Monthly Archives: April 2008

On this night (part one)

Part one of a two-part post.  Part two will post tomorrow.

            No matter how lapsed, no matter how agnostic, no matter how many Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts, there is one chant that every adult Jew knows.  There is a sentence that brings back a flood of childhood memories.  All we need to hear are those first few opening words, sung to the same tune no matter which branch of Judaism we fall from, and we are transported back to sitting on stacks of telephone books on a folding chair in someone’s living room, not quite tall enough to reach the kids’ table, unsure what to do with the empty plate in front of us, wondering when the next cup of grape juice will shoot down the pike.

            “Mah nishta nah…”

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The preview question that leads into the Four Questions.  Four questions about the Passover Seder, the foods we eat and the way we sit.  Four questions traditionally asked by the youngest capable child.

            This year, Benjamin was still too young, and although Zach probably could have memorized them all in Hebrew, the cousin hosting our Passover Seder wisely suggested he just do the opening and the first question in English.  He cannot yet read, but he can sure memorize.  This is the child who has hundreds of children’s books memorized, presumably because he is not wasting energy trying to figure out the health care crisis.   We practiced regularly, and he knew his lines perfectly.

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights, we eat bread and matzah.  On this night, we eat only matzah.”  (Technically, not a question, but the inquiry is implied.)  We rehearsed this at the table and in the car, and he was confident in his ability to recite the lines.

            When the time came, J’s cousin turned to Zachary.  He was not ready.  He needed more advance warning.  There were twelve strange adults in the room.  And he wanted to know why he couldn’t have more grape juice.  But, instead of turning quiet or refusing to ask his question, which we would have handled by reassigning it up the line to the eight-year-old across the table, Zachary got hysterical.

            He wanted to ask that question.  He wanted to perform his lines.  He just couldn’t.  And he was furious.  Furious with me for being unable to arrange things to his liking, but mostly furious with himself for his stage fright.  He did not want the Seder to continue till he asked his question, but he could not find a way to ask it.  While his father frantically searched for the beloved Taggie, I offered to say it with him or to skip over it, but that just drove him into a frenzy of screaming.

            “You do not have to ask the question,” I told him, “but you do have to behave yourself at the table.”  Removing him only made matters worse, because he desperately wanted to be a part of the action, to play his role.  If only he could do it without people stopping to listen to him.

            Taggie finally arrived, and Zach calmed down enough to hear my voice.  “I’ll say it with you, OK?”  I figured I would stop before the last word of the first sentence, giving him a chance to fill in “nights.”

            “Why is this night different from all other…”

            Zachary remained silent, trying to compose himself and not able to process the agitation he was feeling.  Benjamin, however, had heard the lines rehearsed time and again.  He knew what came next.  From behind his grape juice stained lips came “NIGHTS!”

            Everyone laughed and clapped, which just made me feel worse for my older son.  His brother was the cute one, the performer, while he was the one who knew the answer but just could not get the words out of his mouth.  When the adults quieted down, I asked Zach a question.

            “On other nights, what do we eat?”  This he could handle.  It was not a recitation; it was just a question.

            “Bread and matzah.”

            “But what do we eat tonight?”

            “Only matzah.” 

             As the Seder continued and drowned out our voices, I hugged him, feeling that familiar racing heartbeat that was beginning to slow.  “You did it, Zach.  You said it.”  I wanted him to know we hadn’t moved forward at our speed; that we had given him space and he had done a good job.

            But we hadn’t really.  The world moves on past our sensitive child.  He is not shy, and he will talk to almost any stranger.  But groups overwhelm him by their very nature, and anytime he feels put on the spot, he recoils into himself.  And there is precious little I can do to help him.

Toto baby, guess what

            I was prepared to move to Los Angeles.  It is, after all, just another city.  I have lived in cities up and down the East Coast.  I have lived in London.  In many ways, Los Angeles is simply another major metropolis, with wealthy people eating in the hot new restaurant, homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, and a whole lot of people in between shopping at Target. 

            What I was not prepared for was moving to California.  I never really thought about it until we got here.  I would become a West Coaster, three hours behind my friends in Washington, D.C. and twenty degrees warmer than my friends in Massachusetts.  My frame of reference would change, and there would be no more talk about the 95 corridor or jokes about exits off the Jersey Turnpike.

            This weekend, we drove to Fresno for the first night of Passover.  It is about a four hour drive, although with J driving it does go a little faster.  J’s cousin and aunt live up there, in a part of California referred to as the Central Valley.  Angelinos tend to scoff at it, but Fresno is a quiet city with people just like any other.  I have come to find that most cities are that way, with the most important variation being the noise level.

            Not so with states.  Regions of the country, parts of the world, I have found, have widely varying rhythms, landscapes, and economies.  These last are what most fascinate us.  We love to ponder major industries and how areas sustain themselves.  Not that there was any mystery at all on the way up to Fresno.

            California is a farming state.  Not a farming state like other places I have lived.  Virginia and North Carolina will call themselves farming states, and I have driven past my fair share of cows in those places.  But, there is a difference between spending twenty minutes passing small farms with grazing cattle and spending three hours driving past factory farms of cows packed into giant pens and eating hay through the bars of a gate.  There is a difference between hills of tobacco fields taking up space between Richmond and Charlottesville and the flat, endless fields of grapes, awaiting their moment to become raisins.

            The landscape is different.  The economy is different.  The air is different.  I go about my day to day business, but I feel like I am making a wrong turn at every corner.

Man at work

            “I’m going in here,” he announced.  “I am working.”  Zach has never been in a Montessori classroom, so I was a little curious as to exactly what working entails for a three-and-a-half-year-old.

            “I’m making a book,” he went on.  Since he cannot yet write, he explained, he would be making his book out of stickers. 

            This kind of ambition, I decided, warranted a bit of encouragement, if only because we could use another income around here.  So, we hit Staples and picked up some supplies.  Now, he has gone multi-media, with glitter sticks, construction paper, glue, and scissors.  And, I must say, the book is looking mighty pretty.

            Unfortunately, I am finding that somehow his book project is leaving me even less time for mine.

My sister-in-law is backing Zachary on this one

            We decided it was time to tell Zachary about the baby.  We had waited, figuring that a transcontinental move was enough for him to worry about, without the additional stress of an impending third child.  However, when one of his new classmates arrived for a playdate, his mother informed me that her son had told her, “Zach’s mommy has a baby in her belly.”  We sort of figured it was best for him to hear it from us, rather than around the preschool water cooler.

            Zach was thrilled at the prospect of another sibling.  We told Benjamin, too, but it was hard to tell whether he was excited over the baby I am hauling around or the baby stegosaurus bath toy.

            The next day, I was on the phone with a friend in Boston, and Zach was feeling chatty, so he took a turn on the phone.  “There’s a sister in my mommy’s belly,” he announced.  Now, I have long suspected this one is a girl, but I do not yet have any medical evidence to support my conclusion, and it is five more weeks before the ultrasound where the baby gets a chance to flash us all.

            “It could be a boy,” I told him.

            “No,” he told my friend.  “We already have two brothers and one daddy and one grandpa.  We don’t have a lot of ladies around here.”

            And so it has been.  Everyone he cares to discuss my delicate condition with is informed that he is getting a sister because we already have enough brothers.  Stay tuned for May 20 to see whether we will need to have yet another difficult conversation with him.

Feeling the water sloshing

            The playground sits right on the beach.  But for a small wall the perimeter would be indistinguishable, as the sand from the beach spills right over under the swings and the slide.  It is a small playground, but it never feels crowded.  Infinity stretches out all around it.

            The boys take off their shoes; they run and slide and dig.  After awhile, we pack up the sand toys and put them back in the car, pulling out their scooters.  There is a long, paved path that runs along the beach.  One path is for bikers and other things with wheels, but my boys use the pedestrian path, since they are so small and their scooters move only so fast.  People stop to admire Zachary on his scooter, tiny and proficient, and to laugh as Benjamin stands, both feet on the vehicle, willing it to move.

            Zachary himself stops to admire.  The skateboarders jump and twist, practicing moves on a plaza just beside the playground.  He watches, calculating when he will be old enough to join their ranks.

            Then, we pack it all away, scooters and helmets back in the car, as we take it down to basics.  We walk to the edge of the water, where the sand is packed and wet.  We roll up our cuffs, remove our shoes, and stand at the ready.  The first small wave to splash over our feet is shocking, early-April cold.  Zach jumps with delight as each wave hits his feet.  Ben, however, stands stock-still, stiffening just a little with each cold wash.  His eyes are focused; he watches each tiny wave to ascertain whether this one has a chance of making it all the way up to his toes.  His lips are slightly parted; not a smile as much as a breath of welcome.

            “More,” he says quietly after one wave.  He is not speaking to me.  He is asking the ocean to keep giving this feeling, the water on top and the sand slipping away underneath. 

             My grandfather once wrote a poem about going to the beach with my grandmother.  “Susie likes to feel the water sloshing,” the final line reads.  I think of this poem while I watch Benjamin.  Someday he will know the word “sloshing,” and it will be just the word he needs.

            The tide is coming in, and we begin lifting the boys out of the water as the deeper waves come up.  They giggle and squeal now as we toss them up just in time to avoid wetting the rolled cuffs of their pants.  But it is getting late, and it is time to go home for supper.

            Zachary complains, not wanting to end his afternoon.  Benjamin cries.  He is not yet convinced that the ocean is now a part of his life.  One day, he seems to fear, it will roll out and never come back in.

P.S.A. on behalf of my son

            Zachary, who is three and a half, has recently started a new preschool here in L.A.  He is the kind of child who actually comes home and tells his mother what he did at school.  And what his friends did.  And what the teachers did.  And what the children in the other classes did.  And whether someone in the main office farted during snack time. 

            One day, about a week into his new school, he was well warmed up for his afternoon of non-stop talking, when he shared with me the following important information about his day.  “At school, I showed my new friends my Thomas underwear because they didn’t know what kind of underwear I had.  And they showed me their underwear because I didn’t know what kind they had.  And they had Spiderman and Superman. “  Ever so pleased with himself for having conveyed this crucial bit of information, he went on to reminisce about his best friend and neighbor from London, a boy we will call James because of his fondness for a certain 007.  “At James’s house, I dressed up as Spiderman.”

            Zachary appears to be balancing his memories of his old friends with the new relationships he is forming. 

And, a few days later, when we bought him some new underpants to replace the ones that were getting so tight I was concerned about his ability to walk, he was thrilled.  He would have something new for the show-and-tell that apparently takes place in his preschool bathroom.  “I am going to show Eric my new underwear,” he mused.

            But then, that evening, he realized that his joy was incomplete, that there was something missing from the fulsomeness of his bliss.  “My friends in London don’t know that I have new underwear,” he told me, clearly worried about leaving them out.

            Since I know that Zachary’s former teacher and James’s mother both read my blog, I would like to make the following announcement on behalf of my son.  I hope they will be kind enough to pass it along to all of his friends from London, who are no doubt anxiously awaiting an undergarment update.  Please inform them that Zach is now the proud owner of truck underwear, tractor underwear, and lizard underwear.  If they are ever in town, I am sure he will be happy to show it to them.


            Getting out of London was complicated, what with revisions on the book and organizing the packing and helping the boys towards closure, but arriving in Los Angeles has proven even more overwhelming.  For three of us, at least, it may as well be a foreign planet.  Until two weeks ago, I had only ever spent 36 hours here.  The neighborhoods, the highways, the rhythm of the weather, the architectural style – it is all different than anything I have ever seen before, and I spent the first week simply trying to orient myself, as did the children. 

             Neither of our sons had ever seen a palm tree before, and Benjamin, even two weeks later, is absolutely smitten.  From their point of view, those trees are about as exotic as vegetation can be.  Nor can either child quite figure out what to make of all that sunshine.  Zachary deals with it by insisting upon having his window open every time we get into the car, while Benjamin starts screams “OUTSHIDE” the moment he gets out of bed.  He stands at the front door in his pajamas and yanks on the door handle, stopping only to grab my shoes and then beseech me to put them on.

            As we get our bearings, we are also trying to piece a life together.  J has one more week of UK vacation time stored up, but we have been doing anything but vacationing.  Our lives in Philadelphia were liquidated, and we are starting from scratch around here.  J bought a car shortly before we came, on his last business trip out here, but we needed another one.  We also have to find doctors, babysitters, grocery stores, and playgrounds, not to mention a few other salient items, like a place to live.

            You see, we are in temporary housing, which, by its nature, is temporary.  So, if you are wondering why the quality of my posts as nosedived and why I have not been reading or commenting very much lately, it is because we are busy going to open houses and scheduling viewings.  In my quest for good air quality, we have landed ourselves in one of the most pricey parts of a very pricey city.  Now, we have had to prioritize in very short order.  We need enough space for all five of us, but how much space is enough?  Can five people live comfortably in 1400 square feet if three of them are under three feet tall?  We don’t know if we will send the children to public or private school, but which elementary school has what we are looking for?  We have another six years at this preschool, so how far away are we willing to be?  Will we trade five more minutes in the car to and from preschool for an extra 200 square feet of living space?

            All we know is that we had better have a little back yard, because one of us plans on spending all day outshide.