How to Dance in the Rain: Another Lesson from My Grandmother

I wake Friday morning. Think: Another day. Another gift.

Full from Thanksgiving, I dress for a jog, or maybe the YMCA. Whim will decide.

A jog would mean fresh air and sunshine and — the big payoff — an expansive ocean view. The gym would mean maybe I pick up some weights, challenge my muscles. That’s important for a woman my age, I hear. I jog toward the gym.

I choose an elliptical at the end of the row, to put some space between me and the other post-indulgence machine-runners. It asks my weight and my age so it can choose how hard I should work. I lie about my age. By a lot. It’s not vanity; this machine doesn’t know how strong 49 can be.

My view from this machine is split: on the right, through the open double doors, I see the elementary school across the street. I am looking directly at the windows of Aaron’s first-grade classroom. I play a trick on myself; I time travel. “Imagine it is 11 years ago,” I tell my brain, “and Aaron is 6 and learning double-digit addition and subtraction, using the newspaper’s box scores to add each quarter of the basketball games.”

The trick makes me nauseous. I can’t sustain it for a second. That little boy is almost 18, graduates high school in months, then will leave for college. Fuck!

It goes so fast.

On the left side, my view is of televisions mounted to the wall. They are there to distract us, keep us pedaling, jogging, climbing, longer. Trying to stay healthy, longer. Trying to make our time here longer. On one TV is a college basketball game, all eyes on the coach. I time travel again, forward this time, and imagine that coach is Aaron, and I am on this same elliptical machine watching him live his dream. I believe in his dream. I smile. Thinking about the future doesn’t make me nauseous like returning to the past did.

The hardest challenge is being right here, now. I once wrote on a rock, “Be here now,” trying to create a reminder to help me stay present. Emmett found my rock and poked fun at my solemnity, writing on the back, “Where? HA! HA!” I found it on my desk. It was so Emmett, I had to laugh. I can take myself too seriously.

At the Y, a man I’ve known all my life walks in. We went to kindergarten together at that school across the street. Then his daughter and Aaron went to kindergarten together there. She’s also on the edge of what’s next. “How’s the college stuff going?” he asks. This can’t be happening, I want to say. They are only five, I want to say. Hell, WE are only five! “Great,” I say.

It goes so fast.

I walk home, it’s time to get ready to leave for the unveiling of my grandmother’s gravestone,. It has been a little more than a year since she died, and her name has been added to join my grandfather’s. We chose Thanksgiving weekend so all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be present.

We gather under a white canopy on a picture perfect fall day in Los Angeles. We have no clergy, we only need ourselves. Our memories. Where to beginThere are so many, my sister says. This is not the end of telling stories, my mom reminds us. My aunt shares, “Some people wait for the storm to end, and some people dance in the rain.” Lilli danced in the rain. My cousins tell of the evil eye she gave to anyone who asked her age, including her kids. We laugh. And on we go.

I have brought my “Be here now”/”Where? HA! HA!” rock to leave on her gravestone. I love how it marries her occasional word of wisdom with her abiding need to crack herself up. I have spent hours telling her stories about things my boys had done, hoping to give her a laugh, perhaps a funny anecdote she could retell herself when she needed something to cheer her. I tell my family the story of the rock, from my intention to Emmett’s rewriting. We crack up. It is perfect.

I try to be present now, to cover my ears to the siren call of future and past. I give thanks for a family that holds these memories with and for me, a family connected by shared love and history, by reminders to dance in the rain, and laugh as hard and as often as we can.

We all put rocks on the gravestone. They are decorated and glittered and painted, some with words evoking Lilli, like LOVE and FAMILY and BROOKLYN. We cover every space, we make that gravestone look like a party, the best party you ever went to. We ask each other what will happen to the rocks, noticing that all of the others around here are bare. There is talk of returning with Gorilla Glue, perhaps adding a new story to the canon.

Hanukah Games — Yiddish Password Rules!

And on the 6th night of Hanukah, the Jews played Yiddish Password.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother tried to teach me Yiddish. Do not be fooled. Although she was a first generation American born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to eastern European Jewish immigrants (known to me as “Big Grandma” and “her husband”), she was a thoroughly modern Lilli. Our first lesson took place in the leather seats of her Porsche 911. “Vus es dus?” she intoned, pointing. “Dus es a stickshift.” That’s as far as the formal training got. I suspected her qualifications at that point.

Fast forward thirty years to Hanukah 2012. My extended family, including the still fabulous Grandma Lilli, gathered in the living room of cousins Liz and Mitch. You’ve heard about my extended clan of cousins – like our camp song-filled Thanksgivings. You’ve heard about my grandmother, too, and the trip we took to Brooklyn to visit her birth city and her younger sister Shirley. Shirley taught her grandchildren the wisdom, “Just because you can leave Brooklyn, doesn’t mean you ought to.”

Our Hanukah parties have a flair all their own. We used to spend hours playing football or softball on the field just outside their home. But calmer heads prevailed, and now a certain gang spends hours around Liz and Mitch’s poker table, betting and bluffing like schizophrenic Martians. Pair of 2s? All in!

Mitch has become the entertainment maven for these events. For many years he printed out lyrics for Adam Sandler’s The Hanukah Song, until the children protested that it was embarrassing to hear their parents singing “and smoke your marijuanica!” After a couple years more, we heeded their complaint and switched to singing the Maccabeats’ Hanukah versions of pop songs like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” (“I throw my latkes in the air sometimes”) and Fun’s “Some Nights” (“StandFour”).

One exceptional year we got to crawl through an elaborate maze built by Mitch and their son Nathan. What had begun as a haunted Halloween maze crafted from cardboard boxes and duct tape in the garage, became the “in search of the first temple” maze for Hanukah, complete with a narrative about Alexander the Great conquering Jerusalem, a battle scene (using skeletons from Halloween), and a Temple Wall the kids could draw on. It was epic, until my niece got left inside and Great uncle Larry had to crawl in to rescue her. Mitch reports that he would have kept the maze but the boxes attracted termites, so that First Temple was also lost forever.

Which brings us to Yiddish Password, this year’s invention, which required far less physical labor than the maze. You may recall the old game show: in teams of two, one person sees a word that their teammate has to guess, and gives their teammate clues to help them guess. The shtick? All the words were Yiddish.

Mitch has generously put his game on YouTube, so do yourself a favor and try it. You will be surprised at how many Yiddish words you know, and how many words you never realized were Yiddish (“stick shift” was not among them). Schlemiel. Putz. Schlock. Schmuck. We’ve got all the best put downs. It’s a great language teacher, better even than Grandma Lilli could have concocted, but best of all is the laughter you’ll generate. Watching my father act out “schlemiel” was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. Meshugenah mishepuchim. Happy playing, and happy Hanukah.

Break(dancing) with Tradition.

It’s the good time of year. I always forget about the finer attributes of this season when I’m in the throes of summer, barefoot and carefree, no homework to supervise or lunchboxes to pack. Maybe it’s just the human survival instinct to be partial to the present, whenever it is. But this is the time of family holidays, connecting the dots of Autumn to Winter, and there is much to revel in.

As soon as the Halloween candy was counted, sorted, traded and consumed, my five-year-old announced, “I hate Thanksgiving.” I looked at him, considering the source of his proclamation. I concluded it has mostly to do with the food: no one offers him “turkey pizza” or “maca-turkey-roni and cheese.” And, he wanted to know, who ruins a pie by filling it with pumpkin?

“What about being together with family?” I asked him. He barely registered a grunt to accompany a gargantuan eyeroll.

Hate it as much as he wants, Thanksgiving still came. And that’s fine by me. I have always loved Thanksgiving. (It helps that I never host it.) That honor still falls to my parents, who make room every year for up to fifty relatives. From Minnesota, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Tarzana (and the occasional cameo from New Jersey and New York), we meet in Los Angeles to sing folk songs and argue politics.

Yes, folks songs and politics. Besides Aunt Barbara’s cranberry apple crumb casserole (to die for), it is what makes my family’s Thanksgiving . . . well, my family’s Thanksgiving.

Things didn’t go as expected this year. Traditions fell by the wayside. Normally, at dinner my mother makes a political speech, drawing cheers from the Democrats and silence from the Republicans. My mother does not realize her speech is an annual rite of our Thanksgiving meal. It’s just what comes out of her mouth, a reflex. I guess that’s the genesis of traditions: they express who we are so deeply, that we can’t help but repeat them.

But things were different this year. Our guitar-strumming song leaders were home in San Francisco, laid out by the flu. No singing! Not one to adapt well to change, I was bereft. It must have been a welcome break to others, because my cousin Mitch from Orange County stepped right into the void, busting out poker chips and cards and instructing the children when to hold, when to fold.

Almost as disconcerting to my sense of order, there was no political speech by my mom! Just a generic “Welcome everyone, and enjoy the food!” How could this be? I was cast adrift. No folk songs, no arguing politics? What was left but to eat dessert?

The family room was crowded with cousins saturated with pies and cakes—boysenberry, pumpkin, apple, chocolate babka and amaretto. A smallish dent had been made in the fruit salad, by those of us wishing to balance the scales of guilty pleasures. The twenty-ninth football game of the day played on the big screen television—“Is this the same game that was on nine hours ago?” my mother asked my father.

Then it happened. One of the kids said, “Let’s play ‘So You Think You Can Dance!’” It’s our newest game at home, where my husband and I have been inculcating our “dance-is-for-girls” sons into the cult of a dance competition television show. The game is simple: turn on some music, dance a silly solo, and the panel of “judges” declares, “You’ve made the Top Twenty!” and the dancer goes wild.

There in the family room, with the big-screen football game as backdrop, the dancing began. We picked the most likely to break the ice and began to chant his name, “Christopher! Christopher!” After a few moments, he stood up, took his place on the floor, and Thanksgiving will never be the same.

Within seconds everyone was laughing as he leaped, stretched, and grabbed his body a la Michael Jackson. Immediately after him came my father, who has for years maintained that he is a natural born tap dancer and ballerina. His performance demonstrated that passion for sports and love of dance are not exclusive qualities. Over the course of the next hour, our five-year-old son danced several solos, our eight-year-old son (still with a broken foot) spun on the floor in his version of break-dancing. Their grandfather came back out for a duet with his granddaughter, lifts, spins and all. Their grandmother got up for her turn, and even cousin Joe from Minnesota felt the spirit of dance take him over. All the kids spun and jumped and wiggled together in a grand finale. But my favorite part? My children watching their mother, grandfather and great-grandmother doing a kickline to Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” If that’s not a new tradition to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.