us, only much cooler, more worldly, and much more fun. Plus, they manage to get along together much better than we do. They are the people who our kids often wish were their real parents, but, alas, they got stuck with us. In other words, they are the closest thing to fairy godparents short of bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.
Paul, the husband, who’s a Brit, went to prep school with my husband, meaning that they’ve been friends for over 50 years. Kathy, his wife, who is originally American, speaks with a bit of a breezy British clip after over four decades across the Pond, but she comes over so often that she manages to keep abreast of what’s happening in the States in general and our children’s lives in particular. After all, she and Paul are travel writers, and cooler than we are… and the closest thing our kids have to godparents.PaulandKathyWadeinElizabethPark2.jpg
        I let it slip to them that there was a chance that Aidan might come over for a visit. In part, I wanted to find out if they’d be available to host him. (As travel writers, they go away a lot.) I also hoped that they might contact him directly and cajole him into coming. I didn’t need to ask twice.
        They would be home. And they’d be delighted. “Send the Canadian,” they wrote.
The name stems from Aidan’s bar mitzvah, more than a dozen years ago. As our close friends and our kids’ closest non-relatives, they came over for the occasion, of course. In fact, although they aren’t Jewish, Paul actually ended up holding the Torah during the service when an actual great-uncle failed to show up on time. But he didn’t get to give a speech. That honor is reserved for the real parents and the rabbi… plus a perfect stranger.AidanandPattieathisbarmitzvahcropped.jpg
It’s customary in our synagogue to have a member of the board present a silver Kiddush cup to the bar or bat mitzvah child on behalf of the temple and welcome him to the community, then say a few words. As pleasant as this may be, in our case the board member chosen had never met us or Aidan, and he dyslexically mispronounced his name. “Adian,” he kept saying, as if the “d” and “I” were reversed and it had three syllables.PaulandKathyatAidansbarmitzvahcropped.jpg
We cringed at the time as over and over again he butchered what was then an uncommon name for Americans. (To Aidan’s dismay, it has since become the No. 1 choice for boys in this country, presumably due to a character by that name on Sex and the City, played by hunky actor John Corbett.) But in the end, it turned out to be one of the most memorable aspects of the entire occasion. Long after my son’s Torah reading, haftarah portion and painstakingly crafted speech have been all but forgotten, that moment is what lives on, largely because Paul swiftly used the error to coin a clever new nickname for Aidan: “Adian, the Canadian.”DudleyDoRightimage1.jpg
Over the years, this mangled moniker has gradually been shortened to reflect just the nationality. “How’s the Canadian?” “Where’s the Canadian?” Or, as he said now, “Send the Canadian!”
Indeed we would have, if only the Canadian would go.
But then suddenly, one day in late December, Aidan called, and it sounded like he was having second thoughts. Actually, what it sounded like was that he was trying to convince me that maybe he should go, after all. Or was he trying to convince himself?
Sensing that his natural tendencies toward staunch self-denial were beginning to crack, I must admit that I didn’t just listen objectively. I cautiously began to egg him on.
Yes, he had nothing to keep him in New York until school resumed on January 9. No, the Wades wouldn’t mind putting him up, and they would surely welcome Kris too.Aidanheadshot2.jpg
“Let me ask you something,” I finally said. “You have three more weeks off from school. You have two friends to travel with, good friends who really want you to come. And thanks to that big surprise check from Grandma, you can truly actually afford to go. How many more times in your life do you think the stars are likely to align like that?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, then hazarded a wild guess. “Five?"
        I snorted. “Seriously? Maybe three at most,” I allowed. “But more likely? Try zero.”
The fact is that, at 25, he presumably has many, many good years ahead of him. But you never know what’s going to happen in life. He could end up getting a job and not have time off for awhile. He could have free time, but no friends free to accompany him. Or, who knows? He could end up with a nice girlfriend and want to travel with her.AidanandKrisasyoungtourists.jpg
And as much as traveling is great for its own sake, and it’s wonderful to go away with significant others, or your children, or entire extended families, there is nothing quite like traveling with friends of your own gender when you’re young and single. Because who knows what sorts of adventures you might have?
        It might be hard for him to believe that his old nice Jewish mum was once young, single and free to have international adventures of the romantic persuasion. Or that I actually once had them. But something I said must’ve struck a chord, because he did buy his ticket that night.
And he and Kris did go to stay with the Wades. So in the end, I didn’t send the Canadian. The Canadian sent himself.airplaneimage1.jpg
Capitulating to my well-known nice Jewish nervousness, he texted me the moment that his plane landed at Heathrow, even though he arrived at 4:47 a.m. Eastern time.
“I’m here. Go back to sleep,” it read, although as nice and reassuring as this was, it wasn’t really necessary. I’m not suggesting that I wasn’t worried. It’s just that I’d already set up an automatic alert on FlightTracker.com to text-message me when the plane landed, and that one came in three minutes later. After which I did miraculously manage to go back to sleep.
After that, though, although my husband had arranged a temporary international phone plan for Aidan, allowing him to text for 50 cents a message and call for 99 cents a minute, he then proceeded to keep communication with us down to a minimum. Never mind that a single message costs the same no matter what its length.AidansphotoofTheGoldenHagaddah.JPG
Two days later, he texted me a picture. A picture of a page from an exquisitely illustrated ancient volume, identified by museum documentation beneath it as “The Golden Hagaddah.” To this, he added a single word by way of explanation: “Inspiration.” It was a lovely image, and lovelier still to know that he’d thought of me when he saw it.
        To be perfectly honest, though, they may say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case I kinda would have preferred the thousand words. Or at least maybe 15.
“Beautiful!” I texted back. “Is it Passover in London already? I knew you were a little ahead of us, but that is ridiculous.” Then I dared to add a question. “Having fun?” But he didn’t reply.AidansphotoofbangersandmashNewYears2011.JPG
Two days later, my husband got his own illustrated text. It was the photo at right of a bowl of sausages and potatoes beside a half-pint of Fuller’s ale, clearly shot in a London pub, presumably my husband’s favorite, The Dove, which is near the Wades’ house. “Bangers and mash,” it said beneath, a decidedly English dish my husband adores.
The only basic thing we knew about his travel plans was that, since Kris had never been to Europe, Aidan had suggested that they go to Paris for New Year’s Eve, then eventually proceed to Brussels as well, since it was only another hour’s train ride away. And we could only assume that they were following this itinerary because my husband got another photo on the 31st. This one had no commentary, not even a word, and he couldn’t figure out what this ordinary street scene was, or what it meant…
Fortunately, he received it on his new iPhone, and when I used my fingers to blow up various parts of the image, I finally found the answer. A tiny street sign just off center read “Rue Saint-Jacques.” This was the street on the Left Bank where my husband had once lived when he took a course at The Sorbonne in 1963, during the summer that he was 19.
So maybe Aidan did know and remember and even actually believe that once upon a time we had been young and open to having romantic adventures like him.
Late that afternoon, I received my own text from him, relatively loquacious by comparison to the rest. “Happy New Year,” it said.
That’s the one to which I replied “Happy Jew Year!” (Actually, “Happy Jew Yeat,” given my limited agility texting on a tiny keyboard.) Then I couldn’t resist venturing a couple of further inquiries. “Are u happy you’re there? What are u doing to celebrate?”
Serves me right for being nosy, I guess. Because he shot back exactly one word.
That one was kind of worth a thousand words, though. Clearly, he was in Paris. And enjoying himself. I began to picture thin pancakes filled with both savory fillings like chicken, mushrooms and Béchamel sauce and sweet ones like flaming Crêpes Suzette, and to imagine the Eiffel TowerEiffelToweronNewYearscolorful.jpg in the not-so-far-off distance, illuminated by fireworks going off all around it in the sky as people cheered in French and guzzled bottles of real Champagne (not the cheap-o Spanish sparkling wine we would settle for that night).
Talk about vicarious thrills.
It was just as well, because as I mentioned, our own New Year’s plans were far from exotic or ambitious. In fact, up until a few days before, we had no plans whatsoever.AllegraonSohoweekendcloseup.JPG
We had been holding off, waiting to hear what Allegra might be doing for the evening. Although the last thing any 22-year-old really wants to do on New Year’s Eve is hang out with her folks, we knew that she was at loose ends, since her boyfriend had canceled his plans to visit her from L.A. for New Year’s, and then had proceeded to renege on his promise to come directly after the First, as well. At the very least, we figured, we could go into NYC and take her out to a fancy dinner with a friend. But finally, her own festive plans with other people her own age began to fall into place. Now we were the ones who were going to be dateless in Dullsville on the biggest night of the year.SallyandDialonNewYears2011USE.JPG
No matter. We invited our good friends Sally and Dial over to dinner. We briefly considered meeting in advance at our town’s First Night celebration to see the fireworks and take some salsa dancing lessons, too. But late that afternoon, Sally emailed to admit that Dial was not in a lively Latin dancing frame of mind and would prefer a quiet evening with us at home. No matter, I admitted. The fact was that fireworks, to me, are really for the Fourth of July. Also, having lured Nice Jewish Dad to my Zumba class once or twice, I could pretty firmly attest that he showed dubious promise as a salsa dancer himself.NewYearsEvehorsdoeuvres2011.JPG
So I made some pretty and rather fancy hors d’oeuvres -- all trayf (definitively non-kosher), I tremble to confess -- and Sally shook up some delectable rum drinks called Benjamin’s Age Reversers that seemed to genuinely work almost instantly (must have been the dash of pomegranate juice – so revitalizing! So healthy!). Then I made a tasty meal, including grilled fillet mignon and more trayf, and she arranged someSallyssaladsonNewYears2011.JPG gorgeous salads garnished with more pomegranate, and before we knew it, the countdown had begun and we were toasting with bubbly and dipping fruit and cake into gooey chocolate fondue (the closest I could come to simulating Paris).
The highlight for me, though, I must admit, came when Allegra phoned us a little after midnight. She’d spent most of the evening visiting a close friend who is very ill, but then had gone out dancing at a club with friends and her cousin Suzy, and she seemed to be in high spirits. Yes, it had been a little underwhelming to settle for wishing the boyfriend a happy new year via FaceTime on her iPhone (the current next best thing to being there). But in her new state of maturity at the ripe old age of 22 (or maybe her rather advanced state of spirits-enhanced holiday cheer), she felt moved to launch into a rousing soliloquy, heard by all on speakerphone.
However lacking in romance her life had been on the penultimate night of the year, she had come to the sudden conclusion that it didn’t really matter. The only things that mattered in this world were friends and family, she said, and she was lucky enough to be blessed with both in abundance. She said that she loved us, and that Sally and Dial were great friends, and that she loved them too, and loved them for being there with us.
And I only wish that I could remember everything else that she said, and exactly how she said it, but I was in a bit of a fairly advanced state of holiday cheer myself.PattieandSallyonNewYears2011.JPG
But of course she’s right. After weeks of obsessing that we had nothing special to do, we ended up having one of our best New Year's ever, just laughing and eating good food with good friends. We were so busy laughing and eating, in fact, that we didn’t  get to watch Kathy Griffin strip down to her bra with Anderson Cooper on CNN, let alone see Ryan Seacrest, in Times Square on NBC, doing whatever it is that Ryan Seacrest does. We were having such a good time together that suddenly we realized it was nearly 3 a.m. and our friends were still there, and we were all still wide awake and bursting with energy. The Benjamin’s Age Reversers? The pomegranate?
And as we finally turned in a little before 4 a.m., it occurred to me that Adian the Canadian was probably already up for the first morning of the new year. And whereverPattieandHallanonNewYears2011.JPG he was, whether still in Paris or bound for Brussels, he was probably having the time of his life. A time that he will long remember and possibly tell his own kids about someday, when they are young, and struggling, and have been burnt out for so long that they can’t even smell the fire anymore, or, even worse, can't sense that some of the fire that once burned inside them has begun to go out.
There’s nothing like family. There’s nothing like friends. But there’s also nothing like getting away now and then when you’re young enough and free enough to do it. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have just one word for you.

1:34 am 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.