This Guy Right Here

A little memory of my Bubba.

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20150917_175544A year ago today I crawled under the coffee table and took this photo of my old man sleeping peacefully, tongue out and dried like smoked salmon. I had no idea when I was taking this that three hours later we would be coming back home, bewildered and shocked and heartbroken, without him. I only had him 3 years but I fell hard for him. 

I do realize that I’m a 36-year-old woman getting weepy about “just” a dog when there are far larger issues plaguing the royal “us,” but I think most of you would agree that no pet is “just” anything. And if any of you have any barrel- or deep-chested dogs, I recommend you educate yourselves on bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus/GDV). I didn’t know what it was when it happened to us, and in hindsight I couldn’t have prevented it, but it can’t hurt to know not to get them riled up after eating, not to feed them too much in one meal.

I miss him. In his place, but not replacing him, is this insane Frenchie who entertains the hell out of us. But I’m remembering Arthur today.

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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When You’ve Survived, You Know What’s Important

Sarah: Everything is always changing.

Jen: Do you think there’s anything that stays the same?

Sarah: Oh, yes. Family.

______

If you don’t have time to read this very long post about my experience at the 2015 Downingtown High School holocaust survivor symposium, I’ve already given you the takeaway gem: the only thing that doesn’t change in life across decades and generations is how important family is.

This is the second time I’ve volunteered as a driver for this event. I had a really magical time with Manya in 2012 (read more here). The event is set up like this: Philadelphia-area survivors are invited to speak to the sophomore class as part of the kids’ education about the holocaust, and several students are competitively selected to be one-on-one chaperones of the survivors for the day. The drivers’ (i.e. my) job is to get the survivors to and from the school. This time I was much less nervous and more excited. My charge for the day was Sarah Danon Meller, and when I googled ahead of time I discovered she is from Split, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia). Yes! I was just in Croatia! I couldn’t wait to talk to her. I was also excited to go back to the school, which used to be a junior high school – MY junior high school – and became a high school when the school district split the high school into two. I hadn’t been inside since 1995.

I waited a few minutes outside Sarah’s house and then out came a very sprightly little lady in a lovely black pinstripe suit. And because I’m 5’2″ when I say she’s little you know that she’s TINY! She must have been 4’10”. She needed no help from me to get in and out of the car and we chatted like old friends from the time we got on the road to our arrival at the school. I made a point of not asking her to tell her war stories since I knew she’d be telling the whole story later that morning. We talked about Croatia and how beautiful the Dalmatian islands are, and the places that I visited. She was still disappointed that I hadn’t been to Split, even though I’d seen a good number of other places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Korcula, Orebic, Cara).

SarahMellerI asked her all about how she met her husband and what she liked to do growing up in the states (she was not even a teenager by the time she got to NY). She said she loved going dancing, and told me that her husband asked her to go steady on their first date in January 1952, then he asked her to marry him 3 months later, and they got married on July 5, 3 months after that. I said, your anniversary is my birthday! And then she told me that her husband had died almost 3 years ago on July 6 – the day after their 60th wedding anniversary. He had waited for their anniversary and told everyone he saw in the hospital all day long that it was their anniversary. How beautiful and sad is that? She had a wonderful marriage, and has 4 children and 7 grandchildren. She told me that no amount of time she had with her husband would have ever been enough.

When we got to the school I passed Sarah off to her student chaperone and wandered the school a little, trying to get my bearings. The entrance to the school had been moved, which was disorienting. There were some vestiges of the old building, though, and that was fun to see.

There was a general assembly where 4 of the survivors told their stories to the entire sophomore class. One told of being in Vienna during Krystalnacht. Another woman was a child during the war and was sent away from her family on a train to England in the kindertransport. And Peter, whose father was a mechanic and conscripted by the German army to work on their vehicles. That man attributed his survival to his father, because even though eventually his father died in Buchenwald, because of his skill the Nazis had kept the whole family in a civil prison for a time before eventually sending them to concentration camps. Peter calls April 14 1945, the day he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, his second birthday. And then Manya, who I drove three years ago, told her story, too.

Manya closed with, “I hope I will be an example to others. We have only one life to live.”

After the assembly were break-out sessions, and I followed Sarah to her room to hear her story, which was incredible. She was 9 years old when Italy occupied the coast of Yugoslavia. It was a fairly benign occupation, aside from the burning and looting of the synagogue and beating of the congregation. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Nazis came in to take over, and the neighbors warned the Danon family in the middle of the night. Sarah’s father and brother (his Holocaust Museum oral history here) took their backpacks and escaped to the mountains, joining the partisans in sabotaging the Germans (they assumed that women and children were safe). Sarah eventually knew she and her mother and little sister had to get out of Split but could not convince her demoralized mother to leave. Nine-year-old Sarah practiced jumping out of her 2nd story window so she could escape if the Nazis came to the door. Sarah remembered that the woman who used to bring their milk had always told her to come visit her farm. Sarah told her mother they needed to go there and ask her to hide them. Her mother said no – that woman wasn’t serious; she won’t help us. Sarah packed a blanket and a sweater, took her little sister and started walking. A few minutes later her mother called to them: “Sarah! I’m coming!”

“I wouldn’t have left without my mother, but she needed convincing,” Sarah said. Sarah became the family hero.

The woman at the farm DID hide them, in a little room, with a single mattress on the floor. They had to be completely silent during the day, for months. When the farm owner became too afraid to hide them anymore, they hiked into the mountains and joined the partisans like Sarah’s father and brother, although they still didn’t know where they were. They hid behind rocks during the day and walked at night. They begged for food. The partisans continued to fight against the Nazis. The group, which had collected many Jewish refugees, got word of a British destroyer that had agreed to rescue the refugees, and in the middle of the night Sarah, her mother, and her sister got in a rowboat and, under Nazi fire, rowed to the British ship and made it to Italy where they miraculously found her father and brother. If they’d arrived 2 weeks later, her father and brother would have already left for New York without them, but they were able to all go together. Sarah moved with her family to Philadelphia and she started her new life. She told us that all of the other Jews from Split who didn’t escape to the mountains were killed. She also told us she was sure she was alive because of God. The kids were all very respectful, but there wasn’t enough time for questions or interactions.

During the event and the luncheon I recognized a few teachers I had known. For a moment I felt like an honored historical relic myself when the student escorting Sarah said he had some “old photos of the school” on his phone and asked, “Do you remember it looking like this?” I realized that he wasn’t even born when I went there. Just another reminder of how special the opportunity is for those kids to meet the survivors. This opportunity won’t be available much longer.

I drove Sarah home and gave her a big hug when I dropped her off. I hope I see her next year.

Here’s a full list of the survivors who participated in the symposium this year: Larry Buchsbaum, Lilly Drukker, Dorothy Finger, Anne Fox, Ralph Franklin, Marius Gherovici, Gertrude Klein Gompers, Ernest Gross, Michael Herskovitz, Joseph Hirt, Joseph Kahn, Manya Perel, John Spitzer, Peter Stern, Erica Herz Van Adelsberg, Sarah Meller, Seymour Levin, Joel Fabian.

Slow Song Mix Tape, 1996

PhotoGrid_1404090352112Here’s another in the series of posts in which I share a playlist of songs to immortalize an old cassette tape that I unearth. Tonight I visited the sauna that is my attic to do some consolidating, and I found this tape.

As I’ve said before, over the years and out of necessity I’ve turned from a keeper to a thrower, except in the case of some of the more sentimental keepsakes. But I don’t need this cassette. I do, however, want to hang on to the list of songs, because I’m nostalgic and listening to these songs sends me right back to that pink-walled bedroom of my youth, which I will never see again. So I made a Spotify playlist (N.B. that the Beatles and Peter Gabriel aren’t available on Spotify, so this isn’t completely faithful to the original tape).

What was the purpose of this mix? I would bet that in my 15-year-old mind there was a glimmer of hope that someday I would play this mix for a boy in a romantic attempt at baring my soul. But we all know I just used this to serenade myself.

Mock it, love it, sing along with it, do with this list as you will. I still love most of these songs 18 years later!

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…

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.”