[Although I’ve been out of commission for a while with an obscure form of misery caused by a dermatological virus of unknown origin, I seem to be, slowly, coming back to life.  Not quite there, though. So if you’ll please bear with me a bit longer, here’s a piece from the end of last year, to keep you going until I can organize some of the new thoughts for posts that came in the night when scratching triumphed over sleep.  Finding it helped remind self-referential me that my temporary distresses have been comparatively minor.]

[Re-blogged from December 29, 2013]


Until I was fourteen, I didn’t think I had any cousin at all. I knew my mother’s brother back in Russia had had a little boy six months younger than I was.   [My mother always called it Russia; actually by then it was, and had been for a long time, the Soviet Union.]   But when she talked about her family, which was rarely, she always said her brother “had had” a little boy.  She never just said, “had.”

That’s because in 1937, her brother had been arrested during the Kirov Purges and was eventually sent away to Siberia.  His wife went with him, at first leaving their son in Baku with his grandmother. [She was also my grandmother, although I had never seen her.  We didn’t even have a picture.]  Then the grandmother died, and his mother returned to take the little boy away with her to Siberia.

There was never another word from my father’s family about either my mother’s brother, his wife, or their child.  In many ways a hard-nosed realist, my mother considered this silence to be the end of her family.  For all practical purposes she was right; we never heard anything about any one of them again.

My father spoke even less than my mother about the past.  All I knew was that his father had died by the time I was five, and that he had two older sisters back in Baku, both of whom were married. Their names were Berta and Bronia. Berta kept house and was fat; Bronia was a dentist and was not fat. His mother lived with Bronia and her husband. Perhaps my father was too busy trying to keep the three of us afloat in what was for him and my mother an entirely new world. Perhaps he had no time to dwell aloud on the past, or on the hardships of Soviet life for his sisters. In any event, even before my maternal grandmother died, correspondence with the Soviet Union ceased. No more letters arrived. Letters mailed to Baku were returned by the Soviet censor.

But after World War II, the foreign-looking envelopes of thin blue paper began again to appear, and provided news of what had happened in the interim. I was given to understand that the letters inside were written very cautiously. And they were all in Russian, of course, which meant that even if I sneaked into my father’s desk when he was away at work, I would be unable to read them for myself.  But there were photographs in the letters, which my father took out of the envelopes so that my mother could put them in an album.

And that’s how I discovered the existence of Yulia. (Julia in English.)  She was the only youngish person in a family photograph taken just after the war. The other people in the photo were middle-aged Berta, middle-aged Bronia and the two middle-aged men who were their husbands. There was a separate photo of my father’s mother, a formidably stern-looking old woman with nothing “grandmotherly” about her in the picture.

Yulia was twenty-nine at the time of the group photograph.  [I later learned she had been born in 1916.]  She was Berta’s only child, explained my mother.  [Bronia was childless.] Unlike the sisters and one of the husbands, Yulia had small eyes.  She looked like the other husband, who must have been her father.

“Why haven’t I  heard about this Yulia before?” I demanded loudly.  A real living cousin!  (I forgave the small eyes.)  After all, she must have been already out of her teens at the time of those Purges, soon after which the letters had stopped.  In fact, she must have been already born and a young child when my parents made their escape to America.  Now that I thought about it, I realized how remarkably secretive my parents were about almost everything in their lives that didn’t have to do with what we were going to have for dinner or the necessity of being careful with money.  You had to dig for information, and even then you might not get much.

For instance, it was only when I bombarded my father with questions about the Yulia in the photograph that he mentioned Yulia had married someone named Volodya (Vladimir) Kalinin in 1940.  She had also recently finished her schooling and was now licensed to practice medicine as a pediatrician. However, she and her husband still lived with her mother and father in a single room of the now crumbling apartment in which my father and his sisters had grown up before the revolution.  [The rest of the apartment was occupied by another family, with whom they didn’t get along.]

“And that’s life in the Soviet Union!” my father exclaimed, with what sounded like bitter satisfaction.  Was he somehow blaming his sisters for not having been able to get out when he did?

“But it’s great Yulia was able to become a doctor,” I said.

“I’ve got news for you,” said my father.  ”A doctor is nothing there.  Especially a children’s doctor.  To be a somebody you need to be a big macher in the Party.  Yulia can now earn a modest living.  If you call that living.”

The letters kept coming, which did not please my mother.  She didn’t like anyone in my father’s family because his parents had not been happy in 1925 when my father wrote he was marrying her.  From their single room on the third floor of Ulitza Basina 35 (formerly Balachanskaya 35) in Baku, they apparently wrote back that she wasn’t good enough for him. Or not cultured enough.  (Ni kulturnaya would have been the kiss of death.) Or maybe it was that her mother had been her father’s second wife. (Did that make her second-rate or something?)  I cannot identify the basis for their objections because after my father died, my mother made sure this letter went into the garbage.  I had only her word for what was in it.  Fortunately (for my mother and later me),  the no-longer-extant letter from Baku arrived in New York City too late.  My parents had already gone to City Hall.

My interest in cousin Yulia was fleeting.  Perhaps I had discovered her existence too late. Before you could count one, two, three (years) — I had left home for college, where I stopped concerning myself with anything going on in Baku.   Yulia didn’t know English, I didn’t know Russian.  What was the point of getting all worked up about a relative fifteen years older, with whom I  – the Great Communicator — would be entirely unable to communicate?  Boys  – or by default, male faculty — were more interesting.

Nonetheless, over the ensuing decades, I would hear little bits of information from the letters whenever I came home and — after my parents moved to the West Coast and I married — whenever I would visit:

– Yulia and Volodya never had children.

– My father’s mother, who had been doing the letter writing since 1945, died in 1949, when she was 78 or 79.  She had been ill and bed-ridden for some time.   Bronia then took over the correspondence.

– Berta’s husband left her for a younger woman. Bronia’s husband died young, in his early fifties.  She found a second husband, a former dental patient.  It didn’t work out, for undisclosed reasons.  Then she found a third.  (Must have been a hot ticket, that Bronia.)  The third husband died too, of stomach cancer.

– Berta died in July 1974, after two months of illness at home.  She had been diabetic and hypertensive. She was 82.  The funeral took place on my 43rd birthday. (Although I didn’t know it at the time.)

– Bronia died a year later in July 1975, after a severe heart attack. She was 81.  Her funeral was a day before my 44th birthday. (I didn’t know that at the time, either.)

– On the death of her mother, Yulia and Volodya moved in with Bronia, and after Bronia passed away they stayed on in her apartment. It was in a building that had been built in 1935 and was considered  ”luxurious.” It had a bath, telephone, and gas!

– Of all the family, now only my father and Yulia were left.  He was 73; she was 59.  She had not seen him since she was six.  But she continued the correspondence.

After my father died in 1986, I persuaded my mother to give me his carefully saved letters from Baku.  She was planning to throw them out.  (She had already weeded out the offending 1925 letter, and perhaps others.)  Although for six years I couldn’t read what I had brought back to Boston with me, in 1992 I managed to have the letters translated by a somewhat bi-lingual lady in St. Petersburg. (Another story.  For another time.)

Here is Yulia in 1975 (in translation, and very much abridged), just after Bronia died:

Dear aunt Musinka and uncle Menichka!  I couldn’t even write you because I was nearly killed by my sorrow — July 20, 1975, 12:30 p.m.,my second mom, dear Bronichka, died. Volodya, as usual when something happens, was away in Leningrad…to visit 90 year old mother who is living with brother and daughter-in-law.  I was staying with Bronichka this time. It was very hot — 45 degrees. She was standing all this heroically….I went to my job, everything was all right. When Bronia sat for a breakfast she felt a pain in her heart and she could not breathe…  [She describes the dying, the doctors, the injections. Then she continues.]

They made an artificial breathing, an injection in heart — but she was sleeping.  Beautiful, with copper hair, clean, clever, kind…She was my friend, husband, mother,  everything…. The emptiness is incredible….

Now I shall write you, I have no other relatives except you.  Best regards to Ninochka and her family.  Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.  We buried her in our place: there are grandmother, mom, Bronichka and her husband.  But there are no more places left; they didn’t think about me.

She went on corresponding faithfully for another ten and a half years.  Two-thirds of the letters remaining in my father’s collection were from her. Always ending: “Kiss you, love you. Yours, Yulia.”

[1978] Are you all right?  Let me hear from you, don’t forget me.  You and Musinka [my mother] are my only relatives….Nothing has changed, only the sorrow is so heavy.  She [Bronia] was an outstanding person. She was clever, she knew life, could understand a human soul and could appreciate everything.  Such a sorrow for us! They say that time is a doctor, it is not true. It smooths a little bit but the wound still exists.  She was a big friend of mine in life.  I have never had and never would have such a friend…I am so lonely…. Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.

My father was kind, and wrote back.  He sent money, and little gifts.  My mother was exasperated.  ”So sticky, so sweet.”  I don’t think she actually said, “Feh!” but her voice said it for her.

[1980]  Let me hear from you, my only and dear one, just a little bit.  Take care of yourself, don’t get sick.  Kiss you, love you. Don’t forget me!

[1981]  Today is Bertochka’s birthday.  In the morning Volodya and I went to the cemetery and put flowers on the graves of grand mom, Bronichka and mom.  I am in bad spirits.  I came back and decided to talk to you, my dear friend, by letter.  I read all of your letters from the recent time and I felt better.  Your letters are as a medicine for me, they calm me down.  Your letters [in Russian] are so grammatical, not a single mistake!  You are so clever and kind.  You are a wonderful couple, you and aunt Musinka.  Kiss you once more.  Loving you so much, Yulia. I have no one except you…

[1985]  My dear, you smile when I advise you something. [About his health. Which was now bad.]  Of course you remember me to be very little.  I remember many funny things when we lived with you in grandmom’s and grandfather’s house.  Now everything is over.  Nothing but the memory remains… Kiss you, love you, Yulia

Before my father’s death in January 1986, he left an envelope addressed to Yulia in which my mother should put a letter telling her that he had died.  She took her time doing it.  (I can’t blame her for that.)  Yulia answered:

Dear Aunt Musinka!  I received your letter in the envelope with poor uncle Menichka’s hand!  I am in despair: such a wonderful, talented man has died…I have no words to console you…It is awfully hard to be alone. I am crying with you, kiss you, love you.  Was he conscious when he died?  What date?  If you can, please, describe me his last hours.  I know, it is very difficult, if it is not too much trouble for you.  How are you staying alone — it is so terrible to sleep and stay alone.  Maybe, you would better move to Ninochka.  I shall continue to correspond with you with pleasure.  Give me your address if you change it.  You have a beautiful hand, not a single mistake.  I would never say that you have not been writing [Russian] for 65 years….Let me hear from you….Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother never answered this letter. She could not forget the letter of 1925.  [Written when Yulia was nine.]  I used to remonstrate with her.  But I got nowhere:  ”What do I need her for? What is she to me?  They never liked me!”

Six months later, Yulia wrote once more:

My dear aunt Musinka!  I did not get an answer to my letter.  Maybe you left for Ninochka and did not receive it.  Still I cannot believe in dear Menichka’s death.  …Happy New Year. I wish the coming year to be better than 1986.  It was so sad.  Kiss you, my dear.  Let me hear from you and I shall answer you immediately. I wish you health and happiness.  I’ll write you in detail when I learn where are you now. Best regards from Volodya.  Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother stayed in California until she died near the end of 1993.  However, this was the last letter from Yulia.  She may have been emotional and lonely, but she had her pride.

Perhaps I should have taken on Yulia myself, although we had not ever been in touch.  I had the address: Baku-370010, Az.S.S.R., Ulitza Solntzeva 24, block 12, Apt. 116. But during his lifetime, my father hadn’t wanted me to.  He had the idea that if I contacted her, the Soviets would come after me and force me to spy for them — or else!  Or else what?  They would kill Yulia? And what would I spy on?  The inner workings of Public School 166 Manhattan?

But after he died?  I tell myself — now — that the mid-80′s were a bad time for me.  Besides, I still couldn’t write Russian.  And what was the likelihood that anyone who lived at Ulitza Solntzeva 24 could read English?  Yulia was my mother’s job!

That doesn’t really cut it.  Although Yulia almost certainly is no more, I feel I must do something.  Even if it’s too late.

Because maybe, just maybe, it isn’t too late.   If Yulia’s still alive, she’s 97.  Are there nursing homes in Azerbaijan?  Is she still in Apartment 116, with someone from the state taking care of her?

If you’re out there somewhere, Yulichka — your first cousin Ninochka wants you to know you still have a relative, who is so sorry we never met. And who loves you. And kisses you. And wishes you a very happy New Year.



[As friends and followers know, I checked out of blogging about five days ago to scratch what was first thought to be eczema.  Many thanks for all the good wishes that came my way from (in order of receipt) John Hayden, Takami, Mr. T. (whose real name I still don’t know), Margaret, Taylor, Maggie, Rachael, Carol, Annie, Shimon Z (whose recommendation of Aloe Vera lotion was extremely helpful) and Caspar.  I appreciated your messages very much, even when I learned a day or two later that it is not eczema, which tends to appear in patches.

The good news is that it isn’t, because eczema recurs, due to a sensitivity to substances often unknown.  What I have is a one-time thing.  Its fancy name is general viral exanthem (violent skin response to an unknown virus), and it’s supposed to run its course in about fourteen days.  The bad news is that it doesn’t appear in patches.  It’s a scalp-to-toe proposition, front and back (and orifices too), and makes you feel like Job. (In my case, female version.  Was there a Mrs. Job?).  The treatment (to shorten duration and supposedly lessen desire to rip oneself to shreds) is oral steroids for fifteen days, and both oral and topical antihistamines.  Both of these — whatever else they do — leave you groggy, dizzy and sleepy.  Not at all the kind of writer you’d like to read.

I do expect to emerge my usual smooth-skinned and verbal self again in due time, so please bear with me.  In the meanwhile, for those of you who came on board more recently, I’ll be re-posting some earlier pieces from time to time that received favorable comment when first they ran.  Maybe long-time followers won’t mind seeing them again, either.  Xoxox to all.]

[Re-blogged from December 10, 2013]


When I was young, I sometimes went to walk in the local cemetery on weekends — usually after my mother had firmly observed that it was too nice out to spend the day indoors reading.

What I liked about walking in the cemetery was being able to speculate about the lives of the people who were buried there.  In the older section, where the burials had occurred in and around what was then known as “the turn of the century,” one could find men and women who had been born in the 1850′s and 1860′s — just like the principal characters in the Victorian novels we were reading for English that were my favorite part of high school homework.

The headstones in this part of the cemetery were mainly clustered in family plots, usually around one large stone commemorating the names and dates of birth and death of the father and mother — with smaller stones bearing names and dates for each of their children (and the children’s wives and husbands, if any).

But now and then, only the father’s name and dates were on the large stone.  Where this was the arrangement, among the smaller stones bearing the names and dates of sons and daughters was one without a name.  It was inscribed with just a single word:  ”Mother.”

An only child, I would stand in front of one of these family plots, subtracting dates of birth from dates of death, and arranging family trees in my head.  When I saw the early death of an infant, I would try to imagine the cause — diphtheria? scarlet fever? smallpox? — and picture to myself the loss and the grieving.  When I discovered an unmarried daughter (not uncommon in those nineteenth-century families), I would try to imagine what her life had become as her brothers and sisters married and moved away.

I also sometimes wondered about the occasional mother buried namelessly among her children.  Here too were possibilities for dramatic speculation.  Had she endured a despotic nineteenth-century marriage in which repeated childbearing and endless housekeeping had entirely eroded her identity?  Or — a more benign hypothesis — perhaps the family plot had been purchased long after she had died, so that she was actually buried elsewhere, in an even older cemetery, with a proper epitaph.

In any event, I never wondered about her for long.  After all, she had lived way back in the nineteenth century.  Women were full-fledged citizens now.  And I was sure her children had loved her. Which, for a mother, was what counted, wasn’t it?  Besides, early childhood death and spinsterhood provided richer and more comfortable vicarious emotion. So I would move on — the cemetery tourist — to other headstones.

When I was much less young (in mid-life actually), I lived near another cemetery.  This one had also been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, so that here too there was an older section with family plots. And here too — when strolling on a beautiful weekend afternoon (as my mother would have recommended) — I could come across a cluster of headstones amid which I could just make out, on one small darkened stone tilting into the earth, the single word, “Mother.”

But now, a mother myself of grown children, I was angry for this poor anonymous woman.  Was this all her life had amounted to?  Transmission of DNA to the next generation?   Flushed with unwelcome rage, I would quickly hurry out the open scrollwork gates of the tranquil cemetery and plunge myself again into the problems and remaining pleasures of a professional person in mid-life who happened also to be a woman.

Today, well into the twenty-first century, I am not young at all — and have only just begun to understand a little how private, and in the end how evanescent, is every life — male or female.

I had thought to leave behind, while I still can, some record of my own mother, other than her gravestone, for my children and grandchildren.  I find that all I can do is commemorate her as my mother.  To say that what I can write about her is her life story would be untrue.

Yes, I know where she worked and what she did there after I grew up and no longer needed her. I know the patchwork of selected anecdotes from her past she chose to tell me. I have memories of what she was like with me at various periods of my own life.

But I never knew her as a person who was not my mother.  I never knew how she felt as a girl, or woman, or wife, or old woman.  I never knew what she really hoped, or dreamed, or suffered.

All that went into the grave with her.  So perhaps I was right when I was young — that to be a remembered and (yes!) much loved mother is enough.

Love and remembrance: Is there anything better to leave behind?



Nothing fatal. Just a comprehensive case of eczema that makes it painful to sit, think, or type. So if you’ll excuse me while it gets getter, here’s a rerun that should cheer you up until I rise again from my couch of itchy-scratcy, all anointed with Medicare Part D-approved medications that are supposed to relieve the need to tear myself apart with my fingernails.  Please bear with me and enjoy.  It’s a flashmob performance of Beeethoven’s Ode to Joy, recorded in one of the main plazas of Sabadell, Spain.  Some of you will have seen it before; others not.  Whichever category you’re in, my feeling is you can’t get too much joy. 

[Re-blogged from November 23, 2013]




S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her mother, a widow twice over, could live with them.  S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.

S.’s mother was extremely attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had.  When her mother had arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children.  S.’s mother was three.  Her baby sister was less than a year old.  S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family that was better off.  The baby was taken away for a better life in New Brunswick, Canada.  After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s.  But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.

S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother’s was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English.  She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife.  And only in Yiddish.  S.’s mother – who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself — kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake.  When S. was eight or nine, his father would take him out to the fights on Friday nights, where they would eat trafe hotdogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.

S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other.  When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.”  It meant “whore.” Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman he knew.  He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so she could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to retire to her room whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their often having been in the same room together, and never for very long.

The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood.  The apartment had two bedrooms.  S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother-in-law the smaller bedroom.  When S.’s sister was born, she slept in a cot in her parents’ room.  When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother.  In the same big bed.  He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again.  Another arrangement was then made:  the living room couch.

S.’s grandmother adored him.  He was the Boy.  He was going to be a rabbi.  Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him.  She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out.  (Had she succeeded in getting him there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)  When S.’s father was out of the house, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking, since S.’s mother worked during the day in the store with his father.  He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat  — to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals — and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats.  His grandmother said it was their “secret” together.  The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti – boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he loved was his mother.  “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back in the evenings.  “My little man.”  But he has few other memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera, her interest in early ideas about health food, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.

Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. was moved to the living room couch.  S.’s father put his foot down; he wanted his mother-in-law out!  By then he was able to pay rent for her on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English.  She was getting old.

The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week.  S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school.  But why did S. have to go too?  To this day, he’s not sure.  At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings.  He thinks his mother deferred to her mother once again.  There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side.  And in one or two more years, Yeshiva – the equivalent of high school for the devout.  A wonderful preparation for Poland!

From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays.  S. did not do particularly well at the Yeshiva.  At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister went to college, their tuitions fully paid for.  (The Polish option was not considered.)

After an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a religious man and motherhood of four children in Montreal.  S. says she was never a happy woman. S. himself  became an M.D.  His parents were very proud.  Afterwards, he married a lapsed Catholic.  Although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a bouquet of flowers, S.’s grandmother threw the flowers on the floor.  S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.

When S. talks about these things, he says his mother – by now long dead — was an angel.  If asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her son, he further says that actually he can remember very little about his his mother as she was when he was a boy, but his sister, who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen, always said she was an angel.  Then he asks, somewhat rhetorically: what choice did his mother have?

A hard question to answer.  However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting.  He elected to do psychiatry — even though he says that during the rotations, he enjoyed radiology best. His Hebrew remains very well pronounced, but he has no opportunity to use it.  He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for many years.  He calls himself a secular humanist.

S.’s sister’s four children have five children between them: four girls and a boy.  S. has three children and two grandchildren: a boy and a girl.  Thus the generations succeed each other.  But their stories will be someone else’s to tell.  Not mine.



[click for back story]

February 16, 2014

 Dear Amy,

I’m using your first name because we met once, although you may not remember it.  Your father brought me to dinner with you and your partner in Revere.  It was a Sunday evening in late January or early February 1988.  I was living in Newton then.  You were beautiful and gracious, and it was a most hospitable meal.  As I told him while we were driving back to Newton.

This is an extremely belated condolence letter.  I learned only a few days ago that your father died last May.  I am so sorry for your loss.  It’s very hard when a parent dies. You become nobody’s child.  Time slowly makes it easier.  But the pain never really goes away.

I knew your father for such a long time, since the summer of 1948, that it was a shock to come across his obituary online.  Although we last saw each other in 2006, when he came to lunch because I was leaving Massachusetts, I somehow thought he would always be there in the big house on Burnham Road, or at least as long as I’m around.  I hope his leaving was easy, and without pain, and that some of his family – if not all of you — were with him.

He was a fine young man in the years I knew him best, and I’m sure he was a good man and caring father all his life.  I do know he loved you, and your sisters and brother, very much.

 My very best wishes,

Nina Mishkin



Not every ache or pain is age related. And not every pain can be numbed, even by prescription. Here are three paragraphs about pain not numbed in someone not yet old. I call the three paragraphs a story, although the beginning of the story precedes the three paragraphs and the story has no end. Which I suppose is the point.  There is no end.

I didn’t write it.  I wish I had.  To me it says everything there is to say about what it’s about. Which (I think) makes it impressive, if unconventional, writing.  Yes, it’s by Lydia Davis again. [From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador paperback edition, pp. 170-171.]  I know some of you found her hard to take when I posted about her before. But this piece really got to me, so I thought I’d try again.  It’s not very long. See how you feel about it.

Wife One in Country 

Wife one calls to speak to son.  Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.  Wife one wonders: is she herself perhaps another raging woman, constant caller?  No, raging woman but not constant caller.  Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.

After speaking to son, much disturbance in wife one.  Wife one misses son, thinks how some years ago she, too, answered phone and talked to husband’s raging sister, constant caller, protecting husband from troublesome woman.  Now wife two protects husband from troublesome sister, constant caller, and also from wife one, raging woman.  Wife one sees this and imagines future wife three protecting husband not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two, as well as constantly calling sister.

After speaking to son, wife one, often raging though now quiet woman, eats dinner alone though in company of large television.  Wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again.  Watches intently ad about easy to clean stove: mother who is not real mother flips fried egg onto hot burner, then fries second egg and gives cheerful young son who is not real son loving kiss as spaniel who is not real family dog steals second fried egg off plate of son who is not real son.  Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.

P.S.  If “Wife One” is at all to your taste, you may enjoy some of the quiet musings of one of the WordPress bloggers I follow.  She identifies herself as JMPod, and her blog is Original Pea.  I don’t know if she’s read Lydia Davis, but some of her short pieces remind me of Davis. What she writes is often not upbeat. Although she does say she writes mainly for her own pleasure, it would be great if more people found her.  Some things can’t be fixed. But it helps when you can write about them and other people read what you write.



It was a single session yesterday.  Often the Pilates studio can pair me up with someone, which lowers the price by ten dollars. But sometimes, they can’t.  Despite the ten dollars, I like having Peggy to myself.  We get to do some girlfriend talk while she puts me through the various routines I can manage. Also, near the end of the hour she often gives a delicious back massage while I’m stretching forward on a fearful-looking apparatus called The Tower.

Peggy is sixty, and looks wonderful in her exercise clothes from Lululemon, Athleta and (sometimes) the sales racks at Marshall’s.  (But you really have to look hard to find something at Marshall’s, she cautions.) She is rounded and shapely (“Great legs and ass,” says Bill), but also firm and strong, with highlighted blondish brown hair she’s growing out into a longish pixie cut, and nicely made up blue eyes. Her face is cherubic although her chin is softening, but just a little.  She has two beautiful blonde daughters in college (the older finishing in May) and — after spending nearly all her life in or around the Princeton-Lawrenceville-Pennington-Flemington area of New Jersey — a wonderful sense of adventure.

Peggy had a relatively long career in fashion marketing and merchandising until her marriage to a divorced man who shared custody of his three small children with his ex-wife.  After the marriage, fairly late in her thirties, she became a full-time wife and mother both to her own two daughters and — for half the week — his three children as well.  She moved out about a year and a half ago,  when the youngest daughter had gone off to school, after four or more years of increasing unhappiness in her marriage.

During that time, she discovered Pilates, became a certified Pilates instructor, and has been working fifteen to twenty hours a week ever since.  Now that the divorce is finalized, she is waiting for her older girl to graduate before moving on. At the end of June, she’s taking herself off to the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, near the beach.  She knows no one there, but she loves Charleston, loves the southern climate, loves the beach.  “When I was shoveling snow off the driveway for the umpteenth time this winter,” she said, “I told myself never again!”

She’s worked it all out with her accountant.  She knows how long she can afford to look around for work, what she can spend per month, when she needs to start earning again, when she’ll be able to replace her car. [2016. She hopes it lasts that long.]  She thought she’d begin with Pilates again, because a certified Pilates instructor can always find work in an upscale community, but she really wants to become an interior decorator now.  She loves resort/beach style.  She’s friendly, outgoing, energetic. Unlike Jasmine, the eponymous heroine of Woody Allen’s last movie, who also said interior design was her career goal, Peggy will do just fine.

Faithful readers of this blog may surmise what has been on my mind the past few days, and will therefore not find it odd that I took advantage of my single session to ask Peggy a particular question I otherwise might not have asked while I did leg warmups on The Reformer.  It had nothing to do with her prospective move.  At least, neither of us thought it did.  At first.

“Do you remember your first serious boyfriend?”

She looked surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Serious,” I said.  “Not just idle flirting.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “Very serious.  We met as freshmen in college, and it lasted four years.  Why do you ask?”

I told her about finding the online obituary of my first serious boyfriend, and filled her in a bit about our slight subsequent history together and how upset I was to learn he was gone.  “Is yours still alive?” I asked.  (Foolish question.  He’d be only 60, or 61.)

“Oh, yes.  Very much so.”  Her face took on a wistful look.

“What happened?  After the four years, I mean?”

“Well, he was going back to Colorado, where he came from. I was intent on a career in fashion in New York City!”

“And you broke up over that?”

She smiled sadly.  “We argued about it for two months.  But I thought, ‘Colorado?  There’s nothing there for me.'” She brought over a purple block and put it between my raised knees for the detested “tabletops.”

“He was handsome, and we were crazy about each other. He had some family money, and then became very very rich.  He’s a millionaire and more today. But I was 22 — and stubborn.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Oh yes.  About five years ago he was in New York for business, and we had a three-hour dinner together.  He looked great.  It was great.  We talked about our time together, and what might have been.”


“He’s married now.  Has four lovely children. The youngest is still just sixteen.  I said, ‘If your wife ever kicks you out, call me!’  He laughed. But she won’t.  And he wouldn’t leave. I think they’re very happy. Actually,” she added, “he did come to New York once before, about three years after we broke up.  It was to tell me he was getting married.  That was an earlier marriage, one that didn’t work.  He didn’t want me to hear it from anyone from him.”

“He flew to New York from Colorado just to tell you he was getting married?”

She nodded.

“He must have cared about you very much,” I said, trying to achieve twenty angel wings with my knees still raised in tabletop. (The language of Pilates sometimes reaches throw-up levels of cuteness.)  “Maybe he married the first time on the rebound from you.”

She shrugged.  “Too late to think about that now. Career in fashion!  Hahaha.  I went on the road, marketing Ship ‘n Shore blouses.  Within a few years of college, he had a chain of sporting apparel stores all through Colorado.  I could have styled and managed them! And he was tall and gorgeous and we really did love each other.   And now he owns ski resorts, and a beautiful home where I could have done his entertaining!  And look where I am!  Off to Charleston at 60 to live in a rental while I figure out the lay of the land.”

“It’s going to be a great adventure,” I said, sitting up to get a drink of water before doing the arm work.  “You know it will!”

“Yes, it will!” she declared.

“Bill has a saying,” I added.  ” ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ ”

“I’ll have to remember that one,” said Peggy.

Then we both agreed that “coulda, shoulda” never helped anyone, and we all do the best we can with what we have in the way of wisdom and knowledge of life at any particular time, and that there’s no point in beating yourself up about what you did or didn’t do when you were young.

“Tell Bill to get himself out and start walking,” she said, as I finished up for the day.

I shall miss her when she leaves.



I need advice.  Social media advice.

Of the big three — Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In — I am on the last one, but only in an extremely uninvolved sort of way, mainly because a former husband and several former colleagues asked  to be connected with me, presumably to enlarge their networks by one more person.  Now that I’ve also become a WordPress blogger, WP automatically shoots my posts over there, but I have no idea who on Linked-In sees them, and have not observed in the stats that any visitor ever wandered over here from there.

However, I’m not on Facebook at all, and don’t have a Twitter account.  Most of the people I know (including my children, who are serious types in their forties) don’t do Facebook.  My grandchildren are too young, having only recently learned to read.  And by the time they become older, they and their contemporaries will undoubtedly have abandoned Facebook for something newer and quicker.  My neighbor’s twenty-one year old son at Stanford tells his mother SnapChat is now the way to go.

So I’m definitely a social media innocent.  On the other hand, I am the kind of noodle who reads her spam folder before clicking “delete permanently.”  Okay, I eyeball it.  I don’t actually read every word, especially in those very long comments that go on and on about SEO [search engine optimization] or how the spammer can help me improve my stats in other ways.

But occasionally there’s a spam comment sounding human enough that I read it in its entirely, and then begin to wonder who is sending such messages — messages that tell me, and God knows how many other bloggers, how great I am, and how I enrich their coffee breaks every day, and to keep doing the wonderful job I’m doing.  (These are usually attached to a post at least four or five weeks old.)  What’s the point? These messages don’t seem to be trying to sell a product or a service to anyone who reads my blog. Who is paying them to be so fulsome in their often misspelled and badly punctuated praise?  Although I agree that the “comments” in this latter category are also tossable spam, I look at them before disposing of them in the great cyberspace incinerator because they make me ask myself about the degree of misery and need that would drive anyone to spend time mindlessly typing out this drivel for a penny per dozen, or something like that.

I don’t indulge in this spam-gazing nonsense every evening, though.  So after skipping one or two evenings, thereby racking up twenty-eight undeleted comments in my spam folder, last night I found one among the twenty-eight which was sui generis. I hadn’t seen anything like it there before.  For one thing, it was very short. It was also timely, having been sent on March 11 in connection with “Why There’s No ‘Post’ Today,” which ran on March 9. The message simply asked:  “Will you let me distribute this on twitter?”  Was this also spam?

It was posted at 11:25 p.m. by a person or entity named Brett Rossi, identified further as: twitter.com/realbrettrossi x Cecil@hotmail.com  According to Google, there  IS a Brett Rossi.  In fact, there are two.  One, whose Twitter account is “thebrettrossi,” is an extremely well-endowed 24-year-old blonde porn star (with a colorful tattoo just above her shapely pelvic region) who on Valentine’s Day became engaged to 48-year-old Martin Sheen and subsequently did, or did not, become his fourth wife, depending on what you read.  In case you’re concerned for him, she gave up making “adult” movies seven months ago, she was really doing it just to make money to become a nurse, and it didn’t count anyway (according to one breathless-sounding gossip columnist), because she only permitted herself to be filmed with other naked women.  [A “lesbian” porn star, cried one headline.]

Fascinating though it was to learn all this, the future or present Mrs. Sheen was not my Brett Rossi. Mine — if I may call her that, at least temporarily — describes herself on her Twitter account as “Lover of life and everything to do with nature.  Wife, Mom, Hiker, and Good Cook.  Brett Rossi is my name, tweeting is my game.”  Her Twitter page — @realbrettrossi — claims 16 Tweets, 146 tweeters she follows, and (if you can believe it) 83.4 K followers.  [“K” means “thousand,” right?]  Unfortunately, her last tweet was dated February 21, so she’s not a very active tweeting gamer.  Most of the 16 tweets have been of newspaper articles and TV station news.  She has also tweeted about fashion news, sports, snow, a fashion columnist and a sports figure.  I have therefore concluded two things all by myself, just by writing this out for you here:

#1.  Brett Rossi’s comment wasn’t spam. She is a real person, with a real Twitter account, and really did want to do something twittery with the piece about my first serious boyfriend’s death which ran on March 9.  What she would have done, I do not know.

#2.  And never will know.  Reaching her reputed 83,400 followers, or 83.4 followers, is tempting. [The former more tempting than the latter, of course.]  But suppose she said something I didn’t like about my piece?  [I need editorial control!] And just who are these followers?  Judging by their “conversations” they seem rather young and rowdy.  Would I want them over here where I’m busy getting old?  Would they get on with the rest of you, who self-selected yourself as readers, for reasons entirely unconnected with Brett Rossi’s take on my extended girlhood romance, whatever it is?  I think not.  I will therefore pass on “distribution” by the real Brett Rossi.  And if she comes back to this blog to read some more, which I somehow doubt, I am hereby nicely inviting her to explain why she wants her thousands of youthful followers, or her 83.4 of them, to know about me.  A really persuasive explanation from her, and perhaps we can do a deal.  But only perhaps.

In the meanwhile, dear followers and friends, I still need advice.  Brett Rossi aside, what is your view of the merits of Twitter and Facebook in promoting blog readership? I have been thinking about this recently, even before the Rossi conundrum, which only brought it to a head. But I don’t really know what I think.  If I opened a Twitter account in the name of The Getting Old Blog,  tweeting about each post as it appeared, would that accomplish anything more than continuing to post away right here? And how much extra work would all that tweeting involve?  If The Getting Old Blog had its own Facebook page, what would be on it? And what would that achieve?  How many of you do have social media accounts? What do you use them for?  Are they linked to your blogs?  If so, is the link productive in any way?

Don’t be shy. I’d really like to know.  See where it says, “Comment” below?  Please do tell me what you think. So I can figure out what I think.  Many thanks in advance.




On old age, from “Age of Reason,” by Arthur Krystal, an article about Jacques Barzun appearing in the October 22, 2007 issue of The New Yorker (pp. 94-103):

…as one might expect, he [Barzun] is alert to the irony of aging: when time is short, old age takes up a lot of time.  There are doctors’ visits, tests to be suffered, results to wait for, ailments and medications to be studied — all distractions from the work. ‘Old age is like learning a new profession,’ he noted drily. ‘And not one of your own choosing.’


I don’t specially mind the time involved in aging.  While you’re in one waiting room or another, you can always read, listen to music, flip through magazines you normally don’t see, and — competitive to the end!  — look around to check out the appearance of the other aging patients. It’s the “tests to be suffered” (to use Krystal’s language) that get to me.

Doctors tend to call medical diagnostic tools by their right names:  blood work, EKG, ultrasound, MRI, colonoscopy, CAT scan.  Most of them also tend to use non-euphemistic terms when explaining what in their opinion requires use of one or more of these.  In fact, their explanations are frequently so non-euphemistic and technical, understanding them may necessitate subsequent study on Wikipedia or WebMD, unless the patient is ballsy (m.) or blunt (f.) enough to speak up. “Could you run that by me again in plain English, please?”

For all other medical staff — the nurses, technicians, medical assistants — there’s just one all-purpose word:  Procedure.   (“And which procedure are we having today?”)   It serves for almost everything except drawing blood and the EKG, neither of which is unpleasant enough for most people to require a name that beats around the bush.

Except in my case.  I’m a hard stick, as phlebotomists and others who have tried to insert even a baby catheter in my veins would say.  In fact, when I hear any talk at all of “blood work,” I quail.  Apparently, my blood flows through vessels so small and slippery, that in professional difficulty I am tied for first place with drug addicts who shoot up until their veins are impenetrable.  Which makes me a human pin cushion every time one technician after another tries to “get in” there, and there, and the next place  — leaving a trail of pain and ugly bruises up and down my arms.

[I’m not wild about EKGs either, but mainly because the technician is so eager to rush the printout to whoever requisitioned it that she tends to leave her little stickies all over me and I don’t discover them until they’ve begun to itch mightily beneath my clothes later in the day, usually when I’m somewhere I can’t easily get at them. Although that’s probably being too picky in a world of diagnostic medicine with so many other patient experiences to lament.]

However, even ultrasounds — “non-invasive” as they are — are sufficiently unpleasant to merit the sweet talk of being called “procedures.”  Except for the one on my heart done badly in Princeton Hospital three years ago, thereby raising all kinds of alarums which turned out to be unfounded when a second one was done at Princeton Radiology after release from the hospital  — mine have all been of the abdominal area.  Therefore, they require no food, drink or water after midnight of the day before, which — as you may imagine — is no picnic unless the “procedure” has been scheduled for early in the morning. (It rarely is.)  If you don’t believe me, see how dry your mouth gets after eleven hours without water.

Besides the fasting, and being smeared with goo to ease the travels of the transmitting instrument over the front and sides of your bare body, the other not-so-easy thing about ultrasounds is the “breathe…hold your breath…breathe” instructional component of the, um, “procedure.”  I have been ministered to by more than one technician who does well with the “breathe….hold your breath” part of what she’s supposed to say but then forgets to tell you when you can “breathe” again, which makes the entire experience quite challenging, especially as “breathe…hold your breath…breathe” is about 80% of it.  Do you ask if you can breathe before you’re supposed to, and ruin the whole thing?  Or do you near-asphyxiate yourself trying to cooperate?  There are also some quite uncomfortable side positions, but I won’t complain any more about ultrasounds. There’s more coming.

Those of you familiar with the colonoscopy — and its clear liquid diet and other preparatory consumptions and evacuations the day and evening before — will need no explanation when I declare that “procedure” is a term so undeservedly neutral and benign when applied to this event that it leaves me unable to continue descriptively. Because colon cancer allegedly runs in families, I have had to undergo one of these every three years since my mother died of this particular kind of cancer at 89 — her colon never “scoped” until she became dizzy from blood loss, fell, and broke her hip.  My own last colonoscopy, unmentioned in this blog, was at the end of 2013.  Like all its predecessors, it showed a polyp-free colon.  Whereupon — and much to my ambivalent surprise — my gastroenterologist then announced that now I’m 82, I won’t be needing them any more.  Why not?  Horrid as they were, weren’t they keeping colon cancer away?  How will anyone know what’s happening inside of me?  Blood work, I suppose.

And now we arrive at the CAT scan.  As I did, just this past Tuesday, when I had one.  CAT scans are costly and also expose the patient to a heavy payload of radioactivity. As a result, they are usually not contemplated by the physician unless there’s a perceived “problem” that needs further investigation — either because of a genuine Hippocratic thirst for knowledge or proactively to protect the physician from a malpractice suit.

CAT scans are therefore characterized by two difficulties for the patient not usually present in connection with the “procedures” previously discussed.  The first is that unless you are truly a “que sera sera” sort of person, before you even begin to prepare for it you will be contemplating, or ineffectively pushing from your mind, all manner of worst-case scenarios.  The second is that unless you are the kind of “my doctor says” birdbrain who chirps about various over-the-counter medications on television while another voice intones sotto voce warnings about possible serious side effects, including stroke, hemorrhage or death — you have to make a decision about subjecting yourself to all that radioactivity.

After the only CAT scan I ever had prior to Tuesday, which showed a minuscule something-or-other at the bottom of one lung, I had a polite but strenuous argument with the pulmonary specialist who, not knowing what it was, wanted me to have another in a year, “to see” if it had grown.

“But another CAT scan is 100 times more radioactivity exposure than an x-ray,” I protested.

“So?” was his riposte.  “It takes twenty years for radioactivity to trigger a cancer.”  (He meant I wouldn’t be around in twenty years anyway.)  “Is it better to get cancer now — or in twenty years?”

In the end, I engaged in heavy consultation with Bill, an M.D. who is against almost everything pharmaceutical or medical you don’t absolutely have to do, and also with one of his like-minded colleagues — plus a woman in a writing group I belonged to who said everyone our age had those little something-or-others and they were almost always benign.  All that took nearly a year of cogitating and doing nothing, which meant  I would already have been dying or dead of lung cancer if the minuscule something-or-other had been what the pulmonologist hoped it wasn’t but wanted to be sure about.  So by means of procrastination and delay, I managed to not have to decide anything.

What was it this time?  An ominous “impression” on the report of my last abdominal ultrasound a few weeks ago.  [These doctors watch my liver like a hawk because in 1969, when no one knew what Hepatitis C was, I received two nice hospital blood transfusions with lots of Hep C virus swimming around in them, and have been living with the little suckers ever since. That’s why the annual ultrasounds.]

The report said “small amount fluid and echogenic areas adjacent to the liver/right kidney with shadowing, consistent with calcifications is newly demonstrated.  Consider abdominal CT.”  Don’t ask about “echogenic” and “shadowing.”  I told you this stuff is never reported in plain English. It’s the “newly demonstrated” the gastroenterologist and radiologist didn’t quite like.

Bill had a long collegial chat with the radiologist. (It often helps to live with an M.D., even if he is a nearly retired psychiatrist.)  It seems the newest machines are using much less radioactivity than the older ones.  (Maybe the equivalent of 40 x-rays instead of 100?) And yes, the thing on the ultrasound that was newly demonstrated could just be a bit of misplaced waste, or an unclear section of the ultrasound, or entirely benign.  But might not be.  And wouldn’t it be better to know?

Twenty years from my next birthday gets me to 103 before the results of the (reduced) radioactivity kick in.  Whereas “might not be” might be real soon.  And kidney cancers aren’t as bad as some other kinds.  (They say.) You can do something about them. If you know they’re there.  Why was I thinking this way? Because that’s what happens to monkey minds like mine when I see “consider CT.”  Anyway, I bit the bullet.  I scheduled the preliminary blood work.  [You already know how I feel about that.] It was to make sure my kidneys were working properly.  They were.

Then I learned abdominal CAT scans also require intake of a noxious substance beforehand, plus an IV during the “procedure.”  “What does it taste like?” I asked on Monday when I picked up the noxious substance.

“Oh, it’s berry flavored,” enthused the woman at the desk, looking at the label.  You can look at the label, too:  It’s in the photo at the top of this post.  Doesn’t it make the contents of the bottle look yummy?  Do you think anything can make drinking two bottles of barium sulfate suspension yummy?

No food after midnight the night before.  No water after nine Tuesday morning.  Drink one bottle of Berry Smoothie Readi-Cat between nine and nine-thirty.  Rinse mouth if desired, but don’t swallow.  Drink most of second bottle of Berry Smoothie Readi-Cat between ten and ten-thirty, bringing with you what’s left in second bottle.  Get in car.  Arrive at destination. Fill out copious paper work inquiring into ethnicity, preferred language, medical history, allergies, willingness to pay deductibles and copays.  Be ushered into very cold back area at 11.  Undress and put on utterly shapeless paper garment without ties, open at back and styled especially for hospitals and medical facilities.  Shuffle into freezing white room, clutching paper garment shut behind you. Room is equipped with two female technicians plus white machine with hinged movable arm and large donut-shaped section containing hole through which you will later slide.  Drink remainder of barium sulfate suspension in second bottle of Berry Smoothie Readi-Cat.  Lie down on table that will slide into white machine.  Endure technician’s attempts to find vein in which to insert IV that will drip contrast-color dye into your bloodstream.  Raise both arms above head and keep them there.  Right arm can bend a little, left arm can’t.  Don’t move.  Don’t sneeze.  Breathe and hold breath when recorded male voice tells you to do that.  Breathe again when voice says “breathe.”  Do that four times in twenty minutes. Every time machine rumbles, picture radioactivity washing over you.  Do not move stiff achy arms.  Do not scratch right cheek where edge of paper sleeve is rubbing against it and making it itch.  Do not think about first serious boyfriend dying ten months ago after brief undisclosed illness.  Do not think about close long-time woman friend dying of colon cancer five days after first serious boyfriend.  Do not think about anyone dying. Not even you.

Done?  Really?  Results in twenty-four hours?  Doctor will call?  Unlock arms and get them, with difficulty, down by your sides.  Rip off shapeless paper garment, put clothes and shoes back on, go home, eat ten barbecued shrimp, ice-cream pop and fudgsicle as consolation, run to bathroom because two bottles of Berry Smoothie Readi-Cat now wish to leave your gastrointestinal tract in a hurry.  Take nap with cats, order in dinner from Indian restaurant, watch Blue Jasmine with Bill.  Fail to appreciate it properly, even though New Yorker critic loved it.

And then it’s Wednesday morning, and Bill has another collegial chat with the radiologist, and guess what?  I’m normal.  The newly demonstrated echogenic area with shadowing?  A bit of hardened and calcified blood that has probably been there since a small hemorrhage at birth. Just never showed up on an ultrasound before. Nothing to worry about.

This time.



My mother had promised:  When we got back to New York from the beach resort where we were spending the summer, I could have a bra.  I was just thirteen and still only a little beyond flat-chested.  But there had been bouncing.  And teasing.  And embarrassment.  It was the summer of 1944.

My mother didn’t make promises easily, but those she made, she kept. In September, we went to Best & Company, a department store she felt she could trust for what she called “such an important purchase.”  The saleswoman in Misses’ Lingerie looked me over doubtfully, shook her head and gave my mother a little card from the drawer under the cash register.  “Come back in a year or so,” she said to me.

The address on the card was that of a small shop on Madison Avenue in the Seventies.  We waited on little gilt chairs until someone could be with us. There was a pale pink brochure on the round glass-topped table next to my chair, which I read.  Brassieres could apparently be fitted to the requirements of, or could be custom-made for, the client with extremely large breasts, or pendulous breasts, or just one breast, or no breasts.  The brochure was silent as to the needs of the very young client.

However, the white-haired corseted lady who finally emerged from behind the floor-length pink curtains that divided the anteroom from the rest of the shop seemed absolutely delighted to see me.  “Exactly the sort of client we love,” she cooed.  “A young girl with happy problems, easily solved.”  She ushered us past the pink curtains into a large mirrored alcove shielded by more pink curtains. There I was instructed to take off my blouse, drop the wide straps of my slip, and remove my undershirt.  My mother sat on yet another gilt chair, holding the blouse and undershirt and looking anxious.  She did not know what all this was going to cost.

I felt shy about exposing my budding breasts.  Even my mother hadn’t seen them recently.  But the white-haired lady didn’t seem to find them peculiar.  “Lovely,” she murmured, running the tips of her fingers softly around the sides. “These are very delicate tissues,” she explained to my mother.  “One must be so careful to protect them from bruising and strain. Lack of proper care at this age can result in irreparable damage and a lifetime of regret.” I wondered if lack of care in Russia was the reason my mother was so floppy without her brassiere.  Was she now enduring a lifetime of regret?

The white-haired lady measured me with a pink silk tape measure and jotted notes on a small pink pad with a small silvery pencil. She felt each baby breast gently to gauge its circumference, and jotted more notes on the pad.  Then she slipped away for a few minutes. Before I knew it, she was instructing me how to center each breast in the AA-cup of a beautiful pink silk satin brassiere.  “There is a right way, and a wrong way,” she said.  “Now you are one of the lucky young girls who knows the right way.”

When I was hooked in, she had me turn around, inspecting me as if I were a work of art.  “We’ll need to take a teensy tuck in the left cup,” she told my mother.  “Nothing to worry about.  Many young girls need it, on one side or the other.”

My mother nodded, inquired the price, bit her lip, and said we would take two.  The white-haired lady looked pained.  “But my dear!” she exclaimed.  “She needs at least two more for night wear. Are you really going to permit your precious daughter to damage those delicate young tissues while she sleeps?”

So it was that I became the owner of four AA-cup pink silk satin brassieres at the beginning of my second term of high school.  My mother worried aloud all the way home on the subway about what my father would say when he heard what she had paid.  But they couldn’t be returned.  The left cup of each of them had been custom fitted especially for me.

I never wore the extra two to bed.  For at least a year I had been playing with my nipples under my pajama top every night before I fell asleep, and it didn’t feel as good through the silk satin.  Besides, I didn’t care if my fragile tissues got bruised; I was sure I was destined to be a dud in the looks department anyway.  I just wanted not to bounce when I walked.  To generate enough laundry to allay maternal suspicions, I changed brassieres every day instead of every other.

By the following year, I had developed sufficiently to go back to Best & Co.  The four now outgrown pink silk satin bras went to the Salvation Army, where perhaps they found a second young wearer with delicate tissues.  Or perhaps not.  You never know with those custom-fitted items.

I suppose you could say all that about “happy problems” and “precious daughters” were the good old days.  I’m not sure what was so good about them. Except that they’re fun to post about.  And hopefully to read about too.



[During the last full summer of World War II, my father was hired to play cocktail and dinner music at a luxury hotel in Atlantic City, an ocean resort in New Jersey.  My mother and I therefore came to stay with him for eight weeks, in a rented furnished apartment on Pacific Avenue, around the corner from the hotel.  It was the summer I turned thirteen.]


I had my period. That meant no ocean, because of the sanitary pad.  But I was meeting my girlfriend from high school at the beach that day. And I didn’t go in the water anyway when I was with her,  since she didn’t like getting her hair wet.  I looked at my two suits thoughtfully. Both were clean and dry. The newer white one with black dots must have shrunk a little after washing, because now it fit perfectly.  But I didn’t want to risk getting rusty brown streaks on it.  I put on the old one from last year — black with white dots.

It seemed to have become very tight in the crotch. Could I have grown so much in just the month we had been here?  Disinclined to discuss this potentially distressing subject with my mother, I reached around to the back of the suit, released the shoulder straps from the two buttons that held them in place, and tied them around my neck.  This lowered the front of the suit considerably but felt much better.  I pulled the back down over my bottom as far as I could.

Then I packed a beach bag with a thermos of juice, an extra sanitary pad just in case, and a book to read until my girlfriend arrived.  I also took two towels from the pile of clean ones in the front room and the most recent copy of one of my mother’s magazines.  She was in the bathroom, engaged in some private beauty ritual.  “Did you find your beach robe?” she called.  “It’s in the front closet.”  Dutifully, I slipped into the robe, tied it firmly around the place where I was supposed to have a waist, put on my canvas beach shoes, called out, “Bye, I’m going now!” and clattered down the stairs to the street.

When my mother and I had first gone to the beach with my father, we took Indiana Avenue to the Boardwalk, so he could collect the mail at the hotel, both for us and for the other two musicians who worked for him. The hotel was on Indiana.  Afterwards, we had continued to take Indiana out of habit, whether my father was with us or not.  But the stairs from the Boardwalk to the beach were actually nearer Illinois Avenue.  So after a moment’s hesitation, I turned right, not left, from the apartment building door — and headed for the intersection of Pacific and Illinois.

It was very hot. The pad between my legs impeded my progress.  The tie holding shut my beach robe began to loosen from rubbing against the magazine and towels in my arms and fell to the ground behind me. Exasperated, I bent over to put the bag, towels and magazine down on the sidewalk, yanked off the robe, bent over again to retrieve the tie, stuffed it into a pocket of the robe, wadded up the hateful garment and piled it on top of the magazine and towels.  Then, bending down a third time, I retrieved everything, slung the beach bag over my shoulder, gave a little tug with my free hand to one side of the rear of my suit where I could feel it had slid up after all that bending over, and turned the corner.

The sun beat down on Illinois Avenue, a long empty vista of street leading straight to the Boardwalk. There were no cars and no other people afoot.  A delivery truck pulled into a driveway between two buildings forced me off the curb; intent on balancing towels, robe, magazine and beach bag, I continued towards the beach next to the sidewalk but not on it.  Halfway down the block was where the Traymore began, only recently the newest, most modern hotel in Atlantic City, but now where soldiers and sailors were sent to recuperate from the wounds of war.  And because the day was glorious, there they were outside, seventeen and eighteen and nineteen years old, lined up in their wheelchairs and casts and bandages along the entire Illinois side of the building — to get some sun and inhale the delicious sea breezes and see the sights of fabled Atlantic City.  But at ten-thirty on this particular morning, the only sight to see was me.

So here I come, moist from heat and clenching my thighs together to keep the pad in place – just thirteen years old, but with rounded belly and plump behind, the budding curves of my brand-new breasts jouncing out of the polka dot suit at top and sides, and the partly uncovered cheeks of my bottom wiggling and waggling as I pass.  The first wolf whistle pierces the silence.  Who could it be for?  I look over my shoulder to see if someone is behind me, but there is no one, and I hear male laughter.  I walk a little faster, which means more frequent steps, more jouncing and bouncing. More whistles, and whoops now, and yells.  And much more laughter.  I dare not turn my head sideways to look, but I know that these aren’t the wolf whistles Betty Grable gets.  And then I hear:  “Shake it but don’t break it, baby!”  My cheeks burn, I can’t breathe. “Shake, shake, shake it.”  A chorus of voices.  A whole army.  Cupping their hands around their mouths so I can hear better.  “Shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it shake it shake it shake it!”

I must not turn back.  And I must not run.  I must pretend it isn’t happening, I am just going to the beach to meet my friend, and it isn’t happening. The line of chairs and wheelchairs stretches ahead of me nearly to the end of the block.  I can feel the back of my suit riding higher and higher with every step but I absolutely must not reach around and tug.  I must keep my eyes fixed ahead, and walk with my head up, and try not to hear what I hear, and eventually it will be over.  I am getting closer to the Boardwalk.  Soon I will be there.  I only have to bear it a little longer. Then one male voice salutes my departing behind with something new — a jingle I recognize from grade school.  But it’s about me.  “Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish.” Other voices take it up. “Shake, shake, shake like jelly in a dish.”  Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish, with every step I take towards the Boardwalk, I am jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly in a dish.

I will not die of this, I tell myself.  I will not die.  I will force myself to take deep breaths and keep walking and eventually I will get to the ocean and the whistles and whoops and laughs and jeers will stop and it will be over and I will never walk on Illinois Avenue again.

I turn right at the Boardwalk and out of the sight line of the side of the Traymore, the sound of gleeful male voices (“shake it, baby, shake it!”) still echoing in my mind. Quickly, I put everything on a bench, wrap myself as tightly as I can in the beach robe, slide the tie into the loops that are too high and make a knot right under my breasts, but that’s all right, anything is all right, as long as I can completely cover myself up so that none of me shows, not one bit.  I will not ever let any of me show, I will hide all of my flesh so that no one can ever see it and I will absolutely never, not ever, tell anyone about what has just happened and I will never ever let it happen again.

After dinner that evening, I tell my mother I need a bra.  She says I don’t, no brassiere will fit.  I demand to know how she can say that, there are bras that fit really huge fat women so there must be one that will fit me.  She says that’s not what she meant, that I am still “too small” for a normal cup size.  I say how do we know until we try.  She says there is nowhere to try here.  I say there must be a bra store on Atlantic Avenue, the commercial street for Atlantic City residents. She says stores on Atlantic Avenue carry only garbage, a brassiere is an important purchase, and if I am going to carry on like this she will see what we can do when we get back to New York, maybe Best & Company will have something, but not before then and that is the end of it, do I understand?  I say I understand but is it a promise about Best & Company and she says it’s a promise.

I never wore the black suit with white polka dots again, or the beach robe.  While my period lasted, I went to the beach in shorts and a shirt, even though my mother said I was being ridiculous.  Then for the rest of the summer, I wore the white suit with black dots.  It covered what it was supposed to cover and hid what it was supposed to hide.  To be safe though, I put the shorts and shirt on over it for walking back and forth on the streets, or sometimes one of my older summer dresses.  I always waited until my mother was ready to go, and we always took Indiana Avenue.



[All the names in what follows have been changed.  Nothing else has.  I give you what I heard.]

Once upon a time, in the very early 1980’s, there was an English lass named Mary Louise who lived in Nottingham, home of Robin Hood’s sheriff.  After she passed her O levels, she began working in an office, typing and filing and generally helping her boss.  She also married a boy from school.  Mary Louise had a younger sister named Cathy Anne who did the same thing two years later — O levels, office work, marriage to a chap from school.  After that, the sisters lived in flats not too far away from each other and their mum and dad.

Cathy Anne stayed married, went on living in Nottingham, and eventually had three children.  Mary Louise and her husband divorced after twenty-one months. It just hadn’t been right.  No hard feelings.  They stayed chums and all that.  But when the divorce was final, Mary Louise decided to celebrate by taking her summer holiday on a Greek cruise boat, with a girlfriend from the office. 

Mary Louise was big. Nice looking if you had a taste for big, but she was just under thirteen stone in weight.  [That’s about 180 pounds.] She wore navy blue a lot, because it was slimming.  However, she kept her naturally brown hair blonde, and she had friendly brown eyes, a generous smile and a genuine liking for people. Although she knew nothing about Greece, and not a word of Greek, she had a grand time on the trip.  The captain and other ship’s officers could speak some English — and they certainly tried to make the passengers feel they were getting value for their money.  There was delicious Greek food, and Greek music and dancing at night, and the first mate, especially, was an amazing dancer.  Slim and straight as a young tree, when he went into action solo he was so fast and graceful it took Mary Louise’s breath away.

Her appreciation must have showed, because he paid her a lot of attention after the dancing.  In his growly Greek-accented English, he said he liked a woman with some meat on her, which made her blush. And when she blushed, he looked at her as if he could eat her up.  After that, he came to find her every single evening.  But he was a perfect gentleman the whole time.  He might not have looked like a gentleman, what with his thick curly hair down to his shoulders, and a bit of stubble on his cheeks and chin.  Her girlfriend said to watch out.  But he never laid a hand on her, except once to help her on with the jacket that went with her sleeveless navy cotton dress on an evening when the breeze came up.

Until the last night.  She knew she’d never see him again when the cruise was over, and that was okay.  She hadn’t expected to.  She was already looking forward to getting home again and telling her mum and dad and everyone in the office all about her holiday, maybe throwing in something about the first mate to show that thirteen stone was not fatal in the romance department.  That’s just when he came over to her as she was looking over the ship’s rail at the dark water.  He had something to ask, he said.  He wanted her phone number. In Nottingham!  What a lot of nonsense. He lived on some tiny little Greek island near Turkey when he wasn’t on the cruise ship. But she gave him the number anyway, because he looked so sexy when he asked.  Then — as swiftly as he danced — he suddenly swept her into his arms and kissed her.  Oh.  That kiss.  She knew she would never forget it.

When they disembarked the next day, it was all business.  He stood in his white uniform between the captain and the second mate seeing the passengers down the gangplank.  He did give her a wink.  But then it was over.

She had moved back in with her parents since the divorce. One evening, about three weeks after the cruise, the phone rang.  Her mum picked it up.  “Mary Louise,” she called.  “For you.  It’s some Greek.”

It was Tomas.  (That was the first-mate’s name.)  He wanted her to come to his tiny island.  For a visit?  No.  To live with him.  He would give up his job on the cruise ship.  His father owned a boat and a little house. He would run the boat with his father, so he could stay on the island with her if she came, and not be cruising the world.  He knew what he wanted, he said.  Did she?

Did she?  From what she had heard, the island had no paved roads, unreliable electricity, no cars. She couldn’t speak a word of Greek. What would she do there, except be with him?  She thought about the office in Nottingham, and the typing and the filing, and finding another chap, and another flat, and hanging up nappies to dry in the kitchen, as Cathy was now doing. And then she thought about the kiss.

Her boss said he’d keep her job open for her for a year.  Her mum said she could always come back. Her dad said she should listen to her mum.  So she went.

He met her at the Athens airport.  They spent the night in Athens because they had to take another plane to get to an island called Leros; the second plane didn’t go but once a day, and they had already missed it. Then they crossed Leros by bus to reach the dock where Tomas’s father was waiting in his boat to pick them up and take them at last to the tiny island near Turkey. “And he never went further than a kiss until his father had met me and approved,” said Mary Louise twenty years later, which was about ten years ago.

But by then she was no longer Mary Louise.  She was Maria.  She spoke Greek badly but without fear, and with a strong Nottingham accent.  She had also lost four stone, and never wore navy blue any more. She zipped around the island on a bright red Vespa, and leaped in and out of small boats as if born to it, and ran a beautiful, stylish set of furnished studios for tourists that had become the island’s “best-kept secret.”  She had two gorgeous children whose first language was Greek, and who spoke English somewhat, although not like English children.  But first she had lived, unmarried, with Tomas for ten years, in one room of a two-room house, in which they slept, made love, ate, and in which she did laundry by hand, cooked, and kept the books for the boat business. Tomas’s father lived in the other room, so she did his cooking and laundry, too.  She also opened a small shop with an Italian woman on the island; the shop — Maria and Teresa — sold lovely long resort dresses and small objets d’art, and bags, and pareos, and got Maria out of the two-room house and talking to tourists, which she loved to do, and let her make shopping trips to Athens, which she loved even more.  But what she loved most of all, and still does, was Tomas, even if he did make her wait ten years before he married her, when she became pregnant with their first child.  And what she worked hardest at was keeping him — with his roving eyes and appetites for a lovely bosom or a well-turned leg.  Her hair stayed blonde, her figure slim, her clothing bold and inviting, her cooking plain, good, Greek and copious. And she has a great belly laugh.

There was no doctor on the island until recently; the one there now is just out of school and on a one-year assignment, after which he leaves and a new medical school graduate arrives.  [Maria flew to England to have her babies — in part to ensure her children had dual citizenship but also to have proper medical care in case anything went wrong.]  Electricity still fails regularly, at which time the toilets fail to flush.  The last time I was there, nearly seven years ago, dial-up internet was just arriving, and only for the businesses in the harbor.

One could therefore say that in many ways, Maria’s life has been physically and emotionally hard.  She lives halfway between the English world she was born into and the Greek island world of her children, who are now entering their twenties.  Tomas has not always been a flawless husband, if gossip on the island is to be believed. And on such a tiny island why shouldn’t it be — in general, if not in detail?  She lives in a country crippled by financial calamities, on an island not likely to be an immediate beneficiary of any European Union assistance that reaches Greece.

Would she have been better off back in Nottingham, with or without that unforgettable kiss?  Does she ever envy Cathy Anne, her sister, living out a probably foreseeable life, albeit in an England of financial austerity?  I don’t think she entertains such questions. Mary Louise grabbed what was offered, and didn’t look back.  Although her name is now Maria, I’m sure she hasn’t changed.



Bill and I sometimes google people from our respective pasts, just to make sure they’re still among the living.  Yesterday, one wasn’t.  He was one of “mine.”

He died on May 25, 2013, according to the obituary I found online.  I hadn’t known. He lived in Massachusetts, I live in New Jersey, and the last time I saw him was in January 2006, when he came to lunch to say goodbye because Bill and I were leaving Massachusetts, probably for good.  When Bill went to the bathroom and we were alone for a moment, he said to me, “He’s a good guy.”  As if he were sending me off with someone trustworthy.  After that, I never saw him again and we were never in touch — except once in 2010, when he sent a brief email congratulating me on the publication of a story.

“Oh,” I said to Bill. “Look who died!”  As if it were a famous movie star or politician, who I never knew.  But he wasn’t someone like Nuland.  He was someone like no one else in my life.  I’m slow to feel the impact of major blows.  So it took a few moments for me finally to grasp what fell out of my life ten months ago, although I was only now learning about it.

You’ve read some posts which mention him.  He was “X” in “When X Led to Y Led to Z.”  He was the nameless “first serious boyfriend” in several other stories.  He was nine months older than I was, and when he died last May at the age of 82 and a half, he was exactly the age I am now.  It was a brief illness the nature of which was not disclosed in the Boston Globe obituary.

In the basement, I still have 147 hand-written letters which he sent in 1948 and 1949 to my mailbox at Sarah Lawrence College from the University of Chicago, and which I have managed to hold on to through two marriages and many moves and many decades.  When we were seventeen and eighteen, it lasted two and a half years.  We tried again when I was fifty-six and he was fifty-seven.  That time it lasted two and a half months.  But he called again three years later, and two years after that, although the timing was never right.  And once more, when my mother died.  Then I met Bill.  We had one lunch after that. And then the last one.

He wasn’t a particularly poetic person — boyhood fondness for e.e. cummings aside — but at fifty-seven he told me that I had been his “heart’s desire.”  No one else has ever said anything quite like that to me, so perhaps you understand why I have remembered it.  I haven’t really given him a lot of thought in recent years, except when I write about my youth.  But it made me feel safe to know he was still up there in West Newton, Massachusetts, only nine months older than me, the one person alive who went back the farthest in my life, who remembered things I remember, who knew my parents, whose parents I knew, who was the other half of me when I was young.  At seventeen I thought we were going to be together forever.

Now there’s no one who knew my parents, and remembers things I remember, and who was the other half of me when I was young.  So I am very sad.  Not so much for him.  As for me.

Once in 1948, when he felt I was not writing letters as frequently as he wanted to receive them, he signed one of his, “poor little me.”  That’s how I feel now.  So if you’ll excuse me, I will bow out today at 650 words, and see you again — with something more cheerful — tomorrow.



Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland died on Monday, March 3, 2014, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut.  He was 83.  The cause of his death was prostate cancer.

I had never heard of Dr. Nuland until news of his death was reported in the main section of The New York Times.  I don’t as a rule make a practice of reading obituaries, so I might never have learned about this man if he had not been important enough in his field for the Times editors to take him out of the obituary section and place him in the news.  They did it because after he had retired as a surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital and as clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also taught bioethics and medical history — he wrote a celebrated book.  It is called How We Die.

How We Die won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1995.  It has sold 500,000 copies worldwide, and continues to sell.  At a time when the goal of medicine is to prolong life as long as possible by means of aggressive treatments that usually intensify and prolong the suffering of patients while depriving them of an easier death, Dr. Nuland’s goal was to demythologize death, to make it less frightening, and to encourage the dying to make decisions regarding their care with more reasonable expectations.

In July I will be 83. Having nearly arrived at that age, this description of the book was necessarily of interest to me — of sufficient interest that I pulled my ostrich head from the sand long enough order it from Amazon.  Not having yet received it and read it, or read as much of it as I can bear, I now fall back on the obituary itself to tell you more of what’s in it.  [It appeared in print on March 5, 2014 on page A20 of the New York edition of the Times.]

To Dr. Nuland, death was messy and frequently humiliating, and he believed that seeking the good death was pointless and an exercise in self-deception.  He maintained that only an uncommon few, through a lucky confluence of circumstances, reached life’s end before the destructiveness of dying eroded their humanity.

‘I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,’ he wrote. ‘The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.’  [Italics added.]

In ‘How We Die,’ published in 1994, Dr. Nuland described in frank detail the processes by which life succumbs to violence, disease or old age.  Arriving amid an intense moral and legal debate over physician-assisted suicide — perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the concept of a dignified death — the book tapped into a deep national desire to understand the nature of dying, which, as Dr. Nuland observed, increasingly took place behind the walls of the modern hospital….. The issue [of physician-assisted suicide] has only intensified since the book was published, and has been discussed and debated in the medical world, on campuses, in the news media and among politicians and government officials engaged in health care policy.

‘The final disease that nature inflicts on us will determine the atmosphere in which we take our leave of life,” he wrote, “but our own choices should be allowed, insofar as possible, to be the decisive factor in the manner of our going.’

Beyond its descriptions of ruptured embolisms, spreading metastases and bodily functions run amok, ‘How We Die’ was a criticism of a medical profession that saw death as an enemy to be engaged, frequently beyond the point of futility.

In chiding physicians, Dr. Nuland pointed the finger at himself, confessing that on more than one occasion he persuaded dying patients to accept aggressive treatments….One of those patients was his brother, Harvey, an accountant who died of colon cancer in 1990 after receiving an experimental treatment with no reasonable chance of success.

Looking back on that episode, Dr. Nuland wrote that he had mistakenly tried to give his brother hope, failing to acknowledge that disease, not death, was the true nemesis. [Italics added.]

…. In its concluding chapter, Dr. Nuland confessed that he, like many of his readers, desired a death without suffering ‘surrounded by the people and the things I love,’  though he hastened to add that his odds were slim.  This brought him to a final question.

‘And so, if the classic image of dying with dignity must be modified or even discarded,’ he wrote, ‘what is to be salvaged of our hope for the final memories we leave to those who love us?  The dignity we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives.’

Dr. Nuland’s death was reported by his daughter, Amelia Nuland. She added that he himself had said he was not ready for his own death. “He told me,” she said, ” ‘I’m not scared of dying, but I’ve built such a beautiful life, and I’m not ready to leave it.’ ”

If you want to know more of what’s in Dr. Nuland’s book without buying it yourself, let me know, so I can revisit this painful (but ultimately unavoidable) subject another time — after I’ve read it, or at least some of it.

Getting old isn’t always a blog-ful of laughs.




This little boy is Menia.  (Pronounced “men-ya.”)  The name is short for Mendel.  Even after he officially changed his name to Mikhail during the Russian Revolution, and thereafter became Mischa to his new friends and acquaintances — his family called him Menia for as long as any of them remained alive.  Families tend to do that; they go on calling you what they used to call you. 

I’m guessing this photograph was taken in 1909 or 1910, when Menia was seven or eight years old.  He’s wearing a school uniform, so he couldn’t be much younger. That awful haircut  was intended, I suppose, to prevent lice from spreading among the students. It was a feature of both little-boy photographs I have of him.  Then his hair was allowed to grow. In the one teenage photograph he brought with him when he emigrated, he has real hair again.

When Menia — by then long since Mischa — learned from his doctor in 1985 that he had no more than a year to live, he began to write the story of his life on the typewriter.  Unfortunately, he began rather late to get very far. After the chapter about his eleventh year, he was too weak or discouraged to type any more and stopped.  So that’s all I have of his account of things.  But he did write the cello had not been his choice.  He would have preferred the violin — the instrument that leads in chamber music, and in orchestras, too.  However, his older brother was already playing the violin, and his sister the piano.  His father — my grandfather — may have been planning future piano trios for the family. So the cello it was.  He does look dutiful in the photograph, doesn’t he?

Fortuitous though the selection of instrument may have been, he continued with it, although he enrolled at university as an engineering student. He even brought his cello with him when he came to America in 1922.  Which was lucky, because he never did get his engineering degree.  Of necessity, he became a professional cellist, and stayed one until I finished college. Then he moved from East Coast to West, obtained a realtor’s license and put the cello away in its case, to be taken out only on Sundays, for old time’s sake.

Menia, of course, was my father.  I am reminded of the photo of him with the cello that looks a little too big for him because one of my grandsons, who is now seven and a half, is also taking cello lessons.  In fact, perhaps you read in day before yesterday’s post about my trip to New York last Sunday to attend his performance of the seventeen pieces in Book One of the Suzuki method.  Apparently, they make cellos for young students in a greater gradation of small sizes than they used to, because my grandson’s rented cello looks better suited to his present height than Menia’s did. When the concert was over, and I had sufficiently hugged him, I mentioned the photograph of his great-grandfather playing the cello at about his age, and promised I would have a copy of it made, just for him. Which is why you’re reading about Menia today.

Unlike his great-grandfather, my grandson chose the cello as his instrument, and seems to enjoy his lessons.  He certainly enjoys the applause greeting his efforts from his younger sister (a violin student) and all the grownups who love him — and was very happy with day before yesterday’s enthusiastic reception from his friends and their parents who attended his Book One concert. I doubt that his own parents are contemplating a career in classical music for him. They think of it as something to enrich his life. But you never can tell.  His cello kept the would-be engineer who was my father going for over thirty years.

I note from the photo that I have my father’s ears.  I’m not sure anyone else in the family does.  What else he may have passed along is not entirely clear.  My grandson’s father and I both enjoy listening to classical music.  But as to performance stick-to-itiveness, it may or may not be in the genes.  I studied piano for ten years as a girl, and on several sporadic subsequent occasions, but I’m no pianist. I like to say I was badly taught, but that’s really no excuse.  My older son, the young cellist’s father, chose to play trombone throughout middle school, high school and into college. But two trombones in their cases now repose in my basement, together with his school papers and various other mysterious boxes marked with his name. So he’s not playing anymore.  As for Menia’s great-grandson — he of the recent Suzuki Book One triumph — we’ll just have to see.

There is no point to any of this, except perhaps to show you that despite day before yesterday’s post about lust, I’m mostly a grandma (even if not entirely), and family feeling (in contrast to other kinds of feeling) generally rules.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the photography shop and find out how much a duplicate of the Menia-with-cello photo will cost.  I probably should also bring along a photo of my mother at age eight or nine to be copied for my granddaughter, the young cellist’s sister.  It has nothing to do with cellos, or music or last Sunday’s concert. But you really can’t give one a present  without giving the other a present, too.  At least we all know that much.