On Turning Sixty and Staying Gray in a Pandemic

There is a wonderful sisterhood ready to welcome me to my 60s—to usher me into a Shechecheyanu moment, that prayerful stopgap that launches “a season of joy” while acknowledging a new or unique experience. The older I am, the more urgent it is to perpetuate the rituals that have sustained me these 60 years. I feel the magnitude of all that has happened in my lifetime, and in 2020, which has felt like an entirely different kind of life. There are so many layers of loss to peel back from this year. As I write, more than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and that overwhelming number is climbing. I sit with fear and devastation. The grief is ongoing.

In the face of so much suffering, it can feel trivial to think about the sweet embellishments of life that we lost this year—holiday celebrations, spur-of-the-moment dinners out, movie popcorn, manicures. Then there is this: I won’t blow out candles on my birthday cake this year. It’s part of my new vigilance. But amid the vigilance, it is powerful, even necessary, to name the losses.

This was the year I let my hair go full-on gray. It was as much a decision to get off the hair-dying merry-go-round as it was to embrace my sexagenarian status. My silver hair tells stories of who I am as a woman—a mother of adults, a wife of 30 years, a woman who cherishes deep friendships, the struggle of getting a life down on the page. Maybe my gray hair reflects wisdom, although I don’t always feel wiser, just more seasoned.

At first, the relentless pace of life in this weird year seemed it would be tentatively paused, but then it came to an eerie standstill. Although I could not physically gather with most people, summer brought a much-welcomed loophole. I saw friends and family in my backyard, or I saw them through glass doors and windows that were picture-perfect frames. And there was always Zoom on which to fall back. Through it all, I felt such kinship. My love expanded. Before my mother’s nursing home went on lockdown for the second time, I saw her through a sheet of Plexiglas. We were masked and she was disoriented. But there was an opening at the bottom to hold hands.

Being with my family for a stretch of time was the most gleaming of pandemic silver linings. I was safe to take a breath to survey what was happening around me, to cope with the gravity of this latest rupture of history. I thought about questions I had been circling for years: How did I want to live going forward? What did I need to pare down? What ultimately fulfilled my soul? Those questions loomed even larger for me amidst rising body counts and the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Even as I said the Mourner’s Kaddish for Black lives and pandemic victims, I was self-conscious about my privilege and my complicity. On the precipice of 60, it was time to tend to a delicate ecosystem in which compassion and fierceness existed together.

How was I going to help? Like the book says, my participation had to happen “bird by bird.” The first thing I did was speak. In the noisiest, most contentious presidential election of my lifetime, I called voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, reminding them that they could vote early or that they could vote on the day of the election. I had information at the ready about where to get a ballot and where to vote in person. Most people didn’t answer my call. Some were hostile on the other end. A good many were undecided; others were apathetic. Ask me questions, I begged the people who didn’t hang up on me.

I like a podcast called “On Being.” Krista Tippett is the very smart host and almost every week she reminds her listeners “to hold space for the questions.” It’s an idea based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s lines from “Letters to a Young Poet.” Ten months into the pandemic, on the eve of marking 60 revolutions around the sun, I want to share them; I want to make them my manifesto:

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

It is vital to not only stay with the questions, but to immerse in them. Think long and hard about what makes us despair. What enables us to find hope? And the hardest question of all: What does it mean to be human? There is no right answer. Forge ahead and keep naming the losses; it is the greatest memorial to this time. Read the death notices—say the names out loud. The season of joy is now the season of resilience. I didn’t intend to be retrospective. Nurturing the questions is the work of a lifetime. And, in the end, it is the beginning of how to live going forward.

This piece was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-on-turning-60-and-staying-gray-in-a-pandemic/

The Twelve Days of December

I am a Jew who loves the pomp of Christmas and adores Hanukkah’s mystical lights of creation.


As daylight evaporates, we’re hurtling toward the darkest day of the year, but I don’t mind. I am a December baby, a child of Connecticut winters, and I love being enveloped in the early darkness. There is something restorative about the sun setting early in a world that becomes a blank, old-fashioned blackboard. My father said I was a night owl. But I don’t harbor the wisdom of an owl. I simply love the velvety night beckoning with possibility.


December is full of contradictions. It is streamlined. It is sloshy. At the first hint of a snowstorm, my father lined up our boots to spray them. He called them galoshes. My dad peppered his speech with contractions like “shan’t” and “whilst.” But he was not pretentious; he was formal—a U.S. naval officer during World War II who admired Winston Churchill and the Royal Air Force. He told me that December was his favorite month because I, his little girl born when he was 42, came into the world. I arrived on the second-to-last day of the year. My accountant father said, “You were the best tax deduction of my life.”


When my children were little, Christmas decorations twinkling on houses and draping bushes awed them to no end. “Oh my gosh!” exclaimed my Jewish kids as if they were the very light of creation. Oh my gosh, indeed. I took them holiday joyriding because I loved extravaganzas of light and color and cheer as much as they did.


In one school, I learned the Latin version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Amidst everything Christmas, I had my small menorah, steadily emitting the candlelight of the ages. Every Dec. 25 we went to family friends who had a shining tree done up to the hilt. At the base of the tree there were presents for my siblings and me. One year I received a Santa ornament—red and velvet and plump with jolliness. I kept Santa on my dresser all year round. My mother spent Christmas with this family when she was heavily pregnant with me. She told me that she ate so many slabs of fruitcake that year that everyone thought I would be a Christmas baby.


My affection for Christmas is linked to its proximity to my birthday and grew from there. At one point, I all but forgot about Christmas when I went to a Jewish day school. The school was Orthodox, and I attended classes on Christmas Day. I segued to an all-girls’ Catholic high school for reasons having to do with my hesitation around being near boys. No one thought I would last more than two weeks at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. After a few months of coping with the shell shock of being surrounded by so much Catholicism, I came to cherish the literal and figurative sisterhood around me. Years later, my best friend at the Mount said it was only natural for her to marry a Jew. Her husband reminded her of me.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jose Feliciano’s Christmas hit, “Feliz Navidad.” Finally, a Christmas song was an extension of me, a Latinx kid in an English-only world. My love of Christmas comes in part from my Cuban mother. Although she is Jewish, growing up in a Catholic country made her comfortable with Christmas. My mother and I belted out “Feliz Navidad.” Christmas joy. We adored that part of our identity played over the airwaves. I had not yet heard of Flory Jagoda, who sang a Hanukkah song in Ladino called “Ocho Kandelikas.” My children learned the song in their Jewish day school, and when they sang it to my Sephardic mother, she cried. That was the recognition for which she was truly yearning.


Every year we lit the modest menorah that my mother bought the first Hanukkah she was in the United States. It was a straightforward hanukkiah with a large Star of David anchoring the Shamash, or caretaker candle. We lit the standard-issue Hanukkah candles—short, stubby, practically toppling against each other. My aunt, my dad’s sister, kept a small, glittery Christmas tree on her coffee table that infuriated my mother. My father said the silver tree was subtle. My mother, so fond of celebrating Christmas with her friends who were not Jewish, thought it was disgraceful for a Jew to have any kind of tree. My shouting mother made her limits very clear.


An ex-boyfriend once took me to his family’s house on Christmas Day. I settled on bringing a poinsettia that I was sure was the reddest and most glorious plant my hosts would ever see. I also learned the plant was known as the “Christmas Star.” My ex noted that I mispronounced “poinsettia” when I added a “t” and glossed over the “i.” He also told me not to romanticize kissing under the mistletoe. “Mistletoe is just a parasite,” he said.


My seasonal reverie includes annual viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Love Actually.” I like the former film’s “what if” stance. What if George Bailey had never been born? Mary would have been a spinster librarian and the Granville House would have remained spookily uninhabitable. My own “what if” thoughts take up a lot of space in my head. Right or left? Go to the party or stay home? I went to the party and met my future husband. He’s a sweet guy who always cries during “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But I like “Love Actually” better, which makes me some sort of Christmas heathen. Billy Mack, the washed-up rock star, is my man. He’s all about second chances and late bloomers as he miraculously shoehorns one of his old songs into a Christmas hit. Billy also delivers a line that always cracks me up: “Hiya, kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free.”


In 1994, there was a spate of antisemitic incidents in Billings, Montana, culminating with someone throwing a cinder block at a home displaying a menorah. The brick shattered a little boy’s bedroom window; luckily, he was not in his room. Law officials suggested that the family remove Jewish symbols visible from their home. The advice did not sit well with them, and soon, the town resolved the problem in an act of solidarity and stunning community goodwill. The local newspaper published a full-page drawing of a menorah for readers to cut out and display. Thousands of families who were not Jewish placed them in their windows, and Billings became a full-on celebration of Hanukkah. It was reminiscent of Denmark’s King Christian’s willingness to wear a yellow armband with a Star of David should the Nazis try to round up Danish Jews. The Nazis never invaded Denmark, but that story, and now what the good people of Billings did, have become legendary.


This year I’ve noticed some people have very publicly decorated their houses for Hanukkah. I’ve seen blown-up menorahs and dreidels on people’s front lawns. Blue and white lights are strung up. More lights of creation. As much as I enjoy the Christmas season, I’m delighted that Hanukkah has emerged in its own right. As one of my friends, Susan Katz Miller, who has written a book about growing up as an interfaith child and has a blog called “Being Both,” so perfectly says: “Don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.”


Oh my gosh….

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-the-12-days-of-december/

The Ghost on the Zoom Call

It is four in the afternoon on a Thursday, time for the weekly Zoom call my mother waits for in her nursing home. This is the time of day that sundowning can likely happen—when patients lose track of the world, lose track of themselves. Their minds have gone away with the sun, confusing day and night.

I log in to the same message every week: Recurring Meeting for Matilde Bolton—Hebrew Senior Life—Three East Berenson. It’s as if my mother stars in a local cable television show. I wait for the host to let us in; the host is the social worker whom my mother can’t stand. On a full week, there are eight of us who anchor six cubes—three middle-aged children and one son-in-law, along with four grandchildren, are suspended in space, waiting to enter.

As if a wand has been waved, we suddenly appear on the screen. We’re an oddball crew of cheerleaders for my mother, but she does not want to be cheered up or placated. She wants to be sprung from the awful food and her fellow residents who, she complains, drool and smell.

“No me gustan viejos,” she says in her native Spanish. She doesn’t like old people. She doesn’t like Zoom much either. It disorients her. Are we real, or has she imagined us crowding on-screen for this bizarre recording? The word Zoom in this context is new to my mother. In another iteration, it implied quickness, the smooth glide of going somewhere fast—things she can no longer do.

Including my mother, we inhabit seven squares. At the beginning of each Zoom session, my mother asks who we are. The grandchildren call her Abu, short for Abuela—a moniker my daughter invented as a toddler when she could not pronounce Abuela.

“Abu, you’re silly,” they’ll playfully say to her.

The comment makes my mother either furious or giggly. When she laughs now, her voice is as scratched up as the old vinyl records of Cuban dance music to which we used to listen. That same voice is still as frightening as it ever was when she’s angry.

We try mightily to engage my mother on these calls by asking her what she had for lunch. My mother scrunches up her face and says the same thing each time: “Porquería! Basura!” Junk! Garbage! If it’s a bad week, she’ll go on to stamp out her entire life with those same words. It was the same when I was a kid. Her life was mierda.

My mother is agitated when everyone speaks at once or, worse yet, if we have side conversations. She’s sure that we’re talking about her or deliberately confusing her. “Sha, sha, sha,” she’ll scream when she’s had enough. “Secreticos, secreticos, secreticos!” She thinks that we’re telling little secrets about her, secreticos that are planted everywhere like mines. The sun is neither up nor down. Her paranoia is a throwback to those years she pulled my hair and accused me of talking basura behind her back: “I can hear you wherever you are in the world.”

There are weeks when my mother is visibly delighted to be on Zoom. Those are the times she sees her mother, my abuela, inhabiting a Zoom cubicle. “Look, there’s my mother,” she says, waving and smiling. Abuela has been dead for over forty years. Over text, my sister and I debate whether to tell my mother this hard, bedrock fact. “Is it dementia?” my sister asks. I type back that I think Mom spends too much time alone in her room. “It’s a by-product of the Covid-19 lockdown—a hallucination,” I write back.

“Look at Abuela,” my mother says. “Mira, look, my mother is smiling and waving back at me. ‘Hola, Mamá!’ Can you see her?”

I’m the oldest of my mother’s three children, and I know it will fall to me to tell her that her mother is dead—the ultimate secretico unleashed, darkening my mother’s world like a solar eclipse.

“I know she’s dead.” My mother is insulted that I am stating the obvious to her. “I’m not stupid.”

To read the rest of this essay go to the Catapult website https://catapult.co/stories/the-ghost-on-the-zoom-call-mothers-pandemic-sundowning-judy-bolton-fasman