Monthly Archives: June 2013

“I Still Miss You” or “My Grandfather, the Timberwolf”

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Today is June 24. It  holds great weight for me. Not because tomorrow is my birthday, and thus, June 24 is always my last day of a certain age. Today has weight for me because on this day years ago, the day before my 14th birthday, my mom woke me up that morning to tell me that my grandfather had died earlier that morning, and that, within a few hours, we would be making the long, 16 hour drive from Phoenix to their home north of Sacramento, to the house in Cameron Park that sat on a hill, where my grandfather would run his trains in the small workshop he’d built on the property, just opposite of the greenhouse in the yard, near the birdbath he’d installed out of cast concrete, where his favorite cat, Rover, used to lay in wait for birds to alight.

It was the last day of the 13th year of my life, an unlucky number, for what would become an unlucky year, though, until that moment, it hadn’t been. I’d had my first boyfriend that year. His name was Chris, and he had dark hair and eyes, and a funny scar from chicken pox on the side of his face. He played baseball, and sometimes he was mean to me, in that way that sort of harmless but cutting way 13 year old boys often are. I’d had a pretty dress for 8th grade graduation, I’d taken Spanish, and had a best friend named Traci who had signed my yearbook that year, “We will be friends forever.” But on the last day of what had been a lucky 13th year, all the good faded into a battleship gray that I am not sure ever fully dissipated.

My grandfather was my favorite person in the world. He was my step-father’s step-father, an only child like me, the same sort of odd, unrelated duck that I was at family gatherings. Neither of us looked like anyone, and so I liked to pretend that  we looked alike in some funny twist of fate, that maybe, somewhere, we were actually related, and through a series of strange occurrences, had come together, never knowing we really were the same blood.

We could not have looked less alike, but we were alike in other, more important ways.  We were both writers, a lifelong passion of his that had been somewhat fruitless in terms of publication. For me, writing had begun at age 7, when, unprompted, I wrote my first short story about a teddy bear.

We also both loved history, and travel, which for him had been a realization, his passport stamped with countries like Japan, Egypt, Britain, Morrocco, France, Switzerland…I could go on. For me, travel was the thing I was going to do when I grew up and got out of Maryvale, in West Phoenix, and he would buy me picture books of all of the places he thought I should go.

My grandfather was the first man who loved me, not because he had to, but because he liked who I was. We wrote weekly letters to each other. He taught me to play poker using foreign coins left over from trips he’d taken years before. He pasted wildlife stamps in his letters, not of cute animals, but the scary ones of insects and strange larvae-like creatures that subsisted on tree bark, and wrote funny comments under each one. I sent him pictures I drew of characters I’d thought up, including a reoccurring glasses-wearing librarian named Agnes. When he visited Phoenix, we went to Long John Silver’s and shared a lemon merengue pie afterward, his second favorite (pecan was his actual favorite), and I interviewed my stuffed animals, a hard-hitting journalistic approach where I demanded that each admit their involvement in a conspiracy to steal cookies, and Grandpa was my sole studio audience.

When I visited him, we went to Sutter’s Mill and saw where gold had been discovered. He took me to Marine World Africa USA and we patted the heads of dolphins and shared a souvenir mug of Pepsi. He took me to the train museum in Sacramento, imparted his love of trains to me, and he and I would stand together in his workshop and get his own model trains moving through a perfect, placid town of his design, and for a moment, in his lined and creased face, I imagined I could see what he’d looked like as a child.

He told me stories of growing up in Los Angeles, of having a summer cottage next door to one owned by William Jennings Bryant, and, as a small child, visiting the former presidential candidate and dynamic, history-making litigator every day, never fully realizing until his mother told him who the man was. He talked about running down to the pier with his friends after school and seeing a man on the pier extricating himself from chains wound around him, the name Harry Houdini meaningless at the time, until he would recall it years later.

He would show me photos from his extensive scrapbooks of World War II, where he’d fought in the European theatre, where he’d been a part of the Timberwolves, the 104th Infantry Division, which had taken part in the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp. He did not talk about what he’d seen when I was little, but later, not long before he died, he began to send me photocopied clippings from letters he and his friends had written back and forth to each other, or we would look at photos of himself in uniform with his widowed mother, sending her only child off to war, or pictures of he and his fellow soldiers, sitting in the remains of a shelled-out building, laughing at a joke that had been told moments before the click and whir of the camera. He lived the width and length of his life, in every way.

When my step-dad shouted at me, was harsh or mean, as he invariably was, my grandfather, when he was there, held me as I cried into his chest, and later told my step-dad he was ashamed of his behavior, that there was never any reason for a man to shout at a child.

I got to know him for exactly 9 years. From 5 until 14. We had become fast friends from the first moment I met him. It was the most natural thing in the world to me, the five year old, meeting my new step-father’s parents, to immediately call him grandpa, but now, as an adult, I wonder what it had been to him. Here was he, a childless man, who had raised his two step-sons, a man who had seen war and extreme human suffering, a man who then had to adapt to  normal society again afterward, who had traveled the world, and now, here, was a five year old dishwater blonde with no family of her own outside of a single, anxious mother marrying a man twenty years her senior. The first time I met him, I put my hand in his and called him Grandpa. I do not know what he thought of that. I was too young to have thought of such a question when he was alive, and now, it is one of just hundreds of questions I wish I could ask him now.

I think of him almost every single day of my life. Any piece I write that is sent off and read and selected for an award or for publication or for inclusion in a theatre festival or a night of solo performances, I think of him. Of the box of saved rejection letters found in the garage upon his death. I think of all the ways that he never stopped writing, still tinkering away at the same short story about his Aunt Lutie that had been rejected dozens of times, right up until his death, also still sending out letters to his fellow Timberwolves organizing reunions, keeping in touch, staying connected. He cared about those tenuous connections we have with those we love, with whom we have shared such significant experiences.

He loved me more than any man had ever loved me at the time, loved me in ways my own father and later my own step-father had been unable to. He saved every letter and drawing I’d ever sent them, and had all of them carefully pressed into an album, which he kept in the nightstand by his bed. Among framed photos of his wife in front of major world locales– standing on a balcony over looking Cairo, or in front of the Eiffel Tower, or somewhere near Picadilly Circus in London, he had a framed photo, in the center, of me, interviewing a Teddy Ruxpin with Fisher Price microphone.

Years later, when I would finally grow up and be lucky enough to learn to like certain things about myself, they were the things my grandfather had loved about me since I was a kid. Somehow, he could see something in me that no one else could see in me, and I think, through what would become very rough years without him, he gave me something to hold on to. He had loved me, and thus, there was something in me worth loving. I have never let go of that; I hope I never will.

On this day, years ago, I was thirteen and  I was unlucky enough to lose my grandfather, Harold Joseph Fraulob. But on this day, in 2013, I know I was lucky enough to have loved him, to keep on loving him, lucky enough to have ever found him.

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I love Kosher Bazooka.

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I grew up in the hood.

That’s not meant ironically. I really did. The Maryvale neighborhood in West Phoenix now boasts itself as the most crime-ridden of the entire metro area, surpassing South Phoenix for the first time in the city’s history. Way to go, Westside. As we say in the business of writing about kosher gum: Oy vey.  The grocery stores had aisles and aisles of Hispanic foods in my neighborhood, and eventually, those grocery stores gave way to the Food City and Ranch Market varieties, geared entirely to Hispanics. When the changes first happened in the place I’d grown up, it felt strange at first. Signs in Spanish and English, brands I’d never seen. Tastes and flavors that were foreign, odd, different.

But soon, the new became familiar. I got snobby. If people used enchilada sauce in a can, I judged.

Then I grew up, went to college, failed at relationships, changed jobs, moved up, and now I live where Scottsdale and Paradise Valley meet. This has to be the least crime-ridden neighborhood in the Valley, unless you consider spending more on a Prada bag than my family spent on rent a crime, and I do. When I first made my way through my new neighborhood, saw rows of luxury cars, fell asleep at night without the sounds of helicopters overhead, that too felt strange. And the grocery stores here?  The Fry’s Signature Marketplace in my neighborhood now has the biggest kosher food section I’ve ever seen, including its own freezer aisle.   Now I’ve become a snob in a different way altogether.  I’ll pass on the Manischewitz, thanks, but kosher frozen pizza? Kedem juice? Kosher meats? Most of the time the taste difference is negligible, but one area in which it really matters is the greatest love of my candy life: Kosher Bazooka Bubble Gum.

Bazooka Bubble Gum in general fascinates me. It began after World War II and was named for the musical instrument. The weapon, far less kosher, was named for the same instrument, so in that way, the bubble gum and the weapon are contemporaries of each other, like two cousins named after the same grandparent.

But kosher Bazooka? Manufactured in Israel, it is considered kosher for Passover because it contains no leaven, being made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Because of that, it is one of those rare things considered better for you, while being in no way good for you at all.

What sold me on the kosher Bazooka gum wasn’t actually the corn syrup. Sure, I should stay away from it, and God knows, Super Size Me and Food Inc have terrified me to the point that I equate the words ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ with chemical warfare and people who use the phrase ‘tap that’ in a non-ironic way.  What sold me was the comics are printed in Hebrew, and for reasons I’m not fully sure of, I love that. It could be my long-lasting love affair with all things Jewish.  It could also be that when people take a piece from the jar in my office, I like watching their faces as they peer down at the comic, confused.  The way people uniquely register confusion, their faces evolving in a series of blank stares, wrinkled brows, curled lips, is another one of my favorite things, and that’s just a bonus.

But what I think I love most is the way kosher Bazooka makes the most ordinary thing, age-old, familiar, into something extraordinary, new, unexpected, which is what I have devoted my life to, as a creative professional, as a writer.   I like that kosher Bazooka is something I know, but surprise! Maybe I didn’t know it after all.

That is my most favorite thing about life in general, about the world around me, and my least favorite thing, all at the same time. I have come to know, in my years on the planet, a lot of people, a few places, and lots of things. I had a few things happen in life. A marriage ended. I got severely ill for a long time, changed jobs, moved houses, lost friends, gained new ones. Sometimes I feel  like  I got it all figured out, that I was on the right path, that I had all my ducks in a row, that I now had a hold on all the right people. Invariably, any time I have believed that, life or the universe, or whatever you want to call it, has enjoyed making my certainty the punchline of a joke that is so unfunny to me, it may as well be written in Hebrew.

This evening, as I passed through an aisle of my local grocery store, the one with its valet parking and cooking classes, the one that sometimes makes me feel like a stranger still in my own neighborhood, an interloper from the barrio, venturing into a world that is never going to be quite mine, I saw it there, in the kosher aisle: a little bag of kosher Bazooka bubble gum, at once familiar and unexpected, reminding me that sometimes, the best thing of all, the thing I have loved most, is that perplexity, that uncertainty, that moment when I settle down with what I think I know, only to discover something completely new.

I am starting down new paths left and right in many areas of my life. Starting down paths without people whom I had believed for decades would always be there. Heading down other paths that I had no preconceived notions about at all, they are that unfamiliar. Starting down paths I began long ago, but hedged and fell back, afraid. There is so much new happening every day around me, that I sometimes feel too afraid of all that I don’t know, and want to turn back to all that I do, even if what I knew was painful, sad, unhealthy, or just plain not what I wanted.

I don’t know if this will make sense to anyone but me, but for some reason, a piece of hard bubble gum wrapped in Hebrew comics I can’t read reminded me tonight that it’s okay not to have figured everything out; that maybe it is okay right now that I feel, sometimes, like a stranger in a new world, heading out on my own through uncharted territory.

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