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!

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)