Sunday, November 24, 2013

November 22, 1963

Most of us in my generation, who were children when JFK was shot fifty years ago, were at school when we learned of the assassination. For many of us who were very young it was a frightening time because our teachers and other adults at school were so upset that they couldn’t help us children through the experience appropriately. I was in my fourth grade classroom at Zoller Elementary School when our principal made an announcement over the P.A. System. He said that the fire drill scheduled for that day had been canceled. He said that the President had been shot and killed in Dallas. School was to be dismissed in an orderly fashion. My teacher leaned against her desk and wept. I didn’t understand at first. I thought the president of the fire drill company had been killed. It was inconceivable that President Kennedy had been killed.

My family lived across the street from the school, so I had a short walk home. From the driveway, I could see into the house through the large picture window. My mother sat in our living room uncharacteristically watching the TV in the middle of the day. I was too young to comprehend what had happened, but I remember standing at the end of the driveway and not wanting to go into the house. I didn’t want to see the TV. I didn’t want to understand. Once inside, I followed the images on the TV and absorbed the shock and grief of our nation. I was a little girl and so I looked for Caroline. She had lost her daddy. That was a sorrow I could understand. The image that stays with me the most from living through that tragic sequence of events was Dan Farrell’s iconic photo for the Daily News of John-John’s farewell salute to his father’s coffin. That made me cry. It still does.

The assassination of JFK was the defining moment for my generation. Although many others followed (such as the assassinations of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, etc.), JFK was the beginning. For my children’s generation, the defining moment was the fall of the Twin Towers. How sad that these horrific events have such a powerful ripple effect on our lives. After the assassination of JFK, Malcolm X commented, “The chickens have come home to roost.” He was pulverized in the media for those words. But can we honestly condemn him for that observation? Can a country built on the racism of slavery and the genocide of Native peoples, a country based on violence, a country committed to using violence to solve problems, a country at that time in the grip of the Cold War and barely a step removed from the McCarthy Era, a country obsessed with guns, expect anything other than the violence that took such a promising leader from us so early in the trajectory of his career? After Sandy Hook, Obama could not even round up enough support in Congress to pass the most rudimentary gun control legislation. It seems that the lessons of history are lost on those with power.

I posted a question on Facebook this week, asking people how old they were at the time of the assassination and what they remember. Here are some edited excerpts from the many responses I received; some of the memories that I found particularly intriguing.

I was in school. DuSable Upper Grade Center, 7th grade. 12 years old. A teacher walked into our room, whispered to my teacher and left. Mr. Staples announced that President Kennedy had been shot. There were a lot of tears that day. I was stunned, I don't even remember what happened right after that, but the world around me was very quiet. – Wanda Sowa

The day President Kennedy was assassinated is one of my most vivid memories as a child. I remember clearly that day being in the school library. I was in 5th grade, and one of the high school students came in to tell everyone that the President had died. She was crying -- this was significant because her parents, along with mine, had been very active in the Civil Rights Movement and had worked hard on the local scene for the Kennedy campaign. After we heard the news, it seemed so surreal. School closed and I remember my Dad coming to pick us up and take us home. A dark day in American history, indeed. – Sheila G. Blake

I was a sophomore in high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois. I was in the school choir in a school with 3,000 students. [We did a concert that day.] At the beginning of the concert, the Principal announced to the auditorium of High School Kids that our President had been assassinated. Students screamed and cried, and we couldn't imagine such a thing happening. We then composed ourselves and sang our hearts out for our fallen President. The audience was very quiet appreciating the time to sit there and listen and reflect on the day's events. Everyone's lives were changed that day and we all knew it. – Tom Montesonti

I was playing kick ball and I think in the third grade. It came over the loud speaker at high volume, so even outside we heard it very crisply. I was running from second to third base. I remember everything, those few days will be forever etched in my mind. I also saw Lee Harvey Oswald LIVE on TV being murdered. That was another first for our country. Seeing someone murdered live on the television. – Divora Stern

I was sitting in junior high Biology class when my teacher announced that our President had been shot. Then he started weeping and so did we. –Sandy Metzler

I was 17, still at school doing A-levels - but at home in Cheshire (north of England) with my mother when the news came. I was reading, my mother watching TV; we were waiting for my father - a policeman - to come home from duty. The television programme was interrupted with the newsflash. I was stunned: couldn't believe it. Kennedy was a hero to most of my generation in England. For me, JFK seemed a new kind of politician, with a wide world view, a scholarly background, a gift for language and for engaging with people - as well as a man with love of family, and a religious faith. In the years since then, we have heard revelations of another side to his personal life - and some people tell me he didn't handle the Bay of Pigs as well as he might have done; but that sense of loss and waste - even grief - have never left me. –Helen May Lawrenson

There was weeping. Our class filed out and got coats on and as we left the building, I noticed one of the teachers weeping. Miss Fine. I'll never forget how I realized "even the adults" were affected. When I got home, the silence was deafening. All of us watched TV and were just flattened by the news. We watched Jack Ruby murder Oswald. It was just unlike anything I'd ever experienced that weekend. My parents couldn't even decode it for me. We all just watched. And cried. I had written a letter to JFK and his family and sent a few drawings to the White House that summer. I wrote to President Kennedy that he and Nikita Khruschev should "make up with one another" and that there should be no war or bombs. In September, I got a letter of reply from the White House staff, and 2 photos. One of JFK and one of Jacqueline and the children. I treasured that manila envelope and the contents for a long time. – Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

I was 22, living & working in NY City, for a Public Relations firm. I heard the news when I was out to lunch, went back to the office and cried with a friend. One of the Account Executives came back and wanted to know why we were crying. We thought he hadn't heard the news and told him. "Is that any reason not to be working?" he asked, and walked away. I left soon after, met up with my brother and we went to St. Patrick's Cathedral to sit quietly for awhile. We spent the next couple of days at my loft watching TV, including the moment Oswald was shot. By the time Bobby was shot, I was so numb from the assassinations (JFK, MLK, other civil rights people), all I could say was, "of course." A deep shattering of my ideals and my innocence. Watching and listening to the 50th anniversary I've choked up each time, still feel the grief and loss. And so appreciative watching how Jackie handled herself and what needed to happen. At 34 she was the essence of grace, strength and fortitude. –Muhasibi Shalom

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lunch with the Old-Timers

Yesterday I attended a Bar-Mitzvah in Santa Rosa at my parents’ former synagogue, the one they belonged to for ten years when they lived in Cali. There are quite a few old-timers there who were good friends of my parents and with whom I have spent time before. My father has told me a little bit about them, their lives.

When I arrived at the synagogue, I was greeted with surprised delight by Bob, who is the gabbai at the synagogue. That means he acts as a sort of sexton who assists in the running of the service. Bob is a warm and welcoming presence, greeting people when they arrive, ushering them to seats, and alerting participants in the service when they must go up to the bimah (altar) to do their part. The story of how Bob met his wife Susy is astonishing. Susy was in a concentration camp and Bob was an American soldier who liberated the camp. Susy was a teenager at the time. She took one look at Bob and turned to her girlfriend and said, “Don’t you go after that one. He’s mine. I’m going to marry him.” I can’t imagine what condition Susy was in after surviving life in a concentration camp. She certainly could not have looked particularly appealing. But she managed to get Bob to dance with her at a party not long after the camp was liberated and the rest is history. She landed her man (clearly on the strength of her personality) and moved to America with him. They are in their 80s. I had a schmooze with Bob as we stood in the doorway during the service.

Another couple in their 80s who are friends of my parents are Alfred and Suzanne. During the service, the rabbi invited Suzanne to read a poem she had written about this week’s Torah portion. Suzanne has written poems for every Torah portion in the book of Genesis and they are published in a book. She read from her book her poem about the story of Jacob returning to reunite with his brother Esau. Her husband Alfred survived the Holocaust as one of the children ferried to safety on the Kindertransport. His parents sent him and his brother to England together to save their lives. As the elders who lived through the Holocaust die out, only those survivors who were children or teenagers remain and soon they too will be gone.

After the service, I chose to sit with Evelyn and Sylvia for lunch. At 101, Sylvia uses a wheelchair. Although she can’t get around very well anymore, her mind is all there and she is lively and witty. Evelyn, at 91, is still spry and active and she helps Sylvia out (brought her to the services and tended to her while there). The last time I saw Evelyn, about a year ago, she cooked a three-course dinner that included homemade cheese blintzes for me and my dad and a small group of friends. She has a few acres of property loaded with blackberries, which she preserves every year by the tons. She, Sylvia, Ron, and I laughed together and swapped stories over lunch, even though Evelyn kept jumping up to help make tea for people or clear plates. That woman is a dynamo.

As we were eating, my friend Carol came over to visit with me and Ron. Carol sat down and I introduced her to Evelyn and Sylvia. Carol, who is nearly 80, is the president of our congregation. Evelyn and Sylvia wanted to know more about our congregation so Carol and I tried to fill them in. Carol described our membership as including “everyone from delicatessen Jews to orthodox.” It’s true. We are the only game in town and Jews of all persuasions join together at our synagogue. Evelyn asked Carol where she grew up and Carol said, “Brooklyn.” Sylvia was delighted because she grew up there too so they discussed old haunts. “How did you come to California?” Sylvia asked. “In a covered wagon,” I quipped, which elicited some chuckles from our aging lunch companions, including Carol.

When Evelyn boasted to Carol that Sylvia is 101, the oldest member of their congregation, Carol replied, “We have a member in our congregation who is 103 and she’s sitting right over there.” Carol pointed to Lil, who had traveled to the Bar-Mitzvah the one hour from up North with her caretaker to attend. It struck me as hilarious that we were vaguely competing for which congregation had the oldest member! But we are Jews – we know where our wealth lies. These old-timers are so precious to me, to my peeps. Their stories provide the most satisfying nourishment of all. What a terrific lunch.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Why I Love Football

The NFL ran a contest that ended this past week. They invited people to send in their story about why they love football. The grand prize was tickets to the Super Bowl. So what the hey, I took an hour and wrote a story to enter in the contest. Unfortunately for me, the online entry system didn’t work when I tried to enter my story. Oh well. It didn’t make it to the contest, but just so as not to waste it, I’m posting it as this week’s blog. If you are not into football I will forgive you if you skip this one. I have seen a lot of anti-football commentary among my leftist friends and acquaintances lately. I’m afraid I’m going to have to be un-PC on this one, folks. Here’s my little story about why I love football.

I am the most unlikely person to love football, but I do. I’m a pacifist vegetarian who never played team sports while growing up. I am hopelessly uncoordinated. I can barely open a bottle of aspirin without banging the back of my hand on a door. My friend Annie could beat me at the fifty-yard dash in elementary school and Annie was in a wheelchair.

How can I explain my passion for football? I have an obsession with the game. I don’t paint myself orange or dress up like a pirate. But I did once sit through a Raiders v. Chiefs game at the Oakland Coliseum in the pouring rain. It took me a year to save up for those tickets and I got to see Rich Gannon throw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice in person. Usually I watch from the comfort (and economic austerity) of my own couch, curled up with my cats. Cats and football? You betcha. The name of my Fantasy Football Team this year is the Fluffy Kittens. And my cats think Sunday is the best day of the week because they can sit in my lap for long periods of time while I watch. Except for when I jump up and start hollering with excitement, of course. Then they go flying every which way.

I once heard a woman say that football is soap opera for men. Actually there’s some truth in that statement, because a big part of the attraction of football for me (even though I am not a man, ahem) involves getting to know the players, hearing about their career paths, their background, their accomplishments, and their lives. Knowing their personal stories makes their performance on the field even more inspirational. For instance, I imagine the challenges for Jay Cutler and his parents as they managed his diabetes so that he could develop his talent and become a professional athlete. And I admire Michael Oher for overcoming such extreme childhood trauma. When Tony Dungy became the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, the moment transcended football.

In recent years, with the advent of Fantasy Football, the game has taken on a new dimension for me. Football has become a magnet for fun family time. My children have grown up and left home. My brother and his children live on the opposite side of the country from me. But on Sundays in football season, our family Fantasy Football league, called the Yabbadabbadoo League, is on. Ron and I (in NorCal) talk on the smack board with my kids (in SoCal), my brother and his two young sons (in Pennsylvania), a teenaged friend of one of my nephews (in Massachusetts), and a nephew from my husband’s side of the family (in Baltimore). Football brings our family together across the miles, keeping the cousins close and giving us an opportunity to joke around with our grown children. Life is good, courtesy of football.

Seriously, I find infinite life lessons inherent in football. The game is a phenomenal teacher. As John Madden said, “Football is a game of inches.” In football, as in life, one never knows what hair’s breadth forward movement will tip the balance and take you to your goal. I love the drama of football, the passion that brought the players to the field, the commitment that keeps them there, and the effort that drives them to win. I can’t imagine life without it, but why would I want to do that?

Here is a picture of me at the famous “Concussion Bowl” when Colin Kaepernick started for the 49ers (against Da Bears). Alex Smith and Jay Cutler were both out (concussions) so we got to see the second string QBs and one of them happened to be Kaepernick. So this is a photo of me watching history in the making. I saw him throw his first touchdown pass to Vernon Davis ever live from the stands.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Snapshots from a Wedding

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the wedding of the 26-year-old daughter of one of my dearest friends. A wedding is such an old-fashioned event. Even the word “wedding” sounds to me like a word from the Old English language. This wedding was extra-special because the bride and groom have had a challenging journey. They were teen parents.

I remember when my friend called me to tell me that her teenage daughter was pregnant. We were so worried. She was so young to take on this responsibility. We both wished for an easier life for her than what we knew stretched out ahead. She had completed high school, but had barely taken any classes in college. My friend and I both have master’s degrees in English and we shared the hope that our daughters would also earn a college degree. My daughter was well on her way, but for her daughter the baby would present quite an obstacle to that plan. We also didn’t know how committed the baby’s father would be to remaining in the relationship and involved in the child’s life. My friend prepared to have the three of them live with her after the birth of the baby.

When her daughter went into labor, my friend called to let me know. Later, when I called to check up on them, I learned that the baby had been born less than an hour before. I spoke to the teen mom and I could hear the euphoria in her voice. “I’m exhausted,” she said, “but I can’t go to sleep because I can’t stop looking at my new daughter. She’s so incredibly beautiful.” I drove the two hours to their home to see the new arrival a couple of weeks later. After my visit, my friend walked me to the car. “She’s going to be OK,” I told her. “Now that I see her with that baby, I have to say that she has found herself in parenting. Becoming a mother has centered her. That baby has called out her truest and finest self.” My friend agreed. We both saw it. Motherhood was just right for this particular young woman.

Those teen parents weathered some difficult times together and went through a lot of changes and a lot of struggles to form the mature relationship that took them down the aisle last weekend. They had another little girl (a planned pregnancy) two-and-a-half years ago. Both of their daughters are thriving. The older one is a wise old soul, remarkably intuitive and sensitive. She is one of those rare children who regularly says astonishingly insightful things that leave the grown-ups speechless.

If ever the bride and groom wonder if they made the right decision in getting married at this time in the family’s life, the reaction of their 7-year-old daughter to the ceremony will remind them that the wedding was a great idea. The two daughters were the flower girls, of course. As the ceremony progressed, their father stood at the “altar” (the wedding was outdoors in a Redwood grove, not in a church) and the wedding party preceded the bride down the aisle to stand in their positions. The bride stood waiting to walk down the aisle on her father’s arm. The two little girls were supposed to strew flowers before the bride as she walked down the aisle, the older daughter presumably helping the little one figure out what to do. Their cousin, the ring bearer, was to walk with them. But when the time came for the flower girls to walk, the 7-year-old dissolved in tears. Overcome with emotion, she clung to her mom. So the bride walked down the aisle with her older daughter attached to her hip, her face buried in the folds of the wedding dress, sobbing, while the bride attempted to herd the 2-year-old and the ring bearer in front of her. No flowers were strewn. When they reached the “altar,” the bride managed to pass her weeping daughter off to the maid of honor so that her father could give her away to the groom.

That sensitive little girl cried through the entire ceremony (about ten minutes). She spent most of the time hiding in mortified embarrassment behind the maid of honor. When the bride handed her bouquet to the maid of honor, their daughter strategically placed the bouquet in front of her face so that no one could see her bawling. Once the ceremony ended, the child recovered quickly and was soon tearing around the grounds with her cousins. I found her later and told her that I had cried the whole time too and that it was completely appropriate to cry at weddings, that I always did, and she needn’t feel embarrassed. My words made her start crying again and we had a moment together and a hug. Then she wiped her eyes and gave me a big smile before running off again to play.

As you can probably surmise, the most moving part of the wedding for me was seeing how happy that little girl was that her parents were getting married. Not many people can say they remember their parents’ wedding. What a special memory for this lucky and extraordinary child. This family, that started out as a teen romance, is beating the odds and is a reminder to “never say never.” I feel blessed to be such a special friend to them and to be a part of their lives.

Here is a photo of the trip down the aisle.

Here is a photo of my little friend hiding during the ceremony.

Here you can see her beautiful face.