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Where does a story begin? Does it matter how far back you go? Ultimately, the teller gets to shape the tale and choose which bits are important enough to warrant elaboration or tangents. And what about the listener or reader? If an item is worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it, then a story is worth as much as someone is willing to listen to it. Thus, it’s a good idea to start somewhere that grabs people’s attention. I find that “We’ve known each other since before we were born” works pretty well.
It's true. Our mothers met in the 1930s as teenage music students with the same teacher. Our fathers were best friends, too. They were all each other’s chosen family, part of a larger group that shared a history, a culture and an idealism. A passionate bunch of pianists, poets, painters, and protesters they were, whose idea of a good time was listening to classical records, going for walks and fighting Fascism. In later years, they'd sit around on a summer’s evening by the lake, drinking homemade wine and translating Shakespeare into Yiddish. I can still hear the laughter.
Our families even gave their children the same names, although they swore it was unintentional. My name is Alexandra, and I have/had two older brothers, Benjamin and Victor. My husband’s name is Benjamin and his older sister – my childhood best friend – is Alexandra. We were both called Allie when we were kids, and yes, I dotted my i with a heart in my early teens. And then she went all avant-garde and started spelling her name ali with no capitals, and I introduced myself as Alexandra when I began working, but now I’m just plain Al.
We all went to the same school – a private, secular Jewish day school founded by Ben and ali’s maternal grandfather – but we weren’t the same age. Ali is six years older than Ben and I’m between them, so it felt more like siblings, since you don’t usually play with kids who aren’t your age unless it’s family. Summers, our parents and their friends rented lakeside cottages in the mountains an hour away. The dads worked in the city all week and drove up on Friday night to spend the weekend. It was the 1950s.
It really was like family. When my parents went away one Christmas, I stayed with ali (Ben was still in diapers). But for all the similarities and closeness, their family did things very differently. For example, I lost a tooth one morning and trustingly handed it to Aviva, ali’s mom, at breakfast, before school. That night, before bed, I asked for my tooth to put it under my pillow and was informed by Aviva most unceremoniously (and not without incredulity at my childish belief in the tooth fairy) that she had thrown it away. Ali still remembers my meltdown.
Years later, both Ben
ali made the sweetest amends. Ali gave me a beautiful wood-filigree Tooth Fairy box, containing a piece of paper with a picture of a tooth on it. Ben got creative in a very Ben kind of way. One of the first nights I slept in his bed, I felt something under my pillow and pulled out a plastic eyeball. The kind they sell in Halloween stores, where the eye rolls around inside its plastic sphere. “I couldn’t find a real tooth,” he said, “so I got the closest thing I could think of.”
We have come to call that special quality of Ben’s “one spoke off,” but that in itself is a Ben-ism. I first coined the term “one sprocket off” to describe the strangely consistent way his brain processes things, resulting in a word/phrase/pronunciation just next door to what he’s trying to say. His unique form of mental dyslexia brought to mind gears that almost mesh, but don’t, yet the mechanism still works. As if to prove my point, he started saying “one spoke off” and it just stuck. Good thing I’m a translator and always know what he means.
I wish I’d written it all down, because now I can’t remember all the gems he’s come up with over the years. Teach me to carry a notebook! Or enter stuff in my phone. There have been countless malapropisms and spoonerisms and neologisms, not to mention mispronunciations. “Jehoosits” (for Jesuits) is a favourite. He loves telling people about how I asked him, early on, whether he spoke any languages other than English, and he answered, “I barely speak English!” To say this has been challenging to me – a polyglot and stickler for correct grammar/punctuation/usage – is to understate the obvious.
Misquoting people is another specialty of Ben’s. His butchering of famous movie quotes is especially hilarious, and one gem has been permanently woven into the fabric of our family culture. Once, with a sly grin, he said, “Wanna play with my toy?” I thought he might have something sexual in mind, but it turned out he thought he was quoting that line everyone says from
. You know, at the end when Al Pacino (playing Tony Montana) picks up his crazy automatic weapon and says, “Say hello to my little friend!” That, in a nutshell, is how Ben’s brain works.
Florida. Not at all what I was expecting, though truth be told I couldn't tell you what I expected. Stereotypes, basically. Hotels, crowded beaches, noisy, pushy older members of my tribe lining up for early-bird suppers and complaining about portion size. That surely exists somewhere, but not here in Fort Lauderdale, where right-minded planners forbade construction on the east of A1A, leaving an endless strip of pristine beach separated from the broad, clean sidewalk by palm trees and a low white-painted concrete wall, wide enough to sit on with your morning coffee as you watch the waves.
We wake early and walk before the high heat. But even at 8 am, it's 84 & 84, temperature & humidity. Strolling becomes a necessity, although those more acclimatized speedwalk and jog. We all seem to drip sweat. The ocean breeze makes it more tolerable, as does the imminent relief of a swim. The Atlantic is strangely calm, barely lapping at the shore. Pelicans fly low in formation and elegant, slender-beaked, robin-sized birds with brownish backs and olive breasts are everywhere. No amount of Googling will identify them. In South Beach, green parakeets fill the trees, chattering at the traffic.
Of all the strangeness and difference, the birdsong is most notable. Not a familiar caw or chirp in earshot. It's all long tropical whistles and grating calls like washboards in a jug band and swooping scales of pure high notes. That, and they sit in coconut palms lining a boulevard beside a beach that extends as far as the eye can see in both directions along an ocean that is as still as a bath. Barely a ripple of white as it hits the shore. We float effortlessly on our warm water beds, grateful when a cloud obscures the sun.
Buoyed by unseen minerals, head back, toenails glinting in the sun, aqua water extending to deep navy all the way to the horizon, an ever-so-slightly-curved straight line where slate green meets hazy blue-grey. Rocked by six-inch swells that keep us drifting slowly southward. I never imagined I would enjoy this so purely, without judgement or jaundiced eye. And such a surprise to find myself actually appreciating the unfamiliar juxtaposition of American city with vacation paradise. So this is what urban tropical looks like! Makes me want to see New Orleans and Savannah and more Florida.
Who knew that sharing was such a big deal in Florida? Seems like every restaurant we go to has a menu made up mostly of small plates, intended for sharing, tapas-style. They have large plates, too, for those in need, like my sweet husband, whose medium-sized, trim frame belies a prodigious appetite. He sure can eat, but will never outdo my dad, who famously consumed 5 hot dogs, 5 orders of french fries, and 5 milk shakes on an amusement park date with my mom, back in 1941, when he was just a skinny 6'1" 21-year-old.
We don't play Scrabble once. Instead, we go to the gym, escaping the heat of the day in air-conditioned comfort (hah!) pounding out miles on the treadmill. I even do weights and Pilates and stretching. She needs the workout to relieve the stress of their impending purchase of more vacation real estate, this time in a not-yet-built building. They go back and forth from this place to that, and we accompany them, offering opinions as the guests who will occupy the pull-out sofa in the living room (or, hopefully, the queen bed in the separate bedroom).
When they are together, they never stop talking. It's their longtime M.O. and they thrive on it, but the non-stop conversation feels like noise and is beginning to get to us - we, who can natter along with the best of them, but still enjoy our silences. When you think about it, the fact that D and I get along so well is nothing short of miraculous. There is something to be said for romance later in life, when you have actually learned to distinguish the small stuff from the big stuff. I will never take it for granted.
Last day blues are not too blue. Home beckons - our wonderful bed, our good food, our cool climate, even the hard-to-identify musty smell I always notice when we open the door after being away. We soak up the last rays, have a last swim, say our goodbyes and head to the airport EARLY (always a compromise there). But it's fun to sit at the bar in Chili's and drink cold Stella while watching the baseball game (Go Jays!). Food's surprisingly tasty, too. The cross-continent flight passes quickly with two good movies and a book.
Reentry day. Coffee, Sunday paper, crossword puzzle, FaceBook, food shopping, laundry, cooking, football. The comforting details of daily routine. The world rages madly around us, but still we bag our apples and grind our coffee and check the meat specials, slipping easily (and silently) into familiar ways. You take the heavy bags, I'll grab these light ones, elevator or stairs? do-si-doing smoothly in our compact kitchen as though the steps to our dance were engraved in the floor like the numbered patterns in the sidewalks up on Broadway. We only bump into each other when we choose to.
Baby is sick. Her cold and cough from last Wednesday lingering and deepening. Fever breaks, then spikes again. She's still eating and drinking, but she's cranky and "catastrophically" tired from lack of uninterrupted sleep. A call to the nurse hotline reassures them but they will see the doctor tomorrow. Oh, that first illness. The worry, the wondering, the wishing you had more experience/expertise. At least in my day we didn't have Google. Just a well-thumbed edition of Dr. Spock, which was more likely to reassure than alarm. So much information is definitely a mixed blessing at such times.
Doctor listens to her lungs and sends them straight to the hospital. That takes it up a big notch. Hard to sit here waiting for news, much harder to sit in the ER with a sick baby. I remember it like yesterday: his little chest sucking in as he struggled to breathe, the failure of a steamy shower or drive in the night air to relieve the symptoms, the inevitable visit to the Children's and the barely contained panic as they placed him in an oxygen tent and spoke of tracheotomy. It was croup, it happened twice, we all survived.
It's pneumonia in those little lungs. I hear her wailing in the background as I get a quick update. They're keeping her on oxygen in the hospital and neither she nor her poor parents will get much sleep for yet another night. We all know it's better for her to be there than to have them hovering over her at home, wondering if she's OK, but my heart aches for them all, knowing too well how worry spirals out of control, especially when you lack sleep and food. Not that I could do much, but I wish I were there.
Music to a Bubbie's ears: the ding of a text message saying "Nothing but good news. We're going home." Followed by a phone call with familiar acoustics and a baby crying in the foreground. "Poor puppy, she's not feeling well?" "Oh no, that's her normal crying. She just wants the phone." So all is on the mend, and we are grateful for normal, not to mention superlative, no-wait health care in a high-tech children's hospital minutes from home, paid for by the income taxes everyone grumbles about. Can someone tell me why this couldn't work in the US?
Oh, the miracle of recovery and resilience in small children! We FaceTimed today, me at my desk, she in her highchair, reigning over the remains of a decadent meal paid for by us: jumbo shrimp, rich cheese, good wine. Everyone in fine spirits and infinitely relieved at her blissfully silent breathing. She holds the phone herself now, knows enough not to hit that red button too soon. Itsy Bitsy Spider still tops the chart, and she says "down" in the right place and with both hands. We need to record a new song before mama and daddy lose their minds.
Hardly slept for thinking about tonight's dinner. Had it all planned out by the time I finally lost consciousness. Woke early and started the caramel while drinking coffee, then burned said caramel (forget the thermometer! trust your eyes and instincts!) and lost precious time dashing to Whole Foods to buy it readymade. Finished the pie, started on the squash and brussels sprouts, made the salad dressing and croutons, did the mushroom ragout, felt totally on top of my game. Then couldn't locate the
fleur de sel
we'd bought yesterday. Hubby to the rescue! I hadn't planned on that.
is a perfect play that gets us thinking and talking well into the next days. I never question my Judaism, yet clearly, without orthodox practitioners in the picture, mine is but a flimsy version not likely to withstand the torment of repression. Or would it evolve/revert under pressure? And what about this notion of "dilution"? Is there only one kind of flame-keeping? And are values and rituals enough, or do you need artifacts, too? Can we really preserve our precious distinctions
respect those of others? Good questions, complex answers. So Jewish.
They just carried off the bed her beloved died in, one of the last pieces to go. Only a fan, a microwave, an iron, and some stuff in the fridge left, and it will be gone by tonight. Unlike a "regular" move, where you leave when your stuff does, this one was a slow, painful witnessing of disappearing artifacts, echoes intensifying with each departure. I hover and help, make coffee in the morning and chamomile tea at night, handle the giveaways, hug her when she weeps. Symbolically, the front doorhandle breaks at the last minute and she can't get out.
Frances is gone and it's way too quiet. No more "Treeeats!" through the walls, and banging cupboards that say she's up and making coffee. No more hellos in the hallway. No more 60 Minutes together, no more walks to the village with a stop to hug Bobbe's tree. No more gentle shoulder to cry on, wise ear to listen, no more sneaky visits by Andye or shrinking disappearances by Princess Annie. No more bright southern accent and shiny energy at our table. The bling, the color, the mismatched socks, the joy, the kindness, the love...Lucky Gainesville gets it now.
After Frances leaves, the Giving Garden volunteers gather for a last harvest dinner chez moi. Excellent food and wine, lots of loud, layered conversation, people clearly happy to be with each other indoors, in clean, dry clothes. Meghan expounds on her ideas for next season and I know all will be well. I hand out gifts, make a short, fairly unsentimental speech and realize later that there were no speeches about me. Our commitment to the cause and connection to each other is pretty much taken for granted. We all just show up, most of the time. I like that.
I don’t really believe in signs from the universe, yet it’s hard not to see it that way sometimes. All month, I've been managing Frances’ giveaways on Buy Nothing Magnolia. Few would take on such a task, but I’m a good friend, and I honestly couldn’t stand the thought of all that good stuff going to the dump. Keeping track of everything has been complicated and time-consuming, but I got this in the bargain: a new friend – a francophone Montrealer who grew up on Wilson (!) – and a writers group that meets on Mondays in Magnolia.
The phone rings too early, always a bad sign. It's B, telling me with the tight, high voice of barely contained panic that my son is on his way to the ER after fainting in the doctor's office, where he went at my urging because he sounded so sick. From 3,000 miles away, I navigate her calmly to the hospital, the baby sleeping in her car seat. I pace through the day, living off short texts and interrupted phone calls. Not pneumonia, nothing identifiable, probably a nasty virus that's going around. Eventually they send him home to sleep. Phew.
It's not over. There was a downblip where an upblip should have been on the EKG. Probably nothing, they said, the echocardiogram looked fine, but better to see the cardiologist next week. Cardiologist??? I applaud the cautious approach, soothe myself with logic, but really, WTF. He has a fever today, and the coughing has picked up as the daylight fades. I know he's a grown man, yet I just want to press my lips to his forehead, tuck him in, and read him story after story, the crease in my brow deepening as I watch his chest rise and fall.
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