To the Finish Line

Debra Solomon Baker’s Reflections

I’ve Moved…

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on September 6, 2013

I’ve moved my blog.  Please find my new posts at http://debrasolomonbaker.wordpress.com/

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

On (Not) Getting a Tattoo

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on July 13, 2013

The first assignment for the fiction writing course that I’m taking this summer is to think of something you would never do.  Then write a passage about a character similar to yourself who does do that thing you would never do. Reach for that person who is like you, but not exactly you. Keep it short, preferably under 500 words.

So, yesterday afternoon, I sat for about an hour inside the tattoo place in The Loop, taking notes, doing research for this piece.  I loved doing that: browsing, observing, listening.   And, I learned more than I expected.   Who knows?  Maybe one day, I’ll even get surprise myself and get some art, but for now…here is my draft.

My 116-year-old grandmother, in the ground since 1984, (may her memory be a blessing, as they say at synagogue), hobbles next to me, toward Iron Age Tattoo Studio.

“You know, my shaynamadela,” Grandma begins, her Polish accent still strong.  I squint to decipher the words, noticing, too, that Grandma has just stuffed a wet tissue deep into her it-must-be-at-least-a-D bra (the genes for well-endowedhood skipped right over yours truly).  Anyway, I wonder what else she has stored in there, dear god, a condominium? She continues, “It’s against Jewish rules to get a…you can never be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you get a…”

Well, I’m not gonna ever die, Grandma, I bark.  And even if I do, I’m not gonna get buried.  I’m.  I’m.  I am masterful at comebacks.  A real genius.

I glue shut my eyes, deliver the old knee-to-the-belly kickboxing move to poor Grandma and bolt ahead to the door.

Silence.   Finally.

To the left of the entrance, I spot a flyer for the Sixth Annual World Naked Bike Ride being held in just three weeks.  I stand there, imagining my bare patootie aboard some Schwinn with a bell, trying to avoid crashing into Mr. Butt Crack sailing in front of me, imagining this world where women’s boobs flap in the wind while they pedal, this world where people wander inside a tattoo joint on some Thursday afternoon in July to decorate their bellies.

I am the most boring woman in the galaxy.   I set an alarm.  I teach writing to kids who’d rather be playing on their X-box.  I cook pasta with some Barilla sauce straight from the jar.  I run the dishwasher.  I read my novel.   Repeat.

The too-loud reggae tunes assault me as I step inside and pretend to be all cozy-cozy in Iron Age Tattoo Parlor, pretend I am browsing the clearance racks at Marshall’s, pretend I have not just strode off the ship, clutching my suitcase, entering a dark city.  I rifle through the photo albums of images, yawning for effect.  The miss behind the counter, the miss whose right arm is smeared with tattoos and whose left is plain old au naturale (I wonder why), says, we are accepting walk-ins.  Magical.

“What’s the most unlikely place that, you know, a forty-five-year-old woman would, umm, get a tattoo,” I ask.  But she gazes at me like I’m from Planet Whatthefuck and tells me to just flip through the books.

I flip and flip, a good girl, an honors student.

A cupcake in the left armpit?  An engagement ring with the words, “Back off”?   A martini glass with an olive?   To Thine Own Self Be True – complete with cursive letters?

Across the room, a blondie, with her teenage daughter in tow, announces that they want matching swallow birds on their right shoulders.   Teenage Daughter seems sour, like she’s lost some bet and, thus, landed here, in the tattoo shop with her fifty-year-old mom.

I’ll have what they’re having, I want to bellow, drowning in indecision.   But, then, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes pass and, flip, flip, flip, I spot perfection on page 13 of Tattoos and Paintings a book by some guy named Chappy.

There it is.

The one that will make me alive and young and rebellious.

I will sport a denim jacket with cut-off sleeves, wear above-the-knee black boots decked with silver studs, strap on a helmet as I straddle the back of a Harley in a mini-skirt.  I will have flawless skin, wrinkle-free, even on my forehead.  And, there, bedecking my skinny left upper arm, will be the Chappy masterpiece.

And I will sing and dance in tattoo nirvana.

Forgive me, Grandma, I shout.  Please.  Forgive.  Me.

Here I go.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

It’s Not About the Towels

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on June 13, 2013

I thought I’d try to write a series of pieces called What We’re Learning (Even Though it’s Summer Break).

Here’s Part I:  Mama Will Drive an Hour in the Rain for Some Towels

So, I’m driving on “highway” 20-something to “highway” 8 to a back road I simply adore, especially in the rain, called AA, and Sarah, who is reading a novel that she’s found deep in the pocket of the backseat, doesn’t seem to even notice the dark clouds.  She doesn’t see her mom clutching the steering wheel, doesn’t see the trees swaying, the van swerving, doesn’t see inside her mom’s mind, where a tornado is sweeping up the Nissan Quest, delivering her, and her eleven-year-old daughter (plus all the crap that’s been piled in the car for months—the rollerblades, the six bike helmets, the sleeping bag, the Cardinals blanket, the Life cereal crumbs, the centerpieces that, shit, are still in there from Max’s bar mitzvah back in May), yes delivering us way, way off to never-neverland.  No, Sarah keeps flipping pages, keeps eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread.  “I like this bread,” she mutters.  Yeah, vegetarian-wheat-bread-eating-daughter-of-mine, I bet you do.  Those white bread slices are a little I’ll-miss-you-so-much treat.   Next week, it’s back to Brownberry Whole Grain.

Anyway, so we arrive at Camp Lakewood, the Christian camp where she’s landed mostly because somewhere in the Torah it must command Jews to send their kids to four week and six week, and dear god, eight week summer camp, because that’s all that seems to exist in the Jew-world that we know, and we don’t have the wad of cash necessary to deliver a kid to the woods for the whole summer.  So, she goes to this YMCA camp for one week, and she promises that the before-meal prayers are generic enough, no Jesus this and that, and they don’t make her sit in a chapel and bow her head, and there’s not a man on a cross above the pillow in her bunkbed.

We race out in the now-downpour, the two of us, and dear Sarah passes all of the special little tests that they throw at her.  The 98.6 temperature test.  The head lice screening.  The have-you-been-around-anyone-with-chicken-pox-lately inquisition.   We deposit 30 bucks into the little store account so she can load up on Skittles throughout the week, buy her a water bottle and a bag stuffed with colorful rocks, and head on over to her cabin.

She chooses a bottom bunk which I notice has various sizes of brown stains scattered across the mattress, and even though, without mentioning the word “stain”, I try my best to steer her to the mattress next door, she doesn’t budge, having apparently already fallen in love with this one, so I start covering it all up with her pink polka-dotted sheet and her fleece blanket with peace signs and hearts.   Good as new.

Then, as we begin unloading the piles from the blue duffle bag, dear Grace, who has already announced that this is her fourth summer at camp, asks why Sarah only has one towel.  Dear Grace has a pile of like eighteen towels.   I tell her that the packing list said, one towel, and that they must give you towels for swimming, but she shakes her head, and Sarah says, no mom, they don’t give you towels.  And then, Sarah gives me The Look.

I pull out the packing list, and sure enough, there it is.  The evidence.  Three towels.  THREE towels.

And then the damn committee in my brain does their glorious song-and-dance. Grace, dear Grace with the 18 towels, must have a mother who volunteers in the classroom every Thursday, who doesn’t have grocery bags filled with unmatched socks, who didn’t forget to coat the dog’s fur with anti-tick crap before taking him along on a hike yesterday, who would never, ever yell at her daughter for leaving chocolate chip pancakes unattended, chocolate chip pancakes for the mutt to devour, while her daughter grabbed a ponytail to tie back her knotty nest.  And, even if she would yell at her, she would never yell at her on the morning that she was leaving for sleepaway camp.  No way.  Yes, Grace’s mother was probably sitting at home right now, reading some new parenting book, sipping on herbal tea, relishing in the thought that later she would get to spend all day building Lego castles with her youngest son.

And then dear Grace says, “That’s okay, Sarah, you can borrow one of my towels.”  And I smile weakly at her, and Sarah smiles at her, and then I explain the thorny situation to Sarah’s counselor, nicknamed Rebel, Rebel who tries to brainstorm jazzy solutions and ultimately arrives at some lame-o story about how her mom once forgot to pack her towels too (sweet, but bullshit) and says that, of course, she’ll make sure that Sarah has a clean towel to use, that she can borrow one of hers so poor Sarah won’t have to use the lake-water-infested towel after her nightly showers.

I hug Sarah, and leave.  But as I’m heading back down AA, now in a damn monsoon, trying to silence my committee, trying to tell them to go to hell, trying to reassure myself that the quality of my parenting does not equate with the number of towels that I remember to pack inside my kid’s camp bag, I realize that I am not going home.  There is no way that I am going home.

Yes, I head down AA for what feels like 300 miles and then turn onto some other so-called highway and find, there it is, America’s sweetheart, a Walmart.

And eighty minutes later, I am strutting right back into that cabin, proudly displaying two brand new beach towels, and Sarah leaps out of the little get-to-know-each-other circle and says, “Are they mine?  To keep?” and I stare at my daughter, trying not to cry, thinking about how beautiful and strong she looks, how grown up she’s become, so fast.

And she says, you didn’t have to do that.  And I want to say, I know, Sarah, I know, but what you don’t understand, and what your 20-year-old counselor, Rebel, could never understand, is that this is not about you, my child, and this is certainly, certainly not about towels.

This is about me.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

Visiting the Past by Sarah Baker

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on May 18, 2013

Last summer, Max, Sarah, Lorne, and I visited the childhood homes of  both my dad and my mom.  A month ago, when Sarah was assigned to write a personal narrative about an important moment in her eleven-year life, she chose to capture her feelings about her grandfather by describing our visit to Ralph Avenue in Brooklyn. 

My family and I stepped off the subway in New York City to visit Papa’s past.  It was the first time any of us had seen where my grandfather grew up.

The first thing we noticed was how impoverished it was. I looked around at the barbed wire and the shabby stores.

When I heard the people across the street from us talking about how they were going to bail someone out of jail, I started thinking about where Papa lives now, in a fancy country club in Florida, with its pool in the backyard and the baby grand piano in the living room. I thought about how I was related to someone who must have worked so hard. Someone who didn’t just give up.

We walked past the grocery store and the laundromat, my mom snapping pictures all the way.

We were going to find where Papa had lived with his mother, Anna. His father died when he was very young. Anna was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. She left right before the Holocaust to come to America. Her only living relative to survive the Holocaust was her brother, Max. She met up with him when he came to America, but he died shortly afterward. Anna tried hard to make ends meet, but it was hard to get money. After a while, they went on welfare. Anna married two more times, but neither marriage lasted long. The first turned out to be a criminal and the second died about a week after their marriage.

After high school, Papa told Anna that he wasn’t going to college and instead he was going to work full time. That was the only slap across the face that he ever got from his mother.

“Education is the answer!” she yelled. It turns out that she was right.

Papa went to City College of New York and studied to be an accountant. After he got his degree, he decided that he would work all day and go to law school at night.

After he finished law school, he worked at a printing company.

After a while, he worked his way up to be president of the company, then owner, and he sold the company for a lot of money.

I was snapped back to the present when I heard my mom say, “Stand in front of the house so I can get a picture.” I looked up at the fading address on an apartment that appeared to have no one home. It was so marvelous to be standing in front of the apartment that my Grandpa used to live in.

I was suddenly overcome by a rush of emotions. I thought about how the people who live in this apartment now probably wouldn’t be as successful as Papa. I also thought about how my grandpa is a role model to show that you can get what you want if you really work at it.

The last thing that came into my mind as we walked back to the subway was how I want to be just like him when I grow up. I want to make him proud.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Don’t Forget the Sunglasses

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on March 17, 2013

We’ve got it all figured out.  I’ll sport my green sweater dress with my black tights or maybe my grey tights with the little sparkles, the ones that I picked up at Target last month when I was in a little need-some-bling mood, and my high black boots, yes, definitely the high black boots with the zipper.   Maybe I should even wear a padded bra for the occasion.   Sexy woman.

Sarah is standing here in my bedroom, so happy to have her mom finally home, and she’s decided that I’ll also need my red sunglasses, the giant red sunglasses that I bought off the guy on the 7th Avenue street corner this summer, the guy peddling sunglasses and scarves and some (maybe) stolen watches, the guy who called me Beautiful Angel.

Yeah, Sarah bounces around in my bedroom on this Monday night, imagining me in those sunglasses, announcing, Mom, we’ll also need to get your hair cut.  And I picture her hauling my dead ass over to Great Clips, flashing a three-dollars-off coupon that her dad has saved from the back of a Schnuck’s receipt.   I pray they don’t forget that special Fructis goop that flattens out my frizz.

We giggle.   Like crazy.

And maybe it’s insane to giggle about my own death with my children, to laugh with them about my ultimate demise.   Maybe those parenting books that stare at me, glued shut, from that spinning bookshelf in our living room, are sighing and frowning and judging, shrugging their shoulders with their I-tried-to-tell-her-so wisdom.  Maybe some giant lightning bolt will come strike me dead next year or next week or even tomorrow, and my children will be forever wounded by this March night when we all danced around picking out my coffin garb.

But I don’t think so.

Just two days ago, I received a “she didn’t make it” text from my friend who gives and gives and gives and who now has lost, first his dad and, on Saturday, his mom,  my friend who says “sure, no problem” when everyone else sees problems, from my friend who decided he would tell me first, who maybe expected I’d know what to do, what to say, about his 58-year-old mom, who, poof, is now gone.  I feel like sobbing.

But when Max asks me if I’d seen the body of my friend’s mom tonight and I say, yes, yes, I saw her, and in one of his holy-shit middle school moments, he asks if she was, jesus, was she naked, Mom, I push the tears away with giggles because how amazing that he’s made it nearly 13 years thinking that open caskets are like odd, free-of-charge peep shows?

I assure him that she was fully clothed.

And when Sarah asks if she’ll be the one who gets to adorn me in my green dress, my tights, my boots, I tell her, Sweetie, only if you really want to, but it would be okay if it were some strange old guy named Sal, you know, who, like, dresses dead bodies for a living.   What?  People do that?  Um, yeah, Honey.  But, Mom, isn’t it weird if a strange old guy sees your…yeah, yup, it sure is…

Naked corpses.  Strange men gaping at me in my birthday suit.   It all feels strangely hilarious.

*                        *                        *                        *

I want to shush death, to suffocate the bastard under thick afghans, to stuff him behind cinderblock walls.  I want to live in my little land where I’m never gonna get a damn headache and then hear some doctor sentence me to a few weeks left (brain cancer), the land where nobody would ever return from walking the dog and find me in an armchair, forever silenced (heart attack).

Five days have now passed since the funeral of my friend’s mom, since the night when my kids and I pieced together my final outfit.  And I sit here, tonight, thinking about this mother I didn’t know, this mother in her dress and her glasses, lying in that coffin, this mother who raised two girls, and a kind, gentle boy, a teacher, my friend.  And I wonder what she hoped for in her life, I wonder what beauty she held, I wonder if she hugged tightly.  Like her son does.

Yes, I sit here listening to the rain, wondering if she had that faith that the preacher at her funeral mentioned, that faith that makes some people so unafraid, even about dying.

And I think, maybe, in a few minutes, I’ll go find Sarah, go interrupt her marathon Harry Potter reading, go tickle her and tell her, “Hey, Sar-ee, I thought of something.  I think, you know, when that day comes, I wanna wear my Michigan baseball cap, or maybe you and Max can go buy me a wide-brimmed hat like the ones those fancy ladies wear to the horse races…”

And I hope that she’ll add some crazy details, some this-or-that about red lipstick or hoop earrings or that Gaultier perfume that I love to spray, and that, together, we’ll laugh a big laugh, giggling away the bitter fear.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

What Didn’t Happen at the Bowling Alley

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on January 30, 2013

Here is what didn’t happen at the bowling alley. I did not lunge a twelve-pound bowling ball at the forehead of the blonde woman wearing the short sleeve white polo shirt (really?)  (in this blustery weather?!).  I did not strut over to her in my best Debra-Solomon-Baker-New-York-style swagger and demonstrate the new kickboxing moves that I’d learned during that morning’s Body Combat workout on Youtube.

Let me back up to a Friday night in January, about a year ago.  I had planned this fiesta for my friend who now had 20 years of sobriety behind him, and so I’d bought some Ketel One vodka for the drinkers (with his blessing) and some hummus and crackers and his favorite Snyders fat pretzels.  I’d invited his AA sponsor and a few buddies from work.

And, best of all, I’d written this kick-ass tribute of 20 things that I wouldn’t want to change about him, a sweet blend of farce and sincerity.   My colleagues had dealt hand upon hand of Hearts at my dining room table, had told stories, had laughed about some painting of a busty woman that I had removed from the wall and stuffed in the basement.  My little house had exuded warmth and goodness that night.  And I had felt this pure, focused happiness.  Without measure.

Until around midnight.  My dear husband had walked into the house a few hours earlier with a rare scowl, but I had just dismissed it as a crippling day as a worker’s compensation attorney. I never expected (who does?) that, later, while he was washing and I was drying in the post-party cleanup, he’d reveal that his boss had canned him.

But, first, she had prayed on it.   Yes.  Of course she had.  Julie (whose name has not been changed to protect the innocent) had prayed on it and she had decided, with some help from Above, to announce to my dear husband that things just weren’t working out, that’s all, and that he needed to leave now, now, now, yes, today, yes, on that Friday afternoon in the middle of the goddamn recession that he was to come home to his wife and his daughter and his house payments and his son who had planned to go to this expensive sleepaway camp with his buddies, and suddenly they were a family of four (plus the dog) living on a teacher’s salary (thank goodness for the teacher’s salary).  Yes, she had prayed.  And some god had talked to her and told her that she couldn’t just wait and tell this guy that he could take a month or two and look for a new job while they rounded out their cases, or some other humane agreement like that.

Nope.  That’s not what that god of hers said.  He told her to order that forty-year-old guy to pack up his crap, to turn over his cell phone and his keys and his insurance, and to head home. Today.

So this all brings us back here, to this bowling alley, to last Saturday, to one year later, to Lorne pointing over at Ms. White Polo Shirt and whispering, “There she is.”   There.  She.  Is.

Yes, this all brings us back to what didn’t happen.

I wanted to toss her my first-ever left hook followed by a right jab to the jaw.  I wanted to furnish her with my personal favorite, the ol’ knee to the groin, a move that I had perfected (in my supremely active fantasy world).

I stared.  And despite Lorne’s admonition to quit staring, I stared more.  She and I locked eyes.

I had dreamed of this moment, a recurring dream.  I had even composed letters (unsent) and crafted conversations.

I wanted to spit words (or diet Coke) at her,  to belittle, to blame.  Right there, in that bowling alley, on that Saturday afternoon, I wanted to mock her version of god, of religion, of righteous behavior.  And I wanted to do it all loudly.

But I said nothing.

I raced to the door,  ran outside through the gusts, and jumped, alone, into the minivan.  Cranking up the heat, I sat there wondering, wondering about stories without action, about defining moments in bowling alleys, about the strangely unsettling power of silence.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

So Not a Snow Day

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on January 17, 2013

When the phone rings at 6:30 on a Thursday morning in January, I expect the beauty of a snow day.  I expect a day where we lounge in our feety pajamas watching some movie on Netflix about a sports player who defeats odds, you know, like Rudy or Rocky or somebody, where we drink hot cocoa with mini marshmallows that melt too quickly, where we pull on our silly, too-tight snow pants and our pom-pom hats and our waterproof gloves and roll around making angels, where we romp with Hooch and throw snowballs at him and giggle when he gets snow on his snout.

When the phone rings at 6:30 on a school day, I don’t expect to hear the voice of my kids’ superintendent announcing that there has been a “broad threat” to the school district, that we shouldn’t worry because there will be extra police officers at school, that they are taking so-called “added measures” for security.  I don’t expect to have to go stand beside my twelve-year-old son’s bed, look at his sleepy body wrapped up in his Cardinals fleece blanket and explain to him that, yes, he will go to school this morning, that, yes, he will be safe.

I don’t expect to learn that some sick bastard has posted a photograph on Instagram of the Newtown murderer with some photos of my son’s peers and some passive threat, like, “You can’t stop me.”

Right.  They can’t stop him.  Nobody can.    He can go to his local Walmart right now and get himself a Sig Sauer M400, complete with prismatic scope, whatever the hell that is.   Or, he can buy himself  a tri-star-triraptor- 12GA-28 Semi-Automatic Shotgun.   Or a dozen other beauties.  There is no shortage of variety.

God bless America.

I think back to the afternoon of the Newtown shootings, and how I headed home and asked my boy if he wanted to talk about what had happened.

“No, Mom,” he said.  “I already know what happened.”

“Well, I know that you know, Buddy, but is there anything that you want to, you know, talk about?”

“Nah,” he replied.  “I figure that I’m safe because all of my classes are in the way back corner of the building.  Even Spanish class.”

Jesus.

I just squeeze his shoulder and pretend to agree.  Classic parenting, I suppose.   Maybe.

And then I think back to last Thursday and how my students imagined piling into the closet, the closet where I store the old blue and pink pillows I bought years ago for when we had silent reading time, yes, they imagined piling into the closet.  To hide.

And they imagined cramming into the cabinets, the cabinets where I store the collection of poetry books that I will pull out in April, the cabinets where 84 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird wait for next week’s unearthing.

“If there’s really an intruder, Ms. Baker, can we dump all the books out and climb inside those?”

Yes.  Those would be the perfect size for your thirteen-year-old frames, I think.  I try to bury my imagination, to suffocate it.

I remember how they had wanted me to lock the door, to yank down the blinds, to assure them that the glass would, somehow protect them, even though we all knew that was a damn lie.

There we were, in the middle of the first intruder drill since the Newtown shootings.  And they wanted me to tell them that if they were peeing or texting or doing whatever they do when they ask to use the bathroom, that they could run back to the classroom, that they could join us here, squashed in the corner of the classroom, even when the official directions say to stay in the bathroom, alone, to push all of your weight against the door.

They wanted to know why I’d been directed to slip a green card under the classroom door, into the hallway, a green, everyone-is-safe-in-here card, because, Ms. Baker wouldn’t he then know we’re in here?   What’s the point, Ms. Baker, of huddling in the corner, away from the windows and doors, what’s the point of staying quiet, if you’re just gonna announce with that green card that the lambs are in here, waiting for their slaughter?

I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

And I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that you must plan hiding spots in this warped game of Hide And Seek, that you must mentally measure cabinets and closets, that you must know that huddling in the corner won’t really bring safety.

Let’s hope that tomorrow, if the phone rings at 6:30 am, we can all spend our mornings lugging sleds up Art Hill for some good, old-fashioned childhood.

Yes, childhood.  Remember that?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

This One’s For Dad: A Thanksgiving List

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on November 21, 2012

I guess when you’ve just found out that you need heart surgery and you’ve already gone through three wrestling matches with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma over the past umpteen years, you do what you’ve always done to take back some control.   You pay your bills.  You listen to your music.  You make lists of questions to ask the doctors.   That’s what Dad was doing when I called him yesterday morning.

My father is a master list-maker, a crafter of itineraries, a planner extraordinaire, yup, a leave-nothing-to-chance kind of guy.

So, on this eve of Thanksgiving, with his upcoming heart surgery that will, we hope, fix a bum valve that’s causing 50 percent of his heart to slack off, rather than to work, I’ve decided to channel my inner Gene; I’ve decided that I’d better make a list.

*                                    *                                  *

I am thankful for a father who needs a ladder to reach the top shelves of his wall-to-wall library of books, a father who, when I was maybe seven or eight, pulled out a giant white board and drew the electoral college map on it, deciding it was time that his kin knew how the heck this election stuff worked, a father who invited each of the children to report on current events articles over dinner, a father who socked away plenty of cash to pay for his children’s education.

I am thankful for a father who escorts his grandchildren to Barnes & Noble and buys them each a book and a giant cookie, who signs them up for golf clinics and for tennis clinics and who has introduced them to the Saint Andrews Country Club buffet, to overflowing plates of desserts, to build-your-own sundaes with M&Ms.

I am thankful for a father who has guided me to the beauty of classical music, who, as a wedding present, handed us a subscription to the Saint Louis Symphony, a father who seemed to always be awake on the couch listening to Mozart, even at 2 am, when I would tiptoe down the steps, needing him to be right there.

I am thankful for a father who is still astounded that I, his youngest daughter, have not yet been nominated as head of the U.S. Department of Education or been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a father who believes either (or both) may still happen to me.  I am thankful for a father who keeps a file of all the pieces that I’ve ever written, who always reads my work and posts comments like, “the best”, who says he wishes that there were more like me in the world, for a father who reminds me, again and again, that I have talent.

I am thankful for a father who spends his retirement writing books about Christianity, about Judaism, about the Holocaust, about our family, volumes that we will cling to long after he is gone, for a father who teaches music to crowds of elder adults, crowds who applaud and cherish him, for a father who knows that I still expect to have movie dates, just me and him, even if they just happen twice a year, for a father who tagged the email detailing the upcoming surgery, “Ya Gotta Have Heart.”

I am thankful for a father who took me to Lincoln Center, to R-rated movies, to the Metropolitan Opera, to the Guggenheim, to Broadway, for knowing that, somehow, being the only kid in the crowd was okay, even great, and for never seeming upset or disappointed when I fell asleep midway through the expensive concerts.  “The music was so beautiful,” he would say, “Perfect for sleeping.”  I am thankful for a father who asks why, in the snapshots I send, I look even younger than my own children.

I am thankful for a father who flew with us to Israel and to Jamaica, to Saint Maarten and to England, who taught us the value of marriage and of sticking together, who taught me to drive and who laughed along with me when I refused to pass the “Slow Moving Vehicle” on the highway, for a father who showed us that with hard work and with focus a person can, in fact, fly from 1675 Lincoln Place in wrong-side-of-the-tracks-Brooklyn to life on a golf course in Boca Raton, for a father who would always remind us, “You’re a Solomon and that means something.”

I am thankful for a father who wrote long, handwritten letters on yellow legal pads to me while I was at Michigan or during my semester in Italy, and who was the proudest parent in the audience on the afternoon I graduated with a master’s degree from Harvard, for a father who encouraged me to head to the best, even though other schools were offering sweet financial deals.

I am thankful for a father who studied law on crowded subway trains, working during the day, attending law school at night, so that he could work his way to an easier place for himself and for his soon-to-be-born family, who, as an adult, took swim lessons and learned to play the piano, who, as a Holocaust scholar, never, ever, ever would let us forget the complexity and the horror.

I am thankful for a father who is unafraid to talk about death, who speaks lightheartedly about the mausoleum that he’s purchased for himself and Mom, who jokes about the pig’s valve that doctors may use to mend his heart (and how his Kosher-keeping mother would’ve felt about that one), for a father who thinks there should be a mandatory course where everyone sits around and talks about death and dying rather than ignoring the inevitable, for a father who shares his Patron coffee liqueur with me, along with the rest of the booze in his well-stocked cabinet.

*                                                *                                          *

There’s more to write, but the house is only quiet for so long around here, so before I decide to wait, to delay, to perfect, I will, instead, just be finished. Maybe I should have written all of this to him during his first bout with cancer.  Or during his second.  Or during his third.  But I never did.   I’m just thankful, tonight, that I’m not too late.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Boo. At The Zoo.

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on October 10, 2012

So, we’re standing in front of the pacing sun bear, in a now-that-they’re-ten-and-twelve-years-old rare trip to the Saint Louis Zoo, and it’s that time of year, so the pumpkins and the scarecrows and the witches have jazzed up the place for the upcoming toddler frightfest, Boo at the Zoo, an event that both Max Baker and Sarah Baker have just announced (poor, deprived souls) they never, ever got to attend.  They’re wrong.  I think.  And later, I will dig out some photographs, I hope.  As evidence.

Anyway, I turn from the sun bear because Max has declared, in his most serious tone, Hey Mom, I’ve gotta ask you something.

Here we go.  It’s gonna be about girls.  About sex.  About terrorism.  About his bar mitzvah.  About godknowswhat.

Do you think that, you know, since this will probably be my last year and all, that I can trick-or-treat, you know, without you?  Like, just with me and my friends? 

Trick-or-treat.  Without me?

I think:  Stupid tears, I feel you coming.  You’re right there.  Just hide the hell away.    Get back in there.  You will not cry, Debra.  No. No. Not in front of him, you won’t.  Heart, stop it.  Don’t break right here, in front of this sun bear, in front of your son who looks so tall, whose face is breaking out with pimples, who will soon kiss a girl.   Brain, don’t start counting the years until he’s away at college because the number is smaller than you want to think about right now, no, don’t do it.

Don’t think about that year he wore that Tigger costume, when he couldn’t even walk yet, and how you plopped him in the middle of the pumpkin patch and took three million pictures.  No, don’t think about the year you found that Tootsie Roll costume on E-bay and you were so proud because it was only ten bucks and all the other moms at the Spoede Elementary School parade, the moms who hadn’t sneaked off from work, panicked to arrive just in time, how they had all oohed-and-ahed because it was the cutest darn costume in the whole bunch.   And how he had waved to me from the crowd, and I had thought, that’s MY boy.  Yup, that cute one over there with those eyelashes and that scratchy voice….

Don’t think, Debra, about how much you loved the simplicity of standing on your neighborhood streets, year after year after year, while he and the other kids would bounce up to the houses with their Unicef boxes jingling and their huge pumpkin-shaped bags of candy and how you would remind them to say thank you, yes, don’t forget to say thank you, and how you were always freezing, shivering, even with your winter hat on and your gloves, and how even though you hated to be so damn cold, you never ever wanted those nights to end.

No, Debra, don’t think right now about how all of the kids would gather in your kitchen for the annual post-Halloween bartering session.  They would sprawl on your dirty linoleum floor, the floor that you swore you’d replace right when you moved into that house, but they never cared that the floor was ugly and they never heard how it screamed to you a reminder of all that was broken or neglected, no, they would just sort and trade and count, and sort and trade and count, until everyone would emerge with their ideal hodgepodge of candy, which for Max needed to include at least 12 Three Musketeers bars, some Skittles, and a couple of packages of Starburst.

No, don’t think about how he would always ask first, was it okay if he could have maybe three pieces of candy right then, and how you would say sure, and how you’d think, you know what, Buddy, I would’ve said yes to eight tonight.  But, no, he never asked for much.

So, yes, you stand there beside the sun bear, beside your son, and you try to pretend that everything is not about to change, that your world is still sturdy even though you won’t be shivering on those sidewalks, hoping he gets a million pieces of his favorite everything.

I say:  Of course you can go trick-or-treating with your friends.  Umm, I think that’s a great idea.  We’ll just, you know, do something different this year.  It’ll be amazing.  And, you know I trust you.  I know that you’ll be careful and all that.

I squeeze his right shoulder. And then I turn away from my twelve-year-old son because the tears are pushing, pushing, pushing, desperate to be part of the conversation, and I have to remind them that they’re not invited.

No, not now.

I smile at Max as together, on this fall afternoon, we head toward the tigers, toward his favorite animal.  Still.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Filling the Cracks with Gold: A Promotion Speech

Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on May 23, 2012

Next week, my student, Ally, will be delivering this beautiful speech that she wrote for the eighth grade promotion ceremony.  She is thirteen years old, and, proudly, I share with you her wisdom:

Two months, two weeks, and six days ago, my mother was diagnosed with grade four brain cancer.  And every day since March 2nd, 2012, the Wydown community has proven to me that out of every thunderstorm, a rainbow will inevitably arise if you pursue it.

Throughout our 8th grade year in Literacy, we have sought to answer one essential question.  What does it mean to be a responsible member of the community?  In Of Mice and Men, this question brings to mind the responsibility that George felt to take care of Lennie and protect him as if they were brothers.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, this question reminds me of Atticus’s advice to Scout to never judge a man until you have walked around in his shoes.  But although it is the expectation for this class to brainstorm and attempt an answer to this question, I know that our 8th grade literacy teachers hope for us to walk out of their classrooms at the end of the day questioning our own values rather than those of the author of a book.  These works of literature that we have read and analyzed in literacy have guided me in finding an answer to this broad question, but ultimately the actions of the Wydown community presented me with my answer.

In the dictionary, the word responsible is defined as “having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.”  While this is a dictionary definition, a person’s own interpretation of responsibility and how they should be responsible varies.  I have learned that at Wydown, a person’s definition of being a responsible member of a community is above and beyond anything I have ever come across in my lifetime.  The amazing people I have been privileged to get to know have astonished me with their incredible kindness and thoughtfulness.  When my emotional health was rapidly deteriorating because my mother was in the intensive care unit on life support, my best friend managed to make me cry from laughter when she showed up at the hospital and fell off the railing in the elevator.  When I broke down at the thought of my mother shaving her head just to speed up the process of her hair loss, my 7th grade literacy teacher reminded me that my mom would be just as amazing with her hair that she was without it.  After my family received the second letter from our insurance company denying to cover my mother’s treatment, my friend brought a smile to my face by telling me that the insurance company could eat it.  And while tears descend down my cheeks because recovering these memories is so difficult, by some miracle called friendship, a smile somehow finds its way onto my lips when I gaze at the intricate hat that was knitted by my friend for my mother at my request.

The day before my mom’s brain tumor resection, I came across an interesting quote that I thought applied to my mom.  I know now that it does, but it also holds a strong connection to my life.  “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”-Barbara Bloom. The beauty that I have gained from this damage is wisdom.  I have learned that the power of a community can overcome the sorrow that any tragedy can cause you. I also feel that the people who reached out to me have not realized that what they thought was a small act of kindness has provided me with a sense of hope that people will be here to support me through this hard time.

My goal in writing this speech is to show the Wydown community the impact that a small act of kindness can have.  Simply writing a poem for somebody or bringing dinner over to their house can give them a sense of hope when they feel they have nothing else to hope for.

So, I would like to thank the Wydown community for reaching out to me when I needed them most.  You have helped me pick up the shattered pieces of my life, and while the cracks will remain forever, the glue that holds me together will stay strong.

Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »