Mourning at Mary Poppins Returns

My father died in January 2018. I still miss him badly and keenly feel his absence. I’ve never mourned anyone as much as Dad, and I’m learning things about the grief process that I previously didn’t fully understand.

Last Christmas a friend and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. As the opening credits rolled, I began to cry. My parents separated in early 1966. That summer, on a scorching, humid New York City day, Dad took me to see the original Mary Poppins. I’d already seen it four times, no doubt at least a couple of times with him. But we had to get out of the one-hundred-five-degree heat, and there were few affordable places to take a sweaty six-year-old.

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The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

I always thought of my father sitting through that movie for the umpteenth time as a valiant act of fatherhood. So when the credits for Mary Poppins Returns began and the music swelled, all I could think of was Dad and that day. It moved me to tears. I have countless happy memories of my father, and they make me mourn his passing, knowing my memories are all I have left. Despite my sadness, I’m always grateful that this warm, funny, loving man was my father.

YOU WILL DANCE: FINDING JOY AT AN INDIAN WEDDING

This article was first published on YoursNews.in on April 20, 2019.

For a year and a half, my friend had been inviting me to visit him in India. I knew this friend through his website, where I occasionally posted articles. I always declined his invitation. A trip to India wasn’t in my budget and held potential dangers to my health, since my immune system is compromised. Then last June, I called him and said, “Guess what? I’m coming to India!” My nephew had already gone through a courthouse wedding to a native of New Delhi, and the Hindu ceremony was scheduled for the following year. Despite my initial reluctance to travel halfway around the world to a place well known for its health risks to Westerners, I would never miss an important family event, and I began to plan the trip.IMG_0053

I’d traveled alone to Europe in 2017 and 2018, but preparing for India took my usual tourist preparations to a new level. The difference seemed like a lovely day hike on flat terrain in the spring versus rock climbing in winter. It took three tries just to successfully submit my application for an Indian visa, and I became so frustrated with the computer application, I thought I might need to engage a millennial to help me through it (a method I’d used when previously challenged by computer issues). If I drank, I’d have been chugging martinis to calm my nerves by the third try.

I researched what might be required of me to the extent possible. Everything I read stated that I needed to dress modestly, necessitating that several parts of my body be covered. This resulted in some frantic late-summer sale shopping to ensure I wouldn’t offend the locals or my nephew’s wonderful in-laws. I would also need two sets of hotel and plane reservations since I chose to travel directly from San Francisco to New Delhi. I flew from San Diego, where I live, to San Francisco the day prior to my trip to India, avoiding the risk of missing my mid-morning international flight because of local delays. I spent the night before the trip and the night I returned to the U.S. at an airport hotel. After taking care of shopping and reservations, I needed vaccinations. The preparations seemed endless, but by early January I was ready.IMG_4886

The minute I arrived at the gate for my international flight, I knew I was starting out on an adventure. There were few identifiable Americans among the waiting passengers, and instead the seats were filled with women wearing intricately patterned saris and men in turbans of bright red, deep ochre, and brown. The sixteen-hour flight might have been easier if the electronics in my seat hadn’t immediately malfunctioned. I couldn’t access any of the in-flight entertainment or turn my light on and off. The light stayed on for the entire flight, and I gave my new sleep mask and earplugs to my seatmate as a form of apology. I slept only about three hours, and the rest of the time ate the meals offered and read a good book.

I’d arranged for a limousine from my hotel to pick me up at the airport. I knew once I arrived at the hotel, I could relax. There I would rendezvous with my family and for the rest of the trip would simply enjoy whatever activities they arranged. We spent two and a half days being tourists, and a day and a half engaged in wedding events.

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Although India was not on my previous list of desired travel destinations, I will be eternally grateful that I visited this country. I saw many beautiful sights, including the Taj Mahal, The Lodi Temple in New Delhi, the vast countryside (albeit from a bus window), and several markets.

But the most magical part of the trip lay in the wedding. I’ve never been to a more joyous, moving, and loving affair. My nephew’s in-laws had trimmed the celebration from the usual three days down to two. The festivities began in the morning with a henna ceremony, which lasted until early afternoon. My family had met seven members of the bride’s family at the civil ceremony in the United States, but we were greeted by the rest of her clan that first morning. Every member of my new niece’s family whom I’d met six months earlier embraced me. Throughout the day other guests approached me to ask if I was enjoying myself or to explain the meaning of the rituals. I had no idea who some of these people were, but as the ceremony progressed, I learned they were aunts, cousins, and, in one case, the best friend of the bride’s father. I’ve never been received with more warmth or hospitality. The henna ceremony was particularly moving in its inclusivity. All the relatives partook of anointing the bride and groom with saffron. Four 20-something boisterous girls attended, cousins of the bride, all dressed in saris. They seemed to be perpetually smiling and laughing. Less boisterous but equally charming was my new niece’s best friend. This young woman had a shy smile and a quiet, lovely gravitas that I found enchanting. When describing the festivities for the evening ahead, she declared “You will dance.”IMG_4819

That night, dressed in our Indian celebratory garb, my family joined in the second part of the wedding. My niece’s best friend was right—we all danced. I reminded her of her prediction, and she and I danced together. She showed me the moves, and I followed as best I could, as happy as an auntie could ever be. There were many prepared dances performed by the bride and groom, by the bride’s friends and cousins, by a group of little girls, and by many middle-aged ladies of both families. (I had missed this rehearsal somehow, so I didn’t know the steps.) I danced with one of my uncles, also new to the family, who I quickly learned could whirl me around as if he were Fed Astaire. My family and the bride’s family were enchanted with each other, both thrilled that these two wonderful young people had found each other and that we were all now connected through them. The bride and groom’s vows were touching and heartfelt. I have never been to a happier wedding.

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The next night, the families participated in another party and the religious ceremony, which ended the celebrations. During the evening, my nephew slowly approached the wedding venue in a horse-drawn chariot. An entourage of friends and family danced in front of him while a live band played. This would be a rare occurrence in the United States and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The party on this night was also lovely, and I met more of my niece’s relatives, who continued to warmly welcome my family and me. Joy, whenever it is felt, is rare and precious. But to experience those emotions with many of the people I love most made my nephew’s wedding blissful.

At many weddings, countless photos are taken. While photos often memorialize some of life’s best moments, other moments are ephemeral, and no one’s around to record them or even know they’re occurring. Although I have photos of my wedding, no one knows that as we said our vows with clasped hands, my husband quietly rubbed my palms. Nor did anyone record the moment he first saw me in my wedding dress and told me I looked beautiful. The first moment I saw my nephew, I was standing in the doorway of my brother and sister-in-law’s home. My brother had him strapped to his chest in a baby carrier, and I could only see the top of my nephew’s head. But this was a peak life moment. I’ve adored him ever since I saw that reddish-blond fuzz sticking out from the carrier. I had a similar moment on the first night of his wedding. As I stood there looking at our exuberant families, I thought to myself, I would have spent thirty-two hours in the broken seat of an Do the Right Thing—Scoop the Poopairplane to be here.fullsizeoutput_cfb

For my relatives, family is paramount. I heard this sentiment uttered repeatedly by my niece’s family during our time together. Everything they did made us feel welcome. I don’t know if I’ll have an occasion to return to India, but my visa is good for ten years, and I feel comfortable with the idea of visiting again. The thought fills me with warmth. If I choose to return, I’ll have family there, and in my heart, I’ll be home.

 

 

 

WATERWORKS

attractive-1867127_1280After my father died without warning, I often found myself crying suddenly. I cried while buying a cookie at a charity bake sale for a nurse who died in Iraq. I got choked up recalling how my high school class stood when our classmate who had cerebral palsy graduated, and became teary as I read about a homeless woman who died on the streets of New York City. At first I was embarrassed and perplexed by the waterworks. Over time I began to accept the unexpected crying as part of my grief process. We can’t always control our grief. Optimally we experience grief as it presents itself, feel it fully, and then let it subside until the next time it surfaces

WHERE ARE OUR PARENTS?

When my father died suddenly after a four-day illness, my brother Charles expressed my feelings best when he observed, “We used to have parents. Where’d they go?” I felt exactly the same way. We had parents, and with Dad’s death, suddenly we didn’t. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling.

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Many people who supported me after Dad died confirmed that the world never feels the same after your parents die. I’ve had other sudden deaths in my life. My mother died of pneumonia when she was forty-nine, and my ex-husband, with no forewarning, killed himself in 2013. The latter left me traumatized, but I didn’t miss him the way I miss Dad. I’ve never missed anyone so intensely, and frankly, I want him back. I know this won’t happen, but it’s a primal desire I can’t control.

Every phase of life has its unexpected challenges and joys. My fifties have been wonderful in numerous ways I never could have anticipated. Despite my longings to have Dad back, I know I’ll get used to his absence. I just need to give myself time.

BIG WORDS, PART 2

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my father, Stephen Charnas.

During my childhood, members of my family periodically observed my father laughing quietly to himself. My stepmother would usually comment, “You’re thinking of something funny, aren’t you?” And sure enough, Dad had been mulling over a humorous idea and made himself laugh. I always admired Dad’s ability to create solitary, unrestrained enjoyment.

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I don’t share Dad’s gift for laugh-out-loud self-amusement, but I am able to entertain myself by playing with language. I savor using familiar words in new ways. Recently the word confederates has been on my mind and occasionally popping out of my mouth. Everyone knows what the word means in relationship to the Civil War. They were the guys in gray from the South who lost. But I’ve been using another meaning of the word—allies or partners. Confederates is such a rich, warm word. I’m grateful for my love of English. I spend much of my free time reading or watching TV. My ability to entertain myself with language makes the down time easier.

Rest in Peace – Stephen Charnas

It’s taken a few days for reality to sink in: My beautiful, funny, brilliant, loving father, Stephen Charnas, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 31. I and the rest of my family are deeply saddened, as well as profoundly grateful to have had him in our lives. Today it seems as though the earth should stop rotating for just a moment to aknowledge his departure. Everything is the same but nothing feels the same. He was a great father.00000342

Other Families

This blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on October 24, 2017

I planned to skip the bar mitzvah of Aaron’s middle child. I’d traveled from San Diego to Miami Beach four years earlier to attend the bar mitzvah of his oldest child and intended to attend the one for his youngest offspring in another two years. Two out of three celebrations would be a sufficient display of loyalty to my old friend. Broke from three out-of-network eye surgeries, I didn’t have the money for a trip to Miami Beach that year.

But as the Bar Mitzvah approached, I began to feel a deep ache, as if I were missing out on an important event in my own family. I’ve learned to trust my gut feelings, so I called Aaron and told him I’d go after all. I took a sixteen-hundred-dollar leap of faith—the cost of the air fare, hotel, and incidental expenses. My faith was validated a few weeks later when I traded a family heirloom and netted an extra sixteen hundred dollars from the transaction, exactly the amount I needed. This trip was meant to be.

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I met Aaron when we were both traveling solo in 1988 in Paris. Eight years later I stood up for him at his wedding, where I met his family and all of his in-laws. I’ve been treated like extended family by them ever since. At the Friday night service the night before the bar mitzvah, in which the relatives of the bar mitzvah boy are incorporated, I decided to sit in a back pew. When I ran into Aaron’s mother-in-law in the ladies’ room before the service, she urged me to sit in the front of the sanctuary with the family. I confessed to her that if I sat up front, I would cry, and I did. I used an entire packet of Kleenex while sniffling.

I love these rites of passage: weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, and I’m deeply affected by them. I recently attended the funeral of someone everyone called Mama Lola. She was the mother of my close friend, Stella. Stella has invited me to many of her family’s events and celebrations—weddings, baby showers, Thanksgiving meals, and Christmas mornings. When I threw a big party to celebrate my book launch, several of her relatives attended. At the funeral, all three of Stella’s adult daughters and two of her grown grandsons hugged me in greeting. I believe I was one of the only non-family members at this large funeral. I met other members of the extended family afterward at the reception—in-laws and several of the in-laws’ parents. Mama Lola had six children, eighteen grandchildren, and twenty-two grandchildren. Everyone I encountered made me feel valued and accepted. I was inspired by the eulogies, delivered by a son and son-in-law, as they extolled the values that Mama Lola instilled in them. She had clearly passed on her welcoming nature, in abundant evidence that day, to her descendants.

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I am deeply grateful to these two families for making me feel welcome. I love my immediate family unconditionally. We have nine members, including a new in-law I’m hoping to get to know. We are a living organism existing on two continents, and in perpetual evolution. Within healthy families there’s a constant flux of accommodation, being forgiven and forgiving, changing and adjusting. We must change or we fracture and die. Sometimes everything flows smoothly, and other times the process takes mindfulness and effort. But it is an effort with the deepest rewards.

When we are on the fringes of other families, we reap the rewards of inclusion without having to make the same kinds of effort that our family of origin inherently requires. It is as if these other families lifted the flaps of their big tents and invited us in for a brief while to enjoy all the benefits, but none of the demands, of family.

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Being included in the families of my good friends deepens my appreciation of my own family. I am reminded of the importance of acceptance and love as I see it mirrored in other families and feel it from them briefly. At the bar mitzvahs, Aaron’s parents and in-laws marvel that I travel so far to be present. I don’t know how to explain the depth of gratitude I feel toward them for letting me into their tent to enjoy the embraces of their tribe. While I’m with them, I feel at home.

Saying Goodbye to Dad Through the Mail

This Blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on June 20, 2017

Love and hate often go together. I both love and hate writing to my father every week. When my stepmother placed him in an assisted living facility in 2014, I asked her if I could do anything for him in his new home. She suggested I send him cards. So for the last three years, every week I’ve mailed him a greeting card.

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My parents divorced when I was six years old. For the first four years after their divorce, my entire family lived in New York City, and my brother and I visited our father, and later our stepmother, every other weekend. He never called us, but we felt connected to him through regular visitations.

After four years, my father and step-mother moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, two thousand miles away, and our visits went from every couple of weeks to three times a year during school vacations. Both our father and stepmother wrote regularly. Their correspondence became our sole form of communication between season-long gaps in personal contact. After Dad and Suzy moved away, I spent every Sunday afternoon at my paternal grandmother’s home, where I wrote letters to Albuquerque. I’m a terrible speller, and I felt hugely proud of myself when I learned to spell Albuquerque correctly. This enabled me to address the envelopes to my father and stepmother without my grandmother’s assistance.

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Less than a year after my father and stepmother moved to New Mexico, my mother, brother, and I also made a cross-country move to California. The letters between me and my family in Albuquerque continued. My grandmother had helped me establish my writing habit. During the last eight years of my childhood, I don’t recall receiving even one phone call from my father, but by the time I left for college, I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from Dad and Suzy.

Our letters evolved into phone calls when I moved to college, probably because I was then in charge of my own phone bills and could pay for the calls out of my college budget. My father and stepmother had established, and were largely funding, this budget.

When I was in my early thirties, a friend living in another state became acutely sick. I bought and sent a year’s worth of greeting cards to cheer her up. After the year ended, I replaced the cards with letters. I took pride in sending those weekly letters, and I hoped she enjoyed receiving them. This correspondence was entirely one sided, with no expectation of reciprocity. Our friendship was reciprocity enough. I ended this correspondence about fifteen years later when I became so sick, I missed two months of work. I simply couldn’t muster the stamina the letters required. After my health rebounded, I realized I’d burned out, and I stopped writing them. My friend didn’t seem to notice or care, but I hoped the fifteen years of cards and letters from me had brought her a small amount of pleasure.

I’ve also carried on a correspondence since 1979 with a childhood friend I reunited with in college. My friend and I rarely see each other or speak on the phone, but the correspondence is so intimate, I feel as if we’ve been having a thirty-eight-year conversation. Our letters are the bedrock of our friendship.

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When Dad was first institutionalized, I tucked photos I’d taken in with the cards. I’d ask interesting looking strangers if I could photograph them, explaining my purpose. Two especially memorable photos depicted a baby in a straw fedora and a woman with rainbow-colored hair. I called it the Alzheimer’s Project, and no one ever refused my request. But over time, I realized Dad’s cognitive abilities had declined so significantly, he might not be able to understand the reason for the photos or the brief comments accompanying them. I expressed these concerns to my stepmother, who agreed that a simple message would now be all Dad could understand.

My greetings on the colorful cards I mail him weekly have simplified into two true sentiments: I hope you are enjoying your day and I’m thinking about you. Occasionally I check with my stepmother to ensure that the cards are still welcome. She assures me that Dad continues to enjoy them, and he shows them to her when she visits.

I hate sending the cards to Dad because they remind me of all that my family has lost—a brilliant, caring, and funny man who is now a remnant of his former self. But I love sending them because the cards allow me to care for Dad and connect with him through this small gesture, even if he no longer remembers who I am.

Dad established my life-long role as a letter writer, unintentionally setting the stage for our current one-way correspondence. I’ve been writing and publishing professionally since 2015. I’ve learned writing lessons too numerous to list here. But one of the most important things I’ve learned is to do my best and let go of the outcome. I’ll continue to write to Dad every week without any expectation of how my cards are received. This is a small part of the on-going process of letting go of my beloved father.