Merri Ukraincik

We All Need A Break Sometimes

Early this morning, I realized I had not cleared off or set the Shabbos table, which I usually do on Thursday night, nor had I made chicken soup with the greens I bought on Wednesday. I hadn’t wrapped the Chanukah gifts at one end or finished the decoupage projects at the other, and I’d failed to put away the groceries and papers in between. To boot, the cakes I baked, my only attempt to begin Shabbos preparations, had collapsed because I took them out of the oven too soon.

I was just too tired and too blah from the cold yesterday, and I didn’t want to do anything but write. Though it was out of character to let things go, I decided this was a very acceptable decision, that it wasn’t sloth or procrastination, but rather an investment in my work and word count and me, and that all of it was as important as making fresh chicken soup and challah, at least in the moment.

But I now know this to be true because I found two quarts of the former and five of the latter in the back of the freezer this morning, all of which I made a few weeks ago – for a rainy day. Because sometimes you get lucky and see your blessings staring you in the face. You feel all the goodness from on high and your faith is strong that everything will sort itself out, even if it looks different from how you first envisioned it.

You know what else? I’m going to make a brownie mix for dessert, relocate the gifts and projects to other surfaces, stash all the papers in a Marshall’s bag, and reschedule our Architectural Digest photo shoot (just kidding about that last bit). And it’s not going to bother me one bit. Really.

Sundown will come as it does each week no matter what. Our meals will be simple this time, but there will be love in them, and they will taste like wonder and miracles and the holiness that separates Shabbos from everything else. And G-d willing, we will rest along with Him from the busyness of the everyday and the business of being humans who sometimes just need a break.

Wishing everyone a restful Shabbos that allows us to forget, briefly, all the tasks that await us after Havdalah.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom! And a Happy Chanukah, too!

 

Saying Goodbye to Andrew Clements

fringle2

Frindle came into our lives when one of our boys had it assigned at school. It was love at first read. We would go on to enjoy many books by Andrew Clements, but I kept coming back to this one.

The story is about a boy named Nick who comes up with the new word frindle for a pen. The book’s themes – the power of words and creativity, an individual’s ability to have impact – resonate with young readers. But they have so much to say to the rest of us, too.

Around the time of my son’s bar mitzvah, I decided to write to Mr. Clements, to tell him how much his books Frindle and Lunch Money, in particular meant to this child. What I didn’t expect was a response.

Two months later, however, Clements wrote back. He told my son how much he appreciated hearing from us, especially to learn his books had such meaningful impact. He included a beautiful line about the importance of having faith and a faith-based community in one’s life. He enclosed a small note to me as well, which I keep in a treasure box.

This paragraph at the end of Frindle is my favorite. It’s in a letter Nick’s former teacher sends him when he’s already a university student and frindle has officially entered the dictionary:

“So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with.”

Sadly, Andrew Clements passed away last week. May his memory and his books be a blessing. I did not know him, nor did I ever meet him. But he wound his way into my heart through his stories, and I will mourn all the words that were surely still inside him when he passed, taking them with him into the next world before he had the chance to share them with the rest of us.

I plan to reread Frindle (again) this Shabbos, and to think hard about words. Because our words, the ones we exchange with one another and the ones we exchange with G-d, make all the difference in this world.  And may we be blessed to remember that they have the power to change it for good.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

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!

For the Love of Making Things with Our Hands

This is my latest afghan, a wedding gift. It comes at a moment when I’m in need of distraction, and I’m glad to find it in these colors and patterns that vary from row to row. It’s taking me a long time to finish, though that’s neither here nor there.

While sneaking in a row early  yesterday morning, I was thinking that I wish I were the type to crochet an occasional sweater. But the undertaking involves too much counting and measuring for my non-math brain. All previous attempts have been crochet disasters, which is why I spend a lot of time making afghans instead. 

Anyway, while I was thinking about sweaters, I had an idea. The last handmade sweater I owned, made by my grandmother, was ruined when our basement flooded during Hurricane Irene years ago. I thought I might ask our cleaning lady, a talented knitter, to make me a new one. 

She had been with us for more than two decades when she retired recently – not by choice but by kidney failure. She’s now packing to return to Europe, to spend her years with the family she left behind when she emigrated. I’ve been checking in with her regularly and we have plans to visit next week.

All this time she was like a great aunt to me. She taught me to prepare proper Turkish coffee and also helped take care of me, especially when I was on bed rest with our youngest and later after my surgeries. She loved us, and felt it was her place to chide me for never ironing because I was, after all, one of her own.

When we spoke yesterday, I asked her if she’d make me one of her signature cardigans, and said I would bring the wool along with some vintage buttons when we visit. I told her I want it as a remembrance of her and her time with our family after she leaves.

She cried, and said she would like nothing more than to knit for me, and to fill the hours that now unfold endlessly since she can no longer work. Sadly, she’s in too much discomfort from dialysis to knit anymore, adding that she has unfinished projects for her grandchildren in her knitting basket.

I picked up my afghan-in-progress, feeling the blessings in the work, in my fingers and the hook and the wool. Yet I also couldn’t help but add this to the many indignities of illness and of our bodies aging and coming undone. We must grab the chance to create whenever we can, to never squander the opportunity to make beautiful or impactful things with our hands with whatever time we are given. And with that I forgot about the laundry and the dishes in the sink and worked six more rows instead.

Slipping Into A Comfortable Chair This Shabbos

chairafghan

In Ashkenazi tradition, we name our children after those we’ve lost, keeping the memory of the deceased alive each time we call out to the living. The assemblage of items in our home, many bequeathed to us when family and friends passed into the World to Come, does the same.

Well-worn tables, tchotchkes, kitchen utensils, costume jewelry. Some things are quirky and rare, others useful. Yet all are precious, if only because a hint of the soul of each previous owner lingers in the fiber of these belongings.


My sons will tell you we have too much they’ll never want. And yet, though I am quick to declutter my own things, I cannot part with these bequests. Doing so would feel too much like dropping the string tied to a bouquet of balloons, letting it soar until it becomes invisible, lost somewhere behind the clouds.

I believe it’s part of my tafkid, my purpose here on earth, to preserve the mesorah of items once dear to those who were dear to us. Would my loved ones disappear entirely from my memory if I did not? As long as I’m blessed to remember, the answer is no. But by filling our house with their things, I keep their names on the tip of my tongue, and the essence of who they were a physical presence in this world.

It is not morbid or overcrowded here, I assure you. Rather, our home pulses with life.

When I wrap myself in my Grandma Sadye’s afghan and wear my mother-in-law Lea’s earrings, I sense their love. When I stir with Bubbe’s spoon, I feel her hands in my own. This bounty has little financial value. But the sentimental value could fill a vault at the bank.

Recently, our neighbors’ daughters were generous in giving us some furniture and an old chocolate-egg mold as they emptied their parents’ home of its contents. Their father passed away last year, and their mother has since been in assisted living. We embraced these items with the same warmth we shared with their original owners. And it feels good to know that in some way, they still live here on the block with us, their names on our lips when we point to their things.

There are so many ways to disappear, so many forces that have the power to say poof and erase evidence of our existence from this world. And yet, there are many ways to keep it from happening, to root ourselves here in love, kindness, and the business of preserving memory. I say, let’s do all we can to make a lasting impression during the limited time we have.

I can’t help but think about Shabbos as I look around our home, my soul filling up with moving recollections. Shabbos itself is a moment devoted to remembering what matters most in this world, to guarding the holiness of the day, and to keeping G-d a vital, pulsing presence in our hearts and lives. It’s the reason the Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews.”

This Shabbos, may we slip comfortably into the chair of someone whose memory we cherish, and into the embrace of someone we are deeply grateful to still have here with us. And may we be blessed to keep the Sabbath day, and for it to keep us – vital, beloved, and present – until we reach 120.

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