Surrogate Big Sister

I never had a big sister, but growing up, I always looked to my cousin Nancy as my surrogate big sister. I remember watching her when she was in high school.  As a kid, I wanted to be like her.  When their family moved to Cornelia Street, just two blocks from our house, I was happy that they were all so close to us.

She had a poster of Joe Namath, who played for the New York Jets, on her bedroom wall.  That was the beginning of my interest in football, although I admit not so much until I moved to the South and Kelly went to a big football school.

Nancy and her husband Charlie moved into the beautiful house with the scary driveway on Boonton Avenue.  That driveway ranked up there with driving up Main Street in the learning-to-drive world, because I had to drive to their house as part of my driver’s education class.

When Jennifer was born, I thought Nancy had the perfect life. To a kid eight years her junior, I wanted to someday have what she had—a nice house and beautiful children.

When I started dating Daddy, I remember talking to her and my cousin Janice about him because I had some doubts.  I don’t remember the exact conversations, but they convinced me to give him a chance, which was obviously good advice.

Dad and I still talk about babysitting for Christina when she was just three months old.  That day, Nancy gave her corn for the first time and it did not agree with her.  We placed her in her swing, which seemed to soothe her and helped us get through the evening until she and Charlie got home.

When we got married, they let us use their park-like backyard for our photographs.  That setting was the go-to spot for so many wedding photos.

But two of you don’t need a surrogate big sister. Only Kelly and I never had a big sister. I am thinking that Kelly, as the biggest cousin of our family, probably does not have a surrogate. Uh oh. We need to find you one. It’s never too late.

Sew What?

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, it was called junior high, not middle school. We left School Street School and moved to “The Flats,” where the kids from “The Hill” and “The Park” sections of town joined those from “The Flats.” My homeroom was appropriately named since it truly looked like a room in someone’s house. It was also the Home Economics room with all the luxuries of home including the kitchen sink. When I would come there at the end of the day, I would be greeted by all the savory aromas cooked up by all the classes which occupied the room that day.

Only the girls got to experience the joys and the torture of Home Ec. I say torture because not only did we get to prepare and eat great meals, we also learned to sew. The boys went to wood shop and used sharp tools to create things. I suppose at that time the powers that be never thought boys should learn how to cook. But who ever thought it was a good idea to give thirteen year old boys access to saws?

I know I have mentioned many many times my sewing woes, and I am going to do it one more time in case I have omitted any details of the class and how it impacted all of you.

We learned how to take our measurements to determine the pattern size—bust, waist, and hip—and our teacher instructed us how to pin the very fragile tissue-like patterns to the fabric. We were also taught how to sew an invisible hem and put on a button, tasks I recently learned I never taught any of you.  I don’t know how this slipped through the cracks.  This was a shocking revelation. So my advice now is to learn via You-Tube or pay a seamstress to do these basic tasks.

We had little or no choice regarding the type of projects, and knowing we would be graded on the final result made the class very stressful and unpleasant. I hated the sewing portion of the class, and Grandma knew it. She was very sympathetic to those feelings, so much so that for my eighth grade graduation, she and Grandpa presented me with my all-time favorite gift—a sewing machine! What in the world were they thinking! Was it their way of saving on the family clothing budget, or was it a lesson on how to act graciously when receiving unpleasant gifts?

During the next few years I went to the local five and dime store, where in the basement they had books filled with pictures of clothing to make, drawers of patterns, and tables of fabric. Aunt Ar and Aunt El became my sewing guinea pigs. As eight and ten year olds, I am not certain if they had any input regarding the style of dresses or choices of fabric, but I do know they did wear the outfits I created. Aunt Ellen even wore one dress in a school picture. It was a lovely lavender dress with a zipper up the front.

Over the years, my skill increased, and since I was sewing on my own time with no one looking over my shoulder, I grew to enjoy my graduation gift. In the family room of our first house hung drapes I made, and several family members were gifted with Christmas tree skirts from the House of Karen Studios.

All of you have worn my creations in the form of Halloween costumes, and during the early years of our marriage, Dad and I went to several Halloween parties in my creations. Once we were salt and pepper shakers and another time we were Sylvester and Tweetie Bird. For the three of you, I recall Kelly and Casey dressing up in a pink poodle skirt, Jamie as the Little Mermaid and Jasmine, and Casey as a princess and Little Red Riding Hood.

So the lesson to be learned is that when receiving hideous gifts, give thanks and grin and bear it because you just may be surprised someday.

Sylvester & Tweety- aka Mom & Dad
Sylvester & Tweety- aka Mom & Dad
Aunt Ellen in Homemade Dress from House of Karen
Aunt Ellen in Homemade Dress from House of Karen

To a Child- It’s an Amazing World!

We just returned from our trip to New Jersey to visit Grandma and Jamie. Everyone, including me, thought we were crazy for driving there with a two year old for only the weekend. But he was a good traveler and led us in songs which helped when the radio reception was poor in the mountains. He taught us that Old MacDonald had a lot more than just cows, horses and ducks on that farm. We learned he had a monkey, elephant, and train (“with a choo-choo here and a choo-choo there”). I think he may have a career as a DJ, and he definitely has a mind of his own. If he says his farm has an elephant, then by golly, there is just no arguing with that boy!

He notices everything. When we passed a farm, he provided us with a narration of what animals he saw. He enabled us to look at life through his tiny viewfinder. Every empty green pasture was a golf course to him. He commented on the trucks and cars we passed, and when he saw a yellow leave fluttering to the ground he said, “Look! It’s a butterfly.” I suppose all children are this observant. After all, the whole world is an empty canvas to them. Grandma’s first comment upon seeing Kelly shortly after her birth was that her eyes were open and staring at everything around her. This made me wonder if I had made a similar comment after Bryce was born, so I looked for the evidence.

I made a huge commitment when Bryce was born, which is going to haunt me for the next twenty years. I decided to write a journal, which I began while we were all waiting at the hospital for him to be born. My intent is that I will give it to him (and now all subsequent grandchildren) when they graduate high school. So I peeked back on that first day nearly three years ago to see what Bryce’s first day was like.

We arrived early in the day, but Bryce apparently had plans of his own regarding the date of his birth. Here are a few excerpts from that very long day.

We are sitting in the waiting room with Gigi and Granddaddy and eleven other grandparents also anxiously awaiting the births of their children’s babies. It is a cool, rainy day here in Charleston—not at all like the bright sunny day earlier this week when your mom and I took the last walk on Folly Beach. The sky was bright blue that day and the sun was so brilliant, but there were very few people around.

Many hours and several trips to the cafeteria passed.

…It’s almost 9:30 now. Aunt Casey had to leave. We moved the cars because they are locking all the doors in the hospital except for the Emergency Room.

…The waiting room has cleared out. All the other parents waiting with us became grandparents. They visited the new babies and went out in the rain to get take-out for the new moms and dads. Where are you Bryce?

…T-minus 15 minutes until midnight. I guess your birthday is going to be February 8th. We are not happy and the waiting room is very cold.

None of the four of us grandparents-to-be would leave no matter how long it would take. We were in it for the duration.

It’s tomorrow. Grandpa is on his third nap, Granddad is yawning, and Gigi is playing on her IPAD. (You probably don’t know what that is.) I wonder what your world is like.

…The hospital is quiet. The cleaning staff is mopping the floors, and we are still waiting. Your poor mom must be exhausted.

Kelly, you did not realize that this was just the beginning of how much energy your son would sap from you as he grows and becomes more active and full of endless energy.

Finally! We got called to the nursery to watch you get weighed and measured. … What a cutie—and so alert. You looked around the room taking in your new world. Welcome!

So there you go, Kelly. Your son was just like you—full of wonder of his new world. I think all new babies are like our little man. Everything is amazing to him and he loves sharing his excitement. Why do we have to lose that wonder?

Part of Your World

You all loved watching The Little Mermaid and saw the video over and over and over. One Halloween, Jamie asked to be Ariel, so out came my beloved sewing machine so I could make the costume for her. She even had red hair in a can.

I remember the three of you and Carly dancing and twirling and belting out the tunes in our living room. Clearly you were all fans.

I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see them dancing’
Walking around on those – what do you call ’em?
Oh – feet!

Now let me change the subject to a related one—vacations at the Jersey Shore. For several summers, prior to medical wastes washing up on the beaches (relocating our vacations to the South Carolina beaches), we rented that great beach house on Long Beach Island owned by Mona from Verona.

I am not certain of the exact time, but at least one year was 1995, because I distinctly recall the O.J. Simpson trial being broadcast. Most of our days were spent lounging on the beach, burying each other in the sand and swimming in the ocean.

There is no question that you all remember the story I am about to tell you, but this will be news to your children, who I hope will one day be familiar with The Little Mermaid. What I believe happened was that Aunt El and Uncle Jim were on the beach with the kids. A man nearby was busily creating a sand mermaid. When he spoke, his very deep voice sparked a certain familiarity with Aunt El. In Aunt Ellen style, she told Uncle Jim that he must speak with him. Uncle Jim clearly loves her, because he did it. He said something to the effect, “My wife thinks you are a crab.”  The man responded, “I am.”

It turned out the man was Sam Wright, who was the voice of Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid movie (Incidentally, girls, Mr. Wright was born in nearby Camden, South Carolina). He very graciously gave each child a personalized  autographed picture of himself. Maybe that was the beginning of Jamie’s hobby of meeting celebrities.

Mermaid 1        Mermaid 2

The Final Postcard: Their Wedding

I am sad that I stopped sending the postcards to Grandma. This is the letter she sent to me after my final postcard in response to the questions:

1. What was your wedding like?

2. What kind of party did you have after the wedding and who came?

Dear Karen

Your father didn’t tell me about converting to the Catholic religion. It was a surprise to me. He went through the process in Texas before we were married. He had been baptized at St. Cyril’s in Boonton because there was no Russian church in the area. So that made it easy for him. I was surprised because keeping a secret was something he wasn’t good at.

 Our wedding was very small, fortunately, because he didn’t know when he could get home. We had immediate families only. Small ceremony, no mass, at 11 a.m., Mt. Carmel. His brother didn’t like the time so he didn’t come. He gave me a lot of grief over the time.

We had dinner in Denville—a place your father and I liked. It was very nice. We went back to the Birch Street house for wedding cake. I remember my mother writing out a check for the dinner. It was under $100. We went away for the night and left for Texas the next day.

 So fifty-seven years later, here I am. This is it for now.



Grandma wore a yellow dress for the occasion. Although all her siblings had more traditional ceremonies, with big wedding parties and traditional wedding gowns, I think that was really what Grandma wanted. She never liked big fusses made over her. That has always been her way.

I am surprised at my Uncle Pete. After all they went through trying to become a family again, and all the effort Grandpa made at getting him back from Russia, I feel it was a slap in the face for him to complain at all about the wedding. He should have kept his mouth shut and came with a smile on his face. I do not understand Grandpa’s family.

Grandma & Grandpa- April 21, 1951

My Grandma & Your Grandparents
My Grandma & Your Grandparents
Grandma and Grandpa's First Home- Killeen , Texas 1951
Grandma & Granpa’s First Home- Killeen, Texas

Doctor Grandpa

I am sure you all remember Grandpa shuffling into his room and returning with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand to show you. It was his report card, and he was very proud of it. After all, he did get into medical school based on those grades. He went to the First Leningrad Medical Institute, which was originally a medical school for women. It was, and still is, one of the leading medical schools in Russia.

Uncle Dave and I were able to get translations of his high school report card, and while his course of studies was rigorous, I was surprised to find only one grade of “A”, which was in English. Since he was accepted at such a prestigious university and he was always so proud, I expected many more A’s. However, Grandpa’s report card consisted of 11 C’s, and 4 B’s. The only surprises were courses in Engineering and Artistic Drawing. Perhaps the teachers just did not give out many A’s and B’s at that time. Grade inflation has been the subject of many discussions today. Several studies have shown a steady increase in the number of A’s during the last fifty years, leading me to believe those grades were considered very good during the 1930’s.

Grandpa told us that he attended school six days each week, with no vacations during the year except during the summer. Trips to the ballet and opera were regular occurrences on the weekend, an experience he was never exposed to in New Jersey. I wonder if he and Grandma had had the money, would they have taken us. Would I have been raised with more culture? I imagine Grandma turning up her nose at the prospect, but I bet he would have if they had the financial means.

I was most surprised to learn that he lived in a dorm while in college. Never did he mention this to me when I was a college student struggling with homesickness. Did he have a roommate or two he did not like? His college was in the same city where his family lived. Did he go home often? What was college like in Russia? I wish he had shared this with us.

It is sad that he was never able to complete his education after he returned to the U.S. We also all know that he was forced to leave school after refusing to become a Russian citizen, but even if he stayed, his dream of becoming a doctor would have been squashed by the war. Becoming a doctor just was not in the stars for him.

Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935
Grandpa-Leningrad High School #7- 1935

My Shikse Yiddish Vocabulary

The words I have learned from Dad supplement the new foods his Jewish heritage brought to my life. Some, I was surprised to learn, I knew and used often. One word in particular is because I have always been one—a klutz, which is defined as a clumsy person. I am always bumping into things, and this may be why I never mastered the graceful act of performing a cartwheel. My interpretation is extremely klutzy.

With the online version of The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know and The First Words You Learn: Selected Words and Phrases, I decided to see how many I know. I tried, in each case, to correctly use them in a sentence. I hope I did okay.

  1. Ay-Yay-Yay- A joyous or sometimes sarcastic expression

If you asked Dad’s grandma how she felt, she would answer, “Oh, not so ay-yay-yay!

  1. Boychick- An affectionate term for a young boy.

Dad always refers to Bryce as “boychick,” and until this moment, I thought he invented this word.

  1. Bupkes- Trivial, useless, or a small amount.

I got paid bupkes when I babysat as a teenager—only 50 cents/hour.

  1. Chutzpah-Nerve, extreme arrogance

In my opinion, Donald Trump shows a lot of chutzpah with many of his obnoxious comments.

  1. Dreck- Garbage, junk, shit.

Who is responsible for this dreck all over the floor of my new car?”

  1. Ess- Eat.

The 5 of us sat down to the dinner Dad’s grandma Esther made for us—a single Cornish hen—and she said to us, “Ess, ess.”

  1. Fershtay- Understand?

After Dad finished his “how to load the dishwasher seminar,” he turned to us and asked, “Fershtay?”

  1.  Glitch- Slip, minor problem or error

Volkswagen’s emissions glitch has turned into more of a tsunami.

  1. Kvetch- Complain or whine

You girls call me more to kvetch about your lives than your father because you know I don’t kvetch as much as he does.

  1. Mazel Tov- Congratulations or good luck

Our friends called to say Mazel Tov when they heard we were expecting a new grandchild.

  1. Mensch- An honorable, decent person.

Some may not like Joe Biden’s politics, but many would agree that he is a real mensch.

  1. Mishuga/meshugge- Insane, crazy

Nobody can argue that Dabo Swinney sometimes goes mishuga with his rants.

  1. Nosh- To nibble or a light snack (verb or noun)

Dad likes to nosh while watching television in the evenings.

  1. Oy vey- Expression of dismay or exasperation

When Kelly had to drive to a wedding a distance away the weekend of the SC floods, Dad and I said,“Oy vey!”

  1. Oy vey iz mir- Oh woe is me!

When Dad’s father died, his distraught grandmother said, “Oy vey iz mir!”

  1. Plotz- To explode in aggravation.

When Dad hangs up the phone after speaking to the insurance company he wants to plotz.

  1.  Schlep- To drag, to carry unwillingly

My house is filled with the belongings you girls wouldn’t schlep to your new homes.

  1. Schmeer- To spread or a spread

I prefer to get my cream cheese on the side, because the store owners usually schmeers on more schmeer than I like.

  1. Shlemiel/ schlemiel- Clumsy person; a klutz (Learned that from the show “Laverne and Shirley”)

When Bryce runs through the house while looking to the side rather than where he is going, he crashed into things, so I could call him a real schlemiel.

  1. Shmendrik- A stupid person; a jerk

The woman who hit Casey’s car when she drove from the parking lot was a real schmendrik!

  1. Shmatta- A rag. (Note: not in the dictionary, but Dad said I had to add.)

Some of Dad’s old shirts are real shmattas. I would like them to disappear!

  1. Schmooze-To chat; make small talk

Jamie tries to schmooze with the celebrities she meets at the book signings.

  1. Schlock- Cheap; inferior

Dad got tired of me buying schlocky pocketbooks, so he bought me a Coach purse ten years ago, and it is still in good condition.

  1. Shlimazel- Someone with constant bad luck (Also from “Laverne & Shirley”)

For a long time, Jamie had a cloud over her head and was a real shlimazel, but her life is now great—a new job and a great husband.

  1. Spiel- Long involved talk or sales pitch

I only wanted to know if it was going to rain tomorrow, but I had to listen to the weatherman’s whole spiel about the weather across the rest of the country first.

  1. Shikse- A non-Jewish woman.

One of Dad’s uncles canceled our wedding when he learned I was a shikse.

  1. Shmutz/schmutz- A little dirt or smudge

I used to wipe the schmutz off your faces with your spit rather than mine. I was a great mom!

  1. Shtick- Something you are known for doing.

Anyone who knows me is aware than my shtick is researching dead people, and I don’t care if my hobby is annoying to some of you.

  1. Tchotchkas, tchotchkes- Knick-knacks

Dad always brought you home tchotchkas from his trips: postcards for Jamie, key chains for Kelly, and magnets for Casey.

  1. Tuches/tukhis- Rear end, butt

I was always happy when you were potty trained and could wipe your own little!

There you go. Not bad for a shikse! How many have you heard in random conversations, or how many from the mouth of Dad?