A work in progress

The part of me that I hate the most is my temper. Arising quickly, seemingly as if out of thin air, it resembles the summer storms of my hometown: the sky darkens, electricity gathers, lightening strikes, and the heavens open up to a torrential downpour. Within minutes, the storm passes through leaving a clearing or, sometimes, a hot uncomfortable residue of oppressive air in which it’s hard to take the next step or think clearly. Paradoxically, my display of temper is often followed by anger directed inward or shame for allowing myself to express the full force of my feelings in such an unproductive way.

Having recently had an interaction in which my temper made itself known, upon thinking about how the scenario unfolded, aside from wishing that I had kept a cooler head and having to think about how I’ll do some damage control, I’m suddenly reminded of my dad who likes to say that “every man has his Garibaldi” noting that my temper is certainly mine.  In the same moment, I remind myself that life is a practice and a journey in which we take each step with the ultimate hope of becoming a better version of ourselves.

As I reflect on this, I think about my son who has his own Garibaldis to climb. And I remember how, at an early age, I explained to him that we all have a black dog and a white dog that live inside of us and that at any moment of any given day, we have the singular choice to choose which dog to feed, knowing that the one that’s fed will ultimately grow stronger, potentially creating a situation where an untamed dark side can come to control us in ways that don’t serve our higher selves.

In the end, it’s my hope that as my son develops, he will practice feeding his white dog more regularly than his dark one, even when temptation exists, learning to make choices that serve him in the long run. And that when he invariably gives in to his darker impulses, he’ll  remember that, like all interesting journeys, life’s trajectory is not direct but involves twists and turns and ebbs and flows that sometimes make you feel as if you are making progress while at others as if backsliding into an uncomfortable but familiar abyss.  Throughout the process, however, I hope that he treats himself with compassion for his flaws, is kind to himself, and that he accepts his human frailty while learning from it to create a narrative in which he can momentarily fail and still see himself as lovable to himself and others.

Sparkle

When my son was born, like most parents, I was presented with the most perfect gift – a healthy, peaceful, miniature bundle of happiness that filled me with a warmth and satisfaction that I could not have hitherto imagined existed on this planet. In my son’s first few months, people would often comment to me on his beauty and his easy-going nature – quickly followed up with a comment of ‘but it will change’.

Put on notice by the general public, I waited for the fussiness and orneriness commonly associated with babies and toddlers to kick in. But, aside from the odd display of defiant willfulness, it didn’t. My son radiated happiness, contentment, and a joy in being present and in the world.

From the moment that he learned to do the royal wave at the age of nine months, within moments of meeting a stranger’s eyes he was able to captivate their attention and capture their heart. He was safe and secure in his world. In other words, he was a kid who didn’t yet know that the world isn’t going to love him.

As my son grew, his talent for commanding a room swelled. With a simple display of his irresistible smile, he would easily become the central focus, generating good will and inspiring feelings of love and generosity. Upon reflecting on this phenomenon that seemed to me nothing less than miraculous, I realized that, quite simply, my son sparkles.

When I tentatively asked my cousin if she had ever noticed how some people sparkle more than others, she told me a story about how her mother, a social worker who worked with kids that had behavioral problems, used to bring her to work with her when she was a child. One time, observing the kids that her mom was working with, she noticed that while most of the kids were obviously damaged in some way, she could never figure out what was ‘wrong’ with Anna. When she asked her mother, her mother explained that there was nothing actually wrong with Anna, it was just that she had such a life force that her family, so unimaginative and staid, couldn’t relate to her and so had sent her in to social services to be ‘fixed’.

As a parent, this story resonated with me since I find myself constantly on guard against the inner voice that occasionally tries to tame my son’s spirit, threatening to teach him that you could be great, if only you were different: less than, more of, other than whom you are. Instead of this lesson, I want my son, as he grows and develops, to incorporate the fact that he is entitled to love, just the way he is, warts and all, into the very fabric of his being.

Often, I find that my greatest challenge is to prolong the illusion that he is perfect just being who he is while creating the conditions that will clear the obstacles impeding him from becoming the person that I know he can be without dimming the light that makes him shine. And so, between the battles of what to eat, how much to eat, when he has to go to bed, and what activities and behavior are acceptable, I am constantly reminded that my greatest role as a parent is not to dictate and micromanage, but to stand back and create the conditions that will allow my son to evolve into the person that he is meant to be without diminishing the light that attracts the world to him.

A love story – the final installment

My grandfather told me this whole story and so, until recently, I only had his perspective on the matter at hand. However, a few months ago, over Chanuka dinner where my grandmother became uncharacteristically sentimental, she gave me the gift of her take on this particular point in the story.

With her heavy frame digging into the gray plush sofa, contrasting boldly with the family portrait  that stood above her displaying her as she stood sixty years ago, she told me that she had been looking forward to seeing my grandfather again since they had been writing to each other frequently. When he didn’t show up as planned she was disappointed. After all, she reminds me at this point, she had given up going to Madison Square Gardens with Ira Gershwin in order to meet him. To be frank, she was also a little teed-off. However, once he called and told her the circumstances he found himself in, and promised to book her a nice, clean hotel (even back then my grandmother had a thing for cleanliness – but that’s another story in itself) and take her out on the town, she allowed herself to be corrupted on the condition that her parents agreed. To be honest, she wanted an out. It was the 40s and women, never mind my grandmother who was a lady, simply didn’t travel alone. And she was scared. She had never taken a train before, never-mind ridden one alone, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was getting herself into. Nonetheless, something in her made her call her parents to ask. And, in the retelling I can see how surprised she was when amazement lights up her face as she tells me, “They said yes. So I went. Ayh what a good time we had that vacation. I had never been to Montreal alone before I’ll have you know.” When asked why she went to meet him in the end, she answers somewhat mystified herself, “I don’t know. There was just something about that Meyer. I don’t know what it is. But I’ll tell you one thing, I always had a good time with him. He sure could make me laugh!” That is the fundamental truth to my grandmother. Deep down, she knew what was what. She was on the bus so to speak. Laughter was the key and although she took herself seriously, she knew how to laugh from the belly on up.

According to my grandfather, he went all out for her that week. He booked her a nice hotel and brought her home to eat all of her meals with him and his family in the apartment above the store. He took her to the theatre and for sleigh rides in horse-drawn carriages over the frosted mountain that lay at the heart of the city. As a grand finale, they went, along with a huge group of his friends, up North to a chalet that they had rented in the Laurentians for the New Year’s celebrations. According to my grandfather, they had a great time. They went skiiing, skating and tobogganing during the day and, at night, stayed up until four in the morning talking alone in one of the rooms.

At this point, I can hear my grandfather’s voice booming in, begging to take over and I’ll allow it to. Nothing happened between us mind you, but by four in the morning we had reached some kind of unstated agreement and we both knew it. We continued our correspondence and that spring I went down to visit your grandmother in New York. Her parents, but especially her mother, loved me. Now, your grandmother always had problems with her mother, but me, I never had any kind of problems. We got along perfectly. She loved me from the moment that she walked in on me dressing. You see, what happened was, I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. She had to walk through the living room to get to the kitchen to make breakfast for the family. She thought that I would be asleep and didn’t want to disturb me by knocking. Instead, she found me in the middle of getting dressed and saw that I was wearing Tfillin. At that time, most modern Jewish young men weren’t wearing them anymore. The practice was already fading. When your great-grandmother saw that I was wearing them she got very excited. The next thing I knew I overheard her telling your grandmother that she shouldn’t let me get away since I was a great catch, even if I wasn’t a wealthy man. I only hoped that she felt the same way. I soon found out.

 On the second to last day that I was in New York, we went for a walk in Central Park. It was a gray day in April and it was damp. We walked about forty-five city blocks and talked the whole way. At this point, my grandfather tends to drift off in a haze of remembering and needs to be prodded with the question, “What did you two talk about?”

We talked about how our life would be if we agreed to marry each other. We talked to each other about how we wanted to live and the type of life we would have. I said that I couldn’t promise her diamonds and furs, but I did promise her that if she’d marry me she’d always have a good life. And I prayed that that, with my love, would be enough. As we walked into the Park, the sun suddenly came out and struck us in the eyes. And your grandmother agreed to marry me. At this point, I can see him mentally tallying the score: Schecter one, Gershwin zero. We went back to her parents that evening and told them the news. We were married that fall and your grandmother moved to Canada. Later we had the four boys and your grandmother’s mother came to live with us. But those are other stories, to be told some other time….

That was a typical ending for one of my grandfather’s stories. It left you satisfied but with enough room left for one more. As my grandmother edged into the room during the first telling of this story and my grandfather put in his last few words, I realized that it ain’t ever over until it’s over. One thing that I can tell you though is that I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. When I look at your grandmother after all these years, I know that I got the best bargain around.

A love story – part 2

My grandmother and her sister were to spend two weeks up there with a large group of friends as their summer end holiday. They arrived at the beginning of August and, as usual, my grandmother was a big hit with the men: she went boating, ate, and danced with all of them. The Saturday afternoon of their last week, however, all of that changed. Although there were no signs that this was a fork in the road of life, with twenty-twenty hindsight, both she and my grandfather claim that they both knew it to be so. But, I suppose that comes with years of embellishment, the very fabric that makes this story so great.

The sun was bright that afternoon and, although extremely fair not to mention unable to swim, my grandmother had agreed to go boating with a nice young gentleman whom she had met the night before. As they crossed the beach to get to the raft where the boat was tied up, my grandfather, who was lying on the beach and soaking up the end of summer rays, sat up and took notice. In fact, not only did he take notice, but he was enthralled with the sight before him. The beautiful blond woman with a gorgeous figure in a black maillot sent him into a daze. Just as abruptly, he registered the figure of her male companion and he sat back deflated. Gentleman’s rules in those day stated that proper protocol entailed backing off from a woman, not matter how desirable she might be, if she was accompanied by another man.

As he leaned down on the beach, sun glaring directly into his eyes, with his mind on how he had definitely missed the boat, he suddenly heard a commotion and bolted upright. The woman that he had been smitten by only moments before was now flailing about in the lake screaming for help. The boat had capsized and it took only seconds for the fact that she could not swim to imprint itself on his brain. Although he himself was no more able, he dove in and dragged her to shore. In essence, he saved her from drowning. Or maybe, in reality, she was the one who saved him. Since we’ll never know the truth, let’s stick to the official version.

As soon as they reached the shore, staff whisked my grandmother off to the infirmary where her sister soon collected her. Her family brought her back to her cabin to rest up and my grandfather soon showed up at the door. My grandmother’s sister answered the door. After explaining who he was and his role in the saga, she thanked him profusely and told him that her sister was fine but needed to rest. With that, he left, sensing that the next move was now up to her.

That evening, before dinner, a bunch of men were all sitting on the porch of the main house reading the paper, smoking pipes and shooting the bull as men are wont to do when my grandmother stepped onto the scene. Heads turned and all conversation stopped as she mounted the porch. They created a human pathway, without necessitating her missing a beat. One man standing close to the staircase suddenly leaned forward eagerly asking, “May I be of assistance?”

“Yes, I’d like to speak to that gentleman over there.” She responded, pointing directly at my future grandfather. All heads quickly swiveled, as at a tennis tournament, from her finger, to my grandfather and back to her. Meanwhile, my grandfather pointed to himself while raising his eyebrows as if to say, Who? Me? with all the false modesty that he was able to muster.

I’d like to insert here that my grandfather was not only a storyteller but was also an amateur actor whose talents could be viewed during his telling of stories. His face often took on the emotions that he was verbally portraying while a constant underlying joy of being back in the story pervaded his choice of words. In the end, the story would become alive and the possibility of a new surprise ending would arise from the fact that it now had a life of its own. It was for this reason that when my grandfather told me this very story, at this particular point I anxiously asked “Then what happened?”, completely on the edge of my seat with curiosity and utterly oblivious to the fact that I knew they subsequently fell in love and were married for 57 years. But, that comes later. In response to my question, he told me the following.

Time vs. money

As a single mom solely responsible for my son, it seems as if the demands are constant. The bills for food, clothing, activities, and basic living expenses are unrelenting, creating an unending pressure that requires me to be innovative, flexible, and not too picky in terms of what I am willing to do to make ends meet.

As a result of this tangible and ever-present requirement imposed on me from the outside, I find myself constantly in conflict with my desire for the good life and the desire to simply pack up, retrench our lifestyle, and devote myself full-time to spending time with and raising my son. It is in these moments that a childhood memory comes to mind.

In grade school, I had a close friend named Christy. She lived in the best part of town, in a fantastic house that was always immaculate and stocked with the coolest goodies around. She was also always kitted out in the latest fashions, in possession of the hottest new items, and in the ‘best’ school.

What slowly became apparent throughout our high school years, however, was that she was missing one crucial thing: her parents’ love and attention. Both high-earning lawyers, they were away most of the week from dawn to midnight, leaving her in the care of the housekeeper who came in daily but left in the evening to take care of her own family.

Throughout the years, Christy became embroiled in many escapades. These ranged from being kicked out of both grade school and high school for sexual misconduct, kicked out of university for unsatisfactory grades, and a series of failed relationships and careers.

Over the course of our friendship, I reflected on the differences in our upbringing. Unlike her, my brother and I were rarely given ‘the best’. Instead, we were taught how to enjoy hitting a garage sale, delight in finding a bargain, revel in being different by possessing the unique, and to be creative in figuring out how to get and work towards obtaining the items that we really wanted. Most importantly, though, we had our parents by our side: guiding us towards our goals, cheering us on when we felt like we lacked the ability or strength to accomplish what we had set out to do, providing us with the scaffolding that we needed in a hundred invisible ways while consistently showering us with love and a belief that we could do whatever it was that we set out to.

And so, as I scrub my floor for what feels like the thousandth time this month and feel the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses, I remind myself that more important than providing my son with the ‘right’ material goods is the importance of giving him a strong and unyielding current of love composed of my presence and the values that I inculcate in him as it is these that will weave for him an invisible tapestry that he can don at will, providing him with the strength and resources required to believe in himself and accomplish whatever he dares to envision.