Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Perfect Example

...of why I hate Black History Month.

A phone kiosk ad for a Dutch Beer, lingering into March.

posted from Bloggeroid

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Great Woman Was Laid to Rest Today...

...and I'm pretty sure that no one was thinking about "International Woman's Day". I certainly wasn't. I don't think her daughters or her son, were either... but if ever a woman embodied what "International Woman's Day" is supposed to be about, I'm pretty sure Iris was it.

I make a policy of not writing other people's stories without permission, and I try to only ever write facts as I know them to be true. And when I do write about my friends and family, I always use a pseudonym so that I can give them a little bit of anonymity. I say all this, because while I knew this woman as Iris, it wasn't actually her name and most people didn't call her that. I'm not even sure how the name came to be, and I hope that her family will forgive me using this name for her... but one of the reasons I'd like to write about her under the name of Iris was because my own grandmother had a Spanish "flower" name, Narcissa... which  means "Daffodil".

Iris died Monday morning. She was 85. I met her because she is the mother of one my best friends in the world, my sister from another mother. In previous posts I've written about my friend under the name of "Shoefly" because she has a penchant for fly shoes.

I met Shoefly right after I moved to the Rock. I worked at a cable TV station, and Shoefly was hired in to the payroll department, and since I was some kind of "manager" of the Helpdesk there, they brought her around to meet me. We hit it off right away and we bonded fast once we realized we lived on the same little Rock.

My other best friend, otherwise known as CrazyWoman, had just left the cable TV station for a position at another station, and was actually the reason I moved to the Rock. Devastated by my breakup with the AllAmericanJerseyBoy, I needed a place to live--fast. I had gotten used to the quiet of New Jersey, but wanted to live in the Bronx close to my sister and her new baby. CrazyWoman introduced me to the Rock, and for a long while I thought I'd never leave. At that time, we were all single (though ShoeFly was planning a wedding) and all about the same color brown, so I got Shoefly together with CrazyWoman on the Rock, and we became inseparable.

For a while, CrazyWoman lived towards the end of the Rock, but Shoefly moved right around the corner from me thanks to a fourth best friend who's mom had an apartment to rent; my bedroom window overlooked their back yard. And then CrazyWoman, who had a young daughter, moved across the street from Shoefly. For a time we four hung tough, but Shoefly got married and suddenly decided to have a baby, and then during her little one's first year of life, I got myself knocked up with the Sun. So that took the three of us off the hang-out circuit... and we spent more and more time in each other's company, rotating kids, cooking duties, co-opping K-mart runs, organizing zoo trips or keeping each other company in the laundromat. We used to joke that ShoeFly's very patient husband actually had three wives... with all of the duties but none of the benefits. We did beach days, pool days, birthdays... CrazyWoman's daughter was older than ShoeFly's Moon and my Sun but about the same age as ShoeFly's stepdaughter. So we were always together in some configuration.

ShoeFly and I had another thing in common, other than the Sun and the Moon.... strong mothers with gigantic personalities, and sisters. CrazyWoman did too, but her circumstances were a little different. But from the moment I met Shoefly, I heard about "mommy" and BigSister. BigSister was the doppelganger to my little sister the Professor, which made me fall in love with her immediately. And like my sister, BigSister could cook her ass off, and it was from her I learned how to make sofrito, recaito, Spanish style roasted chicken, and beans and rice. Oh, and turkey wings. And almost from the beginning, when we would rustle up the kids and go to the BearMountain pool or the zoo, BigSister had to "go get mommy" in very much the same way my own sister always has to go "get mama".

I liked Iris immediately. As the years went on, I heard all sorts of stories about her, and I won't repeat them because they are not mine to tell, but I came to have an enormous amount of admiration for this imperfect and independent woman, who was devoted to her God and to her children. She was certainly a nontraditional mom,  but the more I came to know her, and the longer I knew her and her children one thing stood out about her; she loved her kids. All of them. They were all grown, and had lives, and while sometimes their lives were disorganized or chaotic, not only did they look out for mommy, they looked out for each other.

And Iris was always the boss. BigSister was second-in-command, but Iris was the boss... and through the years, even after her kids turned 40, or 50, they could still be the doghouse with mommy. Some of my greatest giggles were at the expense of one of them getting into the doghouse. I'd call up Shoefly, or mostly she'd call me..."Girly I have gossip!!!!" and then proceed to tell me something one of her siblings did... and the punchline was always "so who's going to tell mommy?" Or "does mommy know?" And even better... "What did mommy say?"

Iris had a stroke a while back... it was terrible to see her kids rocked. And for a time she insisted on continuing to live on her own, but that was getting increasingly harder to do, and so she put herself into an assisted living facility.

It happened to be a nice one, as these places go, though not as nice as the Hebrew home in New Rochelle. But certainly a billion times nicer than the one they put Poppy in after he lost his leg. But what made this particular assisted living place resonate with life, was Iris. She ended up in a corner room, all by herself, and proceeded to fill it with plants, snacks and a collection of black and white cows. And I never hesitated to "go see mommy" when either ShoeFly or BigSister had to go take her food, or snacks, or just to say hi. Sometimes we would go because she didn't feel too well, but she was never feeble or whiny. If anything, she was demanding, but never in an imperious way... it was just she expected her kids to provide her with something, mostly because she didn't generally ask for much.

Pretty much from the beginning of my knowing this family, I spent Christmas eve with them. I don't know how it started... I don't remember the first one... but I do know that once I spent it with them, I could never spend it anywhere else. When the kids were little, we'd start congregating about 7P or so, and from then till midnight, the rest of the family would come in, and BigSister would have cooked some amazing dinner. And always, no matter who came or didn't come, there was always Iris. After her first stroke, when she became confined to a wheelchair, she would settle in her corner, and hold court. You came in to the house, you kissed mommy, and then you went to grab your plate and eat before everyone else came. And you would torture the kids with unopened presents. BigBrother has two girls, BigSister a son, and the LittlestPrincessSister, she has a boy and a girl. And then the Moon and the Sun... so for a while there were plenty of presents to torture the kids with. They could not be touched until the stroke of midnight. And then BigSister would stand there with a big plastic garbage bag, the presents would be passed around and ripped into, and the wrapping swept immediately into the garbage bag. In less than 20 minutes it was over. And then it was time to fight for leftovers to take home. Well, I'd fight for leftovers to take home.

By the way, yes, I'm Jewish. And no, I don't keep Christmas. But I certainly kept Christmas eve, mostly because the love that would fill that house was enough to keep you going at least half the year.

The last year or so, Iris's mini-strokes got closer together. For the most part she kept going, and at any family gathering she was there. And the only real indication that anything was wrong--at least the face that she showed the world--was that she was quieter.

Its funny... I love pictures, and I take a lot of pictures. But usually on Christmas eve I would bring my camera, and end up taking very few pictures. In life, I usually take pictures because I'm an observer. I love watching people. But these people... this family... is one of the few where I'm completely comfortable being less observing and more participatory. So I'd be too busy to take pictures... or good ones, anyway. And later, I noticed my reluctance to take Iris's picture. She was so strong that her suffering was private. I would train my camera on her, and feel guilty invading her space with a picture of her immobility, and I couldn't take the picture. It wasn't ever that she made me feel uncomfortable.... and it wasn't the same as her family taking her picture, but I never wanted to expose her somehow.

So, Monday morning I got a text (I had to work) that Iris was making her transition. And in less than two hours, the transition was complete.

Wednesday was the wake. Many people came to show Iris and her family their love. I brought the Sun along, because as he said "she was always nice to me"... she never treated him differently from her own  grandkids, signing her cards to him "Grandma".

It was so sad to be there, to see her grown children hold each other and cry for her. But at the same time, it was clear that this woman's remarkable legacy was in the bond that her kids had for each other. It reminded me of a question posed to me once by a teacher at Pratt...."When you die, and you meet Saint Peter at the gate, what is the one thing you hope he says that to you?" I was the only parent in that class, and the professor turned to me and said "I bet it's that you'd like him to tell you you were a good mom?" I thought for a minute an decided, no, that's not would I want to hear... what I would want to hear is that "You Sun is a good man". Because that would mean I had done my job.

Iris had been a single parent. And according to her kids, sometimes a little unconventional. But  each of her kids has turned out to be good people. And her grandkids are at various stages of being good people. And while her passing is sad, and it will be hard to not hear her laugh, or hear her very funny commentaries on people, her passing allows her children to come into their own, to be the remarkable people they are.

The realization reminded me of this quote from Battlestar Galactica*:

In our civil war, we've seen death. We've watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was beyond the reach of the Resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over... Mortality is the one thing... Well, it's the one thing that makes you whole.

Death is sad, and final... but it is our greatest asset because it's what makes us what we are. As human beings we have the consciousness to know that every day we are marching very slowly to our inevitable end. It cannot be avoided, or changed. We will die. Hopefully after living a long and fulfilling life like Iris's, but we will die. In the meantime, we have the choice, the will, to make every day count towards something.

And... since this was International Women's Day (which I had forgotten about until a friend reminded me, rather pointedly), we as women have another contribution; our children. Not every woman is a parent, and certainly, not every woman should be a mother. And no, we should not define our entire existence through our children... our children are only a part of who we are, and we should never be defined by any one part.

But that being said... for those women who have chosen to be parents, it's one of the hardest, scariest and most rewarding things we can do. As BigSister said... we are handed a tiny, slippery, squawling bundle of humanity and that is all. It doesn't come with an instruction manual (no matter how many books on childrearing there are, there is no definitive handbook), or even any clothes. Everything from that point forward, we are responsible for providing. And we are responsible for shaping that life, and for guarding that flame. And sometimes we get it right and hit a "sweet spot", and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we fail miserably. At best, we can hope that our children only need a minimum of therapy, and at worst, we hope our heart can survive the stress our children will give us.

And at the end of our days, when we make our transition, we can only hope that our children will stand together and love and console each other, and be the amazing people we have hoped they would be.

And then we can consider ourselves as blessed as Iris....

March 8, 2012

*if you're unfamiliar with BSG, the short story is, a race of robotic humans has destroyed the planet humans lived on, and most of the human race. There are 12 "Cylon models", and each model all looks the same, and share the same traits and memories. They die, but when they do they are "downloaded" onto a Resurrection ship, where their memories and personalities are transferred into another body, exactly like the one they had before. So it seems they never die... but at some point, in their quest to be more human, they decide to destroy their Resurrection technology...

Friday, March 2, 2012

An Open Letter To My Poppy on the Occasion of my Sun's 13th Birthday...

My dearest Poppy,

I wanted to write you a letter to tell you some things, and I wanted to write it while you're still here to appreciate it. I didn't want this to be the kind of letter that would be read in the "kind words" section at your Remembrance. And, you're going to be famous again one day, and then all kinds of stories about you will circulate and someone might write The UnAuthorized Biography of the Poppy, and put in all kinds of crazy "tell-alls"... and any time the Professor or I say "Yeah, but it wasn't exactly like that" folks will only think we're in denial.

But it was important for me to say this to you on the occasion of my Sun's 13th birthday. In some cultures, this makes him a young man... and he is, but really right now he's just entering his teens, still a baby with a long way to go, but 13 is a pretty big step.

You were the first family member I told, once I knew officially that the Sun was on his way, and once I had decided I was going to be a mom. I told you first, because I knew you'd be OK with it (even though I wasn't married) and I knew that if YOU were OK with it, any objections anyone else had wouldn't be all that overwhelming, because nobody really argues with Poppy when he's decided on a thing.

But then when I was seven months pregnant, the Professor called me up one morning and told me they had taken you to the hospital, and that it was serious. And it got even more serious as the days wore on and they discovered the tumor in your bladder and your failing kidneys. I was really scared... beyond scared, even. In that place where I just go numb and back out of feeling. I told the Professor she was now the older sister, because I just couldn't carry the weight right then. You know now how difficult my relationship with the Sun's dad was, but back then nobody really knew. Only the people who lived in the same building as me, or the few friends we had in common knew the extent of it. To them, our fights were legendary.... loud, stressful, mean. So the thought of you not being there was a bit more than I could handle.

I remember asking you to fight, to hold on. I told you I really needed you... and the little boy I was growing was going to need you, because at the time I wasn't really sure how it was all going to work out with his dad. You gave every indication that you weren't ready to go anyhow, but the doctors weren't always so sure.

So first off... thank you for sticking around. Later on I know it got a little bit harder and very very painful, and every time they rushed you to the ER I would offer up a silent prayer to the True God that I would let you go if I had to, if you wanted to go I would accept it but please I'm still not grown yet, I'm not ready yet, please let him stay a little while longer... and I am very grateful that you get to see my boy become a man.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time with you. I spent a lot of time with BigBear, too, and I thank her for being an amazing mother, super patient wife and strong woman, and for setting by example the kind of woman I wanted to be... but you and I, we've always had an understanding. You always have the uncanny ability to know exactly what I'm feeling, and will say something to me or ask me a question right at that moment, and cut right to the heart of me. I admit, there have been times when I denied whatever it was you said... but I would smile to myself and later on, when no one was looking allow myself to experience whatever it was I was feeling, and to be OK about it, because Poppy said so.

No one has ever been able to make me feel bad about something the way you could.... and I mean that in a good way. Like, once when I was about 12, you caught me in a lie, and even though I denied it, you knew and I knew you caught me and I was crushed. I could fight BigBear and be recalcitrant and defiant all day long, but you... all you had to do was wriggle your eyebrows at me and I would be reduced to tears. But no one else has ever been able to break me, though several people tried. And damn near succeeded, I admit, but in the end I remain unbroken. Your "eleventh commandment: Neither a doormat nor punching bag shall ye be" gave me permission to take on the world and win without apology.

When the Sun came, it was because of you and BigBear that I was able to walk away from a $90,000 a year gig, because I didn't like what I was becoming, and because I wanted to see my baby boy grow up. Nobody else really understood. But all those walks we took together in Paris; me on your shoulders or riding my red tricycle, and all those times you stopped typing your story to put a radish on a toothpick for me and call it a lollipop, and all those days you said I didn't have to go to school because it stressed me, and all those nights you sat up with me while I struggled to breathe.... all those things gave me permission to do that for my boy. I wasn't always sure his dad was going to be there... and in truth there were times he wasn't, but I knew I was going to be there, no matter what it took.

I remember the nature walks we took in Bull Bay in Jamaica, looking for the hidden and not so hidden wonders of our life... speckled eggs in a sandy nest, washed up shells, the pelicans and there food pouches, how the beach would completely erode after a hurricane, or learning to time the waves so we wouldn't get wet as we passed that rocky wall up near 10 Mile... all those things I remembered when it was time to see the world through my Sun's eyes, to enjoy those little things and triumphs all over again. I was even able to have him grow up next to a beach, the way I did, and with joy I showed him all those things I had seen as a child.

When we had to leave Jamaica, I remember feeling your pain, remember us sitting on the beach and you crying because you hoped we didn't all lose our souls in America. At the time, I had a concept of "the soul" because of all the animals we had seen pass on, and because of all the Old Testament we had read, but it wasn't until the Sun came along, and I had to work at a job I hated and felt that my soul was dying, that I really understood what you meant. I sat in my armchair once, with Boy nursing at my breast and me talking to Uncle C on the phone about creating, crying because I didn't have the time for Boy let alone for creating, and it was like dying. So the morning I woke up and Boss pissed me off one last time and I walked out on that job and that life and never looked back, I could do it because after all, taking that kind of risk on my happiness was more familiar to me than allowing my soul to die in an office cubicle.

Because I had a father I loved and who was there for me, I had the strength to accomplish the extremely difficult task of fighting a man who was trying to break me, yet still allow him to be a father to his son.  I knew both the father and the son needed each other, needed to be in each other's lives, because I always had you in mine. And to say that this was not an easy task is an understatement. You were always kind to him... always patient and hopeful for him, the Sun's dad. And for the most part, he's an awesome Dad. We don't always see eye-to-eye, and sometimes we still want to strangle each other, and we will NEVER be a couple, because someone would die (and not me), but he has turned out to be a pretty cool dad. Although one of the past incidents that still pisses me off is him yelling at you in court... but at the same time, I realize he never had what I had... never even had the freedom to say what he felt to his own dad, so I can actually forgive him that. But it still ticks me off.... because of everyone watching the drama from the outside, you cut him the most slack.

Because you were patient with us, because you taught us to say "NO!" and mean it, because you respected when we said "NO!" and meant it, because you listened to what we had to say, because you gave us the power to make choices and accept the consequences of those choices, when my Sun came along I found myself listening more, giving him the opportunity to make choices for himself, and to accept consequences. This is something the Sun's father and I don't always agree on... but because you let us live our lives by the choices we made, accepting the mistakes we made because of a bad choice and not berating us too much (and there was no need.. after all the mistakes themselves were far better punishment for a bad choice than anything you could have done) even though it sometimes pains me to see my kid make a mistake, I know I can let him.

Because of you, because you told us the story of Nana Jessie over and over and over again, and because I grew up to find her story in census and historical data, I was encouraged to start finding out about BigBear's family. It might have taken me that much longer to be curious if I hadn't already known that Nana Jessie was the unknown and direct descendant of Francis S. Bartow, Colonel of the Confederate Army. That fact alone taught me to not to accept history just because it was written; nowhere was Col. Bartow's illegitimate slave daughter ever acknowledged. But Nana Jessie's facts were provable... and so I learned a very important lesson: ask your own questions. Don't just accept what you are told. I once had a job where the computer system that was in place made absolutely no sense... the main computers were in Washington, D.C, and the "slave terminals" (ironic description) in New York could not save any data locally but were forced to save back in DC. And the network often failed, so that we would frequently have to wait until the systems came back online, or recreate what was lost. The computer manager got annoyed by my constant questioning and asked me one day "Must you ALWAYS question me? Will you ever just accept what you are told?" I said no. And I left that stupid place in less than five months.

There's only one thing I disagree with you on.... you should have made me learn the guitar. I know I fought you tooth and nail to even look at one, and learned some piano and sang a lot in defiance, but you were right.... I should have learned to play, to at least expose myself to another way of thinking musically. And this is why I battle my kid twice a week for violin, and now I'm battling him to learn guitar, because I want him to know there's more than one way to say something with music. He'll probably hate the violin the rest of his life... and will stop playing the minute I'm too tired to fight him.... but he can read music WAY better than I ever could, and he can actually play the thing.

Actually, there's two other things where you were wrong... the first and most important is that I was NEVER going to be like Aunt Sinah. I had too much of BigBear's Indian Blood to be sucked into thinking that science and math and being smart was what I was... I was good at those things but only because I could actually feel them... I got the right answers in math because I could follow the train of thought in my heart, but I never could prove it on paper, nor did I even want to. I loved biology because nature and the Higher Power's creations fascinate me, not because I had a particularly scientific mind. And I always knew I would have a child, I always knew I 'd be a parent... it was drilled into me by BigBear. "When you grow up and have children..."BigBear would always say, and I would always listen to what ever she said after that... that I would need to make a shopping list or cook a meal  for four with five dollars, or whatever. I know that part of your joy at my announcement of the Sun was because you were more than a little afraid he would never come... but I always knew he would. In fact, I held off from conceiving him from the time I was 18, only because there were things I wanted to see and do before he came...

And the last thing I disagree with you on is "doing right because it's right to do right". I remember you saying that humans ONLY do right because they fear the consequences that doing wrong will bring them... but I have learned and seen some evil people in the world, who relish the pain of doing wrong. They thrive on it. So that fear never prevents them from doing wrong, and worse... because they aren't afraid of not doing right, sometimes it even seems they don't suffer at all! There were times, for instance, when I could plot out really awful things for people who had crossed me, and I knew I'd be able to get away with it too... but in the end I didn't ONLY because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, you do right because it's right to do right...

But other than that... because of you Poppy, I am the woman I am. Yes, I have the greatest sister in the world, and the greatest mom ever... but you gave me freedom from fear. I am not afraid to be strong, I am not afraid to be brown, I am not afraid to be right, I'm not even afraid to be wrong. I'm not afraid to ask questions, or question answers. I'm not afraid to stand up for myself. I'm not afraid to fight tooth and nail, even to kill (God forbid) in defense of my baby, my family, my love. I am not afraid to be kind or gentle. Because, you, my Poppy never made me afraid of anything. OK, I'm no fan of failure... and I've had some pretty spectacular failures, but I'm not afraid to try again or something new just because I failed. But most importantly, I was never afraid to be a mother, even if it meant being a single mother, because I knew you had my back. And because my Sun grew up knowing his mother wasn't afraid, he's very secure... and he's going to be a great man some day. Though sometimes I have to remind him a little bit of fear is a good thing.... and I do remember you always quoting "The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." and I'm reminding myself I need to tell him that more often....

Poppy I'm so happy you're here to see him turn 13. And I look forward to you seeing him graduate from high school, from college. And maybe even you'll get to meet his wife... but I am very very happy that today, this day, I can say thank you Poppy, I love  you. Look at my Sun! He's taller than me now, can you believe it? He looks like his daddy but he looks like us too, isn't that funny? Nana Jessie would like him, and Nana Narcissa too, and he would make Grandpa Wil smile. And great-grandpa Narcisso. I told the Sun the other day about Narcisso in the Irish bar... he thought that funny. I told him we come from a long line of defiant people, so use that to defy evil, to stand up for justice.... and he liked that, too.

Happy 13th Sun Day, Poppy.

I love you.