Thursday, March 11, 2010


I’ve had two ouch moments recently that jolted me out of my relatively comfortable middle aged existence.

Last Sunday, moments after the 6th grade CYO basketball team I help coach won its quarterfinal playoff game, we huddled together outside the gymnasium for a postgame wrap-up. Coach Connor, who just turned 17 and plays JV ball at a local high school, also reminded the team how important our final two practices would be this week.

“We’re going to work on our inbounding and beating the press,” Connor said. “But I won’t be there Thursday.”

“Coach Martin and I can handle that practice,” I said. Coach Martin is the father of Connor. His other son, Patrick, plays on our St. Isabella’s squad.

From out of nowhere, my son, Miguel, swooped in with a major dose of reality. “If you two are going to run practice you have to pay attention this time. No talking to each other on the other end of the court.”

Ouch. Double ouch.

I looked at the team and saw grins on their faces. Miguel’s smile was wide and slightly sheepish.

“I think I was just dissed by my son,” I said.

“Well, it’s true,” he said.

And he was right.

Martin and I understand the game of basketball, but we couldn’t diagram or design a play to save our lives. That is Connor’s territory. He lives and breathes basketball. Before our first round playoff game he said to me, “I was up playing basketball last night until midnight.”

Not video game basketball. Not on the computer. But real live bouncing the ball on the hardwood inside some school gym basketball for serious aficionados basketball.

So Martin and I gladly step aside at the practices when Connor is there, and what else can the two of do but converse about life, love, and avoiding serious prostrate issues for two men at or near 50?

But Miguel’s semi-serious admonition was a wake-up call for me. Then Martin called me Monday morning as I was driving Miguel and a neighbor to school.

“Maybe we could move practice to another day,” he said. “Then Jacob and Kendal (our two big men) can be there.” Both of them have never been able to practice on Wednesdays because of a previous extracurricular activity.

So Martin and I agreed to switch the practice to Tuesday and keep our usual Thursday schedule. Then the proverbial shoe dropped.

“But Connor and I won’t be there Thursday. We’re going to see the Warriors. Connor’s a big Brandon Roy fan. The Warriors are playing his team, the Trailblazers.”

Then the other shoe dropped and I nearly careened off the side of the road.

“And Connor won’t be at the game on Saturday,” Martin continued. “He’s got the SATs.”

When I shared the conversation with Miguel before we turned into his school, all he said was, “You better take notes at practice on Tuesday.”


Martin and I are on our own this Saturday bright and early for the first semifinal matchup at 9 am. If we win, we play in the championship game on Sunday afternoon. If we lose, we busy ourselves with Little League baseball, which began in late January, with regular season games beginning this weekend.

My next ouch moment occurred last night at work. Verna went into San Francisco for a special talk sponsored by her breast cancer support group. So I had the kids with me because I needed to work later, until 6:30. Normally I work until five or so, but one of my co-workers is off this week due to a death in his family. So I have to cover his hours, as I am his supervisor and those hours are at the front desk of a retirement facility, which must always be manned, as it were.

I brought Miguel with me after his baseball practice, which lasted fifteen minutes (batting practice). Verna dropped Maya off en route to her event. At one point, Maya came up to the front desk while I was talking to a private duty aide. The aide, a nursing student at a nearby university, said, “Oh, is this your granddaughter?”

I nearly choked.

“Granddaughter?” I asked. “I’m going to have to bar you from the building.”

I know I am Senior Dad, father of a 4-year old and four weeks from turning 51, but grandfather? OK, I know it’s quite possible. Verna and I met a 43-year old woman two years ago in Cabo who has eight grandchildren. I have cousins younger than I am with grandchildren. And my brother-in-law, who isn’t yet 50, has a one-year-old granddaughter.

After I recovered from the shock of her remark, which was quite innocent, she said something about her age, 33. I quickly did the math and figured out that when I was 33 my mother was 55. So being a grandfather at 50 is entirely plausible. Too plausible for comfort. But, as Miguel is only 12, he will meet a swift and untimely demise should he bless us with his off-spring in the next few years.

The hard part about being mistaken for Maya’s grandfather is that I still think of myself as somewhat youthful. Besides being in decent shape, I run around with the kids as much as possible. I play tag in the park, chase Maya up and down the slides, play several sports with Miguel, and race Maya upstairs in order to get her to bed.

Shortly after my grandfather ouch moment, one of my colleagues said to Maya, “You love your daddy?”

Maya said, “Yes.”

“What do you like about your daddy?”

“He’s silly,” Maya said. “He makes me laugh.”

Nothing like a sweet four-year old to nearly remove the sting of the grandfather comment. Then a little while later, as I shared the grandfather incident with another colleague, a young woman who is twenty and works as a housekeeper and server in the dining hall, she said, “But you’re not that old.”

“How old do you think I am, Veronica?”

“In your 30s.”

Give that girl a major raise. Promote her to CEO.

“I’m 50,” I said. “I’ll be 51 next month.”

She looked at me and said, “No way.”

The second ouch was now completely gone, having been pummeled into submission (for the most part) by someone whose mother is only 46. Hey, I had to ask. So I was essentially saved from an evening of sulking by two females not old enough to legally drink alcohol, one of whom is in preschool and recites the ABCs to help her fall asleep at night.

As for basketball, I paid serious attention on Tuesday and am completely ready to guide the boys tonight and Saturday.

Father doesn’t always know best.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meet The Grandparents

My mother-in-law, Maria Graciela “Chela” Wefald, should have turned 86 today, but she died a week before Halloween in 2008. Verna went to Mass this morning, where the priest mentioned Chela, and planned a quiet celebration of her mother’s birthday after dinner. The four of us shared a fruit tart, topped with blueberries, kiwis, and strawberries, and filled with white and chocolate custard-pudding. Then we watched the 12-minute DVD Verna and her brothers commissioned for Chela’s memorial service, which was on Election Day 2008.

Maya was excited this morning as she readied herself for preschool about eating cake after dinner, but she was also focused on her grandmother. “Grandma died,” she said to Verna as Miguel and I rushed to get ready. “I want to get another grandma.”

Verna reminded her that she already had two grandmothers, my mom, who is Grandma Bev, and my stepmother, who is Bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother) Joyce. Maya was relieved and happy.

As Miguel and I dashed out the door, I started thinking about my grandparents. I was fortunate, very fortunate to have grown up with four grandparents within 10 miles of where we lived in Bloomfield, CT. And by the time I was in my late teens or early twenties, three of them resided in my hometown, so I saw them pretty regularly when I was home from college and beyond.

Unlike Verna, who saw her paternal (she never met her maternal grandparents) grandparents maybe 6-10 times in her entire life, I saw four grandparents at least 1-2 times a month, including all major American and Jewish holidays and assorted birthdays.

Sadly, Miguel and Maya only live near one grandparent, Verna’s father, Martin, who continues to play a major role in their lives, so they won’t have the same, expansive relationship with multiple grandparents as I did. And Maya especially did not have enough years with Chela, who absolutely adored her last grandchild. I won’t even mention that Chela did not live to see her first great-granddaughter, Lola Chela, enter this world on the final day of 2008.

But back to my grandparents: My mother’s father, Sam Bernstein, came to this country from Russia some time after the Bolshevik Revolution. His father, Benny, raised him because his mother wasn’t well physically or mentally. She died when Sam was young. Benny was often harsh and distant.

Sam died when I was 12 so I really didn’t know him well. I remember him giving me a Tonka truck when I 10 for my birthday (that was when Tonka trucks were really sturdy and metal). Another time my mom gave him a lunchbox for either Father’s Day or his birthday and he cried. He was not overly educated, but he loved to create and solve math problems, and then beam with pride when my mother or I checked his work.

My paternal grandmother, Fannie Friedman, was cold and demanding at times. She made great matzah ball soup and pickled tomatoes, which she left in jars on her porch. She died in 1988 when I was 29.

She was, er, frugal. She would send us to the store for a dozen eggs with two dollars and expect the change back. One time she treated me to bingo night at the synagogue and I won the coverall and $50. She said I had to split it with her because she’d paid for my bingo cards. Then one of my cousins asked me what I planned to do with the money. It was late August.

“I’m going to use it to buy school clothes,” I answered.

Fannie then gave me the other $25. “Since I was going to give you money for school anyway,” she said, “I might as well give it to you now.”

I loved sleeping over her house in East Hartford, CT, which she shared with my grandfather, Myer, Myer’s sister-in-law, Lillian, and another boarder, Simon Rutt, the father-in-law of Myer and Fannie’s daughter, my Aunt Sari. We always got to eat candy, play cards, watch TV, and one year, on New Year’s Eve I think they let me and a neighbor sleep in their bed.

Myer died in 1992 of congestive heart failure. He was 86. He was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. After he retired he continued to work part-time as an aide to physically disabled adults. He regularly chauffeured people to synagogue for morning and evening prayers, no matter the weather. He religiously cut coupons out of the newspaper and either shared them with family, used them himself, or left them on the items in the stores.

He never stopped talking about how great Roosevelt’s New Deal had been for working people. He drove a delivery truck for 35 years for Drake’s Cakes, which meant we always had ample supplies of Hostess-like coffee cakes, devil’s food cakes filled with crème, and fruit pies. He always straightened out the Drake’s displays in whatever store we were in, whether it was his day off or past his retirement.

For a year after he died, I wanted to ask my father, as had been my tradition during our long-distance phone calls, how Zadie (Yiddish for grandfather) was doing. As I type this, a framed photograph of Myer Friedman, his face grinning down at me, hangs to my right.

My maternal grandmother, Ida Bernstein, was the other most compassionate person I’ve ever known. She migrated to this country from Poland in 1921. She spoke no English and didn’t understand anything about American customs or cuisine. When someone gave her a banana for the first time, she didn’t know what it was so she threw it under the table.

She, too, loved to cook. She made great spaghetti and meatballs, matzah ball soup, kasha and varnishkes (buckwheat groats and bowtie pasta), pudding, and jello. She kept kosher, but was never dogmatic about her religious beliefs and practices. She was one of the few people in my family who was truly excited when I married a wonderful Catholic girl because she knew how happy I was with Verna.

When she sent us to the store for a couple of groceries, she gave us $10 and always insisted we keep the change. One year, when I was 15 or so, I spent the night with her on New Year’s Eve and we made cookies at midnight and proclaimed that we were the first to bake cookies in the New Year.

She inspired me with her devotion to Judaism and her acceptance and respect for all people. She never went beyond high school, but she listened religiously to informative radio talk shows, read the newspaper daily, and watched the news at night.

We brought Miguel cross country when he was six months old in 1998 to meet his great-grandmother, who lived then in the Hebrew Home in West Hartford, CT. After cleaning him up following a massive poop on the sidewalk of the Home, we surprised Ida in her room. She immediately exclaimed, “The baby, the baby, you brought the baby.” We were there with my mother, stepfather, brother, and sister-in-law, and everyone was crying joyfully as Ida gazed at Miguel. We quickly posed for a photograph of the four generations together.

Ida died in early March 1999, just two weeks before her 90th birthday.

I miss all four of my grandparents, one whom I didn’t know well, one who was flawed but loved us deeply, and two who were amazing and deserved to be sainted in a Jewish-secular kind of way.

Missing them was certainly on mind as the DVD of Chela ended and I said to Maya, “You miss your grandma?”

“Yes,” she said. “I want to share my cake with her.”