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Jean's Blog (Check out links to Guest Blogs in lefthand Column)


Team Work to Snare a Sneaker

Suddenly the pleasures of Thanksgiving and Hanouka collided, the only time this will happen in our lifetime, bringing lights and song, children and grandchildren, rituals, gifts and food, adventure and misadventure. The old stone house in upstate New York awoke from its solitude, and breathed again, warmth and flickering firelight greeting our arrival the day before we expected two carloads of our favorite people to drive in from New York City and JFK. The weather outside was misty and gloomy as we walked in, but I sank into a chair and gave myself over to the house and its welcome. I plunged into a very deep sleep, and by the time I was able to move my limbs again, the house had worked its healing. Some of the pain and stress of the preceding weeks had given way to happy anticipation.
What we had not anticipated was that by Wednesday evening as people and laughter, bags and cases and armloads of food and produce tumbled into the house, the water pressure had completely failed. Fifteen people of varying ages found themselves without water for showers, cooking, hand-washing and other obvious needs. Repeated phone calls to the installers of the most recent pump replacement brought no answers - it was, of course, the eve of Thanksgiving - until my eldest grandson turned to social media and produced an emergency plumber, plucked from his other engagements as if by magic, and as if by magic the man replaced a switch, and instantly the noise level rose, festivities resumed in full swing with all hands on deck, enticing aroma began to fill the air as the turkey roasted, and we milled about the kitchen, the snap and crackle of a roaring fire in the living room fireplace completing the sensory symphony.
Two days later, a football hurled over the high barn beams landed inside the beam by mistake. We had not realized that they were hollow. A large sneaker followed with the intention of dislodging the ball, but it disappeared into the hollow of the beam, leaving a large male foot unshod and a projected family hike in disarray. Tall sons and grandsons wielding the apple-picker and branch-cutting scythe from the top of a ladder met with no success, until my eldest son removed the scythe from the end of its extended arm, bent it down, rigged it like a fishhook, and the sneaker, snared by its laces, appeared and tumbled to the floor, amid cheers and applause from the crowd.
What more can be said? It was a short, beautiful time out of time, restorative, bonding, fun, and delicious. I give thanks with all my being, and step carefully back into my life to pick up and ravel frayed ends, as my family heads back into theirs, leaving us warmed by the scintillating joyful memories jostling with other times of happiness, family, and reunion, casting the recent past into a sepia haze in the background.
We parted, lingering over hugs, fighting tears, eager for the next time.

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Monogram of Esther and Nessim Mosseri

One month since my mother left us.
It has been an intense month of accelerating pressure to examine and accommodate the minutiae of almost one hundred years of multi-faceted living on three continents. We must vacate the rental where she lived for the past 30 years by the end of November.
Sharing out the memorabilia saved from the Egyptian exodus is the least of it. Anything bearing the distinctive monogram of Nessim and Esther Mosseri, my great-grandparents, is tumbling down the generations to our children. How did so much survive unchipped, intact, through so many years, so many departures, so many displacements, following my mother and father on three continents, smoothing my mother's way with their familiar elegance through each new chapter of her life? Certainly, Nessim and Esther could not have dreamed that the beautiful dishes, crystal stemware and silverware that graced their palatial residence in Cairo would be divided up and scattered to small apartments in Paris, Budapest, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where their great-great-grandchildren will wonder where they could possibly find the room to store them.
Many arms open to welcome these treasured remnants of family history, but the hands that pick and pack are scattered, and the hands on the spot - my hands - ache from the task, just as my heart aches as I sift through bundle after bundle of my mother's papers written in her distinctive, pretty hand. I can hear her voice in the quick notes and information she has been careful to include in as many places as possible. I have her neatly kept notebook of household hints. Who knew she cared about such things? She kept the bill addressed to my father from their honeymoon at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan. They were married in February, and I was born in early December of the same year. I caught my breath as I skimmed mysteries of my own beginnings. She kept all our letters, all the past of her three children who are now in their sixties and seventies. We all three lingered in awe over a small sweet bundle of love letters written to my father when they were engaged; our futures concealed in the happy reflections of a twenty-one-year-old in love, in 1937.
So much that she treasured has had to be cast aside, and I realize that each of us keeps signposts of our lives written in a code that no-one else understands. We each have claimed objects that remind us of her, but the true gifts she left us are gifts of laughter, of love, of memories, of good and bad times shared.
I miss her smile, her energy, the sound of her voice, the penetrating gaze of warm brown eyes that instantly caught any unsaid unease in me and coaxed it into the light. As the days pass and the piles of books and furniture, paintings and photos, letters and papers dwindle, I miss her more. This aftermath of death is a cresting wave, an ordeal beyond imagining. Soon, it will be past, and only debris will remain, faintly shadowing the living image of my mother in my heart.

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Love you, Mum

Joyce Smouha

My vibrant lovely mother, Joyce Smouha Mosseri, has been the light at the center of my life for almost 76 years. She was my role model, my loving critic, and my truest friend, and I have no words to say how deeply I already miss her presence in my life. Her 99+ years almost spanned a century. She died last week.
The last two years of her life were characterized by a slow, relentless slide into a lost world where she wandered without a guide, without her children, without so much of her self, and where her fiesty independent spirit was trapped in increasing dependance on others. I would not have wished to see her suffer longer, but as the days go by, I miss everything she was and everything I shall never see or hear again. I am orphaned in my old age. With each passing day since she left us, I feel I am slowly re-entering my life, returning bereft, returning from a long sojourn in strange and distant lands, lands where I was helpless to help, to understand, to find emotional sustenance, where only love kept me from drowning. Re-entry brings sharper pain. I know she is gone, and although I accepted her absence for so long, I know the difference now. I hope she is at peace at last. I know I will find her again in the grandeur of a sunset, the beauty of a flower she would have wanted to paint, the gnarled trunk of a tree, her great-granddaughter playing Chopin, the eyes and smiles of my children and grandchildren, the sparkle, the laughter, the elegance, beauty, and grace in the world. Fly free, my beautiful mother. I love you.

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My mother in 1956
Every year as I prepare the traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashana foods, ritual and celebration float on an undertow of sadness, for my father died on the second eve of Rosh Hashana at the age of 63. This year the undertow I try so hard to ignore spills out into everything. My mother at 99 is in the last stages of vascular dementia, and in the midst of overwhelming emotional distress, my holiday preparations are constantly interrupted and infiltrated by the minutiae and Kafkaesque contortions of attempting to disentangle the mess of red tape that surrounds her care. This is not a tale of two cities, but the schizophrenia of living in two worlds.
My vibrant beautiful mother endures the remnant of life that remains to her, lost deep into herself, eyes closed, hunched in her wheelchair, her right hand feverishly tapping a rhythm only she understands, music from my old ipod leading her feet in a barely remembered beat, a subconscious memory of dancing and joy and the music of hope.
My brother, my sister, and I circle the wagons, faster and faster, anxious, desperately pursuing the status quo of her care, hacking daily at the tangled yards of red tape that emprison her in an uncertainty to which she is oblivious.
We are old, ourselves. At 99, people have old children. Every day we try to be the spouses, parents and grandparents we are, and to forget for rare moments that we are still children, her children, needed and loved, loving and lost. We search anxiously for laughter and sleep, moments of sanity. Red tape consumes us. We hold her comfort as carefully in our hands as she held us when we were babies, and we journey stubbornly with her to the elusive end to her life through wildernesses of frustration and emotional debris, paying the price of love.

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Mandevilla flowers in the ficus tree

      We have a small terrace attached to our apartment. Our view to the right used to stretch unimpeded to the East River, but 47 years in this apartment have taken their toll. Tall apartment buildings have sprung into being over the years, eating more and more sky, obstructing more and more of the open spaces we loved. Immediately across from our terrace is a jumbled skyscape of smaller buildings; on a good day their shapes crisp against a clear blue sky.
      Last year our building underwent a massive renovation. Railings and metal netting were replaced by shiny new railings and large glass panels. That is all that separates us from the street far below, a thought that makes me slightly queasy. I miss the metal netting. It somehow seemed more substantial.
      I used to plant morning glory seeds and weave them in and out so that their purple blossoms surprised us at our morning coffee on those rare days when breezes blew softly and our terrace seemed like a magical harbor far above the teeming city, offering a soothing entry into the day.
      Today, bright blooms flourish on the outside sill of our bedroom window, and geranium plants, cut back before we brought them indoors last fall, have pushed up against the glass panels, sometimes stretching through the spaces between to lift their flowers closer to the sun.
      In the far left corner of the terrace we placed our old ficus tree, which we nurtured from a thin twig to its present expansive canopy of branches and leaves. Lightly grazing the ceiling, it, too, winters in the apartment, and every spring, I enjoy seeing the dulled winter leaves reach for the sunlight and dance in the breeze on the terrace, acquiring a rich sheen as summer progresses. This year, I placed a small mandevilla plant beside the ficus against the grey partition that separates our terrace from that of our neighbors. An abundance of conical buds and some luminous pink blooms promised a beautiful summer.
      I was not prepared for the aggressive survival tactics of the mandevilla. It released graceful tendrils into the air, swaying, seeming almost to bring a consciousness to the act, braiding its tendrils together into thicker ropes, reaching out to find the branches of the ficus and twisting itself tightly, spiraling along the branches of the ficus toward the light, its large flat leaves intermingling with the delicate leaves of the ficus.
      At first, almost amused at its antics, we took pleasure in the fact that the ficus had begun to showcase some blooms not of its own creation. But every morning we observe the vine integrating more and more with its host. The ficus looks happy, nonetheless. Is it eager for this companionship that could bring about its demise? At the first sign of distress we plan to intervene.
     Meanwhile, we watch, and wait, and I am reminded of a poem I loved, Beleaguered Cities, by F.L. Lucas, which ends with the lines:

Build, build the ramparts of your giant town;
Yet they shall crumble to the dust before
The battering thistledown.

     I tremble before the power of the weak.
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June Weddings, flowers, joy...

  Joy comes bursting into the humdrum of every day in big bubbles of happiness, and this particular June held a string of irridescent bubbles that will continue to spill delight into my mind and my heart for a long time to come. At the center, is the marriage of my eldest son for the first time at the age of fifty, seeing his eyes shine and his face light up as he looks at his bride under the Chuppah, and knowing that he has found the true love of his life at last. Glancing out from under the pavilion of green, I could see the faces of many relatives I grew up with, now scattered across the globe, all having traveled considerable distances to be with us at this transcendental moment, all beaming, all reflecting back to me the happiness that filled my heart . Few moments can equal this.
  Then there was the wedding itself, beautifully organized to the last detail, a romantic medley of conventional and unconventional, close friends and family gathering in California from England, France, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seattle, Oregon, New York, DC, and Switzerland: my children and grandchildren each with roles to play in their brother and uncle's wedding, their faces bright with excitement as they walked with dignity in their elegant attire. We all reveled in the delicious gourmet food, exquisite setting, music, speeches filled with warmth and laughter, flowers, color, a spectacular moon shining above us on the rooftop venue, the lights of LA, and a unique magnificent wedding cake. It simply doesn't get better than this.
  The following few days at Newport Beach awaiting the wedding of my sister Susan's youngest son Joe to Lindsay Fry on the following Sunday, were also crammed with memorable family interactions, dinners, and celebrations, moments by the pools, moments sharing memories of childhood with my cousins, moments getting to know another large, welcoming family, moments sharing breakfast, moments sharing another beautiful wedding.
  The bubbles of joy glitter and bounce. They pop in and out of my consciousness now that I am back home trying to catch up on work and an avalanche of emails, fighting overwhelming jet lag, navigating a crushing soupy heat wave from the cool haven of our air-conditioning.
  It's good to be home, and it's hard to be home.
  So this month's blog is a celebration of family, and June weddings, and my warm welcome to a new daughter-in-law, Michele. Read More 
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Letter to my Father: Destination Unknown

My parents in Luxor, Egypt, in 1937
My father, Guido Mosseri, died at the age of 63 in 1971. In 2013, I miss him still. Last week, trying to impose order on my life of constant clutter, I was rummaging through a pile of assorted papers, most of them destined for the circular file, when I came across a handwritten sheet of paper, a letter to my father, dated September 30, 1985. Destination unknown, it lay hidden in the daily paper overload, waiting for him, waiting for me, waiting for years.
I always used to send him a card on Valentine's Day, and another on Father's Day, even after I married and came to live across the ocean in a life filled with other lives and loves, schedules, and obligations.
So today, Father's Day, I reclaim the letter I wrote to him 28 years ago. I didn't know then where to send it. Today, I float it into the ether. Wherever he is, he still lives in my heart. I hope he knows that I dared.

For my Father:
You would be happy to see me now,
Although the past has thickened on my waist
And my hair is fading with the years.
You would be happy to see
How I built with words, walls to keep us safe,
Built the world I inhabit,
Weaving the words around me in rich abundances of days,
Taking the words of others with reverence, to weave.

You would be happy
That my children reach to touch the stars
And that they hover on the brink of life,
Eager for the plunge, eager for the fray.
But you will mourn the poet in your daughter
Arrested on the stair,
Heart splintering with shards of words unsaid,
Eyes on the high solitude,
Afraid to dare.
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The Arbor Vitae Tree

The Arbor Vitae in its younger days
  I grew up where trees and flowering plants were named eucalyptus, jacaranda, bougainvillea, the music of color caught in the music of their names. Lemon trees, rose bushes, jasmine, magnolia, mango and palm wafted fragrances on a gentle breeze that I can still summon up if I close my eyes.
  Flaring out from a corner of our house in upstate New York, was a tree I had never seen before, spreading sculptural beauty, leaning outward from old stone walls, an intricate puzzle of smooth brown branches and tight circular masses of tiny green leaves. The tree is old, and bears no hint as to who first planted its roots into the earth. When we first bought the house, it was a dense splendor of large boles bearing perfect globes of miniature fans massed together, rich green, tight with sap, tiny fists of luminous green at every tip and twig vigorously reaching toward the sun. Brown branches twisted, threaded in and out of each other, leaned out from the grey fieldstone walls of the house. Magnificent.
   A tree expert came by one afternoon to tend to an aging cherry tree.
  “What do you call this tree?” I asked as we hurried past the corner of the house. He named it for me, looking back admiringly. “That's a fine old evergreen, an arbor vitae,” he said, “the tree of life.”
  As years rolled by, storms slashed at the arbor vitae. Heavy snows turned its dense green masses into gigantic snowballs, glistening white against a sharp blue sky. One by one, branches split off, pulled to the ground as fierce winds raged against the old stone house.
  Chainsaw in hand, my husband neatly lopped off ragged edges of loss as more years passed.
  I watched in dismay. “The tree will never survive,” I cried, seeing its beautiful shape scarred and disfigured.
  But each spring found the arbor vitae sealing off its losses. New shapes sprang from its branches. Its dignity intact, its silvered bark polished, smooth as silk, it raised dense masses again from its branches, newborn green tipping every twig. It did not die. Where dark green had been its vocabulary, it offered more spaces, more scars, more silver curved against the corner of the house. As the winds hummed, it sang new songs and danced new dances. It is such a beautiful tree.
  And I saw it at last as a metaphor for life, the arbor vitae, a life force that adapted to onslaught and change and still tipped its twigs in pale green fists in spring, pointing them proudly at the sky. It survives because it does not accept defeat. Its silver trunk gleams with the beauty of age. It shifts its shape to fit the moment and never loses its soul. Read More 
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Mother Love, Mother's Day

My mother, aged 99, is sinking slowly and inexorably into a quagmire from which she cannot escape. Strangling in the tentacles of advanced vascular dementia, she has lost her hold on the world as we know it. Most of the time, now, she does not know who I am. She has lost the ability to smile. Words emerge garbled, or not at all.
I wrote this essay five years ago, fearing and foreseeing this day.

     My mother navigates her days suspended in a chaos of past experiences. They blur at the edges, undefined by time and space. Every day she is less herself. She mourns the creeping losses of age. Her eyes see less well. Her ears fail her. Her fingers are gnarled and stiff from the arthritis that is slowly invading her joints. She sleeps, and awakens into a strange space that is neither today, tomorrow nor yesterday. I try to define it for her, try to find a context that will create meaning for her, that might situate her firmly into the moment her body occupies. But her voice, once so assured, trembles with doubt and pain.
     Her own childhood memories blend indistinguishably with memories of my childhood, memories of my brother and sister and of my children when they were small. “I remember...” she says with certainty and her voice trails off, then resumes a memory that has jumbled the messages of the past beyond understanding.
     She wanders in a maze, her every thought stunted by tall hedges. The story she is trying to tell, the point she is trying to make, all are obscured by the twists and turns her mind takes as it tries to find its way to the center of the maze where she knows that we wait patiently to greet her. More often than not, she gives up with a shrug and a laugh, or deviates abruptly into a different memory, another thought, irrelevant and unbidden, that takes her into yet another journey into the unknown, she who was always happiest with the tried and true.
     We watch, listen, and wonder. Where will all this confusion lead her? Will she lose herself completely and find no way back? We wait in pain and fear, patiently sending out balls of twine to roll to her feet and lead her back into her life, into her mind, into her heart where we, her children, wait, sure of our welcome.
     Conversation between us starts out valiantly enough and comes to an abrupt stop. I have come to realize how much of our interaction with those we love is dependent on question and answer, filling in the blanks of time spent apart. “What did you do today?” I ask, knowing that she may have been out for a walk with the kindly woman who is her home attendant. “Today?” she repeats in bewilderment. “Today? I can't remember. I slept a lot.” She is almost afraid of sleep, afraid that it will sweep her into the eternal sleep from which there is no awakening.
     At ninety-four she still lives in her own home, surrounded by photos of people she has loved, the piano she can still play, the rich exuberance of the paintings she created, the furniture she has known for most of her life. But returning from her walk she turns to us at her door and says “Where are we? I want to go home.”
     She never thought to be so old. She is half proud of her great age and half resentful. Why is she still here? she asks. I remind her of the grandchildren and great grandchildren whose presence she so enjoys. I remind her that we love her and that her presence in our lives continues to illuminate them. A flicker lights in her eyes. Almost, she is there again. Almost, she remembers.
     The feeling she has not forgotten, will never forget, is love. Every night when I call to see how her day went, we move in circles around the factual elements that shape experience and that seem to matter less and less with every day that passes. As we say goodnight, every night, every small parting as she loosens her bonds with life a little more, she takes care of my future as she has always done. “I love you,” she says, her voice filled with warmth. “I am so proud of you. You are a good girl.” and we hang up, both uncertain of whether tomorrow will allow us to speak to each other again.
     But my mother has wrapped my night in love, taken care of my future.
     I am learning from her as I have done all my life what it means to be a mother. She is still my mother, and if the day comes when that memory too floats into the fog of age and vanishes, she makes sure every night that I will always remember her voice speaking love.

I do remember, Mum, I will always remember.
And that is what sustains me as I watch her drift farther and farther away, a small ship without an anchor, leaving us behind in this world.
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A woman's world

Today, I am part Jewish mother preparing for Passover, that most rigorous of holidays: recipes and the organizing of closets rattling through my mind like the escalating gusts of wind outside that rattle the branches of street trees and tear at the plastic covering on the rosebush on my terrace. Today, I am also part literary agent attending to client matters, sitting at my computer, discussing fonts with one author, publishers with another, and structure of the novel with a third. A tiny sliver of mother-of-the-bridegroom glints here and there as a small part of my mind hovers anxiously over hotel and travel arrangements for my eldest son's wedding in LA. I try to ignore a deep desire to get up and search out something wicked and sweet to eat, but thoughts of the dress I have already bought for the wedding slide in and block out all subversive chatter.
"What's for dinner tonight?" asks my husband as he circles the apartment like a wolf on the prowl. The phone rings. I pick up. It is a recording about revised rates for Con Ed. Again. I slam the phone down and turn to the computer, but the phone rings again, almost immediately. I grab the receiver, prepared to do battle with the robot on the other end, but I am greeted by the voice of the kind lady from Dorot, wanting to run her week's menu by me for me to choose what they will deliver to my 99-year-old mother before the storm kicks in. I am always a wife. Always a daughter.
Tomorrow, they expect snow, rain, and sleet, as I hear the authoritative voice on the radio in my husband's study announce. I am sitting in front of the computer staring sadly at my notes. My concentration wobbles. Tomorrow, at 2:30, I will be shaking out my author hat and sticking it on my head, attempting to cover the havoc wrought by yet another winter storm when it is already supposed to be spring. I will slip and slide to my commitment to give a talk/reading from Sipping from the Nile, at Health Outreach, where I fear gazing out at a vast empty space as our latest unwelcome March storm sweeps all hope of an audience out of reach.
Tomorrow, I get to have a grandma moment in the afternoon, the highlight of my week, as my thirteen-year-old granddaughter comes into view, bowed under an enormous backpack sagging with the weight of all the learning she is supposed to absorb before she starts High School next year. Sighing and expressing concern is useless, but waves of worry take over. Will it ruin her back? "Hi, Granny," She shakes out waves of shiny long hair seductively from her knitted cap, grins disarmingly and lifts her cold face for a kiss, and love floods out the worry. She is a coper, this charming girl, part child, part woman, her chatter scattering itself through my heart like tiny flecks of golden delight. She, too, will lead a woman's life one day, a life of many compartments and many rewards. Yes, the lives of women are quite amazing. I have no doubt she will be more than equal to the task.  Read More 
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