I’m not Jewish, but my kids go to a Jewish sleep away camp. Here’s why.

Cubby cubes balance against duffle bags on the highest shelf of our darkest closet. Packing lists and labels are filed away. Tans have faded, mosquito bites healed. Fresh cuts replace the summer shag.

Sleep away camp may be well over for our two boys, but their experience is not quite a distant memory. This might have something to do with the recurring chirp of a “camp peeps” group chat on my older son’s phone or the flagged email with next year’s registration link sitting in my in-box.

When my husband who, unlike me had gone to sleep away camp as a child first floated the idea of sending our children, I was ambivalent. The thought of shipping my flesh and blood off to be cared for by strangers didn’t feel right.

My grumbles followed me to work at our Temple’s preschool where I shared them with a teaching colleague. Instead of taking my side, she went on about a camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism where her children had spent their summers. She said it was a special place.

We’re an interfaith family. Before they were born, my husband and I decided to raise our children in the Jewish faith, like him. They attend religious school and will become Bar Mitzvahs, like he did. When I heard my coworker say “Jewish camp,” my brain went into defense mode. Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvahs, holidays. I even work at a synagogue. Haven’t I agreed to enough? Camp should be neutral territory.

I left work even less sold on the idea.

But I kept seeing this camp’s poster in the Temple hallway on route to my eldest son’s preschool and eventually, Hebrew school classroom. Years later, long after countless husband and wife debates about religious identity, honoring tradition and balance, after we had changed Temples because of a move and as the decision loomed, the same camp kept coming up in conversation, the same poster kept showing up in our new synagogue’s bulletin.

As a parent raising children in a tradition different from her own, I’ve made it a priority to expose them to situations and people who would give him the religious education I could not. In the end, Jewish camp filled a void, and so we sent our big guy when he was a rising fourth grader. This past summer was his fourth year, and for our little guy, his first.

Today, I look forward to opening day. Yes, because sleep away gives me a break from parenting. And yes, because it still fills a void. But there’s more. Through its Jewish lens, camp is teaching universal values and laying the foundation for them to:

1) Take care of themselves

Camp offers the typical experiences which build confidence and resilience. Little ones learn to pour their own orange juice and picky eaters taste new food. Everyone takes a turn cooking over an open fire, folds laundry, sweeps the cabin floors, cleans their bunk’s toilet and for better and worse, lives with roommates. Campers risk trying a new sport, art or game, pursue hobbies, navigate campus on their own and get unplugged.

But here, nourishing one’s soul is also a priority. Children are given the opportunity to work on self-awareness, intention and maintaining a balanced perspective.

Each week, a unit prepares and leads Friday night services and every day, all campers and staff practice mindfulness and gratitude during meals and through movement.

When 500 campers come together during mealtime, a collective blessing is said before and after they eat. Children are taught the meaning behind traditional blessings as well as write individual statements of gratitude. Once a day, one of the personal statements replaces the traditional prayer and is shared with the entire community.

The leadership also promotes wellness through movement. This year, art teachers commenced class with breathing exercises and the schedule included early morning sessions like yoga, lap swim and fitness as well as small group nature hikes.

2) Take care of others

All families and children are valued and respected. Younger kids are assigned older buddies to help them acclimate. There’s a no package policy so no child feels less than or left out. Staff does not distinguish between which campers have Jewish parents and which ones do not, embraces its LGBTQ community and expects counselors and campers to do the same.

Community building is thoughtful, deliberate and starts on day one when the entire camp attends an opening day service during which campers pass a Torah scroll through the crowd from the oldest to youngest camper symbolizing their connection to Judaism and to one another. Later the same day, each cabin huddles together and with guidance from counselors, writes down the rules and expectations they have for their bunkmates that summer.

Throughout the season, adults teach children how to relate to all people using the “I-it” to “I-thou” approach to relationships from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In addition to helping kitchen staff serve the starving, campers are expected to look them in the eye, offer appreciation and ask meaningful questions. The goal is for the children to move away from associating those who work at the camp only with their job and get to know them as people with exciting and interesting lives.

Young people show support and build bonds day in and day out in less and more formal ways. My teen always returns home with a repertoire of new card games as well as a perfected Frisbee toss thanks to the generosity of a friend or counselor and a trove of memories to share like bringing his little brother a carton of milk during each lunch, midnight escapes to the GaGa pit, bunk pranks and leaning on a go to buddy during a rough day. Our little guy beams when he retells the tale of the older camper who catapulted him off the blob and into the lake, the time he and his pals lathered up and slid down a muddy hillside and how his favorite counselor helped him handle a disagreement.

In addition to scheduled meals and services, the lower and upper camp come together for Israeli dance, a DJ party, the Fourth of July Carnival, International Day, theater productions, an art show and The Maccabiah Games. At Jewish camp, the Games are more than an end of summer color war. Each of the four teams represent a different pillar in Judaism: Torah, prayer, acts of loving kindness and community as well as a value: truth, awe, compassion and responsibility. At the start of the week, leadership explains how no pillar can stand without the support of the other. Teams are challenged to bring the values assigned to their group to life and carry out the camp’s mission statement, Hineini or Here I am by striving to be the best they can be as individuals, to their peers and to the community through song, dance art, drama and sports.

3) And repair the world

The motto of the camp is Be the One; be the one person to make a difference, to do the right thing and to help make the world a better place. In doing so, campers are performing the Jewish commandment Tikun Olam or repairing the world.

On campus, children care for animals at the farm, tend to the garden and give left over trip day money to a local food shelter. Rising 7th graders research a cause and host a camp wide Tzedakah or charitable giving fair. This year, they raised awareness and money for causes that fight discrimination and support the environment, people with cancer and animal welfare.

Campers also participate in volunteer projects during Make a Difference Day. Younger children bake challah bread for Friday night dinners, do spring cleaning around campus and write to senators. Older children go out into the community. This summer, they volunteered at a facility that works with women with disabilities, a housing organization, a senior center, local garden and a youth empowerment center. Some even traveled to New York’s state capital to meet with lay leaders and political advocates where they discussed voting rights, reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ+ rights, hunger and clean energy.

At Jewish sleep away camp, our boys get to connect with one half of their family’s heritage. They get a taste of old fashioned summer fun. And they get to be surrounded by people committed to helping them become more independent, just, involved, balanced, compassionate and loving humans.

My former colleague described her children’s camp experience as special. For our family, it’s been a blessing.

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A Catholic Mom, Her Jewish Son and His Coming of Age

You came into the world on your own schedule and terms. Dad and I had waited 2 years, 41 weeks and a lengthy induction for you to arrive. So as you might imagine, when the doctor finally announced “It’s a boy!” we cried tears of joy.

But you laid silent. In protest, I think. As if you knew life on the other side of womb service would prove to be far too inconvenient.

I watched the nurses pass you from the edge of my bed onto a table, where they fussed over your lanky, naked, ruddy body until you gave up the goods. It was only after a hearty cry the professionals felt ready to place you on my chest. They let us visit long enough for a feeding, then whisked you away to the intensive care nursery.

Hours passed before we were together again. Each time a nurse showed up in the recovery room, I’d ask, “Where’s my baby?” And each time I got the same line, “We’re monitoring him. I don’t know when he’ll be ready to leave the NICU.” A brand new, wiped out and hesitant mom, I didn’t know I was allowed to go to you.

In time, I found my way down the hall. The NICU wasn’t a traditional nursery where babies lined up on display behind a viewing window. This nursery had a holding room. And protective gear hanging from hooks. There was a window, but the newborns were camouflaged by incubators, IV bags and monitors. I scanned the room and spotted you resting under lights. Oxygen affixed to your nostrils, plastic lines jammed in a foot.

A nurse instructed me to put on a yellow, paper robe and pointed toward a rocking chair on the other side of the door. I sat until she returned with a swaddled bundle. My arms maneuvered around the tubes tugging at your limbs. Once we were settled, the nurse disappeared. It only took a few seconds; you looked in my eyes, raised a fist and ripped the oxygen straight out as if to say, “What took you so long? Get me out of here!”

I called for help. No one came. We were on our own. So I took a calming breath and did what mothers do; shoved the tubes back in your nose and sang the only song I could muster up, “You are My Sunshine.” The protest ceased. A nurse looked over and smiled. “Now that’s what I like to see.”

This was the moment you became My Sunshine. My Bubbe. My son. I’ve been singing a version of the song to you every night, ever since. As we rocked, I felt like nothing could break our bond.

Until 10 days later.

Before you were born, Dad and I had decided to raise you in his Jewish tradition. I was raised in a Catholic one. Just after your bris, controversy ensued as to whether or not the bris was valid. Talk of dipping you in a ritual bath to legitimize your Judaism began to swirl about our home. The focus on commandments and religious law caused me to question whether you’d really feel like my child if your faith identity and experiences were different from my own. I was scared that as you grew up, this Catholic mom would feel alienated from your Jewish life.

Desperate for professional advice, Dad and I went to our former rabbi. She explained what we already knew about Reform Judaism; one parent being Jewish was enough to make the child Jewish. Still, she suggested we take you to the mikveh to play it safe. “Think of it as a rebirth,” she said.

I thought of the long induction, NICU visits, your protests and our rocking chair and told Dad there was nothing wrong with your original birth. There would be no ritual bath.

He agreed.

Life went on. Daily routines quickly usurped my interfaith anxiety. Between dirty diapers, bedtime stories, early morning feedings and playground outings, Dad and I found a way to integrate Jewish customs, share my holidays and create new traditions. And I figured out being Jewish didn’t make you any less my son.

I was all in. From nudging the Temple preschool director until she confirmed your enrollment and accepting a teaching job from said director a few years later, thus allowing me to learn more about Judaism, to you starting Hebrew school in Kindergarten and attending a sleep away camp which embodied Jewish values, I made sure you were surrounded by people able to give you the Jewish education I could not.

Alongside the other mommies, I schlepped you to class, conferenced with teachers, filled out mountains of forms and helped with homework. Dad stepped up whenever the religious school curriculum turned toward Hebrew, Israel or Jewish history.

For 12 years, I’ve watched your connection to Judaism blossom and become a source of pride.

Now you’ve reached the stage Dad and I have speculated about since you were a little guy clapping along to “Shabbat Shalom” during the children’s service. In less than a year, you will become a Bar Mitzvah, an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community responsible for carrying out God’s commandments. You’ll stand on the bimah alongside the rabbi and cantor and do what Jewish teens have done for close to a thousand years; read the Hebrew blessings and prayers shared at a Saturday morning service, carry the Torah scroll around the sanctuary for congregants to see and chant a passage in ancient Hebrew from one of the first 5 books of the Bible.

Bar Mitzvah prep is way out of my league. At our first orientation meeting with the rabbi to discuss how it all works, I was happy to relinquish the keys to you and Dad and listen in silent support.

My silence was quickly broken when the rabbi asked each attendee to stand up, one by one and share details about when he or she became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I was the first person in the room to explain that I had never become one of these. As I sat back down, I dropped my head. It felt as if the NICU nurse had again whisked you away.

I thumbed through your red B’nei Mitzvah binder filled with instructions, timelines, Torah portions and Hebrew blessings. Inside was a blank family tree. Part of your homework was to write down which relatives were Jewish and not to help Temple staff plan the ceremony.

You’ll have to label me as “Not Jewish.” This means, when I stand beside you on the bimah, there will be certain prayers I’m not permitted to say even though I can recite them by heart. I also won’t be allowed to hold up the Torah scroll despite my strength or dress it in ceremonial garb even though I learned the tradition as a Temple preschool teacher. That’s just how our synagogue interprets Jewish law.

While I respect the rules and appreciate how your coming of age is a spiritual connection to over 5,000 years of culture and community, as a mom, it stings not to be able to fully share in my son’s experience.

But not converting to Judaism was a choice I made. One I stand by. And so, I closed the binder and turned my attention back to its rightful place – you.

The rabbi addressed the room. “The B’nei Mitzvah is one thing Judaism really does right.”

He told us becoming a Bar Mitzvah is not only an opportunity for a 13 year old going through a period of self-consciousness, insecurity and significant physical and emotional change to learn how to take on a large task, break it down into manageable parts and present in front of an audience, but also a chance for him to experience the sense of accomplishment, empowerment and confidence realized when one goes out of his comfort zone and tackles a scary task.

When the rabbi said these words, something clicked. I’ve done those things. I know those emotions. During these coming months, I will connect with you through your journey, the process and the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Today, the red binder lays open on your desk. You sit over it chanting prayers in Hebrew, stopping every few lines so Dad may offer guidance. From down the hall, I stop what I’m doing to listen to you sing. The afternoon sun streams through a nearby window. Its beams warm the tears caked upon my cheeks as My Sunshine’s sweet, determined voice warms his mother’s heart.

The Benefit of Being Fair

A dozen years ago, before motherhood and after a calculated career change, I taught elementary school. Teaching consumed one hundred percent of my being. Working in a classroom with young people was all I cared to know.

For me, the first few days of the new school year were critical. They were my chance to set a tone with students and lay the foundation for an inclusive community. During the lead up to Back to School, I lost sleep mulling over Hi-lited lesson plans and rehashing ways to nip issues that come up with children in the bud.

One common cry in elementary school land was, “Not fair!” It was a catchy phrase that seemed to multiply when exposed to air. I liked to deal with the fairness struggle up front. And so, my week one repertoire included a story borrowed from a colleague about shoes.

A lot of times I hear students say, “It’s not fair!” So let’s talk about fairness. Say I was going to provide shoes for the entire class. Each person in the class wears a different size. If one student wears a size 10, I would get him a size 10. But I wouldn’t automatically get the others a size 10. I would make sure each child got the shoe size he needed.

My job as your teacher is to give you the pair of shoes with the best fit. Being fair is not about providing the same to all, it’s about giving each person what he needs so he can reach his personal best. In this class, I won’t always be equal – but I will always be fair.

I’m no longer teaching elementary school. Now, I’m on the receiving end of backpacks, homework folders and projects. My younger son, Skootch has academic needs which make him eligible for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). He is taught in a small group, modified setting for reading, writing and math, receives help with speech and language and works with therapists during the school day to strengthen his hands, stamina and core.

Because G-d took a hole punch to the memory files in Skootch’s brain, concepts take longer to stick than for a typical 2nd grader. At 8 ½ years old, he’s still learning how to read and writing is a beleaguered task.

But these challenges have never deterred his thinking, attention to detail and capacity to be curious. As soon as Skootch figured out how to say words, he didn’t stop talking, questioning and trying to understand the world even when no one could understand him.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came home from school eager to enter a play writing contest for grades K-2 organized by the local community theater. The contest was the culmination of a series of workshops taught by the teachers and theater’s educational staff. Selected scripts would be brought to life on the stage by real actors. Each winning playwright would even be awarded with a certificate from the mayor.

Before I had a chance to pull the entry form out of the folder, Skootch was fantasizing about giving the mayor his autograph. I didn’t want to discourage such enthusiasm, but I didn’t encourage it either.

I was worried for the guy.

For Skootch to endure the process of transferring ideas from his brain to the page after having worked seven hours at school and having tackled homework would be physically draining and emotionally demoralizing. I presumed these contests were for rock star students who read chapter books with ease, wrote fluent paragraphs AND have a hardy imagination. Skootch only checked off one of the boxes.

I was also worried for me.

What would the other parents think? Would they say Skootch cheated if I got involved? And although it’s never been my personal experience with the community, I couldn’t help but anticipate murmurs of disgust at school pick up. My child wrote a play without any help. All the kids should be held to the same standard. That’s not fair.

I folded up the flyer and approached the garbage. But there was Skootch standing in front of me, shaking his composition notebook. “Mom. Did you hear me? I want to write a play! I started it at school. It’s called The Robbers and the Security Guards.”

I took one look at his sunshine smile and remembered the shoes.

Screw it, I thought. He deserves to feel proud.

“Let me see.” Inside the notebook, I saw that a grown up’s handwriting had scribbled down his thoughts. “You have four days. You’ll have to work on it a little each day before or after homework. You tell me what to say and I’ll type. Okay?”

I sat down at the computer. Skootch bounced, skipped, tumbled and talked around the living room. He relayed character names, outlined the plot and explained the story arc. The boy had the whole thing planned in his head. He gave me the words. I typed, asked questions for clarification and typed some more. Every few sentences, he’d ask me to read back the lines.

For the rest of the week, when Skootch came home from school I asked, “What first? Homework or the play?”

Each time he responded, “My play.”

In the end, he submitted a 4 page, 5 act typed play to a slush pile 80 scripts deep. After a several week review process, the theater’s selection committee chose about 20 to perform. The Robbers and the Security Guards made the final cut!

Upon hearing the news, Skootch pretended to faint. The proud playwright counted his sleeps until opening night of The Vision and Voices Playwriting Festival. When the evening arrived, our boy marched his size 4 shoes the two block walk from our house to the theater with a smile wider than usual.

Together with my husband and a packed house of young writers, moms, dads and teachers, we watched twenty children’s words come to life. Our son, who on paper, was never expected to realize such a Language Arts feat showed me what determination, hard work, talented teachers, a little faith and a side of help can achieve. As Skootch climbed on stage and smacked the mayor’s hand, I could tell he was very proud. We all were.

The festival was a magical reminder of how funny, thoughtful and astute very young children can be when given a forum and the freedom to express their voice. The experience was a reminder that under each surface, big ideas loom large. Imaginations are always racing, even when fingers and mouth muscles can’t keep up.

For us moms and teachers who share their lives with children who need a reassuring Yes you can, a typing hand or a custom shoe, don’t hesitate. After all, it’s only fair.

Tribes, Crews & Cliques…Oh My!

A list of 34 Rules for My Daughters popped up in my Facebook feed not too long ago.

I don’t have daughters, but welcome wisdom I can learn from or pass on to my boys. So I stopped scrolling and began to read.

I couldn’t get past number two.

  1. Find your tribe and love them hard. True friends are hard to find. 

True friends, forever friends are hard to find and are invaluable. If one is lucky enough to have a few, I agree, they deserve to be loved hard.

But what’s with the word tribe? Why does a daughter, son or any adult need one of these?

I hear and see this word and a similar expression, crew enough as it relates to social aspirations, comradery and acceptance to make me wonder. Adults tag other adults on social media and refer to them as their tribe. Educators and parents want to know if a child hangs with a crew. Members new to a community go on missions to find their people.

Perhaps this language and approach encourages, as an acquaintance once explained, a sense of normalcy. She said, “If I have a tribe. My children have a tribe. Then by society’s standards, we are both doing fine.”

Or perhaps it’s rooted in basic human desire. A co-producer and writer for the television show Cheers commented on CNN’s documentary, The Nineties that “The legacy of Cheers is our need to belong. I think that’s what we as Americans are longing for.”

I’m no different. Part of me regrets not joining a sorority in college. I still sometimes think what my teenage years would have been like had I traveled with one pack instead of moving in and out of many. As an adult, one reason I drag myself to a CrossFit gym is because there, everybody knows my name.

But let’s say a daughter does find her coveted tribe, what then? Is she expected to socialize exclusively with tribe members or is it acceptable to make outside friends? Can she invite new people to join? What happens if she doesn’t want to be friends with a person in the group? Does she lose her place? Can the daughter take up different activities? Carpool with anyone else? Sit at a lunch table alone?

Many schools, communities and households make a point to foster inclusivity. Formal curriculum has been developed to teach children to Be the Difference, Be the One and Fill Buckets.

Last year, our local middle school launched a program spearheaded by the student council which required students to sit with different peers during lunch on designated days. Gossip and devices were not permitted. A student facilitator joined the table to help spark conversation.

I was disappointed to hear a few parents privately voice concern. They didn’t like the idea of forcing a child to sit with non-friends during her one, free period. Students also complained. They wanted to socialize with like-minded people and not be told what to do, when and with whom.

This year, I’m not sure if the council tried again.

To me, the lunch table switch was a great idea. Maybe it’s because I’m a kumbaya kind of mom with a kid who’s typically okay with floating. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s healthy for children to learn about others and productive to go out of one’s comfort zone. I figured students might be surprised to find they get along with peers who they may not expect. The reality is, at some point they’re going to be required to work and socialize with all sorts of personalities. Mind as well get comfortable in a wider circle now.

Find a tribe but Be the One. Be the Difference but stick with your people. Fill Buckets but hang with a crew. Reach out, but huddle tight. The mixed messages confuse me. My guess is, they also confuse daughters on the receiving end.

Advertising that real friendship is best achieved in the form of tribes and crews belittles benefits gained from casting a welcoming net, implies self-worth is predicated upon the group and is just using benign semantics to endorse clique mentality.

Oh my.

 

These 5 Quotes Held My Hand in 2017. In 2018, There’s No Letting Go.

By December 31, 2017, I couldn’t wait to devour the cheese plate, suck down some champagne, watch Mariah redeem her lip sync and wave goodbye to what I found to be a distressing and draining year.

I’m not one for grand resolutions. In my experience, they tend to be over rated and short lived.

Instead, over time, particularly since I’ve started to write myself, I’ve found the words of others to be a reliable source. Words give me pause, hold me accountable and shape everyday decisions.

As I pray, hope and gear up to work for a better 2018, here are 5 quotations that summed up my mindset and kept me moving during 2017, and continue to offer inspiration as I brace for what’s next.

“This land was made for you and me.” Woodie Guthrie

Masses of pink hats sang this on the National Mall during the Women’s March in Washington DC.

“The words you speak become the house you live in.” – the Persian poet, Hafez.

My daily mantra for confronting CrossFit challenges, managing career expectations and dealing with general self-doubt.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” – Lebanese artist, Kahlil Gibran

As my two boys continue to grow, Gibran’s words from his poem, On Children are a stab in the heart reminder to teach independence so when the time comes, Bubbe and Skootch can live life on their own terms. The poem also encourages me to do my part to leave our world a healthier place so they may have a fair shot at doing so.

“We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).

The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution as dissected by Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General in her Op-Ed, “Who Are We As a Country? Time To Decide” was published just as the forces counting on me to feel complacent were winning. Seeing America’s core values written in simple terms was the jolt of stay woke I needed that day.

“Baby, I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).” – Demi Lovato

For any fellow human who at some point during his or her life, stood up, spoke up and refuses to go back.

“Use all your heart, all your might and everything will turn out right.” – Me (as far as I can tell)

The words heart and might may have come from the Jewish Shema or Deuteronomy 6:5 although that wasn’t my conscious intention. These are the words I say to my boys anytime they are in a position to learn, go out on the court, get nervous about peers or have to take on the world.

Perhaps during the next 365 days, I’ll try to heed my own words.

Consider it a small goal.

Welcome 2018.

Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!

Who My Son Saw at a CrossFit Competition

All photos courtesy of A. Osinoff

Little boy behind the barricade, who do you see?

A Competitor
Pressing alongside a Goliath. The playing field level. Shared load. Shared bench. Shared barbell. Same standards. Same reps. Same rest.

A Teammate
One who spots weight, tracks time and counts lifts. A partner who values the other’s emotional risk, ethic to prepare and commitment to try. A mate who listens to ideas, strategizes beforehand, encourages during and dances after.

A Woman
Eyes on the ceiling. Spread legs. Bare arms. Chiseled back. Flexed quads and seeping curves. A woman who trains her body as a machine, teaching it to breath, move and perform with power.

A Lady
Who is feminine, not despite but because she sweats, stinks, struggles and shakes. One who tapes her thumbs, wraps her wrists and grips the barbell with glitter, chartreuse nails. A person who considers sneakers, tanks, a weight belt and tights as fashion and is consumed by the task over her tousled hair, silver roots and exposed lines.

Your Mom
Who feels proud, accomplished, happy and hopeful that by watching me, her children are learning anything by anyone is possible.

Little boy, when you grow tall enough to see over the barricade, what will you do?

Be mesmerized no more.
Accept a person’s capacity, albeit female or male to be strong.
Expect equal partnership between genders as essential.
And assume that the only “it” any human ever asks for is respect.