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Legacy

Last weekend, I went to see the Broadway musical Carousel. I had been anticipating seeing it for months. Three bars into the opening number, The Carousel Waltz, my eyes filled with tears. Not because I was anticipating the sorrowful plot elements or the poignant ending (though of course I was). I was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.

My reaction was visceral. In the space of a few seconds, I felt the gorgeous music take root in my gut. It surged through my chest as if it were a powerful river tossing my emotions in a rushing current. Moved and overwhelmed, I wept.

I know that this must sound like overwrought hyperbole. I promise it is not. To say I love music doesn’t come close to describing its effect on me. I don’t just listen to music. I devour it. I experience it with all my senses, not just my ears. It takes me out of the here and now. Unlike most people, I can’t have music playing in the background while I work, or tidy up, or have a conversation. The music commands my full attention, pulling me in and enveloping me.

When I was growing up, the house was filled with music. The phonograph played all day long. It was one of my mother’s greatest joys. She could fall into music as if down a rabbit hole in the same way I do now.

Mom played many different types of music. There were the Yiddish songs of The Barry Sisters, World War II-era popular music such as The Andrews Sisters, classical music, even some soft rock such as Simon and Garfunkel or Don McLean. She didn’t expose my brother and I to this variety of genres and sounds with the conscious intent of providing us with a solid music foundation. She simply played what she loved, what made her happy, and shared it with us because she wanted us to be happy too. I know you can’t teach someone to love music. However, by creating a musical environment in our home my mother most definitely nurtured and reinforced an innate predilection.

The deepest musical bond my mother and I shared was a love of Broadway show tunes. We played the same albums over and over and over, inhaling the songs and learning every single lyric. Our standard rotation included Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Man of La Mancha. You can see she had great taste. These are arguably the greatest musical scores in the musical theater canon of that era (from the 1940s through the early 1970s).

While our passion for music created a bond between us, it didn’t follow that I appreciated it. When we went to see a musical play or movie, my mother would inevitably sing along. Every. Single. Time. Not loudly but most definitely audibly. Typically, she was set off or inspired (depending upon your perspective) when the actors performed one of her favorites, either something especially upbeat (think Seventy-Six Trombones) or intensely poignant (The Impossible Dream). Every time, her behavior annoyed and embarrassed the hell out of me. I would tap her on the hand, and if she didn’t get the message I would hiss at her, “Shhh! You’re disturbing everyone.” I knew I could have said it in a nicer, gentler way, but I didn’t care. I thought a grown woman should know better. Now I wish I had been more generous of spirit.

In the late spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a virtually incurable type of leukemia. One day I will write of her courage and grace during the 14-1/2 months she lived after her diagnosis. The chemotherapy and clinical trials (eight of them) she underwent during that time required many lengthy stays in the hospital. Since my mother felt fine until the last two months of her life, she was bored to tears during these periods that she was trapped (as she justifiably called it). My father and I were there nearly every day, but there was no escaping the ennui. We passed the time with small talk, reading, watching sitcom reruns, and staring into space during periods of silence.

One early evening, the three of us were sitting in her hospital room watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that we had seen at least twenty-five times before (if not more). There was a knock and in walked a young man holding a guitar. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked if we would care to hear him play on the guitar and sing for us.

My swift and cynical reaction, one I fortunately kept to myself, was no I don’t want to listen to some corny amateur musician. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to plaster a fake smile on my face while he performed.

My mother, on the other hand, replied, “Yes, thank you, I would love that.” I looked at her and saw she was beaming with delight. When he asked what she wanted to hear, mom thought for a moment before she asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?” “Of course,” he replied. “How about The Sound of Silence?”

That was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Throughout the performance she was smiling with her entire face, and singing along, which made the young man smile back at her. Swept up in the moment, I sang along too. He played a second song (I don’t remember which one) before he left. My mom’s smile and upbeat demeanor lasted the rest of the night. To this day I thank the Lord that I didn’t voice my contemptuous view about an experience that gave my mother such joy, as music always did.

During the last few hours of my mother’s life, she was uncommunicative. I remembered someone telling me that hearing is the last sense to go at the end of life. It was possible she could still hear the world around her. I positioned myself on a chair near her head and tuned in to the music I had stored on my phone.

There were a lot of songs from which I could choose, from many different genres. In many ways the music collection on my phone mirrored the musical life she and I had shared. I turned up the volume and held the phone to her ear. I played some classical music. Then I played some country music, a genre she and my father had come to love later in life. Finally, I played If I Loved You from Carousel. Soon after that she died. I hope the music she loved was her final awareness of this world.

Thank you, mom, for a gift that has transformed and enriched my life. I miss you.

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Most of us have memories of our mothers, whether they are still living or have passed on. Memories may be happy, sad, heartwarming or any combination of emotions. These memories–not material items–are the true legacies our parents leave us. In honor of Mother’s Day, it would be great if you would share a memory of your mom in the Comments section below. Thanks and to those of you who are mothers, Happy Mother’s Day!

Stuff Part II

My prior post, Stuff Part I, addressed some of the issues and emotions many of us feel when we have to dispose of possessions—either ours or those of a parent or other cherished person. In this post, I discuss wrestling with the decision of which of your kids’ childhood possessions to save.

I would like to keep EVERYTHING. Really, I’m not kidding—everything. When I think about disposing of any of these items, I feel as if I am throwing away a piece of my boys. I pick up a size 2T shirt, or a crayon drawing of a dog, determined to toss it. But I just can’t do it. My family tells me that I have built a shrine to each of my children. They don’t mean that in a good way.

If you were to come up to the third floor of my house, you most likely would be amazed, concerned for my sanity, appalled—or any combination of these. Custom built cabinets run along two of the walls. Yes, you read that correctly: custom built. I had them designed and built by a carpenter for the sole purpose of storing mementos that I have collected and preserved since I found out I was pregnant with my older son (who is now 31).

The cabinets measure 36 running feet in total, stand a bit over two feet high, and are two feet deep. That’s a hell of a lot of space (many would say a ridiculous amount) dedicated solely to stockpiling chazerai (Yiddish for junk or garbage). This does NOT include the even more capacious cabinets I had built to house my collection of family photos. If I start going down that rabbit hole, I will never get to the end of this post.

Many of my contemporaries have faced this same dilemma, either when moving or simply wanting to reduce the clutter that threatens to engulf them. Most of them are proud of the fact that they have filled one plastic bin per child with keepsakes. One entire bin! They think that having retained that amount of child-related memorabilia is a big accomplishment.

I think so too, but in a different way. How did they manage, I wonder, to get rid of enough stuff that everything they are keeping fits into one bin? I am both incredulous and envious.

I decided to consult my children. Perhaps they appreciated the fact that I had kept so many souvenirs of their childhood. When I asked for their thoughts, they both howled with laughter. Once they regained their composure, they enthusiastically offered examples of my “crazy lady hoarding.” Here is their list. I am certain that given more time, they could come up with a much longer one.

Outdated and dangerous baby furniture and other equipment: The modern parent knows that many items that generations of parents have used are now considered unsafe. One of these items is drop side cribs. The crib in which my children slept is simple and beautiful but of course has a drop side, as did all cribs at that time. For years I imagined a sweet little grandchild sleeping in the same crib as his or her father. I know this is not going to happen, and that crib will never be used again. Yet I just can’t part with it.

Crib accessories: Same rule for pillows, blankets, and bumpers as for old cribs—do not use them. They may cause suffocation or SIDS. Wait, what? No bumpers? Won’t the little baby hurt his or her head on the crib slats? (No.) How can a baby stay warm without a blanket? (By swaddling.)

I remember the thrill of picking out these items for each of my boys, taking time to choose just the right colors and design. They are adorable, and still in good condition. I was certain I could use them when my grandbabies came to sleep at grandma’s house. Wrong. Do not use them and don’t donate them, so that no other parent will make the mistake of using them. (This applies to the aforementioned crib as well.) Still, I neatly fold and place each piece into the cabinets. Those tiny but fluffy things eat up an awful lot of storage space. But they hold sweet memories.

Random tzotchkes (Yiddish for junk that creates clutter but serves no useful purpose): Broken crib mobiles; a cracked, and therefore unusable, plastic baby bowl; bottles and nipples; a paper diaper (unused) with Son #2’s name painted on it (received as a gift); The New York Times published on their birthday each year (not just on the day they were born); jars of disintegrating baby teeth; and the bottle from Son #1’s first prescription. Go ahead, laugh. I know it’s nutty.

Clothes: The clothes and shoes my sons wore are magic to me. I can hold a shirt up to my cheek, close my eyes, and be transported back to something one of them did or said when wearing it. Yes, weirdly I actually do remember these things.

Even stranger (at least I am self-aware), I have tucked little notes inside many of the garments so my kids will know the story associated with it. Son #1 will know that I bought him an outfit decorated with ants because his teacher said he had “ants in his pants.” Son #2 will know which stretchie he wore when we brought him home from the hospital.

When I placed these clothes on the shelves in the cabinets, I honestly believed that one day I would dress my grandchildren in their fathers’ baby clothes. Not happening. So many of the clothes are outdated, or frayed, or the elastic has disintegrated. Looking more closely I see that many of them bear stains from food, formula, or spittle.

What’s more, I have saved multiple items from each category of clothing. Why would I need ten pairs of the same pajamas, 12 plaid flannel shirts, fifteen stretchies, seven Osh Kosh b’Gosh overalls, 18 pairs of shorts, six parkas, and on and on? Because I couldn’t decide whether to keep the pajamas decorated with cowboys or the ones with aliens. Should I keep the red plaid flannel shirt or the blue one? I didn’t want to decide—and with all those cabinets I didn’t have to!

Art: Or, as my kids refer to it, “shitty artwork.” I probably have 98% (a conservative estimate) of the art created by my precious angels: drawings, paintings, homework containing drawings, handmade cards, ceramic and clay objects. Some are framed and hang on the walls of my house. Others sit in display cases. The rest are jammed into those cabinets on the third floor. They are stored in boxes, folders, and scrapbooks. Lots of boxes, folders and scrapbooks.

Some of the items are absolutely worth keeping. There’s a ceramic eagle sitting on a nest, and a cross-section of a planet made from clay, with aliens working industriously in the various compartments—both are creative and required a lot of skill. And no one can fault me for hanging on to cards the boys made for me, my husband, or their grandparents. But why keep page upon page of yellowing, dried out paper covered in scribbles?

One of my friends (who was probably on the brink of staging an intervention for me) told me about a service called SouvenarteBooks (www.souvenartebooks.com). A professional photographer takes pictures of each piece of art, and creates a book from the images. The books are museum quality, printed on archival paper, and assembled into a beautiful hardcover coffee table book.

I really liked this idea. I was hopeful it was the solution that would liberate me. When I received my books, they were everything the web site promised and more. They were gorgeous.

So here it was—time to fish or cut bait. I am sure you have guessed the outcome. I had my beautiful books, but I also wanted to keep the actual artwork. It hurt too much to imagine any of it ending up as landfill. For all their teasing, I told myself, my sons wouldn’t really want me to throw out something they had made with their own hands.

The next time Son #1 was home, he noticed one of his clay pieces on a shelf in the family room. He picked it up, turning it over in his hand. “Yes!” I thought to myself. “He likes being able to hold something he made.” Then he looked at me, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t throw out this piece of crap.”

I guess I was wrong.

Stuff Part I

In 1986, George Carlin performed a routine entitled “Stuff.” It became an instant comedy classic. (If interested, you may view his performance on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MvgN5gCuLac.) In recent years, “how to control your stuff” has become an industry—books, blogs, TV segments, Pinterest posts, and more. I expend way too much psychic energy thinking about stuff: having too much stuff and the resulting clutter, organizing my stuff, giving away my stuff, my widowed father’s stuff.

I thought if I wrote about my fixation on this subject, I might stop thinking about it so much. My anxiety is such that I need two blog entries to cover my apprehensions. This post is going to address the dilemma of what to do with your parents’ household items when they no longer need them. The following post will tackle the practical and emotional issues that arise when deciding what to do with your children’s belongings and keepsakes once they are adults.

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 Several months ago, my husband and I moved out of the house we had lived in for nearly twenty years. Our new house is smaller than our old one, and its décor is more contemporary. We hired someone to conduct the sale of the items we no longer needed. She took one look around our home and told us, “You know, nowadays nobody wants wood furniture, antiques, or tzotchkes.”

She most certainly was correct. We had rooms full of beautiful antique furniture. Many were Biedermeier pieces made from exotic woods that, just a few years ago, were prized for their exquisite inlay, painstakingly crafted by artisans in the mid-1800’s. Each piece brought a small fraction of what we had paid for it. The same was true for antique sterling silver—tea sets, desk sets, serving pieces—and items of fine china, such as bowls and figurines.

I still loved many of these items, and felt a bit forlorn about parting with them. I also struggled with the idea that nobody wanted them. Yes, there were a lot of them and the house looked cluttered, but I still smiled when I looked at them. They were beautiful pieces, and some held sentimental value. But we were moving to a new stage of our lives, which meant having to leave some things behind. You can’t make a new start if you cling to your past, someone advised me. Reluctantly, I parted with my possessions that had been deemed obsolete or extraneous.

My mother passed away five years ago. My father now lives alone in the house in which I grew up. For the most part, every item is in the same place it was when my mother went to the hospital for the last time. Similar to the furniture and other items I disposed of when we moved, when I look at the items she loved a memory about her pops into my head.

Lined up on a shelf in the living room is her collection of delicate porcelain cups and saucers. Most are painted with graceful vines and flowers in pastel colors. She took delight in their sweetness and fragility. We often added to the collection with birthday or Mother’s Day gifts.

Her collection of Lenox bowls, plates, and vases are displayed on another shelf in the living room. She loved their creamy white finish and the elegance of their simple, curved lines. In the center of the living room coffee table sits one of her prized cut-glass bowls. I can picture her filling them with fruit and nuts when we had visitors, and setting them on this same table, in case someone wanted a “nosh.”

Most important to my mother were her cherished silver candlesticks, over which she made a blessing each Sabbath and Jewish holiday. These sit in a place of prominence on the fireplace mantel in the living room. They are the guests of honor. Now my father lights them, and I can’t help but imagine that each time he thinks about how much he misses her.

Nestled inside a small alcove in the kitchen sit two small porcelain statues: a girl walking in the rain—as evidenced by her raincoat, hat, boots and umbrella—accompanied by a boy similarly attired. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that my father had given them to her for their first anniversary. When I look at them now, I imagine my father stopping into a store on his way home from work, looking for the perfect present for this important occasion. His clear, unlined eyes under his brimmed felt hat peer inside the showcases. He takes his time. When my mother opens the gift, she smiles and so does he, delighted he made a good choice. They hug and she laughs, both of them young and joyful, optimistic and excited about their future, unable to imagine the struggles and animosity that inevitably ambush a marriage.

When I sit at the dining room table, having Shabbat dinner with my father, I remember how happy and proud my mother was to have what she called “real” dining room furniture. In the eat-in kitchen, the “kitchenette set”—a table with a Formica top meant to resemble marble, surrounded by chairs with red Naugahyde seats—brings back memories of the two of us peeling apples for applesauce, while we chatted about my day in school. I recall the times my friends and I sat around this table, frozen from hours of sledding, drinking the hot chocolate she had made for us from scratch.

The heavy, dark, highly polished furniture in their bedroom had been a wedding gift from my mother’s parents. I always found the glossy wood and simple lines striking. It still looks contemporary. On the bedside tables are lamps whose bases are ceramic figures of an Asian man and woman dressed in what some mid-twentieth century manufacturer must have imagined was an acceptable representation of traditional Far Eastern garb. (I wonder what country he was thinking of, or if he assumed everyone from that part of the world dressed the same.) The figures—one a man, one a woman—are posed with their arms bent in front of their chests and their heads tilted. When I was young I thought the tilted heads made them look as if they were asking a question, and I would make up stories about what was puzzling them.

My mother would be appalled and, worse yet, hurt to know that one day, when my brother and I must clean out this house, I will want very few of the items she treasured. My house is already completely furnished and accessorized. What am I going to do with another bedroom set, a Formica table, or lamps shaped like people? When we sell or donate the contents of the house I am certain I will be sad and remorseful. (By the way, my practical father wouldn’t care. He has no feelings of sentimentality or attachment to any objects whatsoever. Too bad I didn’t inherit that outlook from him.)

When her beloved father died a few years ago, a friend told me she saved just one of his belongings—a well-worn flannel shirt. She said that was all she needed. That one shirt would be the touchstone for remembering everything she loved about him. And I know she is right. Memories reside inside of us, not in objects.

I love my mother’s china teacups, her Lenox pieces, the little knickknacks. I tear up just imagining watching a mover take away “our” furniture, another family eating at “our” dining room table, another couple sleeping in my parents’ bed. So much family history but, to paraphrase George Carlin, too much stuff. I would love to save it all, but where would I put it? In the basement where no one will have the opportunity to enjoy it? I wonder how I will handle my conflicting feelings when these possessions are gone, as I imagine my mother shaking her head, her face wet with tears.

I know how wise and giving it would be to put these items into the hands of someone who needs them, would love them, care for them, and make them part of their family story. I will still have my old memories, and other families will be making new ones.

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I imagine MANY of you are dealing with the situations and feelings I have described in this post. Please take a minute and leave a note in the Comments section. It can be anything–your opinion of the piece, coping mechanisms you have used, resources, anecdotes. I love hearing from my readers, and it will help me figure out what you are interested in reading in future posts. Thanks.

Maybe I Should Not Have Come to This Place

The first time we went to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was during the summer of 1986. I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I fell in love with the wide soft beaches, the absence of crowds, and the ocean water that was so much warmer than what we were accustomed to in New Jersey.

The easiest types of vacations to take with young children are beach vacations. It’s hard to interest a four-year-old in the Coliseum. So we returned to Duck every summer for about ten years, with our first son (beginning when he was six months old), and later with two boys in tow. All four of us grow a bit tender inside when we pull out a memory of those days from the back of our minds, where it has been slumbering.

The island on which Duck is situated is a spit of land tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. It’s on one of the many barrier islands along the North Carolina coast. Each side of the island is a different world. The air on the sound has a ripe smell, like plowed dirt. It’s so unlike the sharp salt smell on the ocean side, it’s hard to believe the two are less than a mile away from one another. I would go to the ocean to get some sun while I read, or to take a walk, or jump in the waves with my delighted and laughing kids. I went to the sound to sit, look across the water at the horizon, and think. Even now, I think of the ocean as outgoing and appropriate for the daytime. Conversely, I think of the sound as introspective and well suited for the end of the day as the sun is leaving, telling us it’s time to rest.

Our family’s favorite activity while on vacation in Duck was, hands down, crabbing. This consisted of sitting on the pier and dropping chicken necks, hooked onto strings, into the shallow brown water of the sound. It’s surprising how strong those chicken necks are. You would expect these fragile crescents of tiny, thin bones to snap after one or two insistent tugs from a crab’s pincers. But they never do. They always hold up until the crabs have picked away nearly every sliver of slimy, three-day-old meat.

For us, crabbing was always an end-of-the-day activity, having spent the day at the beach and therefore feeling lazy from the heat and the fresh air. I liked to end the day on this calmer water. The boys would be brown, despite my conscientious application of sunscreen, with a red flush across their cheeks and noses. We would go to the sound before returning to the house to shower. If I kissed one of the boys, I would taste salt and smell cocoa butter.

Sitting on the dock I would notice the sun softening into runny shades of orange and pink, as if someone had run a hand through it and smudged it across the sky. As dusk drifted in, the daytime sky deepened into dull silvery tones that matched the dock’s weathered boards. The horizon would blur and I could almost believe the sky was melting into the sound.

While I was contemplating the water, a great deal of action was going on around me. A tug on the string indicated that a crab had taken the bait. My husband would call out “Netman!” and the boys would spring into action.They took turns fetching the net. What pleasure I felt watching them hop around with anticipation.

We all would eye the water expectantly as my husband gathered in the line. The boys hoped for a big, fat one because my husband threw the little ones back into the water immediately. Once my husband eyed the size of the catch and gave the OK, whoever was “Netman” would bring the net underneath the crab. Together the boys would caution, “Be careful Daddy, don’t drop him,” as the crab wriggled until, with a flick of the wrist, my husband dumped the funny looking creature into the bucket. The boys would giggle at the scratchy metallic sound the claws made as the crab scuttled around the bottom of the pail.  After we’d been there a while, a pile of crabs accumulated.

Eventually, the boys would beg, “Ooh Daddy, please, let them dance, please.” My husband would smile at the boys’ pleasure in this small thing and dump the crabs onto the dock. For a moment they sat perfectly still, as if they were dazed and uncertain where they were or what had happened. Then they would skitter sideways along the dock, making a scratchy sound as they moved over the graying wood planks. It’s remarkable that they always know which direction will take them back to the water. Both boys would clap, glad that the creatures were back where they belonged.

One day we were joined on the dock by another family. They mentioned that they were going to keep the crabs they caught and have them for dinner. Since we never ate them, we offered them our haul. When they left with their buckets brimming, I looked at one of my boys and saw his lips quivering, his eyes shiny with the tears he was trying to hold back. He had overheard the other family talking about eating the crabs and he was shattered. Quick moral assessment in my head: Would it be acceptable to lie to him so he wouldn’t be so bereft? No brainer for me—of course it was. So I told him the family was taking the crabs to play with them on the sand near the ocean, and would put them into the sea when they were done. Big mistake! Through the copious tears that now coursed down his cheeks he asked, “But then how will they find their families?” My sweet boy.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Duck for the first time in many years. It was only the second time we were there without children. We had perfect weather and enjoyed a wonderful week being relaxed and lazy, noting what had changed (not much), and visiting favorite old haunts. One new addition was a wooden walkway that meandered for about a mile along the edge of the sound. We enjoyed walking there every morning. Then, one day, we came upon this scene:

 

A family with two young boys crabbing. The family we used to be so many years ago. Sadness wrapped me in a tight grip and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t just cry—I sobbed, for at least an hour. I cried for time lost that I could never retrieve, time that I viewed as possibly the best time of my life, come and gone. I wanted to be on that dock with two little boys, my little boys.

I longed for all the sensations to which young parents are privy. I wanted to feel the dense weight of a baby in my arms, with legs and arms so fat there are creases where there are no joints, with chubby, dimpled hands that look as if you could screw them on and off. I ached to again feel my baby burrowing his creamy face into my neck and to listen to his tiny little baby grunts.

I wanted my seven-year-old son back, the one who climbed into my bed and snuggled as close to me as possible. He would be slightly damp from his bath, and I would be able to smell the shampoo in his hair, the soap on his young smooth skin. That boy who was now a memory would slip his slender arms and legs around me in a full body hug, listening with rapt attention as I read a story I had read to him hundreds of times before.

But then I thought about what I have now. Two beautiful (inside and out) young men, who work hard and have a strong moral compass. Who have already achieved great things, and overcome serious challenges that would have defeated me. Who have each taught me fundamental truths through their exemplary behavior. Who make me laugh. Who have amazing lives ahead of them that I have no right to wish away by longing for the past. Who always make me feel happy and supported and loved.

What more could I ask for? I am extraordinarily lucky. Why would I want to go back twenty-five years when what I have now is so precious and rare? I think of a saying I once heard:

Don’t be sad because it’s over.

Be glad that it happened.

The next day we walk by that same family. I hope they are making memories they will cherish. It’s their turn. I smile and wave and continue walking.

A Failure To Communicate

When I was growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. Yes, that’s right. Every. Night. Much of the meal was “Comedy Hour.” My father, a civil engineer, worked with someone who had an apparently endless supply of jokes. You’re probably not surprised; engineers have a legendary reputation for their wacky sense of humor.

At every dinner, my dad would tell us the jokes he had heard that day from Morty (who we began to refer to as the Great Morty). There almost always were two or three new ones. Many of them were corny, Borscht Belt-type shtick, but we didn’t care. We laughed long and hard, often until it hurt or we choked on what we were eating.

After a while, we developed favorites and would make requests. We had memorized every word of these favorites, yet still delighted in hearing our dad tell them from start to finish. As time passed, we developed a shorthand. We didn’t need to hear the full joke. My dad, or one of us, would say the punchline and the four of us would laugh as heartily as if we were hearing the entire joke for the first time. “Don’t blame me if you get a ringing in your ears.” “Oh, you want Greenberg the spy. He’s on the fourth floor.” “You stupid yenta! Everyone knows the number 3 bus doesn’t go to Coney Island.” None of these mean anything to those of you reading this, but I promise you I am laughing as I type these punchlines I first heard over 50 years ago.

As my father delivered his routine, we paid rapt attention to every word. We didn’t want to miss his delivery or the joke. Fast forward to 2017. Imagine a dinner at which, miraculously, every family member is present. It might go something like this…

Me: Tells joke. Waits for reaction.
Silence.
Me: Looks around the table and sees this—

 

 

Me: Hey! Zombies! Can you all look up from your screens for a minute?
They raise their heads, eyes glassy and unfocused as they adjust their vision from staring at something a few inches from their faces to looking at me at the other end of the table. They are as disoriented as when I wake them in the morning for school.
Son #1: Wait, what?
Me: Did either of you hear the joke I just told?
Sons #1 and #2 exchange a glance.
Son #2: Oh yeah, sure Mom. It was hilarious.
Son #1: I heard it. It just wasn’t funny.
Son #2: Sorry Mom.
Son #1: Mumbles something I can’t hear.
Me: Any possibility we can get through a meal without the two of you checking your phones?
Son #2: I’m making plans for tonight.
Son #1 Doesn’t even bother to answer.
Eye rolls from both, then they look back down at their phones again.

I am more than certain that many of you have had similar experiences. Often, when I try to communicate with my offspring, I feel as if I am a dinosaur who has somehow been teleported from prehistoric times to the present. Mostly I feel that way because my kids tell me this, or something equally as insulting.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of “the generation gap” entered the vernacular. It was a hot topic for the nightly news, magazine cover stories, newspaper feature articles and opinion pieces. Our parents and their friends were confounded by this rupture in their lives that now had a name. Girls no longer wore sweet, tidy dresses to school; these were replaced by bell bottom jeans, frayed at the hem from dragging on the floor. Boys’ neatly combed crew cuts gave way to long hair, often past shoulder length. Instead of the tolerable music of The Beach Boys, our transistor radios blared the harsh, dissonant sounds of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

Then there were the words and idioms we used, verbal tools to solidify the wall we were building (that no one had to pay for) between us and them. Some of our favorite (and rather ridiculous) adjectives were “groovy,” “right on,” or “far out.” Events or activities we enjoyed were “out of sight” while those not to our liking were “not my bag.” You could “dig” something without needing a shovel, and you avoided “the fuzz” at all costs, because they might find the “grass” hidden in the pocket of your Wrangler jeans.

Communication is fundamental—in fact critical—to forging connections with other human beings. In our teens and twenties, we recognized this, and made up words and phrases specifically intended to block (or at least hinder) communication with the older generation. And who did we consider the “older generation”? A popular expression warned us not to “trust anyone over thirty.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that. From my current perspective, people in their thirties are babies.

Forty plus years removed from our youth, we try to show our kids that hey, we’re not as “lame” (i.e., old and out of touch) as they believe we are. We watch Netflix and Amazon and Hulu rather than broadcast television. We know who Drake and Sia are. We use social media, and believe the way we dress strikes a perfect balance between up-to-date and age appropriate. But deep down, we know we have stepped into our parents’ shoes. The generation gap is alive and well, patently obvious in the way our kids communicate with one another, using a set of conventions that make us feel as if we are sitting on the sidelines without a play book. Our kids have modern, shiny objects at their disposal to assist them in disassociating from old people like us. All we had were words and music. Different means, but the same message: Hey old people, you are not invited to the party.

Remember what a godsend we thought answering machines were, enabling us to either (a) not miss an important call from an actual or potential significant other if we weren’t home, or (b) screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, crazy ex SOs, and parents? Answering machines are relics of the 20th century; now voice mail serves the same purpose.  Well, maybe not for everyone. Here’s a scenario that both educated me, and made me feel old at the same time. Kudos to my son for being efficient and killing two birds with one stone!
Son #1: Did you call?
Me: Yes I did. How are you today?
Son #1: Fine. Why did you call?
Me : Didn’t you listen to my message?
Son #1: No, I never listen to voice messages.
Me (after a moment of stunned silence): May I ask why not?
Son #1: I can see on my phone that you called. If I’m gonna call you back, why should I listen to the same thing twice?
I proceed to repeat everything I just said into the phone a short while ago. I guess the takeaway from this encounter is that it’s better for me to say the same thing twice than for him to have to listen to the same thing twice.

Son #2 and I recently had an in-person, face-to-face, real live conversation! True story! He told me he had a date with a girl he recently met at a party. I then asked what I believed was a simple question. Hah!
Me: So, you guys talked at the party and then you called her and asked her out?
Son #2 (eyes narrowed with derision, mouth clamped to stifle loud, mocking laughter): Mom, no one calls anymore. (Unable to keep his composure any longer he snorts.) We text.
Me: Why? Isn’t it easier just to talk to someone?
Son #2: No. (Shakes his head and rolls his eyes)
I hang my head and shuffle off in disgrace. As I leave, I hear him ask, “Hey mom! What are you making for dinner tonight?” Why is he asking me, I wonder? Wouldn’t it have been easier to send me a text?

I quickly deduced that if you want to connect with your kids, texting is the way to go. (Warning: Do NOT send an email if you want a response any time before the year 2025. It is the rare millennial who checks his or her email with any frequency.) However, this means of communication is not without its frustrations, as illustrated by the following conversation (conducted entirely via text messaging):
Son #1: Do you know where my birth certificate is?
Me: Sure. Why?
Fifteen minutes pass with no response.
Son #1: I need it to get my new driver’s license. Also, do you still have my Sega Genesis games?
Now even I know that Sega Genesis is from the 1990’s. I know I threw those games away a long time ago. I also know that, like myself, Son #1 is a saver of things of marginal/no value, and will pitch a fit if the answer is no. I decide to buy myself some time.
Me: I don’t know. I’ll have to look in the basement. Why do you need them?
Again, nothing new appears on my screen, this time for twelve minutes. Yes, I am just that petty and annoyed that I actually time it. I have watched my sons text their friends, and I know there is no pause in those conversations.
Son #1: I saw an old console on Craig’s List and I thought I might buy it if we still have the cassettes. Let me know.

In all likelihood he did not type “let me know.” He undoubtedly typed “LMK.” Which brings me to my next topic—the pervasive replacement of real words with acronyms. When they first began appearing in messages and yes, even emails, I thought this was quite clever. I applauded the convenience of substituting letters for commonly used phrases. OMG, acronyms were so great! IDK how we ever managed without them.

However, those original acronyms appear to have been a bit promiscuous, spawning hundreds of next generation acronyms. Presumably, using them saves time. But how much? I would like to ask my kids, “How much time could you possibly be saving? Enough to make a great scientific discovery or write a highly acclaimed novel?”  As I said above, I do get it–but in moderation.

In addition, using an acronym can misfire if the recipient is unfamiliar with it. One time I was texting with Son #2 and he used the acronym “SMDH.” I hit the ceiling. The only words I could think of to fit those letters were pornographic and not something you should say to your mother.
Me: What was that? What does that mean?
Son #2: Shaking my damn head. What did you think it means?
Me (relieved): Never mind. (Had I instead typed NVM, I could have saved myself at least two seconds. Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again.)

I can imagine one of my kids having the following text chat with a friend…
Friend: SFLR. AFK.
Son: NP. WU?
Friend: NM. CYT?
Son: SLAP.
Friend: GR8.
Son: GTG. POS.
Friend: TBC. TTYL.

I would love you to hear your guesses regarding what the above means. Send me your thoughts via the Comments section of this site. In other words, LMK. I will share some of the answers in my next post, as well as translate the above for you.

In the meantime, I continue to SMDH.