Signing off, for now

Bob Brody photo at Podell bar mitzvah
Dear all,

Yes, that’s me on the right in the photo up there. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve decided to take my blog on hiatus, starting today. My main reason is simple: I have other stuff to do that takes priority.

This blog has turned out to be a singular adventure, and I’ve loved doing it. It gave me the opportunity to advocate for a cause close to my heart: preserving personal family history in writing for future generations. In the process, letterstomykids.org has brought parents and children a little closer together, one letter at a time. My blog, 500 posts later, has given voice to stories from loving mothers and fathers all across the country. Little did I ever realize three years ago how much this commitment would come to feel like a privilege and an honor.

Maybe someday I’ll bring my blog back. Even after so many words posted – easily 150,000, possibly 200,000, only about half mine, the other half from guests — I just might. If I do, it would probably be on New Year’s Day, 2014, or next Father’s Day. Then again, my hiatus may be permanent. It’s hard to predict, and I see no sense even trying.

Whatever the case, nothing I have to say right now about this decision is more important to me than thank you. I’m grateful to everyone who got behind letterstomykids.org – all the guest columnists, my board of advisors, all the media who took an interest, my family and friends and colleagues. Cheerleaders make a big difference.

Special thanks go to Pam Jenkins, who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place, back on Father’s Day three years ago. And to Snow Hudgins, who helped me set up the site. And to Frank Cavallaro, who posted far and away more comments than anyone else. And to my wife, Elvira, who gave me the all-important green light to proceed with this most personal of campaigns. And above all to my kids, Michael and Caroline, who fueled me with the inspiration for the overall concept.

For now, though, if you get a chance, maybe you’ll all do me one small favor. Keep spreading the word. Take the opportunity to let parents out there know why putting our personal family histories into words for our children matters so much – matters, ironically, even more than we can put into words.

Cheers,
Bob

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My Blog Turns Two: A Preview Of Year Three

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For two years now, letterstomykids.org has in almost every respect remained very much mine. But in Year Three, LTMK will by and large change hands. It will be all but exclusively yours.

   Yes, I’m pretty much turning the reins over to you.

   Mostly, then, LTMK in the coming year will consist of guest columns. Newcomers will make debuts. Previous contributors will deliver encore performances. Almost all will be Moms and Dads, parents new and middle-aged and old, some grandparents, too, and maybe even Moms- and Dads-to-be. Instead of our looking so much in the mirror at my life – enough already! — I’ll be holding that mirror up to yours.

   At least that’s my plan for the moment.

   If I have my druthers, other kinds of guest columnists will step forward, too – historians, archivists, genealogists, psychologists, pediatricians and the like. They’ll act as third parties, attesting to the virtues of our mission here, that of persuading parents to preserve personal family history in writing. 

   LTMK will once again post guest columns on my favorite holidays: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. We may venture into other special occasions as well – Independence Day, Labor Day, Election Day, for starters – each of which offers parents opportunities for insight. We may hold theme weeks to lend a forum to columnists from certain sorts of communities – Queens residents, basketball players, classmates from my 1970 graduating class at Fair Lawn High School, writers, public relations specialists, tenants in our apartment complex, Jews (like me), Baby Boomers (also like me) and the like. Along these lines, contributors may reflect, variously, on what they do for a living, or on growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, or on the literary life, or on the ecstasies of playing hoops on a hot summer day when you can smell the asphalt beneath your sneakers baking away.

   Year Three will go somewhat beyond guest columns, too. We’ll also get a little newsy. I’ll be playing reporter, researching the landscape for trends – just Google the term “letters to my kids” yourself and you’ll see that stuff is definitely going on out there — and updating you more or less in real time. In this vein, I’ll probably get “linky,” connecting you with relevant data and likeminded sites. In keeping with this approach, I may at last get around to an ambitious project long incubating in my imagination, a look at the letters-to-my-kids premise in history, starting with letters from the Roman philosopher and stateman Cicero to his son Marcus and running right up to President Obama’s recent public letters to his two daughters.

   In Year Three, LTMK will also spackle in some miscellanea. Maybe we’ll hold a contest of some kind. Maybe, in a switcheroo, we’ll ask a kid or two to write a letter to his parents. Maybe I’ll post personal essays of mine either previously published or never before published. Maybe I’ll let loose some of the lines, by turns serious and silly, a few even aspiring to be epigrams, that I’ve compiled in my notebook over the years.

   Taking all this together – the guest columns, the news updates, the collage of loose ends and other oddities – you can probably surmise where I’m headed. I’m going into uncharted territory, ready to play it by ear. But through it all, the message trumpeted to parents will remain the same. Be your family historian. Get it in writing. Create a keepsake for your kids that can last forever.

   And with any luck, taking that tack will keep this site – now yours, please remember, more so than mine – fresh, provocative and occasionally even surprising.

My Blog Turns Two (And Stays Open For Business)

 

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   So why have I finally decided, after months of anxious indecision, to keep letterstomykids.org (LTMK) going?

   Well, I weighed all the pros and cons. And the pros easily outweighed the cons.

   Here’s essentially why the show will go on: It’s because of you.

   More particularly, it’s because LTMK gives me a rare and special opportunity to showcase guest columnists, mostly Moms and Dads, all of whom have something of value to say.

   It’s because of Mindy Gikas and David Rosen. They contributed columns making parental New Year’s resolutions as parents (below), then went on the “CBS Early Show,” four lovely kids in tow, to read the letters aloud on-camera.

   It’s because of Faith Tissot. She emailed me out of the blue after seeing me on CBS. She told me that, as an adopted child who once lost a baby in utero and later sought her birth parents, she went on to have two kids and write letters to both every month since the days they were born.

   It’s because of Seth Levin. He wrote a letter to his two-year-old daughter, Elliana, about how she is inspiring him to overcome his struggle with depression.    

   It’s also because of 41 other LTMK guest columnists, parents of all ages from around the country, who have chimed in over the last two years. It’s because this blog, in giving voice to others, serves as a megaphone to amplify my own.

   It’s because of the rest of you, too – all the LTMK cheerleaders out there – that I’ve decided to keep going. I love what you’re doing, you say. Your mission is so important, you insist. You can count on my support, you promise.

   Many such voices do a chorus make. And so in the last year I came to sense that this blog has started to create something of a community. And that we may all be playing a small role in bringing parents and children together, one letter at a time.

   Finally, it’s because of how Jeff Zaslow, whom I presumed to call my friend, once characterized my blog. A father of three daughters, a best-selling author and an LTMK advisory board member, Jeff died in a car accident in February (only a few weeks earlier, he had agreed to do a Father’s Day guest column for me). He called my blog “a high calling.”

   And that, in a nutshell, is why I have to keep going, at least for now. It dawned on me, thanks to Jeff and others, that wherever it is that I need to go with this blog, I may actually already be getting there, however slowly. With any luck, you’ll be coming along for the ride. 

   Tomorrow I’ll give you a peek at the outlook for Year Three.

P.S. – Mindy Gikas: http://letterstomykids.org/new-years-eve-guest-columnist-mindy-gikas-fin

 

P.S.S. – David Rosen: http://letterstomykids.org/new-years-eve-guest-columnist-david-rosenyou

 

P.S.S.S. – Faith Tissot: http://letterstomykids.org/mothers-day-guest-columnist-faith-tissot-why

 

P.S.S.S.S. – Seth Levin: http://letterstomykids.org/new-years-eve-guest-columnist-seth-levin-litt

 

P.S.S.S.S.S. – Jeff Zaslow: http://letterstomykids.org/jeffrey-zaslow-the-party-of-yes

My Blog Turns Two, But Will It Ever Make Three?

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   So why would I consider calling it a day with letterstomykids.org (LTMK) this week?    

   Well, for starters, you’ve now read just about every “letter” I wrote to my children. All through 2008 and 2009, I kept a hand-written journal for Michael and Caroline. Then, two years ago this week, I created LTMK and started posting all 100 or so entries, about 60,000 words, online. So almost everything I originally shared privately with my own kids I’ve now shared publicly right here.

   In that sense, I’ve largely had my say.

   My number-two reason has to do with time. Blogging takes time, especially if, as I do, you work for a living. And blogging well demands (and deserves) your best game. Besides, I have other important interests in life, including eating, sleeping and playing pick-up basketball in the playground around the corner.  So there was that, too.

   Then came the issue of whether anyone out there in the universe was paying attention to my humble little blog in the first place. Some days the answer appeared to be decidedly no. Some of my posts might get fewer hits than our apartment building has tenants on our floor alone (about 50). Two years in, my Twitter followers number all of a whopping19.  

   So even though I’m no stranger to rejection – after all, I pitch stories to media on behalf of clients every day for my job, and moonlight writing personal essays no editor ever expects to receive, much less asks to see – I’m only human. Even a blogger needs to feel some love.

   I’ve also experienced a few discouraging technical difficulties. My overall level of sophistication about the nuts and bolts of playing blogmeister leaves something to be desired. I have yet, for example, to adopt such standard practices as linking regularly to other bloggers, insinuating LTMK onto key blogrolls, and hitching onto Google Analytics.

   My problem here is that I would rather tinker with words than with widgets. All I really care about, when you get right down to it, is the telling of stories, whether mine or those of my guest columnists.

   And so, I figured, why blog any more unless I’m willing to commit to blogging right.  

   And yet I’ve decided to keep my blog going. Yes, that’s right. Even in the face of these concerns, plus all the others I’ll leave unmentioned in the name of brevity and decency, I’ll keep tilling this fertile soil, still very much at your service.

   Tomorrow I’ll explain why I’ve decided to keep it all going, and fill you in on my plans for Year Three.

My Blog Turns Two: Let’s Light Some Candles And Make A Wish

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   Yesterday letterstomykids.org reached its second birthday. So it’s time for my annual state of the blog report.

   The good news is that my sophomore year, compared to my rookie season, has turned out to mean more of just about everything.

   LTMK drew about 81,000 unique visits this past year, compared with about 50,000 for the previous year – an increase of 62% — bringing the two-year total to 131,000.

   More visitors posted comments, too, 94 versus 22, more than quadrupling for a two-year total of 116.

   More visitors took our pledge, too, with 61 over the last year committing to preserve personal family history in writing, matching 61 in our first year.

   In Year Two, 23 guest columnists, almost all Moms and Dads, contributed letters to their kids, as against 22 in Year One, bringing the two-year total to 45 (50 if you count repeat performances). .

   All in all, by most standards, a decent year.

   But for me, blogging in general – and LTMK in particular – is supposed to be about much more than mere metrics. (So is life, for that matter).

   Blogging is also about creating a dialogue with the public. For example, LTMK conducted its second survey, this time around Valentine’s Day. Among other questions, we asked 100 parents if they had ever told their kids how they met their spouses (results below).

   Blogging is about getting a conversation going with the media, too. “CBS This Morning” featured LTMK in a segment about parental New Year’s resolutions. Lisa Belkin, The Huffington Post’s parenting columnist, ran a story about my lineup of Thanksgiving columns from parents expressing gratitude for their kids. So did Janice D’Arcy, The Washington Post’s parenting columnist. 

   So by no means does more – more unique visits, more whatever – always spell better. Metrics, shmetricks, I say.

    Even so, for some months now, I’ve contemplated ending my blog today. Tomorrow I’ll explain why I’ve entertained the idea, and let you in on what I’ve decided.

P.S. — My LTMK update for Year One: http://letterstomykids.org/year-one-a-special-message-to-readers

 

P.S.S. — Results of my Valentine’s Day survey: http://letterstomykids.org/valentines-day-survey-have-you-told-your-kids

 

P.S.S.S. — The “CBS This Morning” segment On New Year’s resolutions: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7393406n

 

P.S.S.S.S. — My behind-the-scenes peek at the CBS experience: http://www.powelltate.com/insights/long_story_short/

 

P.S.S.S.S.S. — Thanksgiving story from the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/23/thank-you-letters_n_1110137.html

 

P.S.S.S.S.S.S. – Thanksgiving Story from The Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/spending-thanksgiving-thanking-our-kids/2011/11/21/gIQAcn8jlN_blog.html

Jeffrey Zaslow: The Party Of Yes

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Ten days ago, I lost a dear colleague, a fellow writer I presumed to call a friend. Jeffrey Zaslow, best selling author and Wall Street Journal columnist, was a member of the advisory board for letterstomykids.org from day one. He once referred to my blog as a “high calling,” a description I took humbly to heart. I learned about his death from an obituary in the newspaper and felt as if I’d gotten sucker-punched. Here is my tribute to him.

In the eight years I knew Jeffrey Zaslow, the best-selling author and Wall Street Journal columnist who died in a car accident the Friday before last, I gave him plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his tendency to say “yes.”

Would you read an essay of mine about my mother? I would ask him. Yes, he would say. May we talk about a book idea I have in mind? I would ask. Yes. Almost two years ago, I told him about my plan to start my first blog. Would he be a member of my board of advisors? I asked him. “Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

Just as I specialized in soliciting favors from him, Jeff, in turn, excelled at granting me those favors.

After I was laid off from a job in 2008, I asked Jeff and others I knew to keep an eye out for new opportunities for me. He immediately offered to give me job references and to steer me toward freelance assignments. But above and beyond almost everyone else I contacted, he also promised to make himself available to talk.

Throughout our relationship, Jeff encouraged me to pursue my ambitions as a writer. You should submit that piece about your father, he would say. You should definitely write that memoir about your family. “You’re a great writer,” he told me – and even though I never doubted his sincerity, somehow I could never quite believe him.

In his articles and books, Jeff wrote about what matters most. Love and loss. Family and friendship. All the personal stuff that happens while we’re out there making a living and trying to earn enough and wondering which suit to wear to a presentation – or, for that matter, how to recruit someone for your blog’s advisory board. He wrote about how we treat each other and also about how we feel, in our heart of hearts, about how we treat each other.

We never met face to face. I knew Jeff only through his writings and our frequent e-mail exchanges and occasional phone conversations. Ours was more a professional friendship than a deeply personal one. Yet his inherent compassion and generosity and humanity always came through loud and clear.

Still, as far as I could tell, Jeff Zaslow never stopped saying “yes.” He said yes to my numerous, and often presumptuous, requests of him. He said yes to the singular responsibility of telling powerfully the stories of people with powerful stories to tell, whether it was Professor Randy Pausch in “The Last Lecture” or Gabrielle Giffords in “Gabby.” He said yes to being a husband and a father and a son and a friend. He said yes to being alive.

If Jeff had ever become a political party, he would have qualified as the party of yes.

Only on one front did I ever have trouble getting him to say his favorite word. I invited him to contribute a guest column to my blog for Thanksgiving, all about his gratitude for his children. But he had just undergone minor surgery and was trying to finish writing his book about hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, “Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters,” so he begged off with an apology.

A few months later I asked him again, this time for Father’s Day. Again, he took a pass, saying he was in over his head.

Then, just last month, Jeff reverted back to form. He had let me know about his latest book, “The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for our Daughters.” Sensing yet another opportunity to advance my personal agenda, I sought for the third time to enlist him as a guest columnist for my blog. Maybe, I suggested, he could write a piece about why he wrote a book about daughters. He could cast as a letter to his own three daughters.

“Yes,” he said.

“That would be great,” he said.

“I’ll get right on it,” he said.

P.S. — This tribute appeared yesterday in Brevity magazine:

http://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/the-party-of-yes-a-tribute-to-jeffrey-zaslow/

P.S. — Click below to learn more about Jeff:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203646004577215574045345682.html?mod=

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/books/jeffrey-zaslow-best-selling-author-dies-at-53.html

http://online.wsj.com/public/page/remembering-jeffrey-zaslow.html

Year Two: A Special Message to Readers

Year Two of letterstomykids (LTMK) promises to be different from Year One, dramatically so.
For starters, LTMK will no longer be about how my kids grew up. Rather, it will be about my life, especially my larger family, my mother and father and grandparents.

As such, you’ll hear a lot about happy memories – adventures at a wooded watering hole, playing drums in a band, how much my maternal grandmother adored me, my grandfather taking me to a World Series game at Yankee Stadium, my fondness for the music of Motown

and the Cupid who introduced me to my one and only,

In short, peak experiences, complete with divine bliss.

But I’ll also bring forward experiences colored in a darker shade – about parents who suffered from the same disability, about drunk driving and legal battles and stealing from my father, about an embarrassing ferry ride from Martha’s Vineyard and a humiliating performance in a high school track meet, about assorted secrets and lies, not to mention a near-divorce and a near-suicide.

No life is perfect, after all, or even necessarily close – and my own life, exceptional as it might feel, has proven no exception to that rule.

In terms of tone, then, the rhapsodic and the elegiac will share equal billing here.

Through the next year, LTMK will also reprise certain popular features, including guest columns, especially those by mothers for Mother’s Day and by fathers for Father’s Day. We may also venture other experiments, perhaps a Thanksgiving “Thank You” Week and even a “Why I Took The Pledge Week.”

So check it out. Keep those comments coming. And if any of this ever gets boring, please, I beg you, just shoot me.

P.S. – Year Two officially starts tomorrow.

Year One: A Special Message to Readers

This blog is now one year old, and a first anniversary is as good a time as any for a quick recap.
If you’re looking to talk numbers, page views reached 50,000, posts 148, pledges taken 61, subscribers 23 and comments – alas – all of 22.

If your focus is subject matter (I refuse to call it “content”), you’ve read all about our son Michael and our daughter Caroline – my memories of how they grew up, my recognition of how well they’re turning out.

If you’re thinking publicity, letterstomykids.org (LTMK) has drawn attention from The New York Times, the Fox News Channel, The New York Daily News, Womansday.com and New York 1 News. I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute essays about my blog to The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday.

More broadly, you’ve come across contributions from 21 guest columnists – mothers and fathers, all – to mark occasions ranging from Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day to my favorites, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

You might also have noticed the informal survey I conducted of attitudes among parents toward writing personal family history and my weeklong series offering insight into and advice about how you, too, can write “letters” to your kids – not to mention my goofy venture into Pledge Week and other occasional, perhaps vaguely ill-advised, bouts of whimsy.

But if you’re wondering what happened behind the scenes at LTMK, here’s the scoop.
First of all, my wife and kids, after some discussion and much debate, agreed to let me do my little blog here. No small deal, that, and some stuff got left on the cutting-room floor (too personal). Support for my project came from other quarters, too – from my trusty advisory board to friends, colleagues and complete strangers, including a woman who called me from Canada after seeing me on television to ask how she should go about writing letters to her kids.
Second of all, taking my personal life so public has turned out to be an experience even more profound than I ever imagined. The whole enterprise has reinforced my belief that being a father is far and away the most important job I’ll ever take on. In doing this blog, and in recounting my life piece by piece, I’ve also come to better understand myself and those closest to me – better acknowledge, appreciate and accept, too.

Above all, I’m heartened that here and there people have stepped forward to express allegiance to our modest crusade here. I’m starting to sense that the whole concept of preserving family history in writing for future generations might actually catch on.

Oh, I could also mention how I’ve struggled to master the medium of the blog in all its technical subtleties and nuances, learning as I go about hashtags and share buttons and Google Analytics.

I could touch, too, on how early on I developed a habit of checking my page views with a frequency that bordered on the pathological, as if consulting an EKG to find out how well — or how poorly – my heart was beating.

But instead, let me say this. All in all, this blog business has gone great. And I’m just getting warmed up.

So thank you.

P.S. – Questions of the day: What did you think of my first year? How can I do better?
P.S.S. – Tune in tomorrow for a preview of Year Two.

Mother’s Day Dirty Little Secret: Estrangement

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is an essay about my mother that appears today (in slightly shorter form) in the New York Daily News:

Mother’s Day is engraved in our hearts with warm images of families coming together to celebrate motherhood. In the classic holiday scenario, we give Mom a card and a gift, take her out for dinner and snap a few photos. We honor her for doing a job – giving birth to us, caring for us, loving us – that no one else is nearly as fit to do.

But this American tradition, now 106 years old, has a flip side, seldom seen and little talked about and none too photogenic. For just as surely as some families today come together to pay tribute to this singular figure, others remain apart, fractured by the ugly conundrum we call estrangement.

Nobody has statistics on how many mothers and children are alienated from each other, nor whether such ruptures are on the increase – some psychologists, based on anecdotal evidence, suspect they are – much less exactly why these breakaways happen in the first place. Certainly websites, support groups and online chat rooms have cropped up expressly to address mother-child estrangement. Yet this phenomenon remains little-researched, little-discussed and much-misunderstood.

As it happens, I’m an expert in estrangement. In 1999 I cut myself off from my own mother. Why we fell out I will skip here. Enough was enough. But in a sense, why is almost beside the point. Why makes no real difference.

I lost track of my mother for the next 10 years – one-eighth of her life and almost one-sixth of mine. No visits, no phone calls, no letters. I had no idea even whether she was still alive. I had no wish to hurt her, only to spare myself, along with my wife and children, any further hurt. But all the while, I struggled with my decision. Was I doing right? Was this helping?

So it goes for so many others. The causes are many – abuse, alcoholism and conflicts over everything from money and career choices to divorce, remarriage and sexual orientation. Estrangement springs from a single incident or is cumulative. The family itself has changed sharply over the last 40 years, too. Relaxed divorce laws, ever-increasing geographic mobility and the never-ending American pursuit of happiness have granted us a new freedom of choice. If anything bothers us, we want out.

That’s why today someone somewhere has somehow gone missing, leaving a chair at the dinner table empty.

Suddenly, about two years ago, I stopped believing I could go the rest of my life without seeing my mother again – one of us could die, denying us the opportunity – and about two years ago I decided once again that enough was enough, only in reverse. Our rift no longer seemed to serve any purpose. I wanted to get together with her before it was too late. We could start fresh. I sent my mother an e-mail. I told her I missed her and suggested we get together.

So, on a Saturday afternoon in April, 2009, the sky blue, the sun bright, I drove to the northern New Jersey town where I grew up to reconnect with the person once the most important in my life.

We met at the front door. Now 80, she seemed a little shorter, her hair all white, but still beautiful. We hugged each other.

“You look good,” I said.

“You look good, too,” she said. “My handsome son.”

We walked to a nearby diner to have lunch. There, in a booth under a skylight, we filled each other in on our lives over the last 10 years. She had a boyfriend. I had a new job. My two kids, absent from her life for a decade, had grown into adults. I also explained my abrupt change of heart.

“Everything that happened before no longer matters,” I said. “Who did what to whom – it makes no difference. None of it means anything anymore.” My mother nodded her understanding.

”We’ve both made mistakes,” I said. “We’ve caused each other and ourselves enough pain. Nobody has to forget anything – or forgive anything, either. I’m here today so I can see you and you can see me. That’s it. Let’s leave it at that. At this moment that’s all I care about — that we’re together now.”

“Okay,” my mother said. She reached across the table to pat my hand. “Okay,” she repeated, louder, more emphatically.

Estrangement remains largely a taboo topic in American life, a stigma, a dirty little secret, a silent epidemic. It flies in the face of all those homespun homilies about families sticking together through thick and thin. But I’m here to tell you such splits are rarely the answer. More likely, they’re a stopgap, a solution that only creates new problems.

Some of us deserve a second chance to honor our family commitments. I believe that to be true for children and mothers alike. Enough is indeed enough. For most of us, it should never be too late for Mother’s Day to feel like Mother’s Day again.

P.S. — Here’s the piece that ran in The News: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2011/05/08/2011-05-08_estranged_from_my_mother_no_more.html

P.S. — Have you gone through anything similar? Please let me know: bobbrody@hotmail.com.

The Miracle of Nettie’s Easter Pies

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is a piece I wrote about my mother-in-law. It appears in the new book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery.

Twelve years ago, my mother-in-law, then age 78, went in for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications, and on a sweltering day in late June, she died.

My wife and I drove from the cemetery to her one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and started to go through her belongings. We scoured her drawers, cabinets and shelves, poring over her clothes, photos and mementoes, deciding what to keep, give away or throw out, and were almost finished. Antoinette — or Nettie, as everyone called her — had lived on little her whole life, so we expected no hidden fortunes. But how mistaken we were. We opened the freezer and looked in, and there were her pies.

It was quite a find. In early spring every year, Nettie would make an announcement. “I’m making the Easter pies,” she would say. “Going to be busy, so nobody bother me.”
The pie was an Italian specialty called pizza rustica. Her mother had once made the same pies from a recipe her family brought to America from Naples. Little Antoinette watched her mother prepare the pies for Holy Saturday, slicing the smoked ham and hot sausage into bits, filling the dish with fresh ricotta and Romano cheeses, brushing the beaten egg wash onto the crust to give it a glaze.

Nettie made 15 or 20 pies every April for more than 40 years. Her mother had handed down her recipe, but Nettie never looked at the sheet of paper, every spring making up the proportions in her head all over again. I can imagine her standing in the kitchen pressing the dough with a rolling pin, her cheeks smudged with flour, her fine hair in disarray.

The pies came out looking like two-inch-thick omelettes — stuffed with cheese and flecked with meat, all topped by a heavy, flaky, dimpled crust baked golden brown. Nettie wrapped the pies in foil and labeled each for its intended recipient (the size of the pie you got was a measure of her affection for you). Her doorbell would start ringing at noon as relatives came from all over New York City and Long Island to collect this family dividend.

Now we had discovered that Nettie saved a few wedges of the pie, including one for herself, labeled “Nettie” (as if even in her own home, she had needed to earmark her handiwork for herself). My wife and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we reached into the icy mist and took out the pies one by one, putting each in a plastic bag.

In moments, we left her apartment for the last time and walked out into the hot, still afternoon for the drive home, holding the pies as tenderly as we might an urn.

That Sunday night, as we gathered at the dining room table with our 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in our home in Forest Hills, my wife served us one of the pies, steaming hot and giving off a savory aroma. She sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate silently, scraping our plates for crumbs.

I’d eaten my mother-in-law’s pies every spring for more than 20 years, and they always tasted good. But now the pie tasted better than it ever had, as if somehow flavored by the tears of our grief. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to all of us over the years — how she had raised her daughter without a husband around, all while toiling as a seamstress in a factory, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on both her adoring grandchildren.

I’d never felt so grateful to anyone. Eating the pie that night felt almost sacramental, as if I could actually taste her kind and generous spirit.

Afterwards, my wife waved us all into the kitchen. She opened the door to our freezer and pointed toward the back. And there it was: one last slice of the pie, the one that was labeled

“Nettie.”
“This one I’m saving,” she said.

And so she has. And there Nettie’s pie remains, untouched, unseen, but never forgotten. Other families leave behind insurance policies or furniture or jewelry, but Nettie left us her pie. That single slice will serve as heirloom enough, and feed our hearts year-round, giving us all the Easter we’ll ever need.

Mothers in History: The Museum Exhibit

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day this year, is a piece I wrote that appeared in Newsday in 2007:

This weekend our museum unveils “Milestones in Motherhood,” the first exhibit tracing the evolution of mothers through the millennia. Our highly interactive, multimedia presentation brings you the latest insights into the most controversial family member since the creation of the uncle.

For starters, we see Mother Nature in a diorama, fists on hips, looking ticked off about being fooled. Future generations, when similarly deceived, would come to copy the hurt look on her face. Centuries later, we view Mother Teresa feeding the lepers of Calcutta, raising the bar on maternal compassion forever beyond the reach of mortal mothers everywhere.

In between, we pick up some little-known facts about moms. We hear, for example, of the activist mother who lobbied to outlaw the long-standing domestic practice, never really proven practical, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We also learn how the Virgin Mary, a product of immaculate conception, set unrealistic expectations about the ease of pregnancy and childbirth for generations. Every two hours, we offer a live stage show featuring the devil, who explains why his upbringing forced him to coin the phrase “mother from hell.”

If this ambitious retrospective teaches us any single lesson, it’s that matriarchy is clearly a world order stronger than any known government. Also represented in our hallowed hallways are:

Prehistoric Mom. A reconstructed skeleton of this early hominid reveals a spine with an uncanny degree of flexibility, enabling her literally to bend over backward, the better to accommodate her children and husband. Forensic analysis reveals a tongue prehensile and poisonous, handy for striking dead on the spot anyone who dared to cross her.

Pyramid Mom. Female pharaohs inaugurate the ritual, since adopted in several industrialized nations, of mothers being worshipped by all who behold her. Soon all homes in ancient Egypt would come equipped with obligatory altar and pedestal.

Immigrant Mom. Credited as the inventor of guilt (though the patent is still pending), she specialized in the second-guessing of her children, often first-generation Americans. In a favorite household practice, she repeatedly asked all her children, including adolescents, when they planned to get married, to whom and exactly why.

Eisenhower Mom. Presented in her natural habitat, the kitchen, she cleaned to the point of surgical sterility, all while wearing full makeup and high heels. A voice-over recounts how she eventually stormed segregated lunch counters nationwide demanding the legal right to cook with her hair uncoiffed.

Executive Mom. Here, to do right by job and child, she multitasks her brains out, often even while multitasking. In one tableau, she pecks e-mails on her BlackBerry and conducts an hour-long overseas conference call with a deeply disenchanted top client as she breast-feeds her infant triplets.

Visitors to the IMAX theater can view a computerized rendering of the typical mother’s hypothalamus as it produces the very chemical empowering her to read her children’s minds. We also go inside a working laboratory where researchers are striving to isolate the so-called Mommy Gene, long suspected of being responsible for all that is good and true in the world.

As you probably can guess, no single trip to this fascinating retrospective will be enough to take it all in. Make sure you go back a second time to catch the must-see enlarged slides of the original one-celled mother and the papyrus document containing the first known mother-in-law joke.

Of course, no exhibit of such unprecedented scope comes off without intense debate over its contents. The United Kingdom, miffed over the lack of reference to the queen mother, has filed suit. Planning similar litigation are estates representing Mother Goose, Ma Barker, Moms Mabley, Mama Cass, the first Soccer Mom and the Mothers of Invention.

As you exit, if only to avoid being subpoenaed for these suits, we invite you to browse in our gift shop for an hour or three. Still in stock is everything from mother-of-pearl pendants to a “Whistler’s Mother” lunchbox to a CD-ROM re-creating the mother of all battles.

Our collection’s signature artifact is here, too – a reproduction of the Leave No Mom Unappreciated Act, still stuck in committee on Capitol Hill since the dawn of the republic.

Do You Know Your Own Family’s History?

Dear Readers,

And if you do know your family’s history, how much do you know– a little, a lot, or something in between?

How much do your kids or grandkids know?

Have you ever considered writing a personal family history for future generations?

Those are the kinds of questions posed in this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NT8H2NP

Please take two minutes to answer the nine easy multiple-choice questions here.  I’ve got my heart set on getting at least 100 responses and we’re up to 75 so far.  I’ll be sharing the results with all of you for Father’s Day.

Thank you.

Bob

My Sundays With Stanley

Stanley
Here’s my tribute to longtime friend and loyal mentor, Stanley Siegelman, recently deceased, that appeared yesterday in The Forward.

Toward the end, as he lay dying, pretty much all I wanted to do was make him laugh. I called him every week with a line or a joke or a story he might find funny. I plied him with levity. And laugh he often would. Even so, I suspected that as I tried to humor him, he was actually humoring me. Together, we whistled in the dark.

Somehow I got the idea that if I could just keep him laughing, maybe I could keep him alive. Scheherazade, the Persian queen who told tales for 1,001 nights to save herself from beheading, would have nothing on me. If I could just make him laugh often enough and hard enough and long enough, it would lengthen his life by 1,001 nights and maybe even save him from cancer. We would strike a deal. Just as I kept him going, he would keep me going, too.

But instead Stanley Siegelman, my friend, my editor and mentor, my surrogate father, my tribal elder, died this week anyway. Stanley, a father and grandfather, a World War II veteran, an award-winning editor with Hearst and Fairchild magazines and a long-time contributor of whimsical poetry to The Forward, had just turned 87 years old.

We knew each other for 34 years. Stanley hired me, then age 25, to write for the pharmacy magazine he ran. For four years he gave me heavy doses of the praise and encouragement I then most needed as a young writer. I invited him and his wife Shirley to our wedding two years later. After I left the magazine to freelance full-time, he referred business to me.

We stayed in particularly close touch over the last 10 years, after Shirley died. Right around then he started composing his poems for The Forward, perhaps to ease his grief. He loved to pun, compulsively so – years earlier he wrote an article about insect repellents that began, “Let us spray” – and saw the English language as a playpen for rhyme.

His whimsical poems addressed anything and everything Jewish that twanged his funnybone – the Elliot Spitzer debacle, a Brooklyn restaurant named Traife, you name it. He often told me of a poem in the works or just submitted and about to appear. Once in a while his editor would rejected a poem of his as perhaps off-limits, news Stanley shared with me with both disappointment and delight. At those times he reminded me of an otherwise polite boy who knew he was being a little naughty and mischievous. He caught a second wind late in life, publishing some 185 poems, humor his lifeline.

I visited him in Great Neck every few months, often on Sundays – my Sundays with Stanley. We went out to lunch at a diner and took walks in a nearby park near the water. Always we talked about writers and writing, about books and articles and essays, with special attention to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and other literary heroes. We also discussed our own work. Even all these years later, I still showed him my materials, still addicted to his unstinting approval.

I’ve never had a talent for friendship, but luckily Stanley did. A friendship is a miracle and all miracles are to be treasured. He edited my copy, but never tried to edit my life. He remains the only person in my life I seem to have failed utterly to disappoint.

Toward the end, as he sensed his life coming to a close, he refused to let me see him, no matter how much I asked. “I have to confront this on my own,” he explained. Still, he welcomed my phone calls and always asked me for news both personal and professional. “So tell me about your latest successes,” he would say, and give me the floor. Years back I wrote a novel he had read that remained unpublished, yet he kept asking me, “Did someone accept your book?”

Eventually he would get around to telling me about his health. He always kept his accounts matter-of-fact, almost telegraphic. He took this test and that medication and the physician gave him the following prognosis. He conveyed such details with a scholarly detachment, ever the reporter, casting a cool clinical eye on his own mortality, perhaps the better to mask any apprehensions. “I’m terminal,” he told me once. “There will be pain. That will be it.”

Never once did he complain, nor seek sympathy, much less pity. That was just never his style. If his spirits sank, he never really let on. “It’s a long haul and I’m getting tired of it,” he admitted in an unwavering voice. “I’m tempted to close my eyes and let it be. The sooner the better.” The last time we spoke, he wished me all the best. He said it almost officially, as if he already knew it would be the last time we spoke. I had run out of jokes and he had run out of laughter.

If Stanley was unwilling to complain even then, how can I ever? The man taught me how to die. He also taught me how to live.

http://www.forward.com/articles/137149/

A One-Time Offer to Readers: Part 3

Dear Reader,

If you’ve read my blog since its launch in June, then you’ve gotten to know our kids, Michael and Caroline.

You’ve learned about the day Michael took his time getting born. And about the struggle Caroline faced coming into being.

You’ve found out about how Michael liked to sleep on the floor of our bedroom despite the risk of winding up trampled. And about how Caroline cried the day her pet goldfish died and she buried its body at sea.

But as Frank Sinatra sang – and Tony Bennett, too — the best is yet to come.
In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about Michael. How he turned into Mr. Cool and mastered pushups and started going out with girls.

You’ll get better acquainted with Caroline, too. How she picked up tennis and turned into a Gal About Town and blossomed as a singer.

Some time next year you’ll also get the details on what I love about both our kids. I’ll actually itemize the umpteen reasons.

And you’ll catch the modest doses of advice I’ve deigned to share with both.
That’s ultimately why I encourage you to subscribe to this blog — because the best is truly yet to come.

Meantime, please let me know what you think. I’m eager to hear from you, too.

P.S. – Tomorrow this blog resumes its regularly scheduled programming.

A One-Time Offer to Readers: Part 2

Dear Reader,

Once again I hereby officially invite you to subscribe to my blog, letterstomykids.org.

Once again this is a one-time offer only – except of course technically this is my second offer.

Once again this lifetime subscription is available free.

Only now I’m offering a discount.

If you’re under 100 years old, you get 15% off.

And if you subscribe today, you’ll get an additional 10% off.

Just imagine what you can do with all the money you’ll save!

But all seriousness aside, let me tell you why you should take advantage of this offer – an offer that may never be available again until tomorrow or maybe next Tuesday at the absolute latest.

If you subscribe to my blog, you’ll never get fat.

You’ll never be hungry again, either.

Best of all, you’ll never get old.

In short, you’ll be happy 24 hours a day, year in and year out, even possibly several months into your afterlife (though why you would need an afterlife if you never get old I have no idea).
But why take my word for it? The New York Times recommended my blog:

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/bob-brody/

So did Woman’s Day: http://dailywd.womansday.com/blog/2010/06/daily-buzz-a-fresh-twist-on-fathers-day.html

Chances are, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were even remotely aware of my blog, it would recommend it, too.

Ditto the World Health Organization.

So ask yourself, “Do I want a bright future? Do I, in my heart of hearts, truly believe I deserve eternal bliss?”

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then subscribe now.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

A One-Time Offer to Readers

Dear Reader,

I hereby officially invite you to subscribe to my blog, letterstomykids.org.

It’s OK: I cleared it with the FCC first.

“Even so,” you might ask, “why should I subscribe? After all, it’s just another blog.”

Well, for starters, you’ll lose all your extra weight overnight.

You’ll also be able to earn millions of dollars a day working from home in your spare time.

And you’ll have the best relationships you ever imagined.

Can any other blog you know make such claims?

But here’s the clincher. A lifetime subscription to letterstomykids.org is now free.

True, it was free before. But now it’s even freer.

In fact, it’s twice as free. And that’s a 50% savings!

Here’s the catch, though. It’s a one-time offer only.

Or at least it will be until the second time it’s offered.

So act now, before it’s too late to save your life. Happiness absolutely guaranteed or your money back, no questions asked.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.