Thirty-Five

Definition of THIRTY-FIVE

:  being one more than 34 in number <thirty-five years>

I’m half way through my thirties this month. It’s been sinking in these last few years in undeniable ways that I’m approaching middle age. Like, I wear sensible shoes most of the time, or else I pay for it. Let’s be honest, I have to do a lot of things differently or else I pay for it, but overall life is great.

When I turned 30, I told everyone my thirties just HAD to be better than my twenties, and despite jinxing myself then, I was right. That’s not to say that there weren’t amazing things that happened in my twenties too – I lived in France, I graduated from GW, I started Murami, I got my first job as an editor, I became a cyclist and completed almost a dozen long-distance charity rides, I became an aunt 6 times – but damn … a lot of it was HARD, and a lot of it was stuff that people around me hadn’t dealt with before, the short list being an eating disorder, the fallout from receiving a false-positive HIV test result, and a really, really awful divorce.

As I approached the end of my twenties I had to find a new normal, and I latched on to a few mantras that were beacons for me:

“The only person who will never leave you is you.” — Read in a book I picked up and shuffled through in a waiting room, circa 2007

“You become what you think about.” — From Earl Nightingale, 1950s/1960s motivational speaker, via a friend, circa 2009

“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” — Tommy Lasorda, during an interview with Preston and Steve circa 2008

Those got me through my divorce, which was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and helped me reset. And now 35 is a really good place to be. In the last 5 years I worked hard to get where I am as a web editor in medical publishing. I have been traveling a lot and seen amazing things across the globe. I sing with a choir, I’m painting. I’ve leveled up my bike twice and was certified as a coach for Team in Training. And, I venture to say most importantly, I found a soul mate, which I didn’t believe was even a real thing until it happened. And I don’t need to pep-talk myself so much anymore with those old mantras – mostly I just ask myself, “Are you doing your best?” I know what I’m capable of, but also that I need to say no sometimes, and as long as I know I am putting my best self into what I do (work, health, relationships, learning), I’m good.

Things I miss about my twenties: a full, thick mane of hair. I think that’s it. I can live with that.

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Songs Lost in Time

Fritz-KruegerMy grandfather was a professional musician: a tenor in the Philadelphia Opera Company in the ’30s and ’40s (check it out! He’s mentioned in the Philadelphia Opera Co Wikipedia page), a performer in many other settings, and eventually a voice professor at West Chester University (where incoming freshman can still win the Fritz K. Krueger Memorial Voice Scholarship). I have written about him many times but I am continually fascinated by his life and work.

As I have said before, my family is lucky enough to have kept some old recordings of his performances, and my brother digitized them a few years ago. But the records sat in a chest in my parents’ house for decades and I guess over time that kind of record sort of deteriorates. So some of the recordings didn’t translate to digital very well.

I went back and listened to a few of the songs again the other day like I do occasionally, and I happened to zero in on one of the records (number 5 on the recordings page), which was labeled “B.J. Wedding Music” with a German song title written on it, but he was singing in English, so I thought I’d tap my mother for some more info by asking her about it on Facebook. Turns out that “B.J.” is Betty Jo, his niece, and he sang “Ich Liebe Dich” – “I love you” in German – at her wedding.

1412_thumbThe other song, “Because,” isn’t in the digital recordings, I guess because it was unplayable. So, I looked up the song, which was sort of hard to find. I did eventually find a Perry Como version (meh) and a performance of it that I liked, sung by another famous voice of the time, Mario Lanza (don’t worry, I didn’t know who he was until the other day, either):

Then I found this video of the song, which it turns out is from the 1938 movie, “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” yet another thing I’d never heard of.

And Facebook showed me its true value again that day because as more people saw my post I collected more historical nuggets:

1. My grandfather’s family and friends called him “Our Mario Lanza.”

2. He sang at so many people’s weddings, and all of those people remember it so happily!

3. His picture is up in the Wyomissing Institute of Fine Arts in Reading, according to another family friend. I’d like to find out if it’s still there.

But at the end of all this, despite what I found, the thing that is still lost is Fritz’s recording of “Because.” That is, it’s lost unless there’s someone out there with another collection of his recordings…

The Internet Brought Me a Magical Gift of Family

This blog is random, I know. It’s a bunch of stories about things that either excite or amuse me, and I hope it does the same for you at least occasionally. So here’s another post about something that really, really excited me recently.

A little back story: I used to have a different blog, and a distant relative who has an interest in genealogy found me when poking around the internet looking for info on my grandfather and found a post I wrote about our Michigan house. He and I have since become Facebook friends and I get to see interesting posts of clippings of newspaper articles and photos about life in Germany and Ohio about my extended family/ancestors.

Well, here’s another gift the internet brought: Back a few years ago I wrote a blog post about my mother’s parents, Fritz Krueger and Margaret Krueger, and the digital recordings we have of their musical performances. Well, in October of this year I got a comment on that blog post from someone named Mary:
Fritz Krueger

Hi from “almost a relative.” I called your grandparents Aunt Margaret and Uncle Fritz. They were very much part of my growing up years. He sang at our wedding. Heaven! I was thrilled to read your blog and then to listen to the recordings after all these years. I have those same arias on old 78′s and have wanted to convert them for many years. My parents were medical missionaries in China at the same time your Granddad was there. I think he was 18. I have some wonderful pictures which I could email you if you like. Please say hello to Karen and Johnnie Fritz. I’d love to hear from you.

I’m not sure how Mary found my post, but I connected with her by email and she emailed me photos that she scanned from family albums of when my grandfather went to China on the same boat with her parents. The photos are amazing. I’ll post one in particular, of my grandfather at age 18, making a very distinctly “Jen” face. I pulled the photo up on my laptop and made the face for my friend Barb who I think agreed that it’s uncanny. Then again, he is my grandfather, but that Krueger nose has persisted through generations.

SilkMary and I have continued sending emails back and forth, and she also mentioned a piece of hand-dyed silk that my grandfather had given to her sister (from China? From his family in India? We’re still not sure.). Then she offered to send it to me! I gave her my address and yesterday it arrived in the mail! How amazing is this? Because of a random internet search, I was connected to my grandfather in a way I never would have been.

Yes, Virginia, Chopped Liver Is Real

When I mentioned to people that I was asked to make chopped liver for the Seder I was invited to, a few people asked, “Chopped liver? Like, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ Is that a real thing?”

Yes, Virginia, chopped liver is a real thing. I think the saying, “What am I, chopped liver?” comes from the idea that chopped liver is the often-ignored (and sometimes detested) side dish, and the person using the expression thinks they’re being sidelined.

Chopped liver is a popular/traditional Seder side dish, and every Jewish family has its recipe that has been handed down for generations. You always need that, along with matzoh ball soup, for Seder, whether you like it or not. It’s not part of the ceremonial Seder meal, but it’s a staple nonetheless.

Anyway, I did not find my ex’s grandmother’s letter in time to use her chopped liver recipe for Seder on Saturday. But I got a lot of response after my “Lonely Jew” post and my BFF’s mom wrote to me with her family’s recipe (thank you!), which I used, along with backup for measurement purposes from a recipe that I found on Pinterest, of all places.

Sherpa actually did most of the shopping and cooking, which is no surprise. He went to a local butcher and got a big plastic bag full of chicken livers – it was like a carnival prize goldfish bag, but full of chicken parts. Apparently the butcher told Sherpa there were some other parts in there we would have to sort through. That was fun.

Anyway, we made an egg-heavy version of the recipe and it turned out really well. I liked ours better than the store-bought version that also showed up at the Seder, and we got lots of compliments on it. Sherpa, it turns out, just doesn’t like chopped liver. Something about it reminding him of the liver and onions his dad always requested when he was growing up. But there was plenty of non-liver food, so we were both happy. And going to another “new” Seder is always fun for me. This was Sherpa’s third Seder already! He’s like an old pro.

Figuring Santa Out

I’ll tell you the story about how I “found out” about Santa. I don’t remember doing this, I’ve only heard tell from my parents, so I must have been pretty young.

I also must have gotten a clue from my brothers, who were teenagers during my “Santa years.” They were ruthless about teasing me, since they couldn’t in good conscience pummel me like they did one another as kids, and I bet they said something to plant the seeds of doubt in my mind.

In any case, I wanted to know the truth, so I told my parents that I had told Santa — and ONLY Santa — what I wanted for Christmas, so if I never got the gift I’d know what was up. So, they caved, and that year I got the “Yes, Virginia” card on top of what I ended up telling my parents I wanted.

How did it happen for you?

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From the family album: Me and the brothers, Christmas morning, likely a year or two before I figured it all out.

In Memory of Grammy (alternate title: “La Madeleine”)

My Grammy passed away the day before Thanksgiving. She had been suffering from dementia for years and finally her time was up.

I had seen her less than 2 weeks before. My dad heard she wasn’t doing well, and we made a point of visiting her. She was awake, dressed, and in her wheelchair, something that the employees where she lived said hadn’t happened in weeks. She sat with us in a quiet reading room while my parents, my uncle, and I chatted. We didn’t expect her to join in, but we had learned she liked to be around us.

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My grandparents on their wedding day, June 20 1945, on a 48-hour leave from the Army.

Every time she looked at us in the eye, an enormous grin spread over her face. Previous visits had been touch and go; I was never sure if she’d know who I was. But this day, she knew us. We made a point of telling her some stories about things we were grateful for her doing, like cooking us family dinners every week for years. The only time she spoke was when we reminded her that my Grampy always helped with the dishes.

“Always,” she squeaked.

Then, a few minutes later, she looked at me and gave me the same big smile, but then this mischievous twinkle came into her eye and she winked at me, the way she always used to when I was a kid. I had to hold back tears while plastering a big smile on my face.

I leaned over her and kissed her cheek and gave her a small hug when we left, and I wondered if it would be the last time I saw her.

My dad called with the sad news the day before Thanksgiving, and we celebrated the holiday with her in mind – grateful for all she’d done for her family over the years.

As her memorial service approached, Sherpa told me that he thought he’d like to try making Grammy’s oatmeal lace cookies to bring along. I had mentioned them to him but was SO touched that he even thought of it.

He made the batch with my supervision, and I thought I would hold off on trying one until the service. He brought one up to me as I was doing some work.

“Here, this one broke…” he said, with air quotes. He left me with the cookie and I burst into tears the instant I bit into it. It was a perfect memory of my Grammy. I realized then that I hadn’t had one of those cookies since 1994 when my grandparents moved into the “old-folks home,” as Grammy put it, and she stopped baking. This cookie was like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, transporting me directly back to my childhood.

The day of the memorial came and my dad offered me a slot at the mic to say something about Grammy. I wanted to, and I wrote something. I tried to keep it simple and short so that I wouldn’t cry, but that effort was FUTILE. I couldn’t shut off the water works, especially not when I was speaking. There were just a few friends of hers there, and when I got up, I heard, “Oh, it’s the granddaughter.” That really did it for me. Here’s what I said for Grammy, and it will be much better understood here than when I read it then:

I’d like to say that I’m very grateful for all the happy childhood memories Grammy made for me. She was a very loving grandmother. She made excellent dinners for our family every Friday night for years and years, and she hosted many holidays at their home. During the weekends I’d spend with her and Grampy, she’d spoil me with shopping trips and breakfast in bed, especially during visits with my aunt. She had a closet full of bath toys and an office full of art supplies for me. She put a lot of love into her family and I won’t forget that.

My dad and uncle gave very nice eulogies, reminding us all of her love for all creatures great and small. Dad told the story of their time in Oxford, MS, living with William Faulkner as a neighbor. Faulkner heard they were moving up to PA, and although he did not interact with the locals, he saw Grammy and the kids on the street, swept his hat down in front of him, and said, “Good evening, Mrs. Ford.”

Sherpa’s cookies really won the crowd over at the reception. It was amazing to have Grammy’s lace cookies – which are difficult to make and even harder to keep from breaking – to share among the people who loved her.

I’ll close this post the way Dad closed his eulogy: “Goodnight, Mrs. Ford.”

A 30-Something Remembers 9/11

I’ve been thinking about the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 a lot. I have many times revisited and retold my experience of the day, and how it affected me for years afterward. Because we’ve reached something of a milestone, I’d like to talk about my small piece of the shared experience of that day, to show my respect for the victims and their families, and to share how the memory of 9/11 makes me feel.

I was 21 years old, a senior at George Washington University, on 9/11. I was still asleep when the first tower of the World Trade Center was hit, and my mother called.

“Jen, everyone here is OK, but go turn on your television.”

Of course, at first we all stood around the television, in shock, watching as the second tower was hit. We then heard about the Pentagon and were very, very afraid that something else would happen in D.C. But quickly people started wanting to do something. What strikes me now as I look back on the reactions of my roommates and friends who lived in the dorm with me is how telling of our futures our actions that day were.

First, I’ll mention my two roommates who were employees of the Smith Center, the athletic center where GW held its basketball games and which housed the gym and classrooms for exercise classes. One was already there, working. The other suited up almost immediately in her work garb and ran over there to help, because when we called the other to beg her to come home, she refused and said they needed her there to help man the building. What are they doing now, 10 years later? Working for the government and working in insurance.

One dear friend of mine brought out the biggest pots we could find and cooked spaghetti for the entire floor, after we had stared at the television, transfixed, without eating, for the entire day. What is she doing now, 10 years later? Working as a creative director for an amazingly famous restaurant group.

Another friend corraled all the lost souls who hadn’t eaten all day into our room, just so we could be together. What is she doing now? She’s an art therapist.

What did I do? I observed. I wrote in my journal. What am I doing now? I’m a journalist and editor.

It fills my heart up to remember how much we cared about and for each other, and everyone in the entire country, that day. 9/11 spurred us all on to make ourselves better and to help one another. In my little analogy it is fitting that I became a writer, but that day also was a factor in my decision to sign up for the AIDSRide, a 3-day, 350-mile bike ride from North Carolina to D.C., the following spring. Since then I’ve participated in and raised money for 8 long-distance cycling charity events. By Thanksgiving this year, it’ll be 10.

It also amazes me that young adults barely remember it. I understand now what it feels like to be asked by a younger person, “What was that day like for you?” about a pivotal day in history. I don’t know how parents will explain it to their children or teachers to their students. It will sound impossible, but it happened.

WHYY radio ran a piece last night about Lukens Steel, a now-defunct steel company based very near my home town, which produced much of the steel that held up the twin towers. Some of the steel has returned home and will be turned into a memorial in Coatesville, PA (Steel ‘trees’ from World Trade Center return to Coatesville). And my own high school applied for and was given a piece of the steel to display in its lobby. The teacher who helped to apply for it said he hoped it would help remind the kids of the gravity of that day, even if they don’t remember it.

So, what I’m left with is hope. Even when we’re given the worst of the worst situations, we can all make something good of it. That’s what I’ve carried with me for the last 10 years, and it has shaped my actions and reactions in the lowest moments of my life. I hope that honors the victims of the people we lost on 9/11 and their families and friends.