‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.

Our Hearts Are Full, And They Are Heavy

The baggage claim at Oakland Airport hums with quiet anticipation this seemingly uneventful morning. A small group of parents chats casually as they cross and uncross their arms. Every now and then we glance toward the escalator. We’re waiting.

Waiting for the flight to land. For the luggage to come out. For the kids to sail down the escalator, with backpacks and smiles and stories of new friends, loud songs and whose team won the color war. From the moment they left for Camp Ramah weeks before, we have looked forward to this day.

My heart beats a little faster. Nervous. I am not ready.

It’s been a wonderfully long, hot and adventurous summer and this day, which brings the kids and endless loads of laundry home from camp (will the socks ever be white again?), signals the almost-end. Emails bursting with back-to-school info already flood my inbox. She needs a new backpack, he has outgrown his shorts, and I wish we had all read more books.

I am not ready for school to start, I am not ready for summer to be over, and I am not ready for my daughter and two sons to come down that escalator. I am not ready to pierce their happy, anticipating balloon of home-at-last with my sharp and distressing news.

The hum at the foot of the escalator swells to applause and cheers. They’re home! My now sixth-grader leads the way, his feet barely touching the ground. He must have leapt over that short flight of moving steps, because suddenly he is in my arms, all bony elbows and shoulders, and I notice I don’t have to bend down to hug him.

“Hi Mom. I had a great time! What’s for dinner?”

I laugh and blink back tears of relief and delight, burying my news with its jagged edge under layers of bubbling chatter about his overnight trip and new Hebrew words and which day was the best day.

They have two big duffel bags each, and I wonder if they have come home with more than they left with.

Outside, I am distracted by a plane taking off loudly above us. When I look back down, everything has changed. The bags are scattered on the ground, lifeless and forgotten. Their tears and grief-stricken faces tell me everything.

“He was so old, guys,” I hear my husband say over and over, as he holds them close.

It’s been a week since our beloved dachshund, Pretzel, passed away. These three who were at camp have just heard the news. The air rushes out of their homecoming happiness with an audible pop.

He died an old and happy dog, but none of us were ready.

They are quiet on the drive home, each lost in memories of the silly little dog who was part of their whole lives. Their teen and tween imaginations did not allow for the possibility that their last goodbye was the last goodbye. They could not imagine he wouldn’t welcome them home with licks and a frantically wagging tail. That he wouldn’t sniff their dirty socks for clues of their adventures or curl himself into his signature pretzel right next to them on the couch.

I knew which one would feel this the most. He flew into my arms at the airport and now his mournful cries pull my heart apart, and I know his is in pieces, too. His eyes shine deep and brown with bewildered tears of hurt and confusion. He sobs on and off all day, caught between the happiness of home and the devastating finality of loss.

I want to help him hurt less. I haltingly assure him things I don’t know for sure: that Pretzel wasn’t in pain when he died, that his last thoughts were of his human brothers and sister, that he is so happy we are all together again at the end of this wandering summer. I want to believe these things myself.

But all I really know for sure is that we were not ready, and it is an unavoidable truth that hello and goodbye are always intertwined.

Pretzel: 3/16/2000 - 8/3/2001

Pretzel: 3/16/2000 – 8/3/2015

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in the J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “What I’ll miss about summer…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Lisa (this week’s sentence thinker-upper) of Flingo and Allie of The Latchkey Mom.

How To Deal With Brothers

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Deep in the heart of our noisy family is a pair of green-gray eyes that miss nothing, a smattering of freckles, and a strong, creative voice that can usually be heard belting out Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” or giggling loudly with her friends on FaceTime. A self-proclaimed artist, she loves to draw and write, and watch Rosanna Pansino’s “Nerdy Nummies” cooking show on YouTube.

Sage is the third of four kids, surrounded by brothers. She keeps the door of her bedroom firmly closed to all dogs and boys, except her dad, and when I peek inside I find her sitting at her small desk in the corner with a pen in her hand, her long, dark hair hiding her earnest concentration. I wish she’d tie her hair back.

Her drawings, poems and stories are full of the sugar and spice of 9-year-old girls, often with a small twist or a quietly shrewd observation that reminds me just how much those eyes are noticing.

At the end of the school year, when she was still 8, she presented me with a “How To” manual created as a class assignment:

How To Deal With Brothers by Sage Gilbert

Do you have a brother? Do you want to know how to deal with him? High School, Middle School, Little, Older, College, Baby? Older or little married or not married? Twin? Then this book is for you! I can help you handle difficult times with your brother.

Baby Brothers

With baby brothers, you want to help your mom, and play with them as much as you can because soon they won’t want to play with you.

Little Brothers

If they go to the same school as you, then it is okay to talk to them. Little brothers love you, but sometimes they are mean to you.

Twin Brothers

Twin brothers try and want to mock you. So if they do, ignore them. They also try to annoy you.

Older Brothers

If you go to the same school as your older brother do NOT talk to him! This is for all kinds of older brothers.

All Brothers

This is for all kinds of brothers. Turn on your audio so that you can record what they say to you. Then you can show your parents.

Middle School Brothers

You want Middle school brothers to notice you so annoy them. If that doesn’t work then hide from them or tap them repeatedly.

High School Brothers

High school brothers are normally very grumpy, so ignore them. You want high school brothers to notice you, so annoy them. And if that doesn’t work then tap them repeatedly or hide from them.

College Brothers

For College brothers, you barely ever see them, so my advice is to have good times with him while it lasts.

These guidelines have been published with permission of the author.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “I Wish I Knew…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Mardra of Mardra Sikora and Jill from Ripped Jeans & Bifocals.

Growing Up Gilbert

FullSizeRenderThere is a redwood tree in the back yard and a few hydrangea bushes in the front. And behind the black front door at number 58:

“Ssshhh,” I whispered as I tiptoed passed their bedroom. They ignored me.

“Boys. BOYS! Sssshhhhhh.” My teeth hurt I clenched them so hard. “The baby’s sleeping,” I rasped at them. “SSHHHHH.”

The forceful sibilance twisted its way around the back of my neck in a painful spasm. My neck was stretched so taut, I thought my head would snap right off any minute. It would snap off and roll into the room and land in the space between them. They would look at my scary flashing eyes and the ugly, angry scowl on my face and kick my head straight through the window, shattering glass and decibels all over the floor.

They would not, could not hear me.

The doorbell rang. The dog barked. The baby wailed. So did I.

“Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!!” I think I yelled it. My throat hurt so I must have yelled it.

I don’t remember who was at the door, but the dog was still barking and the baby was still crying and, “Juice, Mommy, juice!” She had tried to do it herself and there was apple juice on the floor and in her shoes and dripping onto the cucumbers in the fridge.

The tension marched up and down my spine like an army of angry red ants, gathering in a pinching, hurting cluster along my shoulders. My blood boiled with unexplained rage, or rather perfectly explained rage: all I needed were two hours of quiet so the baby could nap. Two hours. In a 12-hour day packed full of fun and activity and “Dora the Explorer” and crackers and a gazillion sippy cups full of apple juice, were two calm, drama-free hours too much to ask for? Obviously yes, if you’re three, six and eight. And then the dog peed on the rug. GODDAMMIT.

***

The doors are all closed. The dog snoozes in the corner, too old and worn out to hear the doorbell anymore. I hear the TV turn on downstairs and someone is playing the drums in the boys’ room.

From the quiet of my bedroom I look out the window at the giant redwood tree, the green fronds of its branches reaching up to the baby blue sky. Like my own babies reached up to me from their cribs after naps, arms outstretched.

It has grown in the last nine years, this majestic tree.

I didn’t notice while I was nursing and changing diapers and shushing infants to sleep and siblings to keep quiet. While I was overwhelmed by mothering and what felt like too many little children eating and yelling and playing and sleeping. And growing. In this house. Number 58. Behind the black front door, with the big redwood tree in the back yard and a few hydrangea bushes in the front.

I didn’t notice.

***

I didn’t notice the rage, that bubbling, boiling rage, slowly reduce to a gentle simmer. To a soft heat that flared only occasionally when a now tween-age boy talked back or rolled his eyes, when an inquisitive little girl experimented with lipstick not only on her own person but on every bathroom surface, or when an impulsive toddler found a marker in the minivan and decorated the car seats.

As the redwood tree moved ever upward in silence, I didn’t quite notice that the stretches of peace and quiet lasted longer and longer. They could write their own names and fix their own snacks, shoot baskets outside and read to each other. Slowly, imperceptibly, over nine tumultuous years Mommy became Mom, and the fiery cauldron of overwhelming and angry fatigue quietly ceased bubbling on a burner in my belly… and then there were no more babies behind the black front door at number 58.

***

No more babies, but a teen, a couple of tweens and a little boy who stares up in awe. “Is this a redwood tree?”

This summer we say goodbye to the house we’ve grown up in. I stare out my bedroom window and listen. There is no rage rushing through my veins, no sssshhhh hissing from my lips. There are muted voices gently bouncing off the walls and an old dog snores softly in the corner.

And there is a very tall redwood tree stretching silently up to the sky in the back.

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This post is dedicated to my friend Matt who first coined the phrase “Growing up Gilbert” about nine years ago, while sitting at our dining room table behind the black front door at number 58. This summer we say goodbye to number 58, but not to our memories and all that we have loved and learned in this house.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “This summer…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Lisa from The Meaning of Me, Reta from Calculated Chaos, and Allison from The Latchkey Mom.