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Friday, September 2, 2016

A Word From The Weiss


 Sorry for going AWOL.jpg    OK! OK! OK! Before you even begin to tell me that I have virtually gone AWOL for over half the summer and become one of the worst blogging correspondents ever, let me just point out that last week was special. Last week, I had one of the best excuses ever. That is, Saturday was my son’s 30th birthday – his biggest milestone ever, beyond the bar mitzvah and the wedding, of course – and being a nice Jewish mom, I chose to mark it by undertaking what may be my most ambitious project ever.

Aidan turned 30.jpg

       I mean ever. It was a project, after all, that was not just monumental, but 30 years in the making.

     Then again, the actual work only began 17 years ago, soon after the bar mitzvah. That’s when our good friends Sari and Arthur sent Aidan a special present to mark the day that he became a man: a beautiful, stylish, black leather-bound photo album.

     This wasn’t the typical modern album, the kind filled with pages of clear plastic compartments into which you can easily slip standard 4x6 or 5x7 prints.

     This one was the real deal. That is to say, the realrather old-fashioned deal – the kind that my parents made once upon a time for their own weddings and distant youth.

Album cover blank.jpg

    It was a voluminous volume equipped with 30 sheets of thickblack archival paper. The front and back covers were constructed from buttery soft, quilted jet-black leather. A little pocket inside the back cover held hundreds of tiny black triangular tabs. The only way to secure photographs inside was to apply one of these tabs to each of their four corners, lick or otherwise moisten the back, and then press them into place.

Photos were attached with adhesive tabs.jpg

      It was a beautiful gift. A thoughtful gift. A very special, exceptional gift. But it was also a demanding one. It demanded a level of organization that I did not possess. The kind of discipline that allows you to start and stick to an installment plan in which you insert photos on a regular basis, every time your kid has a photo op or does something noteworthy, like spin a dreidel, dress up for Halloween, or actually clean his or her room.

     I knew that I should do that. I always meant to do that. But life is busy. And so am I. The most I could seem to manage was to keep shoving photos and memorabilia into the box that held the album, in hopes that I would find time to attach them someday.

     And that is what I did. For 17 years.

Aidan graduating high school in 2004.jpg

     When Aidan graduated from high school, I wanted to finally assemble the album as a graduation gift. But I was too busy planning his graduation party. Besides, I didn’t want him lugging something so precious to his chaotic college dorm.

Aidan at Brown graduation with Allegra 2008.jpg

     When he was about to graduate from college, I thought of doing it again. But I was still overwhelmed and didn’t want him taking it along to a series of nomadic apartments.

     Then, after he got engaged last summer, I became determined to surprise him with the album as a very special wedding gift from his dear old nice Jewish mum. This would also be a way to introduce his bride-to-be to the real, unadulterated Aidan (not that, after four years together, Kaitlin didn’t already know and love the real Aidan). 

Kaitlin and Aidan on his 29th.JPG

     By then, in my mind, the album had grown in scope and proportion to be profound. This would not be just a photo collection starting from the day he was born. To me, these prints provided full-color, concrete proof that he had been blessed with a happy life.

     A very happy life, if you ask me, even though he is almost infamous for his stiff-lipped, stony expressions and a refusal to smile whenever there’s a camera in sight (which made finding photos in which he actually looked happy like – excuse the goyisheh expression – searching for the Holy Grail).

Aidan is not known to smile for the camera.JPG

     Yet if I had been too busy to assemble the album during the past 16 years of his life, then I certainly had no time to do it during the hectic year that we spent planning his wedding.

     So when his big birthday rolled around only two months after the Big Day, I viewed it as a second chance. Maybe my final chance – or at least my last big chance until the next major milestone (and I don’t dare to speculate what or when that might be).

     So I pulled out the box, which over the years had grown so chockfull of prints that the lid rested lopsidedly about a foot above the bottom, like a splayed-open accordion.

Aidan on the first day of first grade.jpg

      After piling photos in it haphazardly for going on two decades, the hardest part was trying to put them into some semblance of chronological order. Some had been taken when he was an infant or toddler. Others clearly hailed from high school and beyond. But it wasn’t easy telling the difference between two months old and four months old.

Aidan as

     And had he been 8 (or was it 9?) the year he dressed up for Halloween in a canary yellow trench coat, his face shmeered with olive green gook to resemble the title character in a 1994 Jim Carrey movie called “The Mask”?

     Why, oh why hadn’t I taken the time to scrawl the dates on the backs of these prints? For awhile, back in the ‘90s, we’d had a camera that had automatically inscribed the day, month, and year in the bottom corner of every single photograph it took. Elegant? No. A godsend, though.

Album page with The Mask.JPG

        For the rest, the best I could do, I guess, was guess.

     After I had arranged my hundreds of pictures in vague, estimated order by date, I chose an image I had always loved to insert into the window in the cover. It was a picture taken in June 2000, the day Aidan graduated from King Philip Middle School at age 13. But it looked more or less like the 30-year-old Aidan-to-be of today.

Album cover with photo.JPG

     Then I proceeded to start carefully affixing photos on the inside, one by one, three or four to a page, beginning with one of my husband manically clutching my belly soon after we'd first learned that our firstborn was growing somewhere inside it.

     One of the main advantages of this kind of old school album is that it allows you to give the photos silly captions (“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Super Aidan!”), or to at least jot down key info like where, when, and on what occasion it was taken.

Photo album page 1.JPG

     Why, there was even enough space at times to provide behind-the-scenes insights, like I did for a photo snapped when Aidan was 2 that became our year-end holiday card. Although we had chosen a generic, non-denominational holiday design, the printer had made an error and inserted an image of Santa Claus with the words “Ho Ho Ho” below. And we had ordered them so late that there had been no time left to get them reprinted. So we had been obliged to send them out as is, with a disclaimerHo ho ho, indeed.

Album page with Ho ho ho photo.JPG

     I began filling the album early on Monday morning, taking only occasional breaks to do absolutely essential things, like go to the loo, attend my weekly Zumba class, and watch the latest episode of Bachelor in ParadiseBut by 2 a.m., when I finally gave up and called it a night, I was only a few measly pages into the project… and Aidan was still in diapers.

     So I started in again on Tuesday, and then Wednesday as well. Each night, I was up till 2 or so again (the latest hour at which I could manage to not begin gluing  things upside down or writing total gibberish in gold permanent ink).

Photo album page with inflatable palm tree.JPG

     What, you might wonder, was taking so darned long? One problem was that, even though I already had hundreds of photos, found myself stopping repeatedly to forage throughout the house for essential pictures I knew were still missing.

     I also felt obliged to check through old letters and documents and, yes, installments of my blog to verify names, places, and dates before daring to inscribe them in permanent ink.

Album page 2.JPG

    Yes, I know it was just a simple photo album, not world history being recorded in a textbook or news in the newspaper of record. But I hoped that my son would treasure the album and pass it down to his own offspring for posterity. So I wanted to do whatever it took to get everything right.

    Speaking of that, as the week went by and my efforts continued, I began to wonder if they were all for naught. Would Aidan treasure, or at the very least, appreciate my present?

     Or would he do little more than glance at my colossal undertaking, roll his eyes, then put it under the bed or pop it into a drawer somewhere, never to be seen again?

Album with Solomon Schechter years pix.JPG

     Would it become among his most cherished possessions, or would it eventually be lost in transit over the many times that he would no doubt move over the coming years?

     I would have to wait until we met for the answer to at least one of those questions.

      As you can probably imagine, after several days of hunching over my project, my aging back was beginning to ache almost as much as it did back when I was pregnant.

     Also, after a few days of slaving over this venture day and night, there were old photos piled anywhere and everywhere. The dining room table, which was now photo album central, was such a God-awful mess that I doubted we would ever be able to eat on it again.

Photos covered the dining room table.JPG

      We were due to leave on Saturday morning for NYC, where Aidan lives, so I woke up on Friday knowing I would have to stay up until I was done, however late. There was a part of me that now regretted having ever started it in the first place.

    Mostly, though, what I now regretted was not having planned the layout more carefully from the outset. There were 60 pages altogether, counting front and back. Unfortunately, I had devoted too many of them to my son’s earliest years.

Album page with Aidan's bar mitzvah.JPG

    When I was growing up, my family owned a movie camera, but no still camera, and God knows iPhones didn’t exist. There are barely a handful of pictures remaining from the first two decades of my life.

     By comparison, from the moment they were born, both Aidan and his younger sister Allegra were captured so often that you can practically watch them grow up via time-lapse photography. So even after being highly selective with those shots, I had managed to fill over two-thirds of the album just documenting ages 0 through 8.

Album page with baby Allegra pushing Aidan.JPG

    With contemporary albums, you can change your mind and rearrange the pictures tucked into the plastic sleeves. In this case, everything was already set – if not in stone, then with adhesive little tabs and indelible annotations.

    So from this point on, I had to be selective. Very selective. Which should I include – our first family vacation to Europe, when Aidan was 12, or pix from when he spent a semester of junior year studying abroad in London?

    What about all those years he played soccer, in both the fall and the spring, or performed in his schools’ jazz bands and marched with them in the annual Memorial Day parade? Would it suffice to have only one picture of each to represent years of concerted effort?

Album page with junior prom pix.JPG

    There was only one choice that was easy to make: I decided it was fine to put in a photo or two of him in his tux, along with his date, at both the junior and senior proms. But I figured that his new wife wouldn’t be all that thrilled to see images of his other past girlfriends. They would remain on the cutting room floor – or, in this case, the dining room table.

      As for his new wife, there were more hard choices to make. In the four years since Aidan and Kaitlin had met, many a photo had been taken documenting their blossoming romanceYet there was barely room to include even one. The entirety of their relationship had to be summed up very succinctly in four shots on the penultimate page.

Album page with Kaitlin pix.JPG




     And what might not be the most original postscript ever:

     “And they lived happily ever after…”

     Oh, well. There would soon be an entire wedding album that would display the rest.

     When I was done filling all 60 pages, I penned an inscription on the inside cover.

    “The Life of Aidan: The First 30 Years, with love from your very proud mom,” it read. Beneath that, I added a photo of me cradling him as an infant in my arms, rays of light radiating off my shoulders as I left the hospital with my newborn, some 30 years ago.

     When I was finally done, it was so late that there were nearly rays of morning light radiating through the window. Still, I took the time to lovingly flip through my handiwork.

Album inside cover.JPG

     Then I flipped through it again and flipped out, overcome with even greater regret.

     How I wished that I had started making this album years ago – not because doing it all in one week had nearly done me in. It was that after going to all of this trouble, I was reluctant to give it up instantly. Would my son actually treasure it the way that I would?

    My fortune cookie from a Chinese restaurant recently had the nerve to inform me that “The virtue lies in the struggle, not in the prize.” Mine had been the struggle. Aidan would get the prize. Oh, well. I guess I could always look at it when I went over to visit. He just had better not hide it under the bed or stick it in some drawer, never to be seen again.



Aidan's birthday brunch at Russ & Daughters.jpg

             Although the actual birthday fell on Saturday, the party was scheduled for Thursday night. We weren’t invited to that, of course. Neither would we ever presume that any normal, red-blooded 30-year-old would want to spend his actual b’day hanging out with his folks.

      The plan was to take him out for brunch on Sunday instead, along with Allegra, her boyfriend JP, and Kaitlin, of course. And this being his 30th, we wanted to go somewhere special.

      And special is what he chose. It wasn’t among his usual haunts, anyway. Or, for that matter, ours.

Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side.jpg

      Normally, we met up somewhere in his Upper West Side neighborhood for omelets or other such typical brunch fare. But what he really wanted to do for his big birthday was go to Russ & Daughters, a relatively new branch of the famous Lower East Side food emporium inside the Jewish Museum.

     In other words, a place that was kind of like a kreplach – something Jewish inside something equally Jewish.

     This place does not, however, actually serve kreplach. Nor, for that matter, matzo ball soup.

Russ & Daughters menu.JPG

     Yet they offer just about everything else of the traditional Jewish food persuasion, from kasha varnishkas and vegetarian chopped liver to blintzes and babke French toast. The specialty of the house, however, is a dazzling variety of smoked fish – both pickled and schmaltz (creamed) herring, whitefish, sable, and every manner of lox or bagel imaginable.

      There were so many options that when we arrived just before noon on Sunday, I couldn’t decide, and not just because the prices were a little on the pricey side – and I’m not just talking about the price of the platters intended to serve three to four, like the Hattie (smoked whitefish, kippered salmon, Gaspe Nova smoked salmon, and sable) for $110, or the Ida (Scottish smoked salmon, Gaspe Nova smoked salmon, pastrami-cured salmon, angravlox) for $95.

Russ & Daughters' Eggs Benny with lox.jpg

     It turned out that the birthday boy himself was equally undecided, so we agreed to share our top two choices – the Classic (Gaspe Nova smoked salmon with cream cheese, tomato, onion, and capers on a bagel) for $22, and the Eggs Benny (poached eggs, Scottish smoked salmon, sautéed spinach, and Hollandaise sauce on challah) for $23.

     But by this point I could stand the suspense no longer. And before any of these rather oily, messy, and decidedly smelly delicacies could arrive and potentially soil my handiwork, I whipped the box with the album out.

      “What’s this?” Aidan asked, looking a bit surprised.

      Then, the moment he opened it, his face lit up. “Oh. Wow!” is what I think he said.

     Then he began leafing through it, page by page, seemingly transfixed, an uncharacteristically broad smile faintly curling the corners of his lips as he continued to exclaim periodically, “Oh. Wow!”

Aidan at Russ & Daughters.jpg

     I could see that Kaitlin, who was seated across from him, was also devouring the images with her eyes, even though she could only see them upside down at this point.

     Suddenly, the hostess of the café wandered over to have a closer look herself. “I haven’t seen one of those in years!” she gushed. Then she paused for a moment, gazing appreciatively over Aidan’s shoulder, before adding something like, “Oh, wow!”

      Yet most admiring of all was Allegra, to whom I had already shown my creation. “When am I going to get one of those myself?” she asked eagerly. “Do I have to wait until I’m 30?”

Allegra January 2016.jpg

      “Not if I start working on it now,” I replied. “Which I probably should. And don’t worry,” I added. “I have duplicates of most of those pictures.”

     Duplicates. Now there was an idea. Maybe the answer was to make not one album, but two at the same time. Two versions of the same thing. Otherwise, I will demand joint custody or visitation rights. She just had better not hide it under the bed or in some drawer.

Allegra and Aidan little and big.jpg

     But let’s be honest. I probably won’t find the time to put together

 another such album, let alone two, until Allegra turns 30 herself. If then. And with all the things we have photographed her doing, from ballet recitals to jazz performances, I fear hers will take even longer.

     Yes, she, too, if you ask me, has been blessed with a very happy (and busy) life.

     Then, if you ask me, I'm the one with the real happy, charmed life. Because I have both of them.

4:20 pm 

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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.