Shirley Manson. PJ Harvey. Dolores O’Riordan. Annie Lennox. These women are badass. Notice the lack of Jenn on that list.
In all fairness, I have a bit of badassery to my name, but when it came to the stage, I wasn’t the best at it. Go figure, middle school teacher by day.
When you’re young and carefree, you’re just happy to play shows. Any shows. Which is how it came to pass that we were slightly down the beltway in scenic Woodbridge one Friday evening, 2nd in the lineup of four bands. The room was sparse, thick with cigarette smoke, and while it was a bit terrifying to some of our friends, I felt at home, having frequented a number of similar establishments during my college years. You could have dropped the Spotlight smack dab in the middle of Follansbee, West Virginia, and had yourself a thriving venue.
I was feeling a whole lot self-conscious that particular evening as my sister and her husband were there along with my brothers. So when it was our time to play, I was trying my best to focus on the back wall, and just make it through our thirty minute set. A song or two in, no one was throwing beer bottles, so I considered the night a success.
Then it happened. The audience had a special request.
“Show us your tits!” rang out from the darkened room. A few times. And I panicked a wee bit, which, let’s face it, makes sense. I was in a biker bar. My eyes darted around the room, trying to figure out where the creepy was coming from so it could be avoided once I had left the relative safety of the platform stage. I remember feeling like I might throw up.
But did I channel my inner Joan Jett and flip them off? Did I call upon the spirit of Janis Joplin to hasten to my side? No, no I did not.
I meekly replied with a slight giggle, “OH! No, thank you!”
Someone really should have revoked my microphone privileges then and there.
My grandmother was ninety years old when she came to live with us. She stayed with us until her death at the young age of 101. Those eleven years are a treasure trove of stories ranging from the challenging to the ridiculous, and sometimes the cringe-worthy. Of course, perspective is everything here, and what may have started off to be a particularly dark moment is now the stuff of family legend.
Take for example my cousin’s wedding.
As luck would have it, I missed this particular event because I was at Girl Scout camp, but the basic premise was fairly routine: getting a large family which included a ninety year-old grandmother out the door on time for an event two hours away. It just didn’t happen.
So my family barreled up I-95 in the big brown van, running woefully behind, and strategizing how to quietly sneak into a wedding in progress. At least it was summer, so no overcoats would be involved.
As fate would have it, they arrived during the bridal procession. My mom corralled everyone in the parking lot to wait out all of the pomp and circumstance, planning to shimmy up the side aisle as soon as all the attention was refocused on the front of the church. It was a solid plan, and one I have also had occasion to implement.
It was at that moment that she realized Grandmom had made a break for it.
My grandmother was a smaller woman, not much over five feet, and she had a strutty way of propelling herself forward which involved a Kramer-esque head jiggle. She always nestled her one arm under her bosom and swung the other one a bit, leaning back as she went, seemingly fueled by her matriarchal pride.
And she was at that moment strutting herself toward the center aisle of the church, a few paces behind the bride.
My parents tried the loud church whisper, and whether it was grandmom’s failing hearing or a dedication decision to ignore them, on she went, right behind the clueless yet beautiful bride of my cousin, smiling and nodding at everyone she passed, certain they were all pleased as punch to see her.
Thankfully, my cousin’s wife is a gracious woman, and while this might have infuriated a good number of brides, she took it all in stride. Maybe Grandmom didn’t hear my mom, maybe she just relished the attention, maybe she was reliving her own wedding, no one knows. But at least everyone was able to have a good laugh.
My grandmother was the oldest daughter in her family of nine, and the “baby girl” of the family was named Rose, named after her mother. In 1924, Rose was sixteen years old, pregnant, and unmarried.
Teen pregnancy has always existed, certainly, and is still considered to be less than ideal, but in 1924, it was beyond shocking. But there was no shotgun wedding, no rush to legitimize, none of that. I’ve only ever seen photos of my great-grandparents as they died decades before I was born, but I think it’s safe to say that telling them she was pregnant must have been the most terrifying moment of young Rose’s life. To their credit, my great-grandparents supported their child and grandchild, and Rose stayed with them as they helped raise her son, Joseph.
Joe grew to be a fine man, and before leaving to fight for his country in World War Two, he married his love. He was nineteen.
For some ridiculous reason, my parents trusted that I was wise enough to start college early. There were of course some conditions, which included having to live with my older sister and have some “house rules” that most college freshmen don’t have, but all the same, I was a sixteen year-old freshman.
One of the first weekends post-matriculation, an outdoor dance was held on the tennis courts next to one of the dormitories. I knew a couple of girls who were siblings of my sister’s friends, and we were all standing around awkwardly when a confident and gorgeous girl strutted by. While we shuffled our feet around, this girl was full of life, laughing and talking away as if she had known everyone there for years and was their most cherished friend. As it turns out, she was also a freshman, and herself only seventeen. As she started to speak, I noticed her foreign accent – it turns out that in addition to being gorgeous, she had mysterious going for as well.
I don’t remember what it was that everyone discussed, but at this extremely conservative Catholic university, and myself still being fairly conservative, I remember we disagreed vehemently. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh well, she’ll never talk to me again,” as I went on my merry way, awkwardly bopping along to some R.E.M. I was pretending to know.
Except the strangest thing occurred – I ran into her the next day in the halls of the dorm, and she did talk to me. Which makes her a better person than I, because undoubtedly I had been a jerk. As one does when one is sixteen.
Inexplicably, we became fast friends. We came from very different beginnings – two different continents, in fact – and had nearly opposite world views. She is an only child, I have five siblings. She was a heavy metal-loving skater girl, I spent my evenings sewing dorky jumper dresses in my room.
But no matter who we met or made out with or fought with, she was my person.
Happy birthday to you, Lena-bunny. I wish Moscow were closer.
Being pregnant is not my idea of a good time. But being hooked up to an IV and completely unable to function affects more than just me. Which is why, when I learned that I was pregnant with baby #3 when the first two were only four and two years old, I was a bit panic-stricken about telling my parents as well as my husband.
The whole experience was tragically comic from start to finish. First, after several home negative home tests, I figured I was just having some weird health issues or something. My doctor thought the same after a negative test there, and so she ordered a blood test to check a bunch of levels including my thyroid.
Which is how it came to be that I learned about my pregnancy via email.
I was sitting in the basement of the townhouse we had purchased less than a month prior, watching the littles play with their duplos and dolls, when I got an email from my doctor stating, “serum positive for HCG.” I spun around in the swivel chair, realized that the littles weren’t a good sounding board for this shocking information, and tried to calm my heart rate while counting down the seconds until I could rush up and grab a phone.
I called my sister and told her first. I asked if she wouldn’t be the one to break the news to my parents, because I just didn’t have it in me, knowing they would have to take over parenting for several weeks. We agreed on a plan of attack, and then discussed just how on earth I would tell my husband.
Lest anyone get the impression that we’re horrible people, I love my babies. So does my husband. My entire family is very “Yay babies!” in fact, but it’s impossible to ignore that having babies means a LOT of work from a lot of people.
I knew that I would eventually be excited about this baby, and that if my husband reacted poorly to the news, I would have a hard time recovering. I also knew that wasn’t exactly fair, considering I had plenty of time to get out all of my “holycowwhatthehellarewegoingtodo” crazy out of my system before he would get home from work, and decided he deserved the same opportunity to work it all out. Besides, as soon as he walked through the door, I would be on my way out to work myself.
So I decided I would write him a note. I waited until naptime, then sat down to compose the “yep, I’m pregnant,” notecard to my husband. My hand was shaking a bit, but I managed to get out the basic idea that we were having a baby, we’d work it out, and everything would be okay.
As I left for work that night, I handed the sealed envelope to him, saying, “read this after the kids are asleep.” Which he didn’t. But I guess as soon as I handed it to him, he figured what it was about. We’re pretty in tune like that.
So by the time I got home that night, my husband had gone through all of the necessary freak outs and we were able to have a few moments of happiness and excitement before getting down to the technical matters. When you have HG like I do, you only get a short window of time before it all hits the fan. And the crazy did not disappoint.
Of course, I wouldn’t change a thing, and we all can’t imagine a world without our muffins, and someday I will show her the note I left for her dad, announcing her existence.
Although I did mention to my doctor that email might not be the best way to tell a woman she’s having a baby.
(this is a bit of a gimme, but I’m headed to a pumpkin patch, so it’ll have to do)
I’m always fascinated by my friend’s famous relatives. Growing up, there was the family related to Claude Pepper, which was pretty cool. My sister taught a girl whose godfather was Peter O’Toole – also, very boss. I am college chums with the grand-nephew of Claus von Stauffenberg, as portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film Valkyrie. And a family I adore is distantly related to Danny Kaye – very excellent.
And then there’s our famous relative: Gene Pool.
Yes, my mother’s third cousin is that weird dude who grows grass on everything.
In his defense, Gene was a trailblazer – caring for the environment, making a statement, and quite frankly, an internet sensation that predated the internet. He has been in a couple of commercials and was featured in People magazine a time or two. And he IS in the Guinness Book of World Records, which impresses grade schoolers around the country.
But I would be pretty excited if somehow I was also distantly related to a Grammy winner or something.
That would be Russian for, “I don’t speak English.”
Which, I do, of course. And aside from a few phrases I’ve been taught by my sweet Lena, I do not speak Russian. But when you are sixteen years old, and attempting to sneak onto a riverboat cruise, (read: floating bar) you get creative.
I was about six weeks into my first semester at college and happily agreed to go along on a trip to Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes from our school on the edge of Ohio. Our motives were innocent enough, having absolutely nothing to do that night and having no clue that there was an age restriction, we all piled into one of the university’s vans, dressed in our finest 90s garb.
When we arrived at our destination, it became quickly apparent that we’d be required to show our IDs and prove we were of drinking age. I’d never had a drink in my life, being the sheltered homeschool nerd that I was, but no matter. To board the boat, you needed to be twenty-one. And half of us were not. And we were forty minutes away from campus.
We needed a plan. A quick one.
My Lena is a smart girl who is extremely quick on her feet. Knowing my baby-faced self wasn’t getting by the ID checker, she turned to me and said, “Pretend you don’t speak English!” Which is a great idea, but how exactly? She was straight from Moscow, so that was a perfect cover, but for me? I didn’t know any Russian!
“Repeat after me. Ya. Ne. Govoryu.” She sounded out each syllable as we got closer and closer to the boat. I practiced enough to convince anyone who had never heard the language that it was legit. Not sure what we would have done if by some strange twist of fate, the security guard spoke Russian, but thankfully he didn’t.
When we got up front, the rest of our party boarded effortlessly, while Lena and I were stopped. She launched into a lengthy Russian tirade while I just nodded and threw out the odd “Da” or two for continuity’s sake. As Americans tend to do, the security guard got louder and elongated each syllable: “EYE-DEEEE. DO YOU HAVE EYE-DEEE?”
After we clogged the line for another minute or so, he gave up and waved us through. I was never much for rebellion, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t a thrill.
Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 112nd birthday.
He was living proof that the greatest of people need not be physically impressive. At just over five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, my grandfather made people nervous with how fragile he appeared. His stick thin arms looked like you might be able to break them just by brushing against him. But he would carry me whenever I asked him to do so, usually on escalators which terrified me for some reason.
My grandfather emigrated to America from Russia in 1922 at the age of 19. He came here with his youngest sister after his own grandmother had passed away. His mother and other siblings came to America before him, but they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and so Grandpop stayed behind with Miriam and the grandmother.
Not that long after he arrived in America, Grandpop met and married Ida, my grandmother. They lived together with her three sisters and their spouses as well as her parents for many years until they were able to strike out on their own, at which point they lived in the misleadingly-named Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, still known to be one of the most dangerous and economically-disadvantaged locations in the city. He made a living as a presser for a garment manufacturer. I can’t even comprehend how he had the muscles to operate the machinery, but he did that for nearly forty years, providing for his family and even managing to stash away some savings.
The story is a bit fuzzy, but at some point before my grandfather made his escape, the Bolsheviks were systematically destroying all of the Jewish villages, known as Schetls, and as they were going around shooting people, my grandfather hid underneath his grandmother’s bed to evade capture or worse. When they saw how old and sickly his grandmother was, one of the soldiers said to his cohort, “Don’t waste your bullets.”
Someone also told me the story of how my grandfather carried the body of his father in a wheelbarrow to the potter’s field for burial as they could not afford a proper burial. Prior to the revolution, they had some wealth, but that was all taken from them.
Grandpop never told me these stories himself. I was fascinated with the portrait that hung in his home, transfixed by the beauty of the clothing and the richness that emanated from it, but could only ever get him to share the names of those pictured, and sometimes a quick detail about their occupation. He would wave a tiny hand at me dismissively and say, “These were not happy times, no, let us not talk about them. Now are the happy times. We will stay in the happy times.”
I’d like to say that was possible, but having already suffered from the trauma of his youth and then later losing his only daughter suddenly, my grandfather could not help but succumb to his depression.
But on this day, the occasion of his birthday, I will remember the spry fellow who wrestled his dog, Shadow. Who got tipsy from half of a beer. The man who loved to play checkers with any worthy adversary, and who loved his family. The man who helped raise me.
When faced with split-second, life-altering decisions, most of us assume our instincts and good sense will somehow kick into high gear, and, fueled by pure adrenaline, we will make instantaneous smart choices.
As far as I can tell, the opposite may be true.
For example, a good friend of mine once told me about driving around with her mom back in the day. As it was pre-seatbelt smarts, my friend was changing her baby sister on the bench as they maneuvered around town. For some reason, her mom had to hit the brakes. But did my friend grab tight to the baby, saving her from flying off the seat and onto the floorboards? No, no she did not. She did, however, rescue the can of coke from certain spillage as it leaped forth out of the armrest. (The baby escaped unharmed, thankfully, not that much more traumatized than the soda)
My similar stupidity involved the rescuing of a twodollar flea market hat in the face of my own inevitable kidnapping or maybe death. An ugly hat, I might add.
The situation was this: one night, while traveling through Italy, my friend and I decided to sleep in a train station to save money, as neither of us had much left. It was mid-May, and for some inexplicable reason, it was freezing in Southern Italy. I asked my friend if he wouldn’t lend me a sweatshirt, but he feigned sleep and rolled over on the bench. I was entirely too chilly for sleep, so I walked around the station a bit, looking for a drink cart or something.
Now, train stations are not typically found in the fanciest parts of town, and certainly most places are not the ideal location for a leisurely walk at 2 o’clock in the morning, least of all a train station in a port town of Italy, but I was annoyed at being cold and really annoyed that my friend didn’t care enough to save me from the chill, and so I decided I would wander outside of the train station.
At 2 o’clock in the morning.
In a port town.
It was pitch black, and there was one road stretched out with jersey walls on either side, plastered with bills advertising establishments no respectable individual would frequent. It took about 45 seconds before a car pulled up close to me, dimmed its lights, and the driver leaned across and started to shout at me in Italian, motioning for me to hop in. I could read the danger on his olive-toned face.
At that moment, I realized I had never been more foolish in all my 19 years. Additionally, that if I intended to live for any more, I should move along quickly and get back. I smiled politely and confidently at the creepiest person I’ve ever seen outside of a horror film, and picked up the pace a bit.
Which is when he swerved the car in front of me, cut the engine, and got out.
My heart was now lodged in my throat as my eyes darted toward the field to the right of me. Thankfully, it led into bright lights which I assumed my pursuer would avoid, right back to the train station, and eventually to my friend. I have never been even close to athletic or fast on my feet, but I swear they only hit dirt every few paces as I went. He wasn’t that far behind me, but he wasn’t catching up to me, perhaps inhibited by drugs or alcohol.
And that is when my foot caught an uneven spot in the grass, and I stumbled over, my two dollar flea market hat, purchased at the beginning of the semester in the market square in Vienna, went rolling off of my big stupid head.
And at that moment, in the midst of outrunning a man with only God knows what hideously evil intentions, I stopped to pick up my two dollar flea market hat. Yes, I really did.
I don’t know if you can really measure time in smaller increments than seconds, but if you can, that’s about how long it took me to reconsider my hat-rescuing instincts and resume my sprinting. By the time I hit the safety of the floodlights, I turned and saw that the man was winded and bent over, having given up his chase.
Perhaps he saw me reach down for my hat and realized I was entirely too stupid for his tastes.
As a child, before I landed in the home in which I was raised, I spent about two years going back and forth between my Irish Catholic grandmother, my father’s mother, and my Russian Jewish grandfather, my mother’s father. If that sounds confusing to you, try being a preschooler.
My grandfather was a wee wisp of a thing, standing tall at about five-foot one, and weighing in at maybe ninety-five pounds. Although he’d never been formally educated past the third grade, Grandpop was brilliant – he had grown up during the Communist Revolution and while his family and community spoke Yiddish, taught himself Russian so he could eavesdrop on the soldiers. I imagine being able to move his tiny self about unnoticed helped in this as well. After emigrating to the states, he then taught himself English.
While I lived with my grandfather in Center City Philadelphia, I attended Hebrew Nursery School. I was presumably the only baptized kid in my class. While he worked very hard to strictly speak English, there were words from his first language that peppered his speech, and I adopted them into my own cobbled-together vernacular.
I can remember walking my grandfather’s giant sheepdog, Shadow, in the middle of what must have been the blizzard of 1979. The snowbanks were taller than I was, and nearly as tall as he was. Thank goodness Shadow was a black sheepdog, otherwise we might have all been lost for good. When we got back into the house, he heated up milk on the stove and poured in Hershey’s syrup from a can, and we sat at the corner diner-style table in his tiny kitchen on the green vinyl booth and drank it together. I still think of him anytime I smell that stuff.
Being downright Lilliputian has a number of advantages, particularly when one lives in a tiny row house. Had we been a bigger people, conditions would have been cramped. The only creature that might have felt the walls closing in on him was Shadow, but fortunately he enjoyed lazying about and being very close to his people.
I’m not sure why it happened this way as I usually spent the religious holidays specific to each side of the family with that side of the family, but for whatever reason, I ended up with my Jewish grandfather one Easter. There wasn’t a yard to speak of at our house, and aside from that, it was raining. I insisted on an egg hunt in spite of the obstacles.
I can remember dyeing the eggs together, something I am certain he’d never done previously. I explained, in the best way a four year-old might, that you put the colored eggs in the refrigerator so the Easter Bunny can hide them while you sleep. I recall agreeing to the terms of indoor hiding in light of the weather conditions.
The next morning, I came downstairs to a lovely basket full of chocolates and candy. The drizzle continued outside, but I was determined to start my hunt for the eggs. As I mentioned, the house was downright tiny and there couldn’t have been that many hiding spots, but as I surveyed the room I couldn’t find a single pastel egg interrupting the grey hue of the cloudy day. No egg in the piano bench, no egg in the china cabinet, no egg nestled on the candlesticks.
No egg to be found.
Grandpop was so proud of himself for hiding the eggs so well, but sensing my mounting frustrations, he began to give hints and direct me. “You’re getting warmer, getting warmer,” as I maneuvered toward the sofa. “Getting hot! Hot!” as I realized the gap between the sofa and the wall had grown significantly overnight.
I scrunched down, clutching my empty basket, ready to snatch up the first-discovered egg. Which is when I spotted the mint green tupperware bowl, draped with an open newspaper page which covered the entire lot of Easter eggs.
Apparently I had neglected to mention to my newly-appointed Jewish Easter Bunny that hiding eggs meant hiding them individually, not collectively.
Really, we should all just be glad he thought to hardboil them!