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!

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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
Looking up, legs spread with bare arms, chiseled back, flexed quads and seeping curves. A female who trained 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.

To My Son: What I Found On Your Flickr Page

You posed the question after a sleep over with an old friend who has one. “Mom, can I open a Flickr account?”

Knowing Snap, Instagram and the like were out of the question, you settled on a place to store and show off your photographs.

My instinct was to say, “No.” I can’t help it but my brain works as such – Education first. Activities second. Apps later.

School wasn’t back in session a week, and I’d already joked with Dad about moving out until June. To confess, I’d been stewing and strategizing about how to help this year’s middle school experience be a good one since about mid-summer. The thought of you changing classes, managing assignments from multiple teachers, racing the bell, schlepping materials, decoding directions, and staying organized, focused and moderately positive for 180 days straight had me stressed out.

Dead set on prioritizing real experience over the virtual, we settled, Dad and me with enthusiasm and you with a grunt on a new plan to limit device use to the weekend. This wasn’t because we were trying to make you hate us, but rather to encourage you to find escapes other than Minecraft, keep life simple and not have electronics compete with other stuff. Text, email and music were still on the table, just not YouTube and video games.

So when you first inquired about Flickr, the last thing I wanted was to stoke the coals with even the most benign of social media. I was afraid if I let the string out, even a smidge, you’d unravel; sneak the iPad, choose Flickr over after school clubs, resent homework more and avoid opportunities to hang out with real people.

My mind was pretty much made up.

Then I quizzed you on your foreign language flashcards. As I read off the word and waited to hear the translation, you starred at the wall, fiddled with a bracelet, smiled, but said nothing. I observed the nothingness. As you well know, this was unusual. In the past, I would’ve said your name a thousand times. Not this time. I’m sure I was too tired to bother.

After 45 seconds you turned to me. “Huh?”

“I said the word,” I replied.

“You did? Sorry I was thinking about something.”

Dreaming. Fantasizing. Creating. I wondered, What goes on in that brain of yours?

Before going to bed, I stopped to charge your iPad and peeked at the camera’s photo album. I thought about your love of art, my tendency to hover and two speeches we heard when our neighbor’s son became a Bar Mitzvah a few months back.

During the service, the boy’s mom stood on the bimah and spoke to her son about the decision to stop forcing sports down his throat and let him pursue his interest in computers and video production even though she felt hesitant at first. “I had to trust you,” she told him.

The mom was followed by an aunt, a rabbi. She shared wisdom from ancient Jewish mystics, explaining how they believed a parent’s job was to help their children grow into who they were meant to be.

Trust.

Grow into who you were meant to be.

The mother’s and rabbi’s advice probably seems so simple to you. But believe me, it’s hard. At least for me, anyway. To heed their advice means I need to peel back my anxiety and let go of my parental instinct to protect, smother and steer.

The next day, as expected, you persisted about the Flickr. This time, I set up an account.

Right off, you and the iPad disappeared into the neighborhood shooting the landscape, buildings, everyday objects and our cat. I know very little about photography, but I knew one thing. This new freedom turned your wheels and left you charged up, focused and happy.

My proud moment didn’t last. Unfortunately, your mom was programmed to err on the side of control and mistrust long ago. I soon fell back into a familiar frame of mind after wrangling with you at the end of a long day of classes, first day religious school, a couple hours of homework and a late lights out.

Given the level of angst in our house after just one busy day, I figured there was no chance either one of us would be able to handle you having any amount of social media. To prove myself right, I logged onto Flickr to see what you posted, who followed your page, read comments and re-check safety features.

But all was quiet in photography land. I saw there were a few views, a couple of follows and even a “Like.” As I sifted through the slideshow, I also noticed something else in the pictures; something in hindsight, I should have known would be there.

You always find the light.

Discover inspiration in overlooked places.

And capture images from your heart.

“Sky during 9/11. May their spirit always be with us.”

Your Flickr page was filled with hope, perspective and love.

We’ve reached a new stage, you and I. You’re finding your way. I’m learning to let you go. You’re beginning to trust yourself. I’m practicing how to trust in you.

Over the next several months, no doubt you’ll complain, I’ll nag, you’ll forget and I’ll worry. I’ll hear my voice on repeat, you’ll lose your mind.

So let’s make a deal.

When work gets hard, the hallway’s too noisy, friends disappoint and the days are long. When I scream, pontificate or feel like we’re stuck, I say we make a date with Flickr. You can delve into your art. I’ll delight in your discoveries. And together, we’ll enjoy a welcomed escape.

I Was Skeptical About Childhood BFFs – Then My Son Made One

George & Harold-Captain Underpants

Skootch met his best friend at town camp the summer before kindergarten over a bagged lunch and some arts and crafts.

They instantly hit it off in a George and Harold from Captain Underpants sort of way, bonding over giggles, grand plans and hijinks.

When school started, the boys asked to play together – often. But play dates were scarce; sprinkled between grown up obligations and older siblings’ activities.

Undeterred, they made a point to hook up at recess.

According to Skootch, that’s where the magic happened. During their 45 minute daily ritual, imaginations ran wild, games were played, deals were struck, choices made and feelings validated or hurt.

Whenever conflict ensued, Skootch, who has a temper never held a grudge. For this particular compadre, he was always willing to apologize, forgive and forge ahead. “We’re good friends, Mom,” he explained. “Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.”

In short, these little guys loved one another.

This year, we parents ushered in the summer with a family barbecue. The boys took it as an opportunity to collectively pepper us about a first sleepover. Wanting to enjoy the sun, drink our beer and eat fried cheese in peace, we quickly agreed.

With my tween away at camp, it made sense to host the event. Besides, as a person who grew up a  floater of sorts and as a mom of an older child who has yet to find his partner in crime, I was curious to know what this 7 year old BFF business was all about.

The sleepover commenced early evening on a Wednesday after camp. I took the boys out to dinner at a “fancy” restaurant. They bunked on an air mattress in our playroom.

From drop off to pick up, Skootch and company had little use for grown-ups. Engrossed in food, spy games, Legos and banter, my job was limited to paying the bill and managing logistics. No redirecting, mediating or negotiating allowed.

In return for my compliance, they let me observe their world.

By bedtime, I had been educated on the intricacies of nose picking, heard their opinion regarding ear wax and listened to commentary on the absurdity of Trump’s wall, the treatment of diabetes and the varying degrees in which amusement park rides give their stomachs’ the butterflies.

Come morning, Skootch rehashed how he had poured water on his sleeping friend’s head and expressed repeated concern for his buddy, who punched Skootch mid-sleep as he dreamt about an altercation with a class bucket dipper.

In the end, the boys couldn’t wait to schedule a second date.

Because of my personal and prior parental experience, I’ve always been skeptical of BFF bonds. It’s one of the reasons I’m lazy about setting up recurring playdates and sleepovers. To do so feels forced. I want my sons to find and build friendships exclusive of too much adult interference, meet new people whenever possible and avoid the comfort of cliques.

Skootch’s ongoing hesitation to open himself up to new people only validates my concern. Anytime I remind him to play with different children, I get push back. “No thanks. I like one friend at a time.” For Skootch, sticking by a loyal friend is less chaotic and offers a sense of security.

So I keep preaching inclusivity, the idea of having good over best friends, being proud of the ability to mix with different personalities, the value of independent thought and the importance of giving and having space.

But I must admit, watching a genuine connection between two children at a sleepover leaves me less jaded and grateful that Skootch has a chance to grow up alongside a peer with whom he can experience trust, patience, flexibility, empathy and fun. It’s a gift not ever young person gets.

For as long as Skootch’s BFF relationship lasts, I’ll be there to encourage, but not to engineer. After all, the future of their friendship is up to them – not me.

I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!

Feminist Rising

phoenix-rising

My husband, Mac tells a story about his late father, a tough guy raised during the post-Depression era on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that ends with his dad referring to women as “broads.”

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet my father-in-law, but from what I gather such terms of endearment about the opposite sex were part of his everyday vocabulary.

Now anytime Mac’s sister or mom were privy to one of these tales, they chuckled but shook their heads. And whenever my husband tried to get away with using broad or even so much as said “girl” when referring to an adult female, they made sure promptly to correct him.

Not one to get my knickers in a knot about the occasional cat call or reference from a stranger as sweetie or hon, I couldn’t understood their issue. Why so sensitive? What’s the harm in benign synonyms or generational slang? Mac’s intention wasn’t to make me or his female relatives feel objectified, demeaned or less than.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law would argue in favor of selective word choice. Had I pushed back, I’m pretty sure they would remind me words are powerful; slang and synonyms perpetuate the idea that women are subordinate to men. They’d then likely ask, “Aren’t you a feminist?”

My likely response? “Meh.”

A feminist, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is one who supports feminism or “the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Whenever I hear feminist, my mind is quick to gloss over the definition and hone in on a visceral image of a man-hating, braless lady in bell bottoms with unshaved pits marching in protest. For me, associating with this label feels passé and a wee embarrassing mostly because as a Generation Xer, I’ve spent a lifetime reaping the benefits of rights and opportunities. By 21st century standards, feminist ideals seem like bygone liberal gibberish that only widen any existing divide between women and men.

Then I woke up on November 9, 2016; my progressive, purple haze engulfed by a thick, hazardous fog in a land where those who brag about taking advantage of woman and dismiss sexual assault as boy talk are rewarded, where no doesn’t necessarily mean no, abortions are potential grounds for punishment, the notion of having it all is a men’s only club, equal pay in the workplace is not a priority, skinny women with pretty faces and big tits define feminine worth and where an exceptionally qualified woman got passed over for a job by a man with no related experience.

And I was horrified.

In a blink, the liberties I’d taken for granted were in jeopardy. As I trudged through the holiday season grappling with this alternative reality, I thought about those who poured decades of themselves into advocating for women’s voting, health, reproductive, education and gender equality rights in the workplace.

A sense of responsibility to our history and for future generations began to stoke the embers that lay tucked between ambivalence and pride, labels and perception. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled in, I was done with setting frivolous resolutions. Primed for a revolution, a feminist was rising.

After some reading and much Googling, I’ve learned that how one interprets or brands feminism varies and who feels included in the movement is still scrutinized. My understanding is simple and grounded in intersectionality and humanism. As then First Lady Hillary Clinton said in 1995, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

My personal goals are also simple; take action in my community and be mindful of words.

In order to stand up for women’s rights, one first needs to believe she has the right to do so. During the final weeks of 2016, I had the privilege of supporting those on the road to empowerment by providing childcare at a local domestic abuse shelter and outreach program. I look forward to doing my small part to help these families as they find their voice.

I will also do my best to pay attention to my own voice as well as those closest to me.

On a New Year’s Day hike with Mac and the boys, Bubbe navigated us over rocks, through mud and moss. When we came to a clearing, he challenged me to a race. “C’mon Mom,” he said with a smirk, “Be a man.”

A few months ago, I would have laughed off his comment. Like his father and grandfather, I know my son’s intent wasn’t to make me feel inferior. But this time, I took a page out of his grandmother and aunt’s book and kindly corrected him. As we journey through the fog, it won’t be enough for the feminist in me to rise; I need to be the woman who raises my sons to be one too.

My Father’s Gift

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When my father called to tell me he was having major surgery to remove a malignant mass from his chest, I didn’t hesitate to buy a plane ticket.

“The doctors have to break open my rib cage to get the whole thing out. Safest way to keep it from spreading,” he explained.

“How long’s the recovery?” I asked.

“Six weeks.”

“I want to come down and see you.”

“Okay.” His voice cracked through the line. Then my father, who under reacts in times of crisis and barely smiles for a camera began to cry.

I did my best to console his fears and hold back tears. I failed. We exchanged I love yous and hung up the phone.

Twelve years ago, had someone told me I would be speaking to my father let alone making time to be by his bedside, I would have thought they were nuts.

Divorced from my mother when I was three, my parents managed feelings about their contentious relationship and bitter divorce by throwing me in the middle even long after each remarried and had new families of their own. On our scheduled visits, which lasted well into high school, I figured my father to be a stubborn workaholic. Time at his house was spent getting to know my step-mother. In between those visits, my mother shared more disgust for and information about her ex-husband than a daughter needed to know. As such, I can’t remember a single birthday or holiday spent with my dad. I assumed he was too busy or lived too far away; but it’s likely he was never extended an invitation.

Whether my parent’s choices were driven by self-interest, youthful inexperience or something more, I’ll never know. At that moment in their lives, healthy co-parenting was not an option. To add to the dysfunction was the abuse I simultaneously experienced at the hands of my step-father.

By age 17, my entire being was a giant, rage infested mess masked by sarcasm, perfectionism and dramatic flair. Needing to simplify the noise to ensure survival, I thrust myself into the middle of my parent’s fight de jour over college selection and payment and cut ties with my father.

But skeletons and wounds weigh on one’s spirit. Fifteen years later, I was knee deep in therapy trying to make sense of our relationship. My therapist recommended I write my dad a letter. I was to consider it a cathartic exercise or an attempt to communicate. Sending was optional.

With the pressure off, I put everything out there; the anger and hurt, grievances and resentment, his emotional distance, my abusive childhood and our lengthy estrangement.

Afterward, I thought about my unborn son and what I might say if he one day asked, “Who’s my grandfather?”

Then I dug up my father’s address and dropped the letter in the mail.

He wasted little time. What followed was a blur of email exchanges followed by a planned call. I barely said hello when the words came out.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My point of view doesn’t matter. You’re the child. I’m the parent and I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened.”

During a time when I was trying to piece together my self-worth, build a meaningful relationship with my spouse and prepare for motherhood, my father’s words were the light in my darkness and the greatest gift.

Whoever my father was or how I perceived him to be when I was young no longer mattered. His ability to take ownership without caveat or blame and express himself with vulnerability and honesty showed me who he was at present. I knew the least I could do was begin to forgive the man and let him in.

A dozen years travel fast. While I’m grateful for this second chance, it’s not nearly enough. Those tears shed over his operation were not about any cancer, but my fear of losing a father I’ve only recently learned to love.

Thankfully, he’s made a full recovery. The doctors cut out the stage one growth and replaced it with a 12 inch scar. We can only hope health and time are on his side.

During our visit, my dad was feeling energized so we took a walk around the neighborhood; no grandkids, spouses or pets. Just us. We kibitzed about his upcoming retirement, the politics of the day and puppies. Being able to experience such a simple pleasure felt, as he likes to say whenever presented with good eats, “pretty damn good.”

Occasional strolls and weekly phone conversations won’t replace the birthday parties missed, lost Christmas Eves or the father-daughter wedding dance we never had, but it gives me great comfort knowing we will mourn those losses and create new memories – together.