Month: September 2014

The Chinese Coin



Our daughter and her family spent a week with us in August. As they were packing to leave, I suddenly remembered the Chinese coin. I opened my top dresser drawer and found it immediately, still encased in the silver holder we had made to fit around it so it could be strung from a chain and worn like a necklace. I put it in a small bag and brought it to our daughter. She thanked me, packed it safely away and asked me to tell her the story again.

Forty-nine years ago, when Vietnam was just beginning to enter American lives and all young men were drafted into military service, my husband, Barry, enrolled in a special plan that would allow him to finish his residency in internal medicine before he went in the army. About six months before his residency was complete, he received notification from the army that he would be serving at Camp Zama, an army hospital in Sagamihara, Japan. Although he was only required to serve two years, we had the option to add a third year, which meant the army would be responsible for travel and housing expenses for our entire family. Since we were very poor and felt that living on base might be safer for our two year old daughter, this seemed like a good idea. In addition, living in Japan for three years sounded like a grand adventure.

And it was. We loved everything about Japan; the people, the countryside, the temples, the food, the opportunity to travel. That first year, Barry was busy at the hospital, caring for the service men and their families. I was busy getting settled, caring for our daughter and exploring Japanese culture. I was also expecting our second child.

Towards the end of our first year, Barry was asked to examine an unusual patient – a young man enrolled in military school in Taiwan whose father was a general and close in command to Chiang Kai-Shek. The request came from the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo which was actually the Taiwan Embassy because, at that time neither Japan nor the United States recognized the leadership in China. The young man, who had a sensitive, artistic personality, was having severe intestinal problems.

After the young man was treated and released, the military attaché at the Taiwan Embassy invited everyone at the hospital who was involved with his care to dinner at a Chinese restaurant next door to the embassy. Spouses were also invited. Barry looked at my swollen belly – I was eight months pregnant – and said, “You aren’t planning to go, are you?”

I looked at him and said, “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” He shook his head but knew there was no use arguing; I was determined. But I was also a little apprehensive. This was 1965 and in that part of the world, pregnant women in their later months were rarely seen in public.

On the evening of the event, we gave ourselves two hours to drive to Tokyo, usually a ride that took a little over an hour. It was an uneven road with lots of bumps and Barry drove as if he had a load of crystal glasses. He slowed almost to a stop at each swell in the road and kept throwing me anxious glances. I thought we’d never get there. Finally, we reached the Sanno Hotel, the military hotel where we always parked our car. Then we took a taxi to the restaurant. We were led to a private dining room and when we walked in the door, our friends from the hospital greeted us but the people from the embassy stared, eyes lowered to my pregnant belly.

The Military Attaché greeted us and led us to the large round table where the rest of our party was seated. Sitting on my right was the Ambassador’s wife, a beautiful, gracious woman who was dressed traditionally. She was just a little younger than my mother and she quickly made it her business to take care of me. The wait staff entered and placed dish after dish on a smaller, rotating table in the middle. At first, we (the Americans) took reasonable quantities of each dish until we began to notice that our Chinese friends were taking one mouthful of each dish with their chopsticks. And as the dishes continued to be served for the next hour, we realized a mouthful of each dish was more than enough.

Meanwhile, I was struggling to use the chopsticks and avoid dropping food on the large expanse of my body between the table and my mouth. And, of course, I failed. The food landed on the highest part of my stomach. To my embarrassment, the Ambassador’s wife insisted on taking me to the kitchen where she worked on my spot with water and soap. Red-faced, I thanked her profusely and was very relieved to get back to the table.

It was a delightful evening and we ate the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Before we left, the Military Attaché told us he would like to bring us a special gift for the baby when it arrived. Once we were back in our car and on the way home, Barry drove faster than I had ever seen him drive before. Each bump was taken with ultimate force and we were home in record time. In spite of this, the baby, our second girl, waited another month to enter the world.


The Military Attaché called when our baby was around six weeks old and we invited him for dinner. He brought the gift for the new baby, a silver coin commemorating an event in Taiwan. We were delighted and took good care of that coin for many years, just waiting to give it to its rightful owner, our daughter who was born in Japan. (And still loves Chinese food!)



NOTE: Since I wrote this story, my daughter researched the coin and found out it is not Chinese at all but a silver decadrachm of Syracuse, Sicily. It is of Greek origin, around 413 BC.  At this time, we don’t know if it’s authentic and have no idea how the Military Attache’ acquired it


The Continuing Saga of My Teeth

I had another tooth pulled this morning.

A word of warning: if you have a fear of dentists, you better stop reading right now. This essay is going to be all about teeth and dentists.

My tooth problems started when I was 16. That’s when I had my first root canal. It was 1956 and a Saturday. I remember because I played the flute (very badly) in the high school marching band and we were going by bus to a neighboring city to march in a parade. I have no idea why they were having a parade; I only know I missed the bus because I had a tooth ache and had to go to the dentist.

Now I’m wondering how long dentists had been doing root canals at that time. And in our small Northern Minnesota town, I also wonder how much our dentist knew about doing a root canal. But he did it and it must have been successful because I didn’t have my first tooth pulled until I was much older.

I had my wisdom teeth pulled when my husband was in the army and we were living on base in Japan. When I came out of that appointment and walked over to the car, I was surprised to find the keys were in the ignition and it was running. I had absolutely no memory of leaving it like that.

It was pretty much downhill from there. My husband says he should have had my teeth checked out before we were married because my dental bills have been horrendous. He was kidding – I hope. But he has a point. We moved to Carlsbad, California and that’s where the root canals started in earnest. I don’t know which ones were done by which dentist or when but I do know by the time we left California (14 years), I didn’t have many teeth left that didn’t have root canals. I remember one dentist in Carlsbad that never smiled or laughed. I used to go to appointments armed with jokes and, whenever he left my mouth open without an appliance inside, I would try valiantly to get him to laugh. I did raise a smile a few times. This challenge did keep me from changing dentists.

When we moved to Rochester, New York, we had a dentist who was just the opposite from the previous one. He was so funny that it was hard to keep my mouth open for him to work in it. One time, he came into the examining room with a full-fledged power drill and asked if I was ready for him to get to work. I stayed with this dentist until he retired and, in fact, he became a good friend.

It wasn’t our Rochester dentist’s fault, but his office is where I started losing teeth. First it was a couple of molars. The very back ones weren’t too useful so that was okay. Then I had an upper front tooth pulled and a bridge put in. A few years later, the teeth on the bridge failed and I had my first two implants. They were still new then and my dentist sent me to an oral surgeon. I was so scared I asked him for a Xanax prescription before the surgery. He’d never had that request before and had to look it up in his book before he could write the prescription. I floated through that procedure and six months later, ended up with three brand new front teeth. I loved them.

By this time, I only had four teeth left that didn’t have root canals. Then the root canals started to go. And that’s where I am today. I’ve had three re-root canals and all three have failed after a short time. I’ve had three more implants – two molars and another front tooth – and probably will have to have another in the spot where I lost a tooth today. That molar was covering for a missing tooth next to it that was covered by a bridge. I know; this is hard to follow but then that’s the story of my mouth. So today I actually lost two teeth and have nothing left to use for chewing on the upper right.

My mother had false teeth. She had all her teeth pulled at once and false teeth ready to use within a week. I know this had to be uncomfortable and I remember my brother and I teasing her before her mouth was healed enough to hold the dentures. (We were teenagers and not very sympathetic; with age, comes wisdom!) But it certainly cost a lot less. My mouth is worth a really nice car or a small house.

A few years ago, a cousin who I hadn’t seen in a few years told me I had beautiful teeth. I started to laugh, startling him. Even though they don’t come out, many of my teeth are not my own. One dentist called me a miracle of modern dentistry. Often, I’ve met people who are missing some of their front teeth and, I’d guess, many of their molars, also. Sometimes they smile, seemingly unaware of the missing teeth, but more often, they smile with their mouth shut or with a hand over their mouth. And it’s these times that I know I’d better close my mouth and quit complaining. There, but for the grace of dental insurance and a reasonable income, go I.

Going Home

At heart, I am and will always be a “Ranger”. This means I was born and raised on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota, specifically Virginia, Minnesota. At the time I was growing up, the iron ore mines were still very productive and the Iron Range cities were thriving. Virginia was a small (population 17,000) but vibrant city, with enough jobs and wealth to provide its children with good schools and other cultural opportunities.

My family was one of about 50 Jewish families in Virginia and we all belonged to B’nai Abraham, the small synagogue that had been built by my grandparents’ generation. Both inside and out, the synagogue resembled the small structures they had left behind in Lithuania, Russia, Poland and Germany. But every Jewish family had given their children what most of the first immigrants had not been able to afford – a college education and usually, a profession that meant they would never again live in Virginia. Thus, the Jewish families had almost entirely disappeared from the Iron Range and the small synagogue had fallen into disrepair.

Ten yearsIMG_0045 ago, my brother, sister-in-law and other descendants of the B’nai Abraham Synagogue came together to save the building. Their efforts resulted in the building being formally declared an historic site, which made it eligible for grants and donations. Today the transformation is almost complete; the building has been repaired, reconstructed and brought back to life, even more beautiful than it was before.

But it wasn’t a happy place for me when I was a child. It was hard to be different, to be Jewish when all my friends were Lutheran, Presbyterian or Catholic. Occasionally I would run into anti-sematic remarks and they would smart. I hated the High Holidays when I would have to miss school to attend services. But my closest friends were accepting and I learned to be careful about exposing myself to new people. I grew up always feeling a little different and as if I didn’t quite belong in either world; Jewish or Christian.

Six years ago, I returned to Virginia for my 50th class reunion. My first stop was Minneapolis where my sister-in-law gave me a progress report on B’nai Abraham. The social hall on the lower floor was in complete disrepair but the sanctuary was almost complete. It had new floors, a new ceiling and the stained glass windows were slowly being cleaned and repaired. She handed me the key to the synagogue and said, “You can open it up for your classmates to see, if you would like.” I took the key but I was certain no one would be interested in seeing the building.

On the first night of the reunion, I made the announcement that I and my friend, Pat, would hold the synagogue open from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm the following afternoon, if anyone would like to visit . Pat and I picked up lunches, packed books and prepared ourselves for two quiet hours inside the synagogue. But when we arrived, several people were already waiting at the door. I unlocked it and within half-an-hour, the sanctuary was filled with classmates and some spouses. The men and women, my classmates from 50 years ago, inspected the new/old sanctuary. They examined an exhibit that held photos of the original building, Jewish families and Jewish businesses that had once thrived on Main Street. They remarked on Jewish artifacts, reflected on Jewish families they had known and asked me questions about the synagogue, the religion, the people. One man who had grown up Catholic remembered out loud that his priest had told them they would go to hell if they set foot inside of the Synagogue.

I was talking through blurred eyes, trying very hard to hold back tears. This interest and acceptance was something I had longed for as a child and now, at my fiftieth class reunion, here it was. This was a new world. Finally, someone suggested we all stand on the Bema and take a class photo which we did. It was a wonderful affirmation and an experience that I will always treasure.

This summer, my husband and I traveled first to Minneapolis to visit my extended family and then we drove to Virginia for the weekend. We had plans to attend the once-a-year Friday night Sabbath service at the B’nai Abraham Synagogue which was provided by a Rabbi from Duluth. The reconstruction is almost complete; only the kitchen still needs to be outfitted. It is no longer considered a working synagogue – the torahs have been given to congregations in Minneapolis – and it is used for special events and musical programs which we attended on Saturday night. But inside the sanctuary, I still feel the presence of my parents and grandparents and I remember the services and events of my childhood with a feeling of truly belonging to both my Jewish heritage and the Iron Range.  Outside%20vestibule%20B'nai%20Abraham[1]




Who’s Grandma?

My husband and I boarded a plane to Minneapolis today. Even though I had purchased the tickets a month ago, our seats weren’t together. In the terminal, I stood in a long line to see if we could change them, a slim chance for a full flight. I struck up a conversation with the young woman (30’s or 40’s?) behind me in line and, after a few minutes she said, “Why don’t you go sit down and you can get in line when I reach the desk. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them you’re my grandma.”

Grandma? I took her advice and sat down but I was in shock. I couldn’t possibly be her grandma, could I? Her mother, maybe – but grandma? I had the urge to go immediately to the bathroom and study my face in the mirror. Was there a new wrinkle – or wrinkles? I was dressed in cargo pants, t-shirt and tennis shoes – wasn’t that youthful? My hair is dyed the auburn color of my youth. And I certainly don’t feel old enough to be her grandma. Fifty maybe, but certainly not grandma age.

But, alas, I had to face the truth. I am old enough to be her grandma. In fact, I am a grandma.. How did this happen? Only yesterday I was raising children, then seeing them through adolescence and my own mother through old age. You think you’re never going to get there until, suddenly, you are.

My friends are all grandmas and a few are even great-grandmas. Too often now we’re having conversations about what we will do when – the “when” left open to surmise – a stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer, any debilitating disease. In fact, my daughter-in-law is dealing with this at the moment; trying to help her parents make the change from their long-time home to assisted living.

We are all hyper-aware of limitless changes: how often am I forgetting words? did I leave the stove on again? Does this constant pain in my side mean cancer or a heart attack? How will I die? It’s the next phase of our life and the hardest because we know, all of my contemporaries, that it’s the last. Time is no longer limitless.

But knowing time is no longer limitless can also be a good thing. After all, does anybody at any age know how much time they have left? So instead of worrying about “the end,” we can also think about this as a beginning. We know our time is limited so spend ten minutes on the “organ recital,” as a friend calls our tendency to talk about physical ills, and then move on. Learn something new – kayaking, knitting, stain glass design, painting – or join a book group, attend lectures, study geometry (I hate geometry but someone may love it) or start a blog! And that’s my personal inoculation against old age. Keep writing and maybe, just maybe, I’ll stay young forever.

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