I just used the big, man-sized shovel to bury the roots of a cherry blossom tree. It’s really a twig, to be clear, with a few miniature leaves giving it a suggestion of life, future life. It may, one day, raise gnarled branches covered in pink confetti above the yard. Or maybe it will dry out and stay a twig. Trees don’t always take, and God knows I am no gardener. Still, I hope one day to see it bloom.
I told Joshua when he was digging the holes, “remember, these grow to be 40 or 50 feet!”
“We’ll be long gone by then,” he replied sensibly. “… in the ground.”
I’m sure the tree roots are the best things I’ve put in the ground in the past three years. I’ve used a man sized shovel at three funerals, most recently my dad’s. The sound of the metal into the pile of dirt is the same, no matter what you’re burying. I am toying with the idea of burying my black, anti-wrinkle dress that I had in my suitcase the month before my Grandma died and the day I drove from Atlanta to DC to see dad for the last time.
Or maybe I’lll decorate the grove with the broken shards of the dishes Brett bought me for our 10th anniversary, sunk into the soil. They are beautifully colored Bauer pottery (more authentic than Fiestaware, I was assured, but the same palate). Tiffani helped him pick them out for me in shades of sunshine, poppy, and lime. While lovely, the dishes crack and chip in the dishwasher. And they each weigh about two pounds. I think my refusal to hand wash our everyday dishes contributed to Brett’s disdain for me (and probably Tiffani’s, come to think of it). How beautiful they would be smashed on the white driveway, or the blacktop of my dead-end street, with the larger pieces set into the dirt like icicle stepping stones, the smaller slivers washed away by rain.
The little “grove” is for dad, because when I was a girl, he would take me to see the Japanese Cherry Blossoms that lined the Tidal Basin near the National Mall. He was giving me his city. When I told my sister my plan she said, “Funny, to honor him with cherry blossoms. Every year in April, he’d say, ‘I can barely get to my office because of the fucking Cherry Blossom festival.’” Perhaps leaving home when I was 18 lets me remember things differently, because to me, he was a Blossom lover. My sister knew him too well to romanticize.
In May, we’ll set the plaque at my dad’s grave. Actually, it’s already there, but we haven’t had the traditional Jewish “unveiling.” It was there when I visited in April, but I just couldn’t go. I suppose it says something like Jonathan Samuel Sokolov, Loving Husband and Father, 1947-2010. It’s that last part I can’t bear to see—that final date. Maybe I’ll keep my eyes on the magnolia tree that shades him in the ground. I bet it will be blooming by then.
Elvis died 33 years ago this week. I was 7 and have no idea where I was or if I knew. My new dad would for sure have known…he loved rock and roll, and Elvis was the King. I don’t remember anyone telling me, and I can’t really remember dad ever playing Elvis for me the way he played Dylan. But still, the King was dead.
Last night, I took friends to make tribute to the King. Ben’s guitar teacher’s band is called King Sized, possibly in honor of the King, but more likely because the lead singer is the size of King Kong. They’ve been doing an Elvis tribute show for years; I’ve been wanting to see Robert perform for years, too. So, Caroline and Beau and I primped for the Variety Playhouse and hopefully some campy fun.
We started out in the balcony, where we were astonishingly the youngest people. Beau has cracked ribs from a run in with the river, so we were looking for a place to keep him safe. It was comfy, and the show was a true spectacle, with Big Mike doing Elvis proud. We got sucked into the energy (and possibly Beau wanted to be closer to the burlesque dancers), so at intermission we weaved our way to the front of the floor crowd.
That’s when I saw a ghost, but it wasn’t Elvis. Right in front of me, although I didn’t recognize him until he turned around. For the first time in years, I was looking directly into the eyes of Justin, Tiffani’s ex-husband. The last time I spoke to him, we were reeling from his daughter’s discovery that his wife and my husband were having an affair. He was trying to win her back and told me how pointless my anger was, and how really she was a good person who had made one mistake. I stopped calling him after that. For God’s sake, did I really need two men telling me how great she was and how shitty I am?
Justin and Tiffani were part of my family for years. They were my best and really only friends in Atlanta. I borrowed their ipod player to use in the delivery room when Tillie was born. Ben had his first sleepover (probably his first 50) with their son. They came and went from my house like you would from your sister’s. They were always there, even living with us for the better part of December of 2007, right before everything fell apart.
I think about Justin every day since we last talked in April of 2008. I wonder if his life is more stable without Tiffani, how his plotline of what happened to us had changed, if he gets treated the way I do by the pair of them. I always say that they can’t possibly treat Justin the way they treat me, or someone would be dead by now. In my mind, Justin is angrier and more powerful than he is in real life. Not that he couldn’t kill a man, though.
So, I’m looking in his eyes, remember. And it is like a blow to the chest. The feelings of loss of Brett, of my family, of our families, and even of his friendship wash right through my ribcage, and I’ve got tears streaming down my face while the crowd around me dances along with Dames Aflame.
Then, for reasons passing understanding, Big Mike breaks into an Elvis-inspired version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. I know every word, every breath Art Garfunkel takes in this song, both the live and studio versions. My dad and I sang Simon and Garfunkel together my whole life, or at least my whole life with him. Which started the same year Elvis died and ended in July. Without Brett, without Tiffani and Justin, without dad, who will comfort me when evening falls so hard? How can evening fall so hard so often?
Still, I’m standing in the middle of a crowd of Elvis fans, who are singing along with some irony but with passion. I still have this feeling of shame, like “who cries during a Simon and Garfunkel song at an Elvis show,” right? And here’s Justin, and also Robert-the-guitar-teacher-martial-artist-motorcycle-riding-rocker, cool musician types with wallets on chains, and I’m crying.
Damn you, Elvis. Give me a little Viva Las Vegas or something, maybe Nothing but a Hound Dog…then at least I could fit in with my crying all the time.
The next song, though, is a Sinatra classic. “And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.” The words to this song are etched on my heart. I sang them over and over again on July 6, the day after my dad died—our first day without him. He wanted that song at his funeral–always had. Rabbi Ann thought I should sing it; she would sing it with me if I needed her to. We belted it out together as the closing of my father’s funeral. And may I say, not in a shy way.
Big Mike kept going, sounding every bit Elvis. Caroline snuck her arms around me from behind and held my shoulders while I sang loud with tears streaming.
Shit, who was doing this set list? Is that you, dad? Maybe I really did see a ghost.
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My sister and I wrote this eulogy and delivered it way too soon, on July 7, 2010. Sweet dreams, papa bear
Dad was larger than life, in more ways than one. He was always the life of the party. But the size that was most important—most him—was how big he loved. And you had to love the things he loved.
As anyone who knew him knows, he was so passionate, loyal and generous. He was one of a kind. Everything he loved, he loved with such joy and pride. Dad taught us how to truly love life. He found happiness in so many things, and he wanted to share them all with everyone he cared about. He taught us passion for many things that define us as individuals and as a family.
- Movies—mostly comedies, but a few dramas that he watched over and over again. While we couldn’t stomach another viewing of Dances with Wolves, we all loved hearing him recite every line of Caddyshack, and laughing with him over and over, even though he (and we) knew it by heart.
- Music—he was so proud of his days as a DJ, and of his exhaustive record collection. I loved classic rock before it was even called that. When I sing along with Bruce Springsteen, I still pause for the skips on his LP.
- The dogs—when his kids moved out, he put all his fatherly love and affection (and there is a lot of it) into his dogs. First Ebony, then Morgan, and now Mason and Biggie. They were his new babies—truly his best friends.
- Food—Dad did things big, and food was definitely at the top of that list. Although we all worried about his health, he just wouldn’t have been the same with a salad and grilled fish filet in front of him. My brother and I both became cooks—David professionally and me a hobbyist. Not that he much liked my recipes from cooking light—he preferred to go to either the fanciest, finest restaurant, or the greasiest, most homey burger joint.
- Wine—Red, expensive, and lots. Martinis–Grey goose, dirty up, 3 olives. Why wouldn’t we join him?
- Washington—this city he fell in love with as a teenager. He loved everything about it…the architecture, the cherry trees, and especially the politics. To this day, I can’t believe I’m not a White House staffer, but my whole career was shaped by my love of this city and it’s industry of policy and personalities.
- Baseball and the Nationals (the Os never really took with him). When the Senators left his adopted city, he says he cried and cried. The Nationals brought his first favorite sport back to his most favorite place. And we all joined in his newfound dedication, especially mom. Despite their record.
- Football and the Redskins—I learned to love watching football as a family when I was young, when my new dad moved my family into Redskins country and taught us all to be Redskins fans, especially my mom, who is hoarse from screaming at them after every game. Football is all about the bond, to me. I may have been the only little girl in the metro area with a poster showing the ref signals for each penalty. I still know them all. Being a Redskins fan in diaspora is especially tough these last few years, but even my children know the fight song. And we’ve sung it at the Georgia Dome.
- Friends—As you can see by those here today. He has friends here that he met when he was 6 and when he was 60, on the playground and in the workplace. Even my teenage friends couldn’t get enough of him. His friends’ messages this week have been completely consistent. He was joyful, happy, proud, quirky, and loved.
- Us—Dad really made us a family. He fell hard for my mother, and he never lost his amazement at his luck in finding her. He embraced my brother and I, just as much as his own flesh and blood—our sister. We always knew that he thought we were the smartest, best looking, most impressive people in the world. Our relationships with him were unique from each other, but they had the same foundation of perfect, unconditional, big love.
He lived large, no matter who was watching. When I was younger sometimes he used to embarrass me by singing out loud in public places. Then when I would beg him to stop he would tell me “you are ruining my joi de vivre.” But it couldn’t be ruined, not by me, not by cancer, not by anyone or anything. I now know how important it is to feel and express the happiness that exuded from him. Whether we were having a delicious meal that mom cooked, or out in one of our favorite restaurants it was a little party from beginning to end. We just enjoyed being together and enjoying life.
We will miss him, but he will never be far from us. We love the things he loved, and they are ours together. And so is he.
An actual uneditied email (except for the names) in response to my request that my 10 year old son have adult supervision when he goes to the public pool…and no, we are not drunk slobs who run around naked.
From: Brett Lewis
To: Becca Sokolov
Sent: Fri Jun 25 16:34:09 2010
Subject: RE: Supervision
At what age should your son feel comfortable telling us he wants to get your boyfriend a mixer for his birthday, because you guys like to drink margaritas all the time? How drunk will you and Joshua be while “watching” the kids in the pool and ocean while they are in your care?
You have no standing to dictate parenting to me, and I will not let you do so; just keep to yourself and keep trying to formulate some idea of how to be a decent parent, and I will continue to foster the growth, creativity, and independence Ben and Tillie so desperately need, as an antidote to your household. Instead, you teach them to lie everyday when you accept lies (“I’m too sick for school,” “I forgot”) and you are simply encouraging them to lie more by modeling disingenuousness for them even in your relationship with them.
1. Why can Tillie offer a critique of the food at almost a dozen fast- and bar-food restaurants?
2. Why does Ben valorize drinking alcohol and the overconsumption of red meat?
3. Who let their four year old daughter shower in front of a grown drunk, unsupervised in her house?
4. Who lets their nine year old have unsupervised access to the internet?
5. Who spanks a ten year old for acting out, and then rewards him afterward?
6. Who doesn’t speak to the children in a natural tone of voice, without kiddie talk?
7. Who doesn’t model good eating, hygiene, and media consumption habits?
8. Who doesn’t think about how rest and quiet time foster creativity and preparedness?
9. Whose doesn’t expect their child to flush the toilet, put the seat down, and generally clean up after himself?
10. Who parents through subcontracting, overscheduling, letting the kids be abusive, and rewarding bad behavior?
ANSWER KEY: YOU
I had to have blood drawn this week. In general, I’m a pretty tough chick and a savvy patient. But I have a weak spot (read: irrational fear) for having blood taken. It was the worst part of pregnancy for me—I didn’t mind the bloating and the sleep disturbance nearly as much as the many needles that pierced my delicate vein and stayed there, rigid in the flexing tubes, shunting away circulating red stuff. Yikes—I got clammy just writing that.
I’m not sick, just in need of a check up. I’d put off the lab work for 2 months, and then found myself barred from registering for graduate classes until I proved I’d had my MMR shot. Now I need a titer to be able to attend school, so there was no more delaying.
It’s been years since I braved this, with Brett and Ben at my side. Ben, age 5, even called me a wimp. And he was right. I told Joshua he needed to come with me, but then I felt like a big baby and told him to never mind.
How hard could it be? I’d spent 3 days out of the last month with my dad, as he took in 7 units of blood by transfusion. The first time I went with him, we arrived at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center and I looked away while they took a sample. No problem. Then we waited for several hours while they “typed and crossed” the blood. Dad dozed in the borrowed, double-wide wheel chair while I joined a conference call and took notes on the back of the patient information sheet. Piece of cake, but being with so many people with cancer gave the call a backdrop of heart wrenching. They were young and old, some bald, some disabled, some looking way too healthy to be there.
Most didn’t use a wheelchair…maybe a cane or a shuffling walker. But dad is the only fat cancer patient in the world. Honestly. Despite barely eating for weeks, he’s only lost muscle mass and has to carry his big, jiggly middle around while barely being able to feel his feet. The persistence of this belly makes me wonder if we’ve unfairly mocked him for not getting rid of it all these years. It resists even cancer.
When they finally called us into the transfusion room, I was ready to just sit on the other side from the IV and ignore the blood dripping into dad’s arm. My plans were shot, though. The “transfusion room” is a big, open space with cots and recliners, and no less that 15 people getting transfused. It’s like a reverse vampire suite. I had to leave for air.
Since then, dad has needed more and more transfusions, and no one can figure out exactly why. The chemo didn’t work so he stopped it weeks ago—that’s not it. He doesn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere significant—that’s not it. He doesn’t have organ failure. He is, however, the sickest person I have ever personally spent time with. And apparently his blood is ever-thinning.
The truth is, he’s not my biological father—he adopted me after my father died of cancer when I was five. He married my mother a few years later, and I became his daughter, though not by blood. My sister says she’s the only one cursed with “the fat gene,” but I’m more worried about the melanoma gene. The doctor tells me I’m clean, that my dark skin was a blessing. And dad’s fair skin, not part of my DNA, turns out to be a curse. But man, those blue eyes…my sister got those, too.
His blood is thin now, and it has never run in my veins. But there was never any doubt that he was mine and I was his. I wish I could give him some of my heartiness, the health I’ve always been blessed with. But I can’t even give him a bag of blood. I went by myself to have that vial of blood drawn, and fainted right into my own lap. Maybe I’m not as tough as I thought. I hope dad is tougher.
I stood in the elegant and slightly campy dressing room. Around me were photos of Marilyn Monroe….this was the Marilyn Monroe room. But I needed something in a Twiggy—a halter top bra that would give me enough shape for the dress my mom bought me for my brother’s wedding. My bras were always cheap, bought on sale at Macy’s or Nordstrom. I was still wearing the ones from 20 pounds ago, and there was a lot of empty cup going on. In a B cup bra. This could only mean one thing. I was an A. At best.
A year earlier, I had thrilled my friend Caroline by guiding her to Intimacy, a high-end lingerie shop. She is more of a Marilyn Monroe. Maybe a Jane Mansfield. And she found her salvation in Phipps Plaza mall. This store is a mecca for the big bosomed. The saleswomen all fit the curve, and they patiently bring you bra after bra after bra, each more expensive than the last, until you find bra nirvana. I had never seen my thrifty friend spend money so freely or with such satisfaction. Not only did the bras fit, but they were pretty, the kind she dreamed of while strapping herself in to white straight jackets with practically-shelves where the underwires go.
I would never have spent $70 on a bra. But this was a specialty situation-a halter top (!) with built in cups that were almost empty with me in them. The saleswoman brought me the few halter-top training bras they had, from a dusty drawer of A’s under the drawers of Ds, DDs, Es, Fs, Gs and even Hs! She then looked askance at the bra I was wearing. “What, this is still OK, isn’t it?” “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’ve been ill,” I explained. “Let me bring you a few more to try on.”
Well, at leas the halter was convertible. Almost like two bras in one, each costing $35 (still more than I’d ever spent on a bra). Plus two others, slightly cheaper but not much. I paid a bra bill of almost $200, plus fashion tape and special detergent.
At home, I slid up to my room, careful not to wake the sleeping children. Brett had put them to bed and retired to his basement lair. I concealed the gold shopping bag in my closet and got ready for bed.
In the blue glow of the television, all alone, I pulled up my t-shirt and looked down at my panties. My hip bone arched gently, with a hollow at my stomach. My legs, while not long, were nicely curved. My stomach was flat like the days before beer and babies (well, at least in the blue light it was). The A cups barely entered my vision, and while I missed the B cups, for the first time since leaving my teen years, I liked my body. I told myself it was good enough, that a man could lust after this body, could want me. And I cried because my husband didn’t—no one did.
I’m 10 pounds heavier, still down 10 from before the dumping, and I’ve held on to some of that “like.” I think it’s sort of sad that I couldn’t see myself that way until I was emaciated. My body now feels more like me, the always-me I see in my mind. Not skeletal, but not bulging, either.
While looking for black tights before work the other day, I came across the thigh-highs I bought after Paul inspired me to find my bridal lingerie (see New Pajamas). I then almost put on the hose with the seam down the back with my business suit. “Wow, I was a hottie last year,” I said out loud, although only the dogs heard. I moved the sexy stuff to the front of the drawer, and even wore it out to dinner under my conservative dress last night.
I’m back in my own skin, intimately familiar and even friendly with my body, yet still struggling to get back into my own head and heart. And that B cup.
1. How to seed a pomegranate without staining anything. (For the curious, you do it in a bowl of water. Genius!)
2. I was right about pacifiers….they suck! (And so does my 4-and-a-half-year-old, thanks to Tiffani).
3. When someone tells you that a former friend of hers spit on her on the street, find out why. Don’t assume that the spitter is the crazy one.
4. Be suspicious of women who talk to your husband about porn and sex shops.
5. When you are feeling bad about your body, a real friend tells you how beautiful you are. A different kind of friend notes that you have enough money for a tummy tuck.
6. Bad marriages are contagious.
7. If you feel like someone is judging you, they are.
8. If someone makes you feel like an outsider in your own home, stop inviting her over.
9. Short people CAN wear A-Line skirts!
10. If someone tells you other people’s confidences, she is not keeping yours.
11. If someone lies about your confidences to them, they probably lied to you about everybody else’s.
12. Women who think everybody wants them–from their male professors to their female hairdressers–really, really need to be wanted.
13. Shopping in the children’s department is an option.
14. You can read TMZ and People and still be alternative if you do it ironically.
15. Always log out of your email account. Always.
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I’m sitting in my empty house, watching the BCS Championship Game. The fans are crazed–I have never heard a crowd with that energy level. It’s a paradox, watching sports alone. I get to concentrate on the game, but with no one to banter with, it’s hard to concentrate on the game. I learned to love watching football as a family when I was young, when my new dad moved my family to the DC suburbs and into Redskins country.
Football is all about the bond, to me. Dad taught me the plays, the penalties, the positions, and the formations. I showed him how interested I was by asking questions…”Was that a sack?” “What is the quarterback doing?” “Why did they call that penalty?” I may have been the only little girl in the metro area with a poster showing the ref signals for each penalty. I still know them all.
And more than one young man has been wooed by my ability to hang with the boys as a fan. (Not Joshua, though. I actually said to him one night: “Can you believe how lucky you are to come home to a girlfriend who is watching the World Series in lingerie?” He laughed, but was not appropriately appreciative, I assure you.)
As years go by, my family always comes back to the same formation, and we had a classic gathering last week for the end of the regular season. Sunday afternoon, huddled around the hearth and the television. Beers, chips, and lots of shouting. Sometimes cursing. We are great Sunday afternoon arm chair coaches. Mom and David, my brother, are the most avid, spending summers reading up on fantasy football picks and keeping up with four games at once on Red Zone. Unless it’s a Skins home game: then whoever is in town is huddled around the tow-able gas grill in the Gold Zone parking lot. OK, so it’s not high culture. But it’s warm, it’s engaging, and it’s a bond that always holds.
When Brett and I designed our “custody agreement,” I made the case for the bond, and somehow it held there, too. So from the Season Opener to the Superbowl, I get to have my kids for Sunday night football. That privledge has moprhed into having them all day Sunday, so Brett can meet his “significant work obligations.” (So many English professors work on Sundays, really.) Despite the fact that he needs it, Brett meets the “football clause” with disdain–Sundays are when I expose my kids to “artificially-induced football fandom,” “orgies of junk food and television,” and the like.
But Ben is ready to play. I started looking for a youth league near me, and was faced with a list of semi-pro, size-huge 9 year old boys. Until I found the JCC’s flag football league. Perfect! No tackling, and all Jew-boys. He should be safe for now, and I’m ready to be his chief spectator (and nail-biter).
I got a taste of chief spectator last week, when my kids and I went to the northern NYC suburbs to meet Joshua’s family. It is a slippery slope, I know, but we made the most of it, especially Ben. When we arrived, I went to lie down in Joshua’s sister’s lovely guestroom. I saw figures moving outside, so I curled up on the wide, white windowsill and watched my boy on his first sled ride. And his second, third, and fourth. Then he became the hero of Joshua’s six nephews by riding down the hill STANDING UP on the skimboard-style sled. Snowballs flew, and his smile was whiter and wider than the snow. Maybe he can play with the big boys after all. And I, like always, love watching.