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

 

 

 

Sorry, But There’s Been a Change of Plans

roadtrip

Beach musts include reading-sunglasses, a classic, a book about the power of books, a map, and sunscreen. Alas, they remain on the dining room table.

For the past 15 years, we’ve embarked on family road trips each summer, most of them two weeks long. To anyone who asked What on earth are you thinking? as we packed three young children for a cross-country ride in the closed quarters of a minivan, I would answer that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

I always say that the trips are akin to childbirth. Messy and loud and sometimes painful, but our memories are filled (mostly) with the good parts. Otherwise, we would have gone only the first time.

My husband and I both like to travel and explore, and we are always looking for a change of scenery. We wanted our boys to catch the same adventure bug. We believed that by exposing them to history and culture, to new places and experiences, we would open their minds and instill in them a sense of curiosity. Plus, we knew this would give them plenty of fun, crazy, and meaningful childhood memories, even if they kvetched at (many) points along the highway.

We were also aware from the outset that this wouldn’t be a forever thing, that the boys would one day outgrow road trips with their parents, or they’d simply be too busy doing something else. We did a headcount before pulling out of the driveway each summer, astounded and grateful that everyone was still in the car. In fact, we kept going even after our first minivan gave out.

Last year, one son was already in college and another was working at a sleepaway camp. To our delight, we managed an abridged road trip anyway, carving out a block of time when everyone could participate despite their not-so-overlapping schedules. But this year, planning things got tricky. While we usually have our destination chosen by winter, the Triptik from AAA in hand months in advance, and the hotels booked not long after, we had nothing set until a few weeks ago.

The participants were all moving parts even then. We were now up to a college student and another on his way to a gap year in Israel. The odds weren’t in our favor. It was likely that at least one of the boys wouldn’t be able to join us. We were sad, but prepared, figuring we’d best get used to it. Yet, to our shock, we still found a few days when we could all head up north to the beaches in New England.

Days before our planned departure, the older two – the ones I thought were most likely to bail – were signed on. My husband had booked rooms, mapped our route, and found interesting stops along the way. Meanwhile, I’d begun to think about what to pack for our meals when I realized there was no way I’d be able to sit for that long of a ride in the car. Unfortunately, that recovered I’m not.

My husband and I were back and forth about whether they should go without me, but I insisted. I didn’t want to break tradition. They all needed the R & R, the worry-free hours of lazing on the beach with the ocean in front of them. Besides, if they stayed home, they’d just spend the week of vacation on their phones. Better they get some non-digital fresh air.

Once I announced I wouldn’t be going, my youngest asked if he could stay home, too. It was, in part, a statement of solidarity with me. But he’s also got a lot of summer work to do and the clock is ticking. We agreed. The two of us have been toiling away at our various projects, including some adventures in the kitchen. I wouldn’t call it a vacation, but we’re enjoying one another’s company.

Am I disappointed we’re not altogether on the open road? I’d be lying if I said no. And while it would be incorrect to say there was no Ukraincik road trip this summer, it wouldn’t be completely accurate either. It hasn’t been the same for any of us. Then again, life is all about making plans and watching them change, then letting go. G-d willing, we’ll make plans again next summer. Who knows? Perhaps the stars will align and we’ll all be able to go.

Attitude and Gratitude

books

I’ve been AWOL for a month and I’m sorry about that. I haven’t been able to sit at my computer. It finally dawned on me the other day, however, that I could get writing done on my phone instead, which is why I’m here with you now.

I had surgery in late June,  which proved more complicated than either I or my doctor expected. Then came the bumps that have defined these initial weeks of recovery. There was a trip to the ER, and also, not all of my functions have been functioning as they should.

I’ve been stuck at home, mostly in bed. For someone who is always busy doing or making something, this at first felt like a period of sloth. I seemed to sleep for inordinate stretches of time, spending the rest of it contemplating my lack of productivity. I’d even begun to miss housework.

Still, I’ve tried to stay positive, developing a full repertoire of medical humor (“No, you can’t take my blood pressure. I need it.”). I’ve dressed in real clothes every morning, resisting the temptation to stay in the nightgown I slept in. But there have also been days when I’ve struggled to keep my spirits up, to not get frustrated enough to cry and scream, to give myself a break.

Redemption came once the lingering fog of anesthesia began to clear from my brain. I recognized that I could still be productive in small doses, even while stuck in one place.

Before the surgery, I’d placed a stack of books on my bedside table. Most were titles I’d picked up at the library book sale, yet hadn’t found the time to read. Friends came to visit with meals and iced coffees and generously brought me magazines and books, too, growing that lovely yet ambitious pile at my side.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve said, “If only I could lie in bed and just read for days on end.” Well, I got it. Sort of (careful what you wish for). At first, I couldn’t focus on the words and the pile gathered a thin layer of dust. But patience is a virtue and my head cleared enough over time that I could finally read.  A few of the titles will stay with me – beautifully written stories, especially Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.”

I’ve also managed to crochet plenty of granny squares with the contents of my wool stash, so many that one lucky newlywed couple is going to get an afghan. The squares are each mini-projects I’m able to complete while propped upright in bed, giving me tiny feelings of accomplishment. My real life never allows for such protracted periods of crocheting. I’m more likely to squeeze in a few rows where I can.

Then, of course, there’s the healing, my priority activity at the moment. Right now, my body has to run on slow, to take it easy if I want to get back to myself. It needs me to put my feet up and rest, and G-d clearly knows I wouldn’t do this of my own volition.

I hope I’ll be up and about soon, taking short walks around the block to get the juices flowing and sitting at my computer to write. I’ll resume my regular, hectic-paced life in time, though I suspect I’ll quickly discover I haven’t missed housework as much as I thought I did. For now, I’m just happy to have things to distract me.

It turns out this period of sloth has been nothing of the sort. It’s taught me invaluable lessons about having patience with myself, about attitude and gratitude. So I’ll take the kindness of friends, the books and the granny squares and all the silver linings where I can.

Yep, It’s Mother’s Day.

I do not understand the concept of being woken up to breakfast in bed. I would spill coffee all over myself and who wants to eat eggs on a full bladder anyway, and besides, I’m watching my carbs, so there go the danish and the bagel. That all said, I was grateful to find a latte and this card, which sums up so much of the experience of motherhood, sitting next to my computer when I returned from the gym this morning.

It’s always about the cards and the words for me (okay, and the coffee), as it is on most other occasions. Later, we will spend time with my mom and stepdad, and I really hope my mom likes my gift because I will never top the jumbo sudoku book I bought her last Chanukah and I know it. She likes a good gift the way I like a card and a latte, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed I chose well.

Parenting is an act of love like no other, but it isn’t for sissies and there’s no greater reminder of our fallibility and vulnerability or our heart’s capacity to expand. I say this as both as a mother and a daughter. Despite what the radio commercials say I should be doing, I began my day the same way I begin almost every other day. I threw in a load of laundry, folded another, and made the son who has school today a nice breakfast before he bolted out the door onto the bus. I am giving myself the day off from cleaning the bathrooms, however.

Even though I want to brush Mother’s Day off as a silly Hallmark holiday, I’m filled with emotion, much to my surprise. I’m missing my grandmother terribly, especially the look of pure joy in her eyes when I’d give her a handmade card and gift, and my mother-in-law, with whom we never spent Mother’s Day on the same continent, but knowing she was still here in the world made all the difference. For those of you whose moms are gone and those who longed to but never had children of their own, I imagine today brings a pain of its own and I wish that whatever you do this Sunday brings you comfort.

Lastly, I’m thankful to my aunts and the women I’m blessed to have among my sisterhood who have helped me mother my own children on days when I couldn’t physically, and to the devoted babysitters and caregivers who watched the boys when they were little, and to the nurses who got me through three difficult pregnancies and births.

It’s Mother’s Day, but it seems like the perfect day to celebrate the women in my life whom I thank in my heart the other 364, too.

Sometimes, You Can Get What You Want

 

butterpecan

A tub of parve butter pecan ice cream about to head into the deep chill of our garage freezer.

I had a sudden hankering for butter pecan ice cream when I sat down to write this. Instead, I ate a salad, which was delicious, by the way, but still wasn’t butter pecan ice cream.

Before the ice cream distraction, I wanted to tell you a very nice story about my Kitchen Aid. You may recall that I blew it out baking challah a few months ago and decided to invest in an Ankarsrum mixer, a sturdy Swedish machine with room for double the amount of dough.

How do I like it? Well, it does a nice job on my challah recipe. It’s good-looking, too. Yet I’m still adjusting to its operational nuances and learning how to lock in the attachments and struggling to understand what some of the attachments are for.

My friend David, who convinced me to buy the Ankarsrum, uses his machine for all his baking, not just challah. Despite his encouragement, I’m not there yet. I admit, though, this may be because I remain in the thrall of my Kitchen Aid, which has sat – forlorn and unused – in the shadow of the Ankarsrum on the counter for months.

My husband told me not to give up hope, that he might yet get it working. He ordered a number of parts online. He and David then performed the surgery, laying out the Kitchen Aid in pieces across the dining room table. Sadly, the patient did not recover. We all agreed that a professional repair wasn’t worth the cost.

When I had lost all resolve and began to mourn, my husband had an interesting idea. By interesting, I mean kooky. He called one of his Croatian landsmen – this time Ico, our auto body guy. Surely, you see where this is going. My husband dropped the Kitchen Aid off at Ico’s shop.

At the time, a part of me thought this was the strangest of my husband’s interesting ideas. On the other hand, I’m a big believer that it’s the strange things that make the world go round. I pinned my hopes on the possibility that the guy who fixed my minivan after a snowplow backed into it would also be able to restore my kitchen life to order.

My cell phone rang two weeks later. It was Ico, telling me he had completed my “husband’s little project” and that I could pick it up whenever I wanted. I couldn’t thank him enough for bringing my Kitchen Aid back to life.

All good things come to those who wait, I thought to myself. I was grateful to my husband for thinking out of the box and to Ico for his willingness to give the idea a shot.

The Kitchen Aid and the Ankarsrum now sit side by side on the counter, any traces of sibling rivalry suppressed for the sake of shalom bayit. The division of labor is clear-cut. The latter helps me bake challah, while the former helps me tackle everything else, from cakes to ice cream.

Last week, I made pareve pistachio ice cream for Shabbos to test out Ico’s handiwork. This week’s flavor? You guessed it. Butter pecan.

Please Don’t Park Here

 

Each time I have to park my large minivan somewhere in this great, densely populated state of ours, I become more and more convinced that my brain resembles a suburban parking lot.

First, there’s the long-term parking. I keep the happy memories at the front near the exit, where I can back them out easily. The other ones sit deeper in, towards the rear. But the valet guys sometimes play a practical joke on me and switch things around. I can’t do anything about that because they’re the ones with the keys.

There’s so much I have to keep straight that the daily parking deck is always packed all the way up to the top level. I have to squeeze in everything I need to remember and take care of, and all the topics I want to write about and the work I have to get done, and of course, the questions and existential crises about whether my life has meaning and am I a good mother. Oh, and the worrying about big ticket items that really matter and the molehills that don’t and whether I should have guests for Shabbos, and if so, how many side dishes are enough. Those things are also looking for space.

Sometimes, sewage backs up in the laundry room sink and family issues arise at the same time. At others, I feel overextended by having to manage what feels like everything, while also processing someone’s well-meaning-but-not-really remark about how tired I look. When those things pull up in search of a spot, my head isn’t sure where to park them. But these are the SUVs of brain space, bullying everything else out of the way, and their arrival sends the valets into a tizzy and they announce they’ve had enough and go on their break. While waiting for them to return to sort this all out, general functioning shuts down. It’s impossible to maneuver around all of that and still get anything else accomplished. Before long, though, we’re up and running again.

On the other hand, when good news arrives, though there isn’t enough room left to park a unicycle, there’s suddenly parking in the awkward corner between the support poles, even in the reserved spots usually taken by extremely important matters. The same is true during a true medical or other kind of emergency. It’s remarkable how even a crowded brain can make room.

No matter what’s happening, regardless of what kind of day I’m having, there’s a ruckus in there. My husband jokes that even when I’m sleeping, he can hear the noise from my responsibilities and thoughts and worries clanging against one another, jockeying for priority position in my frontal lobes.

And on Shabbos, when you’d think my brain would get some rest on what should be a low traffic day, the situation gets worse. I survey everything I’ve got parked upstairs and start examining whether I’m giving G-d enough attention and my husband enough attention and if I’m focused enough – or maybe too much – on my kids. Before I know it, my head wants Shabbos to be over so I can stop thinking too darned much and return to the business of actually getting things done. I spend the last hour of what should be peace and quiet awaiting the arrival of three stars in the sky, when I’ll  finally regain a false sense of control.

Just typing this makes my brain tired.

To every problem that wants to come my way tonight, to every issue and crisis and complication, to every new task I must remember to take care of and school form I need to fill out, I beg of you. Please do not park here tonight. The lot is full and I need a good night’s sleep.

We will reopen for business in the morning.

(Photo Credit: Mike Petrucci)