‘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.

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.

Where’s The Pot Of Gold At The End Of This Rainbow?

potgold

Artwork by Jed, age 5

The house is finally, blessedly, quiet. The sound of my fingers tapping these letters out on the keyboard is the only one I hear. And when I stop doing that, there’s a faint, grumbly snoring floating on the air next to me. That’s Pretzel the dachshund, curled tight in his old doggie dreams.

The house is so quiet, so still, so peaceful because the kids are in bed. I kissed them all before they fell asleep (not the teenager, he doesn’t like to be kissed… yet). Good night, sleep tight, love you. The TV is silent. The kitchen is closed. And my husband is out of town.

Again.

He travels a lot. Every week. Usually for two or three days, but lately it’s been for longer. Maybe five. Maybe all week. Usually to Texas or Florida, but lately it’s been further. The Philippines. Or Bangladesh.

Usually I’m fine with it. He’s always traveled, for as long as we’ve been married and even longer than that. I’m used to it, and so are the kids and Pretzel the dachshund. Some days the kids forget he’s gone. “Can Dad take us to school?” they chirp, wild hope in their bright morning eyes. He’s been gone two days.

We’re used to it. We’re fine with it. We get on with it. Usually. But lately, it’s too long. It’s too far. It doesn’t feel right.

We’re a seven-colored rainbow when we’re all together: mom, dad, four kids, one dog. The violet and the red don’t always get along, the green and the yellow hide the remote from each other, and the orange needs to be taken out every hour. It’s not a gentle arc of harmonious hue, when we’re all together, but the colors do blend more happily when all seven are present.

It feels long and too far away this time, it’s true, but there are a few shiny positives to one less color in the house:

Less discipline! This is not necessarily a positive for me, but I’m sure the kids appreciate one less parent hearing them argue, threaten and hurt each other. Which means a fifty percent reduced chance of being yelled at or banished. Favorable odds for them I’d say.

Breakfast for dinner, breakfast for dinner, breakfast for dinner! Cereal, toast, eggs any style, even bagels and cream cheese. My husband actually does like a bowl of cereal at night every once in a while… But the kids don’t notice that the breakfast they ate for breakfast is being served again for dinner, every night. As long as they’re eating something, they’re happy. And as long as they’re eating, and are one step closer to bed, I’m happy!

Schlepping multiple kids to different places all at the same time is hard enough when there are two licensed drivers around, and damn near impossible when it’s just me. But here’s where my heart warmed to see one big brother help one little brother at the baseball photos today, because I couldn’t do that and drive to the karate tournament. Sibling assistance is a terrific way to combat sibling rivalry!

The silence. It’s truly golden. Once those kids are in bed and it’s just the dog gently snoring next to me, I do appreciate the few hours of complete solitude. If only it didn’t drag on for days.

So the rainbow is a little short on color right now, and sometimes it even feels a little washed out with one shade missing. But there are moments in the day when it shines pretty bright… and of course the pot of gold at the end is that we’re almost halfway through that long week, and soon he’ll be home. With presents.

This post is a sequel to Please Switch to Airplane Mode, written last year around this time. It’s interesting to see how things change. And stay the same!

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “When it comes to St Patrick’s Day…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Kelly from Just Typikel and Lisa from The Meaning of Me.

Who’s Your Favorite?

4Kids

The road we’re driving on is twisty and quiet. It’s early Saturday morning and we pass a few energetic cyclists bravely making their way up. The still-winter but feels-like-summer sun glints off the faint dust on the windscreen, obscuring my vision every now and then. I pay close attention to the road and my distance from the cyclists, almost completely oblivious to the conversation behind me. When I realize Maroon 5 is playing on the radio, I quickly change it. He’s still cute, but Adam Levine’s whiny singing voice is not welcome at this tranquil hour. Or any hour.

“You’re the favorite,” I hear on the periphery of a sharp hairpin bend. I don’t know who says it. And I don’t know whom they’re saying it to. The details aren’t important to me. It’s an ongoing conversation in our house that I don’t engage in: who’s the favorite. My favorite, they mean. They share their thoughts on this delicate subject openly with each other, all with pretty accurate reasons why they must be right. According to them, my favorite is never the one leading the discussion.

The Urban Dictionary definition of favorite is “most wanted or desired.”

Yes. You’re right. You are my favorite. And, in order of oldest to youngest because that’s the order each of you claimed my whole heart four times over, here’s why:

Daniel, you are my favorite because you got my heart first. Because you are easy-going and independent and responsible. Because you love steak but hate chocolate, and ask every Friday night if the challah is homemade. Because you take school seriously, and have a dry, witty sense of humor, and you don’t mind when your little brother plays with your ears. Because your denim blue eyes are usually calm and steady, but this one time when Dad and I yelled at each other from opposite sides of a cold, hard London street they burned bright with tears and confusion. They looked straight into mine and your broken teenage voice poked holes of relief in my anger. “When you guys walk off in different directions, away from us, we don’t know who to follow.” You spoke for all four of you.

Zak, you’re my favorite. You are the most like me: passionate, sensitive, social and too-easily frustrated. You stomp your feet hard enough for both of us when we don’t get our own way. And you’re you: the heart of our family. One time, you tumbled into the car with difficult bits of the school day stuck to your backpack and your cheeks. With angry sadness swimming in your liquid brown eyes, the first question you asked was how my day was. You are compassion and honesty and fun and courage every time you butt-board down the street, do your Math with a pencil that is difficult to grasp, or use your parkour moves to navigate the wet grass wearing only socks.

Sage, you’re my favorite because I got to name you Sage, a name I have loved forever. And you are wise and fresh and calm and helpful, with your sage-colored eyes and glittering of freckles that twinkle when you laugh. You are my favorite because you love to read and write and make up stories, just like I do, and you also run wild with your brothers. One time, a girl you thought was your friend called you a “demon” and your green eyes deepened to gray as you tried to understand why. You’re my favorite because even though I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day, you do and you helped your little brother do this:

SageValentine

Jed, you were the last to hold my whole heart and you will always be my favorite because you will always be my baby. Even when you’re a dad! Because you are strong and fearless and love to hug me, and you drink tea every day. This one time, we went for a hike and you grabbed a stick and led the way. “For freedom,” you yelled as we all followed in a line behind you, your little body barely visible in its white T-shirt as you charged forward along the trail. You are my favorite because you spray deodorant all over your five-year-old self every morning, and then ask me to tie your shoes.

The drive is over and I pull into a spot. I kill the engine and half turn in my seat to look at them. Echoes of “favorite” bounce in the space between us, like a buoyant balloon expected to pop any second.

“You’re all my favorite,” I say. Jed smiles, happy to hear the answer.

“Sure Mom, you always say that,” says Zak.

“Yeah, Mom, that’s the right thing to say,” noticeable, good-natured sarcasm in Daniel’s voice.

I look at Sage. She nods solemnly.

Yep. I do always say that. It is the right thing to say. Because it’s true.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday Post, inspired by the prompt, “This one time…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Jennifer from Dancing in the Rain.

One Halloween I Went to See a Play on Broadway

One Halloween I bought pumpkins, but didn’t help carve them. The kids asked their dad.

One Halloween I didn’t discuss, plan or purchase costumes. They made, borrowed and raided the dress-up box. Without me.

One Halloween I didn’t volunteer to buy treats for the class party.

One Halloween I didn’t go to the parade at school.

One Halloween I refused to buy candy, and told them to keep the house dark.

One Halloween I arranged for them all to go trick-or-treating with others.

I hate Halloween. I dread it. As soon as summer is over and barely a week into the new school year, it looms. Mentions of costumes, parties, candy, pumpkins creep into conversation around the third week of August when I’m mourning the fading glow of a perfect summer, when the leaves are still green and clinging to their branches, when I’m seven after-school activities deep into my four color-coded desk calendar and I can’t get my head around tomorrow, never mind Halloween that’s still two months away.

I loved it the first few years – when there were two kids to dress up, and we could go trick-or-treating early because they went to bed at 7pm. When they were too young to know about carving pumpkins. We would marvel at the neighbors’ jack o’lanterns, and scary Halloween decorations, collect candy from five houses, and head home. It was low-maintenance, easy, something we watched more than did.

But now, ten years and an additional two kids later, it’s an all-consuming operation. It’s too many costumes, and too much candy, and she has plans with those third-graders, and he is going to that part of town, and the teenager doesn’t want to trick-or-treat but does want to go to a sleepover. Not-so-secretly, I hope it rains.

Yes. I’m the Halloween Scrooge. Not Boo… Bah!

The kids have quickly learnt not to engage too enthusiastically with me about it. To figure most of it out for themselves. They gently suggest a good time to go to the pumpkin patch, because it’s fall, Mom, and the pumpkins look good on the porch. They each pick out a perfect-to-carve pumpkin, and even I choose two for their weird shapes and colors. They creatively brainstorm costumes amongst themselves, and resourcefully borrow and make. We have Batman, a Green M&M and a Zak-in-the-Box this year. I am proud of his originality and creativity – all on his own!

zakinbox

One Halloween I left my kids with the babysitter for four days, and flew east with my husband.

We visited the Washington Monument and saw the President leaving town in a convoy of low-flying helicopters. We walked the streets of Manhattan in the rain, and took fun photos outside the gleaming Plaza hotel, hundreds of windows twinkling in the twilight.

Plaza

One Halloween we rode the subway downtown and then uptown with a mummy, Homer Simpson, kids wearing plaid shirts, torn jeans and blood-like paint (were they murderous hipsters?) and a guy in the most authentic costume ever, except he really is a Fedex delivery person.

One Halloween I sat in a 100-year-old theater on Broadway, and couldn’t wait for the play to start. The set was beautiful: a grand, old house dappled in afternoon sunlight. James Earl Jones’ comic timing was gravelly pitch-perfect and the actress who played the ballet-obsessed sister was my favorite.

broadway

The Trick-or-Treaters back home had fun too! The Green M&M took her small cousin by the hand and showed her how it’s done. Batman all in black got together with his BFF the white ninja and the Dyna Duo hit the ground running, while Zak-in-the-Box bounced his way around the neighborhood. I haven’t heard from the teenager yet but he liked the photo of Rockefeller Plaza I posted on Instagram, so I take that as a sign of life and greeting.

One Halloween I surprised myself. I missed it.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt “One Halloween, I…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Dana from Kiss My List and April from 100lb Countdown.