This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on April 16, 2000.
I wake up with my teeth clenched, my body tight, tired before my day begins. I know it will be a twelve-hour day: from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. My eyes opened at 7:00 am. Two hours and counting. I have to shower, eat, feed the dogs, and feed the birds.
My car knows the way to work. Sometimes on Saturday morning, when I start to run my errands, I find I’m halfway to the office and not the hardware store. Day after day, week after week, year after year, I am programed to go to work.
Like most Americans, my work is stressful. Deadlines constantly loom ahead of me like fire-breathing dragons, office politics can be a distraction and, of course, I don’t make as much money as I’d like.
One day, quite by accident, I discovered a perfect antidote to stress. I was on my way to work and drove by a beautiful church with a towering steeple. Although I drive by it every day, I hadn’t noticed it before. The day was overcast, clouds laden with rain hung low over the grey stone church.
It was a red light that made me stop and look up. At that moment, a flock of birds flew by, perfectly silhouetted against the early morning sky. The colors were cool, the birds graceful, the sky a soft grey with tiny streaks of pink and blue. The thought of soaring above it all, like the birds, made me think I could fly over the petty, tiresome details of work and life.
After that day I looked for birds everywhere. I installed a bird feeder in my yard and attracted some wonderful birds that appreciated my fancy birdseed. Soon after, I bought a birdbath and watched with delight the curious and very humorous way birds groom themselves.
My wonderful feathered friends have helped me keep cool, calm and collected. I discovered that and entire family of birds live in a tree in my backyard. From my window I watch them dart about, in and out of the tree, landing on the feeder, pecking vigorously, with all their might. They have a life to live and they live it, without a moment’s pause to wonder why.
I’ve begun to notice birds on telephone lines, birds at the park, birds on city streets, birds perched and on dumpsters. They are everywhere and they are delightful. If I listen carefully, I can hear them chirping, calling to one another. Occasionally, I hear a grouchy old crow screeching his discontent. In the same yard, the silent hummingbird glides toward the bright red feeder, his tiny wings beating fast and furious, keeping him aloft.
One day at work, I was trying to decide which of several tasks I should tackle first. All demanded my attention and presented dire consequences if I didn’t attend to them immediately. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful bird sitting in a tree. It seemed as if she was looking at me.
The bird seemed not to have a care in the world. If danger or discomfort came her way she could simply fly away. I watched her for a moment and and then turned back to the work on my desk. Obviously I’ll never know the inner life of birds, but the notion of being able to fly away brings me comfort.
I do know that I will seek out the creatures who knew how to fly before humans did to give me inspiration. Though I climb aboard planes with faith in the pilot and crew, I reserve my admiration for the birds who fly through a winter sky with grace and beauty.
They teach their lessons everywhere: free of charge, free of worry, free of cares and woe; free for anyone who cares to see.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on November 23, 2006.
I went to a birthday party last week at a swanky restaurant. After years of kid
birthday parties in the park or at a burger joint, this one was very refined and they
served “adult beverages” as my Dad used to call them. It was a Ninetieth birthday party for my friend, Ruby, a woman I greatly admire.
To reach the age of ninety is quite an accomplishment, but to reach it and have enough friends to close a restaurant during the lunch hour to accommodate them all, is remarkable. I was proud to be included in her circle of friends.
After a wonderful meal, we all got down to the business of toasting our friend. Many people were close to Ruby’s age and had known her for more than fifty years. I had met Ruby, and her husband Henry, in 1989 when I was manager of the Heath Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Project (HICAP), and they were volunteers.
After I left the agency, my husband and I got to know Ruby and Henry on a social basis. We spent evenings together talking about music, theater and books. My husband and I decided they were our fantasy parents. They never changed our diapers, or spanked us, or grounded us. They never kissed our little heads as we slept. Most important, they never disappointed us, as parents always do, and we didn’t disappoint them, as children always do.
Henry died several years ago and Ruby sold their family home and moved to a retirement community in Sherman Oaks. On the first Friday of every month, I picked her up and we went to dinner and then to services at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts at the American Jewish University in Bel Air.
I looked forward to our evenings together because I was always inspired by Ruby and how she lived her life. She was an avid bridge player, and started a drama club at the retirement community. She took a parking lot owner that towed her car to Small Claims
court, and won.
She went to San Jose a few months ago to attend an Elder Hostel that taught seniors how to do stand-up comedy. After losing her mate of sixty-two years, Ruby was determined to go on living her life, with all its challenges and joys.
During the testimonials at the party, Ruby’s friends described how devoted she and Henry were during their long life together. Some people (me included) were moved to write our testimonials in verse. A trio of ladies from the retirement community sang a song, and her son gave a loving tribute. At the end he proudly proclaimed that his mother was on her third computer.
I think we have the birthday celebrations backwards. Children, who make it through their first year doing almost nothing for themselves, have birthday parties that are quite extravagant and costly. The parents are exhausted, and broke. The honoree is clueless.
As we grow older, and become age-phobic (check out the assortment of “you are old” greeting cards at the drugstore), no one wants a big party. Some poor souls get an “over the hill” fortieth birthday party. But once you get past sixty or so, people just don’t think of throwing a special birthday party. There may be some reasons why.
When some people get to their golden years they become so grouchy, dour and crotchety, that nobody wants to throw them a party. Sometimes they are alienated from the kin that might have the idea to celebrate. They can take a cue from Ruby and try to be pleasant, or at least positive.
When Ruby got up to speak, she said she was happy to hear such nice things said about her while she was still here. At age ninety, she had a good point.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I count Ruby as one of my blessings. In our youth worshiping culture, I cherish my wise old friend. I am grateful that Ruby’s son and
daughter-in-law threw such an elegant party for their mom, and I am very glad I was invited.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on October 2, 2006.
As I sit with my fellow Jews on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, The Day of Atonement, I will have Mel Gibson on my mind. I will also recall my dear father-in-law, Jack Stein, who left this earth almost six years ago. I will remember him cheering for the Dallas Cowboys, humming in the shower, dancing with the ladies and generally enjoying life.
I will cringe as I think of Gibson’s tirade against “the Jews” as I recall the life of Jack Stein.
I am a Jew-by-choice, a convert to a religion that I knew full well had been maligned for centuries. Before I married my Jewish husband, I though of Jews as rather sad people who had been the target for extermination by the Nazis. As I went through conversion class and read about Jewish history, I got a very different picture of Jewish life.
But it was from Jack and his friends, a group of Holocaust survivors who settled in Dallas after the war and raised their families together, that I learned about Judaism. And it has nothing to do with what Gibson thinks it is.
I learned from them that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.
By the time I came into the family, Jack and his friends had raised their children and were in their retirement years. One night, I sat on the couch with Mrs. “Red” Goldberg and Mrs. “Black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self pity or bitterness but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically, because it was infused in their words.
They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country. That is the Judaism I learned about that inspires me.
When I think of Mel Gibson’s accusation about the Jews starting all the wars, I wonder how he would have reacted to these Jews, who were the victims of a war they certainly didn’t start, who lost everything because of it, and who made the decision to come to the United States so they could live in a society where they were free to practice their religion.
It is likely that Gibson has sung “God Bless America” to express his patriotism. He may not know that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jew who immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
I’m pretty sure Gibson has sung “White Christmas” when he celebrates his holy season, free from epithets and slurs. That song was written by Berlin too.
One thing I have learned about Jews is that an unbreakable thread runs through the them that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts to break it. So far, the Jewish people have not been annihilated, and we continue to make contributions to art, medicine, industry and economics that make the world a better place.
Gibson probably doesn’t know the Jewish phrase: “Tikkun olam,” which translates to “repairing the world.” Jews are taught from a young age that it is their responsibility to make contributions to humanity.
In my more than twenty years as a Jew, I have not come across a phrase that starts out: “start all the wars.”
On the most holy and solemn day of the Jewish year, I know that people who despise a group for their religion, color or ethnic background, diminish themselves, not the group they attack. Rather than reflecting on anti-Semitism, I will think about Jack Stein, and how he taught by example to survive terror and pain and to go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on July 10, 2000.
On my father’s eightieth birthday I will drive to Arizona with a sheet cake in the trunk big enough to feed 80 people. I can’t help but draw a comparison with the times my mom sent me off to school on my birthday with a treat for all the children in my class. It seems the circle is complete.
We baby boomers are watching our children grow up and move away to start families of their own. Amid our relief at the end of that responsibility, we look back and see our parents- aged, frail and in need. Having parents who are octogenarians is becoming the norm, not the exception.
My 80-plus parents now reside in a lovely retirement community where the staff is available 24 hours a day to help when needed. They went there kicking and screaming, but they went. Although I cannot imagine what it is like to give up a home and all it stands for, I can understand how an adult child feels when the world stands on its head and the parent becomes, not a child, but a dependent.
When my siblings and I were growing up, Dad said that the house was his castle and he was the king. He was a 1950’s dad and his word was law. No one dared question his authority. He paid the bills and we towed the line. How, I ask, can a man like that accept help from his daughter?
After they retired, my parents moved to Arizona to be closer to my sister and me. We thought at the time that that they were ensuring that they would be cared for in their old age. Now that we have gained some wisdom and a better perspective, we know that they moved closer to make it easier for us.
My parents were born and lived in the Midwest. They raised five children and lived in the same house for 30 years. After pulling up stakes, they built their dream house in Arizona with a spectacular view of the mountains. They shed their winter clothes and enjoyed warm, dry weather all year. Dad took to wearing bolo ties and Mom wore turquoise jewelry. They traveled extensively and loved every minute of it.
After my dad’s cancer diagnosis and my mother’s decision to stop driving, my sister and I began to worry. After one harrowing night when my dad’s temperature spiked, and my mother didn’t have a thermometer and had to go to a neighbor’s house for help, we really worried.
To our great relief, a state-of-the-art retirement community was built in their little mountain town. Instead of being as delighted as we were, they stalled and stalled and couldn’t bring themselves to plunk down the $1,000 deposit. “It’s so much money,” they complained. A small price for our piece of mind, my sister and I replied, if only to each other.
There is no worry like the worry of a parent for a small child. Terror is the province of the newly minted parent, standing helplessly by a crib and praying. There also is no worry like the worry of a child for an aged parent, standing helplessly by a hospital bed and praying. The desperation and fear of loss for the new parent are, for the most part, unfounded. For the adult child, it is very real.
I will drive with at trunkful of birthday cake for everyone at the retirement community with a grateful heart. I give thanks for my elderly, dependent parents who lived well into old age and accepted their final season. They let our roles reverse with grace. I will wish my dad well and silently thank God for the many blessings, often hidden in the midst of pain and frustration, that his 80 years have bestowed. I will carry the lessons his aging taught me and hope my children will learn them from me.
Kathleen Vallee Stein