Monthly Archives: August 2011

Secrets and Lies

When my mother committed suicide somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86, someone made the decision not to tell her mother, who was about 90 at the time. This was a woman who watched 4 of her six children get taken away to concentration camps, witnessed as her husband was shot on a street in Belgium and had worked miracles to keep my mother and my uncle, the two youngest children, alive. As mentioned in previous posts, she somehow found her way to the Jewish Underground and found a couple to hide them in their Bruxelles-area basement for about 2 years.

The way I understand it is that she was told that my mother was living in Arizona in a restful and peaceful place where she couldn’t be contacted (I refer you to my post about my dreams.) I can’t imagine that she believed this and when I found out about it, I was stunned. I know it was to protect her but I didn’t agree with the decision.
My grandmother was a very loving woman, barely 4’11 who spoke only Polish and Yiddish and a smattering of English. She lived in a teeny little apartment in Brooklyn and was most proud of a painting she had of a fountain that when plugged in, lit-up and simulated falling water. When she knew I was coming to visit she’d fill her bowl of sour balls and go out to buy pound cake. She would wait outside for us and would beam with delight when she saw us, and walk us to the car, waving her sweet little wave when we left. She spent most of her time sitting on a bench outside with her friends with her cash stuck into her bra. She lived to be close to 100 subsisting apparently on boiled potatoes and Manishewitz.
My mother and her mother had a very strange relationship. On the Jewish holidays when my grandmother would come over and help cook Passover dinner, there was a lot of yelling in Yiddish. My grandmother would say “SHA” to quiet things down. I have absolutely no idea why my mother seemed to dislike her so much. What it did for me, was to model a mother/daughter relationship where my grandmother was so desperate for my mother’s love, and my mother just seemed annoyed all the time. One of my biggest regrets in my life was not taking the time to know her, while emulating my mother’s indifference and annoyance.
When she slept over, my grandmother would take her hair out of her tightly wound bun and I would be sort of freaked out by her silver hair that reached 3/4 down her body. She would brush it while wearing her white nightgown and often brush my hair while I just got annoyed that she would accidentally brush my face. She would take her clacking teeth out and put them in a glass and leave them in the bathroom. She never went out without lipstick.
Many years ago I found a document, written in French which came from an Israeli governmental agency addressed to my grandmother. It’s not so hard to make out the language that starts out (my loose translation):
Dear Mrs. Kempinksi, I regret to inform you that (three of my four aunts and uncles are listed by name with their birth and death dates and the concentration camp numbers they were assigned) and died here:
Malines (Mechelen) concentration camp was situated in a former barracks by the river in the city of the same name in Belgium. It was appropriated by the Germans in 1942 to serve as an assembly camp for all the Jews of Belgium and other ‘undesirable’ groups. The camp was divided into several groups including those to be deported; nationals of neutral countries or Germany’s allies; borderline cases (ie mixed race); political prisoners and, in the final stages of the camp’s existence, Gypsies.

There was a set of boy/girl twins. The girls first name was Minda which is now my daughter’s middle name. One of the sons is listed as whereabouts unknown.


Awaiting A Hot Flash

Burning tongue can be a very irritating and painful symptom of menopause. Just like the name suggests, burning tongue occurs when an individual experiences a burning sensation on the tongue. Everyone has sipped a beverage such as coffee or tea that is too hot and burned her tongue. This is the sensation that those who suffer from burning tongue experience constantly.

The barely 29-yr old woman who sits down the hall from me at work knows that when she hears a scream from me in my office, that that’s the signal that I’ve just had my first hot flash. I’m sure by the time she gets to my office, mere paces away, I will be found in a crying heap on the floor.

There are apparently 34 symptoms of menopause and the only one that I haven’t had yet is the “burning tongue” described above. When that happens, I will take to my bed and never come out.

The hot flash will be a horrible reality check, a jarring wake-up call to my inevitable aging. I know that I should embrace it and feel very grateful that I’m happier than I’ve ever been but to me it’s the true reminder that my body has been rendered rather obsolete, that as in so many cultures in this world, if you can’t make babies, you are downgraded to, I’m not sure what.

There is an upside to this: the other 33 symptoms, irritability, memory lapses, fatigue and bloat can be used as an excuse and get me out of some tough situations. And gentlemen, don’t blame your aging wives on opting out of sex every once in a while–loss of libido is #4 on the list.

(I have absolutely no idea why this formatted the way it did.)

The Meaning of Dreams

In a dream I have almost once a month, my mother did not commit suicide 25 years ago, but has in fact, been living her life somewhere else. In this dream, someone tips me off, and I track her down in what appears to be a rather lively apartment community. Someone sets-up a phone call for us, and she is completely non-plussed and not very happy that she has been discovered. I have yearned to hear her voice and she doesn’t seem to be fazed one way or the other to be hearing mine. She has no excuse for pretending to be dead. It seems like she just wanted to be leading a different life where she never thought she’d be discovered.

In these dreams she hasn’t sold the apartment where she was found dead and the door has been left unlocked. It’s rather large, much bigger than it is in reality. I beg my siblings to keep it so that we all have a place to stay when we come to New York. They decide to sell it. Maybe the message to me should be obvious: LET GO.

In another never-ending series, I host monthly parties at my house. A postcard has gone out in a mass mailing at the beginning of the year with a calendar and time of these, more like an open house, that start at 2:00 and go until an undetermined time. They take place in the house that I grew up in and generally, they are a total failure. I’ve forgotten the dates on the postcard so a smattering of very disparate people will show up, see that there’s no booze, notice that I only have one cd made, and leave while the afternoon sun is still shining.

In another version of this, I’m hosting a dinner party and I’ve gotten one chicken for 10 people or 2 bottles of wine for 20. I leave my house to go shopping (usually to a Whole Foods) where the shelves are empty. I come back and find friends in my kitchen, cooking what they can find in my cabinets, the table set. I feel like an utter failure and my guests are too stunned into silence to even look me in the eye.

In my dreams I’m on planes that are as big as shopping malls with movie theaters and newsstands. These planes never take off but cruise around neighborhoods or hover very closely to the ground. Oftentimes, as we get close to an airport to attempt a takeoff, a plane crashes inches away from ours.

Perhaps the most pervasive dream, and this has been for YEARS, is what I call my “stuff” dream. Nothing has caused me more frustration in my sleep (except for those dreams where I can’t dial the phone, my fingers being too clumsy for the push-buttons).

It has several different versions but it started out as this: It is the last day of summer camp and it takes me hours to pack my father’s rented car. My brother formulates a packing diagram and I am forced to choose things to leave behind. One of the bunks contains what appears to be my own personal library, shelves and shelves of books. I choose the ones I want leaving HUNDREDS behind. In a different room there are racks of clothing, apparently my rather extensive wardrobe of clothes that I have never seen before. Somehow, the owners of the camp decide to let me leave the books and clothes there all winter, on the promise that I would clear everything out before the next summer season.

More recently the dream has morphed into this: I am in a train station, a couple of flights up from the tracks with duffel bags, totes, suitcases and my favorite pillow. As the departure time of my train gets closer, I start taking my bags down to the platform, dragging as many as I can carry at a time. I hear the train squealing into the station, put what I can on the train, but have to make one more trip to get the last of my “stuff.” I have five minutes to go up to wherever I’ve been waiting to make it back down to the train. Not ONCE have I made it, and instead, watch the train pull away with my bags and piles and heaps of stuff, heading on its journey without me on it. (I’ve had this exact same dream with buses but sometimes, I DO make it on the bus.)

Within these dreams are threads of letting go and relinquishing control. There are things that I hate about myself, the way I’ve moved about my life with useless crap that has weighed me down. I clearly fear, especially within these party scenarios, that I am constantly letting people down, never living up to what is expected of me.

However, the most acutely painful of these dreams is in thinking that my mother wouldn’t want to know me now, wouldn’t break down in tears upon hearing my voice, wouldn’t ask questions about her granddaughter or my life. I guess it’s pretty obvious. The thought that she opted out of my life, when she ended hers, makes me feel insignificant, not good enough to have stayed alive for. In reality, I DON”T feel that way, and I know that that is the argument is for why suicide is such a selfish act. I’m not sure what else this dream is trying to tell me. Any suggestions?

Not Exactly Repressed, Just Occasionally Forgotten

Every once in a while I remember that I was almost molested by a total stranger. It pops in and out and when, completely at random, it pops in, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I remember that.”

Growing up during winter vacations, I would go to Miami Beach, WAY pre-trendiness, to visit my grandparents (the trendiest thing at the time was the advent of the 7-Eleven Slurpee which I just learned on Wikipedia are kosher!) My favorite part about going was knowing that my grandparents had Poppycock in the cabinet that I would sneak chunks of when they weren’t looking. I learned from my grandmother how to section grapefruit perfectly before serving it and from my grandfather, if you palmed a tip into the hands of a maitre’d at a Chinese restaurant, you’d get seated more quickly.

Every morning I’d get up and go to the pool where other kids, some of who I grew to know from the years before, would throw their towels down and spend the day (One of these girls lived in Chicago, and when Bubble Yum first came out only in selected markets, I sent her a carton of it, much to her delight.) It was a fairly dull routine but we had no choice. We didn’t drive and there wasn’t much in walking distance. My sister who is 8-years older than I am, had a friend who lived in another complex and would get picked-up to spend the day with her while I watched my grandmother shuffle around picking out dirt from her white carpet and lean into the tv to hear it.

When I was about 8 or 9, there was a building maintenance man who used to hang around the pool and talk to the lifeguards and the guy who handed out the towels. I would see him every day in his blue jumpsuit with his name, (let’s call him “Paco” even though I of course remember his real name), embroidered on his pocket. Paco carried around some sort of transistor radio that he said he could use to communicate with the airline pilots flying above us. This intrigued me so I took great interest in it. At the time, there were two floors being added to my grandparent’s building and he told me that the reception was better from the top floors. So, you get where this is going.

We took an elevator to one of the top floors that was still under construction. I remember EXACTLY what I was wearing–a light chambray dress with some sort of red bandanna-like panel on the neckline. There were doors in the hallways that went outside to small balconies and somehow we ended up on one, with my back leaning against the iron banister. We were something like 36 floors up so no one could see us. I remember him asking me to lift up my dress, which I did slowly, before realizing that something wasn’t quite right. I said that I thought my grandparents would be looking for me, opened the door behind him (which thankfully wasn’t locked) and ran down the hall to the elevator. I pushed the down button over and over and over, he followed me, and somehow, by some miracle, a man must have gone up instead of down, so we weren’t alone in the elevator. I pushed the numbered button of my grandparent’s floor and rang the bell with great urgency.

I remember having a nervous smile on my face but my grandparents still knew right away that something wasn’t right. I remember sitting on the closed lid of the toilet with my grandparents urging me to tell them what had happened. I remember sensing that my sister was pissed off that somehow this was all cutting into her plans.

In my memory, the rest unfolded very quickly. I see it in quick, spliced-together scenes. Someone alerted the police who talked to me very sweetly in the Bingo room. I remember feeling VERY grown up. There was a lot of activity and curiosity from other residents and I remember it being mobbed in the lobby. While I was being questioned, Paco was apparently found hiding in the laundry room.

If this were a thriller, Paco would just be getting out of jail and would somehow find me. He’d start staring in my windows at night, trailing me while I walked the dog, kill my cat and leave a message in blood. When I have remembered this incident I have wondered if this could happen, if he ever knew my full name, but, I know that that’s not a reality.

I don’t mean to sound in any way flip about this experience because I know that this is a VERY serious subject. However, in some ways, it doesn’t even seem like it happened to ME. I wasn’t traumatized by it and I’m obviously extremely grateful that I had the instincts that I somehow had at such a young age. Now, because of so many horrors in our society that go many steps further than this one did, our children know never to do anything as stupid as I did. Ironically, there are more subtle things (and some not nearly so) that have traumatized me much more than this did, not involving sexual abuse, thank God, but also not involving strangers.

I Am Not My Body

I need to stop hating myself because I hate my thighs, my ass, my stomach, my flabby underarms, my hands. I need to stop telling myself that I’m “disgusting” when I see myself in a 3-way mirror. This is no longer okay.

Yesterday I was moved to tears by a snippet in a documentary film called “Life in A Day.” People from all over the world were asked to videotape themselves going about their lives on one particular day in 2010. In one section, the question “What do you fear?” was used as a prompt. Most kids feared ghosts and spiders, adults feared God and loneliness, but one extremely overweight woman in particular, completely in the nude, in stark sepia tones, standing, arms outstretched, said “This is me. This is what I fear.”

I became immobilized. It struck me as the saddest thing I had ever seen and heard. Maybe I misunderstood and she was worried that her body would turn on her at some point, kill her from the inside, but I’m pretty certain my interpretation was the right one.

My body issues are far-reaching and lifelong. When I try to put this in perspective as an adult, I truly realize that I’m not so bad, and according to all sorts of charts and statistics, I’m slightly below the size and weight of the average American woman, not by much, but enough to make me feel a little better (I’m also 5.5 inches TALLER than the average American woman.)

I’m not going to blather on about the media because God knows, that is a tired subject. I am so sick of seeing celebrities in their fucking bikinis with sunburst sidebars about how they lost the 30 lbs they gained during pregnancy in 6 weeks. Good for you. What an AWESOME human being you must be.

This isn’t to say that I don’t look at Beyonce’s legs and thighs and feel so envious, but I don’t bemoan HER for that or hate myself for it either. I think Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men” is exquisite and I have to say, that I have those curves and do feel lucky for them.

I guess I’m extraordinarily hypocritical when it comes to this subject because I haven’t worn a bathing suit bottom in years. My top ½, not so bad, but, the rest, not so good. I wear these swim shorts things and I’ve recently decided that I hate my knees. When I say things about my body to my husband, which is almost every day, I tell him that he doesn’t even need to respond, he doesn’t need to bother telling me how gorgeous and perfect I am. It won’t help until I believe it for myself.

I’ve loved how regular exercise made me look and feel. I dropped a nice amount of weight and I did in fact have more energy. I did love that for about a year I was wearing a size 10 when all I really wanted was to be a perfect size 12. Recently, I’ve cut down on carbs and it shows. I’m certainly not torturing myself and I do treat myself to whatever I want, whenever I want. I know I should start exercising again, but I can’t beat myself up for not doing so right now.

There are many things I’ve come to really like about my body: I adore my collarbone. I’ve figured out a way to pose in pictures that make my arms look defined. When I wear perfectly fitting things, my profile is pretty great. I look really good in a maxi dress. I love the color of my eyes, the size of my lips and my really soft skin. I have a freckle on the fleshy part of my hand below my left thumb that I find strangely sexy. I like that I’m tall, but wish I were one inch taller.

I have a 10-yr old daughter who I think is the most magnificent creature on Earth. I’ve spent a good part of her life just staring at her in awe. She is definitely on the tall trajectory and has grown a bit of a belly, but, when I ask her if she thinks she’s beautiful, she says yes. This isn’t vanity, it’s honesty and it’s remarkable. I’ve always told her that you don’t just come out and say “I’m pretty,” but that you wait until someone says it to you first. She gets this, but I love that she feels great about herself. When she has occasionally said to me “I’m fat” I totally lay into her and tell her that she’s perfect and I don’t want to hear her say that ever again. I wish someone would have said that to me at her age, instead of hiding food from me under the table linens in the hutch in our dining room.

My Father Was a Rolling Fucking STONE, or, My Life Behind Bars

Every other Wednesday for about a year, I’ve been leading a writing workshop for female inmates at a prison in Boston. Most of the women are awaiting sentencing for one thing or another or are being detained because of their immigration status. I never really know what they are in for unless they tell the group, but from what I’ve gauged by their writing and sharing, most are in on drug-related charges.

My classroom is a big space at the bottom of a set of stairs. The women are brought in by a guard through an upper level and as they walk down the stairs and sit down at metal tables with stools nailed into the floor, I try to figure out who the hecklers and naysayers might be as I attempt to lead them through something different and meaningful for 45 minutes. They are white, black, Latino, gay, straight, old and painfully young. There are missing teeth, scars, and track marks. There are three different colored jumpsuits that designate what units they are in based on their crime. After almost a year, I still can’t remember what color means what. All I know is that all their sneakers are exactly the same no matter what color they wear.

On my first day of teaching, one of the woman was having a hard time reading the handout I had given them. I noticed her struggling and offered her my reading glasses. On my way out, all puffed-up and proud of my first class, Officer Steve, who has now become my prison guardian angel, pulled me aside.
“Please tell me you didn’t give that inmate your glasses to borrow.”
“These women are not your friends AND she could have used those glasses to attack someone. Those are contraband.”
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” I say with great shame and slight panic.
I suddenly felt like what all of us bleeding heart volunteers must have looked like to Officer Steve. I felt like I was in a bad movie about a teacher forced to teach the bad kids. He told me not to worry, that I couldn’t have possibly known, and that I’d catch on. If it WERE a movie, it would have been the time for him to wink. But you know, it was real life.
(I should also note that the inmates have to write with prison-issued pens that are supposed to bend if you go to stab someone.)
The class was initially pitched as a “sensory memoir writing” class. I had handouts, I read from a book that I thought was relevant to them, had them write some before and after pieces and had them share if they were willing. In my life, both personally and professionally, I’ve heard every hard luck story ever told. I flinch at nothing and I never look at anyone with pity or judge them for the parts they’ve played in making their own bad luck. I certainly know enough that it’s not okay for me to hug and soothe a weeping prisoner after she’s shared a gut-wrenching story despite every ounce of strength it takes for me not to.
There are classes where one woman will steal the show with humor and candor. My absolute favorite was a gender-neutral, maybe 22-yr old, who wrote about her father (interestingly enough, when I used to have the women write about a favorite memory, fathers and grandmothers were remembered most fondly). Somehow it came up in the story that her father had something like 17 kids and when we all gasped she responded by saying, “My father was a rollin’ fuckin’ STONE!” Doesn’t get much better than that.
Now, as I’ve gotten completely comfortable in front of women who I see only once as they cycle through their “orientation” to prison life, classes are a bit more free form and I’m finding that more and more of them are willing to share what they’ve written which inevitably leads to some incredibly poignant discussions.
I would have to say that 80% of the women I’ve taught are mothers. I would have to say that 60% of THEM are drug addicts who have had their kids taken away. Every single one HATES themselves for the kind of mother they’ve become. They know that they are good mothers when they are sober, but, their addiction screams louder than their kids. It amazes me that despite how happy they are to be clean and getting help in prison, they always seem to speak of it as a temporary thing. They don’t think they would be themselves if they weren’t on the street hustling or giving a stranger a blowjob. They have said that they would feel like impostors if they tried to be anyone else.
Yesterday, I wanted to talk to them about “judgement–” what had they been judged for, unfairly, in the past based on their looks or circumstance. I first ask them to judge ME, based on seeing me for the very first time. I got some great answers, some funny (they said my hair made me look like I had spent some time on the streets) and some things that were rather flattering. What I DIDN’T want to look like was yet another person from the outside coming to tell them how to live their lives. I had one woman say that the jury was still out on whether I was one of those or not. By the end of class, when I asked them to tell me their opinion of me after they had spent that time with them, they said that basically I had broken the mold, and then threw some compliments at me that made me cry.
When the prison was first built right next to an exit ramp I used every day, I watched a woman on the lawn outside the barbed wire fence, waving her arms to a male inmate in a window above. I found that to be, and still do when I think about it, an incredibly romantic act. It’s not really a HAPPY image, but there was great loyalty in it and it really touched me. I hate that I connect with 15-20 women every 2 weeks, and know that I will most-likely never see them again. Every once in a while I will Google to see what I can find out based on the name on a writing exercise and I’ve never really been able to find much. I want to think of them with their children flinging themselves into their arms on their day of release, but fear that won’t be enough to sustain them for too long. I do know, however, that they have taught me a hell of a lot more than I could possibly have taught them in the course of 45 minutes and I will be forever grateful for having known them.

I Played the Borscht Belt

“Star-studded live entertainment, exciting children’s day camp, teen and singles’ programs and daily Israeli dancing are only some of the constant activities featured!”

When I was about 5 yrs-old, my parents dragged me kicking and screaming to the Nevele Grand Resort in the Catskills. I think it was the poor man’s Grossinger’s but whatever it was, I HATED it. It couldn’t have been during the summer because by then, I already had spent 1.5 summers away at sleep away camp (another story altogether) and in the posed pictures from the trip, I’m rather fetching in red tights and a wool dress.

During the day I would get dumped at some ridiculous activity while my parents clearly did something similar to what is illustrated in the above photos. As I recall, in an act of defiance, I took out my frustrations on a paint-your-own plaster frog doing a rather half-hearted glazing job. This was the precursor to me dropping out of Girl Scouts for having to sew badges on a sash and getting kicked out of Home Ec for stealing samples of Noxema from the supply cabinet instead of caramelizing sugar in a double-boiler.

What I lacked in detail orientation, I made up for in the ability to sing. Perhaps it was because my father was an actual PAID night club singer (he and my mother met at a New Hampshire resort where he was the featured act and she was a rather come-hither receptionist) but at that age and well into my late teens, I was very confident performing. I suppose that it was this confidence that propelled me to go from table-to-table in the resort dining room like a mariachi band without the mustache and sombrero. Even though people weren’t slipping dollar bills down my dress to leave them the hell alone while they enjoyed their boiled beef flanken, I’m certain they were silently glancing at my parents with pity for having such an odd child. My infamy culminated in a rather demure rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at the Friday night talent show.

At summer camp, I was always the one entrusted with the showstopping number of every musical. I didn’t have the leading-lady looks (one of the many factors leading to my years of self-esteem issues) but I had the powerhouse set of lungs that could belt out everything from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy to “Somwehere” from West Side Story. I brought tears to the eyes of the audience with my performance of “Climb Every Mountain” at ten (I swear!) and did a great Ben Vereen in the opening number of Pippin. Now, I have nightmares that I’ve forgotten the lyrics to songs I’ve sung forever or I can’t find my costume.

I still have a pretty awesome voice. My medley of “Blackbird,” “Dream A Little Dream,” and “Where Is Love?” has gotten rave reviews over the years from my daughter. My sister and I are like the Jewish version of Wilson Phillips in our ability to harmonize to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Somehow, though, my confidence has jumped to other things but I really do hope to one day be able to again hit that one high note in “Climb Every Mountain” and to find the perfect person to sing “One Hand, One Heart” with at a karaoke bar.