Yup, it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m Giving Thanks

We became Thanksgiving nomads shortly after my brother died. For a year or two my sister-in-law continued to gather everyone for the holiday. Then there was a while when we’d go to my parents in Massachusetts and I’d take care of everything there. That stopped when my parents decided to begin their annual snowbird flight to Sanibel before the end of November. So somehow we joined the gang at our friends Marjorie and Doug’s–their parents, in-laws, cousins, cousins’ kids and any strays without a Thanksgiving to attend, because that’s the way Marjorie and Doug are. Generous. Everyone makes something: Marjorie’s cousins Susan and Larry make this scrumptious sweet potato dish that has evolved over the years–the recipe calls for condensed milk. I think they now use skim. Yummy anyway. I make cranberry sauce (in the pot in the photo above) and a scrumptious pumpkin chocolate chip cake. Ask me and I’ll give you the recipe.

The Thanksgiving Parade was baked into the tradition during the early years, when the kids were young. We live right off the parade route, and Howard and Doug would set off early to secure a spot on the sidewalk curb. A couple of hours later I’d join them with the well-layered children, blankets, a large thermos of hot chocolate, and a bag of homemade blond brownies. (One year it snowed and we managed to find seats in the grandstand. Luckily during the parade years it never poured.) Then we’d go home, change our clothes, and walk down the block to Marjorie and Doug’s. I can mark some of the years with images of Ariel’s winter dress-up coats: year after year of navy blue or green wool with velvet collars and cuffs. The dads would then take the kids to Riverside park for some football (the girls in their maryjanes and white tights, yes, crazy but true) while everyone else prepared the feast.

From the beginning Marjorie instituted a pre-meal ritual where we’d go around the table and everyone would say what he or she was grateful for. The kids hated this. Whether there were six or ten young ones or teens, they’d all say, one after another, in a sing-song voice, “I’m grateful for family and friends.” For a couple of years they were banned from doing this. Now when Michael, 28, says he’s grateful for his sister, Dana, 32, we all go, “awwww.”

I have always dreaded this saying-what-you’re-grateful thing too. For several years I was caring for my mentally and physically deteriorating mother. Yes, I always knew I’m so lucky to have what I have, but that fact of my life kind of soured the picture when I had to put things into words. Likewise, this year I really haven’t been looking forward to it: the kids remain unemployed. The economy is bad. I worry about what will happen when the republicans take over in January 2013.

Then a couple of days ago Howard showed me an article in the New York Times about being grateful. Actually, everyone was linking to it on Twitter and Facebook (http://nyti.ms/ruQIQN). According to the research John Tierney gathered, being grateful for things and expressing our gratitude makes us feel better. Tierney writes that as Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, advises in his book Thanks, “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.” So here’s me doing some gratitude counting. I go from the sublime to the seemingly trivial. But nothing here is small in my life. And, of course, the list is incomplete. The more I think about it, the more I have to be thankful for.

  1. I am thankful for my family. I have a wonderful, smart husband who loves us all. My kids may be unemployed, and this does stress us all, but I know we’ll look back on this as just an episode in our lives. They’ll get jobs. That dog in the photo above: That’s Landry, my daughter’s “rescue” dog. Off of Craig’s List. Yes, I had a fit. But he is the best, sweetest pup. How lucky he was that they found him. How lucky I am to have him at my feet as a write.
  2. I am thankful for my friends. The people I know astound me (a natural cynic) with their generosity of heart and spirit. They make my world.
  3. I am thankful for my parents. My father’s been dead over a decade, my mother for nearly five years, but every day I benefit from the blessing of being their child: my intelligence, my talent, my values, what I am deep inside–I owe that to them.
  4. I am thankful for social media. Yes, this may seem a little trivial, but social media has opened for me a whole new life, a new platform. Through Twitter I have made astonishing connections and met people who devote their lives to promoting social good, people I admire.
  5. I am thankful for my piano. Yes, I am. Music enriches my life; my piano Mason & Hamlin concert grand, dating from 1904,  is special.
  6. I am grateful for WQXR and WMHT radio. When I think about how these stations improve the quality of my life . . . .
  7. I am thankful to the American Ballet Theatre. The beauty of movement and music coupled–I love ballet the most of all the arts.
  8. I am thankful to live in New York City. Truly this is the best place in the world. I feel so privileged to be a half block from Central Park, resplendent in all seasons. Lincoln Center is a walk away–and there is where I go the hear the New York Philharmonic, an organization that also brings me such joy.
  9. I am thankful to the authors of the wonderful books I have read this year. The list is long, but thanks guys.
  10. I am thankful for my country house. This gift from my dad keeps on giving every time I drive up the driveway and see the red brick chimney reach into the sky, the blue house surrounded by fields and trees. Even you deer out there that eat my plants, I guess I’m kind of grateful to you as well. You are part of the whole nature thing.

What are you grateful for? From the important to the silly, you probably have a list like mine. I’d love for you to leave comments below, but finding me on Twitter at @wordwhacker or on FB at either Facebook.com/Linda.Bernstein or Facebook.com/LindaBernsteinPhD. I’m even on Google Plus. Circle me.

Andy Rooney Didn’t Say That

I really don’t get why people do this. Someone’s Facebook status warns that Facebook is going to start charging, asks us to give money to a charity, or alerts us to the disappearance of a child. In the old days people would ask their friends to cut and paste the information to their Facebook status. Today we just have to hit the “share.” There, that status is our status! When you do that, you have put your name on something without checking it out, without knowing where it came from. Is that charity real or false? Do you really want your name associated with . . . a fake charity? Outdated information? Downright lies?

That’s just what happened this morning on Barbara Hannah Grufferman’s Facebook page. Now, I think Barbara is the cat’s pajamas. Not only does she write compellingly about being over 50; she just ran the New York City Marathon. She is also totally beautiful, always upbeat, and introspective–a perfect model for baby boomer women. (Those of you on Twitter can follow her at @BGrufferman. Her tweets are clever and informative.) So naturally she’d be interested in an essay by Andy Rooney about women over 40–one came her way, and she posted it. And people shared it–even after a couple of commenters pointed out that Andy Rooney did not write this. Indeed, Rooney called this piece “a saccharine collection of comments” when it was brought to his attention in 2003. Today, when I saw it on Barbara’s status, I recognized the essay from years ago, and I remembered that Snopes.com, the people who verify or debunk Internet rumors, had found the author years ago, one Frank Kaiser, who tends more toward the sentimental than to Rooney-esque acerbic wit.

So you’d think that after the first person posted the link to Snopes people would stop sharing. Nope. The comments still glowed; people still shared. Even after I reiterated the Snopes findings and added a link to Benjamin Franklin’s encomium on the merits of older women (http://bit.ly/vmkUfp; I got two likes for that–it’s a riot, and the guy was no prude), people are still sharing this little piece about older women that Andy Rooney didn’t write.

Sure, I was trained to be a scholar, that is, research stuff. My urge to dig into information and find sources has also been an asset for my forays into journalism. It also means that some of my friends probably think I’m a bit of a pain in the rear. Really, so what that a status is all about Poem in Your Pocket Day, even if Poem in Your Pocket Day was six months ago? It’s just Facebook.

Still, there’s something wrong here. The first thing that gets me: People don’t bother to check their sources. It’s non-thinking like that that enables schemers to rob people of their money. (Yeah, if his investors had really checked out Bernie Madoff, they wouldn’t have handed over those bags of moolah. Notice who didn’t invest with him: hedge funds, other investors–people who read the fine print.) Sure, no one is going to think badly about the people who “shared” Barbara’s status. Andy Rooney may not have liked the piece, but others do, evidently. Still, do you want to be the one passing on false information?

And that kind of leads to my second gripe: Wrong attribution. In school we learn about plagiarism and are told not to do it. People’s words belong to them. This piece is really popular, and Frank Kaiser should be getting the credit. (Except that having Rooney’s name on it gives it an extra oomph and it’s bound to get more clicks.)

Everyone on social media does this–passes on information without checking it out. But when people start the blame game, it’s often older uses of social media who are cited. We are careless, people say. I maintain that baby boomers are really smart and really smart users of social media.

So if you like Frank Kaiser’s essay, give him credit in your share. Go to Google. Or, here, I’ll give it to you: http://bit.ly/uG0ipJ. Be the first one on your Facebook to get it right.

Think I need to lighten up? Or is this one of your pet peeves too? Let me know in the comment box. You can always find me there or on Twitter. I’m @wordwhacker.

(There is, by the way, a very real missing child, who is getting social media and news attention as of this writing. On November 5, 2011 a girl from Wayland, MA ran away from home and was last seen in New York City Port Authority tapes. People are looking in Brooklyn for her. Here’s an early report, http://bit.ly/sg4gvH, and another from yesterday’s Huffington Post http://huff.to/rJ91rF.)

Food Our Mothers Cooked

Somewhere around the beginning of last week, my friends–in person, by email, on Facebook, on Twitter–began talking about the upcoming High Holidays. Big Jewish holidays, we clean and we cook. (In fact, my house is never cleaner than the day before Rosh Hashanah and the day before Pesach.) In the earlier snippets I detected (and contributed to) an undercurrent of “overwhelmed-ness.” For my friends who are observant, this is the kind of year where Rosh Hashanah blends into Shabbat–which means lots and lots of food preparation, enough to last for three days. But even me, who considers herself an observant Jew, although an Orthodox Jew would argue that point, I was worrying about how I was going to manage to cook the brisket and make the matzoh balls, about whether I should just buy chicken stock and rugelach and not try to fit those items into my cooking schedule. Then there’s the added problem of the tricky food allergies and fussy palates running rampant in my family. (I mean, I have NEVER liked meat, though I am not a vegetarian; my husband is a carnivore; my son and his girlfriend are vegetarians and will eat only sustainably raised fish.)

So there I was pulling recipes out of my recipe box, though I don’t really need written instructions for any of this stuff. Some of them are in my mother’s beautiful script; others are on stained 3×5 cards or scraps of paper. I line them up on the counter, arrange them, rearrange them. Doesn’t matter. I know what I’m going to cook. It’s basically the same every year, basically what my mother or grandmother served on holidays. (And come to think of it, my grandmother’s Thanksgiving spread was about the same, substitute turkey for chicken.)

Then Ellen, a college roommate, who now lives in Jersusalem, and who has two older sisters, posted this on Facebook:Sweet memories, she said, familiar scents. But also, my friends around my age, those of us in the bulls eye of the Baby Boomer generation–most of us, our moms are dead. As are our dads, aunts, and uncles. We are the repository of all the Jewish recipes. And that’s an awesome responsibility (awesome here meaning “daunting,” not “totally cool”). Of course there are some fantastic Jewish cookbooks out there, like Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan. But, still, they’re not my mother’s recipes. When I’m cooking something, and I have a question, I can’t ask my mother. I have asked my 92-year-old Uncle Max about some of his mother’s recipes–and I do get answers. In fact, he even gives me measurements. However, when I try, they don’t work. I’m now on year three of attempting half-sour pickles in a crock; this year they grew mold in three days.

Truth be told, I’m actually a much better cook than my mom was. I’m sure I’m a better cook than my grandmother–my father’s mother who hosted most of the holidays. People talk about the smells we associate with our childhood. Her house smelled like roast chicken all year, every day. When I was really little, every Friday my Uncle Max would take my cousins and me and my sister to the shocket on Water Street, Worcester, MA’s Lower East Side, as it were. He’d pick out a chicken (my mother was modern: she ordered hers from the kosher butcher, who delivered everything wrapped in butcher paper, to the side door), and the ritual slaughterer took it into a booth. So we never saw the actual throat slitting. Nor am I sure at this point if the shocket plucked the chicken or if my grandmother did that. Uncle Max would also buy the red-veined “unborn” eggs, which I found kind of gross then and I believe they’re illegal to sell these days. My grandmother made lots of chicken soup. Lots.

Not being a lover of meat–in fact I did everything to avoid eating it–I can’t remember the taste of my grandmother’s brisket, or my mother’s. My husband says that mine was the best he ever ate, and I basically use my mom’s recipe, which involves covering a first-cut, fat side up, with lots of cut up veggies, thickened spiced-up canned tomatoes (or chili sauce), adding liquid for the last 2 hours (I now use micro-brewed beer; go figure), and just slow baking in a 325℉ oven for five or more hours total. The roasting pan I have is much more beautiful than anything my mom or grandmother used. (I bought it at Williams Sonoma.) I also use it to roast chicken, which can be a bit problematic when I’m serving both at the same dinner. I toss a coin. My husband said that today after a second brisket dinner that it was the best brisket he had ever had. Yay me!

One of my favorite things to make–because I know my aunt made it as well as my mother so the recipe had come down in my father’s family, or been picked up when they came to America (because I don’t think they had corn flakes in the shetl) is for noodle (luchen) kugle. Here goes:

1 lb of broad noodles       1/4 lb butter                  1 lb cottage cheese                                             4 eggs                                  1 cup sour cream          3/4 cup milk                                                  1/4 cup milk                       1/4 cup sugar                1/3 tsp cinnamon

topping: 1/3 cup crushed con flakes, 2 tbs sugar, 1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Cook noodles. Add butter and cottage cheese; slightly beat the eggs and add them; add remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture either into two 8×8 pans or into an 8×13. Sprinkle on the topping. Bake in the oven at 350℉ for 55 minutes. Hint: I always make about twice the amount of topping and add more sugar and cinnamon. Another hint: For all of us of Ashkenazai descent who are finding themselves lactose intolerant these days, I use Lactaid cottage cheese, sour cream and milk and switch out margarine for the butter, and it’s still delicious. And it looks great.

There’s actually a huge emotional significance to all this, to being the ones who make the holiday meals, almost all of us without our mothers at our sides. It means we’re old. Yup. I’m about the same age my grandmother was when I was little. Yes, in pictures she looks a lot older than I do now, but that’s because I have face creams, good makeup, and a great hair stylist. I know how to dress. I have great shoes. It also means that we’re the ones who are supposed to know stuff, and when we don’t, well, there’s Wikipedia, but that’s not much help when it comes to family memories. Some of us have daughters at our side helping out. Some of us sons. The kids, they come and eat. They love the food. But holiday traditions change, and so, I suppose, will the recipes.

Finally, these are the brass candlesticks that my mother’s grandmother brought with her from Shklov. They’re over 150 years old, I’m sure. One of the sticks also doesn’t fit so well into the bottom. The story is that all the girls in the family had a set, and every Friday before Shabbat they would take them apart to polish. On the Friday before they were to leave, they were in a hurry, and the pairs weren’t matched up correctly. So someplace I have a distant cousin with the lopsided mis-match to one of mine. Great story. I believe it’s true.

So, some things to think about. There’s the comment box below. Or Facebook. Or Twitter (@wordwhacker). Let me know what you’re thinking.

  • What are the smells you remember best? Are there certain odors or scents you associate with holiday food?
  • Do you have special recipes that have been handed down? If so, have you altered them at all?
  • And food. What other food did your mother cook?

By the way: I answer nearly every comment that is left on this blog.


Charlene Spierer (and My Kids) on My Mind

Until last weekend, I don’t think I had spent a total of 60 minutes of my life thinking about Amy Winehouse. I liked her music OK, but I found her brand of uglifying herself and her life unappealing. When, immediately after her death was announced, her parents and handlers said they didn’t see it coming (an opinion that they amended in subsequent days), my thought was only that how didn’t they see the train sliding off the rails. YouTube videos of some of her final concerts (Amy Winehouse’s Onstage Meltdown‬‏ – YouTube http://bit.ly/oTQiZt) show an out-of-it performer stumble onstage and even drag a backup singer to take over the vocals. She became more famous for her mishaps than her music.

Then I started thinking about her parents. Her father has stepped forward to announce that he will start a foundation in her name for people with addictions. (His assessment of the British National Health’s facilities for treatment is likely incorrect, however. The National Treatment Agency disputed Mitch Winehouse’s claim that there is a two-year waiting list. They say 94% of people who request treatment receive it within three weeks.) In some way this gesture must be therapeutic for him. But there’s still the undeniable fact that his daughter is dead, forever and ever.

I’m not sure at all how parents deal with seeing their adult children self-destruct. Even many of us with absolutely normal kids spend a lot of time agonizing over their happiness. My friends and readers have been aware that my main focus this week (besides the debt ceiling) has been my kids, their significant others, and the bar exam. They have been studying all summer, and on Tuesday they got up very early and sat down to six hours of testing. They completed another six-hour round today. Tomorrow my son and his girlfriend take the New Jersey Bar (which I maintain must have questions about the Jersey Shore, Pineys, and the New Jersey Devil). Yes, my children have done things that are dangerous (most of which I probably don’t know about), and they have at times given me due cause for worry. But they are alive, in Brooklyn, and I think that they’ll get over the hurdles of finding jobs and places to live. They are alive. They drive me crazy. They are alive and functioning.

I also spent time this weekend thinking about Charlene Spierer, the mother of the missing 20-year-old from Indiana University, a woman I knew when the family lived nearby and our daughters were besties in elementary school. As the search for Lauren has passed out of the news cycle, Charlene and Robert remain in Bloomington, waiting for answers. All the volunteers and the press have noted their graciousness, a perfect word to describe their composure during this trying time, their generosity to the community, their earnest wish—belief, rather—that someone who knows something will step forward.

Charlene wrote an open letter on their blog (http://newsonlaurens.blogspot.com) six days ago describing what it is like to wake each morning hoping that today is the day they “find” her. How they in their hearts are defining “find” I cannot know. I can feel their pain, though, their anxiety. I think about how they “don’t know” and I get a headache, a heartache. I joke about a nightmare I had of being in the Apple Store and of the geniuses not being able to fix “it” (unspecified in the dream). It was a dream about my anxiety about my kids, though, and when I awoke, I felt I had a nightmare. Charlene, Robert, their lovely daughter Rebecca, their nieces Emily and Ariel, all the family, are in a living nightmare.

When she was 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, the years she was so close to Rebecca, my daughter used to say, “isn’t Charlene the nicest person you know?” Yes, the answer is yes.

Our kids do dangerous things. We worry. But some people have a lot more to worry about than others. Terrible things happen; some of them can be prevented, some of them can’t. Our job as parents is to be there for our kids, even when they’re adults. I called my son tonight and said, “It’s your cheerleader. I’m carrying pom-poms, making a pyramid. You go!” I called my daughter and said, “Wow. It’s over. What are you doing to celebrate?”

I plead with the parents of Lauren’s friends: Talk to your kids. Support them as they come forward and do the right thing. Think about Charlene’s nightmare. Your kids will be fine. They are alive.

The picture of Lauren is blurry because it was taken with a surveillance camera and is the last known image of her.

I know I always end with bullet points, but only two tonight:

  • Even something small could be big. The telephone number for the Bloomington Police Department is 812-339-4477. “America’s Most Wanted” is also taking calls: 800-Crime-TV (800-274-6388). For more information, check the website http://findlauren.com.
  • We are also facing a financial crisis in this country. Call your congress people. We live in a democracy; what we say counts. If you need your congress person’s telephone, check http://house.gov  and http://senate.gov. You can also find many of them on Facebook—like their pages to leave comments. Or if you’re on Twitter, tweet at them.

As always, I love your comments, even ones from nuclear physicists. You can find me on Facebook at either www.facebook.com/Linda.Bernstein or www.facebook.com/LindaBernsteinPhD. My Twitter handle is @wordwhacker, and on Google+ I’m gplus.to/lindabernstein.