Last night after I returned home from ten days away, I lay down next to my daughter to chit chat before she fell asleep.
“While you were away, mommy,” she said. “I prayed to God for something I know I’ll never get.”
“What?” I asked her, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
She sighed, “A real baby.”
“You’re right honey,” I replied. “I’m not having any more babies, but maybe God will listen anyway, and hang on to your request ’til you’re a mommy.”
With that, she sighed again, and held Nadav, her American Girl baby-boy doll a little tighter than before.
* * *
This morning on Twitter a journalist posted there would be an air raid siren in the southern Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
“This is part of a tsunami drill,” he wrote. “Don’t panic.”
As if the poor people of Ashdod and Ashkelon haven’t been traumatized enough over the last few years of rocket warnings. Shouldn’t they devise a unique alert sound for a tsunami? And, anyway, what are the residents of Ashkelon and Ashdod advised to do in the case of a true tsunami?
Certainly taking cover will not save them from the rushing waters of a churning Mediterranean sea.
* * *
I never realized it before, but jet lag is a necessary and appropriate method for transitioning from one culture, one point of view, to another.
* * *
If I were to have another baby — which I will not — I wouldn’t have named it Nadav if it was a boy, or Shaked if it was a girl, even though both are my favorite names for new babies in Israel.
It occurs to me this morning after I read the message about the tsunami drill, however, that tsunami would actually be a lovely name for a girl. The word rolls off the tongue like the wave it describes, but more gently. Like a ripple in time.
Tsu – Nah – Me.
* * *
When I land in New Jersey, I like that I have traveled backwards.
When I land in Israel, I like that I have lost a whole day.
I like to be pummeled by time like that.
I like that I am able to anticipate the absolute engulfment caused by change in time, even if I can’t control it.
I am a sucker for signs. I see evidence for action in unusual places: on the bumper sticker that says “I miss you!,” on the tractor trailer in front of me on the highway, or in that dream in which cats have snuck into my hotel room and eaten up all the free pastries left on a tray by the door, or when Nina Simone sings “For Myself” at the same time an article on the Self written by Maria Popova pops up in my feed.
This week, old houses keep popping up, too — mine and others’. In poems I haven’t written yet, but also in my waking life.
* * *
Clue #1: After my middle son finished Key to the Treasure the other day, I was certain he was going to choose Clues in the Woods because choosing Haunted House would be very unlike him — he, like I am, is scared to be scared, especially before bed.
But he chose Haunted House, and after checking in with him to make sure this was the one he wanted to read next, we began.
Clue #2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall. The grisly history of 133 Linden Street had kept the house on the market for years.”
Clue #3: This article from December about memory and mentally mapping our homes — it showed up at the top of my Twitter feed today. More than the study results, I was struck by the dollhouse image used to illustrate the story. Dollhouses have a way of being so inviting and so terrifying at the same time. Like old hotels. Like Stephen King. I felt this way before I read The Dollhouse Murders and long before I saw The Shining.
Clue #4 is a secret. I won’t tell it, but no matter.
I haven’t figured out yet how to explain to Janice in 200 words why it feels as though I am already the winner.
This makes me sound like a narcissist and I want to sound like a dreamer. Or at least like someone who lives her life one foot atop one pole and one foot atop the other.
I want to explain to Janice that the word Maine is blue and that I love that northern state because I spent four summers at overnight camp there, three of which I spent in love and that this is a good thing, not a thing that makes me crazy, but makes me the type of person who other people — guests — will be happy to see in the morning. And anyway, my husband will be the one cooking breakfast and serving pancakes in the shapes of native birds. Once he served our dinner guests sweet potato pancakes with a dollop of wasabi sour cream that was as delicate as a meringue. I will be the one who organizes the books in the library each night. (There will be vintage National Geographic magazines and perhaps a set of Encyclopedia Brittannica, too.) I will be the one who changes the sheets. I will keep the ghosts appeased. I will invite them to have tea in the garden so they don’t frighten the guests.
* * *
I had a dollhouse once. It was this one. Not this exact one, but its doppelganger.
* * *
I still love miniatures.
I love it that my husband sneaks into the bathroom before bed to set up clever scenes with the Playmobil my daughter left behind after her bath, with the purpose of surprising me when I happen upon them before brushing my teeth.
I especially love the miniature toilet and the European style hand shower: Bathroom appliances were never furnished with the dollhouses I played with as a child.
Which brings me back to the dream of the cats eating pastries in my hotel room.
I had been in the bathroom when they snuck in. They took advantage of my uniquely human need to relieve myself in privacy.
I was angry at first, but I couldn’t blame them. After all, I had left the front door open.
The Buddha never said this, but it’s the noise of parenthood that propels me to appreciate the quiet. This is probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far in the 11 and a half years I’ve been mothering. This is also why I wouldn’t use time travel to go back and change being a parent because these little butterflies that look almost nothing like me have had an active and passive role in shaping me; both the parts I like and the parts I don’t. (For the record, I’d use time travel to visit late 19th century Vienna like in The Little Book or watch my husband play in a park in Herzliya when he was a child.)
They don’t tell you before conception that noise is an occupational hazard of parenting, especially when you are me or you are my husband, both of us easily startled. It should be obvious, I know, but nothing is obvious until it sleeps with its stinky feet flush up against your nose. (The Buddha didn’t say this either.)
To appreciate the quiet, I arranged for an overnight away last week during one of Tel Aviv’s loudest nights to celebrate my husband’s milestone 40th birthday. Dan Panorama Tel Aviv made it easy to find quiet by upgrading our room in the hotel to a VIP suite on the 17th floor far away from the characteristic Thursday night noise and with an incredible view of the sea.
Knowing in advance it was my husband’s birthday, they also sent us up a complimentary bottle of wine and other goodies (travel tip: always tell the hotel when you are celebrating a special occasion. They want you to feel special.)
Taking advantage of Tel Aviv’s annual White Night, we headed over to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to explore. Nothing like a few hours of mindless meandering and contemplative staring to help you completely forget you have children (also helps that I completely trust my kids in the care of their grandparents.) We spent a lot of time in David Nipo’s “I Returned and Saw Under the Sun” exhibit of figurative-realist paintings; astounded by how real his figurative-realistic paintings come across. It was difficult not to touch the canvas to confirm the images were created from paint and not photography.
The next morning after a fantastically enormous Israeli breakfast buffet, my husband wanted to ride bikes. I wasn’t so eager because we were in the middle of a heat wave — even at 9 am near the beach the air felt oppressive. But I humored him and was glad in the end.
We rode up the beach and then through city streets, stopping at a vintage shop where I bought a record (which I can’t play) and a set of books on tape (which I can) and then headed back through the city to the Dan Panorama to clean up before checking out.
I noticed as I was dressing that I was dressing for life with children. The previous afternoon I wore my strapless dress with nothing underneath (nothing but underwear, dirty mind!) I wasn’t worried about having to bend down to pick up a crying child, nor was I concerned said child would want to grab me, as my children often do, without thinking what gravity will do to a strapless dress when it meets with a tiny clutched fist.
I can’t say I didn’t want more — more time dressed like the woman who didn’t need to worry about the elements. More time meandering off schedule. More time listening without paying attention. I wanted more.
Yesterday I took my husband to the ER for symptoms he has been suffering for over a week. Fortunately he was released at the end of a very long day and evening with a diagnosis of pneumonia. Serious, but not as serious as we thought, and treatable with antibiotics. And so … relief.
We both hate the hospital. I suppose most people do. Worse than the fear of germs for me, though, is the overwhelm I experience in the middle of all that humanity.
As much as my sensitivity allows me to understand and connect deeply to people, it also is able to submerge me beneath a deluge of compassion.
I may drown there.
The ill. The ones who are afraid for the ill. The ones who care for the ill. The ones who pray for the ill. The ones who clean the toilets, the floors. The ones who secure the entrances. The ones who drive the ambulances. The ones who are too young to be there. Too old to be there. The ones who moan in pain. The ones who moan with grief. The ones too weak to moan.
Through an invisible intravenous line, they enter me.
For a while there in curtained off section #17, I wrote poems and jotted down notes for story ideas. Tried to read a few pages of the book I brought with me. Scrolled social media for updates on the three kidnapped boys. Then my husband told me to leave.
“Go get lunch,” he said. But he meant, “Leave here since you are able.”
I never walk around Haifa. Never; except from my parked car to the ER or from my parked car to a doctor’s office and once from my parked car to get my Israeli driver’s license.
In fact, I have never walked around Haifa for fun. Even though I live only a short drive away, I end up in Israel’s city by the bay for appointments or by surprise. And not the kind of surprise you look forward to.
I’ve never explored Haifa even though the views are known to be incredible.
Without much hesitation, I did as my husband instructed. I knew I could use some fresh air, especially since an orderly had just rolled in a new elderly patient who looked as if she was on her way to meet the Maker.
I walked down quiet Smolenskin Street where I had parked the car, past old-school Israeli apartment buildings, some with beautiful gardens.
and momentarily felt uplifted. I traveled by foot up to Horev Street where I got an hafooch and a cheese croissant at Roladin. I hadn’t had much of an appetite all day. I think the worry finally hit my belly.
I wandered in and out of a few shops, met a Tarot teacher, spotted a Tibetan bowl I liked (hint hint: possibly a birthday present for me!), discovered the Rabbi Yosef Dana steps
And, most unexpectedly, stumbled upon a small shop inside a mall on the corner of Horev and Gat, a small corner of which was stocked with used books. A whole shelf full of English titles! From Umberto Eco to VC Andrews.
I was in the middle of debating whether or not to buy Paul Auster’s Oracle Night when my husband called asking me to return to the hospital. I quickly paid for the book based solely on the jacket cover copy and the title (I’m a sucker that way for marketing). Only when I got back to his bedside did I read the first line of the book in a bit of astonishment:
“I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore.”
It stopped me. Compelled me to look over at my husband with a bit of concern. I’m susceptible to coincidence that way in the same way I’m sensitive to the swarm of human emotions.
But he looked okay. Better, even. I wrote a note to myself: Sometimes all is well. Sometimes all is now. Sometimes all is here.
What I meant was: Sometimes if it looks like it’s going to be okay, it actually is. No matter what upset is happening inside the region of your heart.
My husband further allayed my concerns by sitting up and chatting a bit with a me for the first time in a week.
When the doctor came by with a diagnosis (not as severe as we feared) and with a release form to leave the ER, I turned with relief to my husband and smirked, “Thanks, hun. That was the best date I’ve been on in a long time.” My husband gave me a half smile. He knew what I meant. He’s sensitive that way.
When I was a younger girl, I never imagined I’d marry a guy my own age.
It’s not that I was into older guys.
Mamash, LO, as we say in Hebrew. Definitely NOT.
Older guys scared me. I typically dated guys who were maximum two years older. This was my boyfriend demographic for many years.
Guys my own age were my friends; little brothers. Guys older than me by more than two years also landed in the friend zone; as the older brother type.
An older guy liked me once. He was in his late twenties. I was still in college. The difference between 28 and 20 at the time seemed immeasurable. He was also British. He drank premium beer from a bottle because he liked the taste. I was still a 25 cent pitcher, chug it to get drunk sorta girl. When I was drunk, I didn’t understand what he was saying. Something about football, something that rhymed.
A younger guy liked me once. I went on one date with him. I was worried about kissing him because I had eaten garlic pizza earlier in the day and the taste would not leave my mouth. But kissing him was the closest I ever came to kissing my brother. It was like that scene in Back to the Future where Marty kisses his mom in the car. We did not go on a second date. But we’re Facebook friends.
Once, just after I graduated college a much older guy liked me. He was a television reporter. Even though that held significant appeal to me, I was still too afraid of the age difference to do anything but flirt and giggle, flirt and giggle. When he called me on the phone to ask me out the next day, I screened his call on my answering machine. Multiple times. Later, it came out that I was just one of many young co-eds this reporter asked out over many, many years of being married and on the news.
All that happened many years ago and is really the long way of getting to the fact that in the end I married a guy born less than two months before I was. And this summer, we both turn 40.
And while I never imagined I’d marry a guy my age, I have to say there’s something comfortably fun about reaching this milestone together. And definitely about celebrating it — slowly and extended over an entire summer. We kick it off in June with his (I’ve already planned a birthday weekend spectacular in Tel Aviv at the Dan Panorama hotel) and finish it at the end of August with mine (still a surprise hanging over my husband’s head).
In the middle? A summer of celebrating the unexpected pleasures and surprises 40 brings … because I am determined to manifest a magical summer. Let’s consider it an advance on my birthday candle wish.
I love photography even though I’ve never been as good at the art as I might have liked; might have been. I’m grateful — seriously, grateful — to Instagram, for allowing me an outlet for the scenes I capture in my mind’s eye and feel compelled to share, but hardly ever render to my satisfaction on a traditional camera.
I took photography as an elective in high school — learned how to develop my own film (not very well), and presumably how to properly use a camera. Whatever I learned there didn’t stick, however, and now I find more pleasure in photography as a researcher than as a voyeur. Although I imagine there is an element of voyeurism to my research, as well.
I love the evidence photography provides. I love the secrets revealed. I love the accidental body of information that corroborates or undermines the collective or individual stories we tell ourselves.
As I dig up old photographs in my cardboard boxes, or in the basement storage room of my mother’s house, I’m getting an education on the people I love … and who loved me. But almost as often as questions are answered or light is shed; there are mysteries. There are, in those photographs, chapters to the stories of my life that were never told to me.
On a recent trip to New Jersey to visit my family, I discovered a photo album my mother acquired when my Bubbi died a couple of years ago. The album chronicled a European trip — the only one, I think — my grandmother took with her aunt when she was in her late forties or early fifties.
Though I can’t be sure, I imagine this trip must have been monumental for my grandmother, who grew up poor in the Midwest; who was a small school girl when she was forced to care for her ill mother and eventually watch her die; who was shifted from relative to relative as her father journeyed from town to town for business. Her Aunt Edna (her mother’s sister) never married, and was very generous to my grandmother over the years (it’s believed Aunt Edna made a small fortune by investing early in Xerox). The two were very fond of each other. Beyond that, and beyond the little I know about Aunt Edna (she was a school teacher and an author), I don’t know much more about the intricacies of their relationship. I do remember my Bubbi, in her younger days, often going out west to Indiana to visit Aunt Edna. I also remember once meeting Aunt Edna myself in the lobby of the hotel in Philadelphia for which my grandmother worked for many years: She was perched on a velvet-lined settee and looked like an Aunt Edna. She called me Jennifer, as did most of my grandparents’ friends.
The pages of the photo album my Bubbi created are filled mostly by blurry, over-exposed shots of the landscape, of the sites, of the Coliseum, Venice, the streets of Paris, and presumably, the Alps. There are only three photographs of Bubbi in the album and four or five of Aunt Edna. There is one of somebody’s hand — opening up a compact, perhaps? Getting ready to put on lipstick? — as the other snapped a shot of windmills out the window of a tour bus.
There are no captions. No notes on the backs of the matte photographs. No written word at all. There are a few blank postcards — one with a watercolor of Buckingham Palace; another from an Italian resort.
What do I learn about my Bubbi from this album? Other than the fact that she was more traveled than I thought, I am presented with more questions than answers.
Did she slide the photos in under the cellophane and never look at them again?
Did she take the album out, every year on her birthday, reminisce and long for a different sort of life?
Was she grateful for this trip? Satisfied? Or did it only give her a taste for more?
I knew my Bubbi pretty well as far as Bubbis and granddaughters go. I took an interest in her life while she was still with it enough to recall it. But she never told me about the trip to Europe she once took with Aunt Edna. Never recalled the windmills or the Hotel Napoleon or the view from the Spanish Steps.
Of course, there are so many stories we never share; never tell. Not even the ones we love. Not even the ones who ask.
In fact, it’s often the stories closest to our hearts we keep for ourselves.
=== === ===
If you liked this post, you might also like this one; also about Bubbi and about photographic evidence.