A Sister’s Birthday. No Candles. No Cake. Just Memories.

Today would’ve been my sister Marilyn’s birthday. I say would’ve . . . because she died twenty-eight years ago of melanoma. So as the one left behind, the one that cherishes and mourns her, I get the honor of paying tribute to her. Something I do every year on this day.

Mari in office

Not one big on birthdays, this, her sixty-fifth, she would have hated. Hated the idea of it, the very sound of it, the fact that nothing was the same as before, that her body parts drooped and creped, thusly acknowledging that milestone passage into true senior territory, would be the last thing in the world she’d want to do. But given that she isn’t here to argue the point, I will speak on her behalf and say: she would have gladly accepted that fate over the other.

More than likely Marilyn would have caught the last flight from New York to Florida so she wouldn’t have to act sullen in front of her friends over a celebratory lunch or dinner, feeling it okay to act sullen in front of me. We’d spend the day together doing her favorite things: shopping, eating, taking a long drive, meeting with my children, who are now grown and barely remember her face. You see Marilyn never married. She had no children. So as the years progressed with no sign of those transformative experiences happening to her and without a word of complaint, she embraced mine as her own. Heartily and with grace.

mari and jared at zoo 2

Many times over the years I’ve found myself wondering how her life would have turned out—if she had lived. I’d love to imagine that the clothing business she’d started right before she got sick became a wild success, or that her Mr. Wonderful just so happened to live next door. I’d love to imagine that everything glorious my sister wanted in her life, eventually and fortuitously landed right in her lap. You know, as her sister, I get to dream those dreams for her, simply because I can. Because that’s my job. I am still her other half . . . even though she’s no longer here to nag me religiously like she did wherever, whenever the mood struck. It was a nagging I dreaded and a nagging I now long for, beyond words.

sisters zoo 2

It’s strange to think when we lose someone close to us, all that we’re really left with are those constant reminders of what we miss and those moments we’ll never share. And I didn’t want it to be just that. I demanded there to be some purpose to all this tragedy. If not, I knew I would drown.

The answer didn’t come right away. But it did though in between the course of my life winding and lengthening, as flowers blossomed and leaves faded. Marilyn’s death beyond forcing me to adopt a healthier lifestyle, also forced me to face certain ugly realties about my life going nowhere, and make those hard decisions that require the type of backbone I didn’t honestly believe I had. Decisions, in retrospect, I now see were all for the better.

So, that is what I take away with me today as I quietly eat this imaginary slice of cake chock full of a million imaginary calories and decorated with my sister’s name on it. That life is a crummy crapshoot. But it’s all we’ve got. So live it as honestly as you can remembering that those we love are always with us, always cheering us on.

Wherever they may be.

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Immigrant Stew

It never seems to fail, that just as I’m getting used to one thing, another comes along and takes its place. And the start of a new year is no different.

I must admit, I’m glad the holidays are now behind me. I don’t do parties anymore. I’m not much of a drinker and I personally don’t feel any great need for a crowd around. To me small talk is just that—small talk. Though the whole celebrating thing was great when I was younger. When Jack Daniels and I were on a first-name basis, when it wall all about the gathering of family where gifts, love and food overflowed in some magical abundance beneath wintry skies, snowmen and stories of Hanukkah, a requisite not just for me but for the children I would one day have. But now, now that they are grown and gone from my nest, I’m quite content to simply immerse myself in this sense of quietude I feel I richly deserve while assimilating all this newness in my own uniquely me fashion.

Cleaning. Closets, drawers, cupboards. All those projects that require my utmost attention that I’ve managed to put off for some phantom rainy day. However, once I get started, and once there’s a pile of paperwork sitting in the middle of the living room that I know needs at least an hour or two of shredding, I lose interest. I’m already onto something else. And after a few days, or as long as it takes to acknowledge this monstrous heap on the floor isn’t going to get done anytime soon, I shove the papers back into the bottom of the closet with the hope that I’ll at least get to it before the year is out.

Then somewhere in between all that, when the urge tugs at me the hardest, I find myself rummaging through all the family photos. Photos smooshed haphazardly into three huge sweater bins that I’ve managed to have fit snugly underneath my bed. You see . . . I no longer live in a big house. Over the years my living space has dwindled considerably from four bedrooms to one. And through no quest of my own, I somehow in all that moving, became the designated guardian of these photos. These faces lost in the shuffle of time, more precious than gold. My sister as a teenager, lying on the beach looking up at me, her smile full of promise. My parents, both vibrantly young and glamorous. My cousins, my grandparents, my children, old boyfriends, and an ex-husband whose photos I should have put a match to. They’re all there. Even the pictures of me as a curious toddler, as a young girl showing off her white Go-Go boots, granny glasses and frizzy hair out to the wall. God, I was so crazy then. Struggling like everyone else in the business of navigating through the hurtful and muddy waters of trying to fit in. Oh yeah, I remember those years. And well.

As I linger nostalgically over these snapshots, now yellowed and worn, I can’t help but wonder where would they all be now if my grandparents didn’t come to America? Or worse, if the doors at Ellis Island were locked?

immigrants. 2

To them and all the other Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Chinese, Italians, Irish that fought tooth and nail to get here? Where would I be? Where would any of us be for that matter? Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Aldous Huxley, Helena Rubinstein, I.M. Pei, W.H. Auden. Can you imagine what America’s postcard would look like without these geniuses and giants? Or the generation that followed and their contributions we’d never enjoy? There’d be no Steve Jobs. No Walt Disney. Which means no iPhone, Mickey, Minnie and Donald. You can kiss them all goodbye! 

As children we’re created to see the world through innocent wonder. We leave the chaos of it in the hands of those we imagine to be older and wiser. But that sense of purity only lasts so long, because the way of the world intrudes its ugly head and forces us to endure small skirmishes of hatred and bigotry dished out by neighborhood bullies labeled as nothing more than rites of youthful passage—when in fact they’re anything but, leaving us stained forever. I remember the first time I heard the world “kike.” My sister was eight and I six and we were in the school playground. I needed to go the bathroom and my sister being the eldest, led me there by the hand. Little did we both know that a group of older girls would storm in after us, would grab my sister by the hair, turn her upside down and beat the shit out of her, while I watched on sobbing. As the word continued to pummel into her, I knew it was just a word, but it sliced through me like a knife, nevertheless.

Me and mari2

I suppose the seed of bitterness starts at moments just like this. And while that day remained seared to my brain throughout my life, that and many others that somehow could have, should have broken me, I refused to allow that type of thinking to color my world.

I refused to hate back. Coming from a family whose culture was terrorized and annihilated by the swift arm of anti-Semitism, the idea of doing likewise seemed abominable to me. I only had to look at my grandmother, a women I adored tremendously, a woman of Russian roots who spoke not a lick of English and stood no taller than a breadbox with breasts that swallowed you whole as they sucked you into her embrace, to know that everything I am, I owed to her. A woman of good stock. Someone from humble beginnings that despite the grave risks ahead, trekked willingly across dangerous waters in search of something more out of life, something better.

flo and grandma 2

Who doesn’t want these things? Aren’t we getting tired, getting angry that a day doesn’t go by without news of yet another school shooting? What does it matter that we don’t all look the same, dress the same, pray the same? Isn’t a donut still a donut even if it doesn’t have a hole? Isn’t it much more important for us to see past those differences of ethnicities and focus on all those commonalities of emotion we do share? I’m talking about the basic stuff. The critical and inherent things. Wanting a long life, a healthy life, not to be poor or alone, and a safe place for our children, all our children to thrive and aspire.

Sometimes we easily forget that while the face of America has changed, its beating heart remains very much the same.

Donsky.Phillips Clan

Yes, things have gotten more complex. Even scary. Yes, we need to take different measures to protect and preserve. But in doing so, we can’t ever lose sight of our most basic premise: We are a nation of immigrants. Those blending cultures, seasoned ideas and colorful talents which in every surging wave built bridges, dams and railroads, towns, villages and cities that in time transformed and spanned across a wondrous and sprawling continent as far as the eye could see.

In Hebrew, the word “reshit” means beginning. Now, I’m not so sure one always needs to hit rock bottom before acknowledging it’s time for a change and to start over, but I do believe that’s exactly where we are. At the bottom. And the best I can do is hope, no pray that we collectively, as people branching out from this magnificently rich pot of immigrant strew, embrace the new year as the beginning to our something better. Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. Maybe I’m just California dreaming here. But miracles do happen every day.

Or so I’ve been told.




Photo credits: gallica.bnf.fr, gjenvick.com, Donsky/Phillips archive


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Greetings From South Carolina!

The land of pecan trees, cotton fields, peanut farms, Hell Hole Swamp, fried green tomatoes and all those lost and forgotten sparsely populated towns where the oh-so-many “for rent” signs in the equally lost and forgotten storefront windows tell that all too familiar story of hard times. And if that shit wasn’t enough, it’s also where for the past thirty days the world of puddles and mo-squitoes has taken on a whole different meaning for me and anyone else that dares to brave it.

FEMA photo

As a FEMA Reservist, I came here as a visitor. Someone whose time and care is limited. I can look around at all that’s good and all that’s distressing with a certain detached yet observing eye because I know my stay is temporary. I don’t have to endure this life. I’m only passing through.

But in no way do I not feel impacted by it.

Trust me when I say there’s nothing quite like standing in the middle of someone’s house, seeing what used to be the entire contents stacked high in one massive moldy pile of wood and fabric, completely destroyed, while contaminated water trickles down from a shanty roof barely holding its own, to make things crystal fucking clear in your head—if they weren’t already. That and doing a job which requires ten hours a day, seven days a week of tramping across mud, plowing through thigh-high grass imbedded with fire ant hills, knocking on doors, passing out flyers, talking to people faster than the speed of light for fear that if you don’t, the friggin’ mosquitos swarming around you will make their way into your mouth before you have a chance to close it.

Welcome to the life of a DSA Reservist. Glory job this isn’t. That’s for make-sure-you’re-wearing-lots-of-bug-spray damn sure.

I’ve been asked numerous times why I do this work. And, you know, the answer’s always the same. I love what I do. It keeps me grounded, gives me purpose, makes me feel as if I’m actually helping someone in some way and given all that, I honestly believe, if come the end of my deployment I’ve made a difference in just one person’s life, well then . . . I know I’ve done my job.

And well.

Giving without any sense of expectation is so much more joyfully rewarding. I didn’t always understand that. I didn’t always realize the true prize was in the small miracle of a smile, of a simple thank you. But now I do. And like most things, there are those learning curves you either take or throw away by choice and as I ease into humility mode in the face of nature’s destructive force in South Carolina I carry with me my bucket of life tools hearing the echo of my FEMA brothers’ and sisters’ words ring in my ears: “whether it’s one disaster or a hundred, the goal is always the same. Go in, do your best, reach out any way you can, to as many as you can. And you’ll see, the people you encounter will change your life far more drastically than you’ll ever change theirs.”

Hurricane Sandy brought that message home to me. It tore me up, then consumed with the kind of gut-wrenching emotions I’d once felt myself incapable of. And when I walked away, I was forever transformed in a way I’m not sure how to explain other than to say it was illuminatingly profound. There would never be any going back to whoever I was before that step into the light. And while my deployment here has been an altogether different experience for me, the people are not any less needy, or the mayhem surrounding them any less jarring.

So I know when my time is up here, I will once again leave renewed by it. By the absoluteness of its reminder just how thankful I am for all that I have. There are no regrets (well not anymore), no looking back wondering about all the decisions I didn’t make, along with the should haves and the could haves, because to wish upon all that pointless stuff, would simply negate the beautiful blessings that happened to me somewhere in between.

A friend recently told me: “There are no wrong decisions.” And, of course, he’s right. But, this too, isn’t something one readily wraps their brain around since it’s the kind of knowing that comes with falling and peeling your face off the floor one too many mornings before it hits you over the head. Granted some of us might not need to go off the deep end to figure these things out, while others do for the simple reason it’s in their genetic make-up. My younger hippy self free-floating aimlessly like tumbleweed, would never have listened then as she felt turning on and tuning out was the cool thing to do before being forced to join that much-dreaded establishment she knew awaited her. Therefore she missed the boat on so many things. Many critical choices that went hand-in-hand to a future landscape she couldn’t possibly envision. Not then. Not stoned or straight. She simply never saw them.

So all we can do is push on. Accept ourselves and all our perfect imperfections with loving grace. And after a lifetime of much soul-searching I feel I finally have done that. Well, at least enough to say out loud: I like who I am (wobbly bits and all). I like my life and this thrilling place I’ve finally arrived at. That I have been fortunate to live long enough to see my children grow, to hold a granddaughter, to travel to all those magnificent places I’ve dreamed about, to write a book, to stand up and be counted.

What more can any of us really ask for, then that?

They say when you reach a certain age you come to realize that despite all the crazy twists and turns you take along the journey of life, that all roads still lead you to exactly where you are now.

cotton fields of south carolina

Well, if that’s true . . . then I guess I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Here. Traveling on my road, one both rural and favored by God’s green earth that I can easily imagine someone like Woody Guthrie singing about or Jack Kerouac writing about (on a new roll of toilet paper, hopefully) at some point. But should Woody or Jack not step up to the plate to do their stuff, no worries, I will. I’m told I can’t carry a tune worth a shit, but I do have some potential with a pen.

We shall see.

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