Merri Ukraincik

Birthday Lessons and Blessings

Though these haven’t been the easiest 12 months, I know by now that G-d doesn’t hand us a catalog and say, “Go ahead. Pick the challenges you can handle.” He makes that decision for us, just as He chooses the less demanding weights we carry in our lives.

Yet it’s up to us whether we see the bumps in the road between the smooth stretches, or the smooth stretches between the bumps. Potholes come in all shapes and depths. Some we can maneuver around with ease and others we get stuck in, as if they were quicksand. Still, Hashem often enough sends the kindest, most giving humans to pull me out, or hold my hand and talk me through until divine assistance arrives – or comfort me when it does not.

No matter how old I get, I feel 39 in my head. Sometimes, I’m sure I’m still the little girl in this photograph. Curious. Eager. Wide-eyed. Hungry to experience everything the world has to offer.

I once thought I could do or be anything, though by now, some ships have sailed. I’m getting better at accepting what will never be and cherishing what’s come instead. Determined to embrace the jiggle of middle age, I’ve tossed everything control top from my wardrobe. We don’t really have control over much in this world anyway – only how we respond to the deck we’re dealt, and how we love, show respect to one another, and fight for what we know is right.

Some of my closest friends from childhood are still my dearest. Our shared history is priceless. But I’ve gathered wonderful new friends at every stage of my life, too. They are all treasures to me.  I’m grateful to them for letting me be my quirky self and for finding a place for me in their hearts.

There are people no longer in this world whom I miss with my every breath, every single day, even as time passes. More than anything, I wish there were phones in Heaven.

I love our house, with its old furniture and worn-out bits, our books and tchotchkes, and the kitchen, especially the kitchen, which, though small, lets me bake challah and feed people I care about and cook for folks I may never meet.

I love my family. I love my tribe. But I love being a part of a greater humanity in all its diversity.

Though I miss the steady paycheck of my former career, I am blessed to be writing every day, even if some days I can only do so in my head.

Since forever, I’ve enjoyed a tuna melt and a strong cup of coffee. My grandmother (and yours) was right; health really is everything. It’s good to have a hobby or two, to know how to create something with your hands that absorbs what worries you. Though I often can’t remember where I put the car keys, I haven’t forgotten the words to my high school playlist. This is important since nothing knows your emotions like the music of your youth.

There’s little that surpasses the pleasure of a book, a hug, a deep belly laugh, or a smooth glass of scotch. I’d add a full night’s sleep, but that remains elusive.

And then there’s the grace period of Shabbos, which gives me the chance to pause, reset, and fill myself up with hope for what awaits, G-d willing, in the days, months and years ahead. It’s a gift I hope to spend the rest of my lifetime appreciating, starting with candle-lighting tonight.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

My Barbie Camper & the Birthday of My Dreams

cupcake

The Barbie Camper is the only birthday gift I remember asking for when I was a child. Though I’m sure there were other items I requested over the years, I can’t name even one. But I wanted that camper so desperately I thought I’d explode if I didn’t get it. I still recall the feeling of urgency I sensed then, as if it were a physical thing, like a souvenir I might display on a shelf.

I was in first or second grade at the time, and I can see myself in the paneled basement of the house we lived in then. I also have a clear picture in my mind of the moment I tore open the wrapping paper to reveal the Barbie Camper of my dreams. It was Thanksgiving morning, the day we celebrated my birthday every year. Even when it wasn’t really my birthday, it was close enough.

It also made sense.  Every Thanksgiving, relatives would travel from the Bronx to our home in suburban New Jersey to eat turkey and the fixings with us. As it happened, I was born on my grandparents’ anniversary. I’m pretty sure my Great Uncle Eddie’s birthday was around that time, too. I loved that my favorite people in the world were there with me and that we celebrated our mutual happy occasions together, all the more so as I got older.

Still, the Thanksgiving on which I received the Barbie Camper had the makings of the best day of my life – until family friends dropped by early in the morning before our Bronx relatives arrived. Their son mistook the camper for a chair and, crack.  You know how the story ends. I was heartbroken, devastated, though for reasons I never discovered or just cannot recall, the camper was never replaced. Working through my disappointment enabled me to develop a grit that has serviced me throughout my lifetime, but it was a loss that made an impact nevertheless, one I still think about decades later.

I’m not interested in a Barbie Camper at this point in my life, or any camper for that matter. Better to let Barbie figure out how to park it. I have enough trouble with my tank of a minivan. It’s also likely that the camper, if it were still in my life, would’ve been sent out the door in one of my fits of decluttering by now. But for fun, I went online and was delighted to see that my memory of it was spot-on, though it’s hard for me to believe this was the stuff of my dreams.  In case you’re curious, here’s what the camper looks like.

The camper accident was the beginning of the end of my interest in Barbie altogether, the moment when I began to wish for the same simple things I still ask for each year. If my family is reading this, I’m counting on you to come through.

I’d like to ask something of all of you out there as well, if that’s okay.  In honor of my birthday this year, I hope you’ll help me bring more light, love, and healing into the world because when I turn on the news, things are looking quite grim.

Please consider giving a little tzedakah (charity) or going out of your way to do a kindness for someone. Recite some Tehillim (Psalms). Pray for the stability of the universe. Pray for the safety of Israel, that our soldiers will be unharmed in their mission to protect us. Pray for California. Make peace with someone you’re struggling with. Hug your parents and spouses and children. Make their favorite dinner. Greet the cashier at the market extra warmly. Smile wide as often as you can.

And if you’re inclined to do so, have a piece of cake or a slice of pie on Thanksgiving with me in mind. Make a blessing on it and be sure someone is there to answer amen. That’s how we make angels and we sure need more angels in the world. Move the pillows off the couch to make room for them. Invite them to relax their wings and stay for a while. Bolt the doors and don’t let them go.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m grateful that you are reading and that you are here with me on these pages.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving if it’s your thing to celebrate, a beautiful Shabbos, and a Chanukah filled with light, wonder, and miracles.

Love,

Merri