Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seemed Like Old Times...

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a few of the people who were most significant to me in a positive way when I was in junior high. Our lives had their way with us and we forged our own paths until it was literally decades since some of us had seen each other. How does this happen? I remember not being able to get through a 45-minute class without passing a note to Susan or Aruna then afterschool talking for hours on the phone. For the life of me, I can’t remember a single word scribbled in those notes or in those phone conversations but I do remember how they made me feel. I felt like “me” and it was good. During those awkward junior high school years where you are not a little kid but still goofy. It’s when your body and emotions have their own plans for you. You are constantly conflicted between your need for acceptance and your need to find out who you are. Your greatest need is for someone to go through it with you and not laugh too hard when you make an ass of yourself and to help you feel like you’re something special. That’s what I remember about all those notes and phone calls. That’s what I remember about Susan, Aruna, George and Bill. And yet we allowed so much time to pass between visits, phone calls and letters…

My mother and step-father married during the summer between sixth and seventh grades and we moved from Flushing to Glen Oaks. That’s about a 20-minute car ride but to me at the time, it might as well have been halfway around the world. I started junior high not knowing a solitary person and it seemed like everyone else there knew everyone else since birth.

I made what turned out to be a terrible judgment call on the first day of school when I wore a white mini-skirt with red polka dots on it and a red top. I wanted to look nice for my first day at the new school and when I walked out the door, I felt pretty and red always made me feel confident. That feeling didn’t last very long.

There was a kid named Bart Todd who on that first day of school made it his personal mission to make my every moment at this new school a living Hell for me. Maybe it was the red shirt that got his hostility pumping, maybe the polka dots on my skirt reminded him of an embarrassing outfit his mother put him in when he was three and stirred up anger that was buried deep inside him or maybe he was just a creep that saw me as the vulnerable, wide-eyed kid that was all alone in a strange place and figured I was easy prey. The “why” doesn’t really matter at this point. It didn’t really matter then either. His relentless, daily torture (which others chimed in on, too) wouldn’t have stopped if I knew why he chose me to pick on. That first day of school, I went home feeling like an ugly freak. I went home feeling that way for the entire year.

Things at home weren’t much better as I was trying to get used to my entirely changed life. It turned out to be for the best but when you are a displaced, tormented 12-year-old, you don’t see it that way. Even now as I am writing this, these wounds I received 27 years ago (Holy cow! Has it really been that long?!?!?) seem as fresh as the day I received them. That was the worst year of my entire life. I will never forget Bart Todd or his Dallas Cowboys jersey that he seemed to wear every day and his pin straight brown hair framing his extremely freckled face and I especially won’t ever forget the way that he made me feel.

Thankfully, Bart moved away during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I remember hoping that there was a “Bart Todd” at his new school who would give him the same welcome that that this Bart Todd gave me. God forgive me, as I sit here as a nearly 40-year old woman (WOW! I’m getting old…), I still hope that he had that experience when he was the new kid at school. But you know what the kicker is here? I bet that if by some chance he was reading this blog, he would be stunned to find out what an impact he had on my life and my fragile 12-year-old ego. Bart Todd would hardly be alone. Most people have little to no idea of the kind of impact they’ve had on other people’s lives – positive or negative -- and when those most significant moments occur.

Enough about Bart Todd. I’ve spewed enough negative energy here. I’m done with that now. Let’s move on to eighth grade, an infinitely better year. The year I met Susan, Aruna, George and Bill. That was when they helped me find my smile again.

Susan, Aruna and I were in the same class. In seventh grade there were three SP classes but there were enough students that didn’t make the cut that there were only two SP classes in eighth grade. There were only two other kids along with me from my seventh grade class that made it to SP in eighth grade. That was a relief off the bat. I felt I had a real shot of having a school yea that was manageable.

I remember being in classes with Susan and instantly liking her but she intimidated me a little. She was everything that I was not. She was blonde, had an incredibly infectious smile and was just the kind of person you wanted to have around. I remember wanting to be her friend. Maybe some of that would rub off on me (well, not the blonde hair part but you know what I mean). I don’t know how it happened but Susan and I did become friends. Soon we became inseparable and stayed that way through junior high and high school. We were so opposite, me with my jet black hair, dark sarcasm and pessimistic view of the world and Susan blonde, beautiful and always seeing the good in people. I guess we complemented each other. I know that I have never laughed so hard, so often with anyone else in my life. I told Susan about all of my frustrations in my home life and while hers was very different than mine, she never made me feel like a freak and was always there to listen. I pretty much lived in her house (especially the back room). Hers was the family I wished I had and I kind of did for a few years – including the coolest big brother in the world, Bobby, oooh, I mean “Rob.” All of that saved my life. I know it. If not for Susan being Ying to my Yang and the Zahner family putting up with me as practically a border in their home, I know that I would have headed on a path to no-good paved with self-loathing. Susan, you were the best friend I ever had in my nearly 40-years. You will never know what an impact you’ve had on me. Adequate words do not exist.

Susan introduced me to Aruna. They knew each other since grade school. Aruna was so much fun. She was quirky and funny and I always felt comfortable being silly with her. I remember being at her house with Susan (when we should have been some place else…) and watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious for the first (second, third…tenth) time. You know until our recent reunion dinner, I had no idea that Mrs. Subramanian was working at the bank a couple of blocks away while we were hanging at the house? I think that was something I was better off not knowing at the time because I would have been freaked out and that would’ve gotten in the way of our collective good time. Aruna, thanks for showing me that you can cut loose without being a bad-ass.

And George and Bill…what can I say about those guys. I was so sorry that Bill couldn’t join us at the dinner. The flu has its way of tearing through on its schedule which is generally in direct opposition of our personal schedules. While Bill wasn’t there in body, he certainly was there in spirit. “George and Bill” were kind of a Ying Yang pair of their own. I really don’t remember how I met them. I know that Susan and Aruna knew them first from grade school and it was a big coincidence when we found out that I knew them, too. I know that I met Bill first. He was the first normal guy to “like-like” me in junior high. I never told him this but after a year of feeling like an ugly freak, Bill made me feel pretty and worthy of good attention. That was huge and I am forever grateful that I was able to turn his eye. Unfortunately, George was the second normal guy to “like-like” me. At first this seemed like a disaster but fortunately, Bill was a great friend and didn’t stand in the way of my and George’s “adolescent romance.” It was a great lesson to be part of. George made me feel beautiful and special. And even though he completely forgot that on our first date he took me to see Dune, he was the perfect first boyfriend and someone I am proud to call “friend” today.

My daughter is now about the age I was when I met Susan, Aruna, George and Bill I see her playing out the teen melodrama, having “private jokes” and creating bonds with her peers. I am thankful that her seventh grade experience is so different than mine was. I love that she is a natural leader, compassionate and naturally self-assured to the point where she will not only stand up for herself when she feels there was in injustice perpetrated against her, but will stand-up for others when she feels that they are being unjustly picked on. It took the support of my core friends to give me the strength to feel comfortable in who I was. Susan, Aruna, George and Bill, I am so thankful to each of you for that. I only hope that Catalina is fortunate enough to have friends as good as these as she travels on her journey to her Self.

If any of you are reading this, I don’t know if any of you are surprised by the impact you had on my life and in what ways you affected me. If it took 26 years for me to let you know, shame on me. I promise, I’ll be quicker to let you know from now on.

Dinner that night was fantastic. While each of us looked a little older – but not as much as we should have I must say we are all pretty hot for people closing in on the Big 4-0! – when we got to talking, it was as if no time had passed. That is the true sign of a great, old friendship; it is timeless. Next time we get together, I hope that Bill will be there to swap old stories and dust the cobwebs from these old stories we have in our vaults. I also hope that Cindy will be there, too. The others knew Cindy from grade school but she moved away before I had a chance to meet her. It was great making a “new old friend.”

Thank you, Facebook, for facilitating our reunion and not allowing these friendships to become merely fading memories.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

It bothers me that Veteran's Day had degenerated into a retail holiday that the American people equate with great bargains at retail stores. This day was put forth to honor those service men and women who defended and continue to defend our country. In the days since September 11, 2001, I think that there is no more important time to restore Veteran's Day to the day of honor and gratitude it was intended to be.

I am fortunate to have personally known many people who've chosen to serve in the military. My father was in the Air Force, his brother was in the Army for a good deal of his life, my Uncle Sydney and Uncle Milton were both Navy men serving in WWII and the Korean War respectively. My cousin Richie was a Marine. My husband's father, who I never had the opportunity to meet, was in the Army. The flag that was laid upon his coffin is framed on my wall along with his dog tag. Then there were some peers who chose the military after we graduated high school and served in the first Gulf War, Anthony Fiorello and Chris Munz, who I am proud to say, is a decorated veteran from that conflict and continues to serve. Thank you, Chris, for all you have done and are doing.

The person I want to pay particular homage to today is my Grandpa Sam, my maternal grandmother's father. He died the year I was born. I am glad that I had the opportunity to be held in his arms during my first three months of life. My grandmother told me it gave him great joy. I am sorry that I have no direct memory of him because through the stories I heard from my grandmother about him, he was someone special and someone that I feel I know through these stories.

Samuel Weisneivetsky (Grandpa Sam) was born in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, some time around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Birth records stunk then, especially in Eastern Europe where it was extremely tumultuous. It was a hard life there. You could count on being covered with snow from November to March. But the physical climate was not the source of greatest adversity.

The Weisneivetsky family was Jewish. Jews were not well-liked throughout Europe. The rampant anti-semetism and acts of genocide by far predated the Third Reich and Hitler, which is what facilitated the Third Reich's rise. But that is a history lesson for another time. For now, we are in Kiev, Ukraine in the late 1800's to early 1900's. Jews were relegated to living in ghettos and worshipping God in secret and in fear. There was no Hitler or Nazis or SS. There were Cossacks. They were the military presence in Grandpa Sam's world. There weren't concentration camps yet. There were Pogroms -- planned riots directed against Jews characterized by killings and destruction of their homes, businesses and temples.

The military in Grandpa Sam's world growing up were not there to preserve his and his family's freedoms. The Cossacks came to town and destroyed. The Weisneivetsky family were furriers. They were also Orthodox Jews. One day during one of the Pogroms, Cossacks came into the family shop, robbed it of the furs, took the Weisneivetsky men and cut off their beards, which was a sacrilege. There was nobody to report this to for justice. The military was in charge and they were the ones perpetrating the acts. Similar stories were all over Europe. Grandpa Sam knew that there was a better life than this and heard that it could be found in America.

When Samuel Weisneivetsky arrived at Ellis Island, he became Samuel Weiss. It was easier to spell and pronounce and he thought it was more American. He was anxious to put Kiev behind him and start a brand new life. Immigrant life was difficult. There weren't many jobs. None for him in the family's furrier trade. But there were also no Pogroms here so he felt it was a good life doing odd jobs and having a modest apartment in Brooklyn. He was allowed to be a Jew and live anywhere he could afford. There were temples within blocks of churches. He could worship freely without worrying about a price to pay later if anyone saw him. The police were there for the good of all the members of the community. America was exactly what Grandpa Sam hoped it would be. Even though he was dirt poor, he was proud to be part of his new homeland.

Then came World War I. Grandpa Sam enlisted in the army. He would see Europe again but this was no longer his home. He was fighting with his new country for its ideals. America gave him a life he never could have had in Europe. He was free here. It was important that he be part of the preservation of this way of life. His children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and on will never know the oppression he knew. Grandpa Sam was proud to wear the American Army uniform. The military stood for something so different in America than it did in Kiev. Wearing that uniform also gave him the opportunity to help liberate those who were like him in Europe and who did not have the good fortune to make it to America. He considered it an honor to serve and was proud that he could be an active part of the victory in The Great War.

When Grandpa Sam came home, he had a trade he learned in the Army; lithography. No more odd jobs. As it turned out, Grandpa Sam was a gifted lithographer. This was his profession until the Great Depression. Then the shops closed up. There were no jobs for a skilled laborer such as himself so it was back to doing odd jobs to support his family. These were difficult times indeed. But Grandpa Sam's love of America never wavered. We were all in this together and the government was working on programs to get everyone back on their feet.

In 1941, the United States entered World War II. The Third Reich had risen and there were rumors too horrible for people to believe about what was happening to the Jews and other minority groups in Europe. Having lived through the Pogroms, Grandpa Sam found these rumors less difficult to believe. He wanted so much to go back and fight with the American Army as he did in World War I. If ever there was a just war, this was it. However, by 1941, Grandpa Sam was in his 40's. Hardly ideal for a soldier. He resigned himself to supporting the war in other ways. But then a strange thing happened...Grandpa Sam got a draft notice.

The Army had a record of Grandpa Sam's lithography training. They also realized how skilled he was at it. They needed someone of his skills and experience to print the maps the generals and soldiers would use to guide them through their battles. They had to be perfect. Lives were at stake. Winning these battles and eventually the war put our very freedom at stake.

Grandpa Sam said that it was his proudest moment to put on his uniform once again after being sought out by his country. This time he did not go to Europe. He served on Governor's Island, jut off of New York City. My grandmother told me about the times she went to visit her daddy there, how much fun it was to shop at the PX and that they even had a movie theater there. She said that during her visits to Governor's Island was the happiest she had ever seen her father. He stood tall and proud. And even though he was older than anyone else there, he was a soldier, fighting the good fight like everyone else.

Somewhere I have a photo of Grandpa Sam in his dress uniform, a man in his 40's wearing glasses. When I find it, I will scan and post it here so you can see the face of the man I described. But it is my hope that I have told you enough about my Grandpa Sam that you have a picture in your mind of what this Veteran was like.

Thank you Grandpa Sam for following your heart to a better life, for standing up and fighting for it and showing us that you can help battles to be won without picking up a gun. I am honored that you are part of me and my family.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Yo Ho Ho and a Plate Full of YUM!!!

As an Islip resident and a fan food and spirits, I am thrilled that our little part of Main Street boasts a new restaurant and bar...PORT ROYAL GRILLE!!!

Port Royal Grille is EXACTLY what Islip's Main Street needed! As an Islip resident, you are welcomed before you get in the door because Royal Port Grille is "The Original Home of the Buccaneers" and everyone in Islip is a Bucs fan. Once you arrive, you are greeted by the warmth and charm of an old school pub and the friendly faces of the staff. It has already become a favorite watering hole for Islip locals. As a mom, I love the idea that the bar, while very much part of the restaurant, is separated from the dining area by a wall. While sitting down to dinner with my family, I don't always like to see and hear what is happening at the bar and while I am out with the "grown-ups" at the pub, I am not really interested in having the "small fries" in arm's reach.

But what about the food? One word...WOW!!! Here's another word...VALUE. Like many families during these times, we have significantly cut back on our dining out. Port Royal Grille offers a delicious menu with an incredible variety and everything on it has the finest ingredients. You can taste the freshness and a whole lot of flavor and for the quality, the price tag is so low. My husband loves the grilled chicken with Port Royal's own jerk sauce. My favorite is the marinated sliced steak sandwich topped with mushrooms in an incredible Guinness sauce. YUMMY!!! Stay and enjoy the ambiance or take it to bring back and enjoy in your home's own ambiance.

Go down and see for yourself. You'll be glad you did.