Word From The Weiss
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
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 real, rather old-fashioned deal – the kind that
my parents made once upon a time for their
own weddings and distant youth.
It was a voluminous volume equipped with 30 sheets of thick, black 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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
For the rest, the best I could do, I guess, was
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.
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.
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 disclaimer. Ho ho ho, indeed.
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 Paradise. But 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.
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).
What, you might wonder, was taking so darned long? One
problem was that, even though I already had hundreds of photos, I 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
romance. Yet 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.
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
When I was done filling all 60 pages, I penned an inscription on the inside cover.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and gravlox) for $95.
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
“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!”
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.
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?”
“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.
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.