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Tuesday, June 29, 2010


There's a lot of noise out there.  And there's a lot of noise in your head.

I grew up in a mostly rural pocket of northeastern Connecticut.  Save for being the home of the state's university, Mansfield was - and is still - a quiet town.  With the UConn skating rink and Student Union arcade room, a drive-in theater, and not much else, I was accustomed to finding ways of passing the hours.  I explored the woods looking for trails, I attempted to go fishing, I enjoyed sledding down pristine white hills.  Though there were many who chose to stay, I, like a lot of kids - many also the children of professional academics - sought to get away just as soon as we could.

Though college only took me to another college cow-town, Amherst, Massachusetts, it was big school in an area with several other colleges within a 20 minute radius.  I met hundreds of new people, joined the crew team and was exposed to a whole different set of experiences.  I fell under the spell of a fraternity, joining their ranks and living in our fetid house for three solid years of college.  There was a buzz and an energy and as a 20 year-old who wanted to be buzzed and energized there was no better place.  With the exception of the time I broke my humerus bone in half and got 10 stitches in my other hand (lumber yard accident, different story) and lived back home for a few weeks recuperation, I flew the coop right after high school.

Moving to a Boston suburb and then into the city after college, I have mostly lived in urban or suburban places ever since.  And as I moved into more compact and complex environments, my own world got more complex.  I had a job now, had to make my own decisions and sometimes suffer the consequences.   In my early twenties, I, like many, made - let's see, to put it politely - questionable decisions.  Many times given the choice between industriousness and indolence I chose the latter.  The party instead of the library, the girl instead of the gym.

A few years later, I advanced in my place of employment.  At first it wasn't really any kind of effort.  I was likable, reasonably intelligent, and mostly kind.  It wasn't long, however, that things got more complex.  If I was still going to be in the company's good favor - and just as importantly if I wanted to boost my pay, I had to take on more responsibility.  More responsibility requires more effort, more training, more curiosity and diligence.  Sure I'd made periodic efforts in my classes.  Sometimes I had to put in maximum effort to get passing grades in particularly difficult courses.  I often employed determination and resolve as an oarsman in college.  In crew I had to learn from my teammates and my coaches how to put forth consistent effort.  And in that sport my failure was my teammates' failure; I felt responsible to them.

Responsibility.  I have no idea how I came to possess any semblance of it.  When I was in high school I worked at the Mansfield Depot Restaurant.  I began as a dishwasher.  I showed up on time, I did my job thoroughly and conscientiously.  If someone called in sick and they called me, I went in.  If they needed someone to work a double, I offered.  Certainly, I was motivated by money.  Though I made less than $4/hr. when I started, those paychecks supplied all my spending money.  I saved up and with some help from my dad, bought my first car (1974 Volvo 164E, with a jerky transmission).  But not far  below money, I didn't want my bosses to think poorly of me.  I felt rewarded by how thankful they were that I was able to work and was a diligent employee.  I should have said "no" more than I did.  I should have spent a little bit of time being still while I could.

When I was in my early 30s, I moved abroad.  It had been a goal of mine; it appeared to be  the next adventure I was craving.  In my several years of city hopping, I lived in London, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Zurich - and that was only where I got my mail.  I was using my work postings to go to Italy or Luxembourg, France, Scandinavia, India, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Poland, and Malta of all places.  Though I travelled more than some, there were others I worked with who hadn't missed a continent and had seemingly alighted in every country on them.  They lived out of their suitcases, had wallets stuffed with reimbursable receipts, and knew every Irish bar in every non-Irish city they'd seen.   I relished the travel, the relative perks, and the opportunity to learn more about myself by seeing myself in different settings.

Year by year, the adventure continued until I moved back to Boston.  It was shortly after 9/11 and our country was a different place than the one that had launched me in the 1990s.  After the 2000 Election, when Bush 'beat' Gore, it was all and more than we might have anticipated.  The country moved right, and became even more partisan.  Bush made extraordinary gaffes, both publicly and politically. But it was funny still.  The Daily Show and Will Ferrell can thank Dubya (and a lot of talent, too) for much of their success today.  But after 9/11 things got pretty serious.  War.  Terrorists, Global Warming, global political unrest, loose nukes!  This was my 30s.

Eventually, traveling began to lose its luster and I had to make different kinds of choices.  I chose between a salary and a lifestyle.  I tried to strike a balance between what I wanted to do and what people wanted me to do.  I'd begun to save for my future.  I took time to consider.  I got my own financial planner.  The more I tried to reconcile what the heck I was doing with my life, I tried to think about what was meaningful to me.  My family.  My friends.  That was about it.  I was traipsing around the globe, but had so much time to myself that I had ample time to reflect.  I reflected on what was worthwhile.  Socializing was valuable, but I grew weary of the repetition.  On many quiet Sunday afternoons, I'd wander foreign city streets.  I was able to meet up with friends, but I also enjoyed the stillness of being alone in a park, by a river, on a trail.

Stillness.  That was the word that my stream of consciousness lingered on.  It's the word that inspired this posting.  I was enjoying a hot shower after a peaceful run.  Both of those things offer stillness, if one permits it to enter you.  Sometimes it's an effort, but other times it is spontaneous.  In the shower, you feel the warm water beat on your skin, cooling and warming at the same time.  You get to give yourself and all over body massage (if you're cleaning all the parts you ought to).  In the shower, behind the closed door, you're away from the TV, the kids, the internet and the iPhone.  Sure you can have a radio, but that would ruin the stillness, the privacy of the moment.  I many wives complain about the length of time their husbands spend in the bathroom doing number two.  It's the stillness.  Whether in the corporate bathroom stall, or the downstairs loo under the stairs, many a man takes respite from all that consumes him outside that door.  Take 10, deep, deep breaths, and you'll feel the stillness seep into you.  Calgon, take me away!

I don't know how many millions the makers of Ambien are raking in, but I do know that they are banking on people's inability to find and possess stillness.  And in that vein, alcohol, recreational drugs, including cigarettes, are mechanisms whereby many find that confounded, illusive stillness.  On the healthier side, many find stillness in yoga, pilates, and various forms of martial arts.  When I lived in New York City for an unemployed time, I had a lot of time to walk the island of Manhattan.  I'd walk 100 blocks at a time, at all hours of the day and night.  For the millions who've done this in any world class city around the globe, you know what it is to be struck by the sheer magnitude of the operation.  All those people, all that transportation, infrastructure, food, trash!  It's 24/7 because it has to be, because it's alive, it breathes.  I am thankful for the time I lived in Manhattan because at that point in my life it taught me that I didn't want to live there. For me, it was too busy.  I literally became tired sometimes after just a short walk outside because I couldn't help but absorb how busy everyone else was.  I needed more stillness.  I am betting there's a lot of Ambien in Manhattan.

In between my second and final European tour of living and that stint in NYC, I disappeared for two months.  Long before Mark Sanford made it a popular alibi, I hiked a few hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail.  Along with a friend who'd often found the stillness he craved in nature, we hoofed it up and down hills and mountains.  We traversed large open fields, scaled rocks, swam in ravines, and spent hour after hour not saying a word.  It was exactly what I needed when I needed it.  Before that hike, I was living in Zurich and planning on moving to Lucerne soon after the summer.  The company package offered wasn't quite what I was expecting and the company was not going to offer more.  We were at an impasse.  It was not the first time I had to make a decision about what was valuable to me, but it was one of those times where you ask yourself what your life means to you - and how valuable you feel to those you work for.  It was a watershed moment for me because it allowed me the opportunity to be true to myself.

I thanked them for the many opportunities I'd been given and gave my notice.  In the process of coming to that decision I spoke with many confidants.  As I'd done many times before and would do many times again, I used those discussions to comb through the complexity of emotions that accompany a major life decision.  As I explained the situation to people in both monetary terms and at what juncture in my life this occured, I began to understand that I'd reached as far as I wanted to go with the company.  I didn't want anyone else's job who was superior.  As I interpreted it then, to me those people were pawns of the company.  If you were talented and completely dedicated to the company, you were 'rewarded' by moving to ten cities in ten years.  Or maybe your whole family would have to move from Boston to China, no matter that it's your daugther's senior year in high school.  I didn't want to be a cog, however highly paid that cog was.

I knew that even though I knew I could earn more money, I also knew that you either have to be very intelligent or very hard working or both - and even if you are you have to catch some luck, too.  Whatever the psychological reasons (and I'm sure they are deep and plentiful), it wasn't enough to make me want to supplant my independence for the sake of the company.  I'd gotten what I perceived was valuable out of the relationship.  I was paid well enough, I got to travel, I had friends all over the world and a global perspective that I continue to carry with me every day.  But the wave had crested and I didn't want to be pulled down into the undertow.

Sadly, many of you - and certainly people you know  - are churning in the undertow and looking to come up for air.  To breathe.  To find stillness.  It happens imperceptibly slowly.  It's easy to see the second hand on a clock move.  If you stare carefully, you can see a minute hand move.  But staring at an hour hand will make you insane.  And yet, time passes.  Before you realize it, you bought a house.  You got married.  Your kids are almost in, what the F!, middle school!  And for too many, you're stuck in a job, town, marriage, relationship, bad habit that you've been in for years.  We find moments of stillness.  For the fortunate among us hard work leads to vacation and that sunrise on the lake from the deck.  A few bottles of wine will stop the mental carousel for an evening.  Otherwise, it's very hard to stop the noise.  Every question leads to another question and another person perhaps to involve, and a cost consideration, and maybe someone's feelings to think about.  With the increase in electronic communication, the immediacy of the times in which we live, presents the need of simply removing yourself from being accessible.  We now have the burden of being concerned that if you don't answer a text message in a 'reasonable' amount of time, you're perceived either as an idiot for not having your apparatus with you or as one intentionally avoiding communication.  And if you are having an affair, it means you are b-u-s-t-e-d.

My path required that I have a crises of personal conscious and leave the job that wasn't filling my soul anymore.  I ditched my laptop and mobile phone and took to the Appalachian Trail.  And while there was stillness and I had many pure and perfectly still moments, I had long, long conversations with myself, too.  What was I going to do when I came out of the woods?  Where was I going to live?  Who was going to be my life partner, the ballast for which I was so obviously yearning?

My romantic arc - rated PG - in brief.  I didn't have a real girlfriend until college.  In high school, I barely kissed a girl outside of whatever spin the bottle game I was fortunate in which to land a seat.  College was different.  In college I wasn't the person everybody already knew.  And girls were different.  They appreciated different things.  For years being funny meant getting laughs.  In college and beyond being funny meant you got to occasionally kiss the girl.  This was new to me and after finally experiencing it for myself it was hard for me to just want to kiss one girl.  So I kissed a few, had some major crushes, picked up girls, and got dumped by girls.  My dad's been married at least as many times as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president and I used to say - and I think I believed  - that I didn't want to get married before I was ready to stay married.  I met some fantastic women, smart, beautiful, funny, athletic, driven, compassionate, worldly and then there were a few who weren't any of those things.  I was looking for the perfect woman for me and as searchers know the longer it takes the harder it becomes.

It was a void I was looking to fill.  And as much luck as I've ever had led Linda Mary LoPiccolo into my life.  As they say in life and in cliché, all the others were merely prelude to this.  When we finally engaged out in Long Beach, California where we lived in August of 2003, I'd chosen for the first time the kind of permanent commitment that had long eluded me.  It was the first time this selfish Sagittarius elected to be responsible for something other than himself.  It took me longer than it ought to have to realize it, but I fell in love with Linda and thankfully she with me.  I guess I am a slow learner because it's obvious to me now how perfect she is.  Not perfect.  Perfect for me.  But I digress.

There was this moment right after our wedding that I often return to.  After the reception and after stopping at the bar where our rowdy friends and repaired to, Linda and I got in the back of a somewhat tacky limo for our ride from Connecticut to our Boston hotel.  (We departed to Mexico the next morning.  I recommend Hotel Secreto).  It was the first time we were alone in several days.  Those days preceding the wedding are hectic.  There's family coming in, last minute arrangements, weather to watch, and of course, fun to be had.  With the wedding and our all our guests behind us, we could breathe.  We had stillness and the beauty of it, what was magical was that it was shared.  I looked into Linda's eyes and she into mine and in that moment we were perfectly aligned (horizontally, too).  It was a moment of stillness and perfection to which I regularly return.

But like that hour hand on a clock, time passes and it's hard to tell how it did, so quickly.  You think about all that's happened in that span of time, but looking back months get condensed into a nugget of experience.  When Linda and I were going through fertility treatments it went on for more than a year.  And then the whole process of considering and then moving forward with adoption is collapsed into a sentence when really that was probably a year, too. And whether you have your own baby or adopt one, you know what happens after it arrives.  And for those that don't have kids, you can imagine!  Time flies and the 'noise' is as loud as it's ever been.  Not just the noise of the kid, which is real to be sure, but now you've got a spouse, a child or two, or three or seven.  The dogs need to be walked and taken to the vet.  There's the dance recital, your sick parent, the hockey practice, the potential new position, GLOBAL ECONOMIC MELTDOWN!  That's not what we were prepping for.  As you get older you realize the calamities of youth were but love taps compared to the punches life has in store for you now.

So much noise. A lot of political noise - everyone's pissed off.  They're pissed at their government and they're pissed at the opposition.  They're pissed at big business and they're pissed at corruption.  Sarah Palin's pissed off, Glen Beck's pissed off.  Keith Olberman's pissed off.  John McCain looks pissed off even when he's happy.  If you're at all tuned in, you can't miss the rancor - it's on the radio, the web and on billboards.  I was running around my sister's neighborhood in Texas and many houses had these "No Socialism" placards stuck on their front lawns.  I get freedom of speech, am 100% for it, but just because you can say something doesn't mean you should.  But hey, it's a free country.  I digress again.  And it's easy to do because there are a lot of things in this life that are truly distracting.

Television is pretty noisy too.  Many of these reality shows capitalize on conflict.  If someone's not pissed off, they better be obviously peeved.  How much louder are the commercials than the show?  I know I am not alone in muting them.  Mute.  Silent.  Still.  Breathe.  I used to listen to my iPod (which I still sometimes call a Walkman) a lot when I was running.  In the cities I used it to disappear into the music and into the rhythm of my stride.  I also liked drowning out the sound of my heavy breathing.  It's not attractive.  But as I got fitter and especially when I ran on quieter routes, I left the iPod at home and chose instead to absorb my environment completely.  I smelled the foliage, heard the rippling brook, the chirping birds.  When I lived closer to a pool and swam laps, I found stillness in the repetition.  I find that stillness sometimes when I'm doing dishes or ironing (yes I do both).

As much as I praise stillness, I cannot help now but hear the word still and associate it with stillborn - and that is what Leo what was.  Born still at eight months.  Years after fertility treatments failed and after adoption succeeded we got pregnant.  That event, too, now is reduced to a sentence.  Something years in the making, so much emotional energy invested, so much noise endured, even embraced at times, gets relegated to a sentence.  We got pregnant.  On our own.  Leo brought us tremendous joy while Linda's pregnancy progressed normally and without warning.  It was a warm July day, 4 weeks before the due date when we learned that the baby had died.  This was the kind of stillness I never sought, never truly considered, and the one that also necessitates the stillness I now perpetually crave.  After Leo died, after three long days in the hospital, and after we went to the funeral home to collect his ashes, Linda and I paused as best we could.  Our son Max needed and deserved our attention and he got it.  But we couldn't breathe and we needed to.  We left Max with relatives and went north, to Maine to a cabin retreat belonging to that hiking friend of mine.  Those days nestled in the thick woods, next to that long lake were a gift.  I went for a few jogs.  Linda read.  We swam and we napped.  And there were tears. We had coffee at sunrise with the water lapping on shores. Then we left.

2009 was especially noisy.  The economy tanked, the housing bubble burst, and Obama replaced 8 years of Bush.  I was unemployed and we'd made the decision to walk away from our upside down city condo.  We lost the baby we longed to raise, suddenly, tragically.  And through it all, Linda and I were making choices that compelled us to listen to our values.  I don't want to spend two hours commuting every work day.  I don't think working that hard is worth either commuting or paying through the nose to live closer.  It just makes things noisier.  Let me make sure that readers know that I am speaking only for myself.  Millions choose to commute or feel that what they get for their hard work is worth that equation.  That's fine if it's fine for you.  It wasn't for me and we chose to move to the Quiet Corner - what the northeastern part of the state of Connecticut is affectionately called.  Through all the noise, the message was steadily speaking.  Leo's stillness firmly repositioned stillness to the forefront of my thoughts.  I read some Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.  I took some wonderfully long and meditative runs in preparation for my first marathon.  I practiced tuning out the noise.  I practiced being present.

Please don't imagine me some Buddhist monk in constant meditation.  I am not.  Despite my green environs and dearth of neighbors, the world too easily penetrates, vibrates, reverberates.  Internet, cable television, radio have made access to noise nearly as abundant here as it was in my former urban life.  But proximity permits me easier entry into stillness.  There's a mile stretch of road that I either drive or run on nearly every day.  It's one of the few straight roads around and there's a canopy of ancient and tall trees that form a cathedral vaulted ceiling of branches.  This time of year the green is so new and lustrous.  Later those leaves will grow richly and deeply green, but now they are translucent; when the sun shines through them the vernal splendor is arresting.

You might imagine me trotting down that shady road, or going to the farmer's market for freshly picked vegetables and those are things I indeed do.  But my mind is still too noisy, too many misplaced thoughts pulling me from the present.  I've read that it's a good first step that I'm aware of these leanings, that to be conscious of my thoughts helps to bring me back to the present.  It's an effort, every waking moment is an effort.  I go through phases of wanting to work on presence and in choosing not to, procrastinating being present for goodness sake!  Recently though, I was in a bookstore and saw a book about Zen Buddhism, Buddhism Is Not What You Think.  I bought it because everything I've ever read - which is not a ton - about Buddhism appeals to me.  I bought it because I knew I would find it helpful to have a new reminder of what it is I am seeking to honor, to value.  It's not something mystical I'm after; it's not even something necessarily spiritual.  What I'm looking for is something practical, a way to be, stasis.  There's a more peaceful mind in me - and in you.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On My Mother's Side

Disclaimer:  My facts are iffy at best, but in this case it's the sentiment that counts.

I never knew my mom's grandmother.  Fanny Goldstein came to America from what her daughter would later describe to me as either Poland or Russia.  My mother said, "Bubby used to say 'some days Poland - some days Russia.  It doesn't matter, they all hated the Jews.'" Like the changeable weather in New England, land possession wasn't a stable thing.  This is the stuff that Fiddler on the Roof is about.  The villages her family  - my family - came from were subject to Czarist pogroms and are part of the long story of the Jewish diaspora.  Fanny came - by herself - to America as a teenager, one among millions who arrived by crowded ships at Ellis Island.

Fanny moved to where people spoke her language, Yiddish. For her that meant Brooklyn.  Sometime in the late 1910s, she met and later married Samuel Goldstein, another first generation immigrant Ashkenazi Jew  (and as wasn't uncommon then, he was also her cousin). The two would have several children, but only three daughters survived infancy:  Martha, Nettie and Mildred.   Mildred was called "Mashie" and she later decided to change her name to Marcia.   Marcia would become my grandmother.  I've heard many stories celebrating Fanny; nearly all of them come from my mom.  My mother called her Bubby, the traditional Yiddish name used for grandmother.  As happens as generations come and go, traditions fade.  For whatever reason, I never called my grandmother, Bubby.  I called her Grandma.  My sister's kids knew her as GiGi  - for great grandma.
(Left to right:  Cyd Weldon, Marcia Weldon, Susan Weldon)

Today, June 2nd, would have been Marcia's 89th birthday had she not died somewhat suddenly a few years ago, in 2007.  It's only as I've grown older and more contemplative that I've begun to consider the complexities of a person's life.  Long before I gave thought to the variegated lives of my older relatives, they were simply these loving people that swept into my life for weekends or perhaps a few weeks at a time at somewhat regular intervals. (Much the way I now drop in on the lives of my young nephew, cousin, and/or nieces.)  They were there to entertain me.  They took me to Disney World, the zoo, and the beach.  They had no depth of character for I had little ability to discern any.  I didn't give a moment's thought about how they came to be who they were.  Hell, I didn't even really know what kind of people they were other than they seemed to love me an awful lot.  Back then that was enough.  Now, however, I like to imagine them in full, have to imagine it for the truth is now buried and colored by time.  After all,  how they got to where they were literally precipitated me.  We all like good stories and our presence alone signifies a pretty unique and sometimes compelling set of what some call coincidences.

My grandmother was born in Brooklyn in 1921.  Though I don't remember her ever telling me much about her parents,  I sensed how she felt about them.  She loved them.  It might be fair to say she adored them.  My grandmother didn't tend to elaborate when answering questions.  As an early teen on a summer stay in Florida, I might have sat at the white linoleum veneer kitchen table, a bialy with cream cheese in front of me, and asked her about her parents. As I recall it, she held special praise for her dad.  "He was a wonderful man," she might have said and left it at that.  Now that I think about it, the manner in which she spoke of him is the same as my mom does.  I don't know enough about him, but wish he'd kept a journal that I could devour now that I'm ready for it.  And from the way all that knew her speak of her, it's beyond apparent that Bubby was as beloved as one could be.

Marcia Goldstein met my grandfather, Hyman Weldon, sometime around 1940 or '41 when they both were in different Brooklyn high schools.  Hyman was dating a girl named Bertha and Marcia a boy named Harold.  In the end, Harold and Bertha became a couple and luckily for me Hy and Marcia did, too.

The Weldons tend to dominate my mother's side of the family story  - and to be sure there is ample reason.  My grandfather, the late Hy Weldon came from fertile parents and was the youngest of 9 children, and the youngest of the 7 Weldon brothers (The others:  Ruby, Nathan, Harry, Frank, Martin, and Morris.)  Hy's parents, William and Sarah Weldowsky (that's the best guess at what their last name was before it was changed to Weldon), were Ashkenazi, too; they also emigrated to Brooklyn and it was there that Hyman and Marcia fell in love and were married.  There are a few old photos that my mom and aunt have of them in their courting days.  They always looked so young, so thin, and so happy.  Things were simpler for them then.  They hadn't had children yet and the first order of business for Hy was finding a place for him and Marcia to live so that they didn't have to stay under his in-laws' roof and sleep in the same bed with her sister.

The Weldowskys and the Goldsteins were poor - hard working but poor.  I later heard my grandfather describe it something like this, "Sure we were poor, but everyone was poor so you didn't really notice or pay attention."  He paid attention to Marcia and in 1942 they were married.  My mother was born in April of 1943, my Uncle Norman in July 1946, and my Aunt Cyd (she legally changed her name from her given Cindy, which she never felt suited her) in April of 1953.
(Hyman and Marcia Weldon)

These were some heady times.  My grandfather was medically ineligible to serve during WWII.  I seem to recall it was flat feet (or was that from a movie?).  It could have been his colored blindness - he and at least two of his brothers were colorblind.  Hy worked and Marcia was a homemaker.  My grandfather had many odd jobs in his youth, but eventually found a profession that sustained him and his family for a lifetime.  He was a paper hanger.  In August of 1953, he moved his family from Brooklyn to what Wikipedia considers the "father of the modern suburbia," Levittown, Long Island.

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My mother is an Aries, a fire sign.  It is fair to say that she might not have been an easy teen to govern.  My uncle, as I understand it, endured great teen hardships to live up to his father's high expectations for him, his only son.  And my aunt was the youngest, the baby.  Ten years my mother's junior, Cindy wasn't even 10 before her older sister moved out.  Uncle Norman joined the United States Coast Guard after he graduated high school and then slowly but surely drifted away from his parents and his siblings.

I've only a handful of remembrances of Uncle Norman.  I last saw him about seven years ago when I was living in Southern California.  He was - and maybe still is - living in La Brea.  We met in Long Beach and drove together to LA for a Dodger game.  My uncle loved the Brooklyn Dodgers as a kid and it was a long held family myth that he moved to LA shortly after the Dodgers did to be closer to them.

(1955 Brooklyn Dodgers)

When I was at the Dodger game with him, I gently probed about what it was like to grow up in that house, the Weldon house.  He didn't reveal much, was consciously vague about those years.  When he told me that he was fairly certain he wouldn't be seeing his mother before she died, I let that thought linger and then we watched the rest of the game.  Sadly, his instincts proved correct.  Though they had communicated regularly, if but infrequently by telephone, Norman did not travel east either before or after his mother passed away.

The lion's share of my limited knowledge about the Weldon years in Levittown come from my mom and my aunt.  Ten years apart they had appropriately different slants on it.  My aunt remembers a house more removed of her siblings while my mother recalls the one filled with them.  My mom was  (and still is) - an ahead of the curve kind of woman.  Innately and instinctively, she sniffed out prejudice and iniquity.  She cared and cares little for any kind of discrimination or abuse.  She is not one to conform for conformity's sake.  I think it fair to say that she questioned authority and there's no reason to suspect that parental authority was any different than any other.  When she got pregnant and married her first husband in 1964 she certainly knew that marrying a black man in the early 60s was unusual and controversial.  While today most of us give little thought to interracial couples, back then a lot of people did.  Including one Hyman Weldon.   My grandfather essentially disowned my mother.  The reasons are far too unknown to me to do justice to the circumstances by speculating further.

In 1964, Marcia Weldon would have been 43 years old.  This was a woman I'd never met, never knew.  I wouldn't know her, really know her for twenty more years.  In 1964 Marcia's oldest daughter was ostracized, her son was soon to leave the nest after what I have been told were some tumultuous teen years and Cindy was just 11, what we'd call a tween today!  My grandmother must have had a lot on her mind.  Though Hy was the master of the house, Marcia had her ways of working behind the scenes.  I am told that she often spoke with the wives of her husband's many brothers to smooth over what have been described as many family squabbles.  And when Marcia's oldest daughter was living in Manhattan with her newborn daughter - Marcia's one and only grandchild, she was going to be damned if she wasn't going to see them.  My aunt tells of traveling from Levittown to Riverside Drive on the upper west side of Manhattan to visit her sister and niece.  My mother shared the apartment with three other young women with whose help she tended to the colicky infant .  My mom's husband, Tony, was in the army and stationed elsewhere, thus leaving my mom much to her own devices.

Sometime after that visit, Marcia must have made her one and only marital ultimatum.  One day, sometime around my sister's first birthday, Hy and Marcia drove to Manhattan.  My grandfather entered the apartment crisply, as I imagine it.  He asked to know in which room he could find the baby.  Getting his answer, he walked to the room.  My mother and grandmother waited in the hall for about ten minutes.  Finally he came into the hallway with Elise in his arms and said "Pack.  I'll wait in the car with the baby" They complied and packed Elise's things into the car and brought her back to Levittown.  For several months, maybe as much as a year, Elise lived with Cyd, Hy, Marcia and Fanny.  My mother worked in Manhattan and made the trek to Long Island often.

(From left to right:  my sister Elise, my mother Susan, my grandmother Marcia and my great grandmother, Fanny.)

My grandmother made that happen.  It wasn't something that she wanted to talk about.  My grandfather certainly didn't want to discuss it.  It happened and as far as they were concerned it was history.  My mother wasn't as inclined to gloss it over.  It took them years to figure out how to be together and not have that sad part of their mutual history, my grandfather's casting my mom out - hanging in the air like pungent cigar smoke. I am certain had my grandmother not orchestrated that maneuver those many years ago, I would never experienced the loving relationship with my grandparents that I did.

When I was still a toddler, my grandparents made a familiar shift to Weldons -  moving from New York to South Florida.  By the time I began to have my own memories of my grandparents, they were well ensconced in Pembroke Pines.  While they were still able to brave the effort, they made trips north to see us upon occasion, but mostly it's my trips to their retirement condo complex (complete with par 3 golf that wove between the buildings) that I recall more vividly.

The late 60s were a tumultuous time.  Things were changing rapidly and so, too, did they for my mother.  She and Tony split up.  Shortly afterward she met a charming young academic at the wedding of a mutual friend.  She said, "Don't marry me Kenneth, I'm a lousy housekeeper."  But Ken Ring is nothing if not a romantic, rarely heeding better judgement in matters of the heart.  Ken was a recently divorced single father - and primary caretaker - of his daughter, Kathryn.  As Susan made regular visits from New York to Connecticut, the two young girls became loving playmates and then sisters when Ken and Susan were married in 1969.  I was born in December of that year.  I like to think of myself as 'the missing link.," the genetic glue of our family.  But back to those Weldons....

When we were old enough to travel alone, my two sisters and I went to see our grandparents in Florida, but as my sisters - both several years older than me - began to have other summer plans, I made the two week sojourn alone.  Truth be told, I liked having my grandparents all to myself.  My grandfather would show me his closets full of camera equipment, he'd take me to the billiard room or occasionally to one of his job sites.  Later at night I'd lie in their bed falling asleep to Johnny Carson until they'd kick me out to the pull out couch (a Castro Convertible) in the den.  In the morning, after bialys and often after my grandfather went to work, I'd hang out with my grandma.  While she cleaned up after breakfast I rested in their air conditioned bedroom, watching mindless television.  Grandma would soon come in and sit down and I'd squirm into a position where she could gently scratch my back with her sharp nails.  Then she'd ask me if I had a BM yet.  The grandma I remember was very concerned with bowel regularity.
(Hollybrook, Pembroke Pines, FL)

Later in the day, she'd take me down to the pool to show me off to friends.  Or we'd go next door to Sylvia's and she'd have a chit chat while I tried to discern how two condos shaped exactly the same could be furnished so differently.  (Remember, my grandfather was a paperhanger; there was a lot of wall paper in my grandparents' condo.)  Sometimes she'd drive me around town to my great uncles and aunts.  Many times it was both my grandparents with whom I made the rounds.

Uncle Frank and Aunt Ruth.  Frank was cool with a great head of hair (grandpa used to insist that he dyed it) and he often slipped me a few bucks.  Aunt Ruth was as evervescent a woman as I'd ever met.  With a shock of bright, curly red hair, she treated me so kindly and lovingly I often thought out of all her great nephews and nieces, I was her favorite.  We all thought that.

Uncle Morris and Aunt Ronnie were a hoot to me.  Uncle Morris was the second youngest of the Weldon brothers and displayed the kind of youthful vigor that belied his sometimes troubled health.  Unlike Frank who wasn't nearly as tactile with me, Uncle Morris was the guy who would lift you off your feet in spite of how his back would feel later.  Aunt Ronnie, Morris' wife, had a thick Hungarian (I think) accent and long before ebay, was making a few extra dollars by going to every rummage sale in S. Florida and then reselling her finds.

I'd visit the children of my grandfather's siblings, and hang out with their children, my second cousins.  And always, always there was time with my great aunt Claire, my grandfather's eldest sister.  Her voice was raspy and her eyes deep set in that eastern european way.  She claimed never to be hungry but was constantly nibbling, often from your plate.  She controlled the room and she was as much an idol to my mom as she was a thorn in the sides of her younger brothers.  I loved to watch the family dynamics.  Though I had - and have still - little knowledge of whatever dynamics were in play in their lives, I discerned through the loud discussions and their talking over each other that their intertwined relationships were long in the making and at times contentious.

They were siblings born of the early 20th century, now living in South Florida in the 1980s.  How strange it must have seemed to them.  They grew up in the shadow of World War I, were children of working class Jewish immigrants, came of age during the Second World War as Jews - the lucky Jews whose families had the forethought to abandon Europe decades before the Holocaust.  They saw the miraculous invention of television, were witnesses to conflicts that divided the country - Korea and Vietnam; they watched a man land on the moon (an event that preceded my birth by six months), and they lived through too many assassinations.  How complicated their lives must have been?  How very little did I know.

After I turned 16 and got a summer job, I stopped going to Florida for summer vacations.  I saw my grandparents somewhat less.  I wrote letters to them and it was often my grandmother who wrote me back on behalf of them both.  I sent them letters from Germany on a high school exchange trip.  I sent them letters from college.  My sisters did, too.  I know this because after my grandmother died, when we went through my grandparents belongings, we found a box with all of our letters, all of our postcards.

As far back as I can remember, my grandmother was never in great health or without discomfort.  Afflicted with untreated scoliosis, she stooped over from the waist.  The older she got, the more she stooped until she was nearly bent at a right angle over her walker.  When we went to Disney World, we rented her a wheelchair so that she wouldn't have to do all that walking.  (Grandpa loved the wheelchair because it often allowed us to get to the front of the long lines.) Though she would have only been in her late 50's when I began to have memories of her, I never recall her seeming or acting young or youthful.  The closest thing to spirt she could evince was when we cajoled her to sing a few bars of Bing Crosby's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."  Singing, stooped over, my Jewish grandmother wouldn't exactly belt out the lyrics of White Christmas but it was about as much mirth as she could muster.

My father was visiting just the other day and I asked him how he remembered his mother-in-law.  My dad said that he had always gotten along with Hy, but that Marcia was a bit of a tough nut for him to crack.  He said, mostly in jest, but with a hint of truth, that he saw her as a joyless woman who had a good sense of humor.  I can see this.  I see it in some pictures. My grandmother's smile in photographs was flat and even.  But when something did hit her funny bone, she couldn't help but chuckle.  More than once, I saw a twinkle in her eye - the twinkle usually reserved, I thought, for her eldest grandson or perhaps for anyone else who was swift enough to glimpse it.
(Marcia at right with Elise and me)

My grandmother was more opinionated than strangers could initially perceive.  She didn't keep her thoughts to herself, but let them drip out of her like a slowly leaking faucet.  One would be hard pressed to miss the signals.  Like many a mother, she worried.  She worried about her grown children and her grandchildren.  She worried about the health of her physically deteriorating husband, too.  Years of physical labor combined with as many years of smoking (filterless Camels for a long period of time) left my grandfather weakened.  When his health began to fail and it looked like the slow decline was ahead, my grandparents left Florida and moved to Connecticut - just down the road from my mom.  After years and miles of separation the family was coming back into each other's daily orbit (My aunt and cousin moved to Connecticut shortly after Grandpa died).  Now when I came home to Connecticut from Boston or Europe or wherever I was living, I could see everyone.  No stop to Mansfield was complete without a visit to my grandparents.

The tiny assisted living apartment they moved to became stuffed with a lot of the Florida decor.  White vinyl bench in front of the couch; white ceramic cat next to the sliding glass door; glass candy dishes and paper weights.  The painting of the old man looking over his glasses, fixing a watch (or maybe he was building a model ship?) and smoking a pipe hung above the same desk that had been in the den in which I'd slept more than a decade before.  Years passed, and eventually so did my grandfather in the winter of 1994.

My grandmother was 73 and for the first time in her life she was going to be living alone.  I was in graduate school at the time, in my mid-twenties, trying to figure out how and where to spend my own life.  Wherever I was, I made sure to check in with grandma from time to time.  I liked the way she bluntly asked me things like what was I going to do for money and did I have a girlfriend.  I liked the way she confided in me about her concern for her own children, but then would shrug off those worries with a dismissive sigh.  She denied it to her death, but instead of saying "Oy" or "Oy vey" she'd say "Oysh," often when siting down, getting up, or when I said something intentionally absurd.

In the the first years after my grandfather died, my grandmother was noticeably sad.  Without his health to manage, time passed more slowly.  She read a lot, religiously watched As the World Turns (I think it was) and became a huge fan of the UCONN Husky Basketball teams.  She spoke to my mom and aunt almost daily and had the opportunity to get to know my one and only first cousin, Sam - Cyd's son, who was about 13 when she died.  For years when I would go visit, at first alone, but later with my wife, my grandmother would be sitting on the couch with her legs stretched out.  "Come in," she would call when I knocked on the door.  By now it was a lot of effort for her to get up, so Linda and I would go to her couch and greet her.  Next to her couch, on that white vinyl bench, were scores of medications and a notebook in which she diligently recorded her blood sugar (or was it her blood pressure).  Shortly after arriving, I'd go into her bedroom to rotate her mattress for her and Linda would adjust her walker to a proper height.  There were usually a few jobs she had for me, taking out the trash or reaching something on a tall shelf.  I know she relished our visits, though they rarely lasted more than an hour (she'd dismiss us summarily when the conversation lagged or she was tired).

When I got married in 2004, it was a major concern how to accommodate my grandmother at the outdoor ceremony and reception.  She was limited in terms of being able to walk and greatly concerned about where the bathroom was.  Rolling the wheelchair around the uneven grounds proved difficult and my brother-in-law is likely still scarred from being her bathroom attendee designate, but she had a wonderful, wonderful time. She told everyone how much fun she had.  I hadn't seen her gleaming that much since my sister married in 1991, back when her beloved Hy was still by her side.

Just weeks before she died, Linda and I came to Mansfield and celebrated her 86th birthday with her.  We took her out to the local Chinese food restaurant and were joined by my mom, aunt, cousin, and some friends.  As was usually the case, it took a lot of convincing to get her out of the house.  It wasn't a small undertaking for her.  She came and enjoyed the meal - she was social in her own inimitable way.  When the bill came and it was time for figuring out people's tabs, there came the kind of cacophonous eruption of Brooklyn accents reminiscent of all those family meals in South Florida.  My grandmother leaned over to me and asked if my cell phone had a calculator on it.  When I confirmed to her that it did, she didn't miss a beat, "Then use it!"

It's been nearly three years since my grandmother died.  Hard to both believe that it's only and already been three years.  When Linda and I would visit, she would - as only an octogenarian can - bluntly inquire as to the state of our baby making efforts.  She worried about us, about the troubles we were having starting a family.  I knew that she hoped she'd live to see us have children, but more than that, I knew she wanted it for us, whether she lived to see it or not.  She died five months before Linda and I adopted Max and just as I never knew Fanny, Max will only know his great grandmother on his father's mother's side from pictures and stories.   I know how much joy seeing Max would have brought her just as I know how much sadness would have filled her heart if she'd lived to the day Leo was stillborn.  In some ways I am glad she passed before I had to share that news with her.  I am not sure I could have spoken the words.

Happy Birthday, Grandma.  We miss you.