Baba’s Eulogy

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My beloved aunt died on November 25th, and two days later I delivered my first eulogy at her funeral. Two months later, on January 25th, my grandmother died, a few weeks after a bad fall, at age 86. Here I was writing the second eulogy in two months. Only this time, I focused more on celebrating her life more than lamenting her death.

Here is the eulogy I wrote:

My Baba Maya knew where she wanted to go and she figured out a way to get there. She got things done. She was our matriarch, our fearless leader, with a ferocious dedication to her friends and family. She was a trailblazer, a first generation feminist, a card shark, an infamous cake baker, a loan shark, a mama, a wife, a tyawtya, a sister, a friend, a Baba, and a 5-time great-grandmother. People knew Maya Nudelman and when I told them I was her granddaughter # 1, I beamed with pride. For me, like for so many others, she was a significant lifeline whose absence will be deeply felt.

When I think of Baba, I remember the cakes. The constant hum of twirling mixers and tasting buttercream directly out of the star-tipped piping bag. Baba’s cakes were at the forefront of confectionary design in 1984 amongst Brighton Beach and Forest Hills where Bat Mitzvah and wedding cake orders piled in and where she sold her treats to the Russian stores, gaining local notoriety for her “Kievsky torte” and “Mister Eex.”

For 4 decades, through my eyes, one of her main reasons for living was to feed people, especially grandchildren. She asked you if you wanted an orange three times in a row after three insistent “No’s”, a peeled orange would appear in front of you, which you’d obviously eat and so she’d obviously say, “See, I knew you wanted an orange.”

When it came to her granddaughters, she was ferociously devoted to getting to see us. She made her way, by whichever means necessary, even with a police escort, to visit Michelle in Binghamton, with blueberry bleenee – enough for her and her college friends. Or the time I lived on Wall Street, around the corner from the Stock Exchange with crisscrossing traffic patterns she somehow ended up in the high-security rotary in front of the Exchange. In broken English, she convinced the NYPD to rotate the rotunda, for the first time since 9/11 I think, because “her granddaughter lives right upstairs.” When my sister had her first art exhibition at Rutgers University, my grandmother showed up, greeting my sister who was sporting royal blue dreadlocks and proudly posed for pictures with the photos of Reena’s mutilated dolls in the background.

My grandmother perpetually preached the importance of speaking Russian and was my first teacher. I would sit on the gray and white folded table while she assembled layers of cakes and crushed nuts with rolling pins, and I would stare at the “Novoye Ruskaya Slova” in front of me and ask her letters, one by one. “This backwards ‘R’ is ‘ya?’” I would ask? Yes, “ya,” which means “I” is last in the alphabet, she would remind me. That’s how I was taught to remember it – always put yourself last.

Baba was the original “say yes” woman. When invited to a party, she always went. I remember flipping through old photos, stumbling upon strangers or distant relatives and thinking, “who are those people?” She never doubted her need to be there, to share in the celebration; if she was invited, she went, and always brought a generous cash gift.

She never forgot a gift. She felt obligated and called it such, “Ya tyebye dolzhjana.” If it was my birthday or my kid’s birthday, even a month later, she would emerge from the back, cash folded in her hand, our little not-so-secret, secret.

She wouldn’t throw anything out if it wasn’t ripped apart or completely annihilated. Why do you need more towels if the ones you have still function to dry you after the shower? This theory also applies to sheets, couches, pans, plates, clothes. This is a way of life which you cannot beat out of a person. She had cash in the back which she gave readily to her granddaughters as gifts, but she lived in the same apartment for nearly her entire life in America.

On my last visit, I asked her, “How are you, Ba?” and she answered me in the same way she always had, “loochye vsyeah,” better than everyone else. “Vsyaw bootee horosho” she always said. Everything will be good.

Beyond the profound loss of our leader, we grieve an end of an era, a shutting down of an apartment which was a portal to our childhood, to those early days of America, brimming over with innocence and ignorance, possibility and promise was enough to be blissful and hopeful. A youthful joie de vivre, a rose bud yet unopened. We were a family at the brink of opportunities, challenges, American dreams – and she spearheaded it all.

She left this world in peace, nothing left unfinished, unafraid, no debts unpaid, no journey incomplete. She leaves behind a legacy of anecdotes, a lifetime of memories. She has penetrated into every one of us – buried herself deep in our hearts where she will forever smell like sweet cream and be wearing her soft, weathered house dress, and the glasses she often no longer needed but wore for decoration, and her bold red lipstick. I’ll never picture her without her red lipstick.

She’s coming to you now, Deda, no GPS needed. After all, she was our Ultimate Navigator.

“Afraid of Happiness” Club

I can easily relate to the phrase, “fear of failure.” As far as fear goes, it might be the most obvious. “Fear of success,” on the other hand, sounds preposterous. I’m a perfectionist who prefixes every Google search with “best.” Success in itself isn’t even a success to me; it is what is expected. I thought success was my programmed (genetic) default. There is nothing scary about success; is there? 

As the year is wrapping up and my 365-day writing project is coming to a close, I feel a new sensation I hadn’t encountered. I feel trepidation that something good will occur. 

What happens when my dreams become more tangible, like a lucid dream? When I land an agent who believes in me and makes me her little project (doesn’t every girl ultimately want to get “discovered?”) I will get my book deal and it will explode like Harry Potter, only for the over 40+ crowd who teeter between the chick-lit and self-help aisles. I will appear on The Today Show’s fourth hour with Kathie Lee and Hoda. I’ll get an advance on my next book. More donut shop stories. More tales from the advertising world. More Russian modern family inappropriate anecdotes. Chronicles of the Clowns on Wall Street. (I can go on all day.)

When all of this transpires, I will be even more scared than I am now. In that scenario, I will have tipped the life scales in my favor triggering the ultimate paralyzing fear: waiting for what will balance it out. I believe in the Yin and Yang; how opposite forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

Translation: with the good, you get the bad.

I had to get the flood in order to get a new kitchen. Yet, as I enjoy my new kitchen, I don’t think, “This is my reward for going through something crappy.” Instead, I look around and secretly think, “now what?”

As the year rounds out, I find myself waking up with a sense of “waiting for it.” I dread the phone ringing. Whenever my husband calls out from across the room, I don’t know what will follow when I say, “What?” I don’t exhale until it’s something simple like the gas won’t work or the tiles won’t fit or they sent the wrong parts for the pantry drawers. Each day something annoying or stupid happens, I’m grateful it’s not something worse. I can handle these things; they have solutions.

It’s the uncontrollable with which I struggle. I have no power over the scariest things. The mystery of tomorrow is terrifying to me, rather than exhilarating. At the same time, I’m “grateful as fuck.”* Thankful I can wake up healthy and have another chance to play the game. I use the game metaphor for life often because it seems so “on point:”** I can usually attempt to find a strategy to win but a game, by its very nature, implies there is an element of chance and serendipity involved.

My habit of finding the “reason for things” is closely connected to my “fear of happiness” as they are two sides me trying to gain control. If I relax and go with it, the wave of life will wash over me and what I really want is to learn to surf. Life is a series of lessons and metaphors and cliches, where we ultimately all share the same ending.

My husband is convinced my fear of good comes from my Russian cynical pragmatic upbringing (or genetics). My pessimistic parents (who I excuse with the label of “realists” because they had to overcome an oppressed life and defect as refugees to a new country) subconsciously brainwashed me to look for faults, mistakes, and anticipate the worst. My mother is convinced there is a bullseye of bad luck on her life. These were also the same people who didn’t settle for a life without freedom. They went for more and I will do the same.

Yet I find myself most anxious when I’m at my happiest. What kind of crazy psychosis is this? I’ve come full circle. Like proving a math theorem, in the course of an essay I have unwound the mystery behind my “fear of success.”

I am Dostoyevsky meets Nora Ephron.

Fear, you jackass, you mind terrorist, you dwell in every fold of my brain. I will liberate you with writing.

* Millennial-speak in an effort to be relevant, hip, and mostly I try to drop an F-bomb at least once a piece.

** I did it again.

“I’m a Jew Who Loves Christmas Songs” Club

I didn’t grow up in a religious home; I knew I was Jewish and knew it was important that I know that. Together with my parents, I came to America as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979. The anti-semitism drove my parents out; they wanted to live in a country where their religion didn’t prevent them from going to college or getting a job or procuring an apartment.

In New York City, home to over one million Jews, my parents felt free to wear Star of David and Chai necklaces but never stepped foot inside a synagogue unless it was mandated for a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. When it came time for the December holidays at school and kids did the “Are you Christmas or Chanukah” survey, I was proudly “Team Chanukah.”

In junior high school, I was in the chorus for two years (got in by singing the theme to the Brady Bunch) and had the opportunity to perform at the Staten Island Mall for the holidays and at the iconic Pan Am Building (now the MetLife building) as well as Carnegie Hall. In those years, I learned dozens of Christmas songs and loved them all, excited to be able to sing along to a month’s worth of radio as I wiped down counters at the family donut shop.

Initially, I felt a sense of guilt for loving the Christmas songs so much; almost like I violated my religion. I didn’t keep kosher so eating BLT sandwiches never felt as much as a breach of religion as how much these Christmas carols could penetrate my soul; Ave Maria and Silent Night get me every single time.

Last week my daughter came home from her musical theater class telling me they were working on a Christmas song, “Don’t worry mom, it doesn’t have any Jesus or Santa in it, it’s just about winter.”

“Oh that’s OK,” I said, “I love Christmas songs!”

“You know,” my husband chimed in, “many Christmas songs were actually written by Jews. The song you’re doing, Winter Wonderland was, as well as Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, and the one of the most famous ones, White Christmas, which is the best selling single ever.” 

“You know, our teachers asked if there is anyone in the class who didn’t celebrate Christmas and I raised my hand,” my daughter explained. “Then she said, ‘Really? No one in your family celebrates Christmas? Not even your parents or grandparents?’ She was so shocked and I said, ‘No, no one at all.’”

I laughed. It’s funny in 2016, living in such an urban multicultural area, with plenty of Jews, there are still people shocked to learn Jesus’ birthday doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t feel nostalgic for three wise men or yearn to sing hymns or gather around the table, heads bowed for grace. It’s just a day off, no more sacred to us than Columbus Day or President’s Day.

The songs, though often deity specific, cross religions and cultures by creating a feeling of camaraderie, warmth, celebration, and joy. I say cheers to Christmas carols. 

“I Voted” Club

I knew this would be a day to which I’d reflect in a “where were you when…” kind of way. As I walked down the crunchy brown leaf-lined street on this quintessential fall election day, it was unseasonably warm, and the sun cranked up the saturation on the remaining autumnal leaves. Either way, today would be emotional, historic, and memorable.

My 14-year-old son asked if I was voting and I told him, “of course,” and his immediate retaliation rhetoric was to tell me my vote won’t count. I don’t want to believe that; what if everyone catches this mentality like a virus?

I voted not just because it’s my right or my civic duty. I voted because my parents came to New York City as refugees from the former Soviet Union in 1979 so we can become citizens of a country, which is a beacon for democracy. I voted because I choose to live in America and ride on her roads, go to her schools, collect employment and Medicaid when I needed it. I voted because these are the rules of the sandbox and I want to play nicely in it.

I voted because I am a woman who at one point wouldn’t be allowed to vote because of my gender; as a Jew, who at (many) points was persecuted for her religion, and as a refugee who had to leave her country in search of the opportunity to vocalize without fear.

There is no perfect candidate just like there is no perfect human, but choosing not to vote is dipping into a downward spiral of negating democracy. What makes America great (today) is the principle that we can differ in opinion and all still co-exist. Our country not only allows us to vocally disrespect our government leaders, it supports us as we protest in public, as long as we do it safely. We don’t have to worry about being arrested. In Russia, if you even contemplate negative thoughts of Putin, you’ll get shot in the back at Red Square. [In fact, this article will probably red flag me.]

As a writer, my voice is my identity. I cope with life through my words. My parents delivered me upon this promised land and encouraged me to sow my roots here, to spread my wings, and to chirp as loudly as I needed in order to be heard.

Neither one of the candidates accurately represents me; I am a hippie at heart and sadly Willie Nelson isn’t on the ticket. I may not like their personalities or their laugh or the color of their skin tone. I may not agree with the way they handle their sexual relations or their marriages. I can play devil’s advocate for every candidate possible but I’m no more interested in that role than in engaging in political debates with my closest friends and family.

I voted for the candidate who can speak intelligently, with empathy and compassion for fellow humans. I voted for someone who will defend my rights, as a woman, and a human, to treat my body how I see fit. I voted for someone who understands Roe v. Wade is a scientific conversation, not a religious one, and this is non-negotiable to me. I voted for someone I’d want representing me as an American, the next President of the United States.

I voted because I wanted to know I tried, I participated, I counted.

“I Can Never Be Satisfied” Club

I can blame PMS or I can simply take accountability for being a mega-bitch who is never satisfied with anything. The song Satisfied from Hamilton: The Musical could be written about me (without the Alexander Hamilton part). I researched and made decisions about things I never thought about (toilets, tiles, grout) and I measured everything which needed to be measured. The deliveries happened and for these large pieces, they all came with complications. We open the bathroom vanity, the marble counter, and the waterfall sink and all of them are beautiful. I get them into the bathroom where we painstakingly grouted our white subway tile with charcoal grout and the whole thing looks too damn huge.

I don’t mean to approach every situation searching for what’s wrong or how it could be made better? I can’t help it. I see the typos, mistakes, unleveled, cracked, extra grouted – all of it. Sometimes I actually dilute myself into thinking I’m easy to please and when I try to think about in regards to what am I “easy to please,” I come to the same answer – nothing.

I’m staring at my new lacquer gray vanity with a marble top and it comes with little feet, which makes it the appropriate height for an Amazonian, but not so great for 5’2” me. I am contemplating a collapsible step stool to store underneath the clever area created by these (unnecessary) feet. Here I was thinking it looked more like “furniture” (which I’m not sure became a trend in the first place).

The toilet we selected is a sleek one-piece porcelain sculpture and I envision cleaning its pristine outside will be a breeze with no obtrusive ridges, but somehow it’s modern shape, seems like a bubble letter “D” and has an extra large toilet seat and I feel a bit like I’m falling in and my butt might touch the water. It comes with two flush options, a smaller button for a pee or larger button for a poop. I tried the pee flush after a pee and it whisked away the urine but left the toilet paper. Poop flush was 100% successful so this has been the highlight of today.

I’m sure once the kitchen countertops get installed, the backsplash gets finished and the refrigerator water line gets connected (along with another list of 50+ things to do in the never-ending renovation), I will begin to play in my new room, scratching the cabinets with my cheek like a cat does to mark its territory.

I take a photo of the bathroom and send it to my sister and she says, “What is this, the Ritz? It’s gorgeous! You guys are like Chip and Joanna Gaines.” I think, “I photographed it well” and blocked out the dirty shower, which we haven’t cleaned or updated. Also not shown in the photo: how I need to be the Green Giant to brush my teeth at this vanity.

Usually, I think of my personality as similar to my dad’s (for better or worse), but today I recognized my mother in my reflection as I stared at the bathroom I painstakingly selected and turned my nose at it. I could hold it in. I could fake it’s all great and smile. I can say, “I love it,” and gush, but that’s not what I’m thinking so it’s not what I say. I complain and talk about all the things I DON’T like.

Earlier this week, my mother was telling me about the kitchen renovation she finally completed. “I hate it,” she said. When I pressed her for why I prepared to hear a laundry list of faux pas, she said, “There is a seam in the granite counter which disrupts the natural pattern.”

“What else?” I say. “The stove, the fridge, the sink, the cabinets?”

“Oh, I love those.”

I swing both ways in terms of thinking what I have is the best OR thinking the grass is always greener. My see-saw cliche reaction may often be dependent on which side of the bed I woke up on (usually the bad side) or perhaps the time of the month. Either way, I feel like a small girl in her new grown up room, strangely uncomfortable surrounded by this tall, shiny furniture, hoping it’ll grow on me.

“My Daughter is the Non-Immigrant at an Immigrant School” Club

Five months after I landed in New York City from the former Soviet Union, I had my first day at the public school across the streets from the projects in which we settled. It was an average school, (although I didn’t know the difference) and it was filled with kids just like me: fellow immigrants. We were Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian; a quintessential New York City melting pot of culture. I wasn’t interested in the other cultures; I focused on the all-American kids: the Jennifers, Michelles, Matthews, and Davids; the ones I saw on Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss and Facts of Life. This was way before ABC saturated the market with a rainbow of sitcoms to accommodate many cultural demographic.

I was in awe of the “Amerikanskiye” kids, whereas my parents were often quick to point out all their flaws. I was jealous of their PTA-participating moms, their fashionable clothes, their modern lunchboxes, and their in vogue hairstyles. I was only in kindergarten and I already recognized my blatant differences. Aside from a name I would have to repeat a dozen times before they got it, I had toast with cream cheese and tea for breakfast rather than cereal with milk. I would drink my tea out of a “blyoodeechka” (saucer) so it would cool down faster.

Fast forward 35 years and my daughter is off to kindergarten and we live in a neighborhood which is also predominantly immigrants, only the difference is it is one-dimensional: 52% of our community is from Korea. We’ve enjoyed our emersion in their culture, eating Korean tofu soup, kimchi, spicy cucumbers weekly. 75% of my daughter’s class is Korean. She has Korean friends as well as Chinese, Indian, and Arabic friends but at one point, she confessed, “I wish there were more Jewish kids in my school.” While I felt a pang of guilt (not sure why), her comment actually validates my suspicion that most children will eventually go through the rite of passage of feeling like they don’t belong. Hopefully, it’s a transient learning experience.

This year she had a boy join the school who just came here from China. “He doesn’t speak any English,” she explained to me. “Not even one word. He doesn’t understand anything I say, especially ‘NO!’” I had to explain to her how hard and alienating it feels to be an outsider. Over time he’ll blend in and being an immigrant will just be one part of who he is – just like it is one part of who I am – and just another way in which humans connect, identify, and relate to one another. (Immigrant Club.)

I told my daughter about my first day of kindergarten. I didn’t speak any English and was terrified to be left alone without my parents. My grandmother, who at 87 still speaks broken English, was my translator for the day. I clenched the bottom of her dress for dear life, sobbing, begging her not to leave. My daughter laughed at the idea that “Baba Maya,” her great-grandmother, who needs a translator to communicate 98% of everything, would be MY translator. This notion that I was a scared, lonely child helped trigger an intense empathetic reaction.

I wonder how her experience will be different. I look at her and see her as the “cool and nice girl,” the one for whom reading and language and communicating is so easy, such an afterthought. Children have always been drawn to her; making friends comes easily and naturally to her. Her default is to love everybody and be inclusive. I was such a starkly different creature; born pragmatic realistic, full of doubt. My iron feet don’t lift from the ground while she floats on clouds gleefully.

Her exposure to the diverse cultures helps her understand differences and develop tolerance, which she will hopefully carry throughout her life in our global world. I imagine she is gaining an understanding of the idiosyncrasies in communicating with different cultures – with empathy and kindness rather than with ignorance and entitlement – and this will only serve her in life. I don’t want to raise a child who travels to France thinking they’ll speak to her in English.

Additionally, I have the parent perspective. Now I’m the “American” mom, which is baffling and makes me chuckle. At school pick up, I am the minority once again, a blonde in a sea of Koreans. They smile at my face of exclusion and giggle, but it feels polite and superficial and never quantified with anything beyond a smile and “hi.” In an ironic twist of fate, life has made me an outsider for the second generation, only, this time, I know better.

“One Size Fits All Medical Solutions” Club

One of the concepts (and there are MANY) from My Big Fat Greek Wedding which I relate to is the father’s obsession with the ubiquitous usage of Windex as a one size fits all medical solution. My Russian father similarly resorted to his go-to resolution to remedy many health ailments: RUBBING ALCOHOL. If I got a bite, a scratch, a rash, a pimple, the solution was always ALCOHOL.

My husband pointed out a red welt on his neck which resembled a mosquito bite gone rogue, but it had started to develop a red circle around it and I worried about Lyme Disease. (I curse my freshman decision to take the senior-level “Human Infectious Diseases: From Aids to Influenza” class, where my final 20-page term paper was on Lyme Disease.)

I called my father and mentioned the questionable red mound growing on my husband’s neck. “Maybe it’s a spider bite,” my father theorized. “Or maybe he scratched off a mosquito bite and it got infected. Did you see a tick?”

“He didn’t see a tick but thought maybe he brushed it off before he noticed what it was.”

I was worried about a spider bite. My husband’s brother-in-law got bitten by a black recluse spider and within days he was in the emergency room getting a baseball-sized chunk cut out of his leg, which they reassured him was way better than an amputation or death.

My father didn’t waste a beat in his answer. As I prepared to chime in with his “Alcohol” response, he threw me a curveball. “Iodine.”

“What? Not alcohol?”

“Go get iodine right now, put it in the middle and it’ll kill anything that’s in there. Right now. Go get it.”

The orange of Iodine trumps the last two decades of the clear alcohol. Before orange or clear, though, there was bright green “zelionka,” a dilute free alcoholic solution effective against gram-positive bacteria sold as a topical antiseptic in Russia. I always recognized fellow immigrant kids by seeing the green liquid covering their cuts and scabs.

His one-size-fits-all solution isn’t so far removed from the current trend of healthcare in our culture. The profusion of pharmaceutical commercials on TV convince us we need the latest vitamin, antibiotic, vaccine, cream, anti-depressant, or anti-anxiety drugs. Pharmaceuticals want to make sure we are so numb we forget to stop taking the pills. Physical and emotional pain are all part of the complexity of being alive, but in our culture, we’re being taught we need drugs as much as we need Coca-Cola and donuts; because theoretically, they will make our lives better, easier, more euphoric.

I’ve deduced the pharmaceutical representatives who sell prednisone hit the drug lottery. Prednisone is the hospital’s rubbing alcohol (or iodine as this year mandates).

This year I’ve had to take my son and my husband to the emergency room. My son had an allergic reaction to something they couldn’t identify but because his breathing wasn’t compromised, they weren’t worried and gave him a week’s worth of prednisone. My husband got Bell’s palsy and for his ailment, which they described as a “differential diagnosis,” meaning they use the process of elimination to make sure it’s nothing deadly and give it their best guess. There is no real treatment for the Bell’s Palsy, but since most Americans have become accustomed to a prescription solution to everything, they gave him a prescription for two weeks of prednisone! My father had to take his 11-year-old son to the hospital because he woke up with a wheezing cough, complaining he was having a hard time breathing. After the hospital verified he was getting 100% oxygen, they said it “may be” croup, but they’re not sure, but just in case, here’s a prescription for … wait for it… prednisone.

The main problem with the “one solution fits all” mentality is it doesn’t factor in the billions of differences between humans. The way our bodies will respond to medicine, to food, to exercise, to stress is unique. There are as many responses as there are humans and yet it’s impossible to personalize medical solutions so scientists rely on the majority.

When my daughter was four months old I brought her in for a well-visit to a new pediatrician. The doctor spent five minutes with my baby, avoided eye contact and began to spew the same rhetoric she repeated to anyone who stepped in her office. She quoted numbers from a chart rather than look into my daughter’s bright eyes, observe her supple skin, or react to the baby’s vocal responses (she said “hi” at four months). She was perfect but the pediatrician warned her weight “may be in danger of one day falling off the charts.” (Note my six-year-old is in the 99th percentile for height and weight and has been for most of her life). It was at this doctor’s visit when I lost faith in healthcare and my trips to the prednisone-distributing emergency rooms re-confirmed it.

I’ll keep WebMd bookmarked, my Merck Medical Manual on my desk, and my title of Dr. G because no one will know or take care of my body – or my children’s bodies – like I will – and it’s really not any one else’s responsibility to do so. I am our family doctor and for now, I’ll take iodine over prednisone.

“Flavors Trigger Memories” Club

My default vanilla was established in a subterranean ice cream shop in the former Soviet Union, where my parents took me after I had my ears pierced. I was three years old and while I don’t recall the actual needle stabbing in my ear, the intense sweet vanilla lodged itself as the standard by which all future vanillas will have to measure against. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, your taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated. Or else maybe your brain just remembers them that way.

It’s my only sensorial memory from the Soviet Union. Where did the others go? I was almost five years old when we landed at JFK Airport and the only stories I can recount are those which were told to me, using photographs as triggers, convincing me of the life I had. Like an amnesiac I grip faded photographs trying hard to recall a memory frozen in time. How is it possible to loose all of your childhood memories without any biological trauma?

That Russian vanilla feels nostalgic even though I can’t close my eyes tight enough to create a visual of the actual ear piercing that happened before the ice cream. I only remember the sweet reward and its lasting connection to childhood.

As an immigrant, American foods don’t often trigger a sense of wistfulness withing me. I don’t salivate as soon as I smell the smoke of a grill, reminiscing about childhood 4th of July BBQs.

When I was a teenager, more social experiences occurred around food and those memories seem to float up with certain flavors. Platters of nachos covered in a brick of cheddar cheese invoke comforting memories at my best friend’s house, a welcome reprieve from a shitty high school experience I’ve otherwise forgotten.

My father bought a donut shop in Staten Island and on the four occasions we visited it before we moved, I got an egg bagel with cream cheese and a Hershey’s chocolate milk. In those visits, I sat around a horseshoe counter imagining how successful my father will be, how different our lives will become. That breakfast combination tasted like American dreams and after we moved to Staten Island and I began working at the donut shop regularly, much to my chagrin, I never had this breakfast combination again. We replaced egg bagels with egg-everything ones and switched from Hershey’s to Nestle’s chocolate milk. I could never replicate that taste of original promise; only a fake replica.

Through those years at the donut shop, where I was also the short order cook for the 3pm-11pm shift, I helped combine many flavors to define my adolescence. Ham sandwiches on kaiser rolls with pickles on them, bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, raw cookie dough, chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles on them. It was a shit show of unhealthy, quick comfort foods which I made with love for our customers and then happily devoured myself. I was 40 pounds overweight in high school and before I left for college, I made sure to leave the donut shop with its artery-blocking grub, and those extra pounds behind on Staten Island.

In college, frozen yogurt was the hip diet trend craze. There was a small cafe we frequented on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. There I created a custom-blended frozen yogurt masterpiece. For freshman year only, thanks to my college roommate who convinced me of its deliciousness, my combination was “chocolate base with mint chip and grape nuts.” I had never had the gritty cereal before but somehow the sand-like crunch became addictive but when I transferred away from Boston, I left the pseudo-healthy gravel ice cream with it.

I moved to NYU where veggie burgers and carrot-ginger dressing were all the rage at DoJo Restaurant. In New York dozens of cuisines serve as the backdrop for my flavor memories, but to this day when I drive by West 4th Street, I think about that DoJo dressing.

I realize this is why I go back to familiar restaurants. We live in a city with about 24,000 restaurants; I can go to a different restaurant every day FOR OVER 65 YEARS without trying the same one twice. My husband and I laugh at ourselves; how ridiculous of us to continue to go to the same places over and over when there are literally thousands of other choices. We go for the flavor memories, for the nostalgia, for the same reason listening to a favorite song over and over elicits joy and excitement. Flavors are the spice to our lives, unlocking time capsules even photographs cannot unleash.

“I Don’t Like Cartoons” Club

I didn’t grow up watching cartoons, even though I came to America at the prime cartoon watching age of five. In the Soviet Union I had watched Cheburashka (according to my parents) and even though I can still hum along to the theme song as intuitively as to a lifelong lullaby, I don’t have a sense of nostalgia towards the animated show.

In America, Tom & Jerry lacked dialog and its excessive senseless silliness bored me. I was mildly entertained by the dramatic familial antics of The Flintstones but that’s about it. While I missed many of the American and pop culture references, I strongly connected to Fred’s yelling, “Wilma!” because it sounded just like my father screaming for “Bella!”

My brain did not seem to stretch to accommodate the cartoon medium. It didn’t want to bend to imagine fantasy or the unbelievable. Under preferences, my brain checks “chatting with the grownups with coffee and cigarettes” over “cartoons.” I much preferred the sugary cereal addictiveness of 1980s TV sitcoms: Facts of Life, Three’s Company, Different Strokes, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss … and of course there was the primetime genius of Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty and The Love Boat.

My first in-theater animated movie was Bambi seen in the Forest Hills movie theater which still stands on Queens Boulevard. I was a new immigrant child at her first matinee. All I remember of the experience is the buttery popcorn and the mother deer gets killed, abandoning her orphaned doe. Tragic for anyone, ESPECIALLY A FIVE YEAR OLD!

How about Cinderella? Evil stepmother, evil step-sisters, bullying, mild slavery, and the lesson is: your goal in life is to marry a prince so you can live happily ever after. (They try to disguise this by calling it “ A wish your heart makes…” Cinderella is a melancholic disaster.

Disney movies were never my thing until Alladin, which was the first animated movie I watched by choice as an adult. It was 1992; the year I graduated from high school. Part of what captivated me towards the movie was Robin Williams’ role as the Genie. Being a huge fan of his, it was his hilarious nonstop ad-libbing which lured me in.

My son instantly took to the cartoons and animated movies. He didn’t discriminate much; Thomas the Tank Engine, Tom & Jerry, or Bob the Builder were all fair game when he was a toddler. By the time he was born in 2002, Finding Nemo hit the theaters with amazing realistic under-ocean animation and more sadness – another murdered mother plus a lost child.

Today, on the one-year anniversary of Robin Williams’ death I rewatched Aladdin 24 years after the first time, this time with my six-year-old daughter. My goals were different from hers; she wanted to see Princess Jasmine’s beautiful dresses and hear the melodic songs and I wanted an encore of Robin Williams’ brilliant improvisational explosion.

After 14 years of motherhood and dozens of forced animated movies under my belt, I’ve loosened up a bit, but partially it’s because Disney/Pixar has met me part way, in terms of realistic content, which apparently connects more with me – and my heart. Up, Toy Story 3, Inside Out: all successful at achieving cry baby results.

All Disney animated movies are formulaic: a hero, an animal sidekick, overcoming a villain to arrive at ultimate utopia, Happily Ever After. The movies showcase a character’s journey, unrealistically portraying how despite tragedy and turmoil, the main character will persevere and enjoy a happy ending.

You have to hand it to them, what’s not to like about that?

“I Caught My Father in an Affair” Club

I imagine flavors connect to memories in my brains like an old fashioned phone switchboard. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated.

Eggs, sunny side up, bring me back to that fateful conversation with my father 28 years ago.

I worked at my family’s donut shop from the time I was 12-18 years old, transitioning through puberty on parade for the morning shift waitresses, the workers at the ShopRite, and anyone getting their driver’s license at the DMV, located in the same strip mall. I was a trophy child, well behaved, with good grades, no boyfriend, diligently working at the family donut shop. I was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Russian Jewish version; instead of mastering Souvlaki, I perfected cooking eggs on a bacon-greased grill.

My father owned the donut shop where he functioned as the manager, accountant, donut maker and cook on the occasions when the alcoholic weekend short-order cook called out. He never trusted anyone to take on a managerial role nor did he ever find a baker worthy enough to satisfy his taste. After years of unending work, no vacation, seldom a day off, his hopelessness, insecurity, and exhaustion made him ripe for a midlife crisis, which is how I’ve always justified his actions. It was the summer of 1988; I had just turned 14 and my father was 40.

I don’t remember a time when I thought my parents had a happy marriage; communication meant screaming arguments. Insults flew like daggers through the air piercing the cigarette smoke; their only camaraderie found over their nightly shots of vodka around the dinner table. My father projected a large personality, confident, charismatic, charming, and conceited. I’ve always thought these traits were a red herring for his insecurities as a short bald man. My mother, disinterested in analyzing my father or reading his mind, only saw a man who put her down, elevating himself. At dinner, he would often lose his train of thought mid-conversation because his reflection in the glass door caught his eye. My mother desperately needed someone to tell her how beautiful she was and instead, she had a man who told her how beautiful he was. I perceived my mother to be an otherwise strong woman before this summer arrived. She worked a professional job, she cooked, she cleaned, she did the food shopping – for the house – and the donut shop. But my mother wouldn’t do what my father needed most: fluff his feathers, tell him how good he was, how smart, or how handsome.

So he found someone who would.

Her name was Donna but my sister, mother and I call her the whore from the donut shop. At first, we didn’t realize she was my father’s mistress; we met her as the donut finisher. We thought my father was helping her out like a charity case. She had fallen on rough times, my father explained; he eluded to a boyfriend beating her up. My mother, the perpetual do-gooder even allowed Donna to live in our basement for two weeks. She slept on the beige corduroy couch, lined with the soft sheets they brought from their old life in the Soviet Union. My mother had me bring her cold green grapes in a stainless steel bowl.

The surprising thing to me was how ugly Donna was. This is not just a biased opinion; she was empirically hideous, like a female emaciated version of Sloth from Goonies. She had stringy, unwashed frosted blonde hair in a mullet, her face was covered in cystic adult acne, her eyes were too far apart and different sizes in a vacant shade of pale blue, and her body resembled a skinny 11-year-old boy with no tits or ass, as my mother pointed out. I always thought if you cheated on your wife, it would be with a hot secretary type, not the strung out on heroine type.

Ultimately my observation led to my mother to the affair, catching my father with his pants down, literally. She walked in on them fucking – or else she was giving him a blowjob – I’ve never let her give me the exact details.

I don’t recall the exact events leading up to my mother’s heightened suspicions, but I suspect the whore in the basement was a trigger. It didn’t matter, ignited with my inner sense of justice and a teenager’s dramatics, I happily slid into a co-pilot role, not thinking about consequences of her mother catching my father with his dick in Donna. I was riding my bike two blocks away when I spotted my father’s cherry red pickup truck in her driveway. I knew she lived there; he had helped her find this apartment (2 blocks away). I came home and tattle-tales to my mother that I saw daddy’s truck parked at her house. She grabbed her keys, slipped on her flip flops, and walked the two blocks to find them mid-crime.

It felt like our family was hit by a tornado, our house was destroyed to splinters and yet we pretended we could tape it seamlessly back together as though it could still stand. In most families, I imagine the children shielded from the ugly truths of a marriage gone sour.

My parents didn’t keep secrets from me; I was the third leg they needed to keep the family standing. My father knew I was the one who discovered his car there and he knew he needed to talk to me about it, adult to adult. (I was 14.)

This conversation happened over a plate of sunny side up eggs I made for myself. I ate them with dry rye toast, cracking the perfectly formed dome of the egg. My face connected to my plate like a magnet. I refused to make eye contact with him. I didn’t want to cry or break. I wanted to remain cool and strong and to appear mature, understanding, and sympathetic. I loved my father deeply; I was the typical daddy’s girl and secretly thought him and my mother were never well matched. Somewhere in my subconscious, I thought the affair would be their way out. They could take this chance to start over; he was only 40; she was just 35!

I don’t remember the look on his face, but I’ll never forget the taste of those eggs. I was looking from above at my life, telling myself “you’ll never forget this moment” and instead of memorizing any of his words, his apology (was there one?), or his excuses, I memorized those eggs. The quintessential texture of the yolk, the vivid yellow explosion all over my white plate. I shoveled pieces of the egg-soaked, cardboard-like bread into my mouth as if t would take me out of this situation. I nodded along to everything he said. The whites of the eggs seemed fluffier than normal, thicker, elegantly congealed. I piled pieces of them on top of the leftover bread. I looked up at him when my plate was clean. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes.

“I just want you to be happy,” I said to him, reciting a line from a romantic comedy or a soap opera. Where else do you rehearse a scene like this? What experiences from my past was I supposed to draw from to come up with the perfect line?

All I wanted was for my parents to be happy; whatever it was going to take. I wanted to be supportive. I felt my parents’ misery exude from every action. In their drinking to pass out every night, in their yelling at each other, in their snide comments, in the resentment which surrounded and calloused their hearts. It wasn’t about revisiting roads which brought them there; it was about deciding what direction to take at the crossroads of past and future.

They say cheaters sometimes want to get caught to get out of a situation. I thought this would be my father’s chance to flee, but he didn’t. He begged my mother to let him stay and she feigned forgiveness. In reality, she felt decapitated and stabbed in the heart. Instead of confronting her rage, she confronted the bottle, and sloppily professed forgiveness. She said she was too afraid to start over or live without him.

So he stayed and they celebrated their 15 year anniversary. For ten more years, he walked on eggshells while she got more and more drunk, in an effort to erase the memory of the affair. Instead of resigning it to a hazy forgotten flashback, it grew into a brighter, angrier, fiercer, and obsessive vision haunting her into paralysis. She lived in a purgatory between the sanctified memories of the life they once had and the future they would never have.

By their 25th anniversary, my father had relapsed into his midlife crisis and this time, instead of Donna from the donut shop in Staten Island, it was Natasha from the donut shop in Kiev. His life sent him in an ironic circle BACK to Kiev to open a donut shop for an investor and there he met his second wife.

What effect did my father cheating on my mother have on me? I saw my first love betray me and undervalue our family unit. I would never trust another man again; confident every man had the potential, and would likely cheat on me. I would never let my guard down completely in any relationship and no matter how trustworthy the men in my life have been, they have eventually had to fall under spells of suspicion and jealousy. I would forever feel like I have to over-satisfy my men with enough sex, good enough sex, to make them stay. More than anything, I vowed to control my life so I never end up a victim, like my mother.

My father couldn’t foresee the trajectory the affair would have on his life, my mother’s life, my life, or my sister’s life. He didn’t consider consequence, as many don’t when making questionable choices. His impulsive decision to satiate an itch and his entitlement to have that itch scratched trumped potential repercussions. He didn’t know my mother would spiral into alcoholism like a little girl in quicksand. He didn’t care that her depression would land her like a casualty of war in which she never enlisted. She continued to live under a veil of sadness so thick she didn’t realize she was counting on me as her support line. I was thrust into the unwelcome role of her confidante, her therapist, her best friend, her secret keeper, and a life saver.

Only now, in my year of unraveling my tightly-wound history, do I realize how desperately I needed a mommy during those days. I needed someone to tell me this was OK; someone to assure when the rug is swept from underneath me, I will land on my feet. I needed someone to reassure me that shit happens to everyone in life and every relationship has flaws. I needed someone to hold my hand, rub my head, kiss me on the forehead and quote Maya Angelou:

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still, I’ll rise.

Instead, I sucked it up, rose up, and became a woman, sweeping those secrets neatly back under the rug.