The Joy of Cooking with ChopChop by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I don’t cook very well. My family is bored with my rotating repertoire of chicken, turkey meatballs, and pasta with kosher turkey sausage.

I did have a creative period where I made chicken fajitas and a pretty decent meatloaf. But those didn’t last long. My excuse is that I’m always short on time, but the truth is that cooking intimidates me. I’m from the Birds Eye generation where convenience trumped fresh food and cooking itself.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a food writer such as Sally Sampson. Sampson is the founder and publisher of a nonprofit organization that publishes a delightful magazine for children called Chop- Chop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families. Sampson not only finds the fun aspects of cooking; she demystifies it and elevates simple cooking to its own art form.

Sampson is no stranger to creating recipes. With 22 cookbooks under her belt, she decided the time was right to combine her expertise with her burgeoning interest in health care and preventing obesity in children. In a recent interview at ChopChop’s offices in Watertown, Sampson noted that ChopChop Magazine and her new cookbook “ChopChop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family” allows her “to address obesity by having doctors prescribe cooking at well-child visits. And I’m using my skills [as a food writer and healthy-eating advocate] in the magazine recipes and the new cookbook.”

 

ChopChop Magazine, a quarterly publication, is distributed in 10,000 pediatricians’ offices in all 50 states. The magazine is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviews every issue. Since its launch in 2010, ChopChop boasts a circulation of 500,000 with 20 percent of the issues printed in Spanish. The magazine is funded primarily through sponsors such as the New Balance Foundation, and Children’s Hospitals in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. ChopChop recently garnered the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world when it was named “Publication of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.

ChopChop

Sally Sampson’s new cookbook is an extension of her nonprofit’s popular magazine.
No doubt ChopChop’s appealing design and clear language, along with bright colors and gorgeous food photography, were factors in wining the prestigious Beard Foundation award. But there is something more at stake here. It’s the recipes themselves that are innovative. Although the magazine and new cookbook are aimed at children ages 5 to 12, the recipes are surprisingly sophisticated without being complicated.

“I think of kids as inexperienced cooks,” said Sampson. “We cover the basics in our recipes, such as what kind of kitchen utensils they’ll need and whether or not making a recipe requires adult supervision. There are not too many steps in these recipes and not too many ingredients. And I don’t cook anything that goes into two pans.”

Sampson divides her recipes into three categories: the basics; the fancy version of the basics, in which kids can bump up a recipe with spices or herbs; and the expert level, which requires things such as kneading dough or using a blender. Adults need to be on hand to help with most recipes, which makes the ChopChop way of preparing food an intergenerational experience. Bear in mind there are no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. To prove how easy yet still elegant food preparation can be, Sampson taught me to make a basic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, vinegar and mustard. I drizzled it onto a simple spinach salad that I tossed with almonds and raspberries. After my family got over their initial surprise, they were impressed. Preparation time was less than 10 minutes. We haven’t had store-bought salad dressing since then.

“Eating well is cooking well,” noted Sampson. “If you can’t cook, then you don’t have a really clean diet. [ChopChop’s] No. 1 criterion is that it tastes good. We don’t want to demonize sugar and fat, but reduce them while being flavorful. We’re competing with fast food and takeout, which is causing an uptick in the obesity rates.”

Sampson’s solution to the dinner dilemma is straightforward too. She said the key lies in “a well-stocked pantry. Beans, pasta, rice and any other staples you can think of. Have olive oil on hand and a couple of vinegars, spices, onions, garlic, carrots, lemons and lime. Tofu is also good to have in the house. If you eat meat, have chicken breasts in the freezer. You can make an amazing salad with basic ingredients.”

As for me, I recently spiced up my pasta dishes by making Sampson’s “World’s Quickest Tomato Sauce.” Foregoing store-bought sauce, I also dispensed with sugar and, in some cases, fillers and preservatives.

As Sampson noted, “Cooking can seem out of reach for some people. We want to focus on the joy of cooking for kids and adults alike.” She’s helped me to do just that.

Parenting Without Borders by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I knew it!

Even Dr. Ferber, the sleep guru of “just let the baby cry it out” fame (or notoriety, depending in your point of view), concedes that there are many viable ways for a baby to sleep. This is just one of the many wonderful nuggets of information that Cambridge writer Christine Gross-Loh brings to the table in her new book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.

 

 parentingwithoutbordersIt’s tempting to call Gross-Loh’s book a reference guide, but that would be giving short shrift to this wise and entertaining compendium on child-rearing. Her goal is simple: as borders blur and the world gets smaller, effective parenting can be more easily shared around the world. Gross-Loh delves into many traditions for advice on everything from co-sleeping, eating habits and guerilla marketing to our kids.

 

 But back to Dr. Ferber for a moment. Ken and I had our own borders when it came to parenting Anna as a baby. Aside from the fact that we had no idea what we were doing, in a word the thing we craved most was sleep. But we had very different ideas of how exactly we would get Anna to sleep and tackle our own sleep deprivation. I was brought up by a Latina mother, and by extension much of my mother’s family. Though we didn’t call it that, co-sleeping was not out of the norm. If I had a bad dream I crawled into bed with my mother. My American father was not so thrilled about my visits and usually ended up switching beds with me.

And so these cultural differences continued in my marriage. Gross-Loh happens to be a proponent of co-sleeping. She and her husband and their four children have ended up in various groupings throughout the night. She also investigated co-sleeping in countries like Japan and Sweden where the family bed is a way of life. When Anna was born we lived in Baltimore where co-sleeping was not exactly in vogue. I swear I gave “Ferberizing” a decent try, but I just couldn’t do it. My very patient husband had to finally accept that Anna would be hanging out with us occasionally.

Throughout the book Gross-Loh draws upon her experiences from living abroad in Japan as well as her Korean heritage and her husband’s Jewish upbringing. I thought her section on children and eating was of particular interest. Like many parents, Gross-Loh is concerned with the growing rates of childhood obesity in the United States. She investigates American eating habits in search of a solution to curb our children’s growing waistlines. She finds despite a diet rich in fats and meats, French children are generally healthy and slim. One of the reasons is that snacking is highly discouraged in France. The French go so far as to air public service announcements warning against eating in between meals. Additionally, French kids eat their meals with their families. These meals are generally long and leisurely, and to compensate for a high fat diet, the French eat smaller portions. “In France,” writes Gross-Loh, “teaching kids to eat is as important as teaching them to read.”

Gross-Loh believes that the idea that children are picky eaters is, in part, an artificial construct; this rings true to me. She correctly notes that rejecting vegetables for potato chips is “a marketing strategy that doesn’t have to bind us.” Teaching children to eat well can be habit forming. To prove her point she takes her readers to France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Sweden where the culture dictates a diet of fresh whole foods, cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients and taking the time to enjoy eating together. As for the babies—the parents in most of these countries give their little ones the same food as the rest of the family.

I know that cooking from scratch strikes terror in many a parent’s heart. I’m no chef myself, but honestly it’s a lot easier than it seems. I’ve just discovered quinoa, a healthy grain that’s easy to make. Most supermarkets have pre-cut veggies that you can throw in a wok. And for meat eaters like my family, turkey burgers are easy to make and roasting a chicken is simple. As for snacking, I work at home so you can imagine the temptation. The easiest solution is not to buy the chips or the Chex mix in the first place. I’m holding my own for the moment. But I still I keep an emergency stash of chocolate.

As big as food is in a family’s life, Gross-Loh also devotes an entire section of her book to conspicuous consumption or in her descriptive phrase, “The Tyranny of Choice.” She writes:

Few families in the world are as vulnerable to the desire to buy as American families. Though commercialism is a modern, global phenomenon, it affects American children disproportionately because corporations have benefited from deregulation against marketing directly to children, which began in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

At last, an explanation for the genesis of what Gross-Loh calls “the pester-power”—in and of itself a well-honed marketing strategy and the source of much family stress.

As I said in the beginning of this column, there are so many nuggets to mine in this wonderful book. Add it to your collection of parenting books. I promise you that reading Parenting Without Borders will be like spending time with a very understanding and resourceful friend.

 

 

 

Review of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Eve Ensler’s extraordinary new memoir begins with the body — her body — a place from which she was exiled and, “forced to evacuate when my father invaded then violated me.” As a consequence, she has focused her life’s work on reclaiming her body and helping others do the same. Her quest began by asking women about their vaginas. The urgency to “talk incessantly and obsessively” about vaginas stemmed from Ensler’s estrangement from her own body, and the stories Ensler heard lay the groundwork for her much acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Layout 1Over the years, Ensler has bridged the distance between herself and her body by traveling to over 60 countries to seek out stories of women who have experienced trauma. “These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home.”

The way home for Ensler took a devastating turn when she was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer in 2010 at the age of 57. But it was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 where Ensler witnessed “the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” and to which she returned to understand that her internal cancer and the world’s external violence were symbiotic.

“In the Body of the World” is not an easy book to read. There are horrific descriptions of the rape, torture, and mutilation of women and girls. But it is a necessary book to read for its fierce, passionate commitment to making the world a safe place for women.

In the Congo and then later in the hospital, Ensler considers the ways in which a life is ruptured by war crimes as well as disease. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis.” And during her crisis she became one with the ravaged women of the Congo. The cancer that had blindsided Ensler leads her to explore the uncomfortable politics of advantage when she returns to the Congo. “My naked head suddenly feels like insane privilege — all the attention and care I have received. I am embarrassed by how much money (insurance), equipment, healers, surgeons, nurses, and medications have gone into saving me.”

Living in cities, amid concrete for most of her adult life, Ensler found that the tree outside her hospital window integrated her into the natural world. Too weak to do anything but stare out the window she writes, “on Tuesday I meditated on the bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into a tree.” A tree also took root inside of Ensler in the form of taxol, a chemotherapy drug derived from tree bark.

Cancer initially divided Ensler from her body and the world until it united her with suffering across the globe. The scar that runs down her torso is the earthquake in Haiti. The abscess in her stomach with 16 ounces of pus is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico. In one of the many poignant scenes in the memoir, a friend of Ensler performs a healing ceremony in which she baptizes Ensler with flowers, honey, and water from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the gulf where Ensler swam as a young woman. It’s the gulf where her dying parents gazed at the horizon. It’s the gulf of illness and recklessness and greed. It’s the gulf that drips down Ensler’s bald head.

Ensler’s closest women friends surround her throughout her cancer ordeal. This group is a microcosm of the City of Joy in the Congo, a concept that “grew out of the women of the Congo and was shaped by their desire and hunger. It was literally built with their hands. It is a sanctuary for healing: it is a revolutionary center.”

Ensler begins her intense, riveting memoir with the body, so it’s fitting to end with the body. Today she has “a second life,’’ and no longer needs a colostomy bag. Although cancer brought her to “dangling’’ on the edge of death, it was there, she writes, that “I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.” In celebration and camaraderie she dances with the women of the Congo in the City of Joy, finally reunited with her body.

This review was originally published in the May 17, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe

Let Us Not Praise Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My name is Judy and I am a praise junkie. That is, I blanket my children with lavish compliments like, “you are the smartest, you are the best, you are second to none.” It turns out that I haven’t been doing my kids any favors with these endearments. In fact, there’s a raft of research over the past couple of decades that shows that unfocused praising of children puts a significant dent in their self-esteem.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been at the vanguard of studies about kids and praise. Dweck’s research grew out of a pattern that has been tracked for over 20 years—gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) were very unsure of their academic abilities. This perceived lack of competence caused them to lower their standards for success and to underestimate the importance of putting in effort towards a goal.

praise

But I’m not the only parent out there praising away. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s crucial to tell their kids how smart they are. My highly unscientific poll puts the number of fellow parental praise junkies out there at closer to 100 percent.

Why the constant praising and what do we do about it? I suppose we praise to reassure our kids and ourselves that they are not only wonderful, but also resilient—able to handle any challenge that comes their way. But in truth constant assurance has the opposite effect. The proof is on the ground. Ten years ago Dweck sent four research assistants into fifth-grade classrooms throughout New York City. The assistants administered a series of puzzles to two control groups randomly divided. The children in one group were praised for their intelligence as in “You must be smart at this.” The other group was lauded for their efforts as in, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next round, the two groups were asked to choose between a difficult or easy test. The results were astounding. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the harder test. The majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Commending a kid for his intelligence not only made him shy away from exerting effort, it also made him risk-averse.

The phenomenon of praising a child too often goes back to the 1969 publication of the Psychology of Self-Esteem. That landmark book asserted that high self-esteem was essential to a person’s well being. The notion trickled down to our kids; criticism was out and praise, even if it was undeserved, was now in vogue. I can remember soccer games that my children played when they were little where goals were not counted and every kid got a trophy. I was thrilled for my children, but was I and the other well-meaning adults around them doing the right thing by eliminating competition?

Dweck doesn’t think so. Her research has uncovered that high self-esteem is not necessarily connected to good grades or career success. It doesn’t reduce alcohol abuse or reduce violence. But Dweck isn’t advocating to jettison praise altogether. She found that fine-tuning praise, so that it’s specific and sincere, was very effective. To that end, her research further demonstrated that kids over 12 were suspicious of general praise from a teacher and took it as a sign that they weren’t doing well in class.

Fear of failure is another conundrum that results from overpraising. A well-meaning parent may gloss over a child’s failure by encouraging her to do better next time. The subtext of that message is that failure is so unacceptable it can’t be acknowledged. A lot of the psychology literature shows that responding to failure by trying harder instead of walking away from it suggests that there is more than willpower at work. Encouraging a child to do better next time can rewire a brain to respond more positively to failure. And a brain that learns to try harder instead of giving up is not as dependent on instant gratification. Nothing will short circuit the brain’s response to failure faster than frequent rewards—it’s a sure fire way to set up a kid’s brain for an actual addiction to constant incentives.

So what have I done about my own praise addiction? It seems to be less toxic than I thought.  My praise and criticism of my children’s performances in school has always been nuanced. But yes, in the long run I think almost everything they do is great. For example, the other day Anna asked me what I thought of an article she wrote for her college newspaper. I told her what I specifically liked about the piece. But I’m not completely cured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she forgot to insert a couple of commas

Dragon Mothers and Grieving Parents by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There is no one fiercer or scarier or more real in this world than a dragon mother. Dragon mothers are mothers who grieve for children who have died or are terminally ill. Dragon mothers breathe fire and scorch everything in their path.

Emily Rapp is a dragon mother, a term she coined two years ago in a stunning essay simply entitled “Dragon Mothers.” Rapp is the mother of Ronan, an almost three year-old boy who died last month from Tay-Sachs disease. In her new memoir The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp writes that at nine months her son was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs during a standard eye examination. The specialist had seen Ronan’s particular symptoms only once before.

RappBook

Rapp was shocked. During her pregnancy she had been tested twice for Tay-Sachs, and both times the test came back negative. She later learned that a standard Tay-Sachs screening covers only the nine most common mutations. Rapp, who is not Jewish, and her husband, who is, were carriers of a rare mutation. To put this in perspective, fewer than 20 children in the United States are born each year with Tay-Sachs to parents who, like Rapp, tested negative and thought they could cross that worry off their lists.

While Still Point is an elegy, it is also a remarkable book about the signposts of grief. Rapp writes that, “Ronan and I were on this singular path of motherhood-sonhood: one of us knew that the other would not survive. I was supposed to be guiding Ronan through this life and then out of it and into whatever came next, but much of the time I was flailing around in the unfathomable.”

The death of a child is unfathomable and I don’t have sage words for someone who has gone through the agony of burying a child; I can only look to Emily Rapp as my guide.  She asks her own excruciating question: “How do you parent without a future?” At first I avoided reading Rapp’s book and tried to skirt the topic of grieving parents altogether. But I found her narrative both raw and compelling and uplifting—things I wanted to share. I learned that parenting without a future is both a despairing and optimistic act. “My task as [my son’s] myth writer,” says Rapp, “was still to understand my son as a person and a being who was independent of me and yet dependent on my actions, my attention, my love.” Rapp’s words also point to the ultimate lesson that Ronan taught his mother: Children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.

Having a child confirms our mortality and, as Rapp notes, the truth about life is that “it exists side by side with death.” I think the way that we Jews say the Kaddish for a child shows how acutely aware we are of this intimate pairing of life and death. While one is obligated to say the Kaddish for a parent for 11 months, a parent is only required to say the Kaddish for a child for 30 days. There are practical reasons for that short formal period of mourning that hark back to a time when infant mortality was high, making the recitation of the Kaddish necessarily truncated. There was also the practical consideration that spending almost a year saying the Kaddish is difficult for parents who also have other children to care for. Yet grief doesn’t have an end-date.

Upon hearing about someone’s death for the first time, Jews say Baruch Dayan HaEmet—Blessed are you G-d who is the true judge. But how can one utter those words when a child has died? The theologian C.S. Lewis asked “Where is G-d during one of the most disquieting symptoms [of grief]?” I turned to a wise friend for advice about G-d’s seeming absence. “If you will allow,” she wrote to me, “I will offer instead of Baruch Dayan HaEmet the words, HaMakom Yinachem.  May you find comfort in the embrace of God, who, while we may never understand the tragedies of the world God has created, is ‘with’ us in the sadness.”

My friend’s words make me think about the limits of empathy. C.S. Lewis takes that notion a step further. “You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain,” he writes. By way of illustration, Rapp adds “You can’t really test the strength of a rope until you’re asked to hang from it over a cliff. There have to be stakes.”

I think Emily Rapp is asking her readers for something deeper than empathy or sympathy. She raises the stakes by asking us to “look straight at [death] without blinking.” Perhaps openly grappling with death is the radical act of empathy we are obligated to bestow on grieving parents and dragon mothers.

 

Sticks and Stones: Emily Bazelon’s Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Emily Bazelon has written an important book in which she contends that many of the root causes of bullying in schools can be defeated. She takes schools to task through the stories of three teenagers who experience the extreme toxicity of bullying.

Monique McClain is an African-American middle school student in Connecticut whose woes began in that incubator of bad behavior—the school bus. As seen in Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary Bully, the bus is literally the vehicle where violence and cruelty mushroom like a noxious cloud. Monique experiences the random nastiness of two eighth-grade girls, which has a domino effect off the bus. The bullying is so bad that she eventually withdraws from school. After her mother and grandmother vociferously advocate for Monique, she’s permitted to enroll in a magnet school. Was Monique bullied out of her school or was she rattled by the everyday girl drama that young teenage girls conjure? In Bazelon’s view it was a bit of both.

Jacob Lasher is a gay boy from upstate New York who endured taunts and physical aggression, but also played the part of the provocateur. Although he may not have seen it that way, Jacob’s strong identity as a gay boy educated his teachers and the clueless superintendent of his school district about gay teens and the risks they face. A 2009 survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender) reported that they had been verbally harassed at school. Forty percent had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 20 percent had been physically assaulted.

Jacob’s story also explores the psyche of his tormentor Aaron. Aaron is what is commonly referred to in psychology literature as the bully-victim. Bully-victims are as prone to depression and suicide as their counterparts. They hope their extreme behavior changes other kids’ perceptions of them, making it clear that they don’t want to be picked on. Jacob eventually prevails in a lawsuit against the school district, which forces teachers and administrators to implement safety measures for LGBT kids.

Through Jacob’s story, Bazelon makes three crucial points about mitigating the effects of bullying for gay kids. Parental support is essential in shepherding these teens through a tough time. She also notes “we have to hold two ideas about gay teens in our minds at once—they are more at risk, and yet most of them will be okay.” Her final point is something that I fervently believe in—that a Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a high school can be one of the “strongest bulwarks a school can erect against anti-gay harassment. LGBT students at these schools tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often and feel a greater sense of belonging.”

sticksandstones

Bazelon’s book grew out of her extensive reporting for Slate about Phoebe Prince’s suicide in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe, the third teenager profiled in the book, was a pretty freshman at South Hadley High School who arrived earlier that summer from Ireland. She immediately attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and the ire of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Phoebe’s popularity with older boys miffed other girls at school too. A few of them began a campaign of harassment that ended in Phoebe hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

I wrote about Phoebe Prince’s death two years ago. At the time I called the South Hadley administrators and teachers criminal for the way they ignored Phoebe’s distress. Bazelon went to South Hadley expecting to find the “black hearted monsters” that I portrayed in my column. Instead she found shades of gray and she reports on the case through the point of view of one of the six teenagers initially indicted on criminal charges for Phoebe’s death. Like her peers, Flannery Mullins underestimated Phoebe Prince’s vulnerability. Although I stand by much of my initial impressions of the bullying that played a part in Phoebe’s suicide, I learned from Bazelon that many factors contributed to Phoebe’s tragic death. She had a history of depression and cutting and she easily fell into high-risk relationships with boys prior to arriving in South Hadley.

In Bazelon’s view “an overzealous prosecutor decided to reduce all the complexity [of the case] into one clean narrative: Phoebe Prince was bullied to death.” What I didn’t take into account in my article was Phoebe’s difficult past, the fluidity of teenage relationships as well as the reality that the correlation between bullying and suicide is complicated. It’s true that kids who are bullied are more likely to think about or attempt suicide. But in the end it comes down to a chicken-and-egg question. Are kids who are depressed more susceptible to the effects of bullying or does bullying cause kids to become suicidal?

Then there is the relentless, 24-hour world of the Internet, which presents a challenge to schools. At Monique’s former middle school, there was a concerted effort to report inappropriate pages to Facebook to little or no avail. At a private Catholic girl school, Bazelon reports, an extraordinary example of peer mentoring in which senior girls helped freshman and sophomores prune their Facebook pages.

A Pew Center Survey from 2011 estimates that 15 percent of teens that are ages 12 to 17 said they were harassed on-line. With 800 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world. Reports estimate that 20 million teens and preteens are on Facebook and one million of them took the time to report bullying and harassment on the site to little effect. Bazelon visits Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley and discovers that the site has done shockingly little to keep kids safe. “As a parent,” writes Bazelon, “I wish I could tell you that FB gets it, that it’s a company willing to forego short term profits for the sake of safe-guarding the privacy and well-being of its young users. But I can’t.”

A negative comment on Facebook or texting an inappropriate picture cannot only spread like wildfire, but has a kind of permanence to it that can follow someone forever. Despite the overwhelming problem that the Web perpetuates when it comes to bullying, parents still have a big role to play in deterring their children from doing the wrong thing. Bazelon reports that for a 2009 study, researchers asked middle school and high school students what would prevent them from bullying on and off-line; parental discipline was first on the list.

Bullying may never go away. But I firmly believe that schools can and must transform their cultures into ones in which bullying is unacceptable. Teachers and administrators would do well to begin with the adage that, “If it’s mean, then intervene.” And as the subtitle of Bazelon’s trailblazing book says, developing character and empathy in our children is the strongest antidote to bullying.

523-0765 by Judy Bolton-Fasman

523-0765.

Until last month, the phone number was in my family for almost half a century. But call the number today and you’ll hear a terse message that it has been disconnected. It took fifteen years for 523-0765 to become a non-working number. The drawn out campaign that my sister, brother and I waged to have my parents sell their two-story colonial—the house on the lovely corner lot—began when my late father’s Parkinson’s disease no longer allowed him to climb the stairs. We pleaded with my mother, who was healthy then and quite a bit younger than her ailing husband, to move into an apartment – one floor, no stairs.

The idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already forever left her first home in Cuba.  Like houses that had been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great hi-fi blasting parties where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba Libres. There was my wedding grown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.

But the house also teemed from years of hoarding that my mother mistook for protecting memories. I didn’t understand that even a few years ago. I only knew that she hung on to tests that she administered as a high school Spanish teacher in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and she saved every single greeting card anyone ever sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes—clothes practically disintegrated from age. There was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in. My mother’s wardrobe grew exponentially, particularly after my father died, She ordered clothes from the Home Shopping Network and catalogues I never heard of. She had more clothes than she could possibly wear in this lifetime and piles of them encroached on every bit of available space in closets and atop empty beds. .

Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died ten years ago, the house was still habitable and my mother swore she wasn’t budging. The heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed. The house was, in a way, diseased. And that disease was progressive. My mother could not take care of the house and the house could no longer shelter her safely.

She argued this was the home she had made with her husband, and for better or worse, she was staying until death did part her from it. We must have looked like the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul her pails out every Sunday night, or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.

My mother’s health deteriorated. At first her gait was halting. Bad knees is what she told us. She refused to use a cane and we lived in fear that she would fall and break a hip, or worse, hit her head. Still, she refused to move, to live near my sister and me in Boston. Hartford was her home. She knew the television stations and the best place to get tuna salad. She was not budging and by the end of her run in the house she was not walking. Once again a chair lift was installed. My siblings and I were bewildered. This was déjà vu all over again.

And then one day my mother couldn’t manage her house anymore, couldn’t care for herself. She called me panicked that she was feeling very unwell. What should she do? I called an ambulance. She’ll tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that the phone call I made for the ambulance saved her life.

Here’s what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further. During her extended stay in the hospital and rehab center, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. She knew it was time. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.

rotaryphone

She was disappointed when she couldn’t take 523-0765 with her to the next town. I was devastated. It turns out the house move was as hard on me as it was on my mother. I left the old rotary phone when we cleaned the house out. After all these years, she was still renting it from the telephone company.

 

This essay was originally published on http://www.ba50.com. To read more articles like this click on the link and subscribe.