Friday, October 28, 2016
A Word From The Weiss
I was on my cell phone listening to a friend (who shall remain nameless) kvetch about her husband
(who shall also remain nameless) when my home
phone rang. My first impulse was to tell whomever
was calling that I would call him or her
back. Then I saw that it was my daughter calling, and I told my friend I would call her back.
Then I heard my daughter’s voice, which was almost unrecognizable and incomprehensible because she was crying so hard, and I
hung up on my friend at once.
From what I could understand,
my daughter Allegra had been walking home from work in NYC looking at her cell phone when she had slammed headfirst into a tree. Or, to
be more specific, slammed into a thick branch of a tree that protruded far into her path on the sidewalk. All she could remember after
that was lying on the ground and having two men rush to help her up.
Now she was dazed, disoriented, and in severe pain. It
was hard to understand her because she was not only crying hysterically, but also slurring her words. My husband, who was listening in, urged her to go to the nearest emergency room. Meanwhile, I ran upstairs
and began flinging items into a suitcase, with
which I ran downstairs.
“Where are you going?” my
New York!” I cried, dashing out the door.
“Why don’t you wait until we hear how bad it is and whether she really needs you?”
“Because by the time we hear whether she needs me there, I could almost be there!” I replied.
Never mind that she had called just after 5:30 p.m., at the
height of rush hour, and we lived over 100 miles away. Why wait? She was my daughter, and she was in pain. There wasn’t
a moment to spare.
As I drove, it was hard
to breathe. Hard to breathe? I couldn't breathe. I couldn’t bear to imagine
how serious the damage might be.
A little over an hour into
my breathless journey, Allegra phoned me from the ER at the nearest hospital, NYU Langone Medical Center, to which she had managed to walk.
“Why are you coming?” she demanded, still sounding dazed. “I’m
just an idiot, and I walked into a tree.”
“I’m coming because you’re an idiot and you walked into a tree,” I
She was no longer crying
by now, but still sounded as if she had marbles in her mouth or had consumed way too many cocktails. Yet she managed a small laugh.
The good news was that
they had assured her that she had not fractured her skull. So they were not going to do an MRI, CT scan, or any other extensive or expensive tests. She didn’t even have any bleeding, bruising, or other
visible signs of the collision. But they'd said she definitely had a concussion, and they wanted to keep an eye on her.
problem. I still had miles to go and didn’t want her going anywhere until I arrived.
I decided to pull over at the
next service station to quickly text a progress report to my husband, as well as
my son and daughter-in-law, who were
also now in the loop. Then, before getting back on the road, I quickly phoned
Allegra’s boyfriend, JP, who was still at work in Philadelphia. I knew she had tried, but been unable to reach him.
To my relief, he picked up immediately. When your girlfriend’s
mom calls you at work, I guess you know something's up. “I’ll try to
get onto a bus as soon as possible,” he stated when I told him the news. That wasn’t necessary, I insisted. After all, I’d be there. Besides, he had just gotten back late the night before
after spending the weekend with her. “Just call her as soon as you can,” I said. Then I got back on the road.
Normally, my husband complains about how slowly I drive. But for once the speed limit was the last
thing on my mind, and I was racing right
through as though my life depended on it. No, never mind my life. Hers! But just after Allegra phoned me again an hour later, and
I assured her that I would be there soon, everything on the highway came to a
halt. According to the radio, there was a new accident just ahead and all three lanes were closed.
By the time I pulled up in front of the ER, a full three hours
had passed. Poor Allegra hobbled out slowly, stiff and zombie-like, as if
sleepwalking, and climbed in beside me. Then
we headed for her apartment, where I put her to bed and began making dinner. It was already well past 9 p.m. and she said that she was famished. Serious concussions often make people feel nauseated, so I could only hope that this was
a good sign.
JP called soon
after, and she reiterated my conviction that there was no need for him to come. No matter. He was already on a bus. He was coming no matter what.
whipped up a giant vat of pasta. Allegra lives with three roommates. She was hungry.
They were hungry. Everyone ate.
By the time JP walked in after taking a bus
to New York, then the subway to Roosevelt Island, where Allegra lives, it was nearly 11. He needed to leave again by 6 a.m. in order to catch a train back and make an important meeting at 9 a.m. in Philly.
had dropped everything just to come and be with her. Wow. Right?I guess that’s love.
The next few days were hard, to say the least. Allegra felt pain and swelling in her head, “as though I’m in a perpetual headstand,” she said. She also felt pressure behind her eyes. Anything but the dimmest light bothered her. So did most sound. She could barely bear
to stand or sit up. It also hurt to look at a phone, TV, or computer screen.
She mostly had to lie down and rest.
I stayed over for the next few days and nights,
making her breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and doing whatever
else I could to help. I walked across the island to pick up her prescriptions, and also stocked the fridge with groceries. As long as I was there, I also washed and folded
all of her dirty clothes (and I must say she had a lot of them) in the laundry room down in her basement.
Beyond that, we rarely left her apartment, other than to get a nip of fresh air late each afternoon. But even that was a challenge. By the time she had managed to negotiate the few yards from her building
to the riverfront nearby, she would have
to lie down on a bench with her head in my lap. And soon the fading afternoon sunlight
would be too much for her, even with dark glasses on, and we would be obliged to go back inside.
Yet, of course,
I was more than happy to do it all. I’m a nice Jewish mom, after all. The
hard thing for me over the past decade or so has been not getting to do those things, and having my children not need me anymore. Now I was
thrilled to do it again, and only wished that I could do more for her. But there were boundaries to be maintained.
Allegra had lost her balance in the accident. But she had not lost one iota of pride.
She is nearly 27, and the last thing she really wanted was to have her mom living with her. Or doing all the stuff for her that
she is usually able to do perfectly well on her own.
Her coordination was so impaired that I hesitated
to give her a knife when she ate. But I didn’t want to make her feel worse,
so I also hesitated to cut up her meat for her.
As a nice Jewish mom, I wanted
to do anything and everything I could to help her. Unfortunately, I could not alleviate her pain or worst symptom of all:
Every day I would consider leaving the next day. But then
the next day I would wake up and not have the heart to go.
afternoon, she was scheduled to see a neurologist at the NYU Langone Concussion Center. The center was near the school at which Allegra works, and she wanted to go to work before
the appointment, even though her symptoms
were only improving very slowly. I agreed to drive her to work and then leave. But then I came to my senses.
I wanted to go to the doctor
with her, not only to make sure she got there and back safely, but also to hear exactly what the doctor had to say. In the
condition she was in, there was no way that she
would remember everything that he said. And even if she did remember, there was no way she would tell it to me. So I stayed over yet another night.
And it was
a good thing that I did. It
may not have been Bring Your Nice Jewish Mother to
Work Day, but I turned out to be the perfect accessory. All of her symptoms remained internal. She was still wobbly, but when
she got dressed for work, she looked good. Perhaps no one would have believed how awful she felt if I hadn’t been sitting by her
side as a tangible testament to her helplessness. She was such a mess that she needed to be with her mother.
She was also so weak that she needed
me to open every door that she walked through.
I insisted on our taking a cab to her appointment, yet not without one quick detour.
I needed to see that damn, pesky tree for myself. So we had the taxi stop by the curb while we went to examine the scene of the crime, and I shot photos
of a reenactment.
after we sat down in the waiting room at the Concussion Center, Allegra felt dizzy and light-headed
again. “I need to lie down right now,” she declared. So I told her
to stretch out on the floor and put her
jacket on the carpet to cradle her head. Not that either of us cared, but we were in a concussion center. No one gave us a second glance.
The moment that the doctor appeared to usher us into his office, I felt reassured. He looked
young, but had a kippah perched on his head. He was clearly a real doctor.
Jewish one, that is.
After listening to her account
and hearing her full roster of symptoms, he examined her in an adjoining room. I listened as he put her through a battery of tests.
“Turn your head from side to side… Close your eyes and touch your finger to your nose. Now the other side…Walk putting your feet one before the other…”
Then they returned and he gave us his assessment. Allegra had suffered a mild to moderate concussion. He was fairly confident there was no permanent
damage, and that she would fully recover.
But the symptoms would probably persist
for two months.
During this time, she would gradually improve. Yet she might not improve steadily. There would be good days, and then there would be many not-so-good days.
But beyond taking pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, there was no treatment. Only time would heal this wound.
Years ago, the common protocol
had been to tell someone in her circumstances to lie down in a dark, quiet room
and do almost nothing. But that was no longer the case.
For one thing, they had realized that you might go stark raving mad doing
almost nothing. For another, they had begun
to believe that it was actually more
beneficial for someone with a concussion to begin pushing themselves to do a little more each day.
I only worried that, knowing my daughter, she would push herself to do too much.
In fact, being a rising young jazz singer, she had a gig scheduled for the next night. And that
gig happened to be almost 100 miles away, in Philadelphia.
Did the doctor think it was OK for her to travel two hours or so there by car, then stand up and sing in front of 800 young professionals at a posh museum the next
He may have been a nice Jewish
doctor, but he was not a nice Jewish mother. He was not worried, or about to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. Only she could judge that.
If she had
bumped her shoulder instead of her head, he said, her shoulder would have ached for days and she would probably not have been inclined to lift anything heavy. But what Allegra had bumped had not been her shoulder. It had been her head.
“The brain is an
infinitely more complex organ than the shoulder,” he said. Only
she could accurately assess what she was capable of doing.
same advice applied to assessing how soon she
might return to work or to working
out at the gym with her personal trainer (something else that, as her nice and rather nervous Jewish mom, I felt compelled to ask the doctor about on her behalf).
“Right now, it might be challenging to walk three city blocks,” he told her. He did not feel that he had the right to tell her that she couldn’t work out for at least two more weeks. But it was unlikely that she would
feel either the ability or any desire
to do so.
“Take all of the messages your body is sending and
be very aware,” he counseled.
Concussion or not, maybe that is good advice for us all.
After we left, I took Allegra out for a very late lunch. Then
I drove her home, put her to bed, and left her dinner in the fridge, at which point it was time for me to leave at
It was time for me to leave because she is 26 and she was
ready for me to leave.
And the truth
is that it was time for me to leave whether I was ready to leave or not.
My husband and I were going away for the weekend to a charming inn with some
close friends. It was an excursion we had been planning for months, and there was no way to back out now.
Besides, Allegra was going away for the weekend herself. She was going to see JP.
And she was going to sing.
Sing in Philadelphia.
As luck would have it – and it was great luck at that – my son Aidan just happened to be going to Philadelphia for the weekend too. His good friend Kris, one of the two best men at his
wedding this past summer, was having a 30th birthday party in his hometown.
Which just happened to be Philadelphia.
Allegra had promised long ago to drive Aidan there. Now he would drive her instead.
As determined as I was not to ruin my own trip for my friends by fretting aloud, the truth was that I could hardly breathe
thinking about Allegra performing that night.
In front of 800 people,
Before leaving, I had helped her choose an outfit to wear
for the show, complete with accessories, then helped her pack for the
weekend. But she was still struggling to even sit up. How would she stand on a stage
in front of 800 people? And not just stand, but sing?
I didn’t know how she would do it. She didn’t know how she would do it.
But she is a total professional, and we both knew that somehow she would do it.
To my relief, Allegra
sent me a photo of herself early that
evening waiting to go on. I think she looks a
little deranged in it only
because the photo was a selfie. But
considering that she had a mild to moderate concussion, she looked pretty damn good.
To my even greater relief, Aidan stayed
for the performance, and he sent me a photo
of her onstage and said she sounded great. And considering that she had a mild to moderate concussion, I think she looked
After that, she went home with JP and spent the remainder of the weekend in bed.
So I was able to actually relax and enjoy my own weekend away at a lovely Victorian inn, eating out and tasting wine at vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island.
However, the day after we returned, I packed
my bag again and returned to NYC.
I went back because Allegra had realized that she really needed me to come back.
I also went
back because I was too worried about her not to go back.
But mostly I went back because
she was scheduled to sing again on Tuesday night. And she needed help getting ready and traveling there and back.
The gig in Philadelphia had required
her to sing only four songs with another band. But on Tuesday she had to sing at a club for over an hour while leading her own band.
I didn’t know how she would do it. She didn’t know how she would do it.
But she is a total professional, and
we both knew that somehow she would do it.
And I can now proudly tell you that she did do it. I can also tell you how she did it.
She was still so dizzy that she could hardly stand up. So she did it
sitting on a stool.
She even managed to sing a brand new song sitting on that
stool. OK, it was apparently a very old song, a seasonal song called “Sweet Pumpkin,” to which she had managed
to write new lyrics that afternoon, mild to moderate concussion be damned.
stayed over that night, as well as the next. But then on Thursday night, I drove home. I drove
home because Allegra is 26, and she has already gone back to work, and with a little help from her nice Jewish mom she
continues to get a little better every day.
For a video of Allegra singing “Sweet Pumpkin” at her gig, click on this link:
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Word From The Weiss
I think from here on in, I will forever associate Yom Kippur with the
word “pretzel.” Not because I ate a pretzel, or anything else, for that matter, on the Day of Atonement (it was, after all, Yom Kippur). But in order to break
the fast this year with my children and some other family members, I was pretty much obliged to turn myself into a pretzel.
I hesitate to confess this, because it’s
the first sin I will need to atone for next year. But shortly after I agreed to break the fast with
our good friends Pat and Michael this past Wednesday, we were invited to do it with some
of my husband’s cousins instead.
Never in my life have I ever changed my plans because another offer came along. (I swear!) Also, never mind that these cousins lived three-plus hours away in Brooklyn, and our friends Pat and Michael
were only halfway across town. Our kids were
going to be at the cousins’
break-fast. Plus, according to my husband, this was the first time in his entire life that he’d ever been invited
to spend a Jewish holiday with his relatives.
And so I proposed a compromise.
We would join Pat and Michael for dinner on erev Yom Kippur instead, then drive to NYC with a homemade kugel to break the fast with our kids and his cousins.
The problem was that I knew it would be way too much
to drive over six hours roundtrip in one day, with or without a kugel, especially on a day I would be fasting. So we drove to the city after dinner on Tuesday
night, arriving at the stroke of midnight.
Then we drove home from Brooklyn after breaking the fast and got home again –
you guessed it – around midnight.
I think I will still be tired until
next Yom Kippur… and still feel like a human pretzel.
I’m not complaining, mind you.
It was worth almost anything to
be with my kids. Especially on a Jewish holiday. Not to mention with the cousins for the first time in our lives.
although this prevented us from observing the holiest of days at our own shul, we were able to attend services instead
where our daughter lives, on Roosevelt Island.
Halfway through the service, the rabbi proposed that everyone present break
into small groups of four or five to share
their own thoughts in a more intimate manner. More specifically, we were to discuss any major transitions that had occurred in our lives
over the past year, whether they be new beginnings or things that had come to an end.
And so, by sheer
coincidence, we found ourselves conversing with the nice couple seated next to us whose son, like ours, had gotten married within the past few months.
But in the interests of not monopolizing the conversation, or bringing anyone down, I did not to weigh in on the
other half of the equation, the losses
I endured last year.
Indeed, within days of our son’s
wedding, I began to experience what felt like a mass exodus.
The incredible cantor at our synagogue, Pamela Siskin, chose to retire that very week after 18 years there and immediately move to Florida. I had collaborated happily
with her at Congregation Beth Israel for 15
Purim spiels. She was not just a respected clergy member,
but a real friend, and I could hardly imagine Purim, or life, without her.
A young family who lived a few doors down from us chose that same week to move away, too. While watching
their dog Bryn cavort with
ours, Latke, several times a week, Julie had become not just a close friend and
confidante, but more like another daughter to me. Or maybe it was just that her two little girls were like the grandchildren I long to have. Is that why I fell into the habit of buying them little gifts for their birthdays… and on Valentine’s Day… and Christmas… and Easter… or whenever else
the mood struck? Now I would have to settle for watching Caroline and Rosalie grow up on Facebook.
Meanwhile, believe it or not, within a month my cousin chose to relocate, too. Growing up together, only 18 months apart, Susan and I had always been more like sisters than mere
cousins. When she had abruptly moved to our area eight or nine years ago, we had become not just like sisters, but actual friends. Now
that her mother had agreed to move into assisted living, a week or two after the wedding, Susan had decided that it
was time for her to begin living herself – living, that is, where she preferred to be, in Florida. We still text, of course, as well as email and call now and then. But she can no longer
pop over for a barbecue or meet me for
a walk in the park. It will never be the same.
The worst loss I suffered this summer, however, without a doubt, was Cousin Ilene.
Ilene (Slater) Stone, a
cousin on my husband’s side, was
a remarkable woman, and in many ways way ahead of her time. Unlike most women of her generation, she chose to pursue a career over the conventional life of becoming merely a wife and mother.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke, she studied at the Graduate Institute of International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland, traveled widely, then returned to the States
to work in the White House as an aide to
Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s chief of staff. She later served as an assistant to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for five years before enrolling in law school at NYU and eventually becoming a judge.
Not until she was into her 40s, I believe, did she meet and marry her
husband Joe, another judge who had once been a prominent former Manhattan district attorney.
Yet what was most exceptional about Ilene, almost anyone who knew her would be quick to agree, was less about
her vocation or avocations than her
boundless verve and joie de vivre.
“She was the most upbeat person I have ever known,”a friend from her high school days recalled recently. “Even in a rotten movie, she would find something to enjoy or learn something from.”
Ensconced in an elegant apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, she had continued well into her 80s to volunteer as a docent at the New York Public Library, as well as to relish going
to the theater, ballet, classical music, and other cultural activities. Whenever we wanted a recommendation for a play to see, we knew whom to ask.
To our delight, although she played
it close to the vest, she even had a boyfriend.
Yet, although I’ve been married to my husband for over 30 years now, I’m sorry to admit that we didn’t really get to know Ilene all that well until about eight years ago. Our son, Aidan, had just graduated from college, and after
only a week or so back home in Connecticut, cohabitating again with dear
old Mom and Dad, he had announced
that he wanted to remain in New York City after we all went down to attend a family bat mitzvah.
I couldn’t exactly
blame him, but I couldn’t in good conscience leave him there, either, because he had nowhere to live. When none of his
friends were able to offer so much as a couch, I suggested in desperation on the morning that we were due to leave that my husband call Ilene. Her husband, Joe, had passed away a few years earlier, so she was now living in her apartment all
alone, and I knew she had an extra bedroom.
My husband didn’t manage to get the whole sentence
out before she exclaimed, “Of course!” in her inimitable cheerful voice and invariably enthusiastic fashion.
When we brought Aidan over that afternoon, I entreated him to be considerate and make sure to be very quiet if he came in late at
night, so as not disturb Ilene in any way.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she admonished me. After all,
Aidan was 21. “He’s an adult,” she declared. “He’s welcome to come and go as he likes. I'll just
give him a key.”
Yet when I mentioned that he had decided to try his luck as an
aspiring screenwriter in the TV and film industry, but was prepared to give up
if he hadn’t managed to get anywhere within a year, Ilene perceptibly blanched.
“I’m more than happy to have him
here,” she replied with some embarrassment. “But I must admit that I wasn’t counting on having a roommate
for a whole year.”
After I stopped laughing, I explained that the year in question referred strictly to his career ambitions in a very challenging field. He only intended to stay with her for a few nights, until
he could make other arrangements.
But that isn’t what actually happened.
What I hadn’t anticipated
was the way that Aidan and Ilene would bond. Almost instantly. I think that she enjoyed having a young man around the house. But not just any young man. Him. It wasn’t just that he could reach
things she kept on high shelves. They began to eat together almost nightly, and to talk. They
talked a lot! Sometimes he would cook for her; other times, they would bring takeout food in or go out. And so, even though he managed to find a TV job within a few days, he stayed on for about a month.
And after he finally moved
out, they continued to talk and to eat together once a month or so. When our daughter Allegra finished college three years later and moved to NYC as well, she joined their little eating club, as did Aidan’s fiancé (now wife), Kaitlin.
And so Ilene quickly became an extended member of our family.
She grew to be the grandmother to our children that they no longer had after all of our
parents had passed away. And I would like to think that they became like grandchildren to her. Certainly, no one could have loved her more. I mean, honestly, how could we not?
Ilene joined us more than once to hear Allegra sing in darkened jazz clubs, including one way uptown in Harlem.
She also took the subway down to Brooklyn
when Aidan had a short play
produced at school when he was getting his Master’s degree.
My husband and I also spoke to her and visited her often. She was always endlessly interested in whatever we had to say. Sometimes she even asked me how our dog was. I don’t know if Ilene even
liked dogs, but she knew that I did. She became the one person we just couldn’t wait to tell when something good happened. I loved to hear her voice.
When we celebrated her 89th birthday together at the end of May, Ilene told us that she would come to Aidan’s
wedding in June for the ceremony and cocktail
hour, but it would be too much for her to stay for the party, which would continue until midnight. Of course we understood.
Two days after the event, she phoned, as she often did, to discuss
the festivities. “What was I thinking, wearing white to a wedding?” she lamented about the twin sweater
set and crisp white trousers she had worn. As I assured her, we hadn’t noticed
or given the slightest thought to it. We
only had been overjoyed that she had
been able to come.
The next day, my summer
job began, and although I often said to my husband, “We must call Ilene,” the hours were so demanding that I
had no time to talk to anyone. So when we heard from another cousin later that
month, we were in for a shock.
Two weeks after
the wedding, Ilene had been admitted to the hospital with an erratic heartbeat. Ever
since she had broken a hip, two
or three summers ago, she had developed heart issues and grown visibly frail.
Normally a vital, upbeat, and
energetic presence, she had been obliged to stay home more and try not to exert herself. But she had continued to go out regularly to the theater, dinner with friends, and
Until now, that is. In the hospital, she had grown weak – so weak that
she was no longer herself and began to refuse almost all medication. So after a few days, they were sending her home. She was now, I was later told, considered to be on “hospice.”
We went to see her the day after she
got home. Normally, she received us in her stylish living room, offering wine and snacks
while we caught up on each other's lives and the latest plays we'd seen. Now she was lying in a hospital bed in her bedroom,
barely able to sit up.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I have only one regret – that
I never had children.”
She proceeded to make it clear that
all she wanted at this point was to remain comfortable and to go as soon as possible, I tried feebly to argue with her, even daring to joke that she needed
to stick around, if only to vote for Hillary or see who won the current election. But Ilene was not just wise, she was determined. I knew it was no use.
was so tired that we only stayed for 40 minutes, and I fear that was too long. Stepping
out into the hall, I tried to memorize every detail of her apartment -- the pale blue couch on
which we’d sat with her for years, the red velvet armchair beside it, the framed art on her walls. I knew in my heart, fighting back tears, that I would never see
Indeed, although we spoke
to her almost daily, only a week later we got the call.
At her memorial service, held weeks later in early September, her relatives and many
friends from different eras of her life recalled the vibrant woman she had been.
“The thing about Ilene is that she loved
everything,” recalled a longtime neighbor. “She loved living near
Lincoln Center. She loved the philharmonic and the ballet.” An avid reader,
she had also loved books. But most of all, she'd
loved the people she knew. She
was the most faithful and caring friend.
Late one night, having
learned from the doorman of their building that this woman was in the hospital, Ilene had immediately jumped into a cab to
see her, even though it was already almost midnight. “Is there anything you need?” she'd asked when she arrived.
The head docent at the public library spoke of how everyone who met Ilene had
loved her instantly. “When she walked into a room, she was just charming, elegant, and fun.”
When it was my turn to speak before the crowd
gathered at Gabriel’s restaurant, I did my best to sum up how pivotal a role she had come to play within my family.
“With her shock of white
hair and sharp-as-a-tack mind,” I began, “Ilene has long stood in our lives, not just as someone we dearly loved, but something of a lighthouse – the one
person we could always count on to offer a dose of wisdom or sage advice.”
Then I told the story of her taking Aidan in, and
of our heartbreaking final visit. Although the truth is, when
I think of her now, I prefer to dwell on the many happier times.
As you can see, she was such an incredible presence in my life, and
the world. A strong and vital role model and example of how to stay engaged in life –
and to LIVE!
I only wish now that we had spent more time together talking about her amazing
life. If I could only see her again, one more time, I
would gladly turn myself into a pretzel or almost anything else.
“She may be gone from all our lives, but for me she will remain a lighthouse,”
I said. “The light that she ignited in my mind and my heart shines on still. And it will never die.”
Friday, October 7, 2016
Word From The Weiss
New Year, everyone! In case you’ve been wondering, yes, I am alive and well. I have been away from this space for so long, though, that I now have too much to tell – so much
that I hardly know where to begin. Oh, wait. Yes, I do. I will begin by wishing you L’shanah tovah. A sweet, happy, and hopefully healthy 5777 to all of you!
I hope that the past few days have found you somewhere within earshot
of a shofar. And/or striking distance of a lake, river, ocean, stream, or other waterway
suitable for doing Tashlich. (If you need further info on how to symbolically cast off your sins via this ancient ritual, check out “Tashlich: A Jewish Recipe for Relief” on my navigation bar.)
Personally, I’m happy to report
that I managed to do all
of the above, as well as to enjoy a hearty home-cooked dinner complete
with matzo ball soup, kugel, vegetarian
chopped liver, and other Jewish delicacies on Erev Rosh Hashanah with my son Aidan and his beautiful new bride Kaitlin… even if this required
cooking most of it in my own home, schlepping it all down to their apartment in NYC, then arriving back home in Connecticut after midnight in order to attend shul here the next morning.
It didn’t help one bit, I must admit, that I was still severely jet-lagged from my travels. I’m talking
about the amazing, dream-come-true trip of
a lifetime that I need to tell you about.
The seed that grew into this trip was planted the day after Aidan and Kaitlin got hitched in June. My husband and I lingered for hours after the Sunday brunch
saying a Jewish goodbye to the newlyweds and various members of Kaitlin’s family. When we
were finally leaving, after many hours, I must
have said something to one of Kaitlin’s aunts. Something about how sad it was that the bride and groom had to go on a honeymoon to Venice, Florence, and Rome while we got to stay home and recuperate
in our own living room.
To this, the aunt responded that if we wanted to take a
trip ourselves, we should feel free to go stay in her husband’s family’s house in the South
In the six decades I have now spent on earth, no one had ever once said that
I should go stay in their house in the south of anything. Let alone the South of France.
“Seriously,” she added emphatically. “You should go. Go anytime. Just let us know.”
As the summer progressed, and we continued to receive pictures texted to us by the Happy Couple from Venice, Florence, and Rome, for some reason
I found this offer hard to forget. Or resist
Adding to the allure was
the fact that our good friends Paul and Kathy had flown all the way from London to New York for the wedding, and I had managed to converse with them that weekend for all of about 30 seconds. Why not go visit them and actually talk?
Then go to the South of France.
Yet as tempting
as this scenario was, I must admit we were having second
dreadful terrorist attacks in Nice gave us serious pause. The house in question was in a suburb of Nice. Were we crazy to go to the scene of the crime now?
Even with free accommodations for some of our nights away, travel abroad is almost unavoidably costly. After making a wedding, we were not exactly in the mindset to go spend one more cent.
But most of all, after spending a whole year helping to plan a wedding, I couldn’t bear to focus on one more detail. Every time I tried to check hotels or flights, my mind turned to mush – gray
matter as goopy as matzo
ball mix before you chill it in the fridge.
And so the summer slowly slipped
through our fingers, like fine sand on a beach (although I was so unable to make
plans that we didn’t actually even go to the beach).
Then one day, in late
August, I woke up and parrotted the Nike
commercial to my husband. “Let’s just do it.” And before
I could have third thoughts, I booked roundtrip flights for early September.
My husband would probably prefer that I not divulge this, but a few days later he sheepishly admitted that he was now having third thoughts after all. And fourth. The annual jazz festival in Nice had been
canceled this summer due to security risks, as well as the nearby famed Lille flea market. Were we crazy to go to Nice now?
“Couldn’t you have mentioned
those worries before I spent five hours on my computer booking flights?” I asked. Then I felt bad and tried to reassure him
instead. “If you’re worried about Nice,
then we just won’t go to Nice,” I promised. “We can simply travel from one small town to another. I’m sure they’re totally
But the morning after we arrived at Kaitlin's family's beautiful house, we woke up and realized that it was sunny and warm and we were
in the South of France.
“Let’s go to Nice,”
If you’re wondering why I was so eager to visit the South of France in
the first place, then I have two words for you.
No, not “food” and “fashion,” although those were certainly major draws, along
with the fine wines, from Provencal rosé to chardonnay. I’m referring to “French Riviera.” To me, coming of age back in the 60’s, that phrase pretty much summed up glamour, luxury, sophistication,
style, and everything else that might be pronounced “ooh la la!”
Plus, for any of you who might find my grasp of Yiddish a bit lacking, let’s
face it. I know little more than how to curse and kvetch in my grandparents’ native tongue. However, I formally studied French in school from the seventh grade through college. And although my memory of verb conjugation may be a little rusty,
to say the least, I speak the language well enough to get around, buy stuff, and be basically understood.
And so I am happy to report that any concerns we had about safety –
or anti-Semitism, which reportedly abounds there -- remained unfounded throughout
our entire stay. So did any notion we had
that the French can be, uh, let’s just say less than friendly. During those ten days, only one person was rude to us.
Rude to my husband, that is. Everyone was incredibly nice to me.
instance, a little too nice.
On our second day there, after discovering the beach in Nice to be rather rocky, we
decided to spend the afternoon enjoying the silkier sands by the sea in nearby Cannes instead.
Afterwards, I was waiting for my husband to change out of his swimsuit in a public locker room when a gentleman of a certain age (80!) tried to,
uh, make my acquaintance.
“Vous êtes seul?” he queried shortly into the
conversation. That is, “Are you alone?”
The encounter took an abrupt turn
when “mon mari”
chose that exact moment to return from the salle de bain. But then it took another when I noticed the gold Star of David pendant
peeking out from inside the man’s colorful open-necked shirt. And although
the term “NiceJewishMom.com” lost something in translation, my new friend Sylvain was soon offering to take us to
synagogue with him that Friday night, and getting me to sing “Oseh Shalom” along with him in our only common language,
Hebrew, right there on the street.
I must admit that I glanced around at the passersby with some trepidation
about this. But no one seemed to take
the slightest notice, or so much as bat a French
Far less welcoming was the woman in a fancy cheese shop in Aix-en-Provence.
Soon after bidding Sylvain au revoir, my husband had wandered into Ceneri Fromagerie, a famous cheese
shop in Cannes, and purchased a soft, subtly aromatic
cheese called Chinois, which is the French word for “Chinese.” After
finishing off the last drop of this a few days later, he strode into another upscale fromagerie hoping to buy some
“Do you have any Chinois cheese?” he asked the surly woman
behind the counter. He said this, of course, in French. His French, I must admit, is much better than mine. But it was clearly not quite good enough to endear him to the likes of her.
“Monsieur,” she barked back with icy contempt,
“vous êtes en Europe maintenant! Nous n’avons pas du fromage chinois!” (“Sir, you are in Europe now! We do not have Chinese cheese!”) Neither did she appreciate his request to taste
some of the cheeses they did have before investing in something else.
The French may be known for having impeccable taste, but they apparently do
not give tastes. For neither were they willing to offer a single free sample of any of the 100-plus flavors available at Fenocchio’s, a popular gelaterie in Nice. If you wanted to try one, you
had to buy one. That is, a whole scoop of every one you wanted to taste. The problem was that
– with so many exotic flavors, from olive, jasmine, avocado, and tomato basil to violette, thyme, torte de blette (spinach pie with pine nuts and raisins) and, believe it or not, beer – we wanted to
try them all.
I finally managed to whittle my selections down to a mere three – pale
green avocat (which was subtle to the point of blandness), confiture de lait (toffee and cream, their bestseller), and my own personal favorite flavor, noisette (hazelnut). Yum,
I wish I could say everything we ate on our incredible journey was equally delicious. We had the best fish I have ever tasted
at Ma Mere Germaine, a fine seafood restaurant along the harbor in a town called Villefranche-sur-Mer, where the waiters filleted
the finned entrees as deftly and delicately as surgeons. Then there was our favorite meal of the entire excursion by far,
prepared by the young chef/owner of a phenomenal bistro in Avignon called Restaurant des Teinturiers, where every dish was
a veritable yet edible work of art.
But if I am going to be honest, then I must report, for those of you who have never been there, that the French eat differently from you and me. That is, nearly every restaurant we went to had many things on the menu that I would prefer not to put in my mouth – not because I keep kosher, which you must know by
now I don’t, but for ethical reasons and my own general squeamishness. Never mind that I have always
considered myself to be a relatively adventurous eater.
Believe me, I'm not talking about traditional French delicacies like escargots. Trayf though they may be, I love
those garlic-butter-soaked little critters, and a snail by any other name would surely taste as sweet. The main items I was trying to avoid were veal, duck, and steak tartare (seasoned raw
chopped beef), a culinary staple just as popular in France as hamburgers are here.
Though it may be splitting hairs (or feathers), I simply prefer not to eat baby calves or adorable
little ducks, and to avoid red meat as much as possible. Many menus were so limited, though, that I didn’t have much choice.
We spent our last three days in Paris, and asked the folks at our incredible hotel on the Left Bank there -- the newly renovated and impeccably run Hotel Monge -- to recommend
a nice restaurant for our final meal, hoping our last supper would be something memorable. Unfortunately,
we got lost en route to the Eiffel Tower that afternoon, ended up going
in the wrong direction on the Metro, and
arrived for our dinner reservation almost an hour late.
Given that, we were too
embarrassed to walk out when we perused the menu and discovered that there were only a handful of entrees available, and none of them sounded remotely
I quickly decided
to resign myself to ordering the dorade, a red fish, with spinach and hot grapefruit in a lemongrass foam (which turned out to be gray
and rather tasteless). This left my husband the option of either the steak (which was cooked, but of which he’d
had more than his fill), chicken (which he refuses to order in restaurants because
he says mine is much better), or the
only remaining choice – and I am not making this up – pig cheeks cooked in lentils.
Never mind this restaurant was called Le Buisson Ardent, which translates as “The Burning Bush.” They were not a Jewish restaurant, in any respect. They were offering
pork. No, not just pork. Pig.
begged him not to choose this. I said that I would not only refuse to try them, but would probably be sick just watching
him eat them. But needless to say, he went ahead and ordered ’em just the same.
And after watching him take a few tentative bites and admit that I’d been right, curiosity got the better of me and I dared to take a taste myself. And at the risk of making you sick, I must say that pig cheeks
tasted an awful lot – I kid you not – like brisket.
But lest you think we did nothing other than eat
in France, here are a few more (and far more kosher) highlights of our trip.
We were absolutely mesmerized by the sweeping ocean views, magnificent cliffs and high-brow harbors in Monaco.
I can imagine nothing more
charming than the cobblestone streets and craggy stone walls winding steeply up the mountains in two medieval towns we visited near Nice, Eze and St. Paul de Vence.
At our hotel in Aix-en-Provence, the Aquabella, we were able to use
the facilities at the classy spa next door, as well as swim in the hotel's vast heated outdoor pool framed by Roman ruins.
And at Renoir’s house in Cagnes-sur-Mer, we not only got to view many of the artist’s
works, but to actually grasp what must have motivated him to paint them in the first place. The view from every window in
this three-story stone structure was so stunningly gorgeous that it made you want to capture it instantly in vivid color…
and back then, fortunately, he didn’t happen to have an iphone.
As for vivid color, though, nothing could beat the collection of French Impressionist
masterpieces in my all-time favorite museum on earth, the Musée d’Orsay
I guess I am truly a writer at heart, because surrounded by people sketching madly inside this cavernous former Beaux Arts railway station, my main inclination was to try to put into words how
viewing these impossibly luminous works in person made me feel. And the first words that came to mind were “euphoric,” “exhilarated,” and
Or maybe I’m just a blithering idiot, because my brain was mostly going
To my great
dismay (which provoked a far less ecstatic feeling), our journey came to an abrupt close the next night when I suffered a hat attack (and before you have a heart attack,
rest assured that I’m fine; that is not a typo).
We arrived at Charles de
Gaulle airport a full three hours in advance of our plane with little to do till departure but shop. So I headed instantly
to -- where else? -- the Longchamps
I have never been into designer labels myself. I
am a woman who travels with a lot of hats in order to avoid the sun, and dares to go to the airport wearing three
at once. "Designer" is not my style. But last December, my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother sent me
an actual Prada wallet for the holidays, and I had been wracking my brain ever since wondering what I could send her this
year in return. Then it hit me. What
could be classier than a genuine Longchamps bag that came straight from Paris? These bags come in
about a dozen colors. I tried desperately to reach my daughter by text, email, phone, the FaceTime, asking
her advice. The wifi was so bad in the airport that nothing worked. Finally, I gave up and made a choice: a medium tote
and matching change purse in rich tomato red.
Then I busied myself in the duty-free shop buying more wine and cheese (though alas, no chinois) for another hour,
until I got a sudden text from Allegra. Yes to the red, she said. But she wanted
an olive bag for herself!
Back to Longchamps. Of course that turned out to be the ONE and only color they were out of. And after 20 minutes
of failed attempts to text her for an alternative choice, I realized my that plane was now BOARDING!!!
I raced across the airport frantically, where I seemed about to sail through Security with ease.
Until the woman manning the bag X-ray machine noticed my hat.
Yes, hat. Not hats. I was only wearing one at the time. But the one I was
wearing was equipped with a beautiful antique hat pin.
No one had batted
an eyelash at this at JFK. But now it attracted a bevy of guards. Four of them! One cautiously removed the end, gingerly touched
the sharp tip, and grimly shook her head at me.
Oh. My. God. Seriously?
bijou!" I pleaded sadly, summoning the word for jewel. "C'est une antique!"
The head guard regarded me with solemn contempt.
"Madame, eet eez forbidden!" I loved
that pin. I bought it years ago at the famous flea market in Brimfield, MA. So I shuddered and actually fought back tears
as I watched yet a third guard toss it unsympathetically into the trash.
I also had to stifle a laugh and sense of euphoria as well. Because tucked into my
carry-on were two more hats, and they had failed to detect that one of them was
equipped with an even longer and sharper pin!
And besides, it was a small price to pay for getting to go to France.
Lesson learned. From now on, I will only
wear one hat at a time... and/or leave the hatpins at home.
Once again, a happy and healthy New Year to all of you. And hopefully no more hat attacks in the coming year pour moi!!!