Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Velvet Painting



I found myself telling this story on Facebook earlier, and not only is it delightful to me, but it also may be true -- so I thought that I should write it down here for the internet. 

After my mother graduated from high school and did some secretarial school, she decided that she loved to travel.  For a few years, in her early 20s, she was living in Los Angeles -- it was the early 1960s.  At some point, my grandparents, aunt, and uncle came out to visit her, and as part of their travels, they went down to Tijuana.  

The Tijuana trip is something of a family legend. Part of the story that I heard involved my uncle (who was maybe 10 or 11 years old) trying to practice haggling with street vendors. Another part of the story involved the whole family going to the restaurant where the Caesar salad was invented. But the story always ended with the part where my mother saw a beautiful velvet painting of a handsome long-haired man. She decided she had to have it -- and went back to buy it on their way out of town. 

It was, after all, the 1960s.

My mother hung the painting up in her apartment in California, and then when she moved back to New York, she hung the picture up in her apartment there too. She might have even moved apartments a few times after that -- I always think of her as something of a nomad when she was young.

Eventually, she was living somewhere on the Upper East Side, with the picture hanging on the wall, when one of her childhood friends came to visit.  Her friend was Catholic, and asked my mother why a nice Jewish girl would have a picture of Jesus hanging up in her apartment.

My mother had absolutely NO IDEA. 

And then, the story ended with my mother giving her friend the painting of Jesus and it hanging in her friend's house for many years.  My mother often told the story after we left that friend's house, and I never remembered to look for the painting or ask her friend if it was true. One of these days, maybe I will remember. Or maybe it's just better as a legend.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Stone for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

It’s been almost 13 years since my mother died. One of the things that haunts me to this day is a conversation we had shortly before she died. It was the beginning of the 2008 election cycle, and I was in my very early 30’s—already a lawyer, but before I was married or had kids. My mother and my grandmother were excitedly talking about voting for Hillary Clinton in the primary. I told her I was going to vote for Obama. She asked me how I could do that, as a woman and as a feminist, and I blithely told her I was post-feminist. She told me I was a traitor and a spoiled child. 

 

I didn’t understand it then, but she was right. 

 

*** 

 

In the present day, in the midst of a pandemic, I work from home and supervise my eight year old during her remote third-grade education. My four year old was home with us for the first few months, but he just started attending pre-kindergarten in-person, at a small daycare about a mile away. I have an office in the basement, but we have all decamped to the dining room table, so I can keep her on task. My husband goes in to work each day, but he does most of the cooking. 

 

I spend a lot of time on conference calls, and sometimes my mind wanders. I keep thinking about whether Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have homeschooled her kids. I’m pretty certain that she and Marty would have figured out an equitable distribution of labor. Instead, I’m passive-aggressively ignoring the pile of laundry that needs to be washed and the other pile that needs to be folded. Maybe if it sits there long enough, my husband will understand how jealous I am that he gets to go in to an office and talk to other adults face-to-face, while I’m on my 100th WebEx of the month, watching my daughter pretend to pay attention to a virtual P.E. class while using safety scissors to cut up the dining room tablecloth.  

 

Sometimes I fantasize about going to Target just to get some alone time. 

 

*** 

 

My husband snores next to me each night night while I order groceries from Instacart or homeschool supplies from Amazon. This is not what I thought adulthood would be like. I add more snacks to my shopping cart. 

 

*** 

 

It is before 7am. My son comes in to my room, asking to come in to my bed for a cuddle. He used the word please, so I assent. He then loudly asks why his dad is still there: “Is it a stay home day?”  They are all stay home days for me.  It must be a weekend because my husband has not left for work. So I say yes, and tell my son to be quiet or leave. A few minutes later he shouts that he has to go poop, so now we are all awake. Another Blursday begins. 

 

*** 

 

Sometimes I think that this is my mother’s revenge. I did not appreciate the freedom I had. I did not consider all of the predecessors that paved the way for me to get to pick my own destiny; to be both a fairly successful attorney and a fairly successful parent. So here I am, floundering at both from this new, isolated world that we are living in. 

 

*** 

 

I come downstairs to make pancakes. My husband is on the family room sofa, watching TV while playing some shooting game on his phone. The kids are already in the dining room on their devices. They each have a Chromebook and a Kindle; my daughter also has a school laptop and an old iPhone. I have a work computer, a personal laptop, a work iPad, a personal iPad, a work phone, a personal phone, and a monitor. There are half-broken headphones and earbuds all over the place. 

 

There are at least two more computers in the basement, and my husband has a laptop in our bedroom. How many computers does a four-person household need? The answer takes advanced math. 

 

There is an old iPad in the kitchen, running a bunch of kids educational apps. The kids in question barely use it, but I keep hoping that one day, it will magically teach my son to read. If only it could teach him to wipe his own ass. 

 

*** 

 

It is the centennial of the 19th amendment this year. I requested an absentee ballot weeks ago. When it finally came in the mail, I quietly said a little thank you to all of the women that made this possible, lest something else happen. I then Instagrammed a well-designed picture of my ballot, mostly because one of my husband’s family members posted some stupid meme about how the country should not allow voting by mail. 

 

That night was the start of Rosh Hashanah. My half-Cuban husband was in the kitchen making latkes, when we were startled out of our complacency with the news of RBG’s death. I sat down on the sofa to watch the news. 

 

My daughter asked me a question, but then, because she does not know how to sit, she somehow kicked me as I began to answer.  Her toenail caught me squarely in the leg and I started to bleed—so I stopped talking. I spent most of the next few hours in stunned silence. 

 

*** 

 

It is Sunday morning—I checked the calendar. I am making matzo meal pancakes, an old family recipe. It brings me comfort. 

 

For the past few weeks, my daughter has been binge-watching old episodes of the Kids’ Baking Championship. I cheerfully ask her if she wants to help me cook, and she barely lifts her head from her L.O.L. Surprise video on YouTube to growl. I ignore the disrespect. I’d bet that Jane and James Ginsburg never treated their mother with such contempt. 

 

The key to making airy matzo meal pancakes is to separate the egg whites. I somehow manage to stick my thumb in half of the egg yolks, shouting “Fuck!” or “Shit!” each time. This is why my husband does most of the cooking. 

 

*** 

 

A bit shy of four years ago, I took my then preschool-aged daughter to the elementary school down the street to vote for the first woman president. I wore my mother’s and grandmother’s jewelry, so that a piece of them could be with us. It did not go as planned. It never does. 

 

*** 

 

The pancakes are all gone in a flash. My son is crying because I deleted the shortcut to YouTube from his computer.  There must be a reason that neither Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan have children. 

 

*** 

 

Later that day, we take a trip downtown to pay tribute to RBG. My husband suggested we leave flowers; instead I leave a stone. I am simultaneously steeped in traditions, and yet thoroughly independent of them. I am my ancestors’ wildest dream, for good and bad. And yes, I am a feminist, even though I forget it sometimes. It’s just so easy to forget the work of everyone who helped to clear the path for you when the path is still so fucking hard. 




 

The signs and notes and flowers all over the west side of the Supreme Court take my breath away. More than a few of the offerings bring me to tears. A tiny little Jewish mother had the power to change the world—step by painful step, a little bit at a time, but backwards and in heels. 

 

*** 

 

I am awake now, Mom. I am aware. And I will keep up the fight: for you, for Nana, for RBG. But also, I will continue for my daughter, and maybe one day, her daughter. I get it now. I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I free to abandon it.