A Voice From the Past

I am a serious packrat. Not just of objects, but of emails and phone messages too. I have 25,000+ emails in my aol account. It became too arduous a task to go through them once I switched over to gmail, so I’ve continued to let them accumulate. At this point, I’m going for the record! I’ve held  on to the aol address to give out to online order companies, which so far has helped to keep my gmail safe from spam.

While email can collect indefinitly, it’s not the same for phone and text messages. Every few months I get a message on my cellphone that my voice mailbox is full. This week marks two years since my father died and I can’t bring myself to erase the many phone messages that my mother left me from his hospital room over his six-week stay. The fact that he was in the room with her while she was speaking to me, chronicling his condition, is what compels me to hold on to them. Every once in awhile I replay them. It’s like a story where you already know the ending, but you can’t help re-reading it; a story with an unsatisfying ending. You read it again with the possibility that this time it won’t have the same inevitable conclusion.

I still have a good old fashioned address book as well, which contains many names and contact information of family and friends I’ve lost. I’ve given up whiting it out. I find it comforting to know that I’m forever tethered to each and every one of them…in a kind of time warp of memory.

Lincoln, Lincoln, I’ve Been Thinkin’

My grandmother, Myne Freed, was born on February 12th. I always thought it was fitting that she was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My grandparents were involved in politics in Philadelphia; my grandfather, M. Phillip Freed, held several political posts. When he was appointed to the bench as a judge in 1957, he asked Nana to finish his term as Democratic Chief of the 20th Ward, a post she held for 10 more years. She probably wouldn’t have thought of it this way, but that was quite a feminist thing to do!

In a simple blog post, I could never encapsulate how special a person she was, how much she meant to me and my family, or all the good she did as an engaged citizen with a sense of duty on both a large and small scale. But in thinking about Abraham Lincoln, one apropos story to share is that Nana served on a social welfare committee that was part of President Truman’s Commission on Civil Rights to end segregation and break down the barriers that were keeping African Americans and Jews from purchasing houses in certain “restricted” neighborhoods. She and my grandfather met with the Truman’s when the Democratic Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1948. In fact, my mother tells the story that she had gone to the movies with a date and when the newsreel came on, there were her parents seated on the dais right behind President Truman who was speaking from the podium. A few years ago, I documented this anecdote and much more in my short story, “Nana Buys a Pants Suit.”

I recently found a speech made by historian and Lincoln biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, for the Society for Human Resource Management, on the subject of Lincoln as a leader. My grandmother exuded humility and would never have thought of herself as a “leader.” But after reading the 10 qualities Kearns thought contributed to Lincoln’s great ability to lead,” it really solidified my theory of Nana and Lincoln sharing some similar human traits by virtue of being born on the same day. These include: 1) Capacity to Listen to Different Points of View 2) Ability to Learn on the Job 3) Ready Willingness to Share Credit for Success 4) Ready Willingness to Share Blame for Failure 5) Awareness of Own Weaknesses 6) Ability to Control Emotions, 7) Know How to Relax and Replenish (including the importance of humor as a way to replenish oneself) 8) Go Out into the Field and Manage Directly 9) Strength to Adhere to Fundamental Goals and 10) Ability to Communicate Goals and Vision.

Doris Kearns Goodwin ended her keynote address with the following words from Leo Tolstoy about Abraham Lincoln: His greatness consisted of the “integrity of his character and moral fiber of his being.” Ditto for my grandmother. With each passing year, I appreciate more and more what an inspiration and role model she was. Happy Birthday Nana!

Our Annual Cook Off – 2012 Theme: Brooklyn

Once a year our daughters challenge themselves with their very own Cook Off in which we are the judges. They usually come up with individual themes, but this year they thought they would share a theme. They asked me for ideas and without hesitation, I suggested: Brooklyn. After much contemplation and research and then several hours of preparation on the day of the Cook Off, they presented us with a full-course meal. I never imagined the clever concepts and creative plating and flavors this would generate. Interestingly, Joie thought of old-time Breukelen and the shores of the East River and Coney Island, while Sophie thought of more modern day artisanal Brooklyn.

As usual we ate well from appetizer to dessert – a “Junior’s Inspired Chocolate Cheesecake” with orange zest and raspberry sorbet  and “A Treat Grows in Brooklyn”- a seasonal cinnamon apple pear crumble inspired by the 1943 novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, complete with a homemade puff pastry tree.

We ate, we judged, we enjoyed immensely. In the end, I think the judges were the real winners!

Fit to Be Tied

This morning on the subway, a young guy was attempting to tie his tie while his girlfriend looked on. I overheard him say that he remembered his father first teaching him to tie a tie–a memory no doubt that a lot of young men share. But it’s actually a memory I share as well. In the late 1970s, caught up in the Annie Hall tie and vest fashion craze, I asked my dad if he had any old ties I could have. My father was well known for always being the most dapper guy in the room. He punctuated his suits with the many ties we had given him over the years for his birthday and Father’s Day. Without even asking why, he pulled out a Wanamaker’s gift box from the closet, filled to the brim with ties that no longer made his fashion cut. I had a field day! But of course what good is a tie if you don’t know how to tie it. So my dad, typically unphased by anything out of the ordinary, (if his children were asking for something, we must have our reasons), gave me, his only daughter, a lesson on how to tie a tie. As I watched the young man on the subway struggle with his neckware, I thought about how it’s usually the little moments in life that we remember and cherish–the ties that bond!

Breathing New Life into a Garden

A little over a year ago, right after I was commissioned to write a chapter for The Sacred Table, (a book about ethical eating), I serendipitously got a plot in the community garden across the street from my home in Brooklyn.  I titled my essay, which is about community gardens, “Getting Back to the Garden” as a homage to Joni Mitchell. Among the many topics I touched on was how the garden is a metaphor for life as it cycles through the seasons and teaches us lessons on decay and the fragility of life. Rather than focusing on death, we can choose to look at it as life-affirming in that “nature recycles itself through composting. Dead plant material that has decomposed is in fact rich in nutrients, breathing new life into a garden.”

I had just completed the chapter when in mid-June, unexpectedly, my 93 year old, totally independent father, fell. He spent the next six weeks in the hospital, alert, yet frustrated by his immobility. I spent that time on automatic pilot:  traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, renting a car at 30th Street Station and driving out to the hospital to be with my mom by my father’s bedside for ten hours a day, then returning the car and traveling back to New York City. My mother did the same thing seven days a week for that period of time, only leaving my father to go home to sleep.

For my birthday, in the first week of July, my mother sent me a set of gardening tools sophisticated enough for a master gardener. She and my dad had always gardened, so she was excited about my new venture.  My daughters, working in the Berkshires at their summer camp, sent me a wooden hand-painted plaque that read, “Mom’s Garden” with various veggies painted on it, which I placed prominently in my garden.

During the six weeks, one day my dad was up, one day he was down. All along my mom and my brothers and I were making plans to move him to a rehabilitation facility where he would receive more needed care for his eventual recovery. Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, I found solace in my little garden and the tasks needed to nurture it:  watering, pruning and harvesting. Much to my delight, from my little garden sprang life:  plum tomatoes, Indian eggplant, basil and a rainbow of begonias. But what I would never have guessed was that while I was watching my garden thrive, I would be watching my father die.

That was one year ago.

My success with the garden inspired me to want to improve my skills and expand my yield this summer. When I went out to my garden plot this past spring, I discovered that the wood of my raised garden bed had rotted out as the fall and then winter settled in and the vines withered. Since it could no longer be used for planting, it has now been designated as the collection bin for the compost for our garden’s new composter, generating fresh soil to nourish new plants. Talk about driving the metaphor home about my dad’s legacy and the life cycles of a garden!

I will forever associate my garden with the summer I lost my dad, and I will be mindful of what I wrote in, “Getting Back to the Garden”—that nature recycles itself, breathing new life into the garden. One of the most comforting sentiments people shared with me after the loss of my dad, is that a person you love is never really gone because they live on in the lives of the people they’ve touched. And so, like my plants, my loving and selfless father, is recycled daily through all of us.

A Grand Time

Last week my family and I hiked Grand Canyon. The view and the colors were beyond extraordinary. They don’t call it one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world for nothing! And of course it was more and more incredible as we descended from 8,000 feet down into the Canyon, surrounded by 17 million year old rock formations. We’ve done a lot of hiking over the years, particularly in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, but I found this hike to be particularly challenging. From the expressions on the faces of the people we passed on our way down, I know I wasn’t alone. (Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that it’s been a few years since my last major hike and I have no regular exercise routine—btw, kudos to all those who do!) To instill fear in our hearts, there was a sign that read: Hiking down is optional. Hiking up is mandatory. The film 127 Hours came to mind as we continued to keep ourselves hydrated.

It was great to know that I had the stamina. More than once I’ve asked my doctor why it is that I can hike mountains, but I find New York subway steps exhausting. (Ladies, if you’re a subway-riding New Yorker like me, you know what I’m talkin’ about.) My doctor says she gets that question a lot from her female patients. Her answer is because it uses different muscles. I definitely employed some of those same muscles on the stairs-like climb back up Grand Canyon. Oh, and did I mention that the temperature was close to 100º? (As you hike down, it gets hotter – adds to the bragging rights.) Needless to say, we were ecstatic when we successfully made it to the top. Back in New York, I now feel empowered as I make my way up from the subway platform, quietly grinning to myself and thinking, hey, I just climbed Grand Canyon. Of course I still find the subway steps exhausting!

Hand-Me-Downs, Hand-Me-Ups

When I was a college student at NYU living in Greenwich Village in the early ‘80s, from time to time I’d drop in at the indoor flea market down the street, going from stall to stall to garner some interesting item to spice up my wardrobe. Over the past few years, my closet has become a flea market. My younger daughter, in particular, has been raiding my closet with an interest in my “vintage” clothes from the 80s and 90s, which I’ve held on to. a) Because I’m a pack rat, especially with clothes I’m sentimental about and b) Because I’m a firm believer that everything eventually comes back in style.

While my daughters have benefited from a few choice hand-me-downs from me, as they’ve been growing up and growing out of their clothes, or as their clothing tastes have changed; they have been passing on “hand-me-ups” to me. Not only does this keep favorite clothing items in the fam, but it’s a way to reduce, reuse and recycle all at the same time! Interestingly, it’s had a dual effect on me where I feel both young and old at the same time. Young, because I’m wearing my daughters’ more “youthful” clothes; old, because of the fact that I have daughters old and big enough to pass on their clothes to me!

Vote Early and Vote Often

My grandfather, M. Phillip Freed, was arrested in Philadelphia in 1950 on a complaint that he had been “interfering with orderly voting” and for inciting a riot of about 500 people outside of a polling place. At the time he was the Democratic Ward Chief of the 20th Ward. The main complainant was his GOP counterpart, who my grandfather had accused of voting irregularities in past elections.

Last week I heard a NPR report about conservative poll watching groups, Efforts to Prevent Voter Fraud Draw Scrutiny. Some allege that these ad hoc citizen groups are part of a Republican-backed effort to suppress the Democratic vote. It brought to mind, not only my grandfather, but the cynical phrase, “Vote early and vote often,” which is attributed to three different Chicagoans (all notorious for their manipulation of the democratic process)—Al Capone and mayors Richard J. Daley (1955-1976) and William Hale Thompson (1915-1923 and 1931-1935). These poll watchers feel this kind of policing is imperative because “they are concerned about the integrity of our election process.”

In my grandfather’s case, he explained to the judge that the reason he felt compelled to make his presence known at the polling place was because earlier that day a Republican judge of elections had been charged with “giving illegal assistance and unlawfully interfering with a voter.” At another site in the same division, a retired bricklayer said that on three different occasions while he was waiting to vote, he saw a man slip into the voting booth with other people who were voting. A woman clerk of the election division board reported on intimidation tactics saying that Republican workers actually walked into booths despite objections of the voters and helped them to vote. My grandfather asked that all the votes in that division be thrown out. An investigation was ordered, which revealed that 100 more votes were recorded than persons who voted. The court later discharged him.

It was FDR who first inspired my grandfather to want to practice law and to enter into politics. In the midst of the Depression he saw that the country was in dire need of political reform. Voter fraud was just one area of corruption that motivated him to become a judge. He was elected to the bench in 1957 and was in fact, the first magistrate in Philadelphia to hold a law degree. (This didn’t make him too popular with a young, hard-hitting police chief named Frank Rizzo or a young, brash Assistant D.A. named Arlen Specter, but I’ll reserve those “politics” for another time.)

As for this Election Day, despite all the cynicism, negative campaigning and corruption—all of which are as old as democracy itself—I plan to vote early…but not often.

Hooray for CSA!

In my adult life I have gone from urban dweller to country/burbs dweller, back to urban dweller, to my current status somewhere in between as resident of Brooklyn, NY, where not only does a tree grow, but flowers and food as well. When I lived rurally, I dabbled in growing veggies then I discovered CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). CSAs got started in the US over twenty years ago. In that time, I’ve been a member of three different CSAs. I love the communal aspect of it, the access to healthy seasonal foods, and being able to support a local farmer.

My daughter, Sophie, took an anthropology class in college this year called, “Feast or Famine.” She was given the assignment to write a paper about a food memory. She wrote about her memories of the CSA we belonged to when she was a young child in rural New Jersey. At 19, she now realizes that belonging to a CSA in the 1990s was atypical. Here’s an excerpt from her paper:

“At a young age, my mother started taking me with her on her weekly pilgrimages to the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Farm. The farm was about twenty minutes from our home. When we got there, my sister and mom and I would pick up our pre-paid share of vegetables from the farm stand and then go out into the fields to pick certain items ourselves. Once there, I loved helping mom pick out the best cherry tomatoes, snow peas, and strawberries straight from the ground. Sometimes I would snack on our pickings after my mom splashed the raw item with a little water to clean off the dirt. Continue reading “Hooray for CSA!”

The Dreaded Dandelion

“All around me are bee haters, spider killers, dirt phobics, and dandelion destroyers, which for some reason are detested on front lawns, but not in gourmet salads. ” (excerpted from my article, “Earth Mother,” 1999, Holistic Living magazine)

I am an inveterate New Yorker. But for 14 years I lived with my family in a historic village (founded in 1701) in New Jersey, on a large tract of designated green acres–an area flanked by beautiful old family farms. It was a utopian world right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In the time that we were there, we watched as fuel got cheaper, cars got bigger, highways expanded, and rapid development began to overtake the farmland, planting more  strip malls and McMansions than produce in the Garden State. It was a land of sprawling front and backyards, open fields and public parks. Each spring as the  first of the flowers appeared, simultaneously alongside them, bright yellow herbicide/pesticide flags began to crop up on lawns. Continue reading “The Dreaded Dandelion”