Archive for December, 2012

I belong to an organic produce cooperative. Every other week, I pick up a box of fruit and vegetables at the home of a woman who lives about seven minutes away. I like to take my 22-month old son, Eddie, because in her backyard, the woman has a rabbit in a cage. I usually grab my box of produce, and pluck out two carrots: one for Eddie and one to him to feed the rabbit. Eddie usually winds up eating both.

Feeding the rabbit

Feeding the rabbit

The woman lives two blocks from our local supermarket so I sometimes stop there on our way home, which is what I did the other day. But as often happens, while I went in for broccoli, I came out with a shopping cart full of groceries. About halfway through, Eddie’s patience began to wane, and I started handing him things to buy myself a little more time. By the time we got to the register, there was a helium Santa balloon attached to our cart, Eddie was carrying a Sponge Bob candy cane, and he’d already finished off half a dozen strawberries, a red bell pepper, and a coconut and chocolate granola bar. A smart woman would probably have taken the child straight home after that. Me, I’m a hopeless thrift store shopper, and my babysitter told me our local Habitat for Humanity store had Christmas decorations. I couldn’t resist. I decided to stop there on our way home.

The last time I was in Habitat for Humanity, a salesgirl scolded me for allowing Eddie to roam freely in the store. He likes to paw things, mostly glass things. The items don’t cost much, but no one likes to hear glass shatter, even in a thrift store. This time, I made sure Eddie was close by. I kept handing him soft things, like little stuffed animals, thinking idle hands touch glass.

As I scoured the bins for unique ornaments, Eddie sat on a couch reading a book about a Christmas tree. But he soon grew bored and got down and began to roam through the store. I quickly put down the ornaments I was holding and ran after him. I found another couch in front of a VHS machine that was playing Winnie the Pooh. I sat Eddie on the couch, and I showed great enthusiasm for the video playing. Eddie began to watch. I stood there for about a minute to make sure he was sufficiently engaged. I then slipped off to do some more shopping. A minute later, I looked over and saw Eddie was standing over the VHS machine pressing all of the buttons until the tape popped out. By the time I got there, the carriage that ejects the tape was moving in and out of the machine like a cuckoo clock, and the tape was nowhere to be found.

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo

I tried carrying Eddie in my arms as I moved around the store, but he kept squirming to get down. I finally gave up on shopping and brought my basket of ornaments and a piece of fabric I’d found up to the register. There were two people already in line so I placed Eddie on the floor and put my basket on the counter. Eddie made a beeline for some glass ashtrays that were on a coffee table behind us. I ran after him. I tried to carry him back to the register, but he simply would not be carried, so I let him wander around the front of the store while I followed close behind. I kept glancing over at the register to see whether it was my turn to pay.

After about 10 minutes, I picked Eddie up and walked over to the register to see why it was taking so long to reach my turn. I realized everyone had been cutting in front of me, presumably because I wasn’t there to defend my rightful place in line. I turned to the woman who was now at the register and said, “I was next.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in a flat, unapologetic as tone. “Well, you weren’t standing here.”

“I wasn’t standing here because I was chasing my child around the store so he wouldn’t break anything,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry about that,” she said.

She didn’t sound sorry at all. And so I told her so. “You don’t sound sorry,” I said.

“Oh, I am. I have five children of my own. I know what it’s like,” she said.

She continued to place her purchases on the counter in front of the cashier, with the hesitation of someone driving through a “Yield” sign.

“Well, I can see you’re very sympathetic,” I said.

Eddie was now squirming, trying to get out of my arms. I wasn’t surprised. I was setting a fine example in the art of getting along with people.

“You’re obviously having a stressful day. I hope your day gets better,” the woman said. Her tone was to sincerity what saccharine is to sugar.

Habitat booty

Habitat booty

The woman had kinky blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses and looked a bit weathered. I would loved to have written her off as a kook except her friend had just gotten in line behind me with a big pile of books, all of them great, literary choices — the kind of choices only an educated person would make. I was disappointed. I figured if crazy was friends with someone with that kind of taste, she couldn’t be a kook.

By the time I got to the register, I felt like a pariah. The only thing worse than having an argument with someone in public is doing it in a charitable place like Habitat for Humanity. It’s like yelling at a nun or cutting off an ambulance.

The cashier began tallying up my purchases. I had about 25 ornaments, each priced differently, forcing the cashier to pick every one of them up, scan it for its price tag, and then ring it up. I was certain she hated me. She then lifted up the vinyl Christmas tablecloth I’d found. She opened it up and began looking on both sides of it for a price tag. She eventually asked me if I knew how much it was. I didn’t.

“Give it to her,” said the store manager, who was standing next to the cashier. “For having to wait so long.”

Perhaps they didn’t view me as a pariah after all.

Another woman behind the counter then asked if Eddie wanted a children’s book. I asked if they had one about Chanukah. She ran over to the book section and scanned the shelves but came back empty handed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, but then handed Eddie a book about a Christmas tree that he’d not only seen already when he was sitting on the couch but had torn the plastic fastener you could snap to hold the book closed.

“Oh, he liked that one,” I said.

I picked him up and grabbed my packages. As I approached the exit, the woman with the kinky blonde hair was standing at the door.

“Here, I’ll get that for you,” she said, stretching her arm out awkwardly to hold open the door.

“Thank you,” I said.

As I walked out, our eyes met, and for a brief moment we both got a little teary-eyed, as we empathized about the frustrations of motherhood and felt bad about any hardship we had caused each other.

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I reached into my back pocket for my credit card and instead pulled out an invitation I’d received a few days earlier from my son’s daycare, asking if we would be attending the annual Nativity Program. Not knowing whether I wanted to go, I placed the invitation where I place all items I want to take under advisement: my back pocket.

Being Jewish, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, or whether I even wanted my son, Eddie, to participate. I don’t have a problem with his daycare putting on the program. His daycare is in a church. It’s to be expected. But while I can live with him saying grace before he eats a snack, participating in a play that re-enacts the story of Christ was a bigger pill to swallow.

So why send my child to daycare in a church? It had a great reputation, I liked the student/teacher ratio, and it was just four blocks from my house. Moreover, Eddie liked it. When we took him to orientation, he was so enthralled with all the toys they had, we couldn’t get him to leave. It’s more like a playhouse than a house of worship.

Still, before enrolling him, I asked some parents who’d sent their children there how big a role religion played. All of them said it was very small. I then consulted a neighbor who works in the daycare but whose husband is actually Jewish. She, too, said the religious aspect was minimal.

“Define minimal,” I said. “I mean, how often do they say, ‘Jesus?’”

A Nativity Scene, by Mattel

A Nativity Scene, by Mattel

“I don’t know. But it’s not like they’re drawing pictures of him nailed to the cross,” she said.

Indeed, Eddie spends his days there playing with Elmo, going to the playground, and making pumpkins by gluing orange pom poms onto paper plates. He doesn’t come home with puppets of the Virgin Mary or popsicle sticks with Judah’s head on top. But I did linger outside his classroom one day after dropping him off, to see how he socializes with the other kids, and I heard them sing a song about Jesus. I winced.

When I told my husband, Bruce, who is actually Protestant, he said, “Jesus was a good guy, you know.”

“I’m sure he was,” I said.

If I had my druthers, I’d raise Eddie Jewish. But Bruce is a bit skittish about it. He was fine with having a rabbi officiate at our wedding and with my request to have our ceremony under a chupah. In fact he doesn’t have a problem with Judaism at all. He has a problem with feeling excluded. Bruce fears if Eddie and I are Jewish, he’s going to be the odd man out. And so I walk a middle line, delicately insinuating Jewish customs into our lives, like sliding a plate of chopped liver out onto the middle of the table, to see if anyone will bite.

Ironically, the one who opens our door to Christian customs this time of year is me. I buy the Christmas tree and decorate it. I adorn our front porch and mantel with evergreen and white lights. I put a wreath on our door with a big gold bow. I even decorated one of the trees in our side yard with big Christmas bulbs that look like jelly beans.

I love the music, too. Last Sunday, I dragged us to a Christmas concert at a local church because I’d seen a flyer advertising it on the wall at Eddie’s daycare. The performers were a motley group, united by their black bow ties and metallic green vests that fit so poorly, they looked plastic. They sang the typical Christmas carols and did a rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas where they held up signs signifying each day, and members of the audience were told to stand by one of the signs and when it was their turn, to sing out the verse associated with that day. Whenever they reached Day 10, on which “10 Lords a Leaping,” one of the singers, a stout little man with curly hair and glasses, would leap down the side aisle of the church.

At another point in the show, the singers came out into the audience and had us walk around the room hand-in-hand, singing. I was touched when a member of the choir saw how small Eddie was and lifted him up and carried him as we walked. I sang along as we circled the pews, though every time they uttered the word, “Jesus,” it was like a chicken bone caught in my throat.

That night, I went home and lit my two menorahs for Chanukah. It was the second night, and I planned on giving Eddie the Hess truck I’d bought him at an antique store. It was my first Chanukah with my son (I don’t count when he was an infant), so it was fun to light the menorah with him. I then gave him some chocolate coins and a couple of dreidels to spin, though he’s not even two years old yet so the best he could do with the dreidels was to grab them and say, “Mine!”blog merry chanukah tree menorah

It’ll be easy for Eddie to like Christmas, with all its pomp and circumstance. I just hope he will love Chanukah, too, the way I did when I was a kid – the candles, the latkahs, and of course the presents, which my parents would pile up in the corner of their bedroom. I’ll always remember one present in particular. It was a huge box at the bottom of the pile one year, and it had my name on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Just before I opened it, my father told me it was a new chair for my desk. I mustered up all the gratitude I could find to say, “Thank you,” even though I was profoundly disappointed. When I opened it, I saw it was a brand new record player. I was elated.

Before opening our presents, my three siblings and I would light our menorahs. We each had our own. The menorahs were so distinctive, I associated each one with the sibling who owned it, as if their shape and color reflected their personality. Wanting to continue that same tradition with my own small family, I went to the store today to buy another menorah, because I believe everyone should have their own. I found one that was beautiful in its simplicity. It had long slender arms that reached outward, like a tree wanting an embrace, and once again, the menorah seemed to reflect the personality of its owner: my husband.

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I love buying a Christmas tree. I like how they smell, the way they feel in my fingers. I like to stand in the middle of the lot when no one else is around and look at the rows and rows of trees as far as the eye can see. You can be in the middle of suburban New Jersey, but it feels like you’re in the middle of a forest.

When I arrived at the nursery this year, I headed straight for the Frasier Firs. They have a beautiful shape and color, their branches are curved and springy, like starfish legs. I walked up and down the aisles eyeing the merchandise like a man sizing up prostitutes in a brothel, and as I passed a tree I liked, I’d touch a couple of branches like I was embracing its hands.

Where the Christmas trees live

Where the Christmas trees live

“Can I help you?” asked a salesgirl with grey braids.

“I’m good. Just trying to find the perfect tree,” I said. “I love buying Christmas trees.”

I needed one that would fit my small living room but didn’t want one that was so skinny, it looked anemic. A Christmas tree should have big hips, like in a Ruben painting, but not too big. Bringing home a tree is like inviting a person into your home. You don’t want someone who will be piggish once they get inside.

I soon found just the right tree. It was the perfect height, not too wide, and had a pretty blue shimmer. Some Frasier Firs have a yellow hue, from growing on the sunny side of the mountain. I didn’t like that. It reminded me of pee.

As I contemplated the tree, I noticed another one diagonally across from it that was a little short but far more luscious. It was like Aunt Jemima. You wanted to get lost in its arms. I made a mental note of the two trees and then ventured further into the lot. In the far corner, I spotted a tree I liked very much — until I got closer and noticed an errant branch protruding out from the back of it. When I touched the branch, it came off in my hand, leaving a gaping hole. It was like tugging on a tooth that suddenly falls out. I was horrified, but only for a second because right next to it was the most perfect tree I’d ever seen.

Which was my favorite?

Which was my favorite?

I was marveling at the tree’s bountiful bushiness when I spotted a couple walking into the lot, and they were heading right for the two trees I’d already scoped out at the front of the lot. I quickly walked over there and began hovering, as if I was about to buy one.

As I loitered by the two trees, I noticed a third one nearby that seemed to have everything I sought. But when I turned around to compare it to my two other favorites, I couldn’t find them. I had so many favorites at that point, I couldn’t keep track of them. It reminded me of chess, when I plot out so many moves ahead that I forget my initial move, and I wind up losing my queen to a pawn.

It took awhile but I finally narrowed it down to three trees. But I’d pawed each one so much I’d stripped off some needles like an anxious child wearing the fur off a teddy bear. I was at an impasse. I tried using price as a guide, but my favorite of the bunch cost just $40 while the other two were $45, making me think I had no idea what a good tree looks like.

Hmmm, I hadn't quite seen it from that angle

Hmmm, I hadn’t quite seen it from that angle

I looked from one tree to the other and then back again, and I simply could not whittle the pool down any further. I was vexed, mired in indecision. It was painful. I hate buying a Christmas tree. It reminds me of my utter inability to make a decision.

I’ve always been indecisive. The problem is, it’s a paradox. I don’t trust my own judgment, so by definition, any decision I make is the wrong one, simply because I’m the one who made it. It’s a little like having disdain for a club that would have you as a member.

Just then the salesgirl with the braids walked by.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“I’m dying here. Help me decide,” I said, and pointed to the three trees in the running.

“Rate them on a scale of one to ten,” she said. She pointed to the first one.

“8,” I said.

“Now this one,” she said.

“Um, 7,” I said.

Another year, another good choice

Another year, another good choice

“Now this one,” she said.

“6.75,” I said. “I guess I have my answer.”

She and another woman carried the tree over to a table and dropped it on its side and began sliding it into a net. I hadn’t really seen the tree from that angle. It suddenly looked a bit sparse, like its needles weren’t full enough.

“Do you think…?”

The woman with the braids paused and turned to look at me.

“You picked a really nice tree,” she said.

“I did?”

“You did,” she said.

“I did,” I said.

I love buying a Christmas tree.

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I don’t know for how long our son, Eddie, had been crying in his crib, but by the time we heard him, his eyes were puffy and his face was flushed. It was Thanksgiving, and we had put him down for a nap about an hour before the meal, but once dinner was served, we were all so busy talking and eating, we couldn’t hear his cries. At our home in New Jersey, we have a baby monitor, but we don’t have one in our apartment in New York, where we were having Thanksgiving. He was one room away. I figured we’d hear him.

I took one look at his red cheeks and swollen eyes and thought, “This is the kind of shit he will remember – and talk about in therapy for years to come.”

We put him on the couch, and he just lay there, barely moving. I felt like I’d broken him. And I thought, “This is the kind of shit I’ll remember – and talk about in therapy for years to come.”

I felt his head. He was burning up.

“He’s probably just overheated from crying,” said my sister-in-law.

“He just got himself worked up. He’ll be fine,” said my brother’s girlfriend.

He was sluggish for days.

He was sluggish for days.

By midnight, he still had a fever and hadn’t eaten anything. We gave him some children’s Tylenol and at about 12.30 a.m., he finally went to sleep.

The following morning, he was still depleted, like a balloon that had lost its air. He wouldn’t even drink his bottle of milk. He perked up briefly around noon but was flat again by late afternoon.

“I think something bit him,” said my mother, who was in town for the holiday. “He’s got a little mark on his hand. And he’s been scratching at his foot.”

I looked at Eddie’s hand. There was a tiny red dot the size of a pin prick.

“Mom, I can’t even see it,” I said.

My mother is inclined to take small things and make them large, turning mishaps into crisis. It’s a family trait, actually. My brother might see my husband, Bruce, across the room and say, “You’ve got something on your sweater,” and walk over and pluck off the smallest piece of lint the size of a gnat. Bruce and I dismissed my mother’s comment. Sure enough, by sundown, Eddie had a full-fledged rash.

The rash was on his hands first.

The rash was on his hands first.

I called our pediatrician and described the rash. She knew immediately what it was and said it was a very common viral rash in children: Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. She prescribed children’s Benadryl and Tylenol and told us to call her back if the spots became more purple in color.

By the end of the holiday weekend, Eddie seemed ready to return to school. He still had some spots on his hands and face, but his fever was gone and his mood was upbeat. I brought him into his classroom and as I began removing his coat, the nicest of his three teachers looked at me and said, “I hate to be picky, but I noticed something on his hands.”

“Oh, it’s fine. He’s not contagious. I spoke to the doctor, and she wasn’t worried. She didn’t even put him on antibiotics,” I said. I wondered if I should have left out that last part. Perhaps they would have preferred it if he were on them.

“Well, we’ve had Hoof and Mouth going—“

“I think you mean, ‘Hand, Foot and Mouth.’ ‘Hoof and Mouth’ is something cattle get,” I said with the authority of someone who has done a modicum of research on the World Wide Web.

The 'mouth' part of 'Hand, Face and Mouth' disease.

The ‘mouth’ part of ‘Hand, Face and Mouth’ disease.

I couldn’t tell whether they were accusing me of bringing the virus into the school or warning me that someone else had. The nice teacher mentioned a child called Lola, who was also listless on Thanksgiving and the rash almost all over her body. I didn’t know if the teacher was trying to tell me she thought Lola gave it to the class and Eddie was just an innocent victim, or if she was saying your dirty child has brought a pox on this class. Regardless, I defended myself vigorously.

“I’m pretty sure Eddie picked it up here,” I said, and then, to downplay my son’s affliction, I said, “His rash was only on his hands and mouth. There wasn’t a dot anywhere else.”

I felt like the guy who, facing charges that his dog bit someone, says, “My dog doesn’t bite. That’s not my dog. I don’t even have a dog.”

“Do you want me to take Eddie home?” I asked. “I can, you know.”

“Oh, no, no. That’s fine,” the nice teacher said. “We just don’t want it to go round and round. One year, someone was sick and everyone kept getting it over and over again, even the teachers.”

It didn’t surprise me. These kids are infested with germs, and they put their sticky germ-infested hands all over everything in that room. And after they touch everyone else’s germs, they put their hands in their mouths, passing disease from one child to another over and over again. It was hard to imagine why there is ever a time when they’re not sick. I wanted to wash them all down with Lysol.

On my way out of the building, I stopped by Eddie’s mailbox and saw that flyers had been placed in everyone’s mailboxes explaining that the children had been exposed to “Hand, Foot and Mouth” or Coxsackie. The flyer went on to describe the disease’s symptoms and treatments. I jumped to the part about whether they thought a child should be sent to school or whether he should be kept home. It said, “Removal of most children from child care is not warranted—“ though between the words “Is” and “not warranted,” the sentence was cut off on account of poor photocopying. I hoped the missing word wasn’t “recommended.”

The school has a rigorous schedule of crafts.

The school has a rigorous schedule of crafts.

The flyer went on to say the child should be kept home if he has fever of more than 101 degrees or is unable to participate in activities. If by activities they meant gluing cotton balls to paper or licking the toys he hadn’t yet touched, I’m sure Eddie was up to the task. I, on the other hand, was starting to feel a bit chilled, and my throat was getting sore.

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