Family life in the Easter/Passover divide

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On a few mornings during this past week, my 4 year old daughter Neve has crawled out of bed and asked, “Is today when I can’t eat bread?”

When I say, “No, that starts Friday night, when Passover begins,” her whole body visibly relaxes.

It’s more than a little comical. Neve’s (admittedly very narrow) eating life focuses primarily on things not kosher for Passover: bread, dry cereal, and hummus. This is a girl who often eats slices of bread as a snack, so the thought of going without her first food love for several days is clearly causing her a little, well, tsuris.

In the past, only Joe kept Passover – since he’s the official Jew and all, in addition to being an adult – but last year, we took a step toward easing me and the girls into this holiday tradition. The compromise? We left bread items in the house, but none of us were allowed eat any of it when we were at home during those 8 days; and when the girls ate at school (and I ate at work), or out at a restaurant, all Passover bets were off.

This year, though, we’re trying to go all in. The girls are intrigued by the idea of gathering and selling our Chametz – though Neve keeps mistaking that word for “hummus” – to a neighbor and then buying it back after Passover; I am, too, since I’ve never done this before. And in this post-layoff time of upheaval and transition, I’m making a more concerted effort to be a little adventurous, and thus keep depression and self-doubt at bay. Continue reading

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The Layoff Diaries: Down the rabbit-hole

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I’m a lifelong skeptic, so I have great difficulty explaining why, on a fairly consistent basis, I stumble upon things in my reading life that address, in an uncanny way, something I’m experiencing right at that very moment.

For instance, last year, when my father-in-law had a handful of long stints in the hospital, and I was on my own with the girls one night because it looked like he might be facing his final hours, Lily randomly chose (for her reading practice) this Shel Silverstein poem from the collection, “Falling Up”:

Stork Story

You know the stork brings babies,
But did you also know
He comes and gets the older folks
When it’s their time to go?

Zooms right down and scoops them up,
Then flaps back out the door
And flies them to the factory where
They all were made before.

And there their skin is tightened up,
Their muscles all are toned,
Their wrinkles all are ironed out,
They’re given brand-new bones.

Ol’ bent backs are straightened up,
New teeth are added, too,
Tired hearts are all repaired
And made to work like new.

Their memories are all removed
And they’re shrunk down, and then
The stork flies them back down to earth
As newborn babes again.

I’ll confess, I struggled mightily to keep myself from sobbing as Lily read these words aloud. My father-in-law had long been suffering from a rare form of skin cancer, so these images of renewal and release and rebirth worked like a salve on an awful night.

And last night, after dinner (and a couple of games of the kids’ version of Apples to Apples), Lily and Neve made tunnels out of the couch cushions and pillows and asked me to read from the book Joe recently started with them: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

You can see where this is going.

The chapter where Joe had left off reading, “The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” tells what happens when the White Rabbit mistakes Alice for his housemaid; as she tries to carry out his wishes, she takes a swig from a bottle marked “DRINK ME” and grows so big that Rabbit’s house can barely contain her.

Alice, in this moment, thinks to herself, “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me!”

You and me both, Alice.

For although I may not have bumped into you on my way down the rabbit-hole, we’re both clearly taking up semi-permanent residency in Wonderland, with all the delights and horrors contained therein.

Indeed, that’s what this strange, surreal post-layoff time ultimately boils down to. There’s sheer terror and worry underlying each day; but there’s also a palpable spark of hope for new adventures, too. You feel more alive than you do before, but at the expense of – well, being able to take care of expenses.

Unlike the days and years that came before, you just have absolutely no idea what’s coming up ahead (looking at you, trippy hookah-smoking caterpillar).

And depending on your mood on a given day, that notion will make you either jump up out of bed or burrow ever deeper under the down comforter.

Out of work, out of whack

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(This photo was taken on the last day of operations for the original Ann Arbor News in 2009.)

Last Wednesday morning, I stood in front of my closet and asked Joe, “So what do you wear to get fired?”

The line was kind of funny, in a gallows humor way; but this wasn’t just a joke, and I wasn’t speaking hypothetically.

After receiving a late-in-the-day Tuesday email – containing three clues that blinked like a neon sign, pointing to my imminent layoff – I’d stayed up late, uploading the hundreds of videos and photos (mostly of my daughters) from my work-issued phone, and sending documents and contacts I wanted to keep from my laptop.

It was like living out that “If you were stranded on a desert island” scenario, but with your two most essential gadgets.

We tried to hold to our usual morning routine on Wednesday, getting Lily to the bus stop, and dropping Neve off at preschool; but then I stepped back into our quiet, empty house, left to twiddle my thumbs until nearly noon.

Which led to the next question, “What do you do while waiting to get fired?”

I’d thought a bit about this the night before, while frantically uploading, and I’d decided that this would be the perfect window of time to finish up my year-end wrap-up of local theater highlights and news. I was off the clock, and year-end pieces like this had recently gone the way of the dodo, but I’d wanted to do it, anyway.

It would be my swan song, my parting gift to a theater community that had weathered a pretty tough year; and as it happened, this gift was mutually beneficial, in that I felt grateful for being able to focus on pulling together story under a tight deadline – just like old times – and leaving my nearly 12 years in arts journalism with a story that only I could write. Continue reading

Eulogy

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The last piece of advice I ever got from my father-in-law, Roger Grekin, came a few weeks ago, when he learned I was training for a half marathon.

“Don’t be afraid to stop along the way, if you need to,” he’d said.

I’m going to apply that advice to this eulogy as well.

But I’d recommend this advice to many of you this week, too. Facing Roger’s sudden absence, many of us have had to find the courage to stop our lives and our work and just absorb the loss, and mourn one of the wisest, gentlest men I’ve ever known. A kind of humble genius who would spontaneously sing tunes from “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls,” and pluck out “If I Only Had a Brain” on the piano at nearly every family get-together.

When he spoke of his professional life, Roger stressed the importance of connecting with patients, and carefully listening to them. And it seemed that every committee ever formed around him wanted him to join, precisely because Roger was, in his way, the world’s most humane intellectual machine. At work, and personally, he’d absorb all the information on offer, never losing sight of the forest for the trees, mull it over, and then tell you what he thought. And he was pretty much always right on the money.

The tragic irony of his disease [a rare form of skin cancer] was that Roger was someone who was almost unnervingly at home in his own skin. He was so self-possessed, I think, because he KNEW what a wonderful life he had built for himself. All he wanted was what he already had. He was still utterly smitten with his wife of 50 years, Linda, who made the phrase “his other half” a literal truth. He loved being a father to, and spending time with, Joe, Josh and Emily, and he shamelessly adored and spoiled his 6 granddaughters. He loved spending time with his siblings, and his mom. He loved being a doctor, and being a teacher. He loved his friends. And he loved living in Ann Arbor.

As many of you know, Joe and I dated a long, long time before getting married. (You could probably ask Linda for the exact number of years and months.) But I remember the precise moment when I felt officially initiated, and absorbed, into the Grekin family. Continue reading

The power, and limitations, of memory-laden objects

At a Holiday Inn in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we'd come to bury my mom, this frog arrived in a crib delivered to our room.

At a Holiday Inn in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we’d come to bury my mom, this frog arrived in a crib that was delivered to our room.

January 9, 2014 marked the five year anniversary of my mom’s death.

And perhaps because we’re programmed to mark anniversaries that end in a 5 or a zero as more significant than others, I found myself honing in on objects and memories from the time of her death.

The squeezy plastic frog that has Holiday Inn stamped in script on its stomach, which arrived with a crib in our hotel room in Terre Haute. (My mom was buried in nearby Clay City, Indiana.) Lily, 8 months old at that time, loved the frog and often held it in her little hands, and I felt ridiculously grateful for this small gesture.

The snug, plain white ankle socks that I borrowed from my mother’s dresser drawer, in North Carolina, because I’d packed our bags in such a rushed, harried state that I’d packed no socks for myself in the coldest month of the year. These same socks are rolled up in my dresser drawer now. Pulling them onto my feet always makes me remember the trip. How we didn’t make it in time to see her alive on final time, despite our best efforts. How her life ended in the time when we were all hurtling through space toward her hospital room. How I knew, upon returning to the Asheville Airport’s car rental counters from the bathroom, that she was gone, simply by the expression on Joe’s face as he walked toward me. How, based on reports of my mother’s condition shortly before her death, I quickly decided that her timing may have been for the best. That the relatively casual, “How are you?” phone conversation I’d had with her days before would serve me well enough, since it ended with, “I love you.” Continue reading

Virtual Time Capsule (or, Letter to my mom, 3 years gone)

Three years ago today, on January 9, you died. You’d dealt with (what began as) breast cancer on and off for 14 years, but when the end came, it worked its destruction on your organs so quickly that we couldn’t get to you before you were gone.

On this particular anniversary, I’ll confess that I feel a strange lightness – an appreciation for the life and family I now have. And I have no regrets. Because you started making a point of saying “I love you” at the end of visits and phone calls once you were diagnosed (thank you for that), I’m not haunted by what wasn’t said; and since we’d visited you and Dad only weeks before, at Thanksgiving and at Christmas – despite the logistic difficulties of traveling by plane with a 7 month old baby – I’m wholly at peace that we got to spend some reasonably “normal” time with you before everything spiraled out of control, and that you got to spend as much time with Lily as was possible before you died.

Lily, sporting her distinctive fashion style in the summer of 2011

That having been said, I know you’d absolutely love to see her now, at age 3 1/2. She’s a mischievous little ringleader, with that trademark, thick, multi-hued honey blond hair that seems to run in our family.

Yes, she can be stubborn, of course (she was bound to get that trait no matter what, with me and Joe as parents), and she’s demonstrated already that she may well possess Joe’s temper and capacity for volume.

But there are nonetheless these moments when I nearly burst with love for her. For instance, when we were returning home from visiting Dad at Christmas, she sang and ran and skipped down the airport’s multiple moving sidewalks, wearing a sparkly red tutu over her purple pants, with her long, ragged braid bouncing off her back. I was the one chasing her with our bags, while Joe stayed with the baby in the stroller, so I got to see the faces of all the people we passed light up with smiles as they watched this sprite of a girl – this little being that Joe and I somehow created. Continue reading

Why it’s never “just like Mom used to make”

On Wednesday evening, we had a Rosh Hashanah dinner on our enclosed back porch that – aside from the addition of some Hebrew prayers, and challah, apples and honey, and candles on the table – resembled a typical (read: maddening) family dinner involving an infant and a 3 year old: Lily immediately started whining about not wanting to eat what was on her plate; when we coerced her into trying a bite, she cried, red-faced, with her food-stuffed mouth hanging open, and she wailed that she didn’t like it just before she spit it out; Neve woke up halfway through the meal, grumpy and hungry, so Joe held her while I shoveled the rest of my dinner into my mouth and left to feed the baby in a more comfortable chair; Lily started negotiating how many bites of each part of her dinner she needed to eat to qualify for dessert, and asked Joe to put some peanut butter on a piece of challah; and finally, when Joe and Lily had had their dessert, I finished feeding Neve, handed her off to Joe, and headed to the porch to have my dessert course alone.

“What did you get?” I asked Joe, who’d picked up various items at the Franklin Cider Mill the night before.

“A pumpkin pie. For you.”

I popped open the plastic container and cut a slice for myself, resuming my place at the table. The candles were burning down, the world was rainy and dark outside the windows, and the littered, abandoned battlefield of the dinner table, which I would soon need to clean up, lay before me.

But then I tasted the pie and thought of my mother. Continue reading