Serially Lost, Part Three: Friendship

When I was taking Writing 101, there were some assignments that were supposed to be part of a series.  I finished the first two but never did get to write the third one.  The theme for it has been in my head for a while.  Though not exactly fulfilling the original assignment, this third part relates to each of the previous two and ties them together because of lessons I learned in both situations.  They were lessons I learned because of my own selfishness and insensitivity; in each case, I lost a valuable friend.

In the first blog, I wrote about getting a haircut and losing my trust in my sister.  It had happened in a place called Muldavinville, where I spent most of the summers of my childhood.  Muldavinville was an idyllic place for children, a safe environment with plenty of room to explore, play, imagine, and just run around.  Because many of the families came back year after year, during my 10 summers there I had good friends that I looked forward to being with for July and August.  One of my best friends was named Wendy.  She had two teen-aged sisters – much older than we – and a baby sister.  I loved to eat at her house, because her sisters would cut up our meat for us in tiny bites and call us “Lamb Chop.”  It was fun to be there.  It was also fun to run wild together outside.  My memory has so many gaps, but I do remember playing pioneer in a miniature realistic log cabin belonging to a neighbor.  I remember going down to the lake to swim and play in the sand, while our mothers chatted or played Scrabble.  When we children realized it was getting late in the afternoon, we would cover ourselves in mud so that we’d have to go back in the lake one more time to wash off.

Wendy was a year or two younger than I was, but we were on the same wavelength…..until I got to be around 10 or 11.  That was when I started showing the first inclinations toward growing up.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when my two youngest daughters leapt almost overnight from unconcernedly playing with stuffed animals to caring how they looked and dressed; I did the same thing.  The difference was that my daughters made the leap together, while I chose to leave my friend Wendy behind.

I remember the catalyst clearly.  Wendy and I and some other kids were playing a twirling game; two of us would hold hands and twirl around together and then let go.  The problem was that when we let go, Wendy fell and badly broke her arm.  It was horrifying, not just because of what had happened – the arm at an odd angle, Wendy crying. all of us looking on in shock – but because I somehow felt responsible.  My solution, when Wendy came back the next day with her arm in a cast, was to avoid her and to hang out with the older kids.  I didn’t want to play kid games any more. She was hurt and didn’t understand. I remember her father and sisters talking to me about it, but I don’t think it made a difference in my behavior; I had moved on.

In the second blog of the series, I talked about finding my voice in a college class and of a friend who was instrumental in helping me to do so.  This friend, Susan, was very independent.  She lived in her own apartment, had a job and a boyfriend, and was always supportive of me.  One day, however, she sat me down and talked to me about friendship.  She told me that friendship had to go both ways, that friends needed to listen to each other and support each other, and that I had always been so wrapped up in myself and my own issues that I’d never asked her about hers.  I had assumed that because she seemed so together on the outside that all was well on the inside. I had not gone beyond finding my own voice to learning to listen deeply and caringly to another’s. Susan broke off our friendship because she was tired of being the one who poured herself into it while I just received what she gave and didn’t reciprocate.  She moved on.

I am blessed today with many good friends, from all times and places of my journeying through life.  I think I have learned to be a good friend as well, and the hard lessons I learned from my failures with Wendy and Susan have helped me.  Yet I still wish that somehow, some day, I could communicate with each of them again, ask about their lives and families, reminisce about the good times, and finally say to Wendy and to Susan what I have been wanting to say for these many years:  “I am sorry I was not there when you needed me and that I didn’t offer comfort when you were hurting.  I am sorry that I failed you as a friend and let you go out of my life, when you had already enriched it so much.  I am sorry for the years of friendship that we have missed because of my selfishness.  I am really and truly sorry for being such a jerk. Please forgive me.”

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Exile

An exile can be defined as a separation, voluntary or forced, which may or may not be prolonged, from one’s home or country.  It is a pretty broad definition, but it can fit most cases of exile, whether they be of individuals, families, or people groups.  Some exiles settle down in a new location and make that their home, no longer wandering, but at rest.  Others wander from place to place, intending to return home someday; some fulfill that hope, while others do not.  Someone told me that I could view my upcoming move to Indiana as an exile, hopefully temporary.  This thought prompted the following musings.

When I was a child, I sometimes felt that I must have come from another planet or, more often, that I had been born into the wrong century. I had a close-knit loving family and good friends, I generally did well in school, I spent summers in the mountains running wild, I read profusely, but I always felt somehow – apart.  I never seemed to quite fit in anywhere.

Part of one line from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, has always stuck in my head:  “trailing clouds of glory do we come.”  In the broadest sense, my whole life on earth is an exile; my true home is not here, but with God in Heaven, and the intuitive recognition of that is probably the reason why I have never felt completely at home anywhere that I’ve lived. Yet even without that completeness, each place I’ve lived has become a home, and leaving that place of security and familiarity to start over somewhere else becomes another, smaller exile.

Sometimes I envy people who have lived all their lives, if not in one town or city, in one geographical area.  Certainly that is true for many of my friends here in Stedman.  Their lives are rooted, not so much like trees, but more like bushes, which not only grow roots down but also grow branches outward, which entwine with each other so much that it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends.  These entwined bushes become a hedge, a place of safety and security, and sometimes of insulation.  The TV shows I watched growing up, which still draw me and fill me with longing for the kind of life they portrayed, were shows about families deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, towns, or lands:  Lassie, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons.  Though many of my aunts and uncles lived in their own homes, and my cousins grew up in neighborhoods in Long Island, that was not my life.  We moved from apartment to apartment, each one in a little “better” neighborhood as my parents’ income increased.  Each place we lived, for however many years, had its own defining markers: schools attended, friends made, milestones of growing up experienced, family memories made.  But there was not that solidity and stability, that my cousins and friends had, of having my own home.  We were more like the Israelites, striking our tents and moving on, each time with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.

We lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn from my birth through my college years.  I was extremely shy, up through college, when a concerted effort by a professor and some classmates encouraged me to break out of my fearful position as an observer of everyone else’s life to becoming an active participant in the world around me.  The life rope that sustained me through ten of those years, from age four to age fourteen,  was made of strands woven from our summers in the Catskill Mountains, in a small bungalow colony (that’s what we called them back then) named Muldavinville.  I hid myself during the school years, but I ran wild and free with my friends during the summer, and perhaps that is why I’ve always considered myself a country girl.  I believe that was the hardest exile of my young years – not going back to the place that held many of my happiest memories…

The next big leap, not long after college, when I’d been working for a while at a job in the city, was to move out of my parents’ home into my own tiny apartment in the Village.  It was a statement of my independence, but it was a hard one, not only for my parents, who couldn’t imagine why I would want to leave home, but also for me, because I was terrified to live alone.  There were other apartments, houses, temporary dwellings – the details of which I will fill in when I finally start writing the longer story of my life – in which I lived alone or with others, in New York, in Brooklyn, in Woodstock, and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my first husband and I moved to go to graduate school.

It wasn’t until I married my husband Paul that we actually bought a house, in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived for about thirty-five years.  We had four living children (two more lost in miscarriage) born there, all but one of them born at home.  We had church families, good neighbors, great homeschooling friends.  We had station wagons, dogs, and a fenced in yard.  We definitely had a home, a home in which we had many wonderful times with our friends and even with people we didn’t know.  Yet, somehow, to me, and to my four children,  Dayton was not a place we wanted to stay forever.  We could still be there, and our kids would have some place to come home to and visit, but, to me, that was inconceivable;  I always had the feeling that Dayton was only temporary, a longer exile from the place I eventually would be able to call home.

Our next move was to North Carolina, to a tiny town in the Piedmont called Salemburg, where my husband and I took a position, for a year, as houseparents in a maternity home.  We fully intended to return to Dayton after that year, but towards the end of that time, we realized that our work there was not yet finished, so we decided to move to North Carolina, selling our home in Dayton.  We only stayed another year at the home, and the story of our time there will be the subject of another blog, but we moved from there to a single-wide trailer we rent in Stedman.  Lacking the mountains, it is country living that reminds me of my childhoods in upstate New York.  In eight years there, we have become pretty well grafted in to the community.

I’d forgotten I’d started this blog, and I’m finishing it after being in Indiana for six months with another six months to go.  Leaving my life in North Carolina, even temporarily, was hard.  What drew me here, caring for my grandchildren and helping my daughter and son-in-law, was a stronger pull than the regrets.  I have a nice apartment here in a small town called Chandler, a few minutes’ walk from their home.  I treasure the time spent with them and the enjoy the luxury of the time I have alone.  I know that leaving them to return to North Carolina will be hard, as all these partings have been hard, but I look forward to returning home from this exile.

I do feel, however, that this will not be the last trip I will make.  Whenever I think of actually settling somewhere, as in our buying a house and planting ourselves more permanently, something holds me back and I sense that my wandering days are not yet over.  Perhaps there is a place on this earth that I can settle in and feel that I’ve really come home, and I have not yet found it.  Perhaps I never will, and I will continue to be in exile until God finally calls me Home.


Writing 101: Happy Pesach!

I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still love the twice-yearly Passover Seder more than any other meal.  The Seder is an experience, not just a meal, celebrated for two consecutive nights in March or April by Jews all over the world.  It is both a remembrance of what God did for us as a people years ago when He freed us from slavery in Egypt and a celebration of what He continues to do for us up to the present.  My memories of childhood Seders are so rich and so entwined with who I am that it will be hard to consolidate them into one post.

My mother came from Austria and my father from Russia, both as children with their families.  Some of their siblings did well and others not so well; those who were successful lived in nice homes in Long Island.  We were on the lower economic end of their families during most of my childhood, and I grew up in a succession of apartments in Brooklyn.  Going to my aunt’s house for the Seder was also a treat because I got to spend time with my cousins whom I saw only at holidays and special occasions.

When I walked in the door, the smell of frying latkes enveloped me.  Crisp, greasy, hot – we would nosh on them, plain or with applesauce, while waiting for the Seder to start.  When everything was ready, we all sat at tables arranged in a T, with a short horizontal part at one end and a very long vertical piece going down.  The men sat up at the front, next the older boys, then the older girls, then the children and the women.  The table was always decorated with fresh yellow daffodils, and their sweet smell brought Spring into the room.  Small cut-glass bowls of salt water were placed along the table, along with plates of celery and carrot sticks.  Everyone had a goblet of water and a cup for the dark, sweet Manischewitz wine we had to drink at four different points during the recounting of the Passover story.  At the head of the table was the Seder plate, with various elements significant in telling the story, and at an empty seat was the large wine cup of Elijah.

Seder means “order,” and there is a definite structure to the progression of the Seder, a lot to go through before you get to the actual meal.  My father and uncles were experts at verbal Hebrew speed-reading, so things usually progressed fairly quickly.  The actual Seder meal came about two-thirds of the way through the Seder, so there was a good reason why the men chanted at such lightning speed. At different points there would be general participation, like when we all dipped 10 drops of wine from our fingers to represent the 10 plagues God visited on the Egyptians,  or tasted the horseradish root, the parsley, the charoses (a delicious mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine), and the matzo. The salt water on the table was for dipping: parsley, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs.  I traded my yolks with my cousin for her egg whites.  There was lots of music – traditional songs, blessings, and the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child and answered by all the men.

Finally, it was time for the feast, and a feast it certainly was.  First there was gefilte fish with horseradish – I passed on that.  Then bowls of clear chicken soup with one or two matzo balls; my father fondly called them “sinkers.”  Meats – roasted chicken, beef brisket – and vegetables – carrot tzimmes and potato kugel – appeared next.  We ate until we were stuffed, and then went off to play until the adults finished their eating and conversation and it was time to resume the Seder service.  When we had finished the stories, the songs, and the last cups of wine, we had desserts, all made without traditional leavening.  There were sponge cakes light and fluffy because made with so many eggs, nuts, coconut macaroons, chocolates, pies.  After the desserts, when our eyes were heavy-lidded and our bodies lethargic, the last excitement of the evening roused us to pay close attention.

Part of the Seder involves hiding half of a matzo, called the Afikomen, in a napkin.  The Afikomen must be eaten at the very end of the Seder, the last morsel in our mouths.  The procedure was that one of the men would have the napkin on his knee, one or more of the kids would steal it and hide it, and then a committee of children would bring it forth and bargain with the men for a price to give it back.  Depending upon the condition of the Afikomen – it must be as close to a whole piece as possible – and the bargaining skills of the committee, we could end that evening with quite a bit of cash in our pockets.  After we prayed and ate the Afikomen, we always sang Hatikvah and God Bless America.

Our family has always been close-knit and the cousins kept up the Seder tradition each year for a long time after my aunts were unable to do it any longer.  We have had a few Seders at our home, done larger group Seders in our churches, and have been guests at others’ Seders.  All of them have been immensely enjoyable, yet none of them has quite captured for me the overall experience of the Seders of my childhood, when I was full of delight and anticipation, filled with good things to eat, and enveloped in an atmosphere of family, faith, and tradition.


Serially Lost, Part One

“Here, Em, let me fix your hair in a ponytail,” my big sister Linda said to me one summer day.

She gathered my hair together in her hand, and suddenly, I heard the snip, snip of scissors and felt that ponytail of hair detach from my head in one great clump. I was probably about eight or nine years old, with thin curly hair that got tangled when brushed or combed. The days of leaving curly hair unbrushed and uncombed had not yet arrived; vigorous daily brushing was still quite in vogue.  There was a struggle each morning with much whining and protesting on my part when my mother dealt with my hair.

We were in our summer place, Muldavinville, and my sister and her husband had their own bungalow there that summer, with my two little nieces.  My sister is 13 years older than I am, and she was the heroine of my childhood and teenage years.  She wasn’t bound by the religious rules that I fearfully tried to keep within: she colored pictures with me on the Sabbath and served bacon and shrimp in her apartment.  When we went shopping, she casually engaged in conversations with the salespeople and cashiers, while I, shy and tongue-tied, looked on in envy.  She was everything beautiful and accomplished in my eyes, and that was why I still remember this hair-cutting day.

I’m sure that my sister just wanted to help end the hair brushing wars, tired of my whining and probably of my mother’s complaining about it.  She must have known I didn’t want my hair cut, so her solution, in her efficient way, was to do the deed and end the struggle.  What she didn’t realize was that I didn’t just lose my hair that day; I lost my trust in her.  I understood then that she was capable of deceit in order to accomplish an end she felt was valuable, and I felt betrayed.

I am sixty-six today, and my sister is seventy-nine.  We live about 4 hours away from each other in the South, and we are all that is left of our immediate family.  Our parents and two brothers are gone.  We keep in touch and enjoy each other’s company; we are friends as well as sisters, now that we are on a more level playing field.  I still have tremendous respect for her and love her dearly. I suspect she would not remember this incident from my childhood and would be surprised that I do.  Why do I?  I lost my hair and my trust that day, but they both eventually grew back.  What remained is the experiential knowledge of how dishonesty can damage a child and a commitment not to betray a child’s trust.


Writing 101: A Room with a View

IMG_0107I am 66 years old, yet the most lasting experience of freedom I have ever had was during the summers I spent as a child in the Catskill Mountains of New York, in a place with the unlikely name of Muldavinville.  To the uninitiated, it was just a summer place, a “bungalow colony,” with a funny name.  To our parents, it was a place to relax, swim, play Scrabble, and enjoy the summer vacation (many parents were teachers) in an environment that kept the kids busy, happy, and generally safe.  I’m not sure if the other kids I grew up with during the almost ten summers I spent there really felt as strongly about the place as I did.  But I was a very shy, introverted, and fearful youngest child back home in Brooklyn; it wasn’t until college that I was able to be drawn out of my shell.  I lived for the summers, when I became a different person, active in sports, popular, a tomboy who was comfortable being myself.

Neither of my parents drove when I was a child, so we didn’t own a car.  To get to Muldavinville, we had to take a train from Grand Central Station to Liberty, NY, where we were picked up by Melvin Muldavin, who with his mother, Matilda, owned and ran the place.  I remember the paneled station wagon that he picked us up in, and the drive through the winding country roads bordered by trees,  climbing up the mountains, my anticipation increasing with each turn, until we finally pulled into the graveled driveway and up the hill.

On the left side of the graveled drive and parking area were two large white frame houses, one belonging to Matilda and Melvin and the other for a summer guest.  Across a footbridge to the right, however, were a number of smaller, more rustic cottages.  The first one, the only one on the left, was where we spent my first years in Muldavinville.  The cottages consisted of covered but not screened porches, two bedrooms, a dining area and kitchen, and a bathroom with sink and toilet only.  Attached to this first cottage were the rooms housing the coal stove and the two showers whose water the stove heated.  What I remember most about living in this cottage was the noise made by the coal being shoveled into the stove to heat the water.  What I remember most about the showers was the time my older brothers and their friends tried to peek in the high windows while some of the teenage girls were showering.

The other cottages were more or less in a line across the field which was the baseball field on the weekends when the working men came up from the city.  Some were single, and some were attached. We spent most of my summers in one of the attached ones; my friend Saul and his family stayed next door.  Saul and his family, like ours and several others, were regulars; other families came and went. My sister came with her husband and my nieces one year; my younger niece and I traded tonsillitis back and forth, and I spent a good deal of my time set out on a cot to receive the healing rays of the sun.

Up on the hill was a large building called the casino, in which we held dances, parties, and the final spaghetti dinner of the summer.    There was an open section between the casino and the field with metal barrels for our sorted trash: papers to burn, glass, tin cans (no aluminum back then).  The food waste was set aside to give to the farmer to feed his pigs.  There was a campfire ring where we had campfires.  Down where the cottages ended, right before the woods, was a pingpong table and volleyball court.

Woods were all around, and the path to the lake was through the woods.  The farmer’s chicken coops and ranging chickens were not far from the lake, and we used to watch the chicken hawks sailing in the sky above us as we swam, played in the sand, mud and lake clay, or rowed the single rowboat.  I will never forget the horribly squishy feeling of frogs eggs under my feet, the coolness of the mud plastered all over my body to insure I could go in the water just one more time, the pain of the first sunburn we endured to start our tans, or the fear of drowning that I got when I was pushed under an inner tube that everyone was submerging.

After some years, our cottages were updated with showers and hot water, and the coal stove and community showers were gone.  Several years before we left for good, a man built a large chicken house not far from Muldavinville;  the chickens were caged, and when the wind shifted, the stench was awful.  I’m not sure why we stopped going when I turned fourteen, but nothing has been able to replace it for me.  Having lived in several different apartments and neighborhoods growing up, for me Muldavinville was the most stable part of my life, the place where I really belonged.  Going to the Rexall store in Jeffersonville and picking out a new paperback book, sitting in the rowboat with my friend Ruth in the middle of the lake, savoring the newness of our books before reading them, walking the mile down the road to the tiny town of Calicoon, waiting with my allowance for the truck with baked goods and candy which came twice a week, learning to folk dance…..memories flood back.

There was a time, after the Muldavins sold out and left, that the property that had been Muldavinville came up for sale.  My brothers and my brother-in-law, I think, considered buying it, but on examination, decided it had been changed too much.  I’m glad I didn’t get to see the changes; now I can keep the memories as they are, as much a part of who I am as they have ever been.