A Belated Hooray for the MTA

A memoir by Mary Houts 

For several weeks after we moved from the country to Brooklyn, I dreaded the idea of taking the subway by myself. Going with my husband was fine.  He grew up near New York City and was an old hand.  But to me, the subway was forbidding and suspect. It was dark, smelly and scary.  I saw rats down there on the tracks.  I thought that if I stood on the yellow line along the edge of the platform I might suddenly fall in.  How could I be sure that the route wouldn’t suddenly be changed without my knowledge?  Using the subway system on my own was one of the most difficult adjustments that I had to make to city life. I despaired of ever feeling like a real New Yorker.

At first I tried to reason with myself into going solo, but without much success. The process went something like this:

Argument:  “You take trains and buses without any fuss, so what’s the big deal.”

Counter-Argument:  “Trains and buses travel where you can see the sky and the earth. The subway is unnatural, it moves you around in the dark.”

Argument:  “You’re not a novice at riding subways in other cities, so why should the MTA seem so repellent? Couldn’t you drum up the feeling of adventure and excitement that you used to feel when riding the London Underground or the Paris Metro?”

Counter-argument: “Everything is an adventure and exciting in a foreign country. Besides, those two cities give you a lot more information at each station about where you are and how to get where you’re going.  The MTA, on the other hand, is a little coy about putting up maps. They’re not always where I can find them. Much of the time their announcements are made by people who mumble into P.A. systems that seem to be designed to muffle sound. At rush hour it’s impossible to see station names through a solid wall of  standing humans.  I like to know where I am at all times.”

Argument:  “Think about it, you rode the subway on trips to New York with your mother       when you were a little girl in the 1940’s and you remember those trips were fun.” 

 Counter-Argument:  “My mother knew her way around.  Besides, back then subway rides were one of  the few times I ever got to eat candy. They had those machines attached to platform posts that you put a penny into and a little Hershey bar came out.  The MTA doesn’t have those anymore.”

 Argument:  “Millions of people ride the subways each day in New York City and don’t seem to  mind.   Could they all be wrong?”

 Counter-Argument:  “Very possibly.”

This kind of internal struggle between my rational and not-so-rational-self went on for some time.   But we no longer had a car and I finally realized that we would go broke if I continued to take taxis on my frequent trips to Manhattan and to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  I decided that there was nothing for it but to take the plunge.

The MTA’s HopStopNYC website proved to be a godsend.   It seemed like a miracle that it would tell me exactly how to get from my house to any address in the five boroughs.  Using it always gave my spirits a boost.  It was like following a treasure map with very explicit instructions. And the fact that it let me know how many calories I would burn up and how much air pollution I would be saving made each trip seem like both a health bonus and a public service. For a while I kept the HopStop  print-outs clutched firmly in my hand  every time  I reluctantly descended into the maw of  a station to make my way into the unknown.  Amazingly, the trains went where they were supposed to.  Even though there were still moments of deep concern when a train seemed to be taking an unusually long time to get from one station to another, or when one would stop between stations for no apparent reason, the MTA slowly began to gain my trust.

I began to relax enough to start looking around at my fellow passengers.  At first I couldn’t understand why old people like me were so poorly represented. It didn’t take long for me to learn from my own experiences as someone well over 70 that using the subway almost daily is not for sissies.  On the days when I was feeling my age, dragging myself over to the station and then facing the stairs and the crowds turned out to be quite a challenge. One excellent thing about being an old person on the subway, however, was that when it was crowded someone usually offered me his or her seat.  At first I hated it and thought, “Damn!  Do I look THAT old?” but I soon learned to accept gratefully.

Even though there aren’t many old folks, large numbers of people of all other ages in all walks of life can be seen.  In fact, people watching on subways is, I discovered, about as good as it gets. Unlike making my way on the sidewalks of Manhattan where it is necessary to concentrate on not getting mowed down by fellow pedestrians, riding on the subway gives me time  to observe the people I see and to mull over the human condition.  Plus, on the lighter side, people on the subway provide an on-going fashion show which helps me keep up with the trends.   From my forced examinations of riders’ extremities during rush hour excursions, I am able to report that men are favoring square-toed shoes this year.  And much to my dismay there is an alarming tendency recently among young women (and some older ones) to exit their apartments wearing tights uncovered by a skirt or slacks. On some this looks better than on others. There are also wonderfully unique ensembles to behold.  I remember being on the ‘A’ Train going uptown and seeing  a man with a bushy beard who was wearing blue jeans, work boots and a black and red checked flannel shirt. This outfit didn’t seem to harmonize with his waxed and curled moustache and his red nail polish, but after all, I reminded myself, this is New York.

Now that the subway system no longer seems like an evil adversary I have grown to respect it mightily.  I am in awe of the fact that it provides remarkably efficient transportation for this enormous metropolitan area at remarkably low cost to users. Riding it has taught me to stay alert to where I am and who is around me. And now that I have become more sure of myself as a passenger I have unparalleled opportunities for people watching. It  gives me time to get a lot of reading done as well.  I’m beginning to feel like a real New Yorker.


Mary Houts left her car behind when she moved three years ago from a farm in Pennsylvania to an apartment in Brooklyn. Learning to get over the initial shock of having to trade  door to door  trips under her own steam for public  transport has been only  one of the challenges and  many joys that she has discovered are a part of city life.  

The Canal

A short story by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

Hanna flew in from New York that morning; Michael from Moscow in late afternoon.  She should have known he would not like the hotel she had booked, discovered on a previous trip to Amsterdam. He found it too quaint, too plain. She was at fault, as always.

Sex was disappointing; both were exhausted from travel, so they gave up on sex and set out to find drinks and dinner.  Across from the hotel was a little café with outdoor tables facing the canal full of colorful, flower-planted barges. They got a little high on two genevers and strolled the pretty tree-lined street, Lindengracht, finally settling on a busy steak-frites place.

After dinner, they crossed an iron bridge to the area where, Hanna had been told, they’d find the grass bars. There were a lot of them, with names like Tabu, Jungle Joint, L.A. Lounge. They were all crowded with Africans, Asians and Americans. Each had a prominently-displayed dope menu.  They bought a quarter ounce of Thai stick.

Back at the hotel, they sat on straight chairs by the window, looking out at the dim canal and the warm lights in houses across the water. Soft voices drifted up on the summer air from the barge decks.

They smoked and talked and finally made love. It was beautiful now, thanks to the grass. Maybe, Hanna thought hopefully, this time they would really have a good vacation together.


But, early next morning, Michael was off on his own for his daily run.  Hanna breakfasted in the hotel dining room, then took a cab to the Van Gogh Museum.  He was still out when she got back. There was a note from him at the desk.  “I’ll meet you at the café at six.”

She always did a lot of waiting when they traveled together.  Her normal energy and spontaneity withered and she was transformed into a patient statue fixed in a slow flow of time. He was constantly late, a practice Hanna had recognized from the start as intentional, a display of power. She despised herself for tolerating it.


But, Michael’s being twenty years younger than she gave him a clear advantage. No woman his age would have stood for his behavior. Still, however embarrassed by her weakness, she remained helplessly in love with him… his elegance, intelligence, blue-eyed beauty and talent in bed. She spoiled him shamefully.

The days of their week together slipped by.  He went his own mysterious way for part of every afternoon.  She knew he loved to be alone, to cruise women, to fantasize about adventures he never really sought. The truth was that he flirted and followed but didn’t connect. The movie in his head was what mattered. He loved the attention, the possibilities he need not pursue. Besides sex with Hanna was the best he’d ever had. Why look for more?

When he returned to their hotel, excited, Hanna awaited him, showered and languorous, perfumed and hot. She knew exactly how to please him. Their love-making was still ecstatic, even after fifteen years. What could be better than that? Afterward, high and satisfied, they wandered the summer streets, loitering in cafes, dining deliciously.

On the fourth day of their stay, the cafe across the street threw a party. The cobbled square was filled with tables and chairs. Michael roamed through the crowd taking pictures; a drag queen sang on an improvised stage. Hanna sat alone in a pretty flowered dress, wearing the amber necklace he had brought her from Russia, drinking gin after gin.

At some point, a little German woman pulled up a chair next to her.  “You are beautiful,” she said, kissing her neck and stroking her hair.  Michael, returning, was thrilled. He loved it when people came on to her.

He bought drinks for both of them and wandered off again into the crowd. This time he returned with a slyly pretty young girl who said she was a Gypsy.  She flirted with everyone, especially Michael, handsome in his navy blazer, white shirt and Hermes tie. Drunk as she was, Hanna saw clearly that this girl was trouble. And then things began to blur.

Some time later, she woke up in her chair in the empty square. The café was closed. Pale light from a streetlamp drew dark circles on the cobbles.  A few feet away, the heavy wooden door of the hotel was locked. A tiny red bulb illuminated a placard which said, “For entrance after 10:00 PM ring bell.”

Where was her key?  Michael had it!  The silence of the street was intimidating; she was starting to feel cold. At her touch, the bell clanged harshly.  She was sure all the darkened windows above her would light up, revealing her pathetically alone in her skimpy dress.

At last, the hotel proprietress came clumping down the stairs in a nightgown.  She grumbled angrily.  “Where’s your key?”  “My friend has it.”  “And where’s he?” she demanded.  “I don’t know.  Maybe he’s upstairs, asleep.”

Hanna climbed the narrow steps, behind the furious hotel keeper, who mumbled to herself in Dutch.  The ceiling light was horribly bright and she switched it off at once.  The room was empty.  Pain seared her mind. Michael must be somewhere with that girl.

He had never done anything quite so awful before.  To leave her alone in the street in a strange city! “That does it!”, she said aloud, tears gushing from her eyes as she dropped heavily onto the hard bed.

Soft voices floated up from the quay; couples on their way home. Hanna imagined them stopping to kiss in dark corners. Mercifully, she passed out almost at once.

At dawn, Michael had not returned. His passport, toothbrush and clothes were there–lying peacefully where he had left them the night before. She packed her canvas bag and headed down the stairs to the brightening street. She walked for blocks, hungover and shaking, until she found a cab and took it straight to the airport.  Tears rolled down behind her dark glasses.  The cabdriver kindly pretended not to notice them as he carried her bag into the terminal.

Later: Over the Atlantic, Hanna relaxed in her window seat gazing dully out at the glowing sky. Disturbing images streamed through her mind.  Michael in bed with the gypsy girl; Michael being robbed and beaten; and, strangest of all, Michael’s body, Hermes tie trailing, floating lazily down the canal.  And, closing her eyes, she smiled, as the plane droned steadily on through the golden clouds.


Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is the author of the story collection, NOTES OF A NUDE MODEL & other pieces. Her new book, ABROAD; an expatriate’s diaries, is due out in Spring 2014.

Italian Lessons

A memoir by Elaine Greene Weisburg

When my husband’s company sent him to work in Rome for two years we only had six weeks to move ourselves and our two boys out of our apartment and summer cottage. I was so flustered by the sudden onslaught of organizational demands that when I was packing my clothes and found that a few inches of the hem were down on my favorite skirt it was too much for me to cope with. I picked it up, exited my apartment, walked down the hall, and dropped it into the incinerator.

Nevertheless, during those six frantic weeks my husband and I were taking nightly Italian lessons on our record player. All I can remember from those lessons was the voice of the male teacher sounding out names:  ElizaBAYta, SebastiAHno. There was more language instruction on our ship, the Cristoforo Colombo. They were taught in First Class but we in Cabin Class were allowed to attend. The teacher was a beautifully coifed and dressed aristocrat. She taught her class various politenesses: buon giorno, buona sera, prego. And she told us how and where to shop, the main interest of my classmates.  She taught us the all-important “Quanto costa?”  (How much costs) which I later learned can be said more elegantly: “Quanto ci vuole?” (how much is asked for this). And let me tell you, speaking Italian elegantly was a major goal of mine.

I said goal, not achievement. No adult Anglophone who lives with fellow Anglophones will ever speak Italian like an elegant native. My husband and I persisted though; we had persuaded our favorite Berlitz teacher to instruct us at home two evenings a week and kept that up until a few days before we left Italy.  I also took some classes in grammar, Dante, and art history at an academy for foreigners not far from where we lived. There I met several young women from England and Holland who were learning to speak fluent Italian in a year and I got one of them to tell me how they did it. The main rule is never to speak your native language. Go fulltime to a school that is conducted entirely in Italian. Room with an Italian family that is willing to talk with you. Socialize only with Italians, and find an Italian boyfriend.

When I heard other Americans express themselves solely in infinitives I would be filled with pity and scorn. If I wasn’t sure of the correct grammar or vocabulary, I would say nothing. Sometimes I would sit down with my grammar and my dictionary and write out what I would later say to someone like the managing agent of our apartment or the claims adjuster of a bus company. I succeeded in getting a settlement from the latter after a bus had slightly damaged our small station wagon. But I did my most serious preparatory work when I was summoned to an interview with a police commander in our quarter. This is how it happened.

When we moved into our apartment in a late fifteenth-century palazzo in Old Rome, the space had been newly refurbished. It could have been unoccupied for a hundred years, I suppose, or more. The ceilings were so high that the owners had been able to insert a partial second story over the kitchen for a maid’s room and bath accessed from a downstairs utility room. To hold open the door to the utility room we found in place a heavy old bullet-shaped metal object about 14 inches long.  We didn’t pay much attention to this door stop and rarely saw it until our second New Year’s Eve in the palazzo when Gisela, our maid, mentioned it to us.

On our first New Year’s Eve, we had learned about a surprising Roman custom. At the stroke of midnight, people threw unwanted possessions out of their windows and onto the piazza or street: a broken chair, an obsolete record player, remains of a depleted set of dishes. By morning all would have been swept up. To me it sounded like fun—like the places in Sweden I have heard about where people go to buy imperfect china and smash it on the spot.

On the second New Year’s Eve, before leaving for a night off, Gisela saw fit to tell us that the “bomba,” as she called the door stop, had always frightened her and asked whether we had to keep it. I don’t know whether she was hinting that we throw it out the window, but I think I might have done it. My husband, always blessedly sensible, firmly nixed that idea but was willing to put it outside our apartment door with the nightly garbage. This we did.

The next morning our elder son woke us urgently—we were trying to sleep in. “Two carabinieri were ringing the bell. They want to see you.” I left my drowsing husband and rushed to the door. There they were in their beautifully tailored black uniforms with the red stripe down the outer seam of their pants, white bandolier, and plumed three-cornered hat. “Do you know who put the bomb outside your door?” one of them asked. I said it was I and explained that we had found it in place when we moved in and threw it away because our maid was afraid of it. That was easy Italian. My manner was also easy, too much so. My what’s-the-big-deal attitude was displeasing to the officers and they were stern when they told me I was to appear at their headquarters in the nearby Piazza Farnese five days hence. The captain will be expecting an explanation; meanwhile the army would be testing the device.

And I would be thinking sober thoughts. This was the Sixties and it was common knowledge that random unexploded weapons from the war were still killing unlucky farmers and children who were usually the ones disturbing them. This knowledge was behind the little speech I had composed and rehearsed. Appearing before the police commander as a well-dressed young signora with my hair freshly styled, which counts in Italy, I began with words that touched on the history of my country. I said we were blessed not to have had a war on our land for a hundred years and so I never had to think of such a danger before. I said I did not know before the carabinieri spoke to me what a bomb looked like. “Non sapevo, non sapevo,” (I didn’t know, I didn’t know) said I, suddenly close to tears in my grammatically correct remorse. I ardently apologized.

The captain accepted my apology and had one more thing to say. For my information, the army had found that the bomb was carica. That word was unknown to me but I was not going to admit it, so I responded to his very serious face as he gave me the news. O Dio, che peccato !(O God, how terrible). And the interview was over. There were no smiles on either side. I looked the word up as soon as I got home and learned that it meant, as I assumed, charged, armed, loaded. This bomb that the Countess Desideria Pasolini, haughty owner of the building, left in a flat rented to a couple with young children, children whose innocent foolish American mother actually thought of flinging it to the cobblestones from a fourth floor window.


Elaine Greene Weisburg began to write personal essays only after decades of design reporting and editing. The first time she typed the word “I” she thought the roof would fall in. 

Good-Time Charley

A memoir by Elaine Greene Weisburg

My mother at the keyboard would sound like a player piano with that steady driving beat. At parties they wouldn’t let her stop.  She could also sing the lyrics. “I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey, You better be ready ‘bout half-past eight.  And, Dearie, don’t be late, I want to be there when the band starts playing.”  I hoped that another of her favorites,  “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me, Honey,” could be the recessional at her funeral but the hired organist didn’t know the tune.

Bessie Katz was probably talked about in her Brooklyn neighborhood because of her car, a red Stutz Bearcat which her parents had given her in 1915 for her sixteenth birthday. I have some old snapshots of her driving the car while wearing a raccoon coat. She may have been the child of immigrants, but she was a thoroughly American girl. I always look for a Bearcat at classic car shows, and if I find one I always tell the owner about my mother. Sometimes she would be seen buzzing around town in the sidecar of John Fitcallo’s motorcycle. He was the family chauffeur who lived over the garage and took my grandfather to work in the Pierce-Arrow every day across the Brooklyn Bridge. He also drove the family to and around Saratoga during their summer vacations, encountering in his off hours a surprising number of pretty girl  “cousins.”  So my mother told me years later, still amused.

I don’t think there was a romance between Fitcallo and his boss’s daughter but he did egg her on in a big-brotherly sort of way. It was he who dared her to go up in an airplane when she was still in her teens (she went). Of the three sisters in the family, my mother was the one most avid for fun and new experiences, whether it was deep-sea swimming or going to the jazziest new nightclub. When my father nicknamed her Good-time Charley it stuck; my husband always called her Charley.

It took Bessie five years to finish high school (trouble with Latin) but she treated that as a joke and was very smart. Her assessments of my friends sometimes surprised me with their accuracy. She read people like a novelist and could tell you who was selfish, kind, honest, stingy, untrustworthy… and on short acquaintance.

After high school Bessie took a few extension courses at Columbia and then attended secretarial school. She got a job demonstrating the use of the typewriter but her father easily persuaded her to turn it down so she could join the family at Saratoga. She lacked the work ethic that governs my generation until much later in her life.

My parents “met cute” as they say in the movie business.  It was late one spring night and Bessie was driving some friends around in her Bearcat when they passed my father’s two-story house. He slept upstairs on a screened sleeping porch and one of the passengers asked my mother to stop the car so they could surprise him. Harry Greene came down, looked the scene over, and lit a match so he could see the driver’s face. This often-told encounter captured my imagination as a girl and I pictured it:  she sparkling, he quietly mysterious in the flare of light. They fell in love and married on her twenty-second birthday at the Savoy Plaza, which stood among the grand hotels around 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Many of the women guests wore  “headache bands,” a headdress involving a broad ribbon around the forehead often sprouting a fancy feather or two at the side–part of the Flapper uniform. This can be seen in a panoramic photograph of the wedding guests at their dinner tables. I forget which couturier made my mother’s wedding dress but she told us more than once about buying some of her trousseau in the children’s department; she was just over five feet tall and weighed 89 pounds.

Bessie’s privileged youth was no handicap when the Great Depression demanded thrift, self-denial, and clever management. She still dressed my sister and me nicely and managed to find two dollars a week for my piano lessons while on a forty-dollar budget. We never heard a word about money worries.

My sister and I were quiet, obedient children, only occasionally driving our probably bored housewife-mother to yell or, rarely, to slap one of us on the forearm. I remember pink finger marks from her hand on my skinny white arm, and also remember pinching the marks to make them last longer so I could show her accusingly.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

A few years after my parents’ nest was empty, my mother became a part-time baby-sitter for her grandchildren, my sister and I delivering the first two only four days  apart. She gave us each a day off a week and our kids an additional loving parent. Graduation from a crib to a bed was celebrated with one of her perfect handmade afghans, no two alike; college meant another afghan each. They last, these pieces of family folk art, and have become heirlooms to be lent around and passed down.

After the last of her four grandchildren went to school, Bessie got her first job. She was sixty-five. She became a general assistant at the Art Nouveau gallery of her best friend since childhood, Lillian Nassau. Bessie was often in charge of the door buzzer and is famous in the shop and the family for refusing to let in a grungy fellow who turned out to be the then super-star musician Paul Simon. She did know enough to admit Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, all four Beatles (one at a time), Barbra Streisand, and numerous decorative arts curators. She is the only one in the family who has looked into the barrel of a gun in the hand of an actual criminal. The shop’s Tiffany lamps and Remington bronzes were the loot, never to be seen again. “Already on a plane,” said Volpe the renowned NYPD “art cop” an hour or so after each armed robbery, for there were two.  Lillian’s son Paul was running the gallery the second time, and when the gunman said  (his actual words) “This is a stick-up,” Paul and my mother rolled their eyes at each other.

After she turned 85, my mother, widowed five years and still working, told me she would love to go to Europe once more. She had made several overseas buying trips with Lillian when they were in their seventies. I liked the idea. We decided on a week in London, one of her favorite cities, with a few side trips. My husband thought it should be ladies only and I agreed. One of my nieces decided to join us. Separate rooms and separate checks all around for three generations in true harmony. It was one of the best things I ever did, especially because three months after we got back, a sudden vicious cancer struck my mother. Two months later, she was gone.

I have another memory that I replay sometimes when thinking about family life. It was the night before my wedding and my parents and I were sitting around in the living room with nothing more to do. I had never lived on my own, not even during college, so marriage was a bigger step for me than it is in these days of cohabitation. Although I had not planned to make a speech, I began to tell them what I was feeling. I told them I was happy to be getting married, but that I was sad because it meant leaving them. I told them how much I enjoyed being their daughter, and that I didn’t know how to repay them. My father said “You’ll repay us by doing the same thing for your children.” He made this a completely rounded and unforgettable conversation, and I am forever pleased to think I must have made them both very happy that night with my spontaneous, heartfelt tribute.

Everyone should have a daughter like me.


Elaine Greene Weisburg began to write personal essays only after decades of design reporting and editing. The first time she typed the word “I” she thought the roof would fall in. 

The Last Parenting Task

A memoir by Lynne Schmelter-Davis

I had just returned from a week of visiting my grown sons in California when my friend, Elaine, called to ask, “Did you have a good time out there?”

I decided to answer truthfully.  “It’s hard to have fun when you’re walking on eggshells, biting your tongue and bending over backwards.”

Elaine understood.  She had grown children as well.  “I heard you got some good news while you were there,” Elaine said.  “Didn’t your youngest son announce his engagement to that woman you like?”

“Yes.  The engagement got me some nachas.

“Nachos?”  Elaine asked.  “Your son gave you nachos?”

“No, NOT nachos that you eat, but nachas that you get.”  Elaine wasn’t Jewish.

I explained:  “Nachas is a terrific Yiddish word that has no equivalent word in English.  Nachas means joy but not ordinary joy.  It’s a special kind of joy that you can get only from your child.   If you get a raise or a new car you might be happy but there is no nachas there.  If your daughter gets accepted into her first choice college you get nachas.If your child receives a doctoral degree you get NACHAS!It’s been said that your child having a child is a SUPER-NACHAS event.”

Then I told her, “The Queen of nachas is Mrs. Spielberg.  No, not Steven’s wife but his mother.  Did you see the Oscar show when he won the Best Director award for Schindler’s List?  He stood up there holding the golden Oscar statue and said,  “I owe this all to my mother.” Then the camera showed Mrs. Spielberg beaming in the audience.   Both Elaine and I took a moment to reflect on this wondrous occurrence.  Elaine now understood nachas,and furthermore wished for some for herself.


Sometimes I admit to feeling intrusive, or even in the way, especially if I would like information.  Once I asked my oldest son and his girlfriend if they were planning to visit for the upcoming holidays.  The girlfriend answered, “Douglas and I are not accepting questions at this time.”

Huh, I thought.  Must questions be submitted ahead of time?


I am often reminded that I must not cross boundaries, as in a cautionary warning from one of them, “Boundaries, Mom, boundaries.”  But we evidently did not have the same concept of what exactly constituted a boundary.   One time my middle son, while he was in high school asked me for twenty dollars as he was leaving the house to go out with friends.

I said, “Twenty-bucks?  You got your allowance so how come you want twenty dollars now?”

His response:  “I need to buy condoms.”

I think now I should have said, “Boundaries, son, boundaries.”

“You said I shouldn’t use lack of funds to keep me from using protection at all times,” he said.

I gave him the money.  This is the same son who called me a decade later with news of a wonderful promotion at work and a big raise (nachas for me!) and so I said, “Wow, that’s great,  I’m so proud of you.  What will you be earning now?”

He answered,  “I’m not comfortable discussing that with you.”

I wanted to say that I wasn’t comfortable carrying you for 9 months …not to mention the potty-training and waiting on line in the cold to buy Rock-‘em-Sock-‘em Robots, the must-have toy of 1976.

I know several parents of grown children, who are sending checks to help them, especially during this endless Great Recession.  Some are assisting in the support of grandchildren or are helping to pay for their children’s divorces.  It seems that checks do not release us from the boundary rule or mean that our children will call more often.  I haven’t spoken to my grown kids on the telephone in weeks because they are so busy.

Sometimes my generation is called The Sandwich Generation because of having to care for grown children as well as elderly parents.  Sure, this can be tough. But I think a better name for those of us old enough to qualify for a discounted subway fare is the “Gumby Generation.” We have to be super-flexible all the time.   No matter what happens, we may NOT say, “I don’t approve,” “Do not do that,”  “Take my advice.”   Of course we could say anything we want but the consequences will not be worth it.  We want peace.  We want harmony.  We want to be loved into our golden years.

Your daughter got engaged to the daughter of your best friend?  Mazel tov!  Some call this faux nachas.  You must show joy. Your single daughter, age forty, has informed you that she made a withdrawal from her local sperm bank to become a mother?  Be happy about your impending grandparenthood.    It’s not about you.  It’s about them.  You can’t let on by word or look that you might be disappointed or sad.  You can talk to your trusted friends or see a therapist.  Or both.

A special challenge is stepchildren.  Can we get nachas from a stepchild?  This is a rabbinic question that I will not try to answer except to say that if the stepchild has not spoken to us for over a decade the answer is definitely “no.” If, however,  our own child has achieved something outstanding and we are in nachas heaven I would think that our spouse who is not the child’s parent could enjoy some reflected nachas.  What about boundaries with stepchildren?  For them the boundaries are so high and wide it is best to stick to the following topics only:  the weather (if it’s nice), how smart they are, how good they look, and how happy you are to see them.

Finally we come to grown in-law children or the significant others of our grown children, half-children or stepchildren of the same or different genders, religions, races and ethnicities.  Embrace all of it.  Do not count on nachas.  Let’s  forget about our parents and grandparents spinning around in their graves.  Focus on how little time we have left on earth. Do we want to spend this time meeting with lawyers while trying to decide who gets excluded from our will this year or would we rather feign a modicum of senility and appear vaguely pleased about everything and get invited to all family events     There are many books about baby-and -child -care.  Schools run programs on parenting your teens.  There are even books on how to be a good grandparent.  But no author wants to be the Dr. Spock for thirty, forty, and fifty-plus year old children.

Dr. Spock had it easy because he was able to tell us that as parents we were bigger, smarter, and could trust our instincts to do the right thing. None of this is true for parenting grown children.  At the book store the self-help section goes from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” through  “Being the Mother-of-the-Bride, and then it ends.  Next comes “How to Care for Your Aging Parents.”

We are set adrift with no guideposts or encouraging words.   It will take plenty of good luck to get through this last parenting task well.  And those of us who do it really well might even get rewarded with unexpected nachas, like our child winning a great award and telling the world that that the achievement was all due to us.


Lynne Schmelter-Davis was a college professor of psychology for several decades, and she is the mother of three sons and two stepdaughters. Although she has retired from teaching, the parenting of grown children goes on, and on, and…

Civic Summer 1955

A memoir by Steve Reichstein

On a day off from my duties as a camp counselor I hitched a ride into D.C. I wanted to visit the Capitol and experience what it was like to see Congress in session. I didn’t know who my Congressman was but I knew Senator Lehman represented New York State. The only things I knew about him were that he was liberal, wealthy, interested in the arts and had a reputation of doing good for the state. A Capitol guard informed me that I would need to obtain a pass from my senator’s office in order to sit in the Senate chamber. “Take the elevator to the third floor,” he said. Exiting from the elevator I didn’t know which way to turn.  Puzzled, I approached a short, rotund man smoking a cigar striding past the elevator.

“Excuse me sir. Could you tell me which way is it to Senator Lehman’s office?”

“Are you from New York?”

“Yes, he’s my senator.”

He took the cigar out of his mouth and extended his hand.

“Son. I’m Senator Lehman. What can I do for you?”

This man was not tall, he was not slim, he was not distinguished looking and he had an uncultured, New York, accent!

“I’d like to get a pass to watch the Senate, sir.”

“How old are you, son?”

“Eighteen next month.”

“Hmm, well, you can’t vote yet, can you?” he said as he reinserted the cigar.

“Anyway, see my secretary, first office down the hall on the left. She’ll write you a pass.” Taking a long puff, he strode off.

The public gallery was nearly empty. I took a seat in the first row. I listened to a desultory speech and was about to leave when three men entered the floor of the Senate chamber and began to converse. The acoustics were good and I could easily hear their conversation.

“You’re not going to keep us in session all night, are you?”

“It can wait until tomorrow, can’t it,” the second speaker chimed in.

There was a pause as the third man looked down at the other two, caught their eyes and, with a bit of a drawl said, “Well, gentlemen, it’s important to me and important to the country so unless I have agreement from your party to take a vote, we’ll just have to remain in session until everyone has done their homework and is ready to vote on it.”

It suddenly dawned on me who these three were—I’d seen them on television and in Life magazine. I leaned forward.

“But if we are good boys and agree to vote on it now, you wouldn’t keep us after school, would you?” said Republican Senator Dirksen of Illinois, kidding, in the voice of a pleading schoolboy.

“Yes, teacher, please, pretty please,” jovially joined in Republican Senator Mundt of South Dakota.

“Gentlemen, you do your part and I’ll do mine and we’ll be out of here shortly.” And with that, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Johnson placed a hand on the shoulders of his two colleagues and, smiles all around, they left the chamber. Five years later Johnson would become John F. Kennedy’s vice-president and three years later, following JFK’s assassination, he’d become the 36th president of the United States. And in 2003, when the biographer Robert Caro wrote a book about Johnson, Master of the Senate, I remembered the moment I had witnessed—and understood the appropriateness of the title.


Steve Reichstein likes to express himself through writing, a medium that enables him to focus, shape and craft his stories without the constraints of time.

First Ice Cream Cone

A memoir by Lorna Scott Porter

Arkansas. Hot summer. Light cotton dresses. Mother had us sit at the counter, saying it was unladylike to walk down the street eating food. I held a dark little wood-colored cone, top-heavy with a cold, solid sphere that overspread its perch like a fat hen with its ruffles flopping over the edge of its nest. I was to eat it without a spoon!

I gazed at it. I licked the ruffles. As small drips appeared, I licked around the seam between the ice cream and the cone. I held the meltings in my mouth before swallowing. Soon the drips became rivulets. I licked them back up the cone and shaped the ice cream with my tongue. My tongue scraped the surface, making infinitesimal ridges that dissolved before my eyes.

I breathed the chocolate aroma. I stopped to admire my sculpture. It drooled onto my thumb. I kept licking, intent on keeping the original form. As the ice cream grew softer, the sweetness grew stronger. The globs in my mouth were richer, creamier. I held them a long time before letting them escape “down the hatch’.

Too soon, the ice cream sat concave in the cone. I reached down into the creamy basin with my tongue, pushing drips out hole at the bottom. I licked this, too.

Mother had watched all this tongue activity patiently. Finally she handed me a napkin. “You have to eat it now,” she said.

Lorna Scott Porter writes semi-biographical fiction and thanks IRP writing classes for all the help she has had.


A memoir by Leyla Mostovoy

In the 1950s there were no showers in most homes in Istanbul.  We bathed once a week and most nights we took care of hygiene the French way: “la petite toilette,” a white enamel basin filled with warm water, a wash cloth and white soap the size of half a brick used for dish-washing, laundry and shampoo.  Our bathroom had a high ceiling, tall windows that looked onto a claire voie, a shaft, between the next door building and ours, from which I remember, before we left for Israel, our maid threw her self aborted fetus.  When Mustafa, our one-legged super who collected our garbage every night and also opened the building door when tenants came back after ten pm., discovered the remains, she was taken in hand cuffs to the police station.  I remember the light switch on the outer wall was too high for me to reach when I was little.  Often I wet my pants by the time someone turned it on for me.  Father could not understand why I needed to have the light on in there: “Que vaz aazer, enfilar perlas?” What will you do in there, thread pearls, he would ask in Ladino, the bastardized Spanish of the Sephardic Jews.

It is there I was sent when mother punished me for any infractions: stealing chocolates and cookies she hid for unannounced company; cutting into ribbons her new satin slip.  The only way I could avoid being sent into the dark vault of that scary place was to confess before mother deciphered from my forehead where all my bad behaviors were written.  For quite a while I believed mother could read my forehead like an open book.  When it was Diana’s, my five year younger sister’s turn to be punished, I made sure she did not fall for the same trick.  “Don’t be stupid.  She cannot read your forehead.  Just sit on the toilet and wait.”  If my punishment was not being locked in the bathroom cell, it was having mother spank me until her arm got tired.  “I hit you because I love you,” she would say her eyes bulging, throat veins throbbing.  “I want you to become a good girl.”  Finally I was sent to my room sobbing, angry and unremorseful.  She would not talk to me until I, now on my knees, acknowledged my sins and asked for forgiveness, hands clasped as if at prayer and promising never to do it again.  “Je te demande pardon, je ne ferai plus.”

The cinnamon colored tiles of the bathroom floor, the white-washed walls, the water tank close to the ceiling with a long metal chain, the mirrored medicine cabinet in which father kept a bottle of ether he used for boils on his neck and I used to experiment on flies, was a laboratory of horrors for insects.  There was also a machine with a belt that vibrated that I was coaxed to use on my thighs and belly to lose weight.

The Miele washing machine came in when I was about seven.  Emine Teyze, Aunt Emine, the woman who brought up my sister and me and took care of the house chores, helped mother use a hand swivel to feed wet laundry into the twin rolls that squeezed out excess water.  The clothes were then hung to dry at night in the long hallway that ran the length of the apartment.  We had no bidet in our bathroom like Aunt Jenny and Uncle Joseph had.  Only when I visited them or had a sleep over at their place did I use the bidet’s warm water to send chills of pleasure through my loins to make me moan.  I must have been ten.  My body crumpled in ecstasy and shame.  I also remember Emine Teyze pulling my hands harshly away from under my blanket with a look of disgust when I took naps as a little girl.  Silent gestures are just as strong as loud, harsh reprimands.

It is in that bathroom at the age of nine that I began to practice smoking when my parents were not home.  It is there I tortured big, black flies I caught on the window in our living room with the help of a glass.  Returning with them to my torture chamber, I would tear off their wings, place the black insects on white cotton wool drenched in father’s ether, and watch them faint and regain consciousness when I put them onto the open window sill.  I squeezed out the quivering white little worms from their abdomens, stuck needles through their rear ends, then took them, skewered, to the living room, turned on the record player and watched them wobble helplessly as they turned.  I was in control of their lives.

If I were a child today I would be labeled a psychopath, but in those days in Istanbul my family knew nothing about the workings of my psyche or my experiments.  Only years later and through psychotherapy did I find out I was doing to the flies what I wished to do to some of the adults in my life.  I was supposed to become a young lady, acceptable in society, a good girl who followed instructions without questions, did not speak her mind, kept her clothes clean, and most of all was slim and would grow up to be an attractive magnet to a Jewish boy of good family, which meant a rich Jewish boy.

In that bathroom we also had a small wood stove mounted with a copper tube filled with water that was heated once a week on Fridays for the family to take turns at taking a bath.  The tub was white enamel with lions’ feet.  On Fridays Emine Teyze put a large tin bucket in the tub and filled it with hot water for grandfather, Dede.  He went first: he was the patriarch.  About once every month or two my aunts, mother and Diana and I went to the hamam a few blocks away from home.  I went there three years ago when visiting Istanbul with my sister.

I remember Emine Teyze filled a valise with colorful burnooses, clean clothes, a block of white soap, wash cloths, combs, brushes, talcum powder, a bottle of rose water for Diana and me, lemon scented cologne for the women, and a hamam tasi, a silver bowl to pour water on ourselves. (Today a similar bowl on our coffee table serves as a candy dish).  She also packed oranges, and maybe sandwiches and carried the suitcase to the hamam where she left it in a private room for us.  We arrived soon after. When everybody got undressed, I refused to disrobe and be scrutinized by my mother and aunts.  I walked into the hamam, hot and foggy with steam, dressed in a dark wool coat instead of a burnoose.

The hamam had a high ceiling with a glass dome that shed light onto a marble table in the middle of the room encircled with tiny gray marble sinks for each grown up.  Every noise was amplified and echoed throughout: shrieking kids, running water, clinking metal bowls.  We first sat in the thick humid heat of the bath waiting for our pores to open, release the dirt and sweat out the poison from our bodies.  We took turns lying down on the warm marble table and a woman in a peshtemal, traditional thin Turkish towel, wrapped around her thick waist, her brown nipples the size of a man’s thumb swinging over her belly rubbed our bodies with a coarse loofa glove and made sucking noises as if to coax out black greasy worm-like bits from our white skin that soon turned an angry red.

When squeaky clean from being rubbed down with a loofa glove, each grown up sat next to the sink with two faucets for hot and cold water.  I sat next to mother, Diana between her legs, a wash cloth over her eyes while mother lathered the soap on her long brown hair.  Mother dipped the hamam tasi into the sink and poured warm water over her head and body, which was svelte and acceptable. After we had all been cleansed we went out from this cauldron in our burnooses to the cool private room to rest on leather couches, eat refreshing oranges and drink cold soda that tasted like Seven Up.  Once rested we went back to wash ourselves again, play with water being careful not to slip on the soapy marble when going from one adult to the other for washing and cuddling.  I preferred to stay put and observe what was going on, but maybe sometimes I too ran around with my sister.  I hope and wish I did go to my Aunt Jenny for extra washing and kisses.

Years ago when my husband Manu and I visited Japan we stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel, a ryokan.  One night we went to a public bath at the hotel where men and women were separated by a wall.  We could hear each other.  Quite a few men brought their young sons but I was alone in the women’s section.  I sat on a wooden stool, washed myself Turkish style, with loofa, soap, a little bowl to throw water all over my body.  I also watched through a glass wall the moon shine over a glorious mountain.

I try to revisit my Turkish upbringing whenever I can.  It is bittersweet like dark baking chocolate.  It always leaves me wanting more although I do not like the taste.  It is not that I want to go back to my childhood.  Never.  So where does that longing come from?  Maybe from the losses I have lived through.  Loss of family togetherness, like the net of security used by trapeze jumpers in a circus yet mixed with a feeling of choking, wanting to be free from the web of confining family life.  The desire to recapture old memories I love and hate, that make me cry with emotions of regret and joy.  The feeling of not belonging and yet yearning to be one of the women, one of the tribe.

The loss of time.  How much do I have left here on this earth?  And maybe the sense that I have lived too long.  Enough!  Let me rest and be at peace in a way one can never achieve while consciously alive.

Leyla Mostovoy: It took me ten years to write my memoir that remains unpublished. I dabbled in Cabala and the philosophy of Buddhism to become less judgmental, learn acceptance and find the elusive peace at heart and mind.

Death Rehearsal

A memoir by Carmen Mason

When she was ten she was finally permitted to go alone to the movies after the children’s cut-off at three o’clock. Her mother would write a note to the movie house manager saying her daughter loved, must see, could not live without The Red Shoes or Samson and Delilah or Lily; how it was impossible for her to concentrate next to all the rowdy children. He’d finally agreed to let her in.

She would walk quickly to the fifth row, choose her center seat and slide all the way down. She’d sniff in the smelly haze of fake butter and popcorn, quietly open her Good and Plenty, then – pink and white, piece by piece- crush and suck, chew and swallow the tiny pellets of licorice while the lights dimmed, the music came up and after one or two minutes in the dark, the coming attractions began or perhaps the cartoons or the newsreel would come first. Usually the lumpy, dumpy matron with her black hairnet would descend upon her right before the first main feature, wiggle her flashlight in her face and tell her gruffly to move on back to the kids’ section. That’s when she’d softly inform her she was Mr. Bryant’s special guest and wave the letter at her. The matron would squint and scowl, then trudge back up the aisle.

She loved her darkening solitude, her secret world where on each side heavy wine velvet curtains hung and thick gold braided ropes pulled tightly round them in the middle like a fat woman’s waist. Parting them was the huge white screen where women danced to Arabian melodies, barely dressed men fought lions and threw their beloveds to the ground before covering them with kisses, or a crazed ballet dancer danced, then ran off the stage, through the town and tossed herself off a parapet into an oncoming train. Or a shy country girl talked to a marionette and told him of her secret passion.

During those first few minutes – despite her praying they would not come – thoughts about death arrived and circled her, blocking the stage, deafening the music. The image of her dying father and, although she could not name it then, the desolation of chance and demise entered with the growing darkness and sat down next to her. Then the voices began – the litany, purposely, religiously: one day, you will be dead. You will die and never, ever again be here, sit here, see this movie, any movie ever again. You Will No Longer Exist. You will not see, hear, feel, smell. You will never ever have another Good and Plenty or Three Musketeers, watch the actors kiss and kill, love and lose, then embrace and love again forever. You will not again see Mummy or Melisa or any friend; eat, touch, think a single thought.Your Mind Will Stop. All This Will End. Be Over. You Will Know Nothing and Everything Will Continue Without You. You – Never. Ever. Again. Dead. Dead Forever.

Then the movie would begin.

Carmen Mason, born in the Bronx, N.Y., has written poetry, stories and essays all her life, won  several awards, and taught English and writing for fifty years while being raised by two daughters. She has been a member of The Institute of Retired Professionals at The New School for sixteen years.

Missed Connections

A short story by Carol Grant

Ding! Ding! “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please.”

She was compressed against a crowd of sweaty strangers just inside the doors of the Brooklyn bound F train as it stopped at the Broadway-Lafayette station. The doors closed but five seconds later, they opened again and more people tried to shove their way into the cramped car. She was hot, sticky and weary and yet was determined to stay facing the doors so she could make a quick exit two stops away at Delancey Street. As she gazed out of the open doorway, she looked straight into the eyes of a tall young man who was holding a bass instrument case. She looked away quickly when he gave her a friendly smile.

Ding! Ding! “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please.”

The doors closed but re-opened again almost immediately. He was still standing directly in front of the door and she was drawn to look at him again. All the well-worn romantic clichés raced through her mind: “Their eyes locked,” “She felt short of breath,” “Her heart was pounding in her chest.” Despite her almost painful innate shyness, she tried to move to one side of the doorway and actually motioned for him to try and get onto the train. He smiled broadly, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head implying that it was impossible for him to squeeze in.

Ding! Ding! “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please.”

This time the doors remained closed and the train began to move. She looked at him one last time and to her pleasant surprise, he winked and waved at her as the train headed into the dark tunnel. As his face vanished, she found herself feeling a mixture of great excitement and deep disappointment. What if he had boarded the train and stood beside her? Would they have talked? Would they have hastily exchanged e-mails or phone numbers? Would she have felt shy and awkward as she usually did with men? Would she have looked away and remained silent and tongue-tied? She would never know.

As she walked home later to her fifth floor walk-up studio apartment on a dingy block of Broome Street, she couldn’t get his face out of her mind.  Not only was he extremely handsome with a great smile, but best of all he was a musician. She wondered if he played bass in a rock, jazz or classical group. Would he understand how devastated she had felt when she would tell him that she had been a Juilliard piano student but had been requested by her teacher to take a leave of absence to work on her “lack of motivation and assertiveness?” Would he be disappointed to learn she was working as a sales person in J&R’s Classical Music section? Did he live on the LES or in Brooklyn? Was he a New Yorker or just visiting the city? With her luck he was probably living in an artsy Williamsburg condo with a beautiful, sexy singer.  In her tiny, stifling apartment she suddenly remembered acquaintances at Juilliard discussing the website “Missed Connections” where people in the city try to reconnect with someone with whom they have had a fleeting interaction. She never thought she would consider submitting such a search, but immediately she found herself silently composing a submission:


All night she tossed and turned and slept fitfully. She kept re-writing the paragraph in her mind. When she finally got up at 6am, she went to her computer and immediately sent the message to the “Missed Connections” website. She knew that if she thought about it any longer, she would not have the nerve to send it.

During the following two days, she lived in a state of nervous anticipation and excitement. She thought about the young man constantly and fantasized about the conversations and activities they would share when he connected with her. Every evening, she took the F train home around 6pm and her heart pounded when the train pulled into the Broadway station. She searched the platform in vain. At work she checked the “Missed Connections” site so often that her boss was on her case.

On Friday morning, July 12th, she took the train to work earlier than usual and felt lucky to actually score a seat. She absent-mindedly picked up a copy of The Daily News  which someone had left on the seat beside her. The headlines screamed:

                            NOT A BASS IN THAT CASE!!

                            GRIZZLY MURDER VICTIM’S BODY

                            DISCOVERED IN INSTRUMENT CASE!!

The body of the Fort Greene woman, Sophie Anderson, reported missing on Monday, July 6th,  has been found and identified her parents. The body had been stashed in a bass case and dumped in a vacant lot near the Gowanus Canal. Three boys playing nearby saw a tall, blond man leave the case and walk quickly away. They immediately pried the case open and made their gruesome discovery. They called the police and gave a scant description of the man.

The only lead that Detective Bruno Fonfara of the NYPD has released so far is information given to them by the victim’s roommate who remains unidentified at this time. She reports that Sophie had been going to meet a man she had made contact with through the social network internet site “Missed  Connections.”

Police are requesting that anyone with information about this case, contact them directly or through the NYPD  CrimeStoppers  Anonymous Tipline at 1-800-577-TIPS.


Carol Grant, originally from Montreal, loves to people-watch and eaves-drop on the buses and trains of New York, her adopted city. she has always heard that there are “eight million stories in the naked city” and “Missed Connections” may be one of them.