A poem for my grandfather

FAMILY, LIFE, POEMS

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The painting you painted for me, and for my siblings, is unlike any other work you’ve ever done.

Different from your other pieces, which are so precise, relentlessly realistic, this painting is full of broad brush strokes, composed of love and light. The painting captures essence and exact truths fall away. Because when I look at this painting a C+ is an A+, a failure is a learning moment, and no matter what I say or do, I can do no wrong.

That’s a very special work of art to have.

This painting you painted for me reflects your humor, and just the sight of it makes me smile. And if this painting depicted you, it would capture your laugh, the endearing way your eyes creased when you told a joke, and the way you beamed when surrounded by family.

This painting began when I was born and grew into something magnificent, a mural expanding over the 28 years I’ve been alive. And no matter where I was or what I went through, when I looked up, this painting was there.

This painting you painted for me. In your humbleness you’d say it’s worth nothing but it’s the lens through which I see the world. And because of this painting, everything I see is colored by your kindness and your light.

This painting, Grandpa, is forever hanging in my heart.
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Growing up with the Daily Treat

FAMILY, FOOD & DRINK, LIFE

I don’t remember the first time I stepped foot in the Daily Treat.

I was young enough, actually, that my parents probably carried me into the restaurant, young enough that I didn’t eat but slept quietly at their side. I’m guessing I was about two weeks old.

My parents have loved the Daily Treat since before I was born.

Back in 1987, over sandwiches and salads with the real estate broker, they discussed their future in this quaint commuter town right outside of Manhattan. I think the charm of the restaurant drew my mom to Ridgewood, a place where she knew no one and would be alone most nights while my dad worked long hours at a nearby hospital. She was 24.

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Photo: dailytreatrestaurant.com

Looking through the Daily Treat’s large windows facing Ridgewood Avenue, my mom watched young mothers with strollers walking by. Even though the rest of her family lived on Long Island, where she grew up, she began to picture a new life in New Jersey. In a way, my history with the restaurant began right then.

The Daily Treat has been around for more than 50 years and is a constant in a village that’s constantly changing. As newer, hipper restaurants and shops have moved to town, the Daily Treat has stayed put. For me, it’s a place of comfort. I always order the same thing: eggs and toast or chicken fingers with thick-cut fries. I know when I walk in I’ll see one of the Greek owners, Gus or John, standing behind the checkout desk, greeting customers at the door.

It’s funny how places, just like people, can be there for every milestone of your life.

The Daily Treat was where we’d go with both sets of grandparents after concerts, dance recitals and graduations. It’s where my brother and I complained about ordering off the kids menu and then insisted on ordering off the kids menu, as soon as we were too old.

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Photo: Foursquare

In the sixth grade, the Daily Treat was the first place my friend Jolene and I went “alone”. We dressed up in our best Abercrombie & Fitch outfits, packed our faux leather purses and smeared on lip gloss before walking the half mile to town. I remember the sense of independence we felt going to a restaurant without parents. To us, this was the first step to being grown up.

In high school, the Daily Treat was a respite from the stress of exams and too many extracurriculars. I’d go with large groups, either during an extended lunch or straight after school. I remember seeing groups of middle schoolers and thinking about how young they looked. Do these kids even know how to split a bill? How are they here alone? At some point it occurred to me that we used to be just like them, a giggling gang of sixth grade girls sharing a couple orders of fries. Looking back, I’m surprised the owners tolerated us.

I spent my college years in Indiana and a summer out in Toledo, Ohio, where I was a reporter for a local paper. My job took me across cornfields and through downtrodden Midwest towns where the sense of decay was palpable. I was lonely – most of my friends were interning in New York City that summer – but while on assignment I found comfort at diners that reminded me of Daily Treat, diners that reminded me of home.

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Photo: Dave D., Yelp.com

I still go back to the restaurant a few times a year – it’s where my childhood friend Laura and I catch up when we’re both in town. The place hasn’t changed much, though they now have al fresco dining and fancier-sounding menu items like Grilled Portobello Salad and Prosciutto Caprese Wrap. Over refill after refill of coffee we talk about our jobs, relationships and families. Sometimes we stay for three hours but no one ever rushes us, interrupting only to pour more coffee into the small white mugs.

It’s strange to think I’m already a year older than my mom was when she and Dad settled down in Ridgewood, yet I’m nowhere near as settled. Sometimes, when I’m at the Daily Treat I can almost see my parents sitting at the booth by the window, leaning into their drinks and one another other, exhilarated by the thought of starting their life together in this pretty village outside of New York City. Wondering how long it takes to thread yourself into the fabric of a community, how long it takes to call a place home.


Read more about the Daily Treat and its history here. 

Calling Yaya

CREATIVE WRITING, FAMILY, LIFE, PUBLISHED WORK

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2015 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu.  

Everyone on Dallas Avenue knew Yaya’s high-pitched cackle.

My grandfather would walk home from the train station each night and hear her laugh from a block away. That’s Dorothy, he’d think to himself. She was usually on the phone. She was usually telling a story.

The phone connected Yaya to everyone she wanted to talk to and everywhere she needed to be. Even before coffee, the first thing she’d do each morning was roll over and check her stocks by punching in numbers. She wore out three keypads in just a few years of checking and trading those stocks. And she made my grandfather buy 25-foot-long cords for all phones in the house so she could chat away from absolutely anywhere.

From an early age I loved talking on the phone with Yaya and begged her to tell me the stories I knew and loved. Like the time in high school the nuns caught her smoking in the bathroom, so she filled her mouth with powdered soap to mask the smell but ended up with foam bubbling out of her mouth as she explained herself to the principal. Those stories reached a level of pure absurdity it seemed only Yaya could concoct.

We had serious conversations, too, she lying on her bed in Long Island, me on mine in New Jersey. One summer when I was around 13, a girl my age died in a tragic jet-skiing accident. A few of my friends knew her, and her death deeply affected me. I spent the night writing a poem for the girl and read it to Yaya, and then we talked about death and dying until our conversation slowed to a standstill. She was always straightforward about the topic, saying “when I die” or “will you do this for me when I’m gone, baby?” as if it were inevitable. I always hushed her and changed the subject.

***

I was 17 when Yaya passed. It was obvious her health was deteriorating. Months earlier she’d stopped dyeing her hair that signature red, a sign of defeat too painful for me to admit. Her weight had dropped below 100 pounds, her bones were brittle and her spine was collapsing inch by inch. Despite all this, her death felt sudden because I never got to say good-bye.

She died in February, the coldest part of winter. My younger sisters cried in my bed, not understanding how a person goes from being here to being gone. I thought I was old enough, mature enough, to understand her death and help my siblings properly mourn. But 17 wasn’t old at all, and since emerging on the other side of college and moving to New York City I’ve started missing her in a new way.

Yaya was a city girl, a trait that skipped a generation and landed on me. Papa often tells the story of their 1970s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, where Yaya stayed inside all day, depressed. The town was too quiet and the nearest phone was a quarter mile away. Papa says she’d press her face to the window, longingly watching car lights pass on the main road — the closest sign to civilization. All night she’d gaze at those lights, smoking her cigarettes in silence.
My grandmother needed to be around people. The house had been her idea, but within a decade they sold it.

Yaya grew up in the 1930s and ’40s in the South Bronx Irish tenements, the daughter of first-generation Irish immigrants. When she was 14 her father died suddenly of appendicitis. So her mother took a job as a housemaid at the Waldorf Astoria and moved the family out to Pelham Bay.

Yaya’s father, who’d been a carpet salesman at the flagship Macy’s store in Midtown, instilled in her a strong work ethic and sense of pride in being busy. In her 20s, she was the secretary to a high-powered lawyer at General Motors. Yaya loved showing up to the big building on Broadway, working for the big shots and going out to lunch with the other girls for special occasions. They’d pick a fancy spot like the Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green or an Italian place called Patsy’s that Frank Sinatra used to frequent. Birthdays and engagements never went uncelebrated.

Yaya was just around my age when she worked for GM. Even though she never told me about her 20s in Manhattan — maybe she thought I was too young — little things around the city remind me of her. My favorite photograph was taken at the Copacabana nightclub, shortly after Papa proposed to Yaya in 1959. Every time I pass the Copacabana in Times Square I think of the original Upper East Side club and my grandparents at a table inside, looking so glamorous and in love. I have the photograph saved in my phone so I can pull it up and imagine how she’d tell me the story.

My phone can tell me all about the Copacabana’s history, play videos from the nightclub’s heyday, even show me my very last email from Dorothy Coyne. But for all it’s capable of, it can’t connect me to her.

Seven years since Yaya died, I still can’t get past the urge to call her. Sometimes I feel like the helpless 5-year-old who would erupt into tears when my grandparents left after a weekend visit. I’d sit sullenly on our stoop, eyes watering as their car backed out of the driveway and escaped at 60 miles per hour down the highway.

Then I’d go back inside and wait for the phone to ring.

Growing up with Chrismukkah

FAMILY, LIFE

We do both.

Yes, Christmas and Hanukkah. Trees and Menorahs. Candy canes and latkes. Come to my house in mid-December and we’ll have it all.

My mom is Catholic, my dad is Jewish and they raised my three siblings and I in both religions. Growing up, we sometimes resented the five hours each week of Hebrew School and Catholic education (CCD), but had no problem embracing our dual faith when the holidays rolled around.

Classmates over for playdates would notice the Star of David ornament hanging on our Christmas tree. What do you mean you celebrate both holidays? Does that mean you get double the gifts?

A few times I said “yes” to make them jealous. But the truth is, my parents realized double gifting was absurd after about a year. Christmas became our primary gift-giving holiday – an explosion of presents beneath the tree – while Hanukkah was about coming together as a family to honor the Jewish tradition.

Gifts aside, being a mixed faith family during the holidays meant celebrations start earlier and last longer. Occasionally, the two holidays overlapped and we’d light Hanukkah candles after Christmas dinner. Over time, unique Chrismukkah traditions emerged.

One Hanukkah when I was in high school we gathered in the kitchen to light the candles. Scrambling to find a yarmulke, the traditional head covering Jewish men wear during prayer, my dad grabbed the nearest Santa Claus hat that was sitting on the counter. We all looked at him skeptically.

“I mean, it covers my head, right?” he said, and started with the Hebrew prayers. My Dad has worn that Santa hat to light the menorah almost every year since.

Celebrating both holidays was trickier when I went away to Notre Dame, where 90% of the student body is Christian. From masses to parties to decorations in every corner of campus, Christmas at Notre Dame is wonderfully festive, so it would have been easy to embrace my Christian identity and toss away Hanukkah for a few years. But I didn’t want to give up on the Chrismukkah traditions I’d grown up with.

Freshman year, my good friend and I took a bus around South Bend, Indiana until we found the one party store that sold Hanukkah decorations. We picked up frozen hash browns from Walmart for latkes and coffee filters for makeshift yarmulkes. Finally, we persuaded an upperclassman to buy us four bottles of Manischewitz – a too-sweet kosher wine I will never drink again – and our Chrismukkah party was in business.

Manischewitz flowed freely in the dorm room adorned with “Happy Hanukkah and “Merry Christmas” banners. For a couple of students at Notre Dame, I was the first Jewish or partially Jewish person they had ever met. They were eager to learn about the Festival of Lights, the “other holiday” always mentioned around Christmas. I remember a classmate asking me in earnest, “Is it sacrilegious for me to play dreidel?”

The party was so successful we repeated it throughout college, and by senior year, everyone knew how to play dreidel.

Growing up with two faiths was at times confusing –  I questioned my religious identity and wondered if I would ever “decide”. But I’m thankful for how my parents raised us, particularly around the holidays. Watching how they embraced the other’s traditions: my mom lighting the Hanukkah candles, my dad writing Santa’s note in the wee hours of Christmas – taught me about respect and acceptance in a fundamental way.

To me, there is nothing conflicting about celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. The holidays even share similarities – both revolve around a miracle of light, whether from the guiding Star of Bethlehem or the oil in the Jerusalem Temple that burned for eight nights.

And of course, both are about spending time with loved ones.

Instead of relying on generic holiday greetings that are careful not to “offend,” I believe everyone should make an effort to learn about and celebrate their neighbors’ customs. Because as my parents taught me, joining in others’ traditions doesn’t mean abandoning your own.

“The more the merrier” – isn’t that what the holidays are about?

Tell me about the world

CREATIVE WRITING, FAMILY

All summer I’d watch the cool blue light from our neighbor’s mosquito catcher, hanging ten feet from my bedroom window. It glowed mystically, the stillness of night punctuated only by the occasional zap and a small voice beside me.

“Tell me about the world,” she would say.

Genevieve asked this question almost every night. She was six and I was twelve. We shared a room and a bed for a year while our house was renovated – at first I protested the arrangement but soon enjoyed the company.

“What do you want to know?” I turned to face her but she was nothing more than a vague outline of gray against black. I could sense her pupils dilating, absorbing the wisps of light drifting in from between the blinds.

“Oh, I don’t know, how about black holes and supernovas and stuff. Black holes especially.”

My mother started up the stairs and we ceased talking until the clunk of her shoes had faded down the hall. If she caught us we’d be scolded for staying up too late, but that was part of the thrill.

“Well, black holes aren’t exactly in the world, Genevieve. They’re not in the earth. And shhh. Be quieter.”

“What do you mean?’” Genevieve asked. “We can’t go to black holes, even if we wanted to?”

Thinking about black holes stretched my mind to its limit so I did not answer. Instead we fell silent and I could sense her struggling to come to terms with this information.

Isn’t the world everything? What can be bigger than the world? If black holes aren’t in the world, then where are they?

This is how most of our nights went. Silence followed by questions followed by more silence, both of our imaginations spinning as quickly as the fan above our heads.

“Why are animals different colors?” Genevieve asked me after awhile, her eyes bright in the dark.

“Because they’re from different places, “I said. “Doves are white because they come from the moon, and and there it’s all snowy and cold. Crows are black because they come from the sun and their feathers got burned by the fire. And peacocks used to fly by the stars, which makes their blue-green wings shine.”

“Oh,” said Genevieve. “I never knew that.”

Outside our room the mosquitoes buzzed and zapped, buzzed and zapped. It never occurred to me that they were dying and Genevieve never asked. To us, this was just the sound of summer the way rain is the sound of spring.

Sharing a bed with Genevieve, I discovered my passion for storytelling. I had the chance to create a world for my younger sister, as if the six years I had over her somehow made me the authority on things time can’t even measure. Some nights we talked for what felt like forever. But exhaustion always caught up to us and the silences got longer, the air soon filled with ideas, like disturbed dust, settling slowly into our dreams.

Thirteen years have passed since we lay side-by-side, whispering in that four-poster bed. In less than a month, the little girl will go off to college. She’ll study biology and chemistry and physics, learning the true, scientific reasons for why things work the way they do.

But her curiosity for the world will never wane, and she’ll find answers only create more questions. These questions will grow and multiply, buzzing during wake and sleep, swarming invisibly like mosquitoes on a summer night.