Monday, September 2, 2019

Grandma Madeline Stories

To: My children, nephews, and children of my cousins

I have often thought of how interesting it would be to introduce my Grandma Madeline to her great grandchildren. As a group you are a bright, creative diverse generation and tribute to her genetic legacy. Individually you are 14 wildly different individuals, and each someone I would be proud to present to Grandma, and she had some pretty high standards.

But since I cannot tell her about each of you, perhaps you would enjoy some stories about her.

Grandma Madeline was born October 27, 1900 in White Plains, NY. She was the second of seven girls (Pearl, Madeline, Gladys, Flora, Sylvia, Ruth and Cynthia) born to Max and Lena Greenwald. She was quite tall for her generation, and solidly built. She did not appear to be overweight, but neither was she small and delicate. I remember the older sisters being tall also, but the younger ones were shorter, sort of like Lena was running out of material. Friends and family had advised Max not to move to the wilds of Westchester County. How could he possibly find husbands for seven (or as he put it one and a half dozen) daughters. The eligible husbands seemed to find them.

I mostly remember Grandma as a widow, and a working woman. Grandpa Ben died when I was not yet four. I have some vivid memories of him, as well as stories I have been told, but those will wait for now. Grandma worked as a bookkeeper for an accountant in the Northcourt Building on Main Street in White Plains (in the days before spreadsheets added the numbers for you). She got up every day and walked to work (she was an inveterate and enthusiastic walker). She had a driver’s license, but no car. She never drove after Grandpa Ben taught her to drive, and she passed her road test. Grandpa didn’t encourage her to drive, and was nervous about that and many other things. The license was just a document of identification an adult required.

She went to work rain or shine. I distinctly remember eating breakfast one morning when school had been cancelled due to the snow. Grandma called to tell my mom how bad it was out, and to admonish her to stay home with the children. “Mom, where are you calling from,” asked Carol. “Why, I’m at work, of course,” replied Grandma. She had walked of course.

One of my first memories of Grandma was visiting my grandparents at their home in Hartsdale. Grandma stopped me as I was about to run over to Grandpa sitting in his easy chair. “Don’t disturb grandpa, he’s taking a snooze.” Upset, I ran over to Mom—I had no idea what a “snooze” was.

Grandma was fastidious and a bit fussy. She was always well put together and liked a tidy home. She was an avid reader and, in many ways, quite worldly. In other ways she was very conventional, and aware of what others thought.

Some illustrative stories:

When Beth was in High School, and Larry in college, Beth planned a trip to spend a weekend with Larry (I believe she was looking at schools). Grandma asked Beth where she was going to stay while visiting, and Beth told her that she would stay in Larry’s dorm room. After some thought Grandma allowed that these arrangements were perfectly OK, but perhaps Beth shouldn’t tell a lot of people “who might not understand.”

She went with Carol and Mel to visit Larry at Tufts. Larry remembers her having a good time and being happy to be there, but she was a nervous wreck the whole time.

My father used to tease Grandma about her housekeeping by insisting that when he was courting my mother Grandma would empty the ashtray every time he put out a cigarette.

My mom and dad were also never without a book in progress. Books in the 1950s did adhered to strict standards of what was permissible to print. In one book, which they both read, one character called another a c_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _r, and neither of them could figure out the omitted word. After his years in the navy during WWII this was quite frustrating to my dad. One night when Grandma was visiting (well after I had gone to bed), Dad, on a whim, presented this conundrum to Grandma. “Mom, you’re widely read, do you know what this word is?” She reportedly turned beet read, exclaimed “I don’t use language like that!”, and refused to tell them. It took much begging and cajoling before she finally agreed to write it down for them. You figure it out, I don’t use language like that either.

Grandma also knew the power of networking. When Carol was young, and certainly before she went away to college at age 16, Grandma pointedly told her: “No matter where you go, and what you do, someone I know will see.”

I’m sure Grandma knew how to cook, and probably quite well. Grandpa Ben, however, was well known for his prowess in the kitchen. Once Grandma was making pea soup in the pressure cooker. She must have done something wrong because the rocker or safety valve blew spewing pea soup all over the ceiling. Grandma reportedly just stood in the middle of the kitchen screaming: BEN!

I remember Grandma and Grandpa living in a small house in Hartsdale. Greatpa (Max) also lived there with them for a while before he moved to The Jewish Home for the Aged in Riverdale. Carol and Zelda grew up in a prior home on Grandview Avenue a block from the White Plains High School, now Highlands Middle School. After Grandpa died, I remember Grandma living in apartments, first on North Broadway (one or two different ones), and then on Old Mamaroneck Road near the intersection with Mamaroneck Avenue where her sister Ruth had had an apartment for years. Aunt Ruth’s apartment was up the elevator off the lobby to the left, and Grandma’s up the mirror image elevator off the lobby on the right.

Taking Grandma home after a visit involved some small ritual. Larry or I (or both) would accompany a parent (usually Dad) to drive Grandma home. While Dad waited in the car, we were charged with walking Grandma to her door. She regularly insisted that this was not necessary, but we had our orders from the highest authority. At the Old Mamaroneck Road apartment that discussion was repeated at the front door, but the elevator was around a blind corner and we always saw her safely into the elevator. After someone was attacked in the building, the escort extended to her apartment door.

I don’t recall ever visiting Grandma’s apartment for a meal, but there was the occasional excitement of an overnight stay. Grandma’s apartment was furnished with grandma furniture, oriental area rugs, and twin beds. I didn’t understand why my grandparents slept in twin beds when my parents seemed so cozy in their double bed (extra-long). Mom and Dad never gave me a good answer for this, but now my assumptions are that was a combination of a generational difference along with long-standing tradition based on Jewish family purity practices.

Grandma’s BFF was Phoebe Marks. Aunt Phoebe was not really related, but the Marks and Golden families had been friends for at least two generations. My mother remembers holiday dinners at the Marks’ home, and being terrified by Phoebe’s mother, the forbidding Grandma Marks. Aunt Phoebe was a short, rotund, friendly, funny single lady (spinster in the parlance of the day) who was very often included in family get-togethers and events. She was a heavy smoker and not a big fan of physical activity. When Grandma suggested taking a walk or even sitting out on the deck, Phoebe would accuse her of trying to inflict fresh air poisoning.

Grandma’s birth certificate did not list her name as Madeline, but Matilda. She was already a grandma multiple times, and this came as a complete surprise when she needed to apply for a passport. She needed to get affidavits from family and friends attesting that she had always been known as Madeline and had never used the name Matilda. Maybe it had been transcribed wrong at the hospital, or someone just liked Madeline better.

Grandma loved to swim, and would usually do a few laps when she visited at the club. She wasn’t a big fan of getting her hair wet or immersing her face. She always wore a bathing cap, and did a mean sidestroke.

Grandma never went to the bathroom; she went to "powder my nose."

When we all got together for a big family meal (eating in the dining room!), and the children had been excused, she would sometimes smoke a cigarette with the other adults. I remember being confused by this. She wasn’t a very convincing smoker, but it was more mainstream, I guess. I’m still confused by some of the things adults do.

Grandma never insisted on being the center of attention, and often took a back seat to more outgoing adults when we were little. As we got older we all found Grandma to be interesting, a good listener, and worth taking the time to engage in thoughtful conversation.

Beth remembers asking Grandma how babies were born one evening when she was babysitting. She wouldn’t say. The next day she got the copy of the family book used to relate the facts of life. Lisa has the book in a closet if any of you need a refresher.

Larry relates seeing the movie Young Frankenstein with Mom and Grandma at the Pix movie theater.  There was a scene where Marty Feldman is driving Gene Wilder and Teri Garr up to the castle on a rainy night.  There are huge door knockers on the front door and Marty Feldman knocks on the front door with them.  Gene Wilder is lifting Teri Garr out of the carriage and exclaims, “What knockers” and Teri Garr says “Why thank you doctor.”  Whereupon Grandma Madeline turns to Mom and in a voice they could probably hear at the Showcase Delicatessen down the street, “I don’t understand what that means.”  Mom was very embarrassed but explained it to her.

Speaking of the Showcase, Lisa remembers meeting her there for dinner after work. Ben remembers that she had bunions, but he (and others) does not thank her for that particular genetic legacy.

Grandma died in May 29, 1976. She had a heart attack, characterized at the time as a heart attack more typical of a younger man than an older woman. They transferred her to Lenox Hill hospital for better specialists—White Plains Hospital was not yet the regional medical center it has become. She survived for a few days, then died of either complications or a second heart attack. Fifty-seven months later the first of you was born.

Thanks to Zelda, Stanley, Larry, Lisa , Beth and Ben for helping me with these memories.

September 2, 2019

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hiding My Blanket

Our air conditioning broke, and I spent a couple of nights sleeping in my recliner in the family room. My version of MS includes severe heat sensitivity. This means that exposure to high temperatures or even a slight fever reduce me quickly to wheelchair only movement, even around the house. The family room is easily 10 degrees cooler than the bedroom, and cross ventilation plus ceiling fan make it tolerable except on the hottest nights.

When I arose after the first night, I put the pillow I had been using, and the fleece throw that I had retrieved in the middle of the night on the floor next to my chair; the throw crumpled up compactly on top of the pillow. In the middle of the second high-heat night, it had cooled down enough to again require the fleece throw; it was gone. My dear wife, who daily helps me in all ways deal with the both the obvious and the insidious depredations of MS, cannot abide the appearance of a blanket neatly crumpled on the floor, and hid it from me when I wasn’t looking. Looking around a dark room for a small dark green blanket in the middle of the night is frustrating. It involves using the flashlight on my phone, while muttering under my breath things about said darling helpmate that would never be said aloud during the light of day. It is then doubly frustrating to discover that she has diabolically hidden the blanket folded neatly in the last place I would think of looking for it—almost directly under my head on the back of my chair.

She claims that the inability to find things in plain sight is all part and parcel of Y-chromosome syndrome. I think she must take some secret pleasure in frustrating me. Come to think of it, she has successfully frustrated me by hiding my blanket on the back of my chair several times in the past. She’s an extremely bright person; you’d think she’d get it by now.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book of Ruth

I was one of the presenters at last night's Tikkun Leil Shavuot at TBEMC:

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. It is an interesting read as it gives us a window into our ancestors’ culture and society, social mores very different from ours, our essential attitude towards converts, and color on the life of King David’s great grandmother. My main takeaway from this story is as a parable of how we are to deal with the curve balls that life throws at us all.

My father, of blessed memory, was fond of quoting to me, much to my annoyance, a contracts professor he had in law school. When a student in his class complained about the tremendous amount of material he had to understand for an upcoming exam, the professor sympathetically admonished, “Young man, as you go through life you will meet with many vicissitudes, this is merely one of them.” In retrospect, none of the hardships I was complaining about when I elicited this quote from my dad were of any real consequence.

My dad, on the other hand, early in his marriage was taking law school classes at night, and wrestling with the family furniture store, which he despised, to support his wife and mother. Briefly, during college he enlisted in the Navy, graduated as a “90-day wonder ensign” from a WWII officer training program at Union College, was assigned to an LCT, replaced his commanding officer three days before D-day when his superior went down with an emergency appendectomy, ferried tanks to Omaha beach in the first wave ashore on D-day, and was sent home early (but after the fighting ended) on compassionate leave to say goodbye to his father who quickly died of an aggressive cancer. Thus, the furniture store. Long story short, my parents struggled a bit to have children; dad was sworn in as a lawyer the day I was born. The judge swore him in first and sent him home.

The more perspicacious of you may have noticed that I too have challenges, although I have never had to uncover someone’s feet on the pitch dark threshing floor. But, I can tell you all that what you see is very different from what I perceive. I have MS, as do a surprising number of other members of TBEMC. Every case of MS is different. I have a developed a few obvious disabilities, but do not suffer from many of the more hidden symptoms that afflict others—you can never assume that what you can see tells the whole story. Also, note that I have disabilities—I am NOT disabled.

My journey with MS started with a transient case of optic neuritis late in my junior year of college. Under today’s protocols I would be immediately referred to a neurologist. In 1974 even doctors spoke of MS only in hushed voices. Late the following year I developed some tingling in my left arm. They sent me for a spinal tap and discovered white blood cells in my spinal fluid. Since there was no treatment and no definitive prognosis, my doctor in consultation with my parents elected not to mention the probability of MS. Shocking by today’s standards, as perhaps is some of what we read in the Book of Ruth. About five years later I developed a pronounced limp and was appropriately diagnosed and informed. The limp disappeared.

At the time, all I could learn on my own about MS was that it was a progressive, incurable disease with no possible treatment. While progressive, there was no way to predict the course of the disease over time. The only medical advice I got was to cut down on my activities and get my rest. The best intelligence I got from my own research was that it was essential to keep my employer in the dark about the MS, as it would surely both affect my career advancement, and make it impossible for them to continue my health insurance. The only person I knew who had had MS was a good friend of my parents who died paralyzed in a VA hospital. My father had once opined that if Sy Zinderman had foreseen the last few years of his life, he would have ended it while he was still physically able.

In 1982, when Sarah was about a year old a beloved colleague with MS died of a heart attack in his car in the Bell Labs parking lot. I remember praying that I would live long enough to see Sarah’s bat mitzvah. It’s not that the MS was noticeably progressing, but the combination of uncertainty and ignorance really weighed at times. However, I never really embraced the advice about cutting back my activities.

In 1996, 22 years after my first symptom appeared the first treatment to slow the progression of MS made it to the market. I injected myself with betaseron every other day until 3 weeks ago. That’s almost 4,000 times. We now have almost a dozen treatments for different forms of MS, and I started a new one on May 1. I thought I might miss the injection ritual practiced religiously for almost 22 years. Not even a little bit.

I have a promising new treatment. I have new mobility assistance toys. I have reared (with lots of help) three children through bar/bat mitzvah to productive adulthood. I have participated in three lovely weddings to partners I truly like and—bonus—machatunim I like as well. I have the four sweetest, smartest grandchildren in the world.

Back to Ruth, our original story.

Ruth’s husband died, and to make matters worse her brother-in-law also dies. Ruth is, using the ancient language of our people, auf tsuris. She has no source of support. Her backup husband is gone, and she decides that her best course of action is to make common cause with her mother-in-law. She travels with Naomi back to her, now their people, which was probably an arduous and possibly dangerous journey. Naomi gives Ruth some, shall we say, dating advice based on her wisdom, experience, and understanding of the character qualities of Boaz. Ruth puts her faith in Naomi and follows through on the plan Naomi laid out. It’s a successful plan, and a happily ever after story.

Is this the story of an extraordinary person doing extraordinary things? Not really. To me this is the story of an ordinary person facing common life vicissitudes. She decides what is important to her, who is important to her, who she is going to trust, and places one foot in front of the other. She does what is necessary. She faces the future with faith, optimism, and hope; she knows the only direction to go is forward.

It was difficult to get my father to talk about the war; he had to be in the right mood. The stories he told were exciting, and to me he was exceptional. But, as a member of the greatest generation his trajectory through life was not unique. Hundreds of thousands of men and women interrupted their lives for war, then picked up their lives again. While many were damaged by the war, most who came home eventually resumed normal, successful, productive lives and faced the normal vagaries of building careers, families, and communities. They did what was required of them. One step at a time forward, into the future with faith, optimism, and determination.

Earlier I told you that with me what you see is very different from what I perceive. Some people see me as unstoppable. I stop. Some people only see me as a four to ten-minute delay as the bus driver wrestles with the wheelchair lift at 6:30 in the morning twice a week. Tough, deal with it. Some people see me as inspirational. That’s a little embarrassing, but in fact probably reveals more about them, than about me.

Every morning I wake up, sit on the side of my bed and grab my walker. I exclaim to myself, “This is ridiculous” as I make my way to the bathroom to start my day. I have only one life, and I’d rather live it happy than sad or angry. There is only one path forward, and I have an excellent partner to rub my back or kick my butt if I forget that. There are always changes that are necessary, or decisions that need to be made. These vicissitudes of life yield to knowing what is important, who is important, who to trust, and putting one foot in front of the other one day at a time. Just like my father. Just like millions of other people.

 Just like Ruth.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Nobody Cried Today

And now for something completely different. I haven't written a poem in 40 years, but this idea had to be expressed as a poem. I reached out for some editing help from my friend Nancy Lubarsky--a real poet. Her encouragement has empowered me to publish it here. I let this lay fallow for a couple of months, but there is another nascent poem rattling around in my head, so I had to clear the decks.

Inspired, of course, by my children and grandchildren.

Nobody Cried Today

The kids are in bed
Lunches made
Tomorrow’s presentation done
I sit with a glass of wine
Nobody cried today

It was off to work and school
Soccer, karate, homework, piano
Bumps, bruises, frustration
Siblings vex, bedevil and shout, but
Nobody cried today

No ball of tears
Curled up in my lap.
No stroking hair as I
Whisper “it will be OK.” Because
Nobody cried today

It is only one day
But something has changed
Parenting continues
It’s somehow different as I consider
Nobody cried today

Thursday, June 8, 2017

I am an A.D.A.

I am an A.D.A. You may have heard of the practice of nouning a verb (gerunds—e.g., learning, serving—very common). You may have been subjected to verbing nouns (denominalization—e.g., task you with a job, calendar an event--Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to Noah Webster that denominalization is “awkward and abominable.”). But now we are nouning the abbreviations of acts of Congress.

Language matters. It matters more than most people realize. The way we think is inextricably tied to words, and each word carries with it more than just its simple definition. Words and phrases drag along emotional baggage, innuendo, and an encoding of societal norms. That doesn’t even begin to factor in the tone of voice used, or the ethnic, class and social background of both the speaker and the hearer.

We invent new words all the time, often inadvertently. Sometimes we repurpose old words (e.g., gay), and sometimes a new word is an artifact of some other evolving societal change.

The world of disability has its own language issues. For example, having a disability is not the same as being disabled. In the first case one is describing perhaps a single malady, while in the second case you are classifying the state of the entire person. What may seem like a nuance to you may make a big difference in the way you think about the person being described; and let’s not even bring up the negative connotations of handicapped. A handicap is for golf games and horse races.
This is not original thinking on my part, nor is it conveyed in the name of political correctness. I’m not interested in participating in the new I’m Offended craze. I’m just trying to point out that the language that you use not only reflects how you think, but actually affects how you think.

This brings me to my morning commute. The Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A., fttps://, prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. I catch a regular NJ Transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC twice a week. The bus driver (referred to by NJT as the bus operator), takes about eight minutes to load me into the bus using a wheelchair lift. That is if the seats slide easily, the equipment works, and the operator has some facility using the equipment. Once the seats are moved to make room, my travel scooter and I occupy the space of six seats.

Every NJ Transit bus has this equipment, and there are very strict rules about how to handle the cases where this accommodation under the A.D.A. does not work right. After the operator picks me up and continues on their route, they call the pickup into their control center. When conveying this information they do not refer to me as handicapped, disabled, or a wheelchair (hey, there is a person controlling that wheelchair!). Instead they tell their dispatcher, “I have picked up an A.D.A. at Chestnut Street in Garwood.” How’s that for an invented word that carries no excessive baggage?

I find this creative and amusing. As I stated before, I’m not a willing member of the I’m Offended club, especially when the goal appears to be accuracy without giving offense.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cripple Crapper Roulette

Some people regularly play cripple crapper roulette. When they enter a public restroom they look both ways, and if there is not a wheelchair in sight they head straight for the stall specially designed to accommodate people with disabilities. If I ride my scooter into a restroom that has two urinals, one regular sized stall and one cripple crapper, the only other person in the facility will be an able-bodied man standing at the toilet in the stall with the grab bars, and peeing on the seat (Lord forbid he should touch it).

Most of the time there is no penalty, but every once in a while he has to avert his eyes, and slink out past a gimp waiting to use the single restroom fixture designed for their use. The wheel sometimes hits the 00.

I call it the cripple crapper for three reasons:
  1. I dislike the term handicapped stall because a person with disabilities is not handicapped or disabled—words matter
  2. I have been fond of the poetry and alliteration of the sobriquet cripple crapper even since I first heard it used by Daniel Lawrence Whitney (Larry the Cable Guy)
  3. Because I can. It is hard to criticize me for political incorrectness in this arena.

But back to our roulette player. Why does he do this? I haven’t done extensive research, but then again this is a blog, not a juried research paper. I speculate:
  1. One stall is larger, less claustrophobic with more room for luggage (in airports), and possibly a bit cleaner since most civilized people avoid it when other stalls are available.
  2. The stall is usually at one end of the row. It is better to sit next to one other person rather than two.
  3. There just aren’t that many people with disabilities for all those luxurious stalls. The odds are good.

Many people with disabilities have written many treatises on civilized restroom behavior. It may get boring, but it really affects us in very real ways. If your parents failed you by not teaching you these things, try to incorporate these behaviors into your restroom routine:
  1. If possible, leave the cripple crapper free. If the restroom is crowded, by all means use every stool (The Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC locks these stalls, and the attendant opens them for bona fide users).
  2. Your aim is not that good—pick up the seat. If you must pee on the seat, do it in one of the standard stalls. At least most people have a choice of whether to use a stall or pass on it. People with disabilities have no choice.
  3. Have the shame to apologize if you come out of the stall and find me waiting impatiently on my scooter. Then go out and apologize to my wife and explain why I had to wait longer than anyone else for my stall to be free.
  4. Then go apologize to the parents who really did teach you better.

The office I work in just moved to a new building—probably the highest rent office space in NYC. High class companies with high class employees, right? Well, two of the last three times I used the men’s room, the cripple crapper was occupied. Thankfully, it was being used respectfully, but it was the only fixture being used of the seven available. It will take a few weeks, but the male occupants of the 29th floor will eventually figure out that the local odds of cripple crapper roulette have dramatically changed.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Pain in the Ass

Pain in the Ass

Last week I broke another New Jersey Transit bus. Not really, but the bus would have been just fine if they hadn’t stopped to pick me up. The driver, who has successfully picked me up many times, extended the wheelchair lift, lowered it to the ground, and then tried to cause it to ascend to load me into the bus. It would not rise, with or without me on the lift. This bus was now disabled (see what I did there?).

Being rush hour, buses are apt to arrive at the stop every 10 minutes or so. By NJ Transit rules they seem to need to get me on the next bus if their first attempt fails. With everyone rushing off this bus to the one pulling up behind it, I held back to wait for the following bus. I take up six seats, and the driver would have been forced to expel people from an already packed vehicle.

As one of the passengers hurried past me from the bus I broke to the bus he hoped to take, he muttered under his breath, “Pain in the ass.”

I could have charitably assumed that he meant the situation, and not me in particular. However, I am not one of the 36 tzadikim (think Mother Teresa), nor could I get any of you to buy the concept that the remark was not directed at me. With no other real options, I just lamely shouted “Thank You” at his receding back. Then, thinking it through, I realized he was right.

I am not offended. Many people actively participate in our new national pastime—being offended, either as a member of some ostensibly oppressed group, or in support of someone with such a claim. I prefer baseball (go Mets). However, I won’t apologize for being a “pain in the ass.” Deal with it.

The Libertarian in me is no fan of overreaching government regulation, but I unashamedly (if hypocritically) applaud the Americans with Disabilities Act. It provides a consistent universal set of guidelines that force you to put up with small “pain in the ass” inconveniences (reserved parking spaces, access ramps, special restroom accommodations, short delays on your commute) to allow me to enjoy enhanced access to the world you enjoy every day. Not only are most of you delighted to do this, but it makes you feel good that we, as a society, have made this a priority.

So, thank you all for “dealing” with this unapologetic “pain in the ass.” Thank you for holding the door, and thank you for offering to help, even if neither of us can think of how that might be accomplished. And to the “gentleman” whose commute I so rudely delayed, I hope you have a better commute tomorrow. Not everyone can contribute to the thin veneer of civilized behavior the rest of us struggle to maintain.