Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why I Let My Kids Play in the Cemetery

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my sisters and I packed up our children and headed over, along with my father, to the cemetery. Black Friday indeed.

In what is remarkably now our seventh thanksgiving without her, visiting my mother’s grave over the holiday weekend has become its own tradition in and of itself. We go, we say the Mourners Kaddish, we leave sea shells (instead of traditional stones which Jews leave) because my mother loved looking for seashells at the beach. When we are finished, we usually visit my aunt, my uncles, a great aunt and uncle, and some distant cousins, all laid to rest within reach of my mother’s stone. We almost always bring the kids.

In the beginning, during those first few years after she passed, things seemed to sting more than they do now. And the pain of loss and the sharpness of the wind and the way it hits you on top of that hill on cold November mornings would often leave us breathless. But time has a way of morphing grief. It doesn’t go away, it just changes.

My children, now 4 and 6, often skip happily around the stones. They frolic on that hill and their antics often mimic a Sound of Music parody more than a visit to a graveyard. They love playing with the seashells and placing them on her stone. Ruby loves running her fingers in the grooves of where my mother’s name is etched in rose colored stone. In the beginning, I used to scold them about all of this. Their behavior wasn’t appropriate or fitting for a cemetery. It was a time for reflection and respect. But what I was really saying is that I need you to be sad right now because that’s what I feel. Because loss and death equals sadness.

But the amazing thing about childhood is that it is the very antithesis of appropriate. Kids don’t pause to consider what’s right or fair or even what’s needed. They just breathe in each moment of life and live it to its fullest. They don’t drag around with them the heavy implications of death and loss. Even amidst a hillside of headstones that I view as markers of death, they always seem to remind me that they are also markers of life; of how these people lived and loved. They are reminders of who they were: wives, mothers, and daughters, grandmothers, who too once skipped with glee and joy across the stones on the hill.

One year the kids insisted on bringing balloons there. One year they painted the seashells and filled her headstone with beautifully decorated pieces of Crayola inspired art. This year, Ruby was singing. She ran around jumping and spinning until she wiped out in the snow. And the she laughed and laughed as she shook herself off.

And all of it was so wrong and yet so completely right. A part of me thought I should intervene and stop them. Stand up straight, cry, speak in hushed tones, and remember with a heavy heart. But that isn’t what that place is for them. It is where we go to think about grandma. And they remember the best parts of her life, her joy, her deep and abiding love for her grandchildren who inspired her to be silly and curious, to remember that none of it is ever really as complicated as grown-ups like to make it.

So I let my kids play in the cemetery. I was fully prepared to tell them it was wrong. Until I realized they were right. Even quite literally in the shadow of death, it is never really about that, but always about how we choose to live.

And so instead of sanctioning them, I stood back and admired rare gifts that only childhood bestows upon us: the space to live in relentless pursuit of gratitude and joy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A National Day of Thanks

Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic about the role of analytics in finding and crafting the next palatable pop song. It talked in particular about the role of “fluency,” or the concept of people finding comfort in familiar hooks and themes as directly correlated to the relative success of a song.

If we were ranking holidays in terms of fluency, Thanksgiving would be number one on the pop chart.

It is the ultimate in comfort and familiarity. Everyone has their own particular traditions of who, what, when, and where. We don’t even know why we do it anymore. All we know is that it must involve that favorite football game, those pearled onions, your mother’s apple pie.

Thanksgiving is only loosely modeled after that first meal between the pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621. The national holiday we observe today came only after many states began to adopt a day of thanks in the mid nineteenth century. It was often observed in late November after the fury and strife of elections and after the farmers had finished with their biggest harvest of the season.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a native New Englander and editor of a women’s weekly, was on a quest to make a day of thanks a national holiday that occurred on the same day in each of the states each year. It was Sarah who ultimately petitioned Abraham Lincoln to issue the formal proclamation that officially made thanksgiving a national holiday. With a bloody civil war as her background, Hale was more compelled than ever that a national day of thanks was what was needed to help heal and unite the nation. In 1860, she wrote this: “If this November does not seem the time for rejoicing, then consecrate the last Thursday in the month to benevolence of action, by sending gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of kindness that will for one day make every American home the place of gladness and every American heart hopeful and thankful.”

And so we consecrate this last Thursday of the month to the benevolence of action, to the radical act of reaching out, opening our hearts and minds, and engaging, accepting and even learning from those who look different and think different than we do. In the words of Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” On this Thanksgiving eve, let us offer hope to those in the dark. Offer up love and peace and grace even for those whom you strongly disagree. Let us offer some light.

From our family to yours, we wish you a peaceful holiday filled with lots of love, light and gratitude.

Monday, November 17, 2014


In the end, sometimes all we have left are bread crumbs.

When the people we love are gone, these bread crumbs are the tiny little glimpses into the lives they led when they were here. And we follow them as they lead a trail back to our heart. They lead back to a place in time, in our mind’s eye when we were together and healthy and happy. I’m quite certain this is that space they’re referring to, when folks so often long for simpler times.

Sometimes when I am in the pharmacy by myself waiting for a prescription, I find them. As I wait, I wander over to the skincare aisle and there on the shelf is a tiny crumb disguised as a jar of Ponds Cold Cream. I pick it up and carefully unscrew the top and inhale. Instantly, I am in my childhood bathroom. It is nighttime and my mother is getting herself ready for bed. In one whiff, I am there and she is here.

I call them crumbs because they aren’t much really. And who and what the people we love leave behind are so much bigger than this. But they pull on the senses, and beat a trail back to the past in a way that often leaves me longing and breathless, in a way that only those who have loved and lost will understand as equally parts painful and calming.
My mother’s recipes are central in my never ending search for these crumbs in the years following her death. There is something about the weathered feel of the more loved index cards, the loops and dips of her signature cursive/print hybrid scrawl, the spatter and smudge of gastronomic pleasures tried and true and failed. I love reading and looking through them. The way she would go back and annotate each one after trying it: use less oil, add more of this and that. Long before we looked to the modern day blog to offer a window into our families’ daily lives, there were well loved recipe cards.

There is something different about handwriting that makes it in some ways the most prized breadcrumb of all. Perhaps it is the idea of knowing that no one ever has and will ever again make anything that looks exactly like this. We can be alike in so many ways, but our signature is always and truly our own. Maybe because when you pick up something that was written by someone you loved and lost, you can imagine them holding that very same letter or recipe card in their hand, pressing pen to paper. She was there and now you are. You both touched it. You can’t reach out to each other. But you can travel the same space.

Indeed writing something down, regardless of what it is, is a transformative experience. Science increasingly proves that it is the writing of information, not the typing, that promotes a space in our brain that lends more to the processing and interpretation of information, not just the recording of it. In a recent study, researchers proved in three different clinical trials that when students typed the information in class on their laptop versus physically putting pen to paper, the students with laptops effectively transcribed the information. This is drastically different from the students who wrote it down. There wasn’t enough time to write it all down so they had to actively interpret what they heard. These students retained the information overall far better, and outperformed their typing peers on follow up examinations.

And perhaps this is why the words on these cards matter so much. I’m not just reading letters on a page. I know that tucked within the spaces of that card are pieces of my mother’s heart and mind. When there is nothing to hold on to, I can still find a trail back to her in the way that she interpreted and extrapolated meaning from even the most mundane parts of her world. I can still find her in these tiny crumbs tucked between the lines.

It’s a chilly afternoon, the first Sunday of November. The Jets are on in the background and it’s the kind of day that practically begs for a fire in the fireplace and mulling spices and something warm and hearty, like stew. I flip through a bunch of old recipes. But this time I stumble upon an old recipe card that is clearly not written in my mother’s signature handwriting. It is for veal stew, and has the name Blanche written in parentheses at the top.
For months now I’ve been staring at that recipe waiting for just the right dip in Fahrenheit to attempt it. I had assumed the handwriting was that of a longtime family friend of my grandmother, but as I look at it again this afternoon, it occurs to me that it is my grandmother’s handwriting and the she just had written this name at the top, perhaps to let my mother know where it came from before she passed it along. As always in these cards, there is a story that extends beyond the bounds of what we’ll need for stew.

You should use a little less flour than is called for and make sure to finely mince the garlic. The onions must be sliced. If you care for it, you can add some mushrooms or green pepper in at the end. In her words and writing, I can imagine her in her kitchen, cooking, tweaking, preparing. I feel her in the slants and curves in the letters. In the way she felt it was important to remember that it was Blanche that she got the recipe from, in the red wine smudge at the bottom of the card.
Hours later we gather around the table. The children are, as usual, picky and hesitant. But Phil and I greedily fill our bowls. I finely mince some of the meat and serve it to the baby. Of everyone at the table, she is its most vocal advocate, grabbing it up and asking for more. The meat is tender and the sauce is thick: not too runny or clumpy. I smile. Of course you were right grandma. A little less flour will do just fine. And just like that in one bite, I am having a conversation with her. Much more than time and space separate us, but she helps me feed my daughter.
Generations and light years apart, my senses are heightened; alive and warm. I follow the crumbs of this recipe back to my heart, back to a time when we, my mother, my grandmother and I once sat around a table much like this one, all together. With each bite, I feel nourished.

(This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Stella. 1922-2014)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Jenn-eration on The Washington Post

Good evening friends! We’re up on The Washington Post’s On Parenting section this evening sharing our reflections on one year after Distracted Living. I hope you’ll hop on over and join us J


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Survival of the Fittest

The other day I was doing laundry and literally picking hunks of regurgitated food off the dirty clothes: gifts from the previous night’s puke fest. As I collected the curdled scrambled egg bits before they hit the washer, I found myself thinking: what the hell? No, seriously. What the hell? No one mentions this stuff about parenthood. And even if they did, there is no way you would believe them, that you would let your mind go to a place where it doesn’t even seem that insane that you would be holding in your hand food that no so long ago lived in your child’s stomach. And that after vomiting it up uneaten, it would make total sense to collect this food off of her soiled clothes before washing them.

This would make total sense if you are in the shit storm that occurs when a highly contagious illness strikes your house. It could be anything really: lice, a nasty virus. But when it hits, you’ll find yourself in a dark dark place and you’ll remember me and this moment. It will look something like this:

1.       Denial.

This is where you’ll begin. After the first child goes down, you’ll foolishly tell yourself you can contain it. You’ll quarantine her in your house knowing how totally unfeasible it is to keep her completely separate from the other two. You’ll downplay remarks from the others as they slowly begin to complain of things. You’ll tell yourself they just want your attention. They aren’t really sick. Until you see the bumps, or the spots, or the bugs or whatever plague has befallen your home. And then you’ll move on to the next stage.

2.       Lockdown

Everyone will stay home all of the time together. You will do things with the best intentions like google “how do I entertain my children for 18 hours straight” or “homeschool activities” and tell yourself that you will turn this lemon into lemonade. We will grow closer. We will learn stuff! This is a sweet phase. Try to linger here as long as possible. All of the cute crafts and printables take approximately 4 minutes to do. They look at you like, seriously, is this the best you can bring? And you put on your best cheerleader face and you’re like, “That was awesome! Let’s play that fun spider counting game again!” And again and again and again. Until you feel your sanity start to leak out of your shoes. Your son tackles your daughter because she scored a 100 on a completely meaningless spider game. An outright brawl breaks out and the baby starts to cry.

3.       Reality

The Academy of American Pediatrics was not referring to sick days when they came up with those screen time guidelines. You know that, right? There is a tiny asterisk in there letting parents know that but it almost never gets press. So you plug them in because honestly, even doctors believe that Phineas and Ferb can cure most of what ails you. And 24 minutes later you throw in a couple of Super Whys because they have to learn something! And maybe a Doc McStuffins as a bone for the 4 year old and also because I really like Doc McStuffins.


Here we are playing dress the baby: a wholesome non-screen time activity that was fun for about 17 seconds.

4.       Nutritional Meltdown

You make the same two meals on repeat. Highly nutritional stuff like Peanut Butter and Jelly or Noodles, or Scrambled Eggs. And you try to sell it like, “you know what would be so fun for a change!” Even though you know damn well they haven’t actually seen a fruit or vegetable in 4 days. Again, this is okay. They actually need fluids. Retaining water through their high sodium intake is helping them. Really, you’re such a good mom.

5.       Acceptance

You tell yourself that this is such a great opportunity to finally wash all of everyone’s bedding and hand wash all of the toys. And then when you can literally peal the skin off your shriveled dish pan hands, you remind yourself that it was probably cleaning that got you into this mess in the first place. Germs! Germs are the new black! Everyone is all down with anti-bacterial this year. So screw it. We’re just going to marinate in this stuff until it dies. Because that’s what’s good for your immune system. Didn’t Kelly Clarkson tell us this? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Remember, these are just general stages. Each phase for you will be your own special brand of hell, truly individualized. Maybe you’ll outwardly begin to look like The Walking Dead, or your children will begin to think of Tylenol as a healthy snack. And in the end, only the strong will survive. So prepare yourself now for whatever is inevitably going to visit your house this cold and flu season. Stock up on your wine, Netflix, bleach spray and microwaveable mac n cheese. Buckle up and thank me later.