The Joys of Getting Older
Always, traveling. Moments when everyone,
everything is off kilter, change is easier
for me than routine. So we drive almost
continuously, Boston to Dover, New Jersey,
through rain and fog, as though all
was a Japanese painting, the colors of early
Spring, gentle, open, but quite explicit.
We stopped once in Connecticut, and
the milder South was budding, not just
silly crocus, or dogwood exhibiting
for all to see, but the light green of maples.
Once, in the middle of NJ, far from their NY homes,
1000 Jewish engineers were settled by the US Gov’t
and set to work at the Arsenal. Families sprouted,
the engineers moved from tiny houses to solid comfort
in the hills, wild creatures made way and a synagogue
was founded. Success! Who could imagine a thriving
Sisterhood in central NJ? The children joined
marching bands and wrestling teams, but in the end,
bought a bus for the trip to Woodstock and never
She was in the elite group in high school,
always feeling, however, that she would fall off
or be dropped. The leader was a handsome boy,
an athlete, a top student, and she wanted
to be liked by him and therefore accepted
by all. She never imagined him as hers;
her boyfriend was nondescript.
She saw the leader a few years ago,
a fallen physician, just out of rehab.
Still handsome, but something missing.
I am amazed. Her mother seems glad
that we made the trip, but in 24 hours
has nothing but criticism for her only
daughter. She likes me, of course. I am
not a Northwest native American potter;
so even with tattoos, I stink of respectability.
Her daughter, no matter profession, degrees, etc., fails:
She is a bad girl. I must remember to keep
our granddaughters away from the old lady.
One of her friends died of an overdose
a few years after high school, his sister
was the feature in the real tale of
searching for Mr. Goodbar. The doc
apparently stole drugs, but found his way
to rehab and has a life again. The fat boy
became an enormously successful
criminal lawyer someplace in the South
and weighs 300 pounds. The cheerleader
next door married, has a normal life
someplace far away, but her son was killed
recently, passenger in a drunk driving
smash-up. And W, the apple of her mother’s eye,
an artist in Colorado, always calls
when she’s in town, had a heart attack.
Phyllis, another octogenarian, doesn’t remember
so well, she said, and every day gets more facial tics.
They’re going together to the neurologist Friday.
P has two children, but they’re odd. Daughter
lives on an island on the Pacific coast, has children,
a horse, chickens, other animals, and a husband who
doesn’t work. They were high school sweethearts,
but she thinks (though she wouldn’t tell Phyllis)
that he married her for Phyllis’s money. (The old man
worked at the Arsenal, died young, somehow there’s
money in that --) The boy, who must be 50, lives
near Boston, has a Ph.D. in political theory and an
apartment in a four story walkup with a wonderful view
of the city. How odd are they?, I ask. Comes down to
the visit to the neurologist. When Phyllis shivers,
her hands flutter up to her hair; I will have to drive, she says.
Phyllis flutters about the dinner preparations.
She has brought a baking dish of sweet
potato halves, small ones, with a pleasant,
not over-bearing, candy sauce. The pieces
are laid out like cookies, discrete,
not the yam pie I expected. But this
is not to be her only contribution:
she hurries like a night moth to collect
each dish and bring it to the table,
too much brisket with many carrots,
too much chicken, baked and piled,
salad. I forget: chicken soup with
matzoh balls, gefillte fish, things to
whet the appetite. Sweet red wine.
I race through the service, pausing
only for B to do the ten plagues,
which she has always loved. There
are no children to teach at this dinner,
a hollow meal.
What is traditional, what not? The matzoh balls
are factory made, the fish is from Newark,
but the brisket is her own. The chicken should have
been left in the freezer, it was unnecessary and
ugly on its platter. Unadorned. No terayaki
sauce, chicken the way I remember my mother
made it, texture invented in Eastern Europe
when the sight of blood conjured up awful visits
from the neighbors. Pogroms. Blood libel.
So we should include this in the ritual, a special
place on the seder plate, unpalatable chicken
in memory of the days before the great Atlantic
crossing. Did the sea part? Were the torpedoes
The most difficult aspect of the seder plate
is distinguishing among the various substitutes
that have emerged over the years. In the Dominican
Republic, mangos are an essential ingredient
in charoses. The pascal lamb is represented
by ostrich leg in Australia and roasted
carrot in Vegan England. The French cover
the plate with varieties of mushroom, bitter
herbs are always chicory, you know, I could
go on and on. The only stable feature of the
Passover table is unleavened bread, tacos in
Mexico, Finnish crackers wherever Jews
have become conscious of their weight.
We argue quietly over the wine. Merlot
is as bad as I’m prepared to go, but so many
have developed fondness for Manischewitz
and the Concord grape. Thoreau lost his virginity
after the fourth glass at a New England seder,
Emerson envied him, which explains the
psycho-social origins of transcendence.
Leonard Cohen sings Sisters of Mercy
in the coffee shop where I scribble.
He sounds so young.
She smoked for 50 years, at least. Even after
the family ganged up on her, she was banned
from smoking in my house, still she kept it
up, asserting her independence by pacing
in the cold and muttering about ungrateful
children, and smoking and smoking. Winstons
I think, with filters, although she did not start
that way. The doctors argue over the diagnosis:
emphysema some days, COPD others, She
likes COPD, a more exotic label she can
treasure as she drags her oxygen tank around
the house. Her husband is gone, but she
must still climb the stairs, altitude
achieved by strength of spirit. She wears
her respirator as a badge of courage in
a world of pacifists.
Al died suddenly, at 65. He was playing squash
or racket ball, felt tired, sat down and died.
This was after stress tests, second opinions,
a trip to Mass General, had all given him ok’s.
He had been worried and apparently was right.
Not a hypochondriac, food-faddist, after all.
From up and down the East Coast engineers gathered
for the funeral. No one in the family seemed
to know that he was famous, had written books
(all classified, of course), a respected man in
the world of missiles and space craft. Not
a rich man, not a successful lawyer like
Uncle M who belonged to country clubs in
Baltimore. Not a rich man.
I think Al may have been a provider, one of
those silent Jewish men who visit the family,
someone from out of town, while the house
is ruled by the Queen. She has married down
but tolerates his presence. The children
Have no idea who he is.
What damage has this dream of America accomplished!
What sucking of culture and connection,
drawn like unwanted fat from belly
and behind, we are drained for the sake of
super model, super power anorexia. Left only
with the horrible craving, the knowledge that
something fundamental is missing, to be whole
is to be a shadow of the old country grandmother.
We are no longer peddlers, merchants;
now we must be in Sales.
© Charles Levenstein
Loch Raven Review Fall 2005 Vol. I, No. 1
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