My Thanksgiving Change Of Heart

Here, belatedly, is my Thanksgiving essay in the New York Daily News:

NYDailyNews.com

Opinion

A Thanksgiving change of heart: How I learned to love my mother-in-law
BY Bob Brody
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Originally Published: Thursday, November 24 2011, 4:49 AM

<br /> Thanksgiving is a time to remember the thanks we owe to our family members.

As soon as I had a mother-in-law, I had issues with her. For starters, she talked too much. She also talked too loud. Plus, she worried too much, tending to see the world as a problem that defied solution.

Every Thanksgiving at our Queens apartment, all these idiosyncrasies collided with combustible force. I’d like to say that I took them in stride and even found some charming. But that would be a lie. We were never going to get along, my mother-in-law and I — that much I could see from the start. The woman got under my skin more than acupuncture.

Still, I stifled my annoyance over my lot in life as her hostage, simmering instead. I never aimed a cross word at her, nor raised my voice to her, nor gave her anything like a dirty look. I bit my tongue and treated her with kid gloves. So it went for 23 years.

Then, in 1998, something strange and surprising happened. She suddenly stopped getting on my nerves — without acting any differently. I, in turn, tried harder to make her happy. After so long avoiding conversations, I started to talk with her. I asked about her life, listening as she reminisced. I took her for long drives. I treated her to dinner at the restaurant of her choice every Sunday at around 5. We actually enjoyed our next Thanksgiving together.

The following spring, at the age of 78, she went into the hospital for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications and lapsed into a coma, no longer able to talk. And on a sweltering June day, just as I had started to get the hang of getting along with her, she died.

Her name, by the way, was Antoinette. Antoinette Chirichella of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But everyone knew her as Nettie. A handsome, olive-skinned woman, usually dressed in a sleeveless house dress. Warm brown eyes, a noble Neapolitan nose, graying hair frizzed high and a smile almost saintly.

Why my abrupt, late change of heart? Maybe Nettie grew on me. Maybe I simply grew up. Maybe it dawned on me that even though she might never change, I certainly could.

Maybe Nettie talked so much because she grew up with three siblings and had to compete for attention at the dinner table. Maybe she had to be loud because only then could her sister seamstresses hear her over the clatter of sewing machines as she slaved in a factory for 47 years.

Maybe, in those last months, I finally recognized how much I owed her. She had raised her daughter — without a husband, on a pittance — and then took care of our two children, too, while my wife and I worked. Nothing was ever easy for her, yet she never gave us an ounce less than her all. Nettie never second-guessed me, never questioned my bad decisions or came down on me when I got fired from my first job; never stopped believing in me even when I almost stopped believing in myself.

So I made amends with an act of apology long overdue. It was as if, toward the end, I had somehow sensed she might be around only a little longer and should make the best of the few moments we had left together.

Nettie has been gone for 12 years now, and I would give most anything to get her back, even if only for an hour, just to keep my apology going. I would love to see her just once more with her grandchildren, both grown so smart, beautiful and talented. We keep her cane on display in our living room, leaning against a dresser, as if to lend our family her support through eternity.

If I ever forget how to feel grateful on Thanksgiving, she’s all the reminder I need.

Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, Queens, blogs at letterstomykids.org.

http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/a-thanksgiving-change-heart-i-learned-love-mother-in-law-article-1.982068#ixzz1fHzqmiui

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The Big Thank You

Here’s a Thanksgiving essay of mine that appeared in Newsday:

Brody: Ready, set, Thank You!

November 22, 2011 by BOB BRODY /

I never thanked my 10th-grade English teacher for getting me interested in literature. I also never thanked my first boss for hiring me for my first job out of college. Nor have I gone back to thank my first girlfriend for granting me, at age 12, my first romantic kiss.

With Thanksgiving here, of course, we’re all on board with the tradition of expressing gratitude. We may clasp our hands in prayer and offer words of thanks to God. We may each take a turn at the dinner table to reveal the reasons why we’re so thankful this year, praising our families, friends and colleagues while acknowledging appreciation for our health, our jobs and just being alive.

But seldom do any of us engage in directly thanking each other — the act of singling out a person expressly to say “Thank you, you made a difference in my life,” complete with a detail or two about exactly why.

As in: Thank you for being my wife and the mother of our children, and especially for making our family your top priority.

As in: Thank you for being my friend, particularly for taking me out to lunch in 2007 because you knew I felt low and listening to me complain about my job for an hour.

We instinctively recognize gratitude to be a force for good. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers cited gratitude as an important virtue. Studies at the universities of Utah and Michigan show it’s healthy both to show and to receive gratitude — the heart and brain appear to function more harmoniously.

Yet all too many of us have limited our use of the words “thank you.” We mistakenly assume all the people we care most about already know full well that we appreciate everything they’ve done. We suffer from a gratitude deficit.

As it happens, last Thanksgiving I launched a personal project to correct the record once and for all. I vowed to personally thank, at least once a week for the next year, someone to whom I felt I owed gratitude.

To start small, I approached my favorite doorman to thank him for taking such good care of our family over the decades. He placed his hand near his heart and thanked me right back for being among his favorite tenants. We hugged each other right there in the lobby.

More ambitiously, I called a former boss of mine to thank her for all her guidance over the years, but especially for refusing to hold a grudge against me after she gave me a big raise and I responded — with egregious ingratitude — “I thought we could do better.” Unable to get her on the line, I left her a voice mail, but never heard back. I’m convinced she dismissed my well-intentioned overture as a misguided prank.

But quickly my little plan to acknowledge everyone deserving of thanks ran out of gas. Life intervened — job, family, television, sleep; you know the drill — and suddenly I lacked enough time to follow through. And so even though I got around to thanking some more people — my Uncle Leonard, my pal Al, my colleague Brian — many more figures in my life, major and minor alike, wound up decidedly unthanked.

Today, however, I hereby renew my pledge. I’m going to track down all those special someones to deliver my special thank-yous. Once again my purpose is simply to do right by people who have meant the most to me — and yes, to clear my conscience over my previous failure to do so. After all, sometimes by going back, we can better move ahead.

Suppose everyone on the planet made a similar promise: a commitment to give people a heartfelt, highly specific thank-you. Parents and teachers would thus be duly honored. Friends and colleagues would feel forever connected. So would grandparents, coaches, customers and, for that matter, former girlfriends and boyfriends. This simple gesture — saying thank you, you matter to me — would promote a needed sense of belonging, a welcome spirit of unity.

And so I propose a public-service campaign. We could recruit celebrity spokespeople talented at expressing gratitude — Steven Spielberg comes to mind; his “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” are strong in depicting gratitude. Enlist Miss Manners to issue guidelines about following the right etiquette. Stage thank-you free-for-alls in communities nationwide. Hold contests to determine who is thanked the most and who has thanked the best. We could call it all The Big Thank You.

Just imagine the ripple effect that would result. Think of how much it could mean to those doing the thanking and those getting thanked. With all that thanking going on, maybe we would learn to treat each other better, behaving more kindly and generously, than we do now.

Let’s try to make every day of the year feel like Thanksgiving.

Bob Brody, a public-relations executive and essayist in Forest Hills, blogs at letterstomykids.org.

Dear Kids: Thank You

This year I took a new approach to honoring my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. I enlisted seven parents to be guest columnists, inviting each to say, Hey, kids, here’s why I’m grateful for you.

Luckily enough, Lisa Belkin, senior columnist on life/work/family for the Huffington Post, and Janice D’Arcy, “On Parenting” columnist of The Washington Post, liked the concept – parents writing letters to say, Dear kids, thank you – enough to feature it:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/23/thank-you-letters_n_1110137.html

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

Here, then, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion – and humbly offered as what you might call post-Thanksgiving leftovers – is why I’m grateful for my own kids.

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Thank you, Michael, my son. You made me a father for the first time. Thank you for looking so beautiful as a baby, and then as a boy, and now as a man.

Thank you, too, for respecting and trusting and loving your mother, and for recognizing inescapably how much she means to you, and to us all.

And for playing the role of big brother with your little sister, the part of a lifetime, and for admiring her tenacity, and for being ready to do anything to protect her, no matter how minor the threat.

And for dealing so well with being just like me, bearing the blessing and the curse alike, because yes, it’s both, but which more than the other might be hard to say.

And for never speaking ill of any of your friends, even though you probably could have, and of your girlfriends, too.

Thank you, my boy, for so ably impersonating Christopher Walken and that weird cricket-like sound from the monster in the movie “Predator.”

And for your quicksilver wisecracks, especially that one time, when I asked you if you considered yourself short, and you said,“No, just undertall.”

And for how your face looked in the moonlight in Southhampton, when I carried you outside the cottage we rented, how your eyes beamed as you looked up at all the stars glittering in the sky, your mouth opening in awe at the canopy of the constellations above.

Thanks especially for so fondly remembering Grandma Nettie, who still counts so much now and forever, a source of light and warmth for all of us as strong as the sun, and for giving her so much joy.

Thank you, too, Caroline, my daughter. Michael showed me how deeply I could love someone new, and you’ve shown me I could love someone else new just as deeply. In a single stroke, you doubled everything.

Thanks, too, for crying so much as a baby, your cries insistently reminding us, as if we could ever forget, “I’m here, I’m here!”

And for being so hard on the outside, once as a two-year-old taking umbrage at me for daring to challenge you and stubbornly jutting out your jaw and saying, “You think you’re tough?”

But also for being so soft on the inside, talking to your dolls in your room, crying at all the classic Disney movies, growing your hair long so you could cut it and give it away to kids going through chemo.

Thank you, my girl, for climbing that boulder in Martha’s Vineyard at the age of eight to sing in front of our friends. You look so at home on stage and sing and dance with such conviction, always going for the right note, the right step, usually hitting it, too, but if you miss it, always trying again until you get it right. I’m grateful for how intent you get before auditions and shows, how zoned in.

Thank you for cranking out so many real push-ups and showing me yoga and Pilates and once giving me a facial, and for how you looked that day I held you in the pool at the beach club, your face gleaming with droplets of water so gloriously in the sun.

And for eating so nutritiously and for always carrying yourself like a lady, and for never complaining about having the smallest bedroom. And for being so beautiful with your ballerina neck and elegant jawline and perfect, pampered skin and those cherry-black eyes that can win me over or cut me to the quick, depending on your mood that day.

And for being so very alive, your nerves living so close to your skin.

Thank you especially for appreciating everything Mom and I have tried to give you, and for telling us so. And equally so for holding Grandma Nettie dear in your heart, always remembering her all-powerful love for you.

You both came into the world as if from nothing and nowhere. But we know you came from our love for each other and our faith in the future. You each gave me someone new to love, someone I could call my own, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, and also someone else who could love me back.

You are both rewards surpassing anything I might ever have imagined or, for that matter, ever felt I truly deserved.

There. I’ve said it. It’s now a matter of public record. I wish I could catalogue everything I’m grateful about when it comes to both of you, but for now this will, somehow, have to do.

Besides, nothing I could say will ever do justice to the gratitude I feel this and every Thanksgiving. One day I believe I love you both with all my heart, only to find the next day I love you even more. It never ends, and it never will. You are my butterflies, my rainbows, my miracles.

P.S. — Anyone else out there feel the same? If so, let me know.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Biff Barnes: What My Mom Knew

Biffbarneswithsons
Biff Barnes has been telling his sons, James and Ed, stories about family history for 33 years. Biff is an editor who specializes in creating family history books and memoirs. An educator, a journalist and a widely published San Francisco historian, he works with his wife, Nancy, as partners in Stories To Tell, a company which helps authors with editing services, consulting, book design and publishing. You can learn more at http://www.StoriesToTellBooks.com.

Dear James and Ed,

It’s my 65th birthday today. So I’ll indulge myself in a little bit of reflection.

You guys know that I spend a lot of time telling clients about how to turn their genealogical research into family history books. As their editor I advise them to look beyond the facts they’ve uncovered to the family stories that reveal who those distant relatives were. For in their beliefs and character traits we will find things that shaped us. Family history offers a lens through which to understand who we are.

Looking back across more than half a century I can see the source of values that survive in me and which you have, each in your own way, inherited. Here are two of those touchstones.

The fall of my 4th grade year my teacher got pregnant. In those days the powers that be immediately pulled pregnant teachers out of the classroom. It was shortly before report cards when the substitute arrived. She did the grading. I got all “satisfactories”. That had never happened before. The only “satisfactories” I had gotten were in handwriting; the rest were “excellent.” My mother made an appointment for a conference with the teacher. I had to accompany her.

The teacher was quick to tell Mom what a good boy I was. Then she delivered the line that rings through my memory almost 60 years later: “Biff is a good average student.”

Mom looked her in the eye and said, “Biff will never be an average student. He knows that being average will never get him anywhere. He knows that he needs to work hard enough to be way above average.”

Mom probably understood what I did not. The substitute teacher had no idea who I or any of the other kids in my class were. She hadn’t been with us long enough to find out. Mom might have been looking at the teacher, but she was talking to me. The message was clear and simple: If you want to get anywhere in life, you had better be willing to work for it.

But there’s a flip side to me that seems to believe something diametrically opposite to my Mom’s admonition about the value of hard work. Your Mom, Nancy, Jersey girl that she is, likes to say to me, “Biff, you’re such a Californian.” It’s a reference to the feeling that somehow, through sheer good fortune, I’ll grab the gold ring on life’s merry-go-round.

It is, I think, a particularly western belief that you will discover the path to “the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” It’s a belief that brought the 49ers across the country. I think I probably inherited it from a man I never met, my grandfather.

An itinerant printer, he traveled the West looking for his main chance. The quest took him to Alaska to find gold in1898. He had more success there as a boxer than as a miner and eventually headed east with pockets empty. On the way he stopped in South Dakota long enough to meet and marry my grandmother before turning west once again.

This time he sought fortune by purchasing a hog ranch in Roseville, California. Hog cholera depopulated the ranch a couple of years later. My grandparents moved again, this time to San Francisco, where my grandfather opened a print shop near 29th and Mission. Grandpa never got rich. Fortune lay just beyond the horizon, but he always believed that someday he’d get there. It’s a faith in the future that my Dad passed on to me.

Knowledge of family stories doesn’t require that you carry them on. It presents you with a choice of which character traits, beliefs and values you want to embrace and which you’d just as soon relegate to the past. My own life has provided a good deal of evidence of the value of hard work and almost none that I will discover a gold nugget that will lead to the mother lode. So when you listen to the family stories it’s useful to have a healthy dose of objectivity.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Jill Smokler: Thanks for Your Giggles, Wet Kisses And Purity of Heart

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Jill Smokler, a mother of three in Baltimore, blogs about motherhood — the good, the bad and the scary — at scarymommy.com. Her first book, Confessions of a Scary Mommy, is due out in April from Simon and Schuster.

Dear Lily,

I am so thankful to have been blessed with a girl. I am thankful for the way you take care of your brothers, even if they don’t always appreciate it. I am thankful that your hair requires little combing, because mornings are tough enough as they are. I am thankful that you are polite and well-behaved and I never need to worry about your behavior on play-dates and sleepovers. I am thankful for your love of learning and that you are anxious and happy to go to school each and every day. I am thankful for your spunk, even if it makes things difficult sometimes. I am thankful for your heart, which is the purest one I know.

I am so utterly thankful to be your mother. Always.

Dear Ben,

I am thankful to have been blessed with a boy, even though I was sure I wouldn’t know what to do with one. I am thankful for your fierce hugs, even if I need to bribe you for them sometimes. I am thankful for the kind of friend you are, both to your schoolmates and your brother and sister. I am thankful for how concerned you are for other people, sometimes even more than yourself. I am thankful that you love peanut butter so much, since without it, you would exist almost solely on carbs. I am thankful that your aim in the bathroom has finally improved. (Kind of.) I am thankful that you resemble me, and I didn’t totally lose the DNA wars. I am thankful that you love it when I visit your classroom, and I am thankful for your infectious giggle.

I am so utterly thankful to be your mother. Always.

Dear Evan,

I am thankful to have been blessed with a third child, even though I spent my pregnancy worrying that I wouldn’t be able to handle you. I am thankful for your kisses, no matter how wet and messy they may be. I am thankful for the way your face lights up when you see me at school each day, like it’s a surprise to you that I am there. I am thankful for your resilience, because without it, you would need a full body cast. I am thankful for how funny you are, and the laughs you give me constantly. I am thankful for your ability to entertain yourself, for hours at a time. I am thankful for how much you idolize your siblings, and have perfectly rounded out our family. I am thankful that you don’t mind never having worn a new article of clothing, and that you are overjoyed by something as simple as matching pajama tops and bottoms. I am thankful that you willingly play the role of my baby, even though you are quickly growing up.

I am so utterly thankful to be your mother. Always.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Leslie Long: Thanks, Boys, For Always Being Yourselves

Leslie_and_boys3
Leslie Long, a friend of mine from high school and mother of two sons, is an Associate Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi. She is also a photographer and travel writer (http://www.leslielongwriter.com/, http://www.leslielongportfolio.com/).

Dear Ian and Erik,

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for things both big and small. At 6’ and 6’1”, you are the big things I’m grateful for. While I loved your younger years, I so enjoy the adults (or in Erik’s case, at 17, the almost adult) you’ve become.

Two boys, almost seven years apart in age, you are and always have been individuals. I used to say that the only thing you had in common was blond hair. Now, as I’d always hoped, you also share some other things.

Having come from a quiet family of girls, I was a little worried about being a mother of boys. Would they be wild, hard to control? Ian, being my first son, you laid those fears to rest the moment I saw your cute little face. Lying in the hospital bed while you slept, looking at your tiny features, I knew I had nothing to worry about —and your early years were kind of a dream.

You were so curious about the world, and once you could talk, you asked some of the most intriguing questions. You were always trying to figure out the relationship between yourself and the world. While sitting in the car at five years of age, you said:

“If we were going the other way, you would be over there and I would be over here. If we were going the other way, the back would be the front and the front would be the back.”

You were a model citizen on the playground and in elementary school, too. Spirited, yes. Artistic, too. And naturally athletic.

Erik, when you were a baby, my friend Diane said you looked like a Viking, with your big round open face and happy smile. You always had a talent for figuring out relationships between people and from the stroller, you’d stop neighbors on the street to ask about other family members. Coming from a child who looked too young to even talk, this amazed people. You have always had an innate ability for getting along with people of all ages. You’re comfortable in the world and every day, your optimism is a gift every day. I’ve enjoyed your impressive vocabulary.

You, Erik, shared my love of travel, and were always up for adventure. While Ian liked sleepaway camp, you preferred exploring. Five years ago, while walking through a colorful market in Guatemala, you turned to me and said, “Now this is a whole lot better than camp!”

Dad and I always appreciated the differences between you two, but sometimes those differences made it harder for you to be close with each other. Ian liked to be around town, while Erik enjoyed travel and the city. Ian was a varsity athlete, while Erik had a lengthy skateboarding phase. Ian was completely involved with his friends.

Now there’s more common ground. Ian, you’ve graduated from college and you’re living on your own, enjoying a successful career. Erik, you’re a senior in high school and have chosen varsity track and football as your sports. Fitness, basketball, fishing and golf are among your dual pursuits. You’re both smart, responsible and ever interesting to me. Along with Dad, there’s no one I’d rather be with than the two of you.

Thanks for your similarities and your differences, too. And above all, thanks for always being yourselves.

Leslie_and_boys2

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Frank Cavallaro: Why I Write For My Daughters

Cavallaro_daughters
Frank Cavallaro, a long-time resident of East Meadow, Long Island, is father to three daughters. Schooled as a graphic designer, he joined several advertising agencies but eventually went out on his own and added copywriting to his list of services. Later in life, he entered the financial services business, where he eventually became a teacher in continuing education.

Dear Laura, Jennifer and Kim,

A basement flood last January forced me and my wife to review some of what we had saved throughout our marriage – in boxes, placed out sight.The years had withered away the sentimental value that some of those items once held for us.

Others had become more precious, like the yellowing letter from my father to my mother, written in blue-black fountain pen ink many years ago. Holding that letter in my hand instantly connected me to him; transcending 65 years, I lived his thoughts at the moment he was writing them. Reading it made me sad of how little he wrote.

When I was a boy, my father told stories about his youth – how he was born in New York, then at four years old sent to Italy to live with family, only to return to New York at age 12, unable to speak English, and how he was bullied for that.

My father told me other stories, too – about fighting back, trying to fit into a new world, the deaths of his two younger teenage sisters and the death of his father.

When he died, those stories died with him.

Unfortunately, the spoken word fades with the memory of the listener.

My mother’s writing was confined to recording times and places on the backs of black-and-white photographs taken during the 1940s, and to grocery lists.Much about my parents will therefore always remain unknown.

Three years ago, I started to write essays to record some of my most meaningful and memorable experiences growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Originally, I meant these accounts to entertain and enlighten you, my three daughters. But you were always too busy or too bored to hear me tell these stories out loud. Soon I had 65 essays in all.

I recounted, for example, how I saw a live chicken beheaded on my aunt’s farm and served as dinner just an hour later. More humanely, I reminisced about my boyhood cocker spaniel.

I also realized that my grandchildren might enjoy these stories, too, and so wove in historical references to matters that had fascinated me as a child – how spiders behave, the steam locomotive, the gravity-defying gyroscope.My hope is they will see the world as I saw it then, and as I still see it today – as a place that endlessly arouses my curiosity.

With any luck, these stories will someday mean as much to you and my grandchildren as my father’s letter does for me.

Frank_-_4-4-10

Eight Thanksgiving Guests: Why I’m Grateful For My Kids

Zelda Baum, my aunt

I’m grateful for my children, each for a different reason. For Link I am grateful that he is such a good father. I’m grateul to God for allowing my son Craig to continue his difficult and painful life, but at least he’s here. He is the bravest example of anyone I know. And I’m grateful for my daughter, Duffy, who is very independent and wonderful in sharing her life with people less fortunate than she. She is active in feeding the homeless. I’m proud my children are all of good character.

Beth Dreyfuss, my friend

I’m grateful for my three kids because being their mother taught me all about my capacity to love unconditionally. It showed me how generous I was able to be. It taught me it’s possible to discipline without hurt. It taught me that I could accept my kids ”warts and all” even when something they’d done appalled me. Being kind to them (with no effort at all) taught me how to be kind to myself. I’m grateful to have seen each have a happy childhood and live completely live in the moment. Thank you, my precious children, whom I love more than life itself, for helping me live a better and more fulfilling life.

Deborah Swan, my high school classmate

“I give thanks every day that my three daughters know the true meaning of family. It truly is a marriage….in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, we will always be there for one another, and for that, I am thankful.

Mindy Gikas, my former colleague

They keep my life in perspective and I’m grateful for every day I have with them.

Arline Zatz

I’m very proud of my two sons, who are honest and smart, and worked their own way through graduate school. One is a dentist, the other an organizational psychologist, but no matter what they might have chosen as careers, they’re proud they’ve done it themselves. My younger son is one of the best dads I know — for he is raising his children to be polite and to value what they have. Seeing them grow and become the men they are is, to me, a blessing.

Kara Williams

Grateful for my kids? Here’s why: This morning after a fresh snowfall, my 9-year-old son asked me to go sledding with him in our side yard. I had a kitchen to clean, laundry to do, work to catch up on. But he asked me so sweetly and genuinely, I couldn’t say no. Tromping around in the snow, whooping it up as we flew down the hill, seeing his reddened cheeks (and runny nose) filled my heart and made me so grateful to have active kids who remind me to take time out of my day – 20 minutes! — to just *be* with them.

Christine McLaughlin

Not a day goes by where I don’t feel grateful for my kids, not just at Thanksgiving time. There’s a lot more laughter in my life because of them and they’ve enriched my life in ways too numerous to list. But having grown up with two sisters and now having three boys of my own, I feel truly fortunate to be able to experience this other side of humanity in my life. I have a much better appreciation for the male “species”– including my husband (who really isn’t that far removed from my sons) than ever before. My perspective has really changed — and improved – and for that, I’m forever thankful.

Nancy Peske

I’m grateful to my son for teaching me the importance of being goofy and letting yourself laugh so hard at stupid YouTube videos you can barely breathe. I’m also grateful to him for reminding me that we should never stop playing. My love for my dolls led to my interest in psychology and I’m sure his obsession with the Godzilla oeuvre will lead to, well, something of value. In the meantime, shouldn’t life be about your pupils growing wide as you explain why Biollante is the most awesome Godzilla opponent ever? Footnote: being goofy and having obsessions are two characteristics of kids with autism and similar issues. So often parents see them as negative and problematic and forget the upsides.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Jerry Elfassy: Thank You, Grandpa Julius

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Jerry Elfassy lives in Merrick, New York with his wife Allison and four children, Daniel, Jamie, Logan and Lexi. Jerry is the founder and senior technical advisor of Progressive Consulting, an information technology firm located in Westbury New York (jerry@progressgroup.com).

Dear Daniel, Jamie, Logan and Lexi,

These are the words I recently spoke at my grandfather’s funeral:

I have about five minutes to share 45 years of memories of a man who lived 96 years.

My grandpa, Julius Brodinsky, was born in 1916, in Harlem, New York, the second of five children. He lived with his parents, Sam and Molly, and his siblings, Hy, Blossom, Helen and Freddy.

Because of tough times, grandpa dropped out of school in the 8th grade. He worked many jobs to support his family, including selling newspapers and delivering ice cream and ice. He even rotated the turnstiles at Yankee Stadium for incoming spectators.

My brother Marc and I loved the stories he would tell of all the Yankee stars he saw play in person. Grandpa loved baseball and played all through his childhood. He played pickup games in the sandlots of his neighborhood. He always made sure his older brother Hy got to participate in those games. Hy, diagnosed with polio, dragged a leg his whole life. But that never stopped him from playing baseball with his younger brother. Grandpa would carry Hy to and from the fields and sit himin a chair behind home plate so he could catch and play like all the other kids.

Grandpa was a tough kid. When other kids picked on Hy and teased him, Grandpa came to the rescue and took care of business. He protected Hy as if he were a piece of gold.

At the sandlot, grandpa and Hy sold soda and candy. They even made sandwiches at home to sell to other kids in the fields to make money to help support the family.

Grandpa took classes at a technical high school and played catcher for the team. He even caught a game at the old Yankee Stadium. He was so proud of that.

But his proudest moments came serving his country in the United States military. Grandpa was an Army man in World War II. He saw hand-to-hand combat, rode in tanks, fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He told us chilling stories about blown bridges and bullets zipping over his head.

With Grandpa Julie, what you saw was what you got. And what I saw was a hero.

Upon returning home from the war, grandpa started his family immediately. With his wife Pearl, they had three boys, Michael, Robert and Bart. He was hardworking, doing whatever was necessary. He was a truck driver, trucking company owner and trucking dispatcher. More than a few items “fell off the truck.”

One day I met him for lunch in lower Manhattan, where he worked for a trucking company. We ate pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and knishes at the local kosher deli. He had invited me in to introduce me to two brothers who owned a successful clothing company.

Then already 77, he led me through a maze of streets and stormed into the clothing warehouse. He told the two brothers they should do business with me. And they did, for many years, until they closed shop.

Grandpa never asked for much, but when he asked for something he got it.

He lost his first wife Pearl, in 1964, and then met my grandma Ruthie. She had already struggled to bring up three children of her own all by herself, but they married on Christmas the next year and she decided to become a wife and mother all over again.

My brother Marc and I spent our entire childhood with our grandma and grandpa. We spent summers at Buyers Bungalow Colony in Swan Lake in upstate New York. We all swam and played.

As we grew up, living just a block away, Grandpa was a daily part of our life. We ate together, shopped together and traveled together.

One summer, he planted a vegetable garden. He cared for it and we all enjoyed the fruits of his labor. I well remember my grandfather, then 56 — barefoot, in shorts and no shirt – chasing with a stick in his hand the rabbits that tried to destroy the plants and vines.

We are all “fruits of his labor.”

What you saw was what you got. And what I saw was a role model.

I think of the adversity he faced his whole life – the Great Depression, the lack of money, the war and the deaths he lived through, the loss of both wives and two boys, the loss of both parents and all but one of his siblings, the loss of his close friends and neighbors, the aging that eventually stole his vigor.

But what he saw in his 96 years was love and opportunity, the opportunity to learn what what really mattered from his parents and siblings, to appreciate the gift of close friends and caring neighbors, to make money for and protect his family, the opportunity to serve the United States of America, to go to war and cheat death to help others in need, to share the love he felt for Pearl and Ruthie with six children, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Even as an old man, with no strength left, he kept helping those he loved.

I will never forget what you have done for me.

I will never forget what you taught us.

Thank you, Grandpa, for being there for my Grandma, and for helping my blind parents, for taking them to doctors and shopping and holding their hands while you needed someone to hold yours. Thank you for giving me the only inspiration I ever needed to work as hard as I do to provide for my family. I promise to teach my children how to grow a garden and chase those rabbits away.

Jerry_elfassis_grandfather_julius
Jerry_elfassi_grandpas_cake

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Karen Steinfeld: Grandpa Stanley’s Brave Goodbye

Karen_and_daughters
Karen Steinfeld lives in Hillsdale, New Jersey with her husband Jeffrey and daughters Gabrielle, 18, and Serena, 14. She works as a financial aid clerk at Lincoln Technical Institute, a career training school. She also volunteers for the Sisterhood of Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake and is a supporter of Girl Scouts. Grandpa Stanley passed away after fighting kidney cancer in April, 2011. He was a playful and loving father to his two daughters, a respected father-in-law, and a doting Grandpa to his four grandchildren. Last year Karen collected more than $1,600.00 towards the American Cancer Society’s regional “Relay for Life” efforts to help find a cure for cancer and give hope to others in the future.

Dear Gabrielle and Serena,

Strange as it may seem, I am grateful I was there at the moment Grandpa took his last breath. Strange it may seem because it was a moment neither planned nor sought out. In fact, I had dreaded it.

Because Grandpa was in his last days of life, his death was expected. Despite his brave fight, kidney cancer had overcome his body. He had reminded us day in and day out during his illness that this day would come. His warnings were never intended to alarm us but, rather, to prepare us for his death. And our whole family was indeed prepared. But however prepared you may be, it’s hard to know how you will react at the moment it happens.

Grandpa had accepted his fate like no one I have ever known. He was a writer and vividly expressed his thoughts about his dire illness on paper. At first, I thought the poems he wrote represented an odd reaction to his impending death, but I soon realized that it was natural for him. That’s how he communicated his feelings. That’s how he coped with his situation. And he did it well. One day his poems will help others cope with death.

Grandpa constantly preached that “one’s death is a part of life.” It’s something that no one really wants to face head-on. But he tried to help us accept this eventuality.

Why was I grateful to be there when he took his last breath? It meant an end to his suffering. He had gone through enough. It was time for him to go. And it happened right before my eyes, his peaceful letting go of life. Only because of the hospice nurse, who had closely monitored his condition all along, did I even realize it was happening. But I witnessed it nonetheless.

I’m grateful I was there for his last breath, too, because it ended our suffering as well. It enabled us to bid Grandpa a peaceful good-bye. It gave his brother (Uncle) Philip an opportunity to chant aloud at his bedside the Jewish prayer of Kaddish.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m thankful to Grandpa for his extraordinary efforts in preparing us all for his death. In facing terminal cancer, he was a brave patient. To the end he remained true to himself and his convictions, steadfast in his quest to be independent and self-sufficient. He was grateful to all who helped him in his final days. He was a heroic fighter, a role model. He also accepted his death as inevitable and, in so doing, made a difficult situation easier for us.

As it happened, Grandpa left behind a note for my sister (Aunt) Susan and me to read after his death. The note instructed us to go to his bookcase. There on a shelf we would find a particular book. We were to open the book to a certain page. Printed there was William Shakespeare’s sonnet #71.

In death, your Grandpa the poet sought nothing less than to console us with the power of great poetry.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

Karen_and_daughters_2

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Karen Steinfeld: Your Grandpa Stanley

Karen Steinfeld lives in Hillsdale, New Jersey with her husband Jeffrey and daughters Gabrielle, 18, and Serena, 14. She works as a financial aid clerk at Lincoln Technical Institute, a career training school. She also volunteers for the Sisterhood of Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake and is a supporter of Girl Scouts. Grandpa Stanley passed away after fighting kidney cancer in April, 2011. He was a playful and loving father to his two daughters, a respected father-in-law, and a doting Grandpa to his four grandchildren. Last year Karen collected more than $1,600.00 towards the American Cancer Society’s regional “Relay for Life” efforts to help find a cure for cancer and give hope to others in the future.

Dear Gabrielle and Serena,

Strange as it may seem, I am grateful I was there at the moment Grandpa took his last breath. Strange it may seem because it was a moment neither planned nor sought out. In fact, I had dreaded it.

Because Grandpa was in his last days of life, his death was expected. Despite his brave fight, kidney cancer had overcome his body. He had reminded us day in and day out during his illness that this day would come. His warnings were never intended to alarm us but, rather, to prepare us for his death. And our whole family was indeed prepared. But however prepared you may be, it’s hard to know how you will react at the moment it happens.

Grandpa had accepted his fate like no one I have ever known. He was a writer and vividly expressed his thoughts about his dire illness on paper. At first, I thought the poems he wrote represented an odd reaction to his impending death, but I soon realized that it was natural for him. That’s how he communicated his feelings. That’s how he coped with his situation. And he did it well. One day his poems will help others cope with death.

Grandpa constantly preached that “one’s death is a part of life.” It’s something that no one really wants to face head-on. But he tried to help us accept this eventuality.

Why was I grateful to be there when he took his last breath? It meant an end to his suffering. He had gone through enough. It was time for him to go. And it happened right before my eyes, his peaceful letting go of life. Only because of the hospice nurse, who had closely monitored his condition all along, did I even realize it was happening. But I witnessed it nonetheless.

I’m grateful I was there for his last breath, too, because it ended our suffering as well. It enabled us to bid Grandpa a peaceful good-bye. It gave his brother (Uncle) Philip an opportunity to chant aloud at his bedside the Jewish prayer of Kaddish.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m thankful to Grandpa for his extraordinary efforts in preparing us all for his death. In facing terminal cancer, he was a brave patient. To the end he remained true to himself and his convictions, steadfast in his quest to be independent and self-sufficient. He was grateful to all who helped him in his final days. He was a heroic fighter, a role model. He also accepted his death as inevitable and, in so doing, made a difficult situation easier for us.

As it happened, Grandpa left behind a note for my sister (Aunt) Susan and me to read after his death. The note instructed us to go to his bookcase. There on a shelf we would find a particular book. We were to open the book to a certain page. Printed there was William Shakespeare’s sonnet #71.

In death, your Grandpa the poet sought nothing less than to console us with the power of great poetry.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Richard Haddad: Letter To My Baby Boy

Rich_and_jon
Richard Haddad is recently retired from a career managing support services functions in the public and private sectors. A resident of Westminster, Maryland, he has been writing on the side – articles, essays, fiction and satire – since college. Because his wife Valorie’s first child, by a previous marriage, was brain-damaged during birth and suffered severe physical and mental disabilities as a result, the birth of her second child, Ashleigh, a healthy baby, was a very special event for the family. Richard and Valorie’s son Jonathan was born 18 months later, in December of 1986. To make sure he gave Jon his due, Richard wrote this letter to him the day after he was born, and gave it to him on his 18thbirthday.

Dear Jonathan Michael,
I hope you don’t ever feel cheated the way some people do because your birthday comes a couple of days after Christmas. I worried a little about that in the months before you were born, but now that you’re here, I feel that there probably isn’t a better time of the year for a birthday celebration. There’s so much good feeling in the air to begin with. Anyway, your mom and I will make sure you have lots of especially happy ones as you’re growing up
I want you to know that as happy and climactic a time as Christmas always is for me, and as really perfect as this past Christmas was, I had a very strong sense of it as a warm-up exercise: an opening act with colored lights and sentimental music and great food, the purpose of which was to get everyone in the right frame of mind for the main event – you.
So before you were even born, you changed (for the better) the way I experienced a particular Christmas, and I don’t doubt that your birth will have the effect of adding a special touch to all my future Christmases as well. Please keep that in mind when anyone asks you how it feels to have your birthday “overshadowed” by Christmas.
Yesterday, I watched a doctor lift your head from your mother’s body. I watched you take your first breath, heard your first cry, and after one of the nurses had cleaned you up a bit, I held you close and, through my surgical mask, gave you your first kiss.
The only way for you to understand how special those moments were for me would be to experience them yourself – being with a woman you love more than anything, watching the birth of a child you made with her, then cuddling your newborn. I hope it happens to you some day: maybe in my lifetime so we can talk about it; but for now, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the excitement of Christmas pales in comparison.
I promise you that as long as our family is together you are going to have as good a childhood as it’s possible for anyone to have. I can make that promise to you because of the amount and intensity of the love that exists among us. It’s a love which will warm you, and nurture you, and heal you when you need healing, help you overcome any problems, and teach you everything you need to know about how to be happy in life.
Like your sister Ashleigh before you, you exist, my Christmas baby, because of that love. There isn’t a force in life stronger than it. Together with your own unique characteristics, that love makes you a very special person, and gives you the power to make your life meaningful and the sense that you make a difference to life.
That’s our birth-day gift to you. Grow in it and give it to others in your own life. Always know that I love you and that I’m happy to be your father and that your being has made me a better person.

Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Richard Haddad: Letter To My Baby Girl

Richard_haddad_and_ashleigh2
Richard Haddad is recently retired from a career managing support services functions in the public and private sectors. A resident of Westminster, Maryland, he has been writing on the side – articles, essays, fiction and satire – since college. His wife Valorie’s first child, by a previous marriage, was brain-damaged during birth and suffered severe physical and mental disabilities as a result. So there was apprehension during the pregnancy and delivery of her second child, their daughter Ashleigh. Richard, who had two children by a previous marriage, wanted Ashleigh to know how important her birth was for her parents and what she meant to the family. He wrote this letter to her after he got home from the hospital on the day she was born, in 1985. He never told her about the letter until her 18th birthday, when he gave her the signed original.

Dear Ashleigh Elizabeth,
I am about to take my first bite of one of the biggest, most delicious-looking ice cream sundaes I’ve ever had, topped with your mother’s own home-made fresh strawberry jam, in a private celebration of your birth at 10:11 AM today, June 24, 1985.
I wish you could have seen and appreciated the look on your mother’s face and the tears in her eyes when she watched you lifted out of her and saw that you were perfect and heard you cry. That look alone was for me worth all the hard work and all the risk that went into your being born today.
Before you were a minute old, the consensus in the delivery room was that you were a beautiful baby. It seems to me that if you were actually ugly and the hospital staff didn’t want to hurt our feelings, they would have said that you were cute, not beautiful. So you must really be beautiful. But that’s not how your daddy, who places a lot of value on accuracy, would describe you… yet.
What I see when I look at you is your matted dark brown hair on a still slightly crusty scalp; medium-to-dark complexion from my side of the family and a broad forehead from your mother’s side; your mother’s pug in miniature; puffy eyelids which open every once in a while to show enough to make me think I’m going to love your eyes; soft, soft skin (your mother’s) on big cheeks which sag a little; pretty shaped lips also like your mother’s, I think, except more like an o; a chin (what chin?) which needs to do some growing in and a neck which looks like it was intended for Jabba the Hut’s daughter; and pretty ears which seem to borrow in size and shape from both sides of the family, but which are covered, as your brother Jason observed, with tiny hairs.
I’d say you’re a mixed bag as a newborn looker, but I do think you’ve got a lot of potential. And I think that all the people who have been raving about you all day mean that you are beautiful compared to other newborns (who are usually pretty ugly) and that you are likely to grow to become a beautiful little girl and then a beautiful woman. I can agree with that.
So, beautiful one, now that your father has critiqued your face, please hear this clearly and carefully – the purpose of this letter: I love you already, as you are right this hour, not yet a full day old.
I love you and I love your mother who made you with me. I know that someday you will understand just how happy it made me and your mother to see your perfect body lifted from hers and to hear you pronounced a healthy baby. But please know this right from the beginning: you are because of the love that your mother and I have for each other, and for no other reason. I’m not sure how many other infants there are around who can say that, but I have a feeling you are a very lucky girl.
And with that said, I’m going to try to get some sleep; it’s been almost as long and emotional a day for me as it’s been for you. I hope you are sleeping restfully right now. Can’t wait to see your face again tomorrow morning.
P.S. – See part 2 tomorrow.
Ash__rich

Thanksgiving Guest Blog: My Favorite Olympians

Here’s a Thanksgiving guest blog from Pam Jenkins, President of Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick. Pam is the mother of three daughters and an advisory board member of letterstomykids.org.

Emma, Britt and Dana,

Most people know of you guys for your athletic success. Your trophies, newspaper articles, and triumphs on the field, pool and track are the tangible signs of accomplishment – and it’s hard for me not to share with friends and family, even when doing so embarrasses you.

Not one of you seeks recognition. I have three very humble kids. In fact, you each seem happiest when you can privately enjoy the rewards of doing well. Britt, I remember when you were named to the U17 Women’s National Soccer Team pool, and you didn’t tell anyone. Not even your soccer coach or best friend. You hid from the Gazette reporter when you won Regionals because you felt they’d done too many stories on you, and it was embarrassing. Today you’re featured in the All-Gazette cross country section, the 10th time you’ve made All-Gazette. I doubt you’ll look at it. You never seem interested in looking at the stories and photographs. Or maybe you just want to do so privately. Dana, you won’t even let me say, “good job,” after a great game.

So it falls on my shoulders to do the bragging, posting photos and newspapers stories on facebook and interjecting a quick mention of accomplishments in conversations.

The irony is that the deep sense of pride I feel about each of you has little to do with your athletic feats. There’s no trophy, Emma, for being an amazing person. No badge for intellectual curiosity, work ethic, or desire to make a meaningful contribution to society. But there should be such a trophy and I’d display it proudly! Britt, being an elite athlete is great. But when I look at you, I see an independent, joyful young woman who sees no limits. I still have on my office wall a poem you wrote when you were 10 entitled, “I’m an independent girl who loves to climb.” A metaphor for your life.

Dana, as the younger sister of two high achievers, you can’t measure your own success against their shelves of medals, plaques, ribbons and trophies. While you’re amassing your own, remember that what makes us most proud are the simple things you do each day to show your love for family, your endless humor, your inventive mind, and that quiet drive to achieve.

Happy Thanksgiving to my mini-Olympic team – gold medalists in being terrific young women.
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Thanksgiving Guest Blog: The Myth of the Peanut Crunch Sweet Potatoes

Here’s a Thanksgiving guest blog from Michael Freeman, father of Alex, 23, Kelsey, 21 and Janice, 16. Executive vice president of the Healthcare Leadership Council in Washington, D.C., he provides speechwriting and communications consulting services through his firm, Podium Prose.

Dear Alex, Kelsey and Janice,

I should have known I was making a mistake as soon as I opened the food section of the Washington Post this past Sunday. Seeing a recipe for peanut crunch sweet potatoes, the amateur chef in me was intrigued and mentioned that we could make it a part of this year’s Thanksgiving menu.

The three of you looked at me as if I had suggested canceling the holiday altogether. Janice, you finished chewing your cinnamon roll and told me, in no uncertain terms, “no.” Kelsey, you told me to put down the newspaper as if it were a dangerous weapon with which I couldn’t be trusted. Alex, ever the diplomatic one, you told me I could add a new yam version to our traditional sweet potato recipe, but couldn’t replace it.

That’s the key – tradition. You three have upended the stereotype of teenagers and twenty-somethings who want to thumb their noses at the ‘way we’ve always done things.’ In fact, the three of you have appointed yourselves the protectors of family traditions, right down to keeping the Thanksgiving menu the same as it was when your arms weren’t long enough to reach the cranberry sauce.

That’s why it took you years to forgive me for ordering a turducken from Baton Rouge, back when you were in elementary school, to take the turkey’s place in the center of the table. And your mother and I have never been allowed to forget about the changes to the raspberry salad recipe that gave it the unfortunate consistency of a tough rump roast.

But what this tells me is how much you value the memories of your childhood, teenage and young adult years and the experiences we’ve shared as a family. And even if it means reining in my culinary creativity, there’s a rich reward in seeing that you’re in no rush to run away from the traditions you grew up with.

With that in mind, I guess we can skip peanut crunch sweet potatoes for another year.

Thanksgiving Guest Blog From “Doctor Happiness”

Here, in honor of Thanksgiving, is a guest blog from Alan Schlecter, M.D., of NYU School of Medicine. A member of the letterstomykids.org board of advisers, he teaches a course in happiness to NYU medical students. He is also Associate Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at Bellevue Hospital; and Associate Director, Education & Training, Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dear Maisie and Marlowe,

I have so much to be thankful for this year. Your health, happiness, and laughter come first. Maisie, you are learning how to take turns. Marlowe, you are eating like a champ. I am thankful for what you have taught me. You have instilled in me a mindfulness that has expanded my meditation practice. When you struggle before I put you to sleep, I go to my breath and practice and practice and practice being with you. You have also brought me much closer to my parents and for that I am thankful.

Prior to having you two, I did not know what “parent love” meant. I love my parents and my wife and through them thought that I had some concept of what love meant. I thought of sacrifice, being there for the other person, joy, vulnerability, and growth to name a few of the qualities. In you I have learned that love is this enormous feeling in my chest. It’s realizing how much I miss you when I am away, it is the melancholy knowledge that life would no longer be worth living if the two of you were not there. My father had cancer when I was young and he has often talked of his dying as if it would be imminent (“I probably won’t live that long”). I found it (and find it) alarming (he lives on!) when he does this, it sets off some bell in my head. I do not think I am dying. I believe that if the two of you were ever taken away from me, I’m not sure there would be much point in life. It is amazing to think that Carlyn and I created two lives that are now more important than our own. A kidney (two kidneys!), a liver, my heart – I would gladly give them all to you as I know they would mean nothing to me. Only in loving you have I come to understand how much my parents love me. Even at the age of 35 I believe that my parents still love me in the way that I will always love you. In the past when I might have withdrawn from them for some small word or offense, I now think to myself how painful it will be one day when you pull away. I get over myself and work harder to honor my parents who have shown me so much love. You have taught me how to love my parents, and I am very thankful for that.

Love,

Dad