The Small Embroidered Dress

As a small child I loved my mother’s hands. She had long, elegant fingers and smooth, rounded fingernails that she often painted dark red. I loved how gracefully she folded her hands in her lap when listening to someone speak, and how animated they became when she was telling a story. Her hands could describe the depth of her affection, the size of the sky, the amount of love in a kiss.

My mother as a child

Those hands could arrange flowers, write a letter in long, slanted loops, help me glue sugar cubes together to make a school project. When I was sick, my mother’s hands smoothed my hot forehead, made long strokes up and down my back, caressed my flushed cheeks. And when I was well, her hands would tickle me under the chin and arms until I erupted in laughter. Those same hands held me up when I was weak from chemotherapy and reassured me after the complicated birth of my daughter.

Hands for holding

I was lucky enough to have my mother and her beautiful hands for forty years. And in the final weeks of her life I was able to hold and kiss them and tell her what a gift she was to me and everyone who knew her.

A few weeks ago I came across a book did a double take because the picture on the front cover so closely resembles a picture I have of my mother that was taken when she was a young girl. The girl pictured on that book is Lola Rein Kaufman. I have not been able to stop thinking about her since that day.

Lola is a survivor of the holocaust. When Lola was a very young girl, her mother was murdered by the Gestapo. Lola’s grandmother made the decision to entrust her granddaughter to the care of a Ukrainian woman who was forced to hide Lola in a dirt hole beneath a barn for many months.

For the entire nine months that Lola was hidden in that dark hole, she wore a small white dress that her mother had lovingly hand embroidered with flowers. Lola survived the holocaust and now lives in New York, has grandchildren and a home that she describes in the book The Hidden Girl (with coauthor Lois Metzger) as full of light.

The dress that Lola’s mother adorned for her is now part of an exhibit called Silent Witness in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The following is a fascinating talk that Lola gave with Lois Metzger in April 2009 at the New York Society Library.

Since learning about Lola I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother’s hands. I’ve been wishing I could somehow share my mother’s hands with Lola and comfort that part of her that will always be fragile.

The only way I know how to do this is through words, and by sharing the story of Lola and her dress. I hope that you will connect with her bravery and be inspired to use your hands  to create love and art and all good things. Lola’s story moved me to write a poem.

LOLA REIN’S DRESS

The embroidery at her neck
is the steel rail laid as blind hem
along the countryside.
The green chain of stems
sewn at the sternum
is the suture knitting a wound
linking red flower mouths,
and the bluebottle skin of bodies
packed in cattle cars.
Her mother’s fingers bind silence
to the child’s lips as they crouch
between the mud walls of a barn.

When she draws the line
of history, she traces her
mother’s backstitch,
the fine needle of memory
that passes through cloth,
hands sunk into the grain
of yellow fabric, boning
the ribs, cracking
the lice. She remembers
the ditch of hunger, the walls
of shoes, the broadcloth
of burning sky, and always
the dark hole in a vegetable cellar
where a small girl hides
in a hand sewn dress.

Don’t Kiss Me (Unless You Want Some Action)

A few months ago my dear friend Liz and I were talking about the hug versus the kiss greeting and she said, “Yeah, so, Michael really doesn’t like to be kissed. And you always do that kiss on the cheek thing when you say hello and goodbye.”

I thought: Holy shit. Thank God she told me that. I adore Michael. I don’t want to torture him.

The funny thing is, I really hate being kissed, too, unless it is going to lead to, uh, sex. So why the hell was I molesting poor Michael?

After giving it some thought, I think it stems, largely, from my parents. My mom was a big kisser. A big, soft mushy kisser. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved my mom, but she had a big mushy face and a big, soft gushy kiss that made me feel like she was going to suck me down into her gullet.

Of course I kiss the kids

And, my mom always insisted on kissing me smack on the lips. Offering up a cheek to my mom, was like a battle cry. It was an affront to all of her Jewish motherly love.

Also, you must understand, my mother always, always, always wore lipstick.

(If she wasn’t wearing lipstick, it was like spotting an unusual animal in the wilds of suburbia: Shhhhh. If you keep very still you will see it! There, deep in the produce section is the rare pale lipped Brona. If you get closer, you will see it isn’t wearing lipliner, which makes this an even rarer pale lipped Brona sighting…)

My mom always wore a brand of lipstick that had a distinctly crotch like smelly aftertaste that lingered on my lips. And, it was one of those 24-hour impossible to remove long stay, long last colors that transferred onto my lips and turned them a strange orangish hue.

My dad is also an insistent kiss greeter. Saying hello or goodbye to my dad is sort of like going through a face car wash. He has the wettest kiss I have ever experienced. And really, you don’t want to own the title for receiving your wettest kiss from your father. After my dad kisses me (and really, it’s a quick peck), I feel like he’s just licked my entire face.

The kicker about kissing my dad is that he has some untreated issue that causes his nose to run all the time. Usually he’s good about mopping it up, but sometimes he leans in for the kiss and there’s a wet patch right above his lips. So you get his big fat wet lips and the big fat wet upper lip area headed right for your nice, dry mouth.

*Shiver*

There is yet another gross kisser in my life who must remain anonymous because I will get The Marital Look Of Disapproval Bordering On Disdain from my husband if I say who it is. I’ll call him The Obsessive Aftershave Splasher.

Each morning after TOAS shaves, he dunks his head in several ounces of aftershave. If I was to write the advertising copy for said aftershave I might describe it as, “Old-manish, cloying, nausea-inducing, something to spray the diaper pail with after your toddler takes a horrific dump.”

After this man kisses me, I smell like a dirty whore trying to cover up her skank stank with her cheap aftershave. It doesn’t wash off. Ever. So I smell like a dirty whore trying to cover up her skank stank with cheap aftershave all day long. It gets in my hair, on my clothes, on my children. It makes me want to yack. Imagine experiencing the morning sickness of three pregnancies while in a wake of The Obsessive Aftershave Splasher.

So, in this season of greeting friends, family, and strangers alike, let me be both your lesson (I’m so sorry, Michael!) and your reminder. Don’t torture other people with your wet, smelly, mushy, lippy business unless you want to get in their pants. And even then, it’s probably better to ask first, or at least brush your teeth in advance.

 

 

A Jewish Case Of Christmaslust

I’m starting off this post with an email I sent to my brother regarding my kids’ behavior at a preschool event:

Subject: add one to the Ruby & Lucas files 
Today was the “All School Shabbat” program at Ruby & Lucas’ preschool. It’s really nice because parents, grandparents, friends, etc. are invited to come. All the kids gather in the auditorium & there’s special singing, candle lighting, snacks for Shabbat, and performances by the kids. Today was Ruby’s class! She got up on stage and sang her little heart out. It was really cute. Unfortunately she loved it so much that she wouldn’t get off the stage & after trying to negotiate with her calmly, I had to drag her off kicking & screaming (in front of about 100 people). And, God love him, Lucas saw Ruby get upset, ran onto the stage & started howling, too. So I had to get back on stage with screaming Ruby & drag them both off. OY VEY.

I shared that email because it highlights the fact that:
1. When you have a kid with Autism you never know how it’s going to go at social events  2. I have always felt like a fish out of water when it comes to religion.

I was the Jewish kid who begged for a Christmas tree. And Christmas lights. And I really wanted one of those tacky Christmas sweaters.

Every December I would torture my mother with requests for a blow-up lawn Santa for our house. I wanted the Christmas carols, the stockings on the mantel.

I even wanted to wear a crucifix like Madonna (during her Like a Virgin days). My poor mother.

The things I liked best about Hebrew school were the carpool rides that included a stop at the 7-Eleven for Slurpees and Dip-n-Sticks, and the cute boys. I didn’t get much in the way of spirituality in Hebrew school.

I become a Bat Mitzvah (complete with after party where we all wore leis and danced the YMCA) and later swore that I would never torture my children the way my parents tortured me.

And yet, here I am carting the kids to Hebrew school, Sunday school, tot Shabbat and family night services at the synagogue.

This feeling of Christmaslust still plagues me at times. Last week, for example, as I was driving my kids to the synagoge my older son asked why Target has so many Christmas decorations and barely any Hanukkah decorations. It’s a difficult question to answer.

Being a Jewish kid can have its challenges. It’s an orgy of Christmas in November and December. Have you ever looked at the selection of books for Jewish kids? The characters often look like they are straight out of a shtetl. The men have big black beards and are wearing yarmulkes, the women look like bubbameisters. Let’s get real. Most Jews these days have iPads, Nike kicks, and shop at Nordstrom like the rest of the world. But I digress…

It’s not that I don’t respect Judaism. I do, very much. I love Jews. I am proud to be a Jew. To be a Jew is to be in geek paradise. And I mean that in the very best possible way. Jews are smart, intellectual people who love to debate and kibbitz and create community. They are big on education, humor, reading, doing for others. And at our synagogue, kids with special needs are embraced and celebrated.

My problem is that I don’t know where to find myself in Judaism. I’m not sure how to make it a part of my life in a meaningful way that works for my family. I’m trying to figure it out.

I sent my first two kids to a Jewish preschool because we had just moved to Portland and I knew no one who had kids in school. The first friend I made was sending her little girl to Jewish preschool. It seemed like a good idea. I met the teachers and they were so sweet, and well, warm in that motherly way. My kids would get the foundation of Judaism.

That was all good, but I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other moms. In my freakish imagination they were lighting the candles every Friday night, making big Shabbat dinners, frying up latkes, and doing interesting craft projects with their adorable little Jewish prodigies.

My two-year-old was different than her peers. She was licking walls, melting down at the slightest change in routine, not making eye contact. I was just trying to make it through every day with a kid who appeared to be going off the developmental rails. Going through the rituals of Shabbat and other Jewish holidays seemed impossible to me given the challenges I was having with my daughter.

When it came time to decide on sending the kids to Hebrew school, I didn’t know what to do. So one afternoon I took my kids to synagogue to check it out. They hadn’t been there in a long time. We ended up in the main sanctuary. It was dark and quiet. We walked up and down the aisles silently observing the stained glass windows, Ark, and eternal flame. I don’t know why, but I started to feel something. It wasn’t a Jesus Has Healed You! fall on your knees moment. But it was significant.

I felt my mother’s presence there in the synagogue. I remembered playing thumb war with my dad during Saturday services. I remembered how the rabbi knew all the kids and would call us up by name to participate in services. I remembered helping my mom set up for the Oneg Shabbat (social time after services) and sneaking sips of Manischewitz. I remembered lighting candles with my grandmother.

I left the synagogue that day wanting my children to have these memories. Do I still want a Christmas tree? Yes. Yes, I do. Do I feel like I know what I’m doing in terms of religion? No, not really.  But as I light the Hanukkah candles with my husband and children I feel connected to something powerful, something meaningful and bigger than me, and for now that is enough.

I Shot A Snot Rocket At The Rabbi or Further Misadventures In Social Awkwardness

It seems, to me at least, that I am always doing something socially awkward. Last week we had a packed crowd at a bookstore reading. In my rush to bring more chairs down from bookstore loft I accidentally dropped two chairs down the stairs and scared the bejesus out of the crowd. It was loud. It was embarrassing.

And just yesterday when I was introducing a couple of writers at the bookstore I had a moment in which their names just disappeared from my mind. Poof. As I’m standing in front of a crowd. Heart pounding. After what felt like an eternity my brain powered up again and I recalled their names, but not without a moment of my thinking I had mixed up the first name of one writer with the last name of the other writer. Those are moments when you are keenly aware of new and exciting places your body produces sweat.

If I could just keep these moments to myself it would probably be alright. But I sometimes think out loud and reveal my awkwardness by laughing at the wrong time or saying something stupid. For instance, at the memorial service for my mom I read a letter that I had written to her. Of course I didn’t make it through the letter without bawling my eyes out. The tissue I had been using was fully saturated, so when I gave one big sob in the middle of the reading, a huge snot rocket shot out of my nose right at the rabbi. This probably would’ve been forgiven, I mean these things happen when one is in the throes of grief, except I couldn’t let it pass by without comment. I started awkwardly giggling and sob-laughed to the crowd of friends and family, “I just shot a snot rocket at the rabbi!” I am not a religious person, so I don’t see this rabbi very often, but when I do I imagine that he stays back a little.

I also suck at remembering names. I never, ever forget a face, which makes it even more awkward because I often think that I definitely know a person but can’t recall their name. So I’ll say something like, “Hi! I know you!” and the person is like, “Uh, yeah, umm,” and then I throw out all the different ways that we might know each other and the whole thing is just stupid.

Or, I’ll feel overly confident that I know a name and then screw it up repeatedly. One of my mom’s dear friends is named Elaine. She has become one of my dear friends. Unfortunately the very first time I saw her after we were introduced was when she came in to pick up a book at the bookstore. My brain malfunctioned and I called her Eileen. Ever since then I automatically think Eileen when I see her and have to correct myself every single time. Elaine, Elaine, Elaine! Her name is Elaine. Damn you, brain.

Most awkward of all is my constant feeling that people have no idea who I am. (Isn’t that weird?) So when I see someone I know but am not totally confident that they remember me I lead with, “Hi, I’m Jennifer!” I imagine it’s strange to see someone for the fifth time and have them remind you of their name again. It’s just that I don’t want the person I’m talking to feel awkward because they don’t know my name, and I’m feeling awkward about my own awkwardness and their potential for feeling awkward. And that, my friends, is a small snapshot of life in my strange brain.

Please share your own brain farts!