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My Husband’s Game by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Brain Games

/ Stories

I know the perception is that I have excellent recall of events long-past, but trust me when I tell you, this is a mere shadow of how I used to be. I already know I am losing it. Part of this is due to a migraine prevention medication I’ve long taken called Topamax. It is known to cause word-loss and a bit of confusion. I’ve taken it for at least 18 years and know that I am not as sharp as I once was. Some wags refer to the drug as “Dope-amax”, but if it helps me (which I know it does, as I had to go off it for a while and I was miserable), I’m willing to pay that price.

I’ve never been good with brain-teasers, crosswords or the like. I find writing these weekly stories to be enormously gratifying, if time-consuming. They do help me with word and memory issues better than any game I could devise. I have to genuinely THINK, use vocabulary, memory, be creative. One of the reasons I write ahead is because I like to get my thoughts down, let the story marinate, then go back and see if I can do better; come up with a better word, turn of phrase, of course look for typos or missing words that are so easy to miss no matter how many times one proof-reads. Part of my lack of enthusiasm for games has to do with spatial relations (I have none; why I don’t golf or play tennis). Others in my family are fantastic at it. Vicki is truly gifted.

I believe my continued singing with my choral group is another way to keep my brain in tune (pun intended). Continuing to learn new music (we were working on a Stravinsky Mass when COVID shut us down last March; I have no idea when it will be safe to resume) is challenging, as both the notes and the time signature can be difficult to learn. Our director goes over each choral part during rehearsal time, but is pleased that, as a group, we have become better at sight-reading. We had drills on it in our top high school choir, of which I was a member in 11th and 12th grades. It is a learned skill, but, like most other skills, use it or lose it. As I creep toward the age of 70, that is a muscle that needs flexing as much as any other in my body.

High School Choir

Dan, in retirement (18 years and counting), looks for ways to keep busy. For a while he was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle on Sundays (we only get the Sunday print edition). Then he discovered the online version. He really enjoys that, as he can come back to it, get hints, never has to worry about erasures, can always get a new one easily, can even travel with it.

Then he discovered the “spelling bee”.

This is some sort of letter jumble or anagram. You are supposed to make as many words as possible out of the letters given. He would play this ad naseum on the house computer (in the very public den, which is the computer I use all the time too) at Christmas time when we had all the family home. Vicki always spotted new possibilities, Anna would add another word. It was a group effort and lots of fun to engage when was everyone around. Sort of an on-line Scrabble, something else I am not very good at. I just don’t “see” the patterns in the letters. My brain doesn’t work that way.

Vicki, as a youngster, liked to play “Hangman” with our neighbor on the Vineyard (we were back and forth in each other’s homes all day). Mara still talks about being beaten by the word “sphynx”; a fiendishly good word on my child’s part.


 

Dan also enjoys jigsaw puzzles. These days, he’s working on the 1,000 piece variety, usually covers of New Yorker Magazine. They are very difficult, with lots of white space. He pines for help from Vicki (who is 3,000 miles away). Again, she has that knack for just walking by, picking up a piece and just KNOWING exactly where it belongs. Incredible! The one pictured above was a recently completed project on my Vineyard dining room table. Now what to do with it? So Dan does all these games to try and remain sharp.

When it first came out, we used to love playing “Trivial Pursuit”, particularly with our friends Roger and Francine. That was a blood sport. Now we watch “Jeopardy” at night after the network news. Each of us can run certain categories, but again, I can’t access the names as quickly as I used to. Many years ago I tried out for Jeopardy when they held auditions in Boston. Out of about 100 people in the room, I was one of a dozen who scored highly on the written test to make it into the pool of people who might get called during that taping season and got a little trial audition so the producers could see how I’d perform live. I confess, I wasn’t great “on my feet”. The buzzer timing is very difficult, even if you know the correct answer. I was nervous and not as vibrant as I usually am. The twelve of us remained in the potential applicant pool for a year, but I was never called to Hollywood to tape a show. That’s OK. At least I made it as far as I did. Now I know my recall isn’t fast enough to even do that.

So I write these stories (constantly looking up the spelling of words), searching my memory for good stories from my past. That’s what keeps me going.

 

 

King Tut by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Lost and Found

/ Stories

From about 1539 BC to around 1075 BC, the Valley of the Kings, in ancient Thebes, was the burial site for the rulers and some nobility of ancient Egypt. Though known about, the exact whereabouts had been lost through the ages, until archaeological excavations led by Europeans during the time of Napoleon began in the early 1800s. With those explorations came grave robbers, who looted the newly discovered tombs of many of the precious artifacts as they were uncovered, the contents sold through the black market.

In 1899, English archaeologist Howard Carter was appointed the Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt. In 1907, he thought he might have discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the Boy King. It actually took many more years for Carter to make his famous discovery.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon

The 5th Earl Carnarvon had had a series of motor car accidents and was advised to winter in a warm climate as a way to recuperate. Always fascinated by Egypt, he traveled to Luxor in 1898 and installed himself in the Winter Palace Hotel on the banks of the Nile. There, he met Howard Carter. The two would become great friends and work together for 16 years. An American excavator, Theodore Davis, held the concession to dig in the Valley, but gave it up in 1914 to Lord Carnarvon, after declaring there was nothing more to find. There were lean years as the Great War depleted the Lord’s estates, increased his taxes and Britain was in a recession. In 1921, Carnarvon told Carter he might have to wrap things up, but Carter pleaded for one more season.

Excavation site

Carter arrived ahead of his patron in the winter of 1922 and began work at a new site. He sent an excited telegram: “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered for your arrival. Congratulations Carter”. Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, hurried to Luxor, arriving on Nov. 23, 1922. Over the next two days, rubble was cleared from the passageway of the tomb and a hole was knocked through the door. As the gap widened, they began to see the antechamber, packed with chariots, furniture, “everywhere the glint of gold”. Further exploration led to three more chambers which included the golden shrine and coffins of Tutankhamun.

He had been a minor king, but this was, perhaps, the most intact tomb ever discovered and word quickly spread about the find, bringing in press from around the world. The Boy King had been lost for 3,244 years but once found, he became one of the most famous Pharaohs of all time due to his magnificent tomb. Everyone wanted access to the tomb and information (and rumors flew about what was being done with its contents). Carnarvon had to manage it all.

He was exhausted and sailed up the Nile to Aswan for some rest, then on to Cairo to deal with authorities about plans for how to deal with the preservation of the tomb and its contents. Worn out, and ill, having nicked a mosquito bite while shaving, the wound became infected.  Septicemia and fever set in. His wife flew in by a specially chartered biplane from England. His son, Lord Porchester (for those of you who watched “The Crown”, this was “Porchy”, the young Queen Elizabeth’s close friend and eventually, her Master of the Horse), arrived from Mesopotamia, now Iraq, where he was serving with the the British Army. Lord Carnarvon died, with his family by his side, on April 5, 1923, at the Continental Hotel in Cairo, months after his great discovery. Porchy was now the 6th Earl.

The contents of the tomb went to the Cairo Museum and in 1963, went on a grand tour to 16 cities across the United States, including Detroit. One Sunday in August, my family was at one of our large Sarason family brunches. I was 10 years old and don’t remember the exact reason for the gathering (perhaps my beloved cousin Alan was in town, but I can’t be sure). I just remember what followed. It was the last day the King Tut exhibit was at the Detroit Institute of Art and my dad decided our family should go see it. Perhaps someone at the brunch said it was a “must see”. This was before the era of timed tickets. Off we went into Detroit. I loved going to the DIA.

The line stretched on FOREVER. It meandered through many rooms of the museum and velvet ropes zig-zagged around the large main hallway. We waited for hours before we got to enter the special exhibit. We became friends with everyone waiting on line with us, but no matter. We all knew the wait was worthwhile. When we finally entered, we all drew a collective breath, like Howard Carter did half a century earlier. He was reputed to have said, “I see wonderful things.” We did too (though the large golden mask did not travel with this exhibit). The Featured photo is the cover of the catalog from the exhibit. I hand wrote “August 1963” inside the cover.  I was so excited by this exhibit that I wanted to give money to the Aswan Dam project in Egypt. My parents quickly ended that dream. I could plant trees in Israel, but not send my allowance money to Egypt.

This spring, before I left to come to Martha’s Vineyard, I did a massive clean-up project in Newton. I went through and threw out old magazines, programs, piles of stuff that had been lying around for years. I went back through old boxes and found the King Tut catalog in a box packed up from my childhood, when my mother sold our house after my parents divorced in 1981. That winter, my brother and I flew home, went through our closets and drawers and determined what was really meaningful to us. At that time, I brought what remained back with me on my return flight to Boston. What had long been buried in a box was found again.

Like so many others in 2011, I became a huge fan of the PBS series, “Downton Abbey”. Sometime during the screening of the show, I learned that it was partially filmed at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Lords of Carnarvon. I did not make the connection to the 5th Earl who supported Howard Carter’s work, though. Not until 2017, when I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that toured the estate and took tea in the main salon (we were not allowed to photograph inside the castle; we had to buy the catalog). I admired the room where Lady Mary came down the stairs, at last, as a bride to the waiting arms of Matthew, but Lady Edythe was jilted by her Lord on the same grand stair case.

2017, Highclere Castle

After the group tour, we were allowed to wander the grounds for a bit on our own. That is when I discovered the whole exhibit on the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by the current Earl’s great great grandfather. Since Highclere has become a tourist destination, there is now a whole wing dedicated to the dig with facsimiles of many of the artifacts.

The display was informative and fascinating, adding a tremendous amount to my knowledge of events that took place almost a century earlier, and brought back fond memories of my day at the Detroit Institute of Art as a child; the day I viewed the real artifacts in person.

 

 

 

Time for Change by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By The Garden

/ Stories

As I wrote about two years ago in Checkbook Gardener, we have a beautiful little garden oasis on a busy street in the heart of Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard. This summer, between the pandemic, four months of drought and a less-than-diligent landscaper (not to be confused with Teresa, who continues to take wonderful care of flower beds and boxes; a true artist; below is an invitation to her recent gallery show), we decided change was necessary.

Teresa Yuan, show at Old Sculpin Gallery

Dan always comes early in the spring, before my arrival, to check things out. Since (as noted in my last pandemic update), he decided it was going to be “the summer of the backyard”, he looked for new furniture which had a fire element, so we could sit with friends and be warm as the days grew cooler. We purchased six chairs, though only have four around the table. Eventually the pandemic will pass and we’ll be able to sit closer together again. We also rearranged the furniture by the pool to allow another couple to come and still be socially distant.

We have already had several pleasant evenings, sitting with the fire lit, talking with friends well past sunset.

The front of the house, with flower boxes and climbing rose vines, were at peak in late June. These roses will bloom twice during the season. The flower boxes need to be cared for constantly, but add so much to the street-side of the house, where island visitors pass daily. After a scorching summer last summer, which burnt the flowers in the boxes by the door, Teresa solved the problem by planting hearty Coleus, colorful and fast-growing. I remember cultivating one from a cutting in 5th grade Science. This brought back memories.


By mid-August, our new landscaper was onboard. He came in with a large crew and immediately began to implement the clean-up and changes we envisioned. He gave the yard the TLC it had lacked for the past several years, pruning all the shrubbery back significantly. One “shrub” had gotten out of hand. It now obscured the entrance to the garage and the walkway beside it. It couldn’t just be trimmed, as it was all wood inside. It got pulled out entirely and was just replaced with two hydrangeas that will grow large, but can be pruned into shape. Now there is space where there had been a huge bush, but we don’t feel like we are in a jungle.

Slowly, we are coming back into stasis. Next year, everything will be better maintained and we will have our garden back. We were supposed to be on The Garden Conservancy Tour again this year, but it was postponed due to COIVD. We will look better by next year.

Page from the Garden Conservancy Tour Book, 2018

I hope everything, particularly our country, is in better shape by next year.

Flower box in late August

 

 

In Harm’s Way by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

/ Stories

Until her death ten years ago, we lived a few blocks away from Patricia Neal in downtown Edgartown, where she had been been a fixture for years. She often sat on her front porch and was pleased to say “good morning” to all who passed by. But the “Martha’s Vineyard way” was to not impose on the celebrities, no matter how visible they were. They came to the island for rest and respite and we all respected that.

We loved her in all her movies, even heard her speak at Brandeis once, after watching “A Face in the Crowd”. It was late in her life and she freely offered the information that Gary Cooper (though a married man) was the love of her life. She was charming and pulled no punches.

Years earlier, while channel surfing, we had come across the Otto Preminger pot boiler “In Harm’s Way”, a World War II movie starring her and John Wayne. It is very long and we were got so caught up in it, that we postponed going out for pizza for our kids; who’s hungry anyway? Through the years, we watch it over and over again. We even bought the DVD. It is one our guilty pleasures.

So imagine my delight when, perhaps 17 years ago, I ran into Ms. Neal in the local grocery store. She looked every bit the movie star, wearing a smart pant suit, nice white beads and a white turban; not like the rest of us, in shorts and t-shirts on a hot summer day. She was pushing her cart with the help of her companion, necessitated by her declining health from the stroke she had suffered years earlier. I knew it wasn’t proper etiquette to approach her, but I just couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me, Ms. Neal. I just had to tell you how much my husband and I enjoy your performance in In Harm’s Way. We get caught up in it every time we see it.”

She straightened her posture to “Movie Star” and brightened up. “Yeah, that was a good one. ‘Oh Rock!'” (Rocky was John Wayne’s character, she was quoting from the movie…I loved it!)

She didn’t win her Oscar for that movie, but it didn’t matter, I had offered a moment of appreciation for a long-ago performance and, rather than being put-off, she seemed to really enjoy it. I know I did. A rare moment with one of the greats.

 

 

NCC Fundraiser by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Yard Sales

/ Stories

Jim and Annie

I joined the Newton Community Chorus is September, 2003. NCC is run as a non-profit, and we incur a lot of expenses. We pay dues, which covers the cost of our own music (surprisingly expensive, for those who have never purchased published scores of masterworks before). We pay our conductor and accompanist a fair wage for the weekly rehearsals, all their preparatory work and concerts. We also hire an orchestra for our concerts and provide their sheet music (depending on what we sing, the size of the orchestra varies). We print programs. We are lucky enough to be given free rehearsal space in a local parochial school, due to a friendship between the principal and our director, but we give back to the school in the form a donation to help a scholarship choral student go on their annual European concert tour.

I believe we pay a fee for our concert performance space, which we use for two nights; for our dress rehearsal and concert evening. We need to set up our risers, place all the chairs and music stands for the orchestra, string all the wires for the recording (we do record our concerts and pay for the person who does that. For those of us who help underwrite all of this, the CD is free). Then, of course, we need to break it all down after the concert. Lately, as the age of a typical chorus member increases, we got smart and hired some young, able-bodied people to do the set-up and break-down, but that also added to our costs. These expenses go well beyond what our dues can cover, so we must fund raise.

When I first joined the chorus, we held a large yard sale, organized by a key volunteer group, headed up by the husband and wife seen in my Featured photo. He owned an upholstery business in Newton, so had storage space and a large truck, could store items and transport them on the day of the sale. One of my closest chorus friends was a senior administrator in the Newton Public School District and arranged for us to hold the sale on a Saturday in late October in the parking lot of Newton North High School, which looked out on a major street, so had lots of through traffic, as well as parking.

We spent weeks collecting items for the sale (we tried to make sure it wasn’t filled with junk), put up fliers around town to advertise, put ads in the local paper and tried to spread the news by word of mouth. This was before social media was part of our lives. We all signed up to work shifts throughout a long day and prayed for good weather.

Jim and a few other chorus members truly worked their butts off. I have never been big on yard sales. I haven’t purchased anything ever, or gone to any others, but I combed through my belongings and tried to find some appropriate items to donate and, of course, worked a long shift at each of these to help out.

There would always be the real shoppers who would turn out early, looking for the real treasures. Friends and former choral students of our conductor (who spent his career in the Newton school system, though is now retired) would drop by throughout the day. If the weather was fine, we’d get good turnout. If it was cold or wet, we would’t.

Then we’d have to break the whole thing down and Jim and his truck had to take all the left-over items to some charity and give everything away. It was a huge endeavor every year. We were lucky if we made a few thousand dollars. This lasted for the first few years I was with the chorus. One year we had rain all day and few showed up. That was it. After all our efforts, Jim had to haul everything away, we made little money and had to fundraise in other ways.

Through the years, we have found other means to raise money and the yard sale disappeared from our calendar so long ago that I didn’t yet have a smart phone to record photos of the event. Even Jim and Annie left the chorus years ago. He was an outstanding president and great member of the tenor section. She was an attentive alto, but after the birth of their first grandchild, they filled their free time time with other pursuits, including a lot of babysitting. I miss them, but not the yard sales.

 

 

Just Love Them by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By I Swore I'd Never

/ Stories

Last visit with Dad, Jeffrey, 5 months old

I am going to turn this prompt on its head. Rather than discuss something I saw a parent do that I swore I’d never do, then did, I’d like to give two examples of behaviors from the older generation that I found offensive and I DID NOT do, guided by advise from my father, which I shrugged off when he offered it to me, more than 30 years ago but have found to be great advise, in retrospect.

In the 1960s, in the Reform Jewish movement, girls were not called to the Torah as bat mitvot. Women’s rights came to the movement a few years later. We were Confirmed into our faith in 10th grade and the service, held on the Jewish holiday of Shavouth in early June, was a big deal. Most kids in Sunday School, stayed around for this ritual. Mine took place on June 1, 1968.

Confirmation Class

You can see how many of us were in the class. The girls wore white dresses under the white robes. Our rabbi (who, several years later, performed my marriage ceremony, along side my newly ordained brother) is in the back. I’m in the front row, just to the right of center. The holiday celebrates the giving of the 10 Commandments to the Jewish People. Our class wrote our own service. I was a class officer and key author of the service. Family members came in from out of town to be in the congregation to witness the ceremony. It was a joyous occasion. My parents held a big party at our house later in the day.

After the service, we returned to our home to rest and get ready for the evening; a catered party. I undressed in my bedroom to take a nap, as we were hosting this large event. I left my slip out on my bureau, knowing that I would put it on again in about an hour. I saw no reason to put it away. Even with my door closed, my mother entered my room without knocking, saw the slip laying out, became angry, muttered under her breath (but loud enough for me to hear…one of her favorite tactics), “That piece of shit!”, folded it and put it in my drawer, stormed out of my room.

I lay there, quaking with rage. How could she enter the privacy of room, why was she incensed by this one thing, knowing that I would dress again shortly, why did she call me something vile, knowing that I’d hear her?

Shortly thereafter, I got up, got the slip out of the drawer, got dressed and went on with the party. My grandmother was still alive, but just barely. In her name, my aunt gave me a beautiful heart-shaped garnet ring set with a tiny diamond under it, which I proudly showed off that evening. We went on like nothing had happened. That was Mother’s M.O. She blew up, then pretended nothing had happened. Do we look a little tense in the photo below?

June 1, 1968

House party after Confirmation, 6/1/68

 

I later spoke with my father about this. He shrugged it off, told me my mother had mental health issues and asked me to forgive her. I couldn’t. I’m not sure I ever did (which is why I did not write about this incident for the “forgiveness” prompt). Don’t get me wrong. I was always a good daughter. When she needed care, I moved her to Boston and took care of her for the final 15 years of her life. I just couldn’t get caught up in her drama. Perhaps I did forgive her on her death bed. I thought calling me that vile name, particularly unprovoked, was unforgivable and I vowed to never do anything like that to any child of mine. I never have.

My father-in-law had a basic shyness about him. He was smart and prided himself on knowing a lot of facts about subjects he’d studied. I first won his approval when Dan and I were dating, about to become engaged and I went to their Newton home for dinner every Sunday night. Sitting to Erv’s left, he asked if I knew the original name of the Royal Ballet (in London). I replied without hesitation, “Sadler Wells”. He was impressed and I passed muster.

He loved babies, but he played with youngsters in a teasing manner or some sort of rough house that didn’t always suit my hyper-sensitive children. They enjoyed his intellectual side; shooting off rockets with him, learning about computers and science and the like, but neither of my kids liked to be teased in any way.

My in-laws with my children

The Pfaus moved away from Newton in 1977, first to New Orleans, then to Hamilton, NY, ultimately retiring to Marco Island, FL. When Jeffrey was 3 1/2 months old and David just turned 4, we visited them in Hamilton over Labor Day weekend. It was a five hour drive for us. Jeffrey barely slept and nursed every hour and a half. I was tired, but we looked forward to being with them. Gladys had been a big help to me when Jeffrey was born and Erv loved the bris.

Friday evening, Gladys decided that Dan, David and I would go into the village (they lived on a hill right outside of town) to see the art opening of a friend, after I’d nursed Jeffrey and put him down. David played with plastic connecting beads, which were hinged. He had them in a circular shape. He sat on a couch between his grandfather and his father. He was very shy and sensitive, cried easily. Erv wanted to engage him, but did so by taking away his toy and playing “keep away”, which made him frantic. He did not enjoy it. Also, the beads came apart. David started to wail. Erv couldn’t understand why David didn’t like this form of play, put the beads back together, but not in the same pattern, now they were “S-shaped”. David wailed harder. Erv was convinced he had put the beads together properly. Gladys wanted to get us all out the door RIGHT THEN, to make it to the gallery on time, so added to the frantic scene.

Dan scolded his father for the way he handled David, which he thought was inappropriate. Erv did not like to be spoken to in this manner, not even by his successful, first-born child. We hustled the fretful child out the door. He calmed down in the car. We spent a little time in the gallery, congratulated Gladys’ friend, came back to the now-quiet house.

We got David ready for bed. We thought we were past the earlier scene. David said good night to his grandfather, who was heading up the stairs and didn’t respond. We didn’t think much of it.

We all assembled for breakfast the next morning, but Erv was sullen and didn’t speak, even when directly spoken to. Slowly it dawned on us that he was taking the posture of an out-of-joint school girl and not speaking to any of us, not even his four-year-old grandson, who was long past yesterday’s incident, really loved his grandfather (he rarely saw my father) and really wanted to engage him. Erv would not engage. He got up and walked away. We were all flabbergasted, including Gladys. We couldn’t believe he could be so petty and immature. But he persisted throughout the day. Dan would have none of this, huddled with me in our bedroom and decided we should pack up and leave.

Gladys was equally as frantic, trying to reason with Erv. He would not budge. She feared if we walked out the door, there was no healing this rift and we would be lost to Erv forever. She negotiated back and forth between father and son throughout the day. I stayed out of it, as I felt the argument was between Erv and Dan and would do whatever Dan decided. We had the car all packed, ready to leave when Erv finally said something small and insignificant to Dan, but it was enough. Dan responded and they were again, on speaking terms.

We sat down to breakfast on Sunday. There was still uncomfortable silence. I asked Erv something about fishing. I don’t care a thing about fishing, I just wanted an icebreaker and it worked. He launched into some long response; more than I could possibly care about. Gladys understood what I had done, pulled Dan aside, “Do you know what a gem you have there?” He probably never will.

Things flowed smoothly after that. A few days after we got home, I spoke with Erv on the phone, trying to explain my bright, sensitive son. “We think he is gifted”.” Come on…he’s not a genius”, was the reply from my father-in-law. “I didn’t say he was Mozart, but he’s very bright. Gifted is technical term.” Erv didn’t live long enough to see that little boy get his undergraduate degree from Stanford  in physics and a PhD in Computational Neuroscience from Columbia. Yes, he’s very bright. Erv has been gone 19 years and ultimately got along well with both my kids.

Shortly after all that episode, I recounted the story to my father, who had moved to Laguna Beach, CA after divorcing my mother, so we didn’t see him often. He was horrified. His response: “Just hug him and tell him you love him.” “Oh Dad, that’s so simplistic.”

Can you feel me rolling my eyes? My father dealt with a lot in his life, from a bipolar mother, institutionalized when he was 12, to the neurosis and ultimate mental breakdown of my own mother. He always tried to look on the bright side of life and keep a positive outlook, and, yes, to love people no matter what, particularly those close to him. He came east to visit for Yom Kippur in Oct, 1989, when the Featured photo was taken. It was the last time I saw him. He died about two months later, alone in a hospital in California.

As my own children became more complex and more difficult to deal with, his words have always come back to me. And I have tried to stay calm, not lose my temper and just love them.

 

 

 

Baby of the Family by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Birth Order

/ Stories

Rick’s 70th birthday

Ken Sarason and Connie Stein were introduced by their oldest sisters, who were good friends, fellow members (and past presidents) of the National Council of Jewish Women in Detroit. The couple had their first date in February, 1946 and married four months later, in a small ceremony, attended only by immediate family, in Toledo, Ohio (my mother’s birth place), on June 16, 1946. They were both 32 years old. My father, recently returned from the war, had been a dashing bachelor-around-town. My mother, though bright, cultured and attractive, was considered something of a lost cause; insecure and unsure of herself. Dad fulfilled his promise to his late father by marrying a Jewish woman. Three of his five brothers had not. One had converted to Southern Baptist and been forsaken by their father.

The new couple settled in Detroit and Dad went to work in the automotive industry like most of the rest of his family. On February 12, 1948, Richard Samuel Sarason came into this world, on Lincoln’s birthday. The family was overjoyed. It was also the year Israel and Brandeis were born; a momentous year.

Grandpa Stein, (our Sarason grandparents were both deceased before either of us came into being) paid for Mother to have a baby nurse for six weeks. Jean James was a Scots woman who never married, helped when both of us were born and even stayed with us when our parents vacationed. She always gave us Christmas presents, came to Rick’s Bar Mitzvah and my wedding. She called us her “wee little treasures”. We adored her. This is me in her arms (probably 7 months old), but is the only photo I have of her. I loved her brogue and always wanted to visit Scotland, in part, because it was her homeland. I fulfilled that dream in 2013 with this photo tucked into my journal.

Jean-Jean with baby Betsy

Rick was a placid baby; bright, curious, eager to please and learn. I’m told he knew the marques of every car he encountered as he and Mom strolled down the street. He talked at an early age. She played all her classical music for him and he listened intently. He named his stuffed lamb “Prokofiev” and slept with it every night. Our pediatrician once remarked that he thought Rick has been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. He was an adorable little boy, younger than the other cousins, admired by the family, and had all the attention for a long time. He also was alone with our high-strung mother for almost five years. Until I came along.

Rick at 2

Elizabeth Ann Sarason completed the family and the generation of cousins on December 10, 1952, almost five years younger than Rick. My mother once told me when she learned she had given birth to a son, she was happy for our father; when her second child was a girl, she was happy for herself. She was 39 years old when I was born. Her oldest niece, Lois, gave birth 21 days later, so I have a cousin one step down on the family tree who is exactly my age.

Rick was none too pleased to give up the spotlight. Jean-Jean came again to help out. Given how I saw Mother around my own children (she was afraid to hold them), I once asked Dad how she coped with her own babies. Dad told me she had a lot of help during the day and we were his as soon as he walked in the door at night. He was a warm, gregarious man, who delighted in his children and grandchildren, though didn’t get much time with the next generation, as he died more than 30 years ago.

At first, Rick viewed me as a threat to his household supremacy and with suspicion. I was born bald. He assumed I was a boy. Don’t girls have hair, after all? He called me “Boop-de-boy”. But of course, he was mistaken. When I took my tentative first steps, he would look to see if anyone would notice, then trip me. Once, I hit my head on the leg of a chair, wailed in pain, and bear a scar above an eyebrow from the encounter. But I adored him and followed him everywhere. He was off to school before I was sentient. I was now everyone’s favorite and he did not like it one bit.

Rick, 6; Me, 18 months

We are so far apart in age that, in terms of influence, we are virtually in different generations, from a developmental perspective. Yet, as I grew older, I wanted to do what he did and be with him as much as I could be. We did have our own friends, but I wanted to tag along with him too. I was sort of a pest. We listened to music together, made up stories together, if he was sick in bed, I sat outside his room (we were ahead of our time at social distancing) and kept him company.

We each had little rocking chairs. I sat in mine, outside his room, and rocked hard – so hard that it tipped over. He laughed and laughed. I was delighted to get that reaction, so of course, did it again, but this time, did it with more force and crashed into the spindles of the stair railing behind me. He laughed even harder, but I was really hurt. I ran to my bed, putting my hand on injury. I felt something moist. Defying our mother’s orders to stay away from my feverish brother, I ran into his room. “What do you see?” “You better get Dad.” I called out to our father, who looked at my head. He tried to patch me up with a Band-Aid, but the blood kept coming. Our worried mother called our doctor, who told Dad to take me to the ER, where I had four stitches in my head. Rick didn’t laugh so hard at that.

By the time I was five we got on famously. Though more aggressive with my brother, I was a very shy child, a real skirt-hugger. I remember in kindergarten, a little boy chased me around the room, I slipped and cut my lip and cried unconsolably. The teacher (whom Rick had also had) got him out of class to come and calm me down. Rick took on the role of my protector. He has a fierce intellect. I liked to be with him and followed him around. As I’ve said, a pest. Five years is a huge age difference, developmentally, but he put up with me for the most part and we played well together and he frequently allowed me to tag along.

I have always looked up to him and admired his many talents, though he has an innate shyness as well. I once described him as also bearing Mother-scars. He was alone with her for the first five years of his life. I was alone with her after he left for college; grades 8-12 for me. I’m not sure which of us bore a greater burden. At a certain point, I understood what a neurotic she was and distanced myself from her, spending time with girlfriends or older, near-by cousins. I became adept at finding mother-surrogates.

I missed Rick so much when he left, Mother, who was terribly afraid of dogs (instilled in her by her own mother, a remnant of Russia, where the Tsar’s army would turn the dogs on the Jews), finally allowed me to get a dog as company; not quite the same as a big brother, but some solace.

With my dog Nicky

When he left for overnight camp, Mother and I would go to some pleasant place, like the exquisite gardens at Cranbrook, and write him long letters. I loved visiting him at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, MI and couldn’t wait to be a camper there, myself. He started there in 1961. I followed in 1964. Here we are on my first day that summer (in a rare shot of me with my glasses on; I began wearing glasses at the age of eight, contact lenses at thirteen). I am not yet wearing the camp uniform of corduroy knickers, as my cabin hadn’t been marched to “Uniforms” to get them (they were camp issued, two pairs for each female camper and had to be worn at all times when we were in class or on Main Campus; after about 70 years, the practice finally gave way to wearing shorts on hot summer days, after a little girl passed out).

First day of camp, 1964

Since Rick was in High School Division and I was a Junior Girl, our paths didn’t cross at all (except when I saw him in his shows. I also got very sick that first summer and spent a week in the infirmary. He came to visit me once). The next summer, I “became a woman”, at the age of 12. During our rest period, the whole cabin trooped up to the camp store so I could buy the necessary sanitary products. With my purchase in hand, I saw my brother, hanging around with some friends at picnic benches near the store, I ran up to him, full of excitement, held the paper bag aloft and crowed, “Guess what’s in this bag?” And proceeded to tell him, in front of all his friends. That was too much for him (probably not in good taste, either, but I was excited and wanted to share the news with my big brother, delicate as it may have been). He harrumphed and waved me away. Still a pest.

As I mentioned, Rick left for Brandeis as I entered 8th grade. He had been the person who helped me with my homework if I needed help, or I bounced ideas off, when I wanted to puzzled something through. I really missed him. Rick is very sensitive and super-smart. One of my mother’s sisters predicted I would flunk out of school without him home to help me. Of course, rather than defending me, Mother repeated that comment to me. It infuriated me.

So, as a way to prove my aunt wrong, I proceeded to get straight “A’s” for the next five years. I’d show her! There was no email or easy way to communicate in those days and I longed for each vacation when Rick came home. We’d stay up late in the night, talking about life; ours specifically, but things in general. We grew very close. Though I was an outstanding student, I was not allowed to take final exams early, so did not go to his Brandeis graduation in 1969. That was the beginning of student unrest at Brandeis (many graduates wore stoles with fists on them). I missed it all, including seeing him win prizes recognizing his academic achievements.

Though we would not overlap at Brandeis, I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps there. I thought about applying to Boston University, which had a good theater department, but an older friend from my temple, originally from Boston, asked why I’d want to go there; it was just a big city school with no campus – I could stay home and go to Wayne State. NOOO! Way too close to Mother. Even U of M was too close to home.

I got into U of M, Northwestern and Brandeis. I chose Brandeis, and off I went in the fall of 1970, just as Rick continued his rabbinic training at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. I wouldn’t see him for two years. Our father bought each of us portable tape recorders, thinking we’d record messages to one another and send them back and forth, but that didn’t work out. I finally visited him in the summer of 1972, as I described in Holy Land, Smoly Land. Two years of college had changed me in ways Rick couldn’t imagine and the visit was less than successful, though it was nice to see him. It just wasn’t an ideal way to reconnect after so much time apart.

Rick came back later that summer, the family drove east to meet him. With him back in Cincinnati I could now call him and did if I couldn’t think of a topic for a paper (or just wanted to procrastinate). We’d talk for hours and finally, I’d get down to my paper. Talking with Rick is always the best. He has excellent insights on everything and I deeply respect his opinions on most subjects.

He was ordained two weeks before my marriage. His first official act as a rabbi was to co-officate at my wedding. It made that day even more special. And though he was married many years later, his first child was born nine months before mine. I am so happy that those two cousins are good friends, though one lives in London and one in Chicago.

First cousins

I still love talking with Rick. We never have short conversations. He’s the best big brother I could imagine.

November, 2017

 

 

Weddings Are Complicated by
100
(206 Stories)

Prompted By Forgiveness

/ Stories

Rick & Annie’s wedding, Feb 12, 1983

My brother was married in the chapel of Hebrew Union College on his 35th birthday. It was not a big, elaborate ceremony, but included close family members on both sides and the many friends they happy couple had made along the way. Rick had already taught at HUC for several years, was well-liked and respected in his field. Anne worked in the museum education field, was native to Cincinnati, had a close-knit family. She was 31. At that age, the couple, usually along with the bride’s side, dictates wedding plans.

We, also have a large family. Not everyone could be invited. Rick was given a strict limit on numbers of invitations. A raging blizzard on the East Coast impeded some invited guests from even making it in. Dan and I came in a day early, just to get our bearings.

Annie’s mother and aunts had a whole program planned after the rehearsal dinner. I was to be the Emcee. They didn’t know that I had been a theater major, was a born performer, even now was in direct sales and accustomed to presenting in front of an audience. The women worried about my ability to host such an event. Of course I carried it off with aplomb and won my new in-law’s seal of approval.

But there was limited space and Rick could not even invite all our first cousins. I don’t think he even invited all our surviving aunts and uncles, but did invite Aunt Roz, the widow of Uncle Roy, the first of Dad’s brother’s to pass away. When Dad first asked for a divorce from our mother, a few years earlier, she took him to court and fought it; for a YEAR! Dad wound up living with Roz, so she had to be invited. She asked her daughter Jean to be her Plus One, so Jean came, but only because her mother invited her. Her two younger brothers, Steve and Robert (yes, the one from the “Mr. Bienstock” story) were not invited; nor were other first cousins from the Sarason side. There were just too many.

Steve Sarason was furious. He complained to any family member who would listen. He, correctly, pointed out that he and his wife had always socialized with our parents, had stayed in touch with our mother after the divorce, helped her when she sold our family house, hung pictures in her new apartment. He thought he deserved credit for all that. But the fact was, he just wasn’t that close to Rick. It was awkward. He nursed his hurt feelings.

Fast forward 9 years to Steve’s daughter, Denny’s wedding ceremony in suburban Detroit. Steve was dying of esophageal cancer (he is second from the right in the Featured photo – this is the “first cousins photo” from the wedding; three are now gone). He had, perhaps, six weeks to live. My brother was not invited to this wedding. I flew in on Friday afternoon, went directly to the home where the family gathered for deli food after the wedding rehearsal. It was good to see my cousins. Steve’s son Ronnie had been my camper one summer at the JCC Day Camp, when he was a hyper-active little kid. He thought he could get away with stuff, since his cousin (with the same last name) was one of the counselors, but that didn’t work out for him. Now we were friendly and I was happy to see him.

I sat for a while with Steve, who was skeletal. I had never seen anyone so close to death. I asked if he was in pain. He assured me he was not. We talked of family, I tried to be reassuring and comforting. Family really means so much to me. I stayed with my cousin Connie, always my closest, my surrogate mother. Her younger brother and sister had also come in, from the West Coast, so I was on the couch, which wasn’t a problem for me.

The next day, Connie’s sons, with whom I am also close, came over to visit. One went for a drive through Detroit with his Uncle Tom and reported back on the many boarded up and abandoned buildings in downtown.

We dressed and went to the wedding, which was small, but lovely. We danced and enjoyed ourselves, though death hung in the air. At the end of the evening, I went to say good bye to Steve. I knew that this, really, was a last good bye. His final words to me were, “Tell your brother to go fuck himself.”

I was stunned and shaken. I tried to mollify Steve, apologize on my brother’s behalf, but Steve angrily turned his back on me. Last is my last image of him.

I tossed and turned all that night. I couldn’t let it end that way. I called my brother as soon as I got home. “Rick, you have pastoral training. I know this is hard, but please, Steve is near death. Don’t let him die this way. Please call and make amends before he dies. Please, I beg you!”

I’m sure it was a difficult phone call for my brother. No one likes confrontation. Both of us learned to go around our mother rather than provoke her. It is our nature. But Rick did call and tried to explain that guest list from long ago; Steve was NOT the only cousin to be left off. He tried to soothe Steve’s hurt pride and feelings. He asked for forgiveness. Whether Steve granted it, I do not really know. But we both tried. Sincerely. That is all one can do.

 

 

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