Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mourning Toby T. and Paying Homage to My Jewish Grandmothers

As a recovering Catholic I am not sure if it is proper or typical that I have joyfully adopted the Jewish grandmothers of my girlfriends, but it's how things have gone for me. It's not that I didn't have grandmothers as such a thing is biologically impossible. It's just they were of a different sort, older, more distant, and frankly, less entertaining. My favorite adopted Jewish grandmother, Toby, died recently and I was very sad for it. So I decided to share a little about her, and Suki, for Suki was my first. I miss them both.

Suki (My First)
Suki was the grandmother of my first love, T-. Suki was a slight women, thin with white hair cut short and modern. She stood about chest high to me and she always wore sensible shoes. Defying an almost compulsory domesticity for women of her culture and generation, Suki went to school, learned to paint, prioritized these things with some parity to the caring for her husband and the raising of her children. In her younger years such a path was not met with enthusiasm and I spent many hours listening to Suki tell her stories of the olden days in NYC, the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the brownstone apartment and the sweltering summers, the family gossip...uncle Sal and the gang. There was no compensatory conviction in her manner but rather a matter-of-fact-ness, slightly removed, as if any criticisms of her choices meant nothing. She just did her own damn thing and if anyone had a problem with that, well, that was their problem, not hers.

I spent several years with the R- family, eating dinners prepared by Suki's daughter Joan, sitting in the living room talking and sipping wine. I watched Joan and Suki's dance, their incessant bickering and banter with all the complexities of their mother daughter relationship....Joan's concomitant resentment and admiration regarding Suki's choices. I heard Joan's stories, her complaints about her mother's spoiling of her older brother, how he got more, like the AC in his room while Joan slept fitfully in the sweltering Brooklyn summer nights. Suki showed no signs of regret, always a wry smile on her face. She lived very much in the present. She was a 70-something year old successful artist living in SoCal. All that other stuff was of the past.

I was a newcomer, an outsider, someone with no shared baggage, no demands. It's a privileged place to be. I had not known many women like Suki, women who were older and had made their own way in the face of resistance, who were from the then exotic (to me) villages of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I liked Suki immensely and I think she felt the same, grinning at me, including me, always answering my questions.

I met T- in college, undergrad, and shortly after I lost my mother. I was grieving, broke, struggling to work my way through school when the universe thought to test me even further and I was laid-off from my job. While I doggedly looked for work, Suki, now suffering from carpel tunnel from a lifetime of painting, hired me to help her with things around her house and studio where she had lived alone for some time since her husband had died. I spent many days with Suki helping her stretch canvass, arranging things in her studio, cleaning this or that. She was, in many ways, a stereotypical artist, odd, eccentric. She was often myopic, having me organize this or that in some small corner in the middle of some bigger chaos....or move this canvass there and then, no wait, back again. I could not anticipate her needs, they were not linked, not linear. I just smiled, did what she asked, enjoyed spending time with her without judgment.

When T- and I broke up, I mourned the loss of Suki, my first adopted Jewish grandmother (Joan too, very much, but this piece is about my Jewish grandmothers). But such is the way of the hyper-mobile modern world where serial monogamy reins supreme. Many of our chosen families are more temporary than we once dreamed. When I broke up with T-, I lost Suki too. Last I heard she was still painting in SoCal.

Toby (My Last, So Far)
When the old folks die, it is not a tragedy, it's just sad. Sad to say goodbye...I think there is even some sadness for knowing that to ask for any more would be unreasonable. Toby had a good run, a good life, a loving family, tons of friends, money, and an incredible sense of humor.

Toby exaggerated for sport. If it was hot outside, it was 1000 degrees. If the meal was expensive, then she was spending her last dime, if she had a cold she was near death. She also had a very porous filter, blurting things out that many would think inappropriate. By the time I met Toby she was in her 70s and had dispensed with the reservations to which many younger folks adhere. She had raised two successful and healthy kids, had cared for the love of her life for 12 years while Alzheimer's slowly stole him from this world, and she had watched as friend after friend buried their husbands. I think she was beyond giving a shit about the trivial niceties...she had earned the right to speak her mind and so she did.

I immediately loved Toby and I like to think she felt the same way. My relationship with J-s immediate family was complicated and often uncomfortable. As J-'s partner I was subject to the evaluations and judgments that often come from parents. Her family was quick to share judgments and opinions but not very forthright with feelings and vulnerabilities, not a very comfortable place for a straight-shooting heart-on-her-sleeve chick like me. Not that I didn't hold my own, I did. It's just we spoke different languages, came from different places, and they leveled judgments on places I had been and would never judge the same way. So I learned their culture and adapted. But with Toby there was less that was unsaid, less pretense, less false politeness. I think she saw, more than J-'s parents, that J and I had a lot of fun together, shared a lot of love and that seemed to be enough for her acceptance.

J- and I were together for a decade and I spent a lot of time visiting with her family and some my favorite times were those spent with Toby. A couple of stories still make me laugh to recall.

After A-'s (Toby's husband) funeral we all (J-'s family and Toby) went to dinner, early of course, as this was in Florida and that's a place where folks eat early. Slightly after 6pm the hostess sat the lot of us at a long table and Toby sat next to me. Toby scrutinized the menu and noted that the "early bird" prices only applied until 6:00pm. When the waiter arrived she asked in her high pitched unapologetic New Jersey accent, "can I still get the early-bird prices?" The waiter very politely explained that it was after six so the full prices were in effect. After he left, with a smirk on her face, Toby blurted out, "what if I tell the waiter I just buried my husband, do you think he would give me the early-bird price?" I laughed hard and then assertively said, "Toby, that's it, I am buying you dinner and you better order whatever you want." We ordered, ate, and then I slapped down some $20s to cover mine and Toby's meal while she grinned at me. Toby had been morning the loss of A- for over a decade and now that she had buried him, there was, of course, a deep sadness, but there was a levity too.

A couple of nights later J- and I took Toby out to dinner again. When we got in the car to head back to the house Toby suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my god, X and X are going to be at the house at 7:30pm! We have to get home before them! I am supposed to be sitting Shiva and they will think I am a terrible widow! Mer, get us home fast!" I was driving Toby's car and as I cranked the engine I turned, looked her in the eye and said, "I'll get you there Tobes, hang on." I sped like a maniac through the wide streets of X Florida while Toby and J- whooped it up, laughing and cheering me on. We skidded into the driveway minutes before her friends arrived, quickly settling into the house, helping Toby look relaxed as though she had been there all evening mourning like a proper Jew. When they left Toby again exclaimed her relief for having saved face. She thanked me again for driving so fast, getting her home in time. I was thrilled to be in service to this woman and thrilled that she had enjoyed my speedily weaving through the slow driving Florida blue-hairs.

It was last December that I heard Toby was sick. I remember it vividly, sitting at the communal computer in the home of my friends in Guatemala, reading J-s email...bone cancer...months left...chemo...terminal. I hadn't seen Toby in a over two years but always asked about her. She was the one I missed, wished I could see but knew I probably never would. And now it was the beginning of her end. I sank into the chair, I was crying, writing J- back, filled with sadness and far from home. And then a few short months later, Toby was dead. Gone. And from the stories J- shared, she was feisty and bitchy the whole way, never admitting defeat. And I like to think she is with A- now, popping off, spewing her hyperbole, asking for the early bird specials.

Note:  Some names have been changed to respect folks privacy.  

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tell the Good Truths Now

This is a true story, I know because I read it in a book. A man was leading a group encounter kinda thingy in the 1970's. The man asked the participants to challenge themselves by sharing a secret with the group. Folks made their confessions, things that included guilt for putting one's parents in an old-folks home, kicking one's dog, being promiscuous and liking it. The exercise brought the participants the predictable realization that they judged themselves more harshly than anyone else in the room. The group leader noted that many folks shared big secrets while others played it more safe, sharing the less risky. And just when everyone thought the exercise was over the man offered them more. He noted that everyone's secrets were negative, fraught with some degree of embarrassment, shame, or guilt for doing something "wrong." Then he said that our biggest secrets are actually our unexpressed love, our shame, our embarrassment for feeling love or appreciation or affection.

I remember this story, read so long ago, because it resonated. I remember thinking, "Damn, he's right." I think it was especially poignant for me, having been a closeted homo for 25 years, feeling a certain guilt and perennial perversion for some of my affections. But his point was not limited to a guilty romantic love. His point was that we hold back, don't express so much of the love and appreciation we feel. In that moment I challenged myself to start telling the good truths early and often. I have made it one of my lifetime projects, and over the past couple of decades, I have gotten better and better at doing just that.

I am a chatty sort by nature and have been most of my life. I will engage waitresses and bus drivers and people waiting in line at the bank. Not always, but more often than many, and usually with some vigor and candor. My sister Juls has often refrained, with a smile, "Mer, stop it, people think you are crazy." I ignore her, smiling, continuing to engage whomever it is that Juls thinks I should leave be. And the thing is, some folks do think I am crazy, or odd, or inappropriate. But I think more than not, by a margin, folks do not. They often respond quite positively, smiling or laughing, or sharing something, often something personal, something unexpected.

If I meet you and I like you, well, I will probably tell you right quickly. I will literally say, "You're cool, I really like you." If you amuse me, make me laugh, I will tell you, "you're really funny, I like hanging out with you." If you provoke me, make me think, challenge me intellectually, I will tell you. If I think you look pretty in a dress, or have an infectious smile, or I like the way you giggle or make pancakes, I will tell you. I will tell you even if it is a little strange for you to hear something nice said about you, even if someone being direct seems foreign or inappropriate. I will tell you because I have come to believe that to not, is wrong, is a kind of selfishness, and it's chickenshit. I don't want to be selfish or a pussy. And if my sharing the goodness I see, feel, hear makes you uncomfortable for a moment, I am happy to be, hopefully, a small contributor to your getting over that shite.

Besides, Speaking Up Could Change Someone's Life
This isn't a perfect fit with what I am preaching above, but I am inclined to share this story here nonetheless. Long ago when I was a teenager and acutely aware of my not fitting the dominant cultural standards for female attractiveness, I had an experience, a mundane encounter that changed in a moment the way I saw myself.

I was at the Laguna Beach Sawdust Festival where artisans from all over SoCal come to sell their wares. It was night and I was with friends at a jewelry counter trying on silver rings...I held my hand out considering a particular ring, noting my chewed up fingernails, the more masculine shape and lines, and I said, "I hate my hands." A woman, the jewelry maker behind the display counter suddenly stopped what she was doing, looked at me intently, eyes narrowed in seriousness and said, "do they serve you well?" Startled, I said, "what?" "Your hands, do they serve you well?" she insisted while staring at me, waiting for my answer.

I thought about it, how with these hands I could draw well, play sports, write, hug my friends, build and fix stuff, a million things I could do well because of the skill and coordination contained in my hands. I looked at my hands again and then at her and answered, "yes." "Then don't hate your hands," she instructed and then she turned away and continued whatever it was that she was doing. In that moment, and through the years when I have reflected on this encounter, I realized the perfunctory dismissal contained in my teenage critique of my hands, the narrowness of my assertion. Never again would I so recklessly and thoughtlessly disparage my parts.

So there you have it. Some thoughts on telling the good truths early and often. We are all so good at criticizing ourselves and others but we really need to work on the complimenting and expressions of appreciation and love. Now go forth and do it. I'll start, I think you're cool for taking the time to read my silly blog. Your git!