The Guest

by Ivy Berchuck


I’m holding the remote in my hand with a finger on the volume button.  Even on PBS there are commercial breaks, and theirs upset me the most.  They consist of testimonials from hospitals profiling people whose lives have been saved by physicians at places like Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.  I can’t listen to their stories, focused generally on cancer survivals.  Along with the promising statistics conveyed in the press about cancer survival rates, they fail to provide me with anything to grab onto.  I’m different. You’ll never see testimonials or statistics for my pancreatic cancer, because there is no such thing as a remission or recovery.  Only 6% of patients live for five years.  It is a one-way street and I’ve been prodding my way down it for almost two years.

There has been chemo and radiation, loss of hair, fatigue and constant concern about what the next CT scan will show.  The key word is containment.  Keep the monster at bay for as long as possible, but apparently never long enough to appear on those lists of statistics.  So far my tumor has been confined to the pancreas.  That is some comfort, but it certainly puts living in the moment to the test.  Take it day by day.  Some of the days are wonderful, but don’t think about tomorrow which could be quite the opposite.

I’ve been an optimist and problem solver for most of my adult life.  Even if the survival rate were small, I’d be thinking, if someone is going to make it, let it be me.  Even if it were not to work I’d feel some semblance of control.  I often joked with my oncologist and said he should make me his break-through patient and I’d throw him a party when he walked off with the Nobel Prize in medicine. He likes me and the effort I’m putting into this, but he did not laugh at my joke.

I love and enjoy life so much so I am trying hard, really hard to look well, feel well and act well. One day I remembered something. When I was an exhausted new mother, I hated it when I left the dishes in the sink at night and didn’t have the energy to even pick up old newspapers from the floor.  Facing the mess depressed me, so I decided the early morning hours would have to be the time for getting things in order.  I gave the baby her 5 a.m. bottle and threw some cold water on my face.  Energized, I knew I wouldn’t hear from her until 8 or 9, so I scurried around cleaning and puffing pillows.  I picked fresh flowers from the garden and placed them all around the rooms.  I showered and dressed, put up a fresh pot of coffee so Bob and I could share a few moments before he left for the commuter train to Chicago.  “I don’t know how you manage it,” he said adoringly. “This place looks great.” And it did.

After he left I’d sit with a book, some Mozart and a cup of coffee. There was nothing I had to do until the baby woke up. I looked across my lovely room, exhilarated, and thought, “Hey, this is wonderful. I’m a guest in my own house.”

And that’s how I’m approaching this period in my life. I’ve swept away the casual and unimportant. I am cleaning things up. Only real friends, beloved children and grandchildren, good books, some plays and classes and more good days than bad. I’m a guest again. This time I’m a guest in my own life for as long as it lasts.



Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of  Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education.  A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.



by Ivy Berchuck


“You’ll never find such soft, elegant material if you don’t shop now.  Come on, be nosier. You won’t be sorry.”

I’m stretched out on a mesh lounge chair in the courtyard of my daughter’s Manhattan apartment. Sunlight plays through the trees, defying the urban noise. The proud looking bird gives me the once over but doesn’t move closer.

“You won’t be sorry,” I cajole. “I know that summer isn’t the season for avian interior decorating, but consider what your nest will look and feel like next spring when the new chicks arrive.”

Years of Audubon magazines have convinced me that wife and hubby will return after the winter break to make home improvements to the very same nest. We humans would call this proactive, thinking ahead, but I don’t know how it works in the bird world.

I continue, unconcerned about the people reading around me. I coax some more: “You’ll never find such soft, elegant nesting material if you don’t shop now.”

I am five weeks into bad news. A cancer diagnosis and a regimen of chemotherapy have me in an unbelieving stupor. I hang onto some words–early, few malignant cells, shrinkage hoped for.  I’ve had few bad reactions to the chemo, mostly fatigue, which is bitter for an active person.  Now this new side effect has clicked in.  I reach under my gigantic sun hat and gently pull at my curls.  Out comes a handful of hair.  If I roll it around it becomes a ball, like something an owl would regurgitate.  If I separate the strands some float away in the breeze, others land in spots near my chair.  These are the strands I’m advertising to the robin.

I sprinkle some of my biscotti crumbs as incentive.  They attract her but not the soft blond hair.  The pulling is like nail biting.  I can’t stop, but unlike the robin I am proactive.

Last week, with my hair still intact, I visited a fancy wig shoppe.  I brought along some photos of how I look when I have my hair blown out to celebrate an event. I asked for advice. “What do you recommend, curls or straight?”

“I say we stick with your own color and go for the straight look. You’ll never have a bad hair day.”

We try on a numbers of styles. She’s right about the curly one.  I look like Harpo Marx and that makes me laugh, but the ones I do select look just like me, only better.  Wow, I think, a silly silver lining to this awful summer.  I buy two frames to stand the wigs on but draw the line at spending twenty dollars for the wig hairbrush.


The time for a test run arrives.  I’m off to spend the weekend with my youngest daughter and her family at their beach house in Greenport.  The wig is a big hit with the grandkids.  I love that the humidity doesn’t transform the straightness into corkscrew curls.  Elizabeth is packing to go back to MIT for her junior year.  I tell her about my wig shopping and the outrageous hairbrush price.

“Gram,” she exclaims. “I can help.”  At this she starts to hurl things from her closet. A bikini top and a soccer ball swish across the floor.  My protests are ignored.  Finally she reaches what she’s looking for. She pulls out a disheveled looking American Girl Doll with stringy, knotted hair. Taped to the doll’s arm is a four inch hairbrush emblazoned with American Doll across it.

“I never really liked her that much,” says Elizabeth “and I never took care of her hair. But you’ll take care of yours Grandma, and you’ll always look perfect.”  I’m probably the only chemo-wig-wearing grandmother using an American Girl Doll hair brush.


The effects of the chemo have become worse. I remain optimistic and do feel that I’ll get over this. I want to make the most of the days I feel good, and at some point I’ll relive this year the way it should have been. But on that city afternoon it would’ve made me happy if mother robin had cushioned her nest with my hair. I kept floating out strands while she pecked around for more biscotti crumbs. I know that I’m impatient. I want to exercise control when so much control has been taken away from me.

A writer friend sent me a card I read every day. Her note ended with this: “I hope you’re keeping up and looking forward to your lovely curly locks coming back with benevolent vengeance.”

Benevolent vengeance.  Don’t you just love it?  That is what I feel.  That is what is going to happen.


Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of  Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education.  A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.

The Valentine

by Ivy Berchuck

It’s a week before Valentines Day.  I am fifteen years old. The mirror tells me I am too fat and have bad skin.  I know about the small heart-shaped box of candy that will come from my father,  a  mini-version of the one he gives my mother each year.  She always frowns and I am always delighted, but this year it doesn’t have the same thrill. The memory is great though.  Every year, the  box becomes that proverbial, miraculous pitcher.  Each time I devour a chocolate I replace it with one from my mother’s box, so mine is never empty, and I know she doesn’t want hers anyway.  I’ve saved all the small heart-shaped boxes in a bottom drawer. I look at them and see my life passing away.

At fifteen I am hoping for more but it seems hopeless.  I stop at the card store on my walk home from school and browse through the displays. I linger over the lacy ones, with birds competing for space with flowers and cherubs peeking through the bushes to shoot arrows at a beloved. These marvels also cost the most.  They are not , not for the casual acquaintance.  Wouldn’t it be something to receive an envelope with one of these spectaculars?

I focus my attention on one in particular. In addition to the usual adornments, there is an actual stuffed red satin heart in the center, inviting a caress.  A crazy idea pops into my consciousness. Why not? I have enough money to do it. I can create someone out there who sees beyond fat and pimples.

I walk up to the cash register, looking around furtively  trying to be casual. “ Oh,” says the elderly man who takes the card from me, “some boy is very lucky to have a girlfriend like you.”  I can feel my face get hot and know it must be a giveaway blush.

At home I wrap my right hand in a towel to distort my handwriting and scrawl across the page in what I think looks like a boy’s writing. I pen, ‘GUESS WHO?’  Sealed, stamped and addressed to me, it seems  the envelope  runs by itself to the mailbox.

On February 13th my mother hands me two envelopes, one large and one small. The quality of the paper of my envelope is even more impressive than the size.  I grab them and run to my room, ignoring the look of disdain on her face. I open the large one first and am amazed at the joy I feel from my deception. Then I open the other,  and I know in advance where it came from.

There are booklets you can buy of cheap valentines that, like paper dolls, you snap out of cardboard sheets.  Little kids love them. There are enough to give one to everyone  in your class. This one has a picture of a fir tree on it and the sentiment , “I pine for you!” I flip it over and it had the name Jerry Held on the back.  He is a notorious flirt, but I can’t recall his ever having done more than give me a quick wave of his hand while his eyes scan the hallway for the slender and unblemished.  It is still more than I expected.

At lunch the next day everyone is sharing valentines. Three out of the four at my table have been on Jerry Held’s list. We just laugh but look with sympathy at Joan who is clever enough to say, ”He probably ran out of stamps.” We all giggle as I pull out the other one. My friends stared and Sally screamed out, “Wow!”  The girls at the next table join us, everyone trying to identify the sender. I just keep saying, “I have no idea. It’s just a mystery.”

I recall that as the story circulated through school and I got a lot of mileage from it,  I actually believed people looked at me in a new way.  I was so happy I stopped refilling my candy box., and my mother said, “Well, it’s about time you outgrew that.” It also turned out that it was  the last year my father gave me the valentine chocolates. He said,” You’re on your own now Sweetheart, just don’t ever sell yourself short.”

If I had thought a deception like this could continue to work its magic I might have tried it at some other low moments in my life, but  I grew to know it belonged to that certain time.  I hadn’t liked what I saw in the mirror then, but slowly believed in the possibilities of the years to come.


Ivy Berchuck rediscovered writing  at the IRP and has been creating memoirs ever since. It happily continues to provide an understanding of who she is and what life has made of her.