Month: March 2015

A Homage To My Mother

In many ways, my mother (Sophie) was amazing. But she was also a very difficult woman and our relationship throughout the years was often fraught with tension and disagreements. One of my proudest assertions has always been how different I am from her. And yet, as I grow older, I realize that we also have a lot in common.

Sophie was born in a small village in Austria. Pogroms against the Jews were common and her parents decided to seek a better life in America. Her father came first. He traveled to Akron, Ohio to find a job and establish a home for his wife and two children. When she was four years old, Sophie, her mother and brother made the same trip across the ocean and joined him. Over the next few years, more babies were born in Ohio; twins who lived only a short time and another brother (Abner – a future story) who survived.

Sophie was close to her father who, she remembered, always greeted her with exuberance and love. They shared outgoing personalities and heads of thick curly red hair. When her father developed schizophrenia, he was hospitalized and my grandmother tried unsuccessfully to support the family as a seamstress. Finally, the Jewish community placed Sophie and her two brothers in an orphanage for Jewish children in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was better than most orphanages at that time: plenty of food, access to education, and loving caretakers. But Sophie had been wrenched away from both her mother and father and she told me many times how she cried for days in the orphanage. She never really recovered from this abandonment and it impacted the rest of her life.

But she also had fond memories of the orphanage. Many of the children she grew up with became lifelong friends with whom she had regular contact. She brought songs from the orphanage into my childhood. I especially remember one; a poignant letter from a child telling her mother how much she loves her, how much she misses her and yet assuring her mother that she’s okay. She always spoke affectionately of the men and women who took care of the children. Her older brother, Mac, remembered getting enough to eat for the first time.

Sophie left the orphanage at age 16 and, for a time, lived with her mother and her new husband. This arrangement proved to be a disaster. Not only had Sophie left her immigrant origins behind, but she had become independent and had lost the relationship with her mother. After a short time, she moved in with a friend and began working as a secretary. She was attractive but chubby, and very self-conscious about her weight. Marriage eluded her during a time when girls married young.

When she was 24, my father (Paul) and grandmother traveled by bus and train from Virginia, Minnesota to Cleveland, Ohio for a visit with relatives. In truth, this was a trip to find a suitable Jewish wife for my father, a shy, rather frail young man who was managing the family grocery store for his widowed mother. Sophie and Paul met at a party, dated a few more times and corresponded for several months before my father proposed. After they were married, Sophie moved to Virginia, Minnesota, a small iron ore mining town about 200 miles north of Minneapolis.

Life in Virginia was very difficult for Sophie. She had come from a large city and lived primarily in a Jewish community. Virginia was small – 17,000 population – and the Jewish community was very small – about 50 families. The first year after their marriage, the couple lived with Paul’s mother, Jenny, in the apartment above the grocery store, Ostrov’s Grocery. This situation put a strain on the marriage and, at one point, Sophie packed her bags and made plans to go back to Ohio. Paul talked her out of going and soon after, the couple moved into their own home, a small duplex that Jenny owned and rented out.

In 1937, Paul and Sophie welcomed a baby boy and in 1940, a girl (yours truly). Sophie had an enormous amount of energy and, I believe, staying home with children was difficult. She also had a volatile temper that ranged from loving attention to sudden outbursts of anger that could go on for days. After screaming for a few hours, Sophie would disappear in her bedroom and would not reappear for at least 24 hours. Paul would coax her out, slowly talking her out of her mood and clearing the path for her reappearance. When she did come out, we would all pretend that nothing had ever happened.

My grandmother died when I was eleven and our family moved into her home above the store. This provided Sophie with an outlet; she worked in the store from morning until evening, stalking shelves, ordering, waiting on customers and (too often) finding fault with employees or having disagreements with salesmen and customers. Paul always stepped in, apologizing for his wife, smoothing the waters and allowing Sophie to return to work. But the store gave Sophie a purpose and a job and defined her life.

As a teenager, I learned to stay out of her way. We clashed, as teenagers and parents often do, over a myriad of things. And as a typical teenager, I rejected everything that was important to her. She desperately wanted to be accepted; by her husband, her children and, primarily her contemporaries. She worried about dressing appropriately, cooking the right dishes and establishing an acceptable home. But underneath all of this, was the child crying out for acceptance, the child who had lost her father, been taken from her mother and placed in an orphanage.

When I married and was raising three children, I was determined not to make the same mistakes my mother had made. And, of course, in my haste to do the opposite, I made my own mistakes. It took years of work to understand my mother, to forgive her and to love her for who she truly is; and to recognize the wonderful things we do have in common.

Sophie worked hard to fit in, which included dressing appropriately. Every year before school started, she would take me to a Duluth department store to get clothes for the coming year. My response was usually to sit in the changing room, arms crossed, unwilling to try anything on. And yet, today, I love clothes and I love shopping! I like to try new fashions and when I look in my closet, I see my mother’s influence.

Sophie always stayed fit; walking and exercising. As she got older, she worked even harder at staying in shape. The last ten years of her life, she even led an exercise class at the condominium where she lived. When I visited one time, I joined the class and I still remember the look of pride on her face when she saw me in the back row.

And now that I’m a senior citizen, I realize how important exercise is and also how much I enjoy it. I understand how quickly our bodies deteriorate when we are not active and how easy it would be to slide into infirmity once we fail to stay in shape.

Sophie liked politics and always had an opinion. A lifelong democrat, Sophie once took a bus to Miami to hear Hillary Clinton speak. I echo her sentiments and still remember the thrill of driving to Tampa to hear the fledgling presidential candidate, Barak Obama, speak. And, unfortunately, I also have strong opinions that I seldom keep to myself.

Sophie took great pride in her cooking. But, before her marriage, she had no experience in the kitchen. She often told the story of how she picked up the ingredients for a recipe from the store, carried them upstairs and tried to make the dish; but most of the time she ended up carrying the failed product (hidden in bags) back downstairs to the large garbage cans in the back of the store. Then she would pick up the ingredients again and start over.

Ultimately, Sophie became a superb cook who could produce all the Jewish delicacies and almost anything else. She often welcomed company to her table and there was always too much food. Although I am cooking much less these days (I’m fortunate to have a husband who enjoys cooking), I enjoy spending time with friends and having them for dinner. I especially enjoy celebrating the holidays with friends and family and cooking the traditional foods. And I always make too much.

And last, but not least, when I look in the mirror these days, I see my mother. At first, this was disconcerting and I would ask friends who knew her if they thought I looked like her. Occasionally a relative would comment on our likeness. Last summer when we were in Virginia, a man who had known her walked up to me. “Your mother was a beautiful woman,” he said. “And you look a lot like her.”

What’s not to like about a comment like that? And what’s not to like about a woman who not only survived a tumultuous childhood but built a full life for herself, her husband and children without having any background to base it on. I embrace the things we have in common and enjoy many of the activities that she also loved. She was, as the rabbi who officiated at her funeral said, a survivor. And my only regret is that I have not truly understood this until many years after her death.

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Sports and the Klutz

I’m a klutz.

When I was five, my mother ignored the obvious and enrolled me in a dance class with other girls my age. My lasting memories of that dance class are the teacher yelling at me because I was always out of step and a photo I still have of our class dressed in matching frilly skirts that was taken at a recital. I’m in the back row and I was the shortest girl in the class.

In grade school, gym was a nightmare. When a classmate picked students for a team sport, I was always the last one standing. Occasionally, a good friend was the team leader and she would chose me early on, even when she knew I would doom the team to last place.

In high school, my friends prodded me to join GAA, the Girls Athletic Association. I was a member of a girl’s basketball team and I don’t remember how we did but I’d imagine we didn’t win many games. These were the days when each girl covered a small designated area on the floor so we didn’t move all over the court. I’m guessing this kept me from doing too much damage.

As time went by, I went to great lengths to avoid team sports. At one point, I attempted golf but gave up when other golfers yelled at me because I was taking too long to complete each hole. On one course, I broke a record for the highest number of strokes for nine holes. It wasn’t long before I quit counting. Finally, I quit golf.

When my daughter was playing on a softball team in junior high, someone organized a mother/daughter game. I got a call from one of the mothers asking me if I wanted to play on the mothers team, and I said absolutely not; I was a disaster on any team. Our family attended the game and about half way through, it was obvious the mothers were drubbing the kids. The woman who had called me came over and asked if I had been telling the truth about my skills. She said the moms didn’t want to beat the girls but they didn’t want to throw the game on purpose.

Finally – I had been called to a higher purpose! The moms put me on first base and my total inability to catch or hit any ball made it possible for the girls to regain a solid lead over their mothers in only two innings.

The strange thing about this klutzy malady is that I love physical activity when I’m on my own. I like long walks and hiking down forest trails. I love to swim and sometimes, I feel more comfortable in the water than out of it. Kayaking is one of my favorite activities and I’d ride a bike for hours if I wasn’t afraid of falling.

With this in mind, I went on a search for an exercise class that would fit my needs. First, I tried yoga. It only took a few classes before I realized my body was never going to bend in the poses the yoga teacher was demonstrating. The classes seemed endless and my thoughts often wandered off in other directions.

Next came Tai chi and the results were pretty much the same. We were standing and moving a little more but it was still too slow for me. The poses felt unnatural and I was afraid I would break out laughing when the class went into full grunt mode.

I moved on to Zumba, which was definitely fast-paced and I enjoyed moving to music. But it wasn’t long before my knees started to object. The Zumba routines included a lot of jumping and stair-stepping which was definitely hard on older joints. I tried to stay on the ground but it was difficult to do something different than the rest of the class.

At one point, I decided to work with a personal trainer. At first, it was great. I met with him a couple of times a week and he put me through a series of exercises. Gradually, he added more and pushed me to work harder. I loved having someone to guide me. Then my bad knee started aching, my back felt like it had been stepped on and I couldn’t turn my neck. When I dropped a weight on my toe, I decided I had had enough. I would stick to walking and swimming.

Soon after we moved to Florida, I found an exercise class I had never heard of before. It was called NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action). The first class was completely different than anything I had ever tried before. The music was fun, the instructor led us in simple dance steps that even I could follow, and the routines repeated enough for me to learn them. The instructor explained that each person in the class should always do what felt best for her body. She demonstrated the different levels of kicking or bending and cautioned each of us to listen to our bodies. Half way through the hour, she told us to do our own dance; to follow the music and move in whatever way we felt our bodies needed.

I glanced at the other women in class and they were each dancing their way; stepping, twirling, bending – some fast, some slow, some simply waving their arms – most with eyes closed. Nobody cared what anyone else was doing and nobody was passing judgment on someone else’s ability. We spent the last ten minutes of the class on the floor on mats doing “Floor Play” which was, once again, moving our arms and legs, our core, any way that felt good to us.

I soon learned that NIA blends martial arts, Yoga, dance and aerobics. Another words, all the fitness routines I’d already tried and rejected blended into a fun, non-impact dance routine! I knew, without doubt, I had found my exercise home.

For me, NIA transforms that five-year old klutz into a graceful ballerina; the grade-school team failure into a successful athlete and the exercise-adverse adult into a passionate NIA disciple! I no longer feel klutzy- although I still avoid team sports (some things never change!). So, for today, for this moment in time, I plan to keep dancing with NIA!

A giant note of thanks to my intrepid NIA instructor: Gail Condrick