Sunday, November 19, 2017

Turkey Day

I will not be standing at the stove this Thanksgiving Day preparing a lovely sumptuous meal. Instead, I will be at the kitchen island making the list of pick-up times to gather the goodies for our Thanksgiving dinner. I’m a lousy cook. Why make my family suffer through dry turkey, lumpy gravy or runny mashed potatoes?

My neighbor down the street is like me. She even offered to pick up my dishes if we are ordering from the same places. 

I envy those talented cooks like my friend at work. “I love the pace of the day on Thanksgiving,” she sighs.

“I’ll bet your house will smell wonderful,” I say, adding: “Mine won’t smell like Thanksgiving until Hank brings in the hot food around five.”

“Maybe there’s a candle?” she offers.

“You mean with the fragrance of a turkey roasting in the oven?”

I’ll put on an apron, too clean and crisp, and play party pretend. Perhaps even stand over the warming oven to gather some steam on my face.

I’ve yet to tell my family that I’m only hosting, not cooking, for them. What will my sister, April, say? She can throw together a delicious Easter buffet in a snap. She even labels her signature dishes on tiny Crane Stationary cards in calligraphy. I’ve asked her to bring the sweet potatoes. Dare I tell her that hers will be the only homemade item at the table?

Back in the day, my mother could seamlessly cook a full-on Thanksgiving dinner with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

What happened to me? I have no sense of ingredients, seasonings or sauces.

How did I cook all those years, every night, raising three children? Poor things. My oldest, Allan, actually liked the food at his dorm when he went away to college. That’ll tell you.

My close friend reads cookbooks. Has a subscription to Bon Appetit. We trade houses for our family Christmas get-together. This year, it’s her turn. My family is thrilled. “Oh, good!” says Joseph, our youngest. “Have her make that hot artichoke thing. And I love that cake she made for dessert last time.”

I doubt there is such exuberance from her tribe on my years. “Oh, Mom, tell Heath to make that chicken again!”

Food is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving holiday. Not presents or carols, just pure food and pure thanks.

No matter how the Thanksgiving meal gets to your table, be it an aluminum tray, a plastic container or a porcelain platter.

No matter if it’s homemade or if it’s store bought.

Just give thanks.

I know my family will when they take their first bite.

And one of their "thanks" will be that I ordered out.
Joseph  - Thanksgiving '94

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Tap Shoes"

“I'm not ready to hang up the tap shoes just yet.”
                                                -Mom Fall 2017

It’s been a quite a ride these past two and a half years since my 90-year-old mother moved into The Jewish Home for the Aging.

Mom isn’t Jewish but she’s embraced the religion and culture in record speed, attended Friday night Shabbat, the high holy days, and her favorite, the Chanukah Celebration, claiming she was over the whole Christmas thing. “I look better in candlelight anyway,” she’d said after her first Chanukah.

My mother has loved the meals, her widowed table partner, Bernie, and her once-a-month treat - chicken liver.

This was the woman who feared leaving her home when her Parkinson’s became too much. She’d pleaded with us. “I don’t want to be at the end of a dark hallway. Forgotten to rot.”

“Hardly, Mom,” we’d assured her. “And, there are men where you are going to live now.”

That had done it. And she hasn’t looked back.

Mom has made friends in The Jewish Home. “These women are tough,” she’d said of the other women in her weekly group session. “They’re resilient, like me. Only they dress better.”

She’s had challenges, though. Estelle, her rival, who sat across from her at meals, constantly vied for Bernie’s attention. “Makes me nuts,” she’d told us. “Honing in on my boyfriend every chance she gets!”

She’s hated not being able to have money on her. “I’m not allowed to have any cash,” she’d complained, her jewel-embellished purse clutched tightly in her manicured hands.

“You don’t need it, Mom,” I’d told her. “It’s a precaution. Where would you spend it anyway?”

She’d balked when I refused to give her “just a twenty.” Mom had tried to get at my heartstrings. “But having cash makes me feel secure. Don’t you want your mother to feel secure?”

It didn’t take long for her to figure a way to get some money. “I won five dollars in Bingo today!” she’d bragged over the phone. “And, I’m playing again tomorrow. So there!”

My mother craved attention and had become obsessive with her call button. “Every little thing,” the nurses had told us at a quarterly meeting last spring. “Clearly, she needs to be in more activities.”

The nutritionist had spoken up earlier this year when Mom’s continued weight gain had concerned her.  “Perhaps, we need to go a little light on the desserts, Marilyn,” she’d said.

“The ice cream’s my favorite, though.”

“I found a muffin in her drawer last week,” I’d confessed. “I think she stashes them.”

“Marilyn,” said the nutritionist, “we offer healthy snacks any time you want.”

“I’m not wild about those snacks.”

“Mom, are you taking food off poor Rose’s plate at meals?” my sister, April, had asked, referring to Mom’s seatmate on the right.

“Well, not all the time,” Mom’d lied.  “She doesn’t care about the food, anyway. She lives on feathers and a piece of water.”

Then, Mom had leaned forward in her wheelchair to address the staff: “Listen, I’ve had to give up the booze, the cigarettes and the sex. Food’s all that’s left!”

Their wide eyes had looked left and right as if following a tennis ball before we all burst out laughing. “I get it,” said her social worker, nodding her head in amusement.

Then, there was the call I’d received from her physiatrist while I was at the airport waiting to board a flight.

My mouth had gone dry. My words had sounded like combed cotton.  “Is everything alright?” 

“Well, your mother’s an unusual lady,” he’d said, easy and calm. I’d immediately relaxed. They don’t have the psychiatrist call when a patient has a stroke or dies. At least, I didn’t think so.

“Has she been complaining to you about me?” I’d asked. “She constantly asks me if I love her, if I’m mad at her…Honestly, I don’t give her any reason to question…but, it’s Mom, she’s always been like that.” I’d found myself rushing the words, defensive. “Is she upset with me?”

“Nooo,” he’d said, stringing out his response.  I’d sensed hesitation.

“Oh, ok…”

He’d explained that, sometimes with Parkinson’s, patients become obsessed.

“Obsessed,” I’d repeated, deadpan.  “Yes, Mom gets obsessed about needing us to bring her certain things. One week it’s mouthwash. The next, its more false eyelashes…”

He’d lowered his comforting voice. “I’m speaking about an obsession with men.”

Oh, boy, I’d thought, my eyes fixed on a display of mini golden Oscar statues in the airport's Hudson kiosk.

“It’s interesting,” the doctor had said as if he was talking to himself.  “Your mother is very specific about the culture of men she desires.”

I’d inhaled, prepared myself. Although, I was pretty sure that I knew what was coming.

“She desires either a ‘Philippino, an Israeli or a swarthy Italian.’”

I hadn’t known whether to burst out laughing or cry. “The Philipino is a new one on her list,” I’d told him.

Who got these calls about their eighty-nine year-old mother confined to a wheelchair?

“Doctor, I understand why you might think this is unusual, but Mom’s been like this all her life.” Dare I tell him that she sold her diamond ring after her divorce from her first husband, my father, to go to Italy to find a man?

“Yes, the social worker said that,” he’d replied. “But, well, recently, this obsession with finding a boyfriend has increased. And, it’s making her more anxious.”

We’d discussed what to do to make Mom less anxious and I had returned to the airport lounge, to my husband, Hank.  I’d sighed into the chair next to him. “You won’t believe this latest one about mom.”

“I probably will,” he’d said, looking up from his laptop as I relayed the contents of the phone call.

“Heck,” he had smiled. “You should have asked him where he was seventy-four years ago when this obsession emerged!”

I laughed so loudly that couple sitting across the way looked up. I’d smiled back at them. If they only knew…

My mother (whom Hank says is a cross between Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller who thinks she’s Marilyn Monroe) now has seen her health decline further. Two months ago, she took a turn. The Parkinson’s, long held at bay, has reared its ugly head. It’s what we all expected but it’s weird when it happens. Somehow, Mom seemed invincible. She’s always found a way out.

The often-annoying multiple-times-a-day phone calls don’t come anymore. The tabloids lie in her room, unread, in a stack. Her make-up table - her “perch” next to her wheelchair, once a mess of make-up and lists, is now pristine, with only a holder for Q-tips and a bottle of perfume. 
Mom's table 2016

Our quarterly meeting with her caregivers today was without her. I see it in the faces of the staff. It’s different now. No funny Marilyn stories.  We are in a new normal, a decline that will not get better.

I look down at the place setting for Mom in the small room where we have had our meeting.  In a half hour it will be lunchtime. With dignity, the Jewish Home has set the table beautifully for her and her new seatmate. She will be spoon-fed a pureed diet, complete with a personal menu printed out at her place setting.

My sister, April, and I go out to fetch her to spend some time before lunch. “Am I dying?” she asks with a  laugh. “You’re both here at the same time.”

“No, Mom. Not yet.”

“How’re you feeling, Mom?” I ask.

“With my fingers, of course.”

“She’s still got it,” I whisper across to my sister.

“Oh, hell, ya,” April says. “This one’s not going down without a fight.”

Friday, August 25, 2017

White Water

I woke up sad. It was around seven - right after my husband, Hank, slipped out to catch an early surf session.  I climbed back in bed after getting a cup of hot coffee and lifted the heavy shades covering the wall of windows overlooking the beach in our vacation rental.  The warmth of the cup brought comfort to my hands as I glanced out at the grey morning. A lone jogger and a flock of seagulls dotted the sandy landscape on the Newport Peninsula.

It’s been a sea of emotions for me these past few weeks. I’ve had great highs and great lows, capped by a shift in my mothers declining health.  Last night, on the porch we chatted with our son’s friend, Michael, who’d taught surfing while he was in college and law school, I mentioned that, maybe, I should get out there in the surf again.

“That first surf lesson I had last week, was the ultimate escape.”

“It’s all about focusing on the waves out there, “ I’d sighed.  “No time to think about anything else, Michael. I want to just not think…”

I put the coffee on the nightstand, opened my Kindle and tried to get into my book. Just then, a wetsuit flew over the railing on the second-floor deck of our room, plopping on the tile floor.

“Heather! Time to surf!” Michael called up.

Hank hurried back upstairs. “C’mon, Heath. Michael’s ready to take you out there with us. Remember,” he said, handing me the suit borrowed from Michael’s wife,  “it zips in the back.”


“Yep, now,” Hank called back at me as he ran back down the stairs.

The air was cold as I walked down the beach with our son, Allan, and Hank and Michael. So weird to be one of the “guys.” I’m that girl back on the porch on the chaise.

I trust Michael. He’s at one with the water. A surfer his entire life, and a gentle guide, I knew I was in good hands, but I was shaking  - and not from the cold.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Allan said, “Michael’s got you. He knows which waves to take you on.”

Getting out there in the waves was exhausting. Water slapped my face, went up my nose, and in my mouth until Michael told me to keep it closed. “Hold on, Heath,” Michael said, as we popped up over a wave too large for me. Adrenaline rushed as my board smacked down on the other side. “Now, paddle,” he said. “Paddle hard. Past Allan. Past Hank.” Hank, focused on his GoPro camera to capture the moment, nodded. “You’re doing good,” he said, looking up for a quick second from his camera.

Michael pushed me into my first wave. I got to my knees and fell forward. The board zoomed ahead toward the beach.

“Michael, this is too hard,” I said as I dragged myself through the white water.

“You’re ok,” Hank called out. Something about his face gave me courage.

“Ok, I’ll give it another try.”

More rollercoaster rides over waves. Then, finally a break. I sat up on the board. “Ahh, serenity,” I said to the trio.

“This is why I come out here, Mom…” Allan said, across from me seated on his blue board.

“Not for long,” Michael said, turning the board with me on it around. “Here comes another set. Let’s get you ready.”

I fell hard on this one; the board popping up as I tumbled into the strength of the white water. Underwater, I felt trapped, spinning ‘round and ‘round and began to panic just as the wave washed over me.

When I popped up, I was done. “I can’t," I told Michael. "I panicked.” 

“If you relax, it’ll always wash over you,” Michael replied, gently. “It always will. Just go with it.”

“You ok? You done?” Hank asked, swimming toward me.

“One more try. One more…” Michael urged.

“No, I’m done.”

“One more; you can do it,” he said softly, pulling the board toward me.  “Hop on.”

No sooner did the right wave come. “Ready,” Michael said,  “Paddle, paddle…ok, 

Heath, get up now!”


Driving home from visiting my mother today, my mind was clouded with fear, 

sadness, empathy and love. I searched to gather myself and my mind drifted 

back to the lesson in the white water … “It’ll be a struggle, don’t panic, though. 

It washes over. And you’re alright.”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Weight Watchers Are Not Losers


“Jean Nidetch saved my life,” said, Gina, my co-worker. She’s in her early fifties, has lost over a hundred pounds on the Weight Watcher’s Program, and has kept it off for going on eight years. Each anniversary, she commemorates her weight loss with another small eternity ring embedded with small stones, now stacked up to her knuckle.

I’d brought Jean’s obituary in the Business & Tech section of the Wall Street Journal in to work that day in April of 2015.  I’d seen it over my usual breakfast of egg whites, cottage cheese, tomatoes and fruit at my local diner, the article described Jean as “a perpetually overweight housewife who discovered a weight-loss tool that was missing – empathy.”

Jean Nidetch, who died at the age of 91, went on to help millions shed unwanted pounds.

I am one of those millions.

I laid my fork down on my plate as my mind drifted back to February of 1973.

'71 High School Yearbook at 155 pounds

“Heather? Where are you?” Mom called out from the entry hall. “It’s time to go to your first Weight Watcher’s Meeting!”

“I’ll be right there,” I called back from the breakfast room off the kitchen. I took a hurried bite of my BLT sandwich. Mayonnaise oozed outside the crust as I bit into it. I licked it up all around the edges.

“Heather! What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m coming!” I held the rest of my sandwich, looking at it, debating. I stuffed the rest of it into my mouth, taking in the flavor of the bacon, the rich texture of the mayonnaise, the soft white bread. It would be the last bite of fattening food I would ever eat with abandon.

The meeting was held at a Synagogue in West Hollywood, and as I took my place in line to be weighed, the scale loomed large, waiting to show the truth. Sweat poured down my side as I stepped onto it. The woman weighing me in slid the bar over, and over, and over. I watched the numbers pass by, willing the bar to stop at some acceptable place. “You’re 5 feet 3 inches tall and 172 ½ pounds,” she said, jotting it down in a little booklet that she handed to me.

I stared down at the written number and looked sheepishly over at my mother who had forced me to go. “It’s my fault you’re heavy,” Mom said. “I fed you a cookie every time you cried as a baby.”

The first item on the agenda was “True Confessions” and I listened in disbelief as an obese woman, who hadn’t lost any weight that week, told of her midnight search for something to satisfy her craving for a snack. In a desperate effort to stick to the Weight Watcher Program, she’d devoured a box of her toy poodle’s Milk Bone’s.

I pictured her, all by herself, polishing off a box of dog biscuits. I often ate alone, too.

My attention turned to a brunette woman in her late forties. She was having difficulty seating herself in one of the folding chairs. The man next to me, his protruding belly pushing against the constraint of his button down shirt, noticed me eyeing her. “She’s come a long way,” he said. “Last week she graduated from the aisle to a chair. We are so proud of her.”

I knew if I didn’t get control of my eating, I’d end up like that woman.

“Do you eat because you are lonely or depressed?” our lecturer asked the group. “If you answered ‘yes’ you are not alone.”

Even though I was the youngest in the group, my secret eating binges were not unique in this crowd. I was not alone here. If I polished off a can of Redi Whip in one sitting or hid Oreos in my closet, these people could relate. Unlike the Milk Bone lady, though, I hadn’t learned to laugh at my own self-destruction. Food had become my comfort in a chaotic home.

Our leader told us that she’d been overweight, too. It was hard to imagine her heavy, with her flat stomach and shapely legs.  She’d lost 106 pounds. And when she’d reached her goal weight, she joked that she’d  “seen the light” when she toweled her legs off after a shower and actually seen light coming through between the long lost curves in her calves.

The following week, I lost 6 ¼ pounds and I was on my way. I was a poor student in school, barely earning C’s. This could be my first real success and I was going to see it through. The program was easy to follow and I could modify our meals at home. I had choices and I didn’t get bored. Each week, I saw progress. Some weeks it was only ¼ of a pound, but I hung in there, determined to meet my goal.  The scale no longer loomed large each time I weighed in. Instead, it became my ally, charting my progress.  It took eight months to reach goal of 115. Then, I began “Maintenance” to keep the weight off.  

Forty-four years later, I’m still grateful to Jean Nidetch and her approach to weight loss. I still use some of the old Weight Watcher tricks.  I couldn’t do it alone back then. I needed the community of a room full of people who understood. And I needed a goal.

Jean understood that there is no magic pill. That no snappy device is going to do the work for you.

I sometimes feel that fifteen year-old girl inside me.  It never really goes away.  But, I learned how to keep her at bay.

On that February evening back in 1973, I too, saw the light.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Magic Kingdom

I’m sitting here in Orlando, Florida – the land of sunshine, swamps, afternoon thunderstorms, and all things Disney.

It’s the real “La La land,” surrounded by private living enclaves with streets named Dreamy and Bonnet Lane. Bright, cheerful road signs dot the highway. A Disney archway blasts: “Where all your dreams come true.”  

The gift shop at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel sells Princess gowns and magic sabers, luring childhood dreams as adult conference-goers dash by with tags dangling from their necks.

I point to the plaster-molded regal crowns under glass that line the hallway as Hank and I make our way to a dinner with business friends.

“This is insane. It’s Disney everywhere here,” I say. “I just don’t get the Disney thing.”

My pragmatic husbands responds with, “Lots of people like it, Heath.”

“I guess, but I’m not getting the allure.”

Have I forgotten the wide eyes of our children on their first trip to Disneyland? Or, that our daughter, Hilary, wore a Snow White dress for a week and begged for a Cinderella Birthday Party at five?

Or that I’d found Hank’s Daniel Boone hat in an old box tucked away when we were cleaning the garage?

Still, I don’t get the Disney thing.

After dinner, we hop in a car that will take us back to our hotel. On the floor of the backseat there is a bright colored sabre. I pick it up and show it to the driver. “I see someone on your last run left a souvenir.”

“Oh, no!” he sighs. “That belongs to the little eight-year old autistic boy here with his family. I’m going back to their hotel to return it.”

“You are so kind,” I say.

“I’m a grandfather,” he tells us. “You should have seen the delight in this kid. The parents said they’ve never seen him so happy. I have to return this to him. It’s not that far away.”

“Yes,” I say, looking out the window at Goofy on a marquis touting: “Where to next!”

I turn to Hank. “You’ve got to hand it to Walt Disney. That little boy who forgot his sabre…the joy he had all day in the park.”

Back at our hotel, I see tired parents pushing strollers, a child asleep on a father’s shoulder, his Mickey ears cocked to the side.

My Disney cynicism has washed away. How wonderful to enjoy the illusion of fantasy while the real world sometimes seems in disarray.

“I get it now,” I tell Hank.