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


I have always disliked February. There is something about the way the name looks, the way the letters are arranged on the page that inspires negative vibes in me. Of course, the predictably miserable February weather may have something to do with it. Perched uneasily somewhere between glamorous December and the promise of spring in April, February drags its dreary way from day to day, its only cheer carried in the fact that it is fractionally shorter than its neighbors. It hardly begins before I long for it to end.
I write this as I try to adjust the tilt of my world. It has left me sadly off balance, but with every day that passes I feel an adjustment taking place. It will never go back to what it was before, but once February and this year's relentless snows leave us in peace, I think I will see a wider horizon. So while I wait for that, here is a poem I wrote in 1957, when the world I knew tilted for the first time, and I tried to capture it with words as it cast me into my future:


Somewhere a dog flings his shaggy voice at the moon
And stars fight to prick his eyes with light.
Full-bodied, the river writhes past banks
Thick with memories of famine and quenching flood.
Neon lights switch off...on...off...on... in neat sterility,
And light falls, scattering confusion
Into the dark grumbling of the waters.
Mosques wave graceful fingers at the air
Side by side with the blunt bull-necks
Of the chimneys of factories.
Mud villages crouch in the mother-mud of the river
Greedily sucking of its vitality,
For beyond it heaves the cold breathing of the dead dust.

Dawn rapidly laps night from the saucer of the sky
While the river surges on, roiling and grey.
Towns sprawl beside it in ungainly puddles,
Parasites clinging to its generous limbs.
Strips of sudden green straggle between
The tumbled humps of native villages.
Sun glares over the desert as morning comes
And men gush out of the river banks from a million sprawling wounds
And in the fat importance of the day
Spit in the river,
Crawling about their lives, each his own small world,
While the river, drugged with fertility
Forgives them all.

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Sarah and the snow maiden

Winter barely sneaked onto the calendar and suddenly we vied with Antarctica for whose cold was more intense. Before the barometer started its plunge into unimaginable freeze, fat white flakes fell silently, sprinkling trees with glittering white blooms, and Sarah built a snow-woman outside the kitchen window in the country.
Because I have been confronting endings lately, I found myself wondering, as I watched her, about the ephemeral nature of her snow sculpture, and it led me to reflecting on last times. There is no warning label to alert us that we are entering a last-time zone, exhorting us to pay particular attention, to experience the full impact of every second, to be aware, to realize that whatever we are experiencing will never happen again. Never.
Only later, looking back, do we fervently wish we had been aware that we were in a last time then. The poignancy of every moment slips us by, because we so confidently anticipate a next time. Because, as the last time quietly slides into the past, it seems perhaps no different from the time before, except that now, there will be no next time.
As we move more deeply into the future, we gradually become aware that the world has changed around us and that this particular moment will never repeat itself, this wonderful experience will never return.
Sarah's snow woman will gradually melt into different shapes and disappear altogether. Life does that, too, and with a sinking heart we understand that we should have appreciated the last time more, recorded it differently, been more profoundly in the experience itself. If only we had somehow known that it would never come again.
So what I am moving towards here is that I have entered a sharper awareness. I am realizing that I need to appreciate every experience as if it might be the last time. That is how, without defining it, I addressed every moment of the last two years of my mother's life. I balanced on the edge of time. Every visit might be the last. I never knew if she would have a tomorrow.
I am saddened that in earlier years, as she faded before our eyes, I had not understood about the need to capture each moment forever. I never believed that it would never come again. And now, I cannot remember the last time she walked on her own, she showed me a glorious new painting she had just finished, or played her Chopin piece on the piano, or sang, or laughed, or remembered my name.
But for the last two years I did give every visit the respect of a last time. And when it truly was the last time, I knew it was the right time for her and I knew that I had saved and stored every possible good moment that preceded it.

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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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