In a beautiful verdant Costa Rican cloud forest in December of 2017, my love and I went for a hike.
I forged ahead as I usually do when my beloved hears a bird.
I think, oh, that bird is making such a beautiful sound, and then I’m over it and move on.
But this trip was for my husband. A bird-lovers paradise for a birder on his 50th birthday. He needed to identify it, watch it, and record it meticulously in his lifer list.
So, I, the impatient one, headed up a ridge, probably (definately) took up too much height in my step, securing my right foot into a tree root…
when there was a pop and a buckle.
I screamed so I must have scared all the birds away.
I could put no weight on my right leg whatsoever. It was bent at a weird angle and I could not straighten it. Pain radiated down my calf into my shin. Even though I knew that from past experience, the pain would go away and I’d regain mobility, once I worked up the nerve to straighten my leg and get the ligament back into place.
But I was in pain and scared. And I was on a trail in a cloud forest in Costa Rica.
Come on! My beloved coached me. You can do it! Pop it back in like you always do. You’ve done it before—-
But it fucking HURTS!!
I screamed at him. And he ignored my screams and my pleads to just leave me in the jungle and I could crawl back to the lodge where we were staying about a mile away before sundown. And he propped me up. And I put my weight on it, felt just where the ligament was stuck on the outside of my knee, grit my teeth and with a scream, POPPED it back into place.
I hobbled out of the jungle and sat on a bench just outside our villa retreat, soothing myself to the sound of the brook that flowed through the resort and into the trout pools that provided our dinner each night.
I was relieved to not be in pain. My knee had been giving way like this for five years now. After the new year, I promised to have it looked at.
But then the new year gave me a new challenge and I put off getting my knee checked out. One more time.
Back in civilization:
It was a Wednesday in early April and my favorite time of the week when my favorite instructor at the gym taught a quick yoga class at noon.
The night before was Jonah’s first with our family. In his unpacking he came bearing a gift, some chocolates, plus a card expressing gratitude and happiness for us welcoming him into our family, for expressing that with us, he felt like he had finally found the family he thought he would never in his life hope to have.
And I was also happy to have him at home with us. But the mental and physical preparation it took to prepare to move him in, coupled with a trip back to see the family for holiday bookended with a 12 hour car ride, then followed by a day of going up and down flights of stairs to move Jonah out of one house and into another, I needed some me time.
Ever tried yoga?
The first time I took a yoga class was back in 1993 out in California by a sunny blond instructor named Sunshine. I swear it, that was her name.
I’ve been doing it on and off ever since. Every class, almost every class, has resulted in leaving me in a state of bliss.
And I was really looking forward to that Wednesday class. I needed some bliss. I had a lot of work ahead of me.
In the month to come, I would be contacting and meeting with social workers, lawyers and school counselors. With Jonah we had to somehow locate his parent’s divorce papers to see what he was entitled to and if it was met. We had to get him a healthcare plan. After he had emailed two dozen teachers and staff in his high school saying he did not feel safe in his father’s house before he either left or was thrown out on his 18th birthday, we had to figure out how to attain his records from Child Protective Services, to see if any teachers filed a report with CPS.
And he had no health insurance.
There were lists upon lists floating in my head.
But in yoga, there is just the breath.
Return to the breath.
No interacting with lists.
Just let them be. Put them in a cloud and float them away.
About 10 minutes into the class, a woman came in. Late. Dragging with her a heat lamp. Smelling of stale cigarettes.
Annoyed, I got out of warrior one and was about to move my mat to the other side of the room when
There was a pop. And a buckle.
At first everyone in the class thought my hopping toward the exit was hilarious and the calm in the room was broken by nervous laughing.
I made it out of the yoga studio onto the main floor of the fitness center, to the dismay of my poor yoga teacher, who kept trying to check on me, as I writhed in pain on a mat.
Come on, I tried to will myself, just pop it back in. Straighten out your leg!
If I knew someone who could hold my hand, I would have had the strength to do it.
But I looked around and there was no one I knew there at the gym that day.
And after about a month of listening to Jonah’s accounts of abuse and neglect, my mind and my body just reached their breaking point.
I lay on the gym floor and cried for help. A personal trainer, who months later would tell me how well I was recovering, as I worked through my PT exercises, said to sit tight. He was calling an ambulance.
Eventually, help came in the form of two EMT guys. I was able to get up on my own performing a one-legged downward dog.
I’ll show them! I thought.
They said they were very impressed.
I took what I hope will be my only ambulance ride. All along I thought, no, I haven’t got time for this. I have a new kid to take care of, we have lists, we have to get things figured out before college starts. I have no time to be broken.
In the days after I hurt myself, I told him, maybe this was meant to be. My family took him in to help him out, and in turn, he was helping me out. He stepped up by doing more chores. He helped with dishes and swept up after dinner.
Two days into my leg not moving, he met my friend in the driveway as she and he brought in groceries she picked up for me.
Aside, I told here how badly I felt, that I hurt myself like this at a time when I was supposed to be the one helping him.
“Hey,” she assured me, nodding to Jonah as he put some produce in the fridge as I lay on the couch. “He wanted to be part of a family. This is what family does for each other.”
Three days later, I did manage to pop my leg back into place. But I knew that this was not going away on its own.
A visit to an orthopedic surgeon and an MRI later, it was determined that not only was my ACL torn, it was completely gone. I would need a complete ACL reconstruction. Plus a miniscus repair to top it off.
I would need surgery. And about six months of recovery.
I got the news on a weekday morning over the phone.
For some reason, Jonah was not in school, so it was just me and him at home.
He came down from his room and saw I was on the phone getting some pretty bad news. He waited for me to get off, patiently, leaning on his forearms on a kitchen chair.
By the look on my face, he must have known something was up.
Now, I know putting this in perspective, this should be the worst thing to ever happen to me. I’ve had friends who have fought cancer, who died from cancer. This was nothing.
But, to me it was something.
“Are you okay?” he asked me.
“I will be. I am just a little scared, and I’m in for a long recovery and I am afraid of being in pain, I guess.”
Then, he straightened up.
“You look like you can use a hug.”
And, you know, at that very minute, I really did need a hug. If he were not home, I would have had to deal with that phone call in an empty house, my son and husband hours off from the end of their day.
And he came over to where I was standing by the fridge and he gave me a very big long hug.
Thanks, kid, thank you for that.
This is the next installation in an ongoing series.
This is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
Upon my move to my current town, I was so excited when we bought our house, I jumped up and down so hard there was a pop and a buckle. My right leg bent in such a way that a leg should not bend.
Did you ever play with a Barbie Doll and bend its legs at the knee in wrong way?
Yeah, like that.
I thought at the time it was a temporary thing. That a few weeks of rest, and then a few weeks of physical therapy, I’d be over it.
That was not the case.
My family made the big decision to welcome Jonah to live with us in his final months before college starting in early April, right after Passover. He headed to a country cottage with friends for spring break, and we headed to our family to New York for Seder and a bite of the Big Apple.
There were just a few things I wanted to have in order at home before Jonah moved in. My oldest son agreed that he would give up his room and sleep in the basement for the summer. He was a college man now. He didn’t mind. He liked the privacy. He had the whole basement to spread out, be close to his instruments … access to the TV all night….
So I cleared out drawers and one of our double closets to make room.
Jonah said no worries, he didn’t have much stuff anyway.
I made room in our home. We all did.
Another thing I wanted to happen was to fix the shower in the kids’ bathroom.
Right before we headed to New York, Elias came to me one morning with a metal rod.
“Hey mom, was this supposed to come out of the tub? Because now the shower won’t work.”
A call to a plumber, a wrong part ordered, and I realized I was not going to have the shower fixed before Jonah’s move in date.
So, for about a week after he moved in, until we finally ordered the right part and then instructed people that you have to GENTLY pull the lever to change the water flow from the tub to the shower, we all shared the same shower in our master bedroom suite.
First world problem, I know, but it was instant family bonding with me hiding under my covers in bed as the three men in my house took turns ducking in and out of a very busy bathroom before sunrise.
More on that first week later.
First, let’s move Jonah in.
On a sunny morning in April I drove across town to the home where Jonah had lived since October when he turned 18.
The SUV was empty. I folded the seats down to make room for his stuff, which he said he didn’t have a lot of.
I made room.
He greeted me happily at the door. I was excited. Nervous. I think so was he.
The only others in the house was a large (friendly) dog in a crate, and a cleaning person.
No one to help him with his stuff.
No one to see him off.
To say goodbye.
I thought it odd, but Jonah said he had a nice goodbye dinner with his host family the night before and everyone was at school or work.
So, we began to move his stuff into my car.
He had already transferred most of it to the downstairs living room to save us some flights, but there was some more clothes upstairs in the room he stayed in.
A few boxes of books.
Some childhood mementos. Stuffed animals. Yearbooks from middle school. I think some photo albums.
And lots of clothes.
Up and down and up and down the uncarpeted stairs we went until everything he owned fit in the back of my SUV.
“Are you a little sad?”
“No, not at all,” he answered. “I’m very happy. The M’s were good people and we had a nice conversation last night. I’m just excited.”
Okay, I thought. I wondered, was this family going to miss him, now that he was moving out? Would they keep in touch?
After we closed the hatch, we were off.
Then, a bit of an awkward silence.
I mean, I think most teens do not have much to say to the parents of their friends. I mean, as adults, we are hardly human. I remember being completely uncomfortable around the parents of my friends.
But this was the beginning of an arrangement that was completely different from most teens have with most of their friends’ parents. If he wanted us to help him, we were going to have to accelerate this get to know each process, he would have to trust us, and with his background, trust was something that would be hard to win.
So we sat in silence and drove.
And he.. he did this thing, this quirk that would become endearing to me at times when he didn’t know what to say.
He clucked his tongue, alternatively with humming a tune. Not that I minded. The kid could sing. He is a born crooner that always reminded me of a throwback from a different age. He sang and hummed all the time, while doing the dishes after dinner, folding his laundry in his room, sometimes doing his homework, all the time in the shower… those were the good memories.
So.. we were on our way to his new home but first, a stop to the records office at the high school.
My first line of business with him was to make sure he had a check up before college, and for that, we needed his immunization records, if he had any, and we needed to figure out health insurance eligibility.
He had taken the day off. Second semester high school senior. Into his three top choices for college. We both figured that getting other parts of his life in order, like his financials and establishing health insurance, etc, took priority over sitting in class.
There was still silence in the car, so, I took a breath and broke it.
“You know, Jonah, I really don’t know what I am doing. And I’m going to make mistakes with you, probably lots of them. ”
He nodded in understanding.
“And I’m not a social worker. I’m just a mom who cares for her children, and you are a good friend to one of my children who needs some help. I’m just going with my heart here, okay?”
Okay, he said.
We pulled up to the high school and in about 20 minutes he emerged, his immunization records in hand. That was easy.
First step accomplished. First of many.
Then we drove home and unpacked.
That was a Tuesday.
After a week on the road to see family and then a day of moving Jonah out of one home and into another, my body and soul were in serious need of me time.
Me time would be the next day at Yoga.
I couldn’t wait.
A Rosh Hashanah message to parents of Jewish babies from a parent of Jewish Adults: Do Jewish all year long.
For my daughter’s very first Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, we dressed her up in a frilly, off white outfit complete with a pill-box hat. I think it also had a fuzzy white boa. We found a matching pair of white framed cat-eyed sunglasses and she popped them on willingly for a pre-shul photo shoot.
It was hilarious.
I’ll spare posting a photo because she is a cool 20something now donning a black trench coat and Doc Martin combat boots through the streets of London and has a reputation.
You’ll just have to use your imagination.
On her second Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the Torah service, she screamed with joy
“Mommy, look, IT’S THE TORAHS!”
We were asked promptly by the usher to remove my enthusiastic Jewish toddler from the sanctuary. But that is a different topic that you can read about in other blogs.
This post is for YOU. The 20 or 30 something Jew, Jew of Choice or someone married to a Jew who is raising a very small child in the Jewish faith.
Don’t mean to scream, but stick with me here. Let me continue.
When the daughter was slightly older and was attending a Jewish preschool, I took her brother, about 2 1/2, on a shopping outing at Michael’s. It was springtime and the aisles were cluttered with those big, faux pottery urns.
“Mommy,” my baby duly noted from his vantage point in the shopping cart seat.
“They got really big Kiddush Cups”
Next, the youngest came along.
He was about 22 months and we were celebrating my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary on a cruise.
It was Tuesday night.
Formal night on the boat. Everyone was dressed up in tuxedos and gowns and other formal fashions. And in true cruse fashion, everyone was crowding outside the Starlight dining room, cattle-call style, for the doors to open. Because they had not eaten in 30 minutes at least.
All of a sudden, my 22 month old, in my arms dressed up in an instant-cute 3 piece suit of his own, yells at the top of his lungs.
It was a Tuesday, remember? But seeing people dressed up, to this almost 2 year old, it had to be Shabbos.
Funny thing is, a woman in her 60’s in a floor length black sparkly gown turned around and said Good Shabbos right back.
She was from Dix Hills. She knew my in-laws.
So now, it is many years later. That babe in my arms is a high school freshman. His brother is a freshman in college and his big sister is spending a semester abroad in London.
So where am I going with this?
During his freshman parent/student orientation, there were separate schedules for parents and students and I had not seen my son in a few hours.
Where did I catch up with him? At the student activities fair. He was checking out the Chabad table.
My son after a week of school told me he switched around his classes because one ran too late on Fridays and he did not want to miss out on Shabbat dinner and services. He’s toggling between Hillel and Chabad.
He may not get to services on both days of Rosh Hashanah, but he sought them out, knows where and when they are and it will be up to him to set his priorities.
He had a chance to perform in a pit for a show and get paid, but it takes place on Erev Yom Kippur, so he turned down the gig.
My daughter had to scramble to figure out her Rosh Hashana plans only days after landing at Heathrow to start her semester at University College of London. The “mandatory” orientation day and first day to pick classes? The first day of Rosh Hashanah.
She panicked. Does she miss orientation, a mandatory orientation, to find a place for services? Or does she go and try to catch up with services later?
These are adult choices. Jewish adult choices every Jewish adult must make in a world that does not make concessions or conveniences around the holiest days of our calendar.
This morning she emails me. She found another Jewish girl on her floor with English relatives and would be spending part of Rosh Hashanah.
And the university, in an email, in true English spelling, stated:
“We are aware that tomorrow is a Jewish holiday and that some of you may not be able to attend the above meetings. Please do let us know if you are unable to attend and we will organise an alternative meeting to catch you up.”
So, really, Jewish parents, where am I going with this?
Because this post is not just about me. It is about you and the Jewish community that is seemingly hanging on by a thread outside Israel.
Just a little bit.
Get Jewish Books from the PJ Library Read them with your kids, if just 10 minutes a day.
Make Shabbat. Even if it is only challah and grape juice on a Friday night followed by pizza or take out.
Please, for the love of Gd, make Jewish learning a priority. Take them to Hebrew school when Hebrew school is in session.
And bring them, if only once a month, to Shabbat Services in the years before they become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Bring them when they are unruly babies and toddlers. Let them climb up around the bima. Let them hear the melodies. Shlep them into the sanctuary and if they whine too much or cry, take them out and then take them in again when they are calm and keep doing it! To hell with what the old people say and complain. Synagogue is not supposed to be a quiet tomb.
Because little Jewish moments every day, over months and years, stick.
Then, when you are an old(er) Jewish parent like me, you get to watch your own kids make those hard choices for the sake of being and doing Jewish come Rosh Hashanah.
I wish you all a Sweet, Good New Year and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
About nine years ago, it seemed like my family and the extended family of my husband wished to run away and join the circus.
So, in honor of my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday, we booked a family getaway to Club Med Sandpiper in Florida.
Fearless flyers that they are, my WHOLE family, with the exception of my then-pregnant sister-in-law and my husband’s 80something grandmother, had no qualms of climbing a narrow, straight-up ladder nearly 50 feet to the trapeze platform.
It was a slow week there – the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas – so my flipping and catching in-laws had ample opportunities to perfect their trapeze swinging, hanging from their knees, and even getting caught by the muscular trapeze artist who effortless swung from a trapeze on the other side of the net.
Then, at last buckling to the pressure to suck it up and get over my fear of heights, it was my turn.
At 15 feet up, and unharnessed (adults didn’t get a harness until we stood above on the trapeze platform), I just lost it. And started to cry. But a Sandpiper staff member wouldn’t let me give up.
From the opposite side, she nimbly climbed the ladder until she was eye level with me.
“You’ve got this. Just hand over hand. And don’t ever look down.”
I made it to the top. I swung. It was all captured in this very unflattering picture of me. The look on my face shows I would have been MUCH happier if I just stayed on the ground watching the rest of my circus-crazed family.
This has been a surreal summer. Summer usually offers a welcome change of pace, even though it can be lonely at times when friends all scatter and go off on vacation.
But when the shortening days of August arrive, they serve as a signal that it’s almost time to go back.
Back to routine.
Back to the friends, neighbors, faces and places that are so familiar.
Back to school.
Back to normal.
In the life of being a multiple-city transplant, there exists three rings.
There is the ring of your own upbringing and the family and friends you’ve left behind in your hometown.
There is the second ring of the surrogate “family” you’ve just left behind in the town you made into your new hometown but was truly your children’s hometown. The only place they’ve ever called home in their memory.
Now, I stand in the third ring of the new city. At the edge of a new school year in a school district that is completely unknown and strange,
it is easy to get sucked into all those memories and thinking about all those familiar places and people with whom you usually reconnect at summer’s end. But right now, thinking of old friends and places I’ve left behind in Rochester, thinking about how hard it will be for daughter to say those last good-byes to her friends as they board one bus and she boards another, is just too hard. It’s too sad right now to look back.
Years later, I’m taking the advice from the circus lady: don’t look down.
When my kids get off the bus from camp tomorrow and step into their new life, into their new home they have not yet seen and into three separate school buildings, this time, I will play the role of the seasoned circus pro, telling her kids from the other side of the ladder not to look back and down, but only, if only for the next few months, up and forward.
These days it’s hard for me to figure out which end is up – even from all those moving boxes that actually say on them “this end up.”
I want to focus inward and unpack and make this new house truly my home.
I want to focus outward and see how I can make this suburban, manicured and perfectly landscaped property a little less perfect. A little more me. Outward more still and make some new friends and maybe even land a new job.
Then there is the business of keeping my son entertained and occupied in the weeks he leaves before camp.
It’s a good thing I can count on some great guest bloggers who have transplant stories of their own.
The first in the lineup is Maya Rodgers who blogs at Pets and Pests. Originally from New England and with roots in the Boston area (a place we considered moving before we chose Detroit), Maya is excited to experience more of Raleigh, N.C., and would like to return more often to visit old friends in both Atlanta and Boston. She spends her days helping people exterminate bed bugs, palmetto bugs, and other crawly creatures for Terminix . I for one hope to never need her services, but if I do, I hope she has some connections in Michigan!
Here is Maya’s tale:
Part of the reason exploring new places is so wonderful is because it acts as a distorted mirror. It reflects you in a different light than you’re used to, and it teaches you important and silly things about yourself.
After college, I lived in Boston for a few years. New England had always been home, and Boston still hasn’t quite stopped being home for me. Like anywhere, it has its positive and negative aspects. I loved being able to walk almost anywhere, and if I couldn’t walk, I could take the T, or a combination T-and-bus route. I whined and complained about the public transportation when “switching problems at Park” led to long delays, but I loved it just the same.
Boston T sign courtesy of Paul Downey
I also loved splurging on expensive ice cream once in a blue moon at Toscanini’s in Central Square, and riding shotgun in a friend’s car for a late-night trip to Richie’s Slush (the best Italian ice ever – I highly recommend the lemon).
I haven’t lived in too many other places, but there seems to be something very special about the seasons in New England. Flowering trees in the gorgeous springtime, absolutely frigid temperatures in winter, and too hot in the summer, but fall was always my favorite season. The weather cools off, the mosquitoes start to go away, the air feels fresh and clean, and, of course, the leaves start to change color. One of my favorite places, the Boston Common, is wonderful in any season.
Boston Common courtesy of Timothy Vollmer
The best part of any place, though, is the people. The friends who help you chip winter’s ice off the sidewalk, and the ones who wander around the North End with you, looking for some interesting-looking new restaurant.
I think that’s what’s hardest about moving. Not just gathering up your stuff, but leaving your loved ones behind while you go someplace you know almost nothing about and try to put down new roots.
After Boston, I moved to Atlanta for work. The biggest change I noticed initially was the pace of life. There were certain big-city aspects that went at light speed. For example, despite crazy Boston drivers, I’d never been tailgated quite as aggressively as when driving in Atlanta. The Perimeter (the road that circles most of Atlanta) has a posted speed limit of 55mph, but it’s five or six lanes wide each way, and even if you’re going 70, you’re the slowest person on the road. Out of their cars though, people move more slowly and demonstrate more politeness. People were sociable in stores, starting up friendly conversations at seemingly odd times.
I’ve always been much more of a walker than a driver, and although there are sidewalks on many of the roads, there are rarely pedestrians on them. The most people I ever saw outside was when the power went out in my neighborhood. Suddenly there were couples, families, and individuals like me, wandering around, enjoying what had become (after a quick pass-through storm) a beautiful evening. Perhaps something about the Atlanta heat means that people spend much more time in their cars no matter what the weather, but enjoying a walk after work, or strolling to the bookstore or coffee shop on the weekends, became an almost eerie experience, with everyone else racing by in their cars.
The bugs were another large shock. Palmetto bugs are much bigger than any roach I’d ever seen up north, and while they weren’t in my Atlanta home (that I knew of), they’d come out in Atlanta’s long summer, wandering around now and again on the pavement near my home. Needless to say, I kept my place meticulously clean in an effort to ward them off.
Moving from Boston to Atlanta changed me in a lot of ways. I became a more aggressive driver, for one, which partly meant that I stopped caring when someone tailgated me. I walked less, but took up jogging – even ran the Peachtree Road Race! I found a favorite bookstore (Peerless Book Store in Johns Creek), and browsed its shifting stock whenever I could. I also discovered air conditioning (which I’d never really had when living up north), and learned that I loved painting when I signed up for weekend painting classes. My speech patterns even changed a little bit. At first, I’d say “y’all” somewhat ironically. I’m not sure it sounds natural now, but it is more convenient than most other alternatives.
Perhaps most importantly, I stayed in touch with my friends in the Northeast – even became closer with some of them – and made quite a few Southern friends, both in and out of work. Having a dog makes for an instant socialization opportunity, especially if you visit the dog park at regular times.
I’ve recently transplanted once again to Raleigh (this time with a family in tow). So far, we’re all just figuring out where our favorite restaurants are (to date, the Irregardless Café is far and away my favorite), and discovering new things about ourselves.
Jewish mothers brag about their son the doctor.
Jewish mothers praise the accomplishments of their son, the big-shot lawyer.
I don’t know if I will ever have those bragging rights, but thanks to Craig Taubman and his band of gracious musicians, my son rocked the bimah at Temple Beth El in Rochester!!!
Thank you, thank you thank you, to Craig and his band and ALL at Temple Beth El who made this weekend happen!
For myself and most of the audience, we expected to be moved by Craig Taubman and his seasoned ensemble comprised of a pianist, drummer, guitarist and a phenomenal woman violinist.
We had no clue that my 14-year-old son would be bestowed the opportunity to show off his latest slide guitar improvs to an audience of about 200.
Jewish rock musicians were not exactly my son’s “thing” – up until last night. He poo-pooed them in fact. If they play Jewish music, how can they be cool???
Kid, you’ve got a thing to learn.
Last night, after a Friday Night Live service, he had the honor of having Shabbat dinner sitting with the band.
They got to talking, and then they got into some serious talking about music. Two realizations were discovered. My son discovered that, yes, these were real, bona fide musicians even if they played in a Jewish rock band. And Craig’s band, after listening to my son go on about designing a pick up for his guitar for a science project, concluded that my son in spite of his young age is also a real musician.
I didn’t think they would let him jam with them tonight. I mean, they are grammy-winning road-touring musicians. Professionals. And my son is good, but he has to earn his musical chops before he gets to share a stage.
But share they did. And this is how it sounded. Excuse the screams from his biggest fan:
The news from Staten Island, it’s not all bad.
For the most part, everything seems – SEEMS – like it’s back to normal after Sandy, the worst storm in Staten Island’s 300-year history.
The stores are hopping with Christmas shoppers.
The streets are typically jammed with traffic.
The noisy holiday revelry in local restaurants with present opening, reindeer antler wearing patrons lay on an extra surreal layer to this island that everything is okay.
Last night, my husband and I ate at Euro-trendy Alor Cafe. As we dined on crepes and roasted Barramundi and sipped our Riesling and Merlot, we listened to a trio of flamenco guitarists:
All this normalcy takes place above “the Boulevard.”
Drive below the Boulevard, in the neighborhood where I grew up and my parents still live, things get strange.
Everywhere, there are subtle and not so subtle reminders of how Sandy reaffirmed for many Staten Islanders why the Island’s South Shore has the dubious distinction for being named “Zone A.”
First, you notice the inspection postings that dot a front window on nearly every residence:
Then, there are the police cars that are out on nearly every corner. All day and all night:
And on the other side of the field, some more harsh evidence of Sandy:
On the other side of my childhood neighborhood are the eclectic bungalow-lined streets of Cedar Grove. Though I didn’t know anyone who lived here, I am thankful for the peacefulness these streets offered me in my teen years. These are the streets where I felt safe riding my bicycle. Many of these streets now have RED inspection stickers which mean that most of these houses are no longer safe to inhabit.
Even the neighborhoods makeshift 9/11 memorial had been destroyed by the storm surge:
As I walked these streets in the low December sun, I thought to myself: Am I a disaster tourist? Am I just a gawker?
No. No I’m not.
I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of the most badly damaged homes. The ones reduced to rubble. I felt by taking photos of these homes, I would be just be further violating the homeowner’s dignity. FOX news and CNN took photos of the worst, only to chase the next big news story and forget about this place just weeks later.
In this tucked-away corner of Staten Island, I’m not a tourist, though I no longer live here. I want to show the world these secret streets, to show them in their continued state of misery. Even though the media has moved on.
Don’t forget this strong and dignified neighborhood, however modest their homes.
Still there are signs of hope. This beautiful Spanish-mission styled church still stands:
Outside of a makeshift relief center where residents can get food, drinks and even Christmas gifts, there is this tree, with a sign of hope and resilience:
Last summer, a time that seems a lifetime ago, My family went for our traditional July 4 trip to visit my parents on Staten Island. It was a beautiful summer night. The moon was out and full. After dinner we went for a walk at South Beach. The boardwalk and the pier were crowded with people enjoying the ocean. Back then, everyone loved how close they were to the ocean.
After our walk we enjoyed a rite of summer on Staten Island: a trip to Ralph’s Italian Ices. The one across from the Shop Rite on Hylan Blvd. No sit down place here, you order your ices at the window, and eat them in the parking lot.
Behind us on line was a couple who were friends with my parents, actually neighbors who lived just blocks away on Staten Island’s Fox Beach. My mom knew the woman, who was a receptionist at a dental office where my mom was a dental heigyentist. My dad knew the man because they umpired men’s league baseball in the summer together on Staten Island. My husband and I were introduced, we said hello politely, and then went back on our own to enjoy our lemon and watermelon ices.
I had forgotten that encounter until last Saturday night. My parents have lived on Staten Island since 1970. Dad has retired from over 30 years teaching high school and coaching at Tottenville High School. Mom has retired from over 30 years of working at a pediatric dentist practice on Staten Island. That means they run into people they know, who they taught, coached, cleaned teeth, on Staten Island EVERYWHERE.
This Saturday night, mom called me from Sandy-ravaged Staten Island. Our conversations are terse and tense. She sounds tired, stressed about the loss of their car, their roof, the damage to all their possessions in their basement. But still, mom knew they were the lucky ones.
That night, mom called me to tell me they were headed to a double wake. She asked me if I remembered meeting this nice couple in the parking lot of Ralph’s ices. That man, the one my parents casually introduced us to back in July at Ralphs? That man was John Filipowicz, who drowned in his basement with his 20-year-old son when they went to get more flashlights and candles.
Every connection means something, even it’s a brief and casual introduction in a parking lot on a summer’s night. I hung up from my mom and dissolved into tears, thankful that it was just a car and all the belongings in our basement that we lost.
Their story was published here in the Staten Island Advance.
Rest in peace, John JOHN FILIPOWICZ and JOHN FILIPOWICZ JR, two victims of Sandy.
These are the blocks I used to bike through as a kid. Fox Beach was the detour my sixth grade bus took each morning to pick up a few kids on the way to school. The street was so narrow the bus could barely squeeze by.
These tiny bungalows, once used as summer getaways for the elite Manhattanites in the 1920s, became the blue-collar neighborhoods of my childhood in Staten Island. Tucked away “below the Boulevard,” the streets around New Dorp and Cedar Grove beaches had a feeling that they had been left back in time. Mom and pop delis and restaurants. Hardly any cars came by in these quiet narrow streets a few blocks off the water.
Out the window of my childhood bedroom, beyond another block of townhouses and a wetland field, I could see the ocean. Almost a week ago, this ocean swept into the old neighborhood. My parents evacuated, but neighbors who stayed behind said a wall of water came charging down the block, flooding basements and first floors, and then rushed back to sea as quickly as it came.
Here is a Youtube video posted on Facebook by one of my former high school classmates. Please watch it. Please, in your prayers, don’t forget Staten Island, the forgotten borough, it’s full of some great people.
A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of writing a story about the father-in-law of a very good friend. At the time, Mr. Lempert, a longtime Brighton resident, was mourning the death of his beloved wife Ruth, an artist and writer in her own rite.
Now, Daniel has also passed on and was given a burial with a full military honor. I was so honored to have written down his story in his final year on this earth. May his memory be for a blessing.
This was published last November in the Democrat & Chronicle:
It is said that a picture paints one thousand words. When Daniel Lempert completes a painting, he wants its viewers to hear music as well.
“I paint what I feel. As a musician, I feel the rhythms and chords of music,” said Lempert in his Brighton home, which is adorned with paintings he started creating in his 40’s.
Now, at 87, the retired music teacher claims to have painted hundreds of works. The paintings above his mantelpiece are filled with intersecting multicolored lines to represent the textures of a jazz improvisation. Other abstract works include pieces of sheet music or actual workings of old instruments layered on top of brightly colored shapes.
Lempert also paints local landscapes such as the lakeshores of Mendon Ponds and Lake Ontario. He does not bring his oils or canvas out to the scene, but rather paints from his mind’s eye. His works are the stuff of memory. That way, his emotions shape the outcome and look of the final painting.
His beloved wife Ruth, who passed away on Oct. 1 at 81, inspired his artistry through their 58-year marriage. “Ruth really pushed me with my art. I had teachers back in grade school that said I was no good at it. If it weren’t for my wife, I never would have painted,” he said.
When he was a music teacher in the East Rochester school district, Lempert came home from work one day quite upset that the custodial staff had left his music room a cluttered jumble of desks and chairs in efforts to empty out another classroom.
“I told this to Ruth and she said, ‘Why don’t you paint it?’” So he did. The result is one of Lempert’s earliest works: a jumble of chairs and desks in an abstract composition, and painted between the furniture is a sousaphone. It remains one of Lempert’s favorite pieces.
It was Ruth who bought her husband his first set of oil paints in 1968. The University of Rochester alumna and author of the 2008 memoir “Fish, Faith and Family,”also encouraged her husband to take art lessons at this time at the Memorial Art Gallery, where he has been taking classes since 1976.
Like his paintings, the photographs in Lempert’s home also tell stories. One is a black-and-white snapshot of Lempert as a young man with a head of thick wavy black hair playing trumpet in front of a tent.
After high school, Lempert enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII. He finished basic training in North Carolina and was about to get shipped overseas when opportunity came knocking. The army needed a stateside trumpet player. He auditioned before a group of officers. He still remembers playing the “Carnival of Venice,” a folk song that most known as the melody for “My Hat it has Three Corners.”
The complexity of the trumpet solos won the approval of his commanders. Instead of going off to battle, Lempert stayed in North Carolina for the war’s duration playing reverie in the morning and taps each evening.
“The trumpet saved my life,” he said.
Lempert’s son David recalls how his dad had three jobs when he was growing up: He was a school music teacher, a private tutor on Saturdays, and a big band player late at night. “He would teach during the day, head to a club around 10 in the evening, come home at 3 in the morning and then get up to teach. He was tired but he loved it,” said David Lempert.
The talent for the arts runs in the Lempert family gene pool. His late daughter Judith earned a degree in fine arts from RIT. Judith’s daughter Rebecca Zaretsky is now studying art at Wheelock College in Boston. Lempert still practices for up to two hours a day every day. The only time he stopped playing was for a brief time after Ruth passed away.
His advice to young musicians and artists: “If art and music are a part of you, you must keep practicing your craft.”
Getting to Know Daniel Lempert
Education: Graduate of Fredonia Music School and Columbia University
Occupation: 37 years as music teacher in East Rochester. Retired in 1984
Hobbies: Painting. Trumpet player in Jack Allen’s Big Band