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- “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Saturday will be 11 years since my grandfather passed away. It was the first big, significant loss for me and his death had a profound impact. Profound in the sense that it taught me a lot about myself and my family.
I hadn’t gotten the chance to know my grandfather on my father’s side and only have a vague memories of my paternal grandmother.
My grandfather and I had actually shared time together. First in the studio when I was a kid. He applied oil paint to canvas with the kind of care and precision only an artist can master and I dabbled in oil pastels and charcoal drawings while he worked. Later, when his style changed to hard lines and sharp corners and geometrics, I was planning on becoming a cartoonist and switched to pen and ink.
Later, as a young adult trying to figure out what the hell I was really going to do with my life, our moments often took the form of two people in one room, reading. He introduced me to Jane Austen and Albert Camus. I was always comforted by a collection of Emily Dickinson he had on his shelf because, at the time, she was my favorite. The last book I ever bought him was a collection of poetry by poet laureate Billy Collins. It’s what he was reading when he died. Today, I would ask him his thoughts on Dorothy Parker and Kierkegaard.
On a random afternoon, completely unprompted, he said to me, “Maybe you should think about going back to school. You could study writing.”
Jewish funerals are supposed to happen quickly. But when you have a big family that’s spread across a few states and two continents, it takes a while to get everyone together. So my grandfather’s funeral was delayed. Most of my family had arrived within the first 48 hours. The Rabbi needed to go over the service and though it’s not customary, he said anyone who wanted to come up would have a chance to see him one last time.
Everyone went except for one of my aunts, my mother and me.
With everyone gone, the house was quiet. Almost normal. I put on some music in my room knowing it would be the last time I could listen to it without headphones for at least a week. There were more than 20 relatives all staying at our house – my mother, brother and I lived with my grandparents at the time. Twin beds lined the basement like a bunker. We slept wherever there was space. Privacy was on hiatus.
Growing up, I was brought up on a steady diet of Motown (although thanks to an Irish father, I enjoy a good bagpipe now and then). So as my family went over the service for my grandfather’s funeral with the Rabbi, on that particular morning, I chose Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” I turned it up a little bit, but not too much.
From downstairs, I heard my aunt yell, “Hey! Turn that up!”
“Really?” I called back.
In unison, she and my mother answered, “Yes!”
I cranked it. Ain’t no river wide enough, baby. For a minute, I sat on my bed and cried. But then I ran downstairs. They were moving about their business, singing along and dancing as my aunt straightened up the kitchen and my mother fixed her hair in the bathroom. I ran back upstairs. Next up, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations. Then, “The House that Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin.
If I played more music after that, I don’t remember it. But those three songs were key. We relished in the sound of soul instead of sorrow. If my grandfather had been alive, he’d have been sitting in his spot on the couch, smiling at us and enjoying every minute of it.
Now, whenever the skies start to get darker earlier, when the trick-or-treaters are out on the street, when the anniversary nears, I start to crave a little Motown in my ears. It makes me think of my family at its very best. Being so spread out, separated by an ocean and very few visits, some of us don’t even know each other. Some of us don’t always get along. Sometimes we don’t even like each other. But put us all in a room and turn on some Stevie Wonder … and we won’t be sitting for long.
I don’t dread this weekend in November. I crank up the music when I can, flip through the pages of a book. I take stocks of how much I’ve grown and think about what he would say about it all. It’s why I write about him every year at this time. So I remember.
Sometimes I even try to draw something.
And sometimes, in the privacy of my own home … I even dance it out.
Here’s to you, sabah.
“Every step, a victory it was…”
I suppose, really, it was an absence of strength. I was fortunate for the opportunity of timing and no one around to fix but myself. Yes, it was the absence of strength.
I can’t tell you what got me through the door on that first day though I remember every minute of it. But I can tell you what brought me back in second day and every day after.
It was the comfort of strangers. Nobody peppered me with questions. They just wondered my name and how long I’d been coming in. Nobody made me feel less than. Nobody knew what I’d been through or the things that weighed on my mind from one minute to the next. But even in my infancy, without any knowledge of who I am, they seemed to believe in my potential. Eventually I’d get that bar overhead. Eventually I’d run the meters without stopping. Eventually I’d improve.
A belief in you, even when it’s carried by others, is the first step toward filing the absence of strength.
I can’t tell you why it became a need for me to push myself into a realm of things I never thought I’d do. I can tell you, it certainly was a need. Like when you’re underwater and you realize the necessity of air. The physical feeling of needing to breathe to live.
One day, many days after that first day, one of the other girls gave me a few pointers on my grip during some oly lifting and said casually, “you’re super strong, you can tell.”
But I couldn’t tell. And when she said it, the words made me catch my breath and tears welled in my eyes.
Because I’d forgotten.
I didn’t want friends or a family and I didn’t even care if I lost weight. But that’s what I got, including people I’ve met a few states away. Most important … I retrieved a sense of place. It’s my safe place. The only place where none of the crap from the outside gets inside. And I rediscovered a purpose. And though I have a long way to go … I’m stronger than that first day.
Happy one year CrossFit anniversary to me.
When John Voss, a veteran fighter pilot of World War II, was being interviewed by Tom Brokaw as part of the greatest generation, he remarked on his survival by saying, “those of us who lived have to represent those who didn’t make it.”
These words, that one sentence, sums up how I feel every year at this time.
“Those of us who lived have to represent those who didn’t make it.”
It was on September 11, 2001. It was after the towers had fallen. It was as family members and friends stood among the ruin with crumpled printed photos and phone numbers scribbled in Sharpie ink across white paper. So many people, I’d thought. So many lost in a single morning. What stories would they never tell? What fun tales of college nights, triumphant career accomplishments, silly quirks did only they know of that the world would never hear? So many years later, I still wonder. What joy have we all missed out on – extinguished in the same amount of time it takes for us to get through our email?
So many people.
As night fell and the camera lights were all that set the stage for the survivors to beg a vast, helpless public to watch for any signs of their loved ones we now know were forever lost, I thought only one thing. People are forever valuable. People walk the earth full of life lessons and interesting stories and if there is a job where we get to tell those stories, a job in which we can shed light on the true, infinite worth of people – I wanted it. To strip away the veneer of the stranger. To make them a friend. In the troubled, to find the virtue, the fight in the downtrodden, the hope in the ill, the beauty in the next door neighbor.
The art of telling a story is just that. An art. Not a business. And like the great impressionists who have painted our world in only their vision, the mission remains to continue revealing that world to each other. To tell each other’s stories.
“Those of us who lived have to represent those who didn’t make it.”
Voss was talking about the fellow soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in war. But it is a responsibility that we should carry with us everywhere, every day.
When we go to work, we should represent those still on the line, looking for a way to put food on the table. When we marry, we should represent the loves that were lost before their time. When we go after a goal, try to achieve something – anything – in life, we should do so for the thousands whose lives were cut short on a bright September morning and for anyone who is not standing right by us at that very moment.
Sometimes, the living are trapped among us. In broken homes, bad marriages, unfortunate circumstances. They are not lost or forgotten, just stalled, sometimes. Nobody deserves to be forgotten. It’s not just about the ones that didn’t make it. It’s about the ones that did. It’s about the ones that still can. It’s about society in general.
So the next time you have a chance to talk about your mother, your father, your son, your daughter, your best friend … your grandparents, your teachers … Tell your favorite stories. Give other people a gift of knowing the value of a life.
Represent the value of those who didn’t make it.
“She was the person I told everything to. She was my best friend, my extra sister… I think of her every day, sometimes six or seven times a day … I want to talk to her. I want to have lunch with her … She is my phantom limb and I can’t believe I’m here without her.”
- Nora Ephron on the loss of her best friend, “I Feel Bad About My Neck“
Happy 80th Birthday. I know you don’t like a ton of attention so I’ll make this quick.
I want to say simply that we would not be here, not a single one of us, if it weren’t for you. Not just because you have an odd talent for birthing lots of babies but because…. Once upon a time there was a girl, a ballerina and she was beautiful and strong and smart and courageous. And she drew people to her. And she got married and she had a crap load of kids.
We live in a world where we point at the art on the wall and we applaud the artist and we attach a value to the work and only later, if it comes to mind, do we wonder what made all that art possible.
If Grandpa was here today I’m pretty sure he would agree that you are and always have been the paint to his brush, the thread of the canvas. You’re the muse and what made us all possible.
We give a lot off attention to accomplishments. We boast about them, fight for them and judge each other by them. I hope as we celebrate your birthday today what we can give you is to be reminded that we are living, breathing accomplishments. We’re your accomplishments and we should remember with every choice we make, everything we do, we’re a reflection of you.
You are the ballerina and we are your company. May we all remember with every step to make you look good.
The brutal truth about 20 years ago is that it used to be when people would say, “it was 20 years ago when such and such happened,” you would immediately think back to the era of Stalin or something else you read in the glossy pages of a history book in a stuffy Midwestern classroom.
But then, somebody says something happened 20 years ago and visual imagery is still pretty vivid in your mind and you remember it all and then you realize you are now at the age when you remember things that happened 20 years ago.
20 years ago is a long time. 20 years ago is a whole human life. It’s someone who can’t legally drink at a bar but is probably drunk on your couch right now.
20 years ago is time for one president to screw up two terms and a new president to start making “change.”
20 years ago is time for a walkman to turn into an iPod.
On the radio this morning a news report began with the description of a basketball team with a unique bond that went to the Olympics – here it is – 20 years ago. Thinking back I thought, “that can’t be right. The last time I remember a basketball team getting lots of attention for its athletic make up when it went to the Olympics was in the day of Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen and that was …”
Yep, 20 years ago. I am now old enough to say, 20 years ago.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to pour a stiff drink and sit out on the porch and yell at hipsters who drive too fast down your street.
The first time I actually became aware of Nora Ephron was after reading the book, “Heartburn.”
I can’t exactly remember when that was. If I’d already seen “Sleepless in Seattle” or “This is My Life” or “Mixed Nuts” or not. I can’t remember but I think that’s okay because Ephron herself remembered nothing. She said so in her book “I Remember Nothing.”
Anyway, “Heartburn” was when I first became aware of her. The book is about a woman who finds out her husband has been cheating on her and goes about reconstructing her life with humor, humility and mashed potatoes.
Ah! That’s it! I was around 18 and living in Pittsburgh. I read a lot then and I lived off of mashed potatoes. I mean it. I had no money and potatoes were cheap, so I would buy a bag, microwave one at a time and mash it with a fork in a bowl, sprinkle it with shredded cheese, salt and pepper and eat it. I also lived off bagels from the bagel shop I worked at.
I hope Ephron would be okay with the fact that I no longer eat potatoes. Or bread. But if she’d had raised an eyebrow at that, I would have assured her I’m the better for it.
Anyway, I’d never been married or divorced. And I did not have children. And I was not even close to the age of the story’s heroine, Rachel Samstat. I wouldn’t be caught dead at group therapy and so it kind of makes no sense that I would relate to such a book.
Except I related to it.
Ephron gave her greatest lesson in that book. It’s toward the end, when a friend asks the character (based largely on Ephron’s own life) why she feels the need to turn everything that’s happened to her into a story.
And she says this:
“Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
Those words forever changed my life. It’s why telling stories became what I do. It’s why I value truth over manipulation of truth. It’s why I think talking about things is better than not talking about things. It’s why I believe Ephron is also right when she echoes the lesson her mother taught her: Everything is copy. Everything is a story.
I would go on to be a huge fan of her movies of course. I watched “You’ve Got Mail” and when I went to New York City years later, sat in the same Starbucks in which Tom Hanks knocks on the window and delightfully surprises Meg Ryan while she’s reading a book. I bought coffee and rugelach at Zabars and as I was getting there I discovered Westsider Books. I try to go there every time I’m in New York. It’s the quintessential used bookstore. I imagine it’s the type of place one of Ephron’s characters would wander in with a friend or a coworker rattling off dialogue with wit and perfection. It’s one of my favorite places. The first time I went there I bought Ogden Nash’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” not because I knew him or his poetry but because the title seemed to fit me at the time. The second time I went there I bought a book of essays about New York and my aunt bought me a book of essays about family.
The thing about Ephron’s New York is it was her own. It’s not the New York of the hipsters or the elite. It’s quality over trend. It doesn’t have to be where everyone else is going. She knew that was the beauty of that city. I have my own, thanks to her. It includes that Starbucks and that Zabars and the Morgan Library and just outside the Julliard School of Ballet. Not inside – but outside. It reminds me of my grandmother, a ballerina. And there’s Jackson Pollack’s White Light at the MoMA. Nothing else. Just that one painting. And the pizza place outside my aunt’s old apartment, near the fire station that served slices on paper plates and there’s the road we walked down to World Trade.
I think Ephron would approve of my New York. Because it’s no one elses.
When the news broke of her death, I cried. I felt a little silly since she’s a celebrity and I did not know her. But then the stories and the tributes rolled in and I could see I was not alone. That was one of Ephron’s gifts. Her observations of the world and the way we live in it made me and countless others feel like we wasn’t the only one seeing these things. Observing these things.
And then came her last gift which came as I poured over stories and interviews after her death. I’d read the words before but they did not stick at the time. Isn’t that always the way? Things you wish would stick don’t stick when you could have used for them to stick but they stick later when you think, “ohhh, now I get it.” And like that, it sticks.
The words were: Write it down.
This goes along with “everything is copy” but – in the interview I watched, Ephron said, “just write it down,” in such a way that I got it. I understood.
As writers we tend to worry over so many things. First there’s the grammar and the spelling and remembering to put in paragraphs and then there’s the story itself and the point (or the plot if you’re writing fiction) and the lead and the so on and the so forth and above all – there’s the worry over voice. You try to find your voice.
You try to build it. Because you want your voice to come out authentic and real and reflect you to everyone in the whole entire world so you worry about it over and over and over again.
“Just write it down,” she said.
If you don’t think about building a voice, then you just end up writing in the one you thought you didn’t have but you do. And it’s you. And there you have it.
She was a journalist, a writer, a playwright, a director, a friend, a screenwriter, a cook, a mother, a wife, a sister and in no way related to me.
But I miss her already.
“What I Will Miss”
by Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
Reading in bed
The view out of the window
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
One for the table
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge into Manhattan