Tag Archives: Family

Limitless Compassion for All Beings

What did you expect?” he murmured.  “Time passes.” 

“That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tucked a napkin into the dog-eared copy of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and stared at the ice crystals splayed across the tiny airplane window. The clouds swirled beneath like the surface of oceans, broken only by the islands of the Rockies and the fecund and unpredictable bodies of the Cascadian volcanoes, thrust upwards out of the Pacific sky like whales or mermaids.  We were on our way home to Seattle after three days in Philadelphia, where we had traveled to bury my grandfather.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

At his funeral, it was recalled that he was the only child in his family born in America, that he spoke Yiddish growing up, that his father Zuffa died just before the Great Depression and Morris began to care for his elderly mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, when he was still a young man.

Morris's father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

Morris’s father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

His older sister Esther died at the age of 20 and Morris lost one of his lungs to illness while he was a teenager. He and his mother moved from one flat to the next across the neighborhoods of 1930s Philadelphia, her continually convinced they were being cheated on heat and rent. He once showed up for a job at a soup factory once with a few hundred other men, only to be told that the promised wage had been lowered.  When the men grumbled, armed Pinkerton agents appeared on the rooftops.  He watched Jackie Robinson play baseball, an experience he later recounted to a rapt audience of second graders in my husband’s classroom.  He fell in love with a beautiful and kind woman named Frances and with her raised two children. He survived a heart attack in his forties and more heart problems later.Frances Saller Fox

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

He road tripped across the entire country with Fran and explored Alaska while visiting his son Howard. He picked his grandson up from soccer and read books to his grandchildren and built things out of blocks and played dressup with us with unabated joy. He contributed to our educations, inquired about our pursuits and adventures with love and without judgement, and gave money to Doctors without Borders and the the Nature Conservancy and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was a proud progressive and he played on the floor with his four great grandchildren right up until the end of his life. He would have been 98 this July.

Morris's great grandchildren: Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

Morris’s great grandchildren playing after his funeral.  Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

He lived at home until a week ago Tuesday, when he broke some ribs and was taken to the hospital. I was watching the Stanton Moore trio play at Jazz Alley with my husband and son when my dad called to let me know Grandpop had fallen.

After I spoke to my father, I returned to the dark booth to sit with my husband and son. The band played “A Waltz for All Souls.”

In a few days they had begun to stabilize my grandfather’s pain, but they worried about pneumonia since he had only one lung. I heard that he had eaten some hummus and challah, and took this for a good sign, as they are some of his favorite foods. My son and I made art and chose photos to cheer him up in the hospital, and I went off to work a Friday night shift at the pub.  On my dinner break, I read an email that suggested he might be improving. A few hours later I dragged a sodden bag of compost out to the dumpster in the alley and called my father.  It was then that I learned that my grandfather was gone.  He had died on the 23rd of January, his wife’s birthday.

I walked into the edge of the construction site next door to the pub, knelt in the giant clods of upturned mud next to an excavator, and cried without restraint.  It was almost midnight, and there was a sliver of moon.

In the morning, we told our son his great grandfather had died, explaining that Gpop’s body stopped working because it was old, and that he would be buried next to his wife, my Nana, a woman he loved very much. Several days later, sitting in the funeral procession, Callum asked “where is Gpop?” I reminded him that Gpop had died, and his body was in the wooden box we had seen at the funeral home. “But where is the box?” he asked from his carseat. “Its in a special car up front,” I told him. “Grandpop gets to lead the way to the cemetery.” Callum was quiet for a minute, then asked thoughtfully: “But how will he drive the car if he is in the box?”

buddies.

buddies.

It was bitterly cold at the cemetery, and the headstones leaned against each other for support, some fallen off their bases, Hebrew characters etched in granite against the wind. We stood in the snow and the mud and the syllables of Kaddish were spoken into the winter air. After the service, my parents and siblings and my son and my husband and I wandered deeper into the cemetery, picking our way through the snow.  My chest felt bruised from the inside, and the air was sharp and painful against the skin of my face. We rested our hands on Nana Fran’s headstone, remembering her sweetness, and stood in front of Morris’s mother’s grave, and his sister’s, his brother’s and his father’s. We reflected that Morris mourned where we stood that day at five different points in his life, twice as a young child.

A flock of wild geese banked overhead and flew over the cemetery, and I turned to watch them beating their wings against the grey January sky, their cries eddying across the field of graves.  I recalled Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

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You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Later my brother and father would send pictures from my grandfather’s apartment: his baseball cap, hanging on his desk chair. His Sunday copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel, opened to “The Week Ahead.” His copy of my recently published book, sitting on his nightstand.  His robe, folded on a chair. Staring through my tears at these artifacts of his final days at home, I remembered the wild geese over the graveyard, and it seemed to me that there is nothing more precious than this unbroken chain of ordinary moments, family and solitude and breakfast and love all tangled up together in a narrative without beginning or end.

I miss my Grandpop because he was my friend, because he was kind and good and dear, because my world has always held him and now he is absent. I miss him in the way grandchildren miss their grandparents. When I allow myself to consider that my father has lost his father, and his mother, that my mother has lost two fathers and will someday loose her mother, that I must someday say goodbye to my own parents, my husband to his, that our son must someday say goodbye to me, and his father, it begins to feel like a I am falling into a canyon of grief, a canyon so deep the bottom will not reveal itself for some time.

And then I remember that a force cut that canyon. Like a river over a thousand years, or a perenially gusting wind, love and living have carved out the space in which we grieve. Gratitude and grief make each other possible.

On the airplane, I set aside One Hundred Years of Solitude and pulled up Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on my phone, a minor miracle of technology and spiritual transmission.

“when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us,” Rinpoche wrote, “we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

Fox, Morris Born 1917. Passed away Friday, January 23, 2015 at the age of 97. Beloved husband of the late Frances (nee Saller) Fox. Loved father of Ellen Lang and Howard (Theresa Trebon) Fox. Beloved grandfather of Erika (Michael) Shanik, Mark (Melissa) Lang, Sarah (Ryan Reilly) Fox, Izaak (Danielle) Fox and Emma Fox. Cherished great-grandfather of Emily Shanik, Audrey Shanik, Callum Reilly and Charlotte Lang. Preceded in death by his siblings Nathan, Frank, Benny and Esther Fox. Funeral services will be held on Thursday, January 29 in Philadelphia, PA. Memorial donations made to Doctors Without Borders or Jewish Home and Care Center appreciated.

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Filed under basic goodness, Change, death, Family, literature, memory, mourning, poetry

mending a pair of pants we bought because we could afford them

This morning, while my son watched children’s television in the other room,
I sat by the open window on the bed and mended a pair of corduroy work pants
sipping my coffee and letting spring wash over my skin through the screen.
As I worked to knit the button hole back together,
I noticed how few stitches had been used to assemble the belt loops,
how there were loose threads
and poor workmanship here and there
and then I pricked my finger with the needle.
while swearing and applying pressure,
i glanced at the label,
and realized that the fabric I held in my hands
had been been held by a woman, or man, or child,
in China

i read “made in china” a hundred times a day
but i don’t realize much.
i think:
“ugh.”
then: “we can’t afford to buy things made fairly,
and “after all, i do try to buy second hand, so that helps, right?”

and there’s not much realizing after that, just an unspooling narrative of rationalization

like so much tangled thread
sure we bought the pants because we could afford them
and we could afford them because that person in China
made a few dimes
for these seams
and went home to a crowded room in a toxic city
hundreds of miles from their families
who they might see once a year.

I think about who made these pants,
and think about my seamstress great grandmother
an immigrant Eastern European woman
who fled the land of pogroms with (most of) her children
to Philadelphia
just a few years
after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
where, after her husband’s death from tuberculosis,
she made a living sewing theater curtains and
beaded bags
for wealthy women

and holding my mending by the window i think that these are not trivial connections
but literal ones
we can feel
as we bleed tiny drops of blood
into the same fabric

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Filed under basic goodness, blue collar, consumerism, crafty, Family, History, Labor, meditation, memory, migration, Ordinary, poetry

for Jack Heil.

photo(4)

it would seem that there are not too many threads
between you and I

your exit came nineteen years before my arrival
and I have only a few snapshots
in the stark black and white
of the postwar years
when you married my grandmother
and held my mother on your lap
in a white tank top
with a St. Christopher medal around your neck
and a bottle of Imperial in her tiny hands

and I have only a few stories
of how you traveled for work
and how the six kids would pile in the car
to drive old highway 99 to the airport
and see you off
back in the day when you walked across the tarmac
and up the stairs
if you needed to take a plane

of how you were at a convention in Florida for work
with my Grandmother
and there was a sitter for the kids back home
and the last night you sat with her on the beach
and watched the waves
and the next day, she took one flight
and you took another
and you did not come home

of how your death tore a hole in your family
and how your widow stitched it together as best as she knew how
and your children healed in their own ways
and they grew with the scars.

Some scars never heal,
some are open even now,
fifty years later.
Your grandchildren have seen them.
We grew up bathed in the echoes
of what seemed to us a distant tragedy
and so you are part of our lives
and now we are trying to fathom
which part
that is.

so I have a few photos
and a few stories
and tonight, it occurs to me that I have something else
I am your granddaughter
I am one-fourth you.
I do not know which parts of me come from you
but it cannot be denied
that we are connected in ways
that are timeless and unknowable

and I have your headstone
and I visit it sometimes
with cedar boughs or incense
sometimes I bring you coffee
and your great-grandson,
and I wonder what you would tell me
if you could
speak
now

“maybe death
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us–”

― Mary Oliver

In memory of all those lost on Northwest Orient Flight 705

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Filed under basic goodness, Change, death, Family, fathoming, History, love, meditation, memory, Mothers, poetry, stories

Everyone is Careening, she pointed out

careen: [From French (en) carène, (on) the keel,  see kar- in Indo-European roots.] 

 To lean to one side, as a ship sailing in the wind.

—–

Everyone is Careening,

she pointed out

and it was precisely the right word.

overworked and underslept and sorting through a whole slough of

philosophies

on child rearing and relationships and gender and equality and economies

Saturn is looping back around

to the place in the Milky Way it occupied

when we were all ushered into these lives,

we dialed rotary phones as children

encountered sex in the teenage years of HIV

and attained legal drinking age as the ashes of September 11 settled

now we are making our way into our Thirties

with our smartphones and our student loans

and our conviction that Capitalism is pretty violent

and we are in Bed

with it

whether we like it or not

our friends are going ex-pat in droves

and the planets are doing that thing they do

and we are getting married

and attaining graduate degrees

and divorcing

and bringing up kids

and making art

and thinking about where our food comes from

and walking away from mortgages

and kicking habits

and lobbying senators

and angling for book contracts

and still slinging food,

and trying to cobble together an updated version

of the Beatnik Dream

We are trying to meditate more

We would like to see some changes

we eschew “establishment”  morals

but we are becoming our own establishment

even as we seek to change the one we have been given

we are looking for bliss and also sustainability

we understand it could all end tomorrow

but if it don’t, there’s going to be a real shortage of

clean water

and so we polish our post-apocalpytic skillsets

and make it up as we go.

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Filed under 11 September 2001, Americana, aprons, art, basic goodness, Change

Harvest Moon

for Brandy

Redgold sunflowers line the west border of the garden bed,
dozens of crimson crowns hanging heavy with seeds
every one a volunteer from last year
glowing in the slanting light
of early autumn afternoon

the firemen across the street are singing crude songs
while they wash their trucks for the umpteenth time this week
and the white sheet of the teepee in the garden
is flapping idly in the breeze

harvest a giant pan of tomatoes while the kid naps
tugging gently at their rounded bodies
to see if they are ready to give leave of the vine
cherokee purples, brandywines, sungolds and mortgage lifters
shape them into a heart for Brandy
and spend thirty minutes dicing them.
every time i lean on the knife
i mutter
screw cancer
and make myself smile
and each time the blade cleaves the flesh
it is a prayer
augmented by ten cloves of garlic
and a pile of basil.

freeze the bruschetta in bags
for some dark night in winter
when the sharpness of the garlic
and the ripeness of the tomatoes
and the spice of the basil
will, swirled together over bread,
remind us of what vitality is possible

in the meantime,
harvest moon tonight,
2nd night of luminescent fullness
make potato leek soup,
close times with the ones we love

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Filed under autumn weather, basic goodness, cancer, Family, Food, Garden, gathering, love

orderpad notes, 4.17

dim brewpub on a tuesday night
in the foreground,
the hiss of meat being slapped
on the grill
murmured Spanish
directing the assemblage of meals
the ceramic whisper of clean plates
being pulled from stacks

in the background,
the pleasant din
of people enjoying themselves
voices rising and falling
silverware clinking against plates
the weight of pint glasses coming to rest
on wooden tables

And here, in the space between,
me
hovering in wait
for a full caeser and a bowl of chili,
for the next request, or demand
for the end of the night
for some time to myself

I do not resent the people who eat the food
or drink the beers
but sometimes i think about asking them
if they realize
that every full pint, and every empty one
and every clean fork, and every dirty one
and every full plate, and every picked over one
is borne by these arms
my body knows the weight of that pint glass
as intimately as i know the shape of my son’s hands

I share dinnertime with certain restaurant patrons more often
than i eat that meal with my husband and my son
and while I am grateful for my job, and my coworkers,
and my kind patrons, who are many, and my good tips, which are frequent, and the lack of a bill for daycare,

i cannot help but think of something Josie said the other night
we are surrounded by food,

and yet we hunger

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Filed under basic goodness, blue collar, doldrums, Family, Food, Labor, Ordinary, poetry, stories, waitressing

Frances

Frances Saller Fox
My nan passed away 9 years ago, on 29 October 2000. I was nineteen then, and I’d missed seeing her on her last visit to the northwest, because I’d spent the summer working and living in southern Oregon.

I don’t think I knew then what it meant to lose her. I naievely assumed I’d miss her less as time went on. I’ve been surprised to discover that I feel her absence more acutely with every passing year.

She was born in Philadelphia on 23 January, 1918, to Edward and Minnie Saller. Her parents immigrated to the United States as children, from Russia and Lithuania, respectively. They married in 1911, and raised their family over their tobacco, ice cream and candy shop on the corner of 12th and Mifflin Street. They kept the store open from 6 am to 2 am every day but Sunday, when they had shorter hours. Frances played in the neighborhood, and savored her rare trips out of the city to visit Atlantic City, or her aunt’s Lena’s farm northeast of Philadelphia. She graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1935, and worked in a department store, then as a secretary at the Naval Yard.

(I know this because my mother thought to ask. There is a reason I am hungry for stories. I grew up that way.)

She met Morris Fox in 1948, through Ruth Kaplan, a mutual friend. Frances and Morris enjoyed each other’s company a great deal, and one day, as they stood waiting for a late streetcar, my grandfather proposed. He’s told me many times that if the streetcar had been on time, they might have dated forever. They married on 16 January, 1949, and moved into a tiny apartment over Edward and Minnie’s store. My Aunt Ellen came along the following year, and my dad Howard was born in 1953.

Frances with her son (my dad) Howard

They moved into a newly constructed rowhome neighborhood on Baldwin Street, where Frances developed close friendships with other young mothers and her children roved the sidewalks with a gang of neighborhood children.

Once her kids were a little more independent, she returned to work at the Naval Yard. She survived breast cancer while my Dad was in high school, something I never knew while she was alive. My sweet Nan, a fighter.

Once I was born, followed by my brother and sister, Nana and Grandpop traveled regularly to visit. She always packed her recipes, and kept the kitchen warm with baking. She knitted on the couch, while Grandpop read the newspaper. We took day trips around the northwest. She called me kid, even when I got older, in a way that was filled with warmth and love and utterly devoid of condescension. She and Grandpop taught me bits of Yiddish, and I fantasized about what their childhoods must have looked like in 1920s Philadelphia.

With my Nan, 1982

A few years ago, after she’d passed away, I had a dream that she came to visit me in Logan, Utah, where I was working on my master’s degree in history. It was one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. She met me at my office, and I showed her my desk, and introduced her to my colleagues in the department. We walked down the hall, and went to a cafe for lunch, where we ate steaming tomato soup in robins’ egg-blue bowls, and shared a piece of pie for dessert. After lunch, we walked to a park and found a place to sit. We both worked on our knitting, and I noticed that we held our loose yarn in the same fashion, keeping the tension with a bent knuckle. We talked about being in our twenties, and she told me about her womanhood in Philadelphia in the Great Depression, about meeting my grandfather and having my dad. Finally, as if we both knew the dream was ending, she gave me a hard candy from the tiny wallet in her purse, as she always used to do, and then she walked away, leaning into her cane, in the graceful uneven way she developed after her hip surgeries.

I had that dream four or five years ago, and I remember it like I dreamt it last night. It still makes me cry.

I thought missing her would be a matter of calling up memories from a finite set, like paging through an album of photographs that fade with the passage of years. I thought missing her would be a matter of fixating on the way I missed her in those photos, and on static little memory clips of the way her voice sounded when I was five, or the way she bent over the warm cave of the open oven, checking on almond cookies when I came home from school at twelve. Or the way she’d hold up pieces of the sweaters she knit for me, to see how the fit was coming along.

with Nan and all the dear things she knit for me.

As I age, I am coming to realize that missing her is less about clinging to that finite set of dear memories, and more about wanting to share my life as it is now with her. To have her sweet laugh in this house, this living room. To drink tea with her in this kitchen. To bake her the recipes I’ve learned lately, and to show her my garden, to introduce her to my husband. To show her my book, when it finally gets published. To hear her say “I’m proud of you kid” the way she always used to, except about the things that I have done lately. She always told me that, and I can hear it clearly. But its been so many years. I’ve done so many things since she last said it.

I want her to be my friend as I cross the threshold into my thirties.
I want her to tell me stories I never even thought to ask for.

And this kind of missing is so much harder than the other.
But its sweeter too.

It makes loving her fresh. I don’t have to leave her in those memories, in those static photograph images and frozen nostalgic sound files.

I get to keep her close for the rest of my life. I get to keep dreaming about her, and imagining the visits we would have. The things I would show her. The stories I would tell her, and the ones she’d tell me. About my dad’s childhood, and life with my grandpop, and her solitary dreams. The way she would smile and the way she would walk. The way we would knit together.

We would cook together too. She used to worry about the desserts she baked, as my grandfather has had a series of heart problems over the years. Many of her staples—kugle, knish—were loaded with eggs and butter (and lordy, were they delicious). I’ve been on a mission for several years to create a vegan version of her knish bread, my favorite among all of her exquisite desserts. Its hard to replace four eggs, and every attempt has ended up in the compost up till now. Last night, I finally succeeded. In honor of my Nana, I am sharing the recipe. Its by no means identical to her knish, but its a pretty delicious, much healthier alternative. And Grandpop gave me the thumbs up. So that’s all I figure I really need. You’ll need a couple of old-fashioned ice cube trays… easy to find at thrift stores… just discard the metal innards that separate the ice cubes, and use the tray! If you can’t dig up any, use small bread pans.

Vegan Knish Bread

1 c. sugar
1 c. oil
4 “eggs”:
[Whisk together 4 Tbsp. ground flaxseed with 12 tbsp. water. Be patient… eventually it will acquire the
precise consistency of eggs!]
dash vanilla
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
dash salt
several squares of dark chocolate chopped fine
handful of nuts, chopped fine (almonds, pecans, or walnuts are good)

pour batter into foil-lined ice cube trays or bread pans. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Lift baked knish loaves out using the foil. Slice into 1/4 or 1/2 thick slices (the thinnest slice you can get without them breaking apart). Lay out on a baking sheet. Bake ten minutes at 350, then flip and bake for another 10 minutes.

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Vegan Knish

I love you so, Nan. We all miss you. And we are all so, so, so grateful for the time you spent with us, for your warmth and sweetness and and your humor and your generous heart. I see you in my Dad, and I see you in myself.
You are still with us.

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Filed under Family, memory