Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 4


"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Can anyone reach back into the deepest crevices of their mind to recall this old aphorism, created on what must have been a different planet from the one we're now living on? Today we have nerds, geeks, dweebs, overachievers, and the like, but nary a "dull boy." The very idea of dullness as a human quality seems to have vanished along with a slew of faded memories.

No matter. Barbara and I were determined that, in addition to the time we spent visiting with Barbara's mother, taking care of chores for her, and proffering advice on this and that, we would make time for some less stressful activities. I was determined to head down to Washington D.C. so that we could poke around at least one or two museums. We needed some time to visit with friends and other family members; plus, we had left room in our luggage for all the clothing and other items we planned to buy.

I should begin with the following disclaimer: there are plenty of stores in Israel, and there is very little you can't get here. Still, there is something to be said about the mind-numbing quantity and quality of merchandise in The States and the awe-inspiring dimensions of the suburban mall. The first things we needed were a few basic food items for the nearly empty refrigerator in Gwen's apartment, milk, OJ, apples (to replace the ones confiscated at the airport), some snack; so we headed to one of the (appropriately named) Giant supermarkets in the area. The sheer size of the place did not seem to faze the Maryland shoppers who were wheeling their carts around from aisle to aisle -- as if it were run-of-the-mill to be shopping in a place the size of a small village, but I admit that, after four year's of shopping on a smaller scale, I was duly impressed. So much food! Of course, once my rational self reasserted its control, I realized that a lot of what they had didn't need to be there. One could buy lawn furniture, greeting cards, and auto supplies elsewhere. Plus......... while their deli and cheese counters looked opulent and their barbecued chickens smelled wonderful, none of it was going to do me any good. You want kosher deli meat or cheese?, find the refrigerated case all the way in the back with the limited selection of packaged kosher products. I noticed as I walked up and down the aisles, that I had retained my skill at package-flipping, turning the box or the can this way and that to seek out the kosher symbol that may or may not be on the label. The fact is that there was less for the kosher consumer to purchase in this store the size of five bowling alleys and a football field than in the relatively modest MisterZol here in the Ma'ale Adumim kanyon.

Clothing? That's another story. I have to admit that I've done so little shopping for items of apparel in the four years we've been here that I don't even know what Israeli equivalent sizes I would wear. 34x30 pants, size 10 1/2 shoes? Now you're talking. There's lots to say about the mallification of America. On the one hand, you will find pretty much the same clothing, sporting goods, housewares, and bookstores anywhere in America. On the other hand, you will find pretty much the same clothing, sporting goods, housewares, and bookstores anywhere in America. If you're looking for something different, you won't find it; if you're looking for something familiar, you will find it. Actually, here in The Land you will also find the same ten or so clothing chains anywhere in the country you go. But each store is quite small. You couldn't house a Boeing 747 in any of them as you could in many of Old Navy or The Gap's that I've been in.

Among the items I planned to buy was a pair of sneakers. Barbara had brought me back a pair on one of her earlier trips; even though it was a size 10, what I normally wear, it was too small. From now on, I will try on any pair of footwear I buy. So I went hiking around an enormous strip mall in search of something appropriate for my size and wallet. Marshall's? Nothing that fit and much too disorganized. T.J. Maxx's? Nothing much there. One place left to go, a quintessential American mega-store, The Sports Authority. When we were lads, if you wanted a ball, or a bat, or a mitt, you went to a hole-in-the-wall establishment on Jerome Avenue in The Bronx called, if memory serves me -- and it sometimes does -- Hi-Jinx. And you were happy to have that bat, or that ball, or that mitt. The only baseball glove I ever owned was a fielder's mitt with the signature of one Johnny Lindell, a journeyman outfielder whose all-time batting ranking according to one ranking is number 1083 (one above Babe Phelps). The fact that he was a righty and I was a lefty never dawned upon me because I had no idea at the time who he was. It wouldn't have mattered anyway; that was my glove, and I did take care of it. Who would have imagined that the stuff you used to be able to find in a ten foot wide store under the elevated train line would now fill aisle after aisle, row after row, in mega-stores in malls throughout the country. You want to play indoors in your basement or outside in a stadium? You want to play croquet or bocce, pitch horseshoes or softballs, jump on a pogo stick or a trampoline? You want sticks, bats, clubs, gloves, mitts, mats, nets, balls of every size and shape, rackets for any sport? Your son wants a replica of his favorite athlete's uniform -- even if he is three foot six and his idol is six foot ten? You want to play a sport that no true American would be caught dead playing, like soccer or cricket? You want your computer screen to be your playing field, a couch to be your seat on the bench? Well, actually, I wanted none of the above. I just needed a pair of sneakers to replace the ones I was wearing which were falling apart. Today, as some of you know, there is no such thing as a simple pair of sneakers. They must have at least thirty different kinds of athletic shoes, depending on what you plan to do. Who in his right mind would wear basketball shoes to go skateboarding? Think about it.

Passing by row after row of esoteric footwear, I finally found "walking shoes," which I figured would be the default description of what I was looking for. Sure enough, there was half an aisle of eight foot high shelves, meaning there might have been five hundred pairs of 'walking shoes' in different sizes and different brands. Unlike in a lot of other stores which might have a hundred pairs of a particular item -- all in the same size, invariably not my size -- here, after trying on ten pairs, I found one that fit perfectly, size 10 1/2EEE. How did my feet get so big???? A question without an answer.

I remember my first pair of sneakers -- they were just called that back then when we were in junior high. There were several options for colors but only one style: hightops, and only one brand: Keds. Part of the 'common wisdom' was that sneakers were bad for our feet, so it took quite a bit of persuading to get my parents to buy a pair for each of us. The footwear certainly got a lot of use, thousands of hours if you added them up, of two on two or three on three half-court basketball games that we played every day in the playgrounds and schoolyards of my childhood. Now that I think of it, none of the equipment we used, the sneakers, the balls -- even the 'spaldeens' that we used for stickball -- had any player's name on it. Just my mitt, the signature of Johnny Lindell. I wonder what happened to that left-handed fielder's glove, and when I decided that I needed it no longer. I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't find another even in a mega-store like The Sports Authority. The shopping district under the elevated Jerome Ave. line has changed greatly in the last fifty years. I wonder what has replaced Hi-Jinx; whatever it is, they probably don't carry any Johnny Lindell mitts either.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt.3


Before there were 'Senior Citizen Residences,' there were Old Age Homes. When my own beloved grandmother, known to the extended family as 'Tante Masha,' was no longer able to live with my parents, she moved into one of these, which I seem to remember was called 'The Sons and Daughters of Jacob' (perhaps to distinguish the residents from the sons and daughters of Rufus or Reginald, some distinctions being important); but don't hold me to it --it was a very long time ago.

There came a time when I could choose to go see her, or not. One of the few things that I got right during my college years was my decision to drop in and visit with her every week or two on my way home from City College. Just transfer at 161st Street for the Jerome Ave. line and get off at Kingsbridge Road; walk up the hill, one block past the Armory. It never occurred to me at the time to inquire what function this old building had served before anybody named Jacob had shown up, but I can't imagine any 'sons and daughters' being involved in its construction.

Anyway, I would walk in and look for my grandma. She might be sitting in the lobby, or the hallway, on a nice day, in the garden (I remember they had a garden of some sort), or in her small room. It also never occurred to me at the time to inquire if grandma had any special friends there, or if the place had any activities, or how the food was. For some of us, learning how to ask questions is an acquired skill.

My point is, I just walked in and walked around until I found my grandma sitting among several dozen other people's grandmas. There was no one to ask; there was no one to ask me whom I was looking for or why was I there. Kingsbridge Road was a safe place to be at that time, and nobody was wandering around an Old Age Home for fun, idle curiosity, or just to get out of the rain.

Times have changed, as Cole Porter used to say. All the 'old folks' have died out, to be replaced by several generations of 'senior citizens.' It is for men and women of my mother-in-law's generation that newer facilities like The Hebrew Home in Rockville, MD, (actually both a residence and a rehabilitation center) are fashioned out of that ubiquitous institutional reddish-brown brick. It was in this facility where Gwen Cole, the mother of my charming wife, was convalescing during the time we were visiting.

We finally arrived there, temporarily defeating our GPS, which was trying to send us to Savannah, GA. In today's facilities, you just don't walk in and wander around. like in the good old days. You go to the front desk, tell them whom you are visiting, sign in, and affix the "Visitor" sticker to a garment where it can be seen. By the time you get halfway to the elevator, you will have passed at least three dispensers of antiseptic soap and at least one sign advising you of the danger of GERMS to the residents and that you MUST keep washing your hands in a frenzy of compulsion. Almost as HAZARDOUS to their health, nearly as bad as microscopic organisms, was salt and caffeine. Not in their dining rooms! Decaf ├╝ber alles! One might wonder how wise it is to make a woman who has been drinking four-cups a day of the real stuff for seventy years go cold turkey when she is supposed to be recovering from whatever it is that brought her there. Or one might wonder why any dietitian would want to eliminate all traces of sodium chloride from a person's diet. But once you start wondering, you're heading down a slippery slope. Supposing, for example, you started thinking about why a facility would feed cholent to someone with 'a bag,' causing instantaneous blockage and requiring prompt removal back to the hospital. I think this all fits under the general category of 'Killing with kindness,' one of the worst ways to go. Ask anyone.

I don't want to sound unduly harsh. All in all, the facility is quite good, and Gwen got excellent care there. Someone was invariably wheeling her off to physical therapy, and her insurance company was willing to foot the bill as long as it could be demonstrated that she was benefiting from the rehabilitation she was receiving. Of course, since had been back and forth from The Home to any number of local hospitals, it would have difficult to gauge her progress.

What I could gauge was the toll the four years had taken on Barbara's mother since I had last seen her. It wasn't as if she had gone through the Proustian transformations which I quoted in my last article. Gwen looked pretty much the same; it's just that she had become smaller, a process of shrinking which had started well before we left for The Land. Otherwise, she was still the same person I had met thirty three years before, sound of mind, a wonderful story teller with a treasury of memories about her life and those of her entire family over the century they had lived in Baltimore. It was as if I had known her and an entire generation of people, many of whom I had never met. My mother and father also had stories and memories, and, once in a while, one of those episodes would be taken of the shelf and warmed up. I had to listen closely. If I missed it, there might not be a repeat.

So here was this formerly robust woman pretty much dependent on the staff of The Hebrew Home for her well-being. During the week that we were there, the question was, which would prevail, Gwen's determination to 'go home,' back to her apartment,or the grim inevitability of physical decline, the congestive heart failure, the less-than-fully-functional kidneys. Or would these two forces battle each other to a draw? But while we were there, stuff could get done, some fairly trivial, like making sure bills were paid, dealing with The Washington Post which was arriving unbidden at her door every other day, dealing with the refrigerator, throwing out the coffee grinds. Some issues were more serious, requiring Gwen's attention. Did she have a signed Last Will and Testament? It might be on file with an attorney in Florida -- except the lawyer in question did not seem to be in practice any longer. Did she want to write her own obituary notice? Only folks made of sterner stuff can handle that one. What about funeral arrangements?

There are many family stories I've heard over and over again, and quite a few of them revolve around Barbara's father, who was, as I am told -- I never met him -- terminally obdurate. Cancer was wasting his body, but he was not, NOT, going to die. Therefore, there was no need to get him a cemetery plot. So when the unfortunate moment arrived, Barbara had to zip down to Baltimore ahead of the body to pay for his Final Resting Place.

Fortunately for all concerned, Barbara's mother has a more realistic attitude towards human mortality. One 'stubborn ass' in a family is more than enough, thank you. Some preliminary arrangements had been considered, but nothing was 'set in stone.' So the following day, Barbara and I were off to Sol Levinson & Bros., Inc., the only funeral home in the area which still adheres to traditional Jewish burial practices. Because the company offices are in a separate building from where the formerly real-live bodies would be brought, I could accompany my wife inside to our appointment. with one of the directors.

Choices. That's what's great about America. No matter what you're doing, you got choices. In The Land, your burial options are seriously limited. You get wrapped in a shroud and dumped into the ground. I'm not sure what choice you have about where they 'lay you to rest.' There is some consolation, however. There is, generally speaking, no cost; and you will be lying in Holy Ground.

We spent an hour or more dealing with burial choices and requirements in the State of Maryland. Do you want a graveside service, or one in the chapel? Do you want to designate an officiating rabbi, or should they pick one from their pool of talent? And the biggie: what kind of coffin do you want? Step into the coffin showroom to view their complete selection. This might be my only opportunity for this kind of tour!

One thing they don't have is a pre-owned model. Everything else, yes. Over here is the proverbial plain pine box, no handles; that was about seven or eight hundred dollars. You want handles and a little more elegant box, that will be a few hundred more. A lining inside and a head rest? A little more. By the time we reached the other side of the showroom, we were in Godfather territory, $10-15,000. For that price, you would be getting carved and polished mahogany with beveled edges, probably higher quality furniture than most of us have in our places among the living. If you want to lock in the price for the funeral arrangements, you can pre-pay. Otherwise, they will keep your record on file, and you can take care of the financial matters when the time comes. Of course, the price may have gone up by then....

Choices. Choices. For the record, Barbara's mom will get casket model #321 (poplar unfinished flat top) which runs about $1500. The "outer burial container" will be concrete for $875. For a little more we could have gotten a grave liner that was "guaranteed" not to leak, but we pinched pennies here. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing I want guaranteed when I am laid in the ground -- with or without a coffin -- is that I'm actually deceased. But in matters like these, I guess you can never be too careful. Then for twenty-five dollars, she will be buried with a small amount of "Israel earth." WHO KNEW???!!!! We certainly had room in our suitcases to bring our own. Does Israel earth need to be certified? Would it need an OU or Badatz label to be approved? Better not worry about that. Leave it to the experts. By the time they added up all the transportation and labor costs and all the other little items, the cost for a modest funeral was over $8500.

The good news was that Gwen was not on her way out and would not be in imminent need of Sol and his bros.' services. She might even accrue interest on the money in her "prearranged funeral Trust Account," meaning she might have to pay taxes on that interest. What's the business about "death and taxes.". Perhaps taxes are even more certain than death. Something to think about.