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Category Archives: Memoir

To Cry

She was ready for a shower. The day  long. The time stressful. The mind muted.

What was that  that Malcolm and Donaldbain said upon their father’s murder in Macbeth

Our tears are not yet brew’d/ Nor our strong sorrow/Upon the foot of motion.

Keep busy, and the emotion won’t get to you.

Shiva houses are busy places, especially when you’re not the mourner, but just the child of one. Chairs need to be rearranged, phones answered, messages taken and forwarded.  Food needs to be organized, prepared, cleared. There is no time to mourn for the mourner’s child, there is too much to be done.

But now she was home. And she was tired. And with the slowing motions of the day, the sorrow crept up and tapped on her shoulder. One minute she told it. I’ll recognize and embrace you in a moment; I’m going to shower and there I will cave. I will let you envelop me, crush me, overwhelm me. But I will be alone, and the water will soothe and mingle with my tears, so it will be ok.

She was ready for a shower and stepped into the tub. She was eager to cry. Ready for the catharsis. But the water was cold. She turned the knob; it would turn no more. The water was warm, but too cold. She was back in camp where showers were often cold and pressure low, and movement had to be fast. But she couldn’t move. She was frozen. The tears stopped, and mind blocked. Survival mode was engaged, to just get clean and out of the shower fast.

But she wanted to cry. She needed to cry. Cry away from her kids and her husband looking on sympathetically, but powerless. Urgently  she turning the knob though she knew it was futile. The water was cold. And then she cried. Not for her loss, not for her grandfather, not for the clenched fist around her heart. She cried that she couldn’t cry.

Bent over, dank clumps of hair matted her shoulders and she held herself and shivered. Tears fell, and her body shook. And she was cold. The water was cold. So cold. And she cried for her sorrow’s loss.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Family, Memoir, Writing

 

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Those Who Don’t Learn History…

I have so many childhood memories. Most of them involve me getting into trouble, or being embarrassed in some form or another. A story of my second-grade self just came up the other day while teaching. My students asked in wonderment “How do you remember that!?”. The answers simple, when you’re hurt, you don’t forget, because if you do, it might happen again.

I suppose when I think about it, I have the happy clichéd childhood memories, of sitting on our front stoop playing watermelon, and pretending that the etchings in the stones by the front of the house made a perfect hopscotch board, and playing tap tap trio, and eating ices, trading stationary and the like. They’re not individual memories though; they’re collective.

I don’t remember single times that I played elimination in front of the house. It was something we did every day. I don’t remember all savvy stationary trades I made, just that we did it often and I had a great collection. The only individual memories I have on these collective ones, are the bad one – where things went wrong – not super right. Like the time Elisheva Link bombed a ball into my belly and it hurt so much I sat out the rest of the gain and everyone laughed at my for being weak. Or the time Zahava Feller tried to trade my Lisa Frank stationary for her Snoopy reinforcements, and Miri, my sister, interfered and told her off for offering me such a bad trade. I suppose that should be a good memory, I was spared, but I remember feeling ashamed that I was almost conned, and why didn’t I know this myself.

I was recently reminded of a third grade tale – the time I returned a WAY overdue book to the Bais Yaakov libarary, and I was so afraid to tell Mrs. Florence, the librarian, because she was scary, she had a short pointy nose, blue eyes that bulges with veins, and of course the requisite high shrill of librarians. You can’t really blame a third grader for being afraid. So I put the book down on her desk, like it was any other return, and walked briskly away.

Later on in the day, there was a student messenger knocking on my classroom door. She held a note, which my teacher proceeded to read out loud. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember it, recounting what I had done, and the words “and ran away!”. My teacher read those words with much drama. I wanted to protest, to explain, and maybe deny, but I was just so embarrassed by my actions being revealed publically, not just revealed, but reprimanded, and in a way, almost mocked.

Why did they have to do that, both of them, the librarian and my teacher. What point and purpose was there for the librarian to write a dramatic note to my teacher? Address my mother, or me, or really address it, don’t just point out my wrongdoings. And why did my teacher read it aloud? What gain was there besides for just shaming me into more misbehavior.

When I was in High School, I met the librarian. I was helping out the school Chinese auction, and she was the grandmother of one of the heads. She came to “shep nachas” and put in a few tickets. I couldn’t view her as a grandmother. As a loving person. Someone who could care about someone else. I couldn’t reconcile that incident years ago, with that just being a facets of a person, or job really. It hurt me tremendously.

Most days I laugh at the story. Because it’s funny if you tell it over with the right voices and levity. But there’s a part of me that’ll never forget the eyes wide, and iced grip on the little girl’s heart when she realized that she was the subject in the note her teacher was reading.

People ask me why I teach, why I’ve always wanted to teach. I know I’m supposed to say that I love kids, and I want to share, and help them grow and all that too nice-smiley stuff, but really, most of the time, it’s that history doesn’t repeat itself.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2012 in Memoir, Teaching

 

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The Academic versus The Ego

The entire class was huddled together on the itchy patch of commercial carpet in the kindergarten classroom. Our heads craned upward, captivated, watching our teaching tell us all about the wonderful, stupendous, and incomparable letter “C”.

“Ka,” she enunciated the hard sound. “Can anyone think a word that starts with this sound?” All around me, girls raised their hands quickly.

“Candy.”

“Coat.”

I didn’t have any word, or was really sure as to the letter “c”, but they got approving smiles, along with a “Good Job”, and “Excellent”.

I just wanted attention and approval. I raised my hand high, and “oohed” the loudest.

She called on me.

I was so happy. A deep breath, wild and frantic thought for a word, any word, and I said,

“Pizza!”

She said the right thing,

“Good try, Esther, but that’s a ‘p’, not a ‘c’” and she moved onto the next kid.

But her face.

Her face, of course, told me otherwise. With lips twisted in a hidden smirk, right brow slightly raised, it plainly said,

“Seriously? A ‘p’ for a ‘c’? Moron.”

The teacher’s comment on my end-of-the-year report card read.

Esther is very withdrawn in class, it has not impacted her academic performance, but it is of concern, relative to her social interactions with her peers. We will be noting it, and keeping an eye on her progress.

I know “Lo habeishan lomed” (the bashful does not learn), but for me, I think Fiero of “Wicked” had it right when he sang, “Those who don’t try, never look foolish”.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Memoir, Writing

 

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My Version of Zaidy

I sat by the shiva and listened to the stories. We laughed at a lot of them, because my grandfather was a witty man, were in awe by many, because my grandfather is still an inspiration. I texted myself notes of the stories, so I could write them up later.

When later came, I had a lot of material, but nothing to write. These were other people’s memories and impressions of my Zaidy, they were representative of how they knew him.  I wanted to tell my story, my version of Zaidy, but my memory failed me. I could only think of one time where I could relate what he said, all the other memories, were just that, memories, fleeting glances and glimpse, small actions, and expression, no speech, or reaction; it was really all emotion. They all said one thing though, my Zaidy loved me.

Yes, my Zaidy was a baal chessed, yes, he was straight and righteous, yes, he was funny. He was all those things everyone who was maspid him said he was, and more really. For me, what I’ll always have is my Zaidy’s love, and the way he made me feel.

I didn’t see him that often honestly, nor did I call. I wasn’t the best and devoted grandchild. But from when I was small and fragile, and up until two days ago, when I’m now grown (and still a bit fragile), my Zaidy greeted me with, “Esther, my Esther.” Every wedding, bar mitzvah, sheva brachos, Channukah party, seldom visit that I saw him, he’d look into my eyes, clasp my cold hands tight in his perpetual warmth and say those words. I’d lean in and give him a kiss on his beard-scratchy cheek, pull back, and he’d look into my eyes again, smile small, and give my hands, still in his, a squeeze.

I was the only person in the world that mattered in those moments.

Yes, he told me stories, great mashalim for life. I remember his little notepad filled with all the funny anecdotes his kids did growing up, and him reading their mischief with pride. Yes, I spent a lot of time in the store and saw how he greeted the meshulachim, and how he made the kids say their “please and thank-you’s” to get paper. All these things, they made an impression, they shaped me, my perspectives, my priorities, they are so much a part of me, that I often forget where it started and often even attribute them to my father, who emulates my Zaidy in many ways.

But besides for the lessons and inspiration my Zaidy was for other people, and for me too, when I think of him, my first reaction, and thoughts, are love. I just feel loved. I feel loved, important, accepted, which as young confused child, to a navigating adult, I needed. And still need.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Memoir

 

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The Culture of Growing Up

Close up of The Thinker

Close up of The Thinker (Photo credit: marttj)

You could run your fingers through it, old carpet. Shaggy, is the word for it. Mottled gray, soft with age and love. I didn’t know to be embarrassed of it at that age, or of kitchen’s linoleum patched with duct-tape. Or the hole behind the door of the foyer formed by the wondrous combination of metal and child’s play. The unhinged sliding door of the closet, the chipped paint from the doorframe, and sharing a bunk bed and trundle with three other sister didn’t bother me. Neither did ripped window screen in my room. It was happy home, and I was wanting from nothing

I’ve since grown up, and become self-conscious and ashamed. I supposedly know better, am cultured and beyond my humble beginnings. There are many moments though, I wish I wasn’t.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Memoir, Writing

 

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Deja Vu All Over Again

“You see this ring?” she holds it out to me, a thick gold band. I feel its weight in my hand. “It cost your grandfather $9.” She smiles at me, mischievous glint in her eye, “A cheap wife he got!” She directs the last comment across the table to my grandfather.

We all laugh.

The dessert course continues with ice cream. She leans in toward me,

“I love ice cream, E, I have the best at home – Magic, come over after Shabbos, I’ll give you.” I nod.

The conversation turns toward my sister’s single status,

“RL,” she starts. “I always say, the right one in the right place, right one in the right place.”

RL smiles, “I know Bobby, I know.”

“You see my ring, $9, your grandfather paid for it, cheap wife he got!”

We all give a light chuckle.

The table needs to be cleared, and a few of us grumble to our feet and start stacking plates, removing platters. My grandmother looks to my father,

“Nu, H, help your wife.” He smiles good naturedly, gets up and brings in a glass or two. She looks around the table when he returns,

“Marriage,” she announces, “is 50/50. You give 50, you get 50, that’s how it has to be.” We all nod our heads and assent. She smiles wide and impishly, “You know much this ring cost–$9! Your grandfather got a cheap wife!”

Nobody even smiles.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in Memoir

 

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My Father’s Hands

My father expressed his love with his hands: a handshake, a hug, a pat on the back, and I was ashamed.

They were large, smooth, and warmest to touch. With a pat on my head, a squeeze on my shoulders, and on cold winter days, enveloping my hands in his to warm up, I knew my father loved me. But I didn’t want anyone to see them.

Do you know the intoxicating smell of ink? No, not pen ink, but the real stuff, the pails of densest black, seafaring blue, and Snow White’s, blood red. That’s what was imprinted on my father’s hand, embedded in every crevice, snaking every line: dried ink. Printer’s hands.

He’d wash his hands every day, scrub them really, with a brush course enough for your kitchen tiles, but the ink stained, blemished, tarnished and everyone thought they knew who my father was: a laborer.

They saw the back support belt when he carried the large shipments of paper into the store. They saw the dirty apron he wore, to protect his clothes. They smelled the high of the ink, and heard the clanging, suction, and rotations of the machines. And they saw his hands. Even on Shabbos, even by simchas, dressed in a Marcy’s suit, they saw his hands, his ink stained hands. And he was blue collar. And I was ashamed.

Two times a year they were pure, Succos and Pesach; he didn’t work on Chol Hamoed, so there was time for repeated washings without repeated contact. My father did those days, what his heart wanted the time to do every day, listen to a shiur, do a chessed, and really, love his family. I loved my father back those days. And I’d squeeze his hand in return; he was what I knew him to be: a ben Torah. For those moments, I was proud of him. I even took pictures of his clean hands.

Time has changed the printing process. Gone are the offset presses; everything is digital now. No more noise, plates, dark rooms, negatives, and no more ink. There are no more pails of ink, only drums and cartridges keeping my father safe from exposure. His hands are white these days. Clean, pure these days. Though I’ve grown older, and come to appreciate the stained ink, the dedication, the hard work, effort and sacrifice they represent; it’s still nice to hold my father’s hand today, hands that now reflect his heart.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Memoir, Writing

 

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Student of the Weak

Betonwerksteinskulptur "Lehrer-Student&qu...

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Every 3rd grade teacher has a reward system to keep the little brats in line, mine had “Student of the Week”. Thursday’s Mrs. Landau would announce who the best behaved student was for the week, and the following week, they would hold the prized position of “Student of the Week”.

The Student of the week had a lot of privileges. First, she got to sit in the second row, first seat, close to the teacher and door. She also got to run all of Mrs. Landau’s errands: go the office to pick up photocopies, get Mrs. Landau a drink of water, pass out papers and the like. Looking back, we were all just vying to be her personal slave, but back then, there wasn’t anything we wanted more.

Best of all privileges, the Student of the Week got to wear a pin with ribbons on it that read “Student of the Week”. Worn every day, all the girls in the class, grade, and anyone she’d meet in the school during the duration of her reign would know of her accomplishment, of her status.

I wanted everyone to know how great and special I was. I wanted to be Student of the Week. But it was so hard. Every week something happened that I knew would take me out of the running. Once, I came in late for recess, another time I called out. Other times, I whispered in class for my friend to give me a pencil, and then sometime, I didn’t have the right books on the right day, even if she gave us a chart telling us what we needed when. There were also those weeks that I was ok, but other girls were better than me.

Patiently, I waited my turn, waiting for the day where the sun would shine on me, and I would be among the chosen glorious.

Mrs. Landau said that every girl would have the opportunity to be Student of the Week at least once, before anyone got a second chance. So I knew, that even if I wouldn’t earn it, I’d one day, by default come into respect.  I kept a secret class list, and carefully maintained records of who was student of the week, who was still left, and when could I possibly secure my place and validity.

The weeks went by, and my name wasn’t called, but it was ok, there was still time. And then came the week where I knew I would have to be crowned, everyone else had had their moment in the sun. I behaved extra well that week, I wanted to deserve it, even though I knew it was coming to me. I kept myself in check. I didn’t push in line, I didn’t lose my place reading, I kept my desk neat, and none of my pencils rolled noisily off my desk. And on Thursday I waited for the inevitable confirmation.

It didn’t come.  

Mrs. Landau started off saying how excited she was to call this girl’s name, what a model student she was and how beautiful she conducted herself all week, and we should all learn from her. I leaned forward in my seat expectantly, so proud that I had really done it right. But then she said,

“Chani Green, come up!”

She called a different girl’s name, not mine. Not Brenda Stein. She called up a girl who had a chance early on in the year. A naturally sweet, angelic, organized, well-behaved girl. A girl who would have won have won every week if she were in the running. Won it without breaking a sweat, or giving a thought.

I slid down in my seat, embarrassed. She didn’t call me, she had ignored me, and all my efforts, passed me over. I had tried so hard, this was supposed to be my moment, but now it was another to enjoy, again. I was heartbroken, and hurt, I didn’t understand how this could have happened. I calculated correctly, there was no error, this title was supposed to be mine, except it wasn’t.

The next week, Chani Green took my seat in the second row, first seat. And she performed all of my duties. I didn’t try anymore. There was no effort to participate, to listen, to behave, to be. I was cheated out of my 3rd grade dream with no explanation.

The next year, I vowed to start fresh. I would behave, participate, be organized. I had a rough start the first week, but I was determined to make it work. On Monday of the second week of school, there was knock on my classroom door. A small girl with frizzy red hair popped her head in and requested that I come out. Puzzled, I exited the classroom, and when I looked at her, I didn’t see her large flaming hair, put was drawn to the pin on her chest, Mrs. Landau’s “Student of the Week” pin.

Mrs. Landau wanted me to erase my name that I had written in pencil (no pens allowed until 5th grade) in the back of several of my textbooks, the Student of the Week explained. She led me to stack of books and handed me an eraser.

The back staircase was cold on my bottom, where I sat erasing my name. There were other names of previous students written of the white canvas, but she called me. I was a failure of a student, I could never be a “Student of the Week” under any teacher. Having her current prized pupil pull me out of class and reprimand me on her behalf, was a slap in the face letting me know my worth.

There went my year.

And other teacher’s tried. They had their systems, their rewards, their different titles, but they were all the same to me – I never tried to be a Student of the Week again.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Memoir

 

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Making A Mark

red pen

Image by etcher67 via Flickr

I was a bit of a trouble maker in my younger years, and if I wasn’t making trouble, I found some already made to get caught in. In this story, I made it though.

I didn’t like Mrs. Smith, my second grade English teacher. She was smelly, had long thin white fingers and there were rumors that she wore a diaper (I may have started that rumor, I’m not sure). There are more stories involving Mrs. Smith and her supposed diapers, but that’s not this story.

In this story, I took a math test, and on a whim (yes, you can have whims when you’re 7), I wrote in big block letters in the back,

I HATE MRS. SMITH

I knew it was wrong, and stupid. I showed it to a few girls lining up to hand their papers in. Their eyes got wide in horror, but then excitement, “Do it, do it!” they said. (Hey, all the fun and none of the risk, I’d probably egg someone else on too) I remember the adrenaline rush as first I hesitated to put my paper on top of the stack on her desk, then plunged the paper down, and scampered off.

By the time I walked off the school bus and my mother was asking about my day, I had totally forgotten my mischief.

A few days later, Mrs. Smith announced that she was handing back our tests. Bolting upright in my seat, I remembered my impishness. The desk started to feel very hard and uncomfortable; I didn’t want to face my stupidity. Mrs. Smith was already calling out names for girls to come collect their papers. Soon it would be mine.

“Brenda Stein”

She called my name like everyone else’s. Like I had done nothing wrong. Was this a trick? Slowly I removed myself from my desk and in opposition to what I felt like doing, which was hanging my head low, and shuffling along, I brazenly perked my head up, smiled big and sauntered to the front of the classroom. Mrs. Smith looked at me briefly, and then at my paper, and handed it to me. Her eyes didn’t say anything. I was a little disappointed. Nothing?

I don’t recall my grade, knowing my history, probably better off not remembering so I can retain some self-esteem. This was the paper I had written those cries for attention on, wasn’t it? There hadn’t been any other test; I wasn’t confusing it with another. Quickly, I flipped to the back of the test to examine my profound  commentary.

It was still written there, bold and brash as ever.

I HATE MRS. SMITH.

But wait, there was something. I looked closely, and then again. She added an “s” and a period. Apparently, in my haste to make a fool of myself, I left off the “s” to Mrs., and left it reading, “I hate Mr Smith.”

She just corrected me, in her red pen, marking an error I made.

An error I never made again.

 

 

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Memoir

 

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Two Ways About It

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

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When I was in sixth grade, I learned one of the greatest lessons in life – the hard way.

Our teacher had given us a writing assignment, I forget what it was exactly, but something to the effect of writing a few examples of something we had just learned. I loved writing, even back then, and I finished the assignment very quickly, I raised my hand.

“I’m done,” I called out. My teacher smiled at me,

“Why don’t you try writing a few more examples,” she suggested. I shrugged my shoulders,

“Can’t, my brain had enough for today.” My teacher looked at me eyebrows raised,

“Why don’t you try rephrasing, and saying that a little more nicely.”  She chastised gently. She had a point, I could have said it more appropriately, she was my teacher, not my friend. I drew in a breathe and rephrased,

“I don’t think I can do it.”

Suddenly my teachers warm eyes stormed over. Her mouth started to set, and she looked at me menacingly.

“What did you say?” she asked harshly. Not understanding what brought about her abrupt change I repeated myself, “I don’t think I can.”

“Such chutzpah,” she hissed. “Please leave my class.” I was in shock, and bewildered, I didn’t get what just happened, so I just sat there, unsure.

“Leave.” She repeated harshly. Well, I was a good girl who listened to my teachers, so I left.

I stood in the hallway, right outside the door pacing in small strides. I was hurt, embarrassed, confused and scared. I couldn’t make sense of what had just occurred. I decided to hide away in the bathroom, so as to avoid even more trouble if the principal, who’s office was next door to my classroom, found me.

The bathroom smelled of grey coarse toilet paper, and syrupy pink soap. secluding myself in the corner largest stall, I flipped the toilet seat cover down, sat, and went through the entire interaction in my head, again. And again. Nothing seemed clear, to make sense, it whole thing was as nonsensical as ever.

I heard the bell ring for a ten minute recess, and a changing of the teachers, and in my stall I stayed, thinking it through, just one more time.  The time was running out, and my thoughts were running faster, confusion, indignation, elucidation, the bell in my mind rang in unison with the recess bell. I finally understood, what had been a big misunderstanding.

The rest of the day went by uneventfully, and the next day in that teacher’s class, we both pretended nothing had happened the previous day. But I never forgot, and I always remember, not the story, but the lesson.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in Memoir

 

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