I’m a hardcore sugar addict. My addiction waxes and wanes, depending on the level of self-control I’m able to muster. When my addiction is under control, I’ll indulge in a sweet treat once every week or so, or not at all. But I don’t believe in deprivation. I have sugar in my morning coffee, and I employ what I call the two-bite rule. This rule allows me to eat two average-size bites of anything sweet. So if there’s a birthday cake at work, I’ll have two bites of it. Two bites don’t seem to trigger sugar cravings and I always feel as if I’ve indulged just a little. When I can implement the two-bite rule, it works well, and I don’t feel deprived. When I jettison the two-bite rule, I’m always striving to return to it.
It’s hard for me to imagine being as young and stupid as I was in college. But at least I had an older brother, Charlie, to help me with the profound as well as the mundane. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, a place well known for near constant drizzle. Before I began my freshman year, Charlie helped me buy a small umbrella. So when I opened his gift for my twentieth birthday, sophomore year, and saw he’d given me a huge red stadium umbrella, I was confused. I thought, doesn’t he remember I already have an umbrella? He was there when I bought it!
At the time, I didn’t understand that umbrellas are not usually possessions that last a lifetime. They wear out and break easily. Less than two years older than me, Charlie seemed to know this fact. I don’t remember what happened to either of my college umbrellas, but they’re long gone. Thank goodness for my smart big brother, who knew I’d need at least two to see me through my college years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am extremely fortunate to belong to this family. There is no substitute for the love of the people who know us best, who appreciate our strengths and fogive us for our imperfections.
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.
This blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on 11/09/2017
My mother had some well-intentioned but grossly misguided ideas about parenting, among them her notions about how to take care of her sick adolescents. Charles, my only sibling, is a year and a half older than me. As young children, we often came down with the same illnesses. Charles had an extra bed in his room during my early elementary school years. In the mid 1960s, our grandparents bought a color television, a newly available luxury, and gave their old large black-and-white TV to my mother. Mom had a medium-sized set in her bedroom, and the living room was too formal for a TV, so the old black-and-white TV went into Charles’ room. When we were ill, Mom allowed me to camp out with him, and we’d watch television as we recuperated, often helping ourselves to the boysenberry ice cream in the freezer. We never seemed to fight when we were suffering through a cold or flu together.
We moved to California in 1970 when I was ten, and Charles’ new bedroom didn’t have an extra bed or a TV in it. In California I recuperated from illness alone in my room. At the onset of puberty, I began to get frequent and severe respiratory illnesses. I never watched television when I was sick during my adolescence. Instead I had a stereo in my room, and I would often fall asleep during the day with my headphones on, listening to Cat Stevens and James Taylor.
When I was in my early twenties, Mom told me she believed she’d allowed Charles and me to have too much fun when we were young and sick. She didn’t want illness to be attractive to us, and as a result, when we were older she developed a completely hands-off style. I assume she called our doctor, because medications were delivered from the pharmacy, but I don’t recall her ever taking care of us in any other way. We got out of bed to feed ourselves breakfast and lunch, and went back to the kitchen at dinnertime to retrieve whatever the housekeeper had cooked for the evening, which we ate alone in bed. I had the London Flu in 1973 when it was a national epidemic. San Mateo County where we lived had the highest mortality rate in the United States from that flu. During this illness, my stepfather brought me dinner on a tray once, the sole demonstration of parental concern.
One time Mom ordered three types of cough medicine and presented them to me, failing to give me dosage instructions. I took all of them at once, not knowing any better. No wonder I fell asleep listening to Sweet Baby James and Peace Train. Several days into my cough-syrup haze, Mom realized my mistake and became enraged, as if I’d purposely overdosed myself into a stupor. I missed so much high school due to constant illness that on a report card one teacher praised my skills at catching up.
At nineteen I began to have episodes of illness caused by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I’ve been sick much of my adult life. With the notable exception of help from one boyfriend and the care I received during a twenty-four-hour bug when visiting my father and stepmother, I’ve always taken care of myself. I never expect anyone to help me when I’m sick, and except when recovering from outpatient surgeries, I rarely accept offers of assistance.
Mom’s assessment of the time Charles and I spent recovering from illness was not accurate. The camaraderie I felt when we were ill together as small children was a gift, and it provided me with happy memories of us watching reruns of I Love Lucy and Perry Mason, when there would otherwise only be memories of coughs and clogged noses. My mother’s desire to make sickness unattractive was unnecessary and based on an erroneous belief. Although it wasn’t her intention, Mom succeeded in making me resilient and self-reliant when ill. These traits have proved invaluable. I know I’ll be fine on my own no matter how sick I become. Illness has caused many other miseries, but I’m never concerned about how I’ll take care of myself. I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen.
I’m fifty-seven as I write this, and there’s no point in being upset about bad parenting that took place four decades ago. Soon I’ll have my first inpatient hospitalization to remove my spleen. I’m worried about various aspects of this surgery, but not at all about how I’ll recover alone as I heal. And for this unexpected result of an abysmally poor parenting choice, I’m grateful.
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.
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.
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.
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.