Inheritance

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Today is my mother’s birthday.  Although she died almost 16 years ago, the day feels  significant and in need of some kind of acknowledgement.  If she were still alive, I would bake a cake, set up a small party and find some small gift to give her.  She would smile, particularly if her grandchildren, nieces or nephews were there, and she would be thankful and appreciative but somewhat discomfited by the fuss.  She never really liked being the center of attention.  She was kind and compassionate and knew this was a sign of our love and affection for her.  So she would put aside her own discomfort and acknowledge that with her smiles and words of appreciation.

Now that she is no longer physically here, it seems the best gift I can give her is to reflect on what she left behind as her legacy.  There was some money, yes, but not much, and it is long gone.  Besides money is not really a legacy.  I guess it falls under the category of “inheritance,” and I’m not unaware of the practical help it can be.  But her true legacy is her sense of justice, honesty, patience and kindness.  I try to put these into practice as much as I can, although I have to confess I frequently stumble over myself in the trying.  In terms of “inheritance,” however, over the past 16 years I have realized that it is the small, tangible items that were hers that mean the most to me.

My two brothers and I are fortunate in that we get along well, are able to talk with each other honestly, and the division of her tangible assets went smoothly.  With just a few minor compromises, each of us was able to take the things that meant most to us.  I inherited a warm sweater, an old cast iron frying pan, and a small needlework wall hanging, declaring “Peace.”  IMG_0345

One of the last things my mother ever said to me during the two weeks she was actively dying was when she noticed that item on her wall and stated in a strong and unequivocal voice, “PEACE!  That is very important, PEACE!”

I have worn the sweater until it is ragged and falling apart, and I am contemplating how to create a pillow covering or some other useful item with the parts that are still intact.  The cast iron pan has survived thousands of washings, some with soap and a scrub pad, and one serious burning to a crisp when my attention wandered.  It was touch and go, but thanks to my resourceful husband, the pan was restored to use.  And “Peace” hangs on my bedroom wall, a complement to the “Shalom” that hangs in my office.

Why do these small, relatively insignificant items mean so much to me?  “Peace”is probably obvious, but what is so meaningful about an old sweater and a cast iron pan?  I think it is because these items are like the tags that we add to our blog posts.  They signal some deeper meaning and remind us what is truly important in our lives.

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Whenever I see the frying pan, there is memory of my mother preparing food and feeding her family and memory of her commitment to nurture others–strangers, prisoners, people of all different races and religion.

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When I see or wear the sweater, I remember her hugs, smiles and encouragement and her commitment to care for others–strangers, prisoners, people of all different races and religions.

This is my inheritance, and I will be forever grateful for it.

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 2/21/20

Eternal Vigilance

Yesterday a dear friend and fellow blogger posted a link on Facebook to an article  by John Pavlovitz titled “No America, It’s Not Gonna Be Okay, ” which my friend said accurately reflected what she is feeling about the effects of the past several years and the poisonous social and political atmosphere that exists in our country today.  Her feelings reflect mine–a sense of doom and deep fear that things will not be getting better for a very, very long time.

Many days I, too, struggle to pick exactly what causes the most fear and anxiety.  Is it the lack of empathy for families fleeing violence and oppression in their native lands? Is it the eroding of relationships with countries that used to be our staunchest allies, or the nasty, bullying comments directed at anyone who dares to have an opposing opinion?  Is it the flattering of dictators and belief in their honesty, coupled with disparagement of corroborated testimony, under oath, from our own public servants and military intelligence officers?  Is it the disdain for science and the lack of concern for environmental damage that increases every day?  Or is it the constant barrage of gaslighting that emanates from the White House?

mask-2014556_640I pick gaslighting.  For anyone who may not be familiar with this concept, an article in Psychology Today gives a very clear picture.  (“11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting,” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D., posted on January 22, 2017)  Briefly, gaslighting is a tactic used to gain power by engaging in behavior that ultimately causes someone to lose hope and begin to question their own sanity.  It is a tactic commonly used by “abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders.”  Some of the specific techniques used by gaslighters as listed in the article are:

    • telling blatant lies
    • denying they said something even if you have proof otherwise
    • acting in ways that do not match their words
    • creating confusion because constant confusion weakens people
    • continually projecting negative behaviors onto others to distract attention from their own
    • calling everyone else a liar (the media, accusers, anyone who disagrees)

Given the numerous, almost unlimited options to pick from, why would I consider gaslighting to be the most serious? Because I believe that if the atmosphere that presently surrounds us continues much longer, it will fundamentally change who we are and what we stand for, both as individuals and as a country.  If we begin to act as if this is just the “new normal,” I am afraid we will never be able to retrieve our democratic way of life, as imperfect as it may have been.

In a speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on January 28, 1852, author Wendell Phillips said:  “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few.  The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.”

Each of us can contribute in some way to this daily gathering of liberty.  As difficult as it may be, we need more than ever to trust our instincts and refuse to succumb to the mental and emotional stress caused by the current political climate.  May we all find the courage and strength to continue to speak truth to power and to make truth, compassion, and justice the foundation of our individual and national life.

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©Martha Hurwitz, 2/9/20

RDP, 2/12/20

 

What Do Your Eyes Behold?

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“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  That may be true, and there is certainly no one definition of beauty.  But the perception of beauty varies widely depending on the individual beholder, and the eye of the beholder is influenced by the prevailing social ideas about beauty, often with negative consequences for those whose beauty is being assessed.

What is beautiful is a question that has been answered in vastly different ways throughout history.  According to an article on the history of beauty standards, in ancient Egypt the ideal woman was slender with narrow shoulders, a high waist and symmetrical face, while in ancient Greece  she should be plump and full-bodied with light skin.  During the Italian Renaissance, ample bosoms, rounded stomach and full hips were beautiful, and in Victorian England, a woman should be plump and full-figured, but with a cinched waist.  By the time of the Roaring Twenties in the last century, the standard of beauty included a flat chest, short bob haircut and a boyish figure.

From there, standards went through increasingly rapid change.  In the 1950’s, the glamor of Hollywood actresses called for an hourglass figure, large breasts, and a slim waist.  The 1960’s required a thin, willowy, adolescent figure, which gave way in the 1980’s to the supermodel standard of a tall, curvy, but athletic body with seriously toned arms.  Since then, standards have gone from waif-like/androgynous and extremely thin with translucent skin, to healthy skinny, flat stomach, large breasts and butt, with the all-important thigh gap!

So what does this review of beauty standards have to do with me at this stage of my life?  Notice that nowhere in the perceptions of beauty listed above are these:  liver spots, wrinkles, puffy feet, prominent blue veins, or stray hairs sprouting from places they aren’t supposed to be.

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In the past several years, as I take on most of these beauty signs of aging, I have tried to celebrate them.  The first time I realized I had the hands of an old lady, I experienced a moment of sadness, but then remembered my mother’s hands that touched me gently and looked just like mine as she grew older.

These signs are proof that I have lived to an old age, something that is not guaranteed. For today, it is enough for me to be thankful that I have reached this time of life and that true beauty is intangible and not dependent on the eye of any beholder.

 

People are like stained-glass windows.  They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

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©Martha Hurwitz, 1/30/20

Living Until the Curtain Falls

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Newly retired and eager to prove that my life was still going to be useful and exciting, several years ago I set up my blog and named it “The Golden Years Revisited.” From the name it was obvious to me that I believed most of the myths about retirement and growing older.  In a youth-obsessed society with an evangelical belief in the powers of medicine and technology to delay or erase the natural progression of life, the images surrounding aging and being  “old” are pretty negative.  The most damaging message is that the right attitude (i.e., thinking young and following the example of those few exceptional seniors who never seem to get old) will delay aging, but once the battle is lost, you are irrelevant and useless, often even to people who love you, but definitely to society as a whole.

As an avid reader, I frequent our town library on a regular basis, and suffer anxiety whenever my unread book stack is down to one.  I always browse through the new acquisition section that is divided between fiction and non-fiction.  For most of my life, my choices were firmly in the fiction (escape) section.  Good escape fiction, of course, and hopefully thoughtful and pertinent to my own life, but fiction nonetheless.  I worked full time, was deeply immersed in the intense world of raising children and then helping them at a distance through the early years of adulthood.  I survived breast cancer and the deaths of both my parents.  I had all the non-fiction that I could handle.

Then I finally arrived at that golden shore of retirement.  I could read as much good fiction as I got my hands on and think of myself first in most situations.  I could be that woman who wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what people think.  Not that I was unaware of the realities of aging, but I come from a long line of strong and healthy women and I was sure it would be smooth sailing.  Eventually, of course, I would arrive in that amorphous stage of life when I would actually be OLD.  And that would be it, so to speak, even if I was still physically alive.

Something mysterious happened to my reading preferences.  I gravitated toward the non-fiction section.  I became obsessed with biographical and autobiographical stories.  I read books on politics that I would previously have dropped like a hot potato. I wanted more than ever to understand the world I live in and specifically the roots and consequences of the choices we make as individuals and a society.  Naturally the subject of aging was of paramount interest.  I know that I will never be president or live a fascinating life that someone will want to read about long after I am gone.  But I would get (and have finally gotten, I guess) to that place called Old.

I previously read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande and am currently reading “Elderhood” by Louise Aronson.  They are both physicians who question the wisdom and approach of the medical establishment when working with older people and confronting death (at any age).  “Elderhood,” in particular has given me a veritable banquet of things to consider and ways to formulate my choices related to the medical establishment in the years to come.

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In September this year I will reach 75 years of age.  I do not want to buy into the myth that as long as I eat right, exercise, and do mental puzzles (though they are important), dye my hair or start wearing makeup to cover the wrinkles (not so important), I won’t actually die someday.  I want to celebrate this time in my life, not by trying to be one of those exceptional older people who run marathons (let’s face it, I never liked to run, not even when I was 20) but by finally learning to love myself and the place where each day takes me – closer to the end, yes, but anticipating one heck of a curtain call!

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 1/6/20

Temporal

Constant Friends

“I think you need a dog.”  My husband had just informed me somewhat sheepishly that he was considering getting me a puppy as a Mother’s Day present and there were a few possible candidates he was checking out on-line and wouldn’t I like to go see them, you know, just to look.  No pressure, no commitment, as if any dog lover could visit a pack of puppies and come away without one!  I could think of many things that I needed, but a puppy was not on the list.  Maybe an older dog.  A senior for seniors special.  A dog who like me had been around the block a few times.  But a puppy?

Dogs have been a part of my life since childhood, and while there were periods of time when I was dog-less, a fair number of my happiest years not to mention happiest relationships have been with members of the canine world.

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My husband and I had gotten a dog early in our relationship–a Golden Retriever named Zanzibar whose greatest joy in life was retrieving food handouts from the neighbors, and whose goofy behavior and happy-go-lucky personality graced our family life for 15 years.             Steve and Zanzibar

 

Then one morning he fell over on his side and by evening he had crossed over to wherever it is that dogs go to claim their well-deserved reward.

 

Lucy Puppy

Then there was Lucy.  Our children were ten and eight and it had been a year since Zanzibar died.  On impulse one day I took them to the local animal rescue and there in a cage was a white Shepherd/Lab puppy who looked at me with a calm dignity as if to signal that she had been waiting for just such a family to come take her home.  Lucy turned out to be one of the best dogs I have ever known, a combination of steadfast loyalty, pack instincts inherited from her wild ancestors, and playfulness that complimented that of two young children.  She lived 16 years and then her hind quarters began to weaken.  She was often unable to go to the bathroom without falling and she was clearly stressed at the frequent accidents she had in the house.  I was now faced with the decision that an animal lover dreads.  When is enough enough?  I was not unwilling to continue cleaning her after accidents or cleaning up the floor and carpets, but it was her obvious distress and discomfort that finally made me ask whether I was delaying the inevitable for her or for myself.

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It was two years before I could drive past the vet’s office without choking on tears and at bedtime I would gently touch the small cedar box containing her ashes as a talisman against whatever evil comes in the night.  Six years passed, and yet there were still times when I whispered my longing for her to return. Probably I would never live with another dog because in all fairness I did not want to burden a new dog with the expectation that she couldn’t possibly live up to my memories of Lucy.  My husband said he would never have another dog because the emotional investment was too intense and the inevitable end too painful.

But here he was with his Internet research, facts, figures, names and addresses.  I hemmed and hawed, perplexed at this development.  Despite my belief that I would never replace Lucy, there was always that small hope that someday I would find her spirit living in another dog.  But I was now happily retired and one of the biggest perks of retirement for me is that in the morning I can sit in bed as long as I want, sipping coffee, reading a book or just looking out the window at the hummingbirds, the budding apple trees, or the winter evergreens covered in snow.  An older dog would obviously require some pre-coffee attention in the morning.  But a puppy would mean a mad dash to the door at 5 AM, and at 72 years old, mad dashes hampered by arthritis, a slipped disk and a bad knee were something I thought it was prudent to avoid.

That afternoon when I returned from the grocery store, I was informed that we had an appointment to see one of the puppies the next day.  In his well-practiced and skilled way my husband downplayed the whole scenario by saying that he didn’t know if it was a legitimate offer, the ad was vague and confusing, he wasn’t really sure how much they wanted for the dog, so it probably wouldn’t work out anyway.  The owner lived almost two hours away in a large city with some really good restaurants.  My husband sweetened the pot with “What’s the worst that can happen?  At least we can get a really great Italian meal!”

It’s probably no surprise to anyone how all this played out.  We did have an excellent Italian meal, and then brought home 20 pounds of Black Lab puppy exuberance named Molly.  It’s been a mere three days and I am bleary-eyed and exhausted, an echo of those early motherhood days now long behind me.  I have survived several mad dashes in the middle of the night, cleaned up the usual puppy messes, rescued slippers in danger of extinction and suffered shock over the amount of money that we are already spending on one small creature.

Most people say that the best way to assess a situation is with your eyes wide open, and honestly I did do that three days ago.  But then, as every dog knows, sometimes it is better to keep your eyes tightly closed and your heart wide open.   Puppies will make you do that.

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©Martha Hurwitz, 5/19/19

 

 

 

A Pacifist’s Daughter and Veterans Day

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Sitting rather uncomfortably on a cold metal chair, on a stage in front of about 30 veterans, family members, the local police chief and a few others from the community, it must have been patently obvious to everyone that I was a fraud.  Clearly I was stuck in a grown-up version of that Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…..”

Almost all of the participants on the stage other than me were veterans, dressed in crisp uniforms with razor-sharp creases that would have been a source of envy for my grandmother who ironed her bed sheets with a flatiron heated on the wood stove.

I tried to convince myself that after all I was there legitimately, president of the board of the local synagogue and invited to participate as a substitute for our usual representative who was away on an overseas trip this year.  I clutched the paper on which a lovely prayer for Veterans Day, written by a Jewish poet, was typed neatly and which I would soon be called upon to read as the opening prayer.

In the days leading up to this event, I had been overwhelmed with thoughts of my father, who had been a conscientious objector during World War II.  I also felt the moral weight of my upbringing in the Society of Friends (Quakers), where opposition to war was a given.  And then there were the “60’s,” the decade during which I grew from adolescent to adult, surrounded by the turmoil of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.   Sitting on that stage I wondered what my father would have to say about this day and my participation in it.

VW BusAlthough I never participated directly in any of the shameful treatment of soldiers returning from that war, neither did I speak out against it, or even recognize it as violence against those who had already experienced violence beyond anything I could imagine.  Violence that I might have survived physically, but not emotionally intact.  In the naive certainty of youth, I knew that being against war was obvious and anyone who willingly went to war deserved what they got.  Because I was a mild mannered and well brought-up child, I would never call anyone a “baby killer,” but surely some deserved that name and maybe if they were shouted at and vilified, they might decide to become peacemakers instead of soldiers.

The guest speaker at this Veterans Day event works with disabled veterans, helping them receive the benefits to which they are entitled.  In one of those ironic twists that often occur in life, he had served in the Vietnam War.  I expected a speech glorifying the experience of  serving in the military and extolling the bravery and commitment of those who serve.  Had I been sitting in the audience instead of in full sight of everyone, I might have been prepared to engage in a bit of eye-rolling, or at minimum some silent scoffing.

Instead I listened to a man talk of coming home from that war “broken,” admitting that he had considered killing himself several times.  Choking on tears, he described the price his wife and children paid in trying to support and comfort him in those years before he understood that he was suffering from PTSD and sought professional help.  He said he did not need to describe the treatment that soldiers returning from that war received from protesters since everyone there was already familiar with it.

The speaker and I are of a similar age, and if I were able to have a conversation with him I would want to share what I have learned since those heady days when my moral certainty had not yet been tempered by an understanding of life from the perspectives of those who lived with different economic and social realities.  I would admit I now understand that protesting war as a policy and holding elected officials responsible for those policies is not the same as demonizing the foot soldiers who pay the price.  I would tell him that I understand now that there are numerous reasons why someone would enlist in military service, other than my misconception that they must like to play with guns and kill people who don’t look like them.

Yes, I am still anti-war and I still believe that war does not usually solve the problems for which it is initiated.  I suspect, however, that it is the very people who have actually gone to war who know that truth better than any of us.  The greatest honor that we could bestow upon our veterans would be to create a world in which their children and grandchildren would never have to go to war.

Sadly the human race has not yet gotten to that point.  We cling to our fears and prejudices, we demonize those who are different, and we ask others to pay the heavy price required to maintain our perceived superior position.

So what would my father think about me sitting on that stage?

I think he would be proud.

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 11/11/18