Can’t visit family? Interview them instead.

After my father died, my sister called up our oldest surviving relative, my great aunt Bebe who lives in Florida, and they ended up having several conversations. The things she told us about our family have been delightful (and occasionally insane).

We knew, for instance, that my mother was pregnant when my parents got married, but here’s a part of the story we never heard:

When my father was 19, he needed an emergency appendectomy, but his mother was away on vacation. They wouldn’t operate on him without a relative signing for permission, or possibly to pay for it.
 
So my great aunt Bebe goes to the hospital and there is my mother, age 18, in the waiting room all upset, because, since she’s not a relative, they won’t let her up to see him. Bebe had never met her before.
 
Bebe signs the papers and goes up to see my father, and he says, “I want to see my girlfriend.” And Bebe explains that she can’t come up because she’s not a relative. So my father says, “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my wife!” and passes out.
 

Later he explains that she is pregnant and they had gotten married by a justice of the peace. But when my mother’s parents found out, they put together a fancy wedding with a caterer and a rabbi; so they kept the justice of the peace a secret.

We are not actually sure if this story is true! We talked it over and the details don’t quite make sense. But my Aunt Bebe loves a good story, and this is a pretty good story. 

This Thanksgiving, we’re regretfully foregoing a family gathering because, as much as we love our relatives, we don’t want to host a superspreader event — and spending time indoors, with masks off, with people you don’t already live with, seems to be ideal conditions for spreading the virus, sometimes with deadly consequences for people who weren’t even there

If you’re in the same boat and you can’t spend time with family in person, why not take the opportunity to interview them by phone or video? Yes, even the people you think you already know well. They probably have some stories you’ve never heard before.

I’ve written about this before — how I did some interviews with my father, but not as much as I would have liked, and how I missed my chance to interview my mother. We spent countless hours together, but there are some things I never thought to ask until it was too late.

With a planned interview, you may have a deeper conversation than if everyone were sitting in the same room, but just eating pie and chatting; and the time and attention could be a real boon to older relatives who’ve been especially isolated. Taking time to listen intently to someone’s memories is a wonderful way to show love, and it may very well end up being fascinating for you.

Consider recording the conversation so you can save it for posterity (with the person’s permission, of course!). Here’s how to record a Zoom conversation; an iPhone conversation; an Android conversation;  a Facebook video chat

Here are some questions you can ask, to get things started. And it’s okay if they wander and answer questions you didn’t ask! 

What’s the earliest memory you have? 

When you were little, what was your favorite place to go or thing to do? What was your favorite food? What was your least favorite food?

Who were your friend when you were growing up? What did you do together?

What do you remember about your parents from your childhood? What did they do for work? Did you get along with them? What did they do in their spare time? 

What was your first job? What did you do with the money you earned? 

Who was your favorite teacher? Who was your least favorite? 

Who did you admire when you were growing up? Did that change? 

What (or who) were you afraid of when you were growing up? Did that change?

What’s the first movie you remember seeing? 

How did you meet your first girlfriend/boyfriend? How did you meet the person you eventually married? 

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did things work out as you expected? 

Do you think kids today have things better or worse than you did?

If you have kids, ask them for question ideas, too. They will probably be curious about things that didn’t occur to you. 

The virus is taking so much away from us, but this could be a chance to gain something really precious. If you do it, tell me how it goes! 

On giving (and having) an unusual name

Probably because it’s so nice to talk about something besides COVID-19, the internet had a lot of fun mulling over the name of Elon Musk’s new baby, which is apparently ‘X Æ A-12’.

I wasn’t able to work up much of a sweat over two eccentric celebrities giving their child an eccentric name.  Hey, no one seems to have hired a third world surrogate or a CRISPR technician to assist with the production of the child, and there’s no evidence anyone attempted to legally marry a chandelier or anything. The parents are a man and woman who are in a relationship of some kind with each other. This being the year 2020, that’s as wholesome and normal as it gets.

But the name. In general, I’m opposed to giving children names that are not pronounceable, because . . . why? (I’m also against giving children unusual spellings of common names, which strikes me as the worst of both worlds.)

I’m strongly opposed to giving children names that will automatically put them at a disadvantage with most people, because it’s in any way a joke, or designed to shock or offend. Life is hard enough without having to introduce yourself as Ima Hogg or Judas Panzer Boi or something.

What you name your child says something about you; but more importantly, their name says something to the world about them. They are individuals who exist outside their parents’ sphere, and their name should reflect this.

But what about names that are just unusual?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Interview your parents

When I was in ninth grade, a teacher assigned the class to interview someone older than us about their childhood, and write up the results. Being shy and lazy, I decided to interview my father, because I knew where to find him (upstairs).

I remember showing up with the absolute minimal effort: a scrap of paper and a pen, and no preparation whatsoever. He was very annoyed when I asked him to just sorta talk about his life, and he sent me off to do more preparation. Equally annoyed, I slunk off to write up a proper list of questions.

As so often happens with good assignments, I started off just trying to fulfill my minimum obligation, but discovered in the process that there was a lot I actually was curious about. I knew what his favorite holiday treats were, but what did he eat on normal days? What games did he play with his friends after school? Who were his friends, and why? Was there anyone he was scared of? What did his parents expect from him? Did he get along with them? Did that change?

I ended up with a decent article, and I’m fairly sure my father enjoyed the evening. We didn’t get along well at the time, so that’s a stand-out memory in itself: Him relaxing and telling stories, and me listening attentively.

As I listened, I slowly realized something that hadn’t hit home to my self-centered teenage self: This is a real person, not just a rule-maker and the bringer of unfair consequences. This is someone who had a favorite candy and a favorite tree and a favorite uncle as a little boy, someone who got in trouble with his teachers and his parents. This is someone who once wasn’t in charge of anyone.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by jbauer-fotographie 

Next Year in Jerusalem

Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?

When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.

You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.

But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,

special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.

Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.

I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?

It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.

But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?

Act it out: up, down, left, right.  It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.

Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.

And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

————-
[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]

So tell me: West and Wewaxation

My parents are semi-retired.  They visit their grown children when they can, and try to combine these trips with very specialized iteneraries.  For instance, they made a tour of exhibitions of the work of their favorite artist, Charles Burchfield

image source

(The title of this particular piece is “Sun Emerging,” but, like most of Burchfield’s work, it ought to be called “Damn!” or “Wowza!” or “Help!”)

And a few years ago, they visited Lost Cove, Tennessee, of Walker Percy fame.  We also got a postcard from a full-scale reproduction of Moses’ tabernacle, which the Mennonites built in Lancaster, PA, for some reason.

My parents take pictures at various glitzy tourist traps:

and their photo albums on Facebook have titles like:   “Fungus”;  “Lichen”;  “More lichen.  We like lichen.”  My mother’s description of one outing with my father was as follows:

What he didn’t mention was that I was scared for him because his sense of balance was off since the spinal cord tumor, car accidents, and several surgeries, and I didn’t think the narrow edges of cliffs and stone bridges with no handrails were a good place for him to be. I even had to bargain with him to get him to agree to use one of the tree branches I found for a walking stick. At age 66! You can’t tell a man anything. I kept thinking, between Hail Marys, “I’ll have to arrange to have his body shipped back home, and then drive back from Tennessee all by myself–and the car key was locked in the trunk!

Ahh, west and wewaxation at wast.  I don’t know if this is how they pictured their retirement (or even whether they expected to have one at all).

My husband and I are anticipating something more like this

 

photo source

for our own retirement.  There is also some talk of living in either a yurt or something made of adobe, but I forget why.  I think we also somehow plan to live in Greece or the outskirts of Rome, and one of us is going to have to learn how to play the guitar finally, or at least the harmonica.  It will sound good to us, despite our age and palsy, because we will be pretty drunk.

So tell me:  what are your retirement plans?  If you could do anything at all, I mean?  Or, if you are already retired, is it working out the way you hoped?