Thanksgiving: Where receiving can be as important as giving.

The abundance of Thanksgiving posts out there pre-Thursday turned off my writing switch. All the pertinent topics had been covered, ranging from the obvious gratitude articles to the difficult travel day posts. I posted a link to one I particularly liked called, “Can you be thankful for what you don’t have?” to my Facebook page because it inverted the way we normally think on Thanksgiving. On a regular day, when we see another person’s misfortune, it’s easy to tell ourselves, “I should be grateful. Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me, or someone I love.”  But does that really work? Perhaps such thinking is superficial. It rushes out of our heads as quickly as it rushes in. It sometimes makes us push aside legitimate grievances, out of guilt, and allows us to avoid dealing with our reoccurring issues. But only for a moment.
In the weeks preceding this holiday, I’ve been a mopey brat, and I haven’t liked it one bit. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself, despite all the tangible good things I could check off on a list. It bothered me. Because in the years since my divorce – where I was close to rock bottom – I’ve taken warm pride in discovering the joys of gratitude. Gratitude has come in the smallest and most random forms: a surprise phone call from a relative, connecting with a stranger, a perfectly formed sentence, the fact that my parents answer the phone because they can, and the ability to be present for a friend in need. But in the past few weeks, none of these things were working. Why?
Oh, break-up blues is an easy one, right? But how long is that card good for? My ex-cub and I broke up over two months ago. So what if I’m going to be “alone” for the holidays, when last year he and I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. So what if going home to NJ, where everyone is married with children underscores my “differentness.” So what if (per my last post) the dating scene looks bleak and I’m not getting any younger.  So what if I’m not feeling impassioned by my day job or my writing on the side job. At least I have a job where I work with people I adore. At least I wrote a novel. What more could I ask for?
All of the above is 100% true, yes. But does this kind of talking to yourself really work? Does it automatically lift your spirits, like a “snap the F out of it” switch was flipped?
For some people, it totally works, like for my father, and some men I know. When my sisters and I were little girls and we’d cry over a boy or missing our camp friends, my father used to say to us (and he still does), “Who died?”
That used to frustrate the hell out of me. “Why does someone have to die, Dad, for me to be sad? Don’t I have a right to be sad when things aren’t going my way?”
On Thanksgiving morning, I woke up to the sun shining (ok- well at least it wasn’t raining) and my dog licking my face. My older sister and her family were in the city for a Bat Mitzvah (on Thanksgiving?) and were picking me up to drive to my parents.  I had something to look forward to. Two hours of traffic, yes, but in a car filled with my nieces and nephew fighting over my Blackberry (I didn’t even know there were games on it) and iPad (the smudgy fingerprints after wards are worth it), playing with apps that my ex-cub had had the foresight to download (“for the kids”). I felt my gloom start to lift, although there was still a nagging ache. Then a friend of mine, who went through a divorce when I did, messaged me that she was feeling down. Her sincere email, on any other day, would be something I would hungrily indulge, where I’d give advice and talk about how I feel the same way. What are we doing with our lives? What is going to happen? We are in our late thirties and still processing these damn divorces? But after I got her email, it hit me. “No. No,” I replied. “Sorry, but I’m not going to feel sorry for you.” Or myself, I thought. “We have so much to be thankful for.” (I had to wrestle my Blackberry out of my niece’s hands to write this, but still). “You have to let the good stuff in,” I wrote. “But first you need to see it, in order to receive it. So get that dark shit out of the way and make room!” (Huh. Good stuff, Cougel, I thought to myself, before hitting ‘send.’) My girlfriend, rather than taking offense, thanked me. The light bulb went on, for both of us, and I was grateful for her message – a necessary mirror to my own unfounded self pity – and grateful to have her in my life.
My mother made a beautiful meal and decorated the table with brown leaves (it’s the thought that counts). She was pleased to see me eat seconds. And pleased to see that I’d put on some weight, “You don’t look sick anymore,” she said.  After dinner, we watched “The Godfather,” although watching my father laugh and gesticulate while reciting the lines is better than the movie. And then, since we were sitting around with newspapers and laptops, I decided to reinstate my J-date account. Maybe there’s something to be said for a dating site that attracts people from the same culture, whom can actually pay for the service. What a revelation!  I even let my mother sit next to me so we could look through all the profiles together. I expected her to say, “What’s wrong with him?” every time I dismissed someone, but this time, to my surprise, she nodded and said, “You know best, mamaleh.”  I even let her chime in on what photos I should include (she nixed the one where I was holding a martini glass in my hand).
I thought back on the post I had read a few days prior, “Can we be thankful for what we don’t have?” and to my pleasant surprise, I didn’t need to conjure up all the bad things that thankfully hadn’t happened to me – or list the tangible “good things” –  in order to be thankful for what was right in front of me.   

Vacation part two: Israel, where I go to grow.

I’m technically American because I was born here, but I’ve always considered myself Israeli too. My parents are Israeli and took my sisters and I to visit since we were little kids, where we spent long hot summers sleeping at my grandparents and playing hide and seek with our cousins. Heblish was my first language, and I blame my English language deficiency and grammatical slip ups on the fact that I didn’t hear advanced English around me in my formative years (it’s weird that I’m a writer). My point is, when your mother says “zambie” instead of “zombie,” and “let’s go to the Dust-Buster to rent a movie,” there’s some unlearning to be done.

I just returned from another trip to Israel. As an adult I still go every year or two. I can’t help it. My sisters feel the same – we need our “fix,” even if it’s for six days like this trip was for me. One of my cousins got married; I have so many that there’s always an annual excuse to go (not that I need one). But this trip was extra special because it was the first time my parents, sisters, and their children were all there at the same time. Add that to the thirty relatives who live there, and it’s one big party. It’s always emotional to see my cousins – who I feel connected to like siblings – the ones I grew up playing in the back fields of my grandparents house with, now all married with families of their own. One cousin who I am particularly close with and not just because he has a wicked sense of humor and calls me “bitch” (pronounced “beach”), picks me up at the airport, even when I land at five in the morning, and then we start house hopping, reuniting. My sisters who might be described as regimented or finicky back home, immediately adapt to the easy going Israeli culture. They pack light, sleep in different houses every night, the kids on mattresses on the floor, running barefoot outside, and no one cares about dirt or mess or the fact that it’s over a hundred degrees out.

And then there’s me, the “single” one, untethered by children or anyone else’s schedule. I can sleep until one in the afternoon (which I do) and stay wherever I want. Read: where there’s a working air conditioner. The AC in “my room” in my aunt’s attic broke, so the night after the wedding, which went on until close to 3am, I drove back from Jerusalem with my parents (and a caravan of relatives behind us). They set me up on a mattress on their bedroom floor, and before my mom and I put our earplugs in (my dad snores), I said: “Now you two behave yourselves or I’m going to have to blog about it.”

I noticed that I was in a unique position on this trip: an adult, older than many of my cousins who have kids, and yet still a kid myself, being looked after by my parents. And yes, mom still not only looks after me, she chases after me. Especially at meals. Wherever I go, there she is, making sure I’m eating more (and drinking less). On my last day there, my entire family (all 43 of us) had sabbath lunch at my cousin’s restaurant. When I arrived I sat next to my cousin and his new wife, and when I looked up, there was mom, sitting across from me. Without thinking, without stopping to realize that my mother just loves me and wants to be near me, I snapped, and told her I didn’t want to sit next to her because I wasn’t up for the Israeli style surveillance. She got upset, and rightly so, but I felt justified. I was on vacation; a grown-up who doesn’t need to be told how to behave by her mother. And yet I acted like a child.

Mothers have thick skin, right? It surfaces when their first child is born and coarsens over time, doesn’t it? I see my sisters lose their shit and lash out at mom, and their girls do it to them. It’s part of being a member of the family system. We constantly wrestle with our need to be individuals, and our need to be loved and accepted.

Not an excuse, Cougel. “Respect thy mother and father…No matter how irritating they can be,” I chastised myself.

That night I went out with the cousins and my sister to a bar and we stayed out til 2. I told my parents that rather than waking them (drunk and smelling like smoke), I’d sleep in the living room since I had to get up four hours later to catch my flight home to New York anyway. I also knew that if I slept in their room, they wouldn’t get any sleep until I got home. My second night in Israel was my dad’s first, and he surprised me by waiting up for me. “Abba, it’s 1:30 in the morning, aren’t you exhausted?” I asked. He didn’t answer the question: “I was waiting for you.” “Dad, I’m 38.” “I’ll do it when you’re 60,” he said.

I set my Blackberry alarm for seven and had no problem getting up. A moment later, I heard my parents’ bedroom door rattle open upstairs and mom’s feet shuffling across the floor and down the stairs. She was coming to wake me. When she saw me, her face brightened in amazement. “How did you get up? I didn’t sleep all night, I was worried you’d oversleep.” My reply: “You know that Blackberry you use to text me in all caps with? It also has an alarm clock.”

I let her help me pack. She wrapped my sandals in plastic bags (so they won’t touch my clothes) and pulled the stray hairs from my hairbrush. But my most notable act of reconciliation? I let her make me oatmeal with honey. God forbid I should fly hungry. I wasn’t hungry, but I smiled and ate the whole thing anyway, under her watchful – and loving – eye.

They drove me to the airport, and got out of the car to hug me. I was going home, and would see them in a week, but it felt similar to a college send off. In a way, I think they might be on to something. Recognizing the stage of life I’m at – on the brink of letting go of my childlike freedom and preparing for the next stage where I might have children of my own – this trip did feel like some kind of last hurrah. And there is no better place for a quick fix – for a quick retrieval of my unfettered and boundless youth – than a trip to Israel, the place where I got to grow up. And still do.

A Cougel's father's day

Today was my first time hosting a meal in my new apartment. And the first time I hosted my family, ever. Between both my sisters, their kids, and my parents, there’s usually an occasion to celebrate every other Sunday. In New Jersey. Since I lived away from my family for so many years, I don’t complain, and make the guilt-trip out by train every time. But this time – for father’s day and my sister’s birthday – I went out on a limb and invited the whole gang into the city. I was worried my mother would say no. She can’t bear the traffic (or my father’s agitation because of it) and whenever I suggest a dinner in the city instead of a brunch in NJ, she says, “Tell me, what can I get in NY that I can’t get in NJ?”
They all agreed to come.  They were happy to. I made a list, I checked it fifteen times, and because I don’t have a lot of space or roommates to eat leftovers, in the end I  asked Mom to bring half the things on my list. Orange juice (too heavy to carry with all the other groceries from whole foods), lox for ten Jews (Costco carries family size), a large platter for said lox, kosher bagels (from the extra freezer in mom’s basement), and all the tiny but necessary things I didn’t realize I was missing, like a grater, a vase for the flowers I bought at the farmers market, a salad bowl, and drinking glasses for 4+.  Although as Mom pointed out, I have plenty – an entire shelf! – of martini glasses, in different colors.  (“It’s because I never use them and they haven’t broken yet!”)  In my defense, I would like to add that I did not serve alcohol. Not even mimosas or sparkling wine. Not because it was early in the day, or because we’re Jews.  Nor was it because Mom was there.  But because believe it (or fine, don’t), I am making a concerted effort to cut waay back on all things that are bad for me.
A blog I posted in late February introduced the ongoing saga of my health, and how I try to maintain it, while simultaneously maintaining the illusion that I don’t need to.  http://thecougelchronicles.com/?p=122
This past week had me back at the same doctor because of reoccurring stomach pain that I thought was food poisoning, but I think what I’ve really contracted is mood poisoning. Maybe they go hand in hand. Bottom line, I felt like shit this week and I was sick of it, literally.  Mom, hearing how I felt, urged me to go to the doctor, who immediately sent me for an ultrasound. He told me not to eat; to wait until after the ultrasound.  When I called Mom to update her – even though there was nothing new to report since I hadn’t even had the ultrasound yet, let alone the results – she yelled at me.
“YOU HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE YESTERDAY? It’s 2 o’clock. You must eat something!”
“But Mom, I’m not supposed to. They’re examining my STOMACH. The doctor told me not to.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
She proceeded to call me when I was in the waiting room to whisper conspiratorially: “Tell the receptionist that they need to take you now, or you’re going to faint from not eating.”  I wanted to remind Mom that Jews fast, a lot, for much longer hours, while standing up in a hot synagogue, and they don’t complain about it (until after break fast anyway), or seem to suffer any long-term effects. While I was in an air-conditioned room with free filtered water, and it was only midday. But I kept my mouth shut. 
Anyway, I didn’t get a scary phone call from my doctor late Friday or over the weekend, so I’m assuming that he didn’t see anything too scary. But the episode was enough to set me straight. Sometimes I wonder if we scare ourselves on purpose. Like maybe I needed to sit in a room with twenty other people whom I suspected were there for far more serious reasons than I was, to decide enough is enough.
Brunch was wonderful. I bought tater tots for the kids, but half of them escaped from the cookie sheet only to fall to their death in the inferno below, smoking up my kitchen. My dad came to the rescue, deftly plucking the burn victims out of the oven crevices with a fork. It was quite dramatic, really.  I locked my dog in my bedroom with a rawhide (my niece is afraid of her – for good reason) and after Mom and I argued over whether everyone should eat buffet style or just pile everything on my dining room table and let everyone sit where they want, we had a blast.  
My three favorite moments:
1) I “made” yogurt parfait. Which basically means throwing vanilla yogurt, granola, and fruit into a bowl, and I had never seen Mom (or my sisters) so amazed and impressed with me in my entire life. It was as if I had cooked chulent, all by myself. Or told them I was marrying a nice Jewish guy from the upper west side and was having three kids with him immediately.
2) I have another shelf that needs hanging (it’s the last one, I promise), so Dad was happy to help. It’s his kind of father’s day.  Like the last time, he didn’t have a leveler. But never fear! My brother in-law has an I-pad.  And apparently, it has a toolbox application or some shit on it, leveler included.
3) My father is impossible to buy a gift for. He insists that he doesn’t need anything, and therefore refuses to give us any pointers. This year, it was my turn to “do” father’s day.  Mom told me he needed a new belt (he had a wake up call too I guess, and started a diet. And you can tell he’s lost weight. He kinda looks like a stuffed bear whose lost some of his stuffing.). I got him a belt from Ralph Lauren, and some after-shave. A cliché father’s day gift, but my dad isn’t one for originality, just practicality. I was nervous he would say what he does every year, which is smile and say “thank you” before placing a kiss on each of our heads. This means, Mom’s got returns to make at Bloomies. But this year, his eyes actually lit up.  He stood up and put the belt on, and said to me, “It’s perfect. How did you know?”
It was the perfect day.

Family vacations. It's all relative.

Is our maternal instinct, or desire to parent, really innate? Or is it a function of societal pressure and our immediate environment? I guess, what I’m wondering, is everything, including what we think we want, all relative?

In January, I was fortunate enough to go on a family trip with my parents, two sisters, and their awesome kids (five nieces and one nephew) to the island of Turks and Caicos.  Since my parents aren’t getting any younger, they decided that nothing could be better than having the whole family together for a week, away from everything. I had been unable to partake in previous trips, for various reasons, but mostly because my separation from my husband had thrown me into a me-centric place, and the thought of taking time off from the new life that I was trying to build to go on a time out with my family, where everything had stayed the same, was not appealing. I get along great with my family most of the time, but getting along wasn’t a priority for me back then, moving on was. And I sensed that being around my family, where nothing ever seems to change, where progress seems organic and doesn’t require a herculean effort, would be too painful for me, because it served as a nagging reminder of what I no longer had (and who I no longer was).  Not to mention that there is something about being around people whose incessant concern over your well being only makes you feel worse.  It forces a glaring spotlight onto what is wrong. And, if you’re Jewish like me, you have to answer a lot of questions (evasion is not an option). So the thought of choosing to go away with my family to an island (with no Blackberry service aka contact with my best girlfriends) on a vacation, was like choosing to jump out of a burning airplane (metaphor for bad marriage, yes) onto an island populated by wild boars. 

To my surprise, no one was offended. They understood. I seemed to have pocketed a divorce “get out of jail free card” without an expiration date (at least until I get married again).  Although this wasn’t entirely true. Sometimes my choices upset my mother. She once let it slip that she “wished she had done with me like Moses in the basket.” She was referring to the abandonment of baby Moses by his mother down the Nile River. I tried not to be offended by it. I rationalized it by saying that my mother simply “didn’t know what to do with me.” She felt bereft of the tools to help me. Come to think of it, my mom has a lot of baskets strewn about the house, filled with flowers, or blankets (no people).

But this time, I wanted to go. I had gotten closer to and more comfortable with my family. And with myself. But I didn’t decide until the last minute, a good eight months after the hotel and airfares had been booked. My parents were excited by my willingness to attend, but the problem was everything was too expensive. “You don’t want us or yourself to spend that much money on this, do you? We’ll make it up to you another way,” my mother said. I got upset. I felt uninvited. Not to mention that I wanted to go for all the right reasons. Mature ones. I wasn’t looking for some time in the sun paid for by mom and dad, like we do when we’re 16. I was yearning to spend time with my nieces who love me and give me special hairdos that take me days to untangle.

I told my mom the truth. I felt as if she had thrown me into the basket again, the picnic kind with a lid. It worked magically. I had no idea I’d inherited my parent’s talent for employing guilt to achieve the desired effect, but in this case, I was glad I did.

It was eighty degrees every day, and the resort was beautiful. Because I had arrived late, I got my own room (everyone else had adjoining ones so that they could all be together…eat together…wake up together…isn’t that what families who love each other do?) I was used to being the odd man out, so it was fine. Besides, I was hungry for some space, some alone time. This was right after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and I needed to process what it meant. Not to mention that my mother was itching to monitor my meals like she always did. So I was grateful to have my own space to retreat to.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was grieving yet another loss. A break up with a serious boyfriend, when you’re in your mid-thirties, also means confronting that you’ve postponed having a family to an unspecified date (for me it did anyway).

And there were kids everywhere. The resort we were staying at was a Jewish “Sandals” resort, full of young parents and their screaming kids. I was assuredly the only single person for miles and miles of lush beach. And the more screaming and crying I heard, the happier I was about it.  Unfortunately, my sister’s husband had to leave in the middle for a funeral, leaving her to look after her three kids (one is a baby) without his help. It was not easy, and surely not a vacation.

As the days wore on, my sadness over my situation lifted. I wondered if this trip was more than just some R&R with my family, but a sign, once again reinforcing my decisions, telling me, “Enjoy your solitude and your lack of obligations. Enjoy not having children, Cougel, because once you do, there’s no such thing as a vacation.” I felt young and free. My five-year-old niece confirmed this.  As she shoved the eighth bobby pin into my scalp, she said, “You’re not old! You’re not even married!” 

By the end of the week, tan and healed and reveling in my lack of attachments, I flew back with my mother, my sister and her three girls. The rest of my family flew separately (my family never flies on one plane). Watching my sister walk up and down the aisle with her crying baby and trying to appease the other two, while I was seated away from them in the emergency aisle (poor man’s first class) made me sympathize with her.

But I didn’t want to be her. Again it made me wonder, was it really worth it?  Did my immersion in all the things I thought I wanted, serve to dissuade me from wanting them?

At baggage claim, my sister told me that her husband had just landed too. He coordinated his return flight from the funeral so that he could land in JFK when his family did.

When we emerged from customs and the doors opened revealing the crowd of people waiting in arrivals, my brother-in-law stepped forward from the crowd, arms outstretched, his face eager.  My two nieces (seven and five) spotted him and screamed out his name, “Abba!” (“Dad” in Hebrew. Not the band. Otherwise I’d be the one screaming) and started running towards him. Then the baby, ensconced in her carriage, threw her fists up in the air and mimicked her older sisters, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”

Needless to say, watching them all embrace, the girls climbing on him, his eyes wet with tears of joy, struck me with emotional force.  They were all going home together in their car (no matter that it’s jammed with car seats and cracker crumbs).  And I was going to get into a cab, alone.

And then it dawned on me: “So this is what it’s all for.” All the screaming, the sleep and self time deprivation, didn’t matter in the end.  Because it’s all worth it.