A gap year turned out to be just what my daughter needed after high school. As I wrote for The New York Times, now I’m a believer.
A gap year turned out to be just what my daughter needed after high school. As I wrote for The New York Times, now I’m a believer.
As a Jew growing up in suburban Connecticut, I always wanted a Christmas tree. My parents, raised blocks apart in the Bronx while the Holocaust raged overseas, refused to yield. We celebrated Hanukkah, proudly displaying our menorah in the living room window.
The closest we got to a tree was on Christmas Eve, when we visited family friends who went all out on the decorating. They saved a few stray ornaments for my brother and me to hang on their massive evergreen, and we basked in its twinkling splendor while gobbling cookies from a tiered silver tray. On the way home, we peered through the car windows, wistfully counting the houses sporting Christmas lights.
Occasionally we found small gifts waiting for us by our fireplace on Christmas morning. “You’ve been so good, Santa must have decided to drop off a little something while he was in the neighborhood—even though you’re Jewish!” my mother would say. It was a sweet gesture, but the tokenism merely highlighted my deprivation. If only we’d had a tree, who knows what bounty Santa might have bestowed?
My Christmas tree envy faded with the onset of adolescence, when I contracted an incurable case of contrarianism. Suddenly, my goal was not just to be different from everyone else, but also to openly disdain the status quo. Newly outraged over deforestation—among many other things—I couldn’t believe I had once yearned to kill a tree so I could hang lights on it. Shunning Christmas and its trappings in favor of the Jewish festivals became a point of pride, heightened by my growing awareness of the existence of anti-Semitism.
For 15 years, Christmas was a non-event in my life. Then I met Mr. 70 Percent, who back then was so eager to impress me that he actually completed closer to 80 percent of any given household task. For better or worse, he was a devout non-believer in everything except the excesses of Christmas. It was fine with him if we raised our kids Jewish—but the tree was non-negotiable.
The first few years I cried. Each fragrant pine he hauled into our shared living space felt like a violation, a repudiation of my Jewish heritage and my lifelong ambivalence toward Christmas. I looked enviously at the other mixed-faith couples we knew whose non-Jewish partner enthusiastically embraced Judaism—in part to get out of celebrating Christmas.
That wasn’t my husband. And though I wished it were, it didn’t seem quite fair to ask him to forsake something he had grown up with and clearly loved, just because I didn’t want it around. After all, he’d made a much bigger concession in accepting a Jewish upbringing for our children; surely I could make room for something as simple and lovely as a tree.
And so I did, with a little less angst each year.
Our kids, when they came along, thought they’d hit the jackpot: Hanukkah and Christmas! They were the envy of their elementary-school peers. But it was their grandmothers who taught them how truly lucky they were: every year, my mother-in-law–a lapsed Catholic–gave each of her Jewish grandchildren a new menorah for Hanukkah: Mickey Mouse and fire engines, flowers and jungle animals. And my mother presented them with new ornaments for the Christmas tree she’d never wanted in her own home.
Now the tree is as much a part of our season as the menorah, and the 30 percent of the dinner dishes left unwashed in the sink. I have grown genuinely fond of the rituals I craved as a child and ridiculed as a teen: selecting the perfect specimen, draping its branches with strands of white lights, setting the gold wire star gently on top. But mostly what I love is placing the ornaments that tell our family story: the black Lab, the Yankees cap, the Eiffel Tower, the bassoon and the guitar, the Popsicle-stick frames and glittery pinecones preserved from preschool days. And always, prominently near the top, the delicate, blown-glass Jewish symbols—a menorah, a dreidel, and a Star of David—that we bought together years ago, when we were just beginning to find our way through the thicket of a mixed marriage.
I’m not much of a do-gooder. I don’t readily trust organizations that ask me for money. (Thanks, Father Ritter and Greg Mortenson.) I am as resistant to fad charities as I am to fad books and diets, which is why I refused to watch any of the gazillion ALS ice-bucket-challenge videos posted on Facebook last summer (except the one where the Texan dispenses the ice with his rifle). And I feel no guilt about using those free return-address labels so many organizations optimistically send in pursuit of a donation.
I’ve been only marginally more generous with my time, volunteering mainly when relentlessly harangued (does that still count as volunteering?) or when I genuinely cherish the mission, like reading to little kids.
So I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad I noticed last month seeking drivers for Meals on Wheels, the non-profit that delivers lunch and a look-in to seniors. Certainly, I found the concreteness of the task appealing; driving around the Vermont countryside pushing food on receptive strangers promised to satisfy both the road warrior and the Jewish mother in me. I welcomed the human contact–however forced–as an antidote to the isolation of working at home in rural New England. And perhaps I felt partially shamed by the “Best Citizen I Know” essay my 7th grader recently wrote about her older sister, who earned the title for “working with schools and charities, voting, and trying to give blood.” (Apparently her iron count was too low. “But it’s the thought that counts,” the little suck-up wrote.)
Regardless, in a matter of days I was loading two coolers into my trunk and making my first rounds. Some recipients were waiting expectantly at the kitchen table, knife and fork at the ready; others were reading, playing the piano, or dozing, and took a minute to appear. Most wanted to chat.
Now, I am happy to report, I have 9 new friends! Sure, I have to tell them my name again every week; their average age, I’m guessing, is 84. But mostly they are happy to see me, and very grateful for the little plastic trays of still-warm food I deliver, along with milk and bread. We discuss the weather, the news, their holiday plans, and their health; they ask about my work, my family, and where I buy my clothes. (Not all are familiar with “the Internet.”) Sometimes they need my help in retrieving the mail, moving a heavy pot, or finding the cat. And they love to show me things: pictures of a newborn great-granddaughter, a stack of 90th birthday cards, the coats on sale in the Macy’s catalogue, a fat squirrel feasting at the bird feeder.
They couldn’t possibly look forward to the visits more than I do. Among other things, our lunch dates have done wonders for my ego; one woman actually asked me if I was a college student, confirming my belief that it is utterly impossible to determine the age of anyone older than 12 but younger than you. And they remind me to appreciate my own parents and their remarkably hale health. Best of all, they provide me with every journalist’s dream: a rich supply of stories, encompassing first loves, rewarding jobs, rebellious kids, enduring friendships, exotic travels. To be sure, my new friends have suffered many losses–mobility, hearing, spouses, even children–but they don’t dwell on those. They are too busy bragging about a daughter’s recent promotion, a sweet letter from a grandson, or the gourmet Thanksgiving meal a late husband used to prepare. And suddenly, I find the “holiday season” a little easier to bear.
My mother loves cake. Any kind of cake: chocolate, apple, layer, carrot, cream-filled, caramel-glazed, you name it. This is one of the many things I learned–or remembered–on the 10-day trip I recently took through Central Europe with my mother and my 19-year-old daughter. (Luckily, at 77, my mom is also an inexhaustible walker; according to her trusty FitBit, our sightseeing jaunts averaged between 5 and 13 miles a day.) Among the other notable discoveries: my mother is inordinately fond of ironing, and my daughter only brushes her teeth in the morning. Also she is faster than an iPhone app at converting forints into dollars, and extremely handy with a map–an aptitude she first demonstrated on a tense road trip long ago, when Mr. 70 Percent snatched the atlas out of my navigation-challenged hands and passed it back to our daughter, who piped up from her booster seat, “Just take the next exit and head west.”
But the most important realization I made during our tour of Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is that I should never underestimate the wisdom or compassion of these two beautiful women connected through me. For when three generations spend 24/7 together walking cobble-stoned streets and eating cake, there’s no telling where the conversation might lead.
One afternoon, we were helping my daughter pack up her apartment in Salzburg, where she had just spent a transformational gap year before college. We had met one of her closest friends, a charming young man named Kevin, and my mother couldn’t understand why they weren’t dating. “Unless you tell me he’s gay…” she said. My daughter and I exchanged looks. “Mom, Kevin’s not gay,” I said, “but…” “I like girls,” my daughter broke in. My mother didn’t hesitate for a second: “Well, that makes perfect sense then!” she said. Her reaction deserves extra credit because as far as she knew, my daughter had previously dated only boys.
My girl shared with her grandmother “Defined by a Bubble,” an op-ed she had written for her high school newspaper in which she describes herself as “pansexual,” meaning not that she is attracted to cookware but that she is open to romantic partners of any gender or gender identity–gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, or anything else that falls outside the “gender binary” of our “hetero-normative” culture. (I’m all for challenging the status quo, but I can’t stand the jargon.) “Really what it means, Grandma,” my daughter explained, “is that I fall in love with individuals, not with a particular gender.”
My mother responded far more sensitively than I had two summers earlier, when my daughter–who had recently broken up with her boyfriend–texted me to say she had become romantically involved with a woman she worked with at an all-girls’ camp. “Oh, that’s normal!” I texted back. “You’re just like Katy Perry–you kissed a girl and you liked it!” After all, I had attended the same camp 35 years prior, where I’d had plenty of girl crushes of my own. Whether nothing came of them because I genuinely preferred men or because I was constrained by the forces of society, I’ll never know. That my daughter felt free to act upon her desires is surely a sign of a better world. But it was my mother’s experience at a co-ed camp that really put it in perspective. “There was one girl I used to lie in a bunk with, and we would practice kissing boys,” she recalled. “I don’t think she was a lesbian…”
She asked a lot of questions, which my daughter answered with patient candor, and proffered hugs and unconditional support. In fact, what upset my mother the most was that no one had told her sooner. I’m not sure why we didn’t; I guess it never directly came up. But the truth is, I would have sent her the link to almost any other op-ed her granddaughter wrote; this one just seemed too jarring.
I should have known better. Soon after we landed at JFK, I received this email from my father, who had bankrolled our whole trip:I read “Defined By a Bubble” and found it to be astounding. The world has changed so much and sometimes old people change with it. Thanks primarily to your brother, who, a number of years ago had a major impact on my feelings about this subject after a long talk, I have reached the point where I don’t care who my granddaughter loves. If she is in a relationship and is happy, then I am happy too. I have no doubts that that lucky person will be worthy of her affection. She is an amazing young lady who I love and admire without restrictions. You too.
Whatever else I accomplish in this life, nothing could make me prouder than knowing that I am the link between these two remarkable generations–one obsessed with cake, the other a human GPS.
I’ve started applying eyeliner when I go out. And earrings. If I notice dirt on my jeans, I might even change them. Suddenly, I’m putting a lot more effort into making a good impression. Why? I’m on the market again. In play. On the prowl. Seeking a soul-mate.
Oh, not a romantic one. Mr. 70 Percent may drive me crazy at times, but I love him and am in it for the long haul, wherever he may drag me. (Happy Valentine’s day, Honey!) What I’m trawling for is not love, necessarily, but friendship. Not to replace the beloved BFFs I left behind when we moved–that would be impossible–but simply for a little conversation and companionship. No long-term commitment required.
As it turns out, looking for a new friend is a lot like looking for a new lover. First, you make initial contact. This could be through a third-party fix-up, or a spontaneous encounter at the gym. I have even gone on nothing more than someone’s appearance–Great scarf! Nice haircut! She’s reading People!–which my 18-year-old daughter says is shallow. Maybe, but one of the great advantages of getting older is that you become skilled at snap judgments. That doesn’t mean you’re always right–and I certainly wouldn’t rule someone out as a friend just because her scarf was ordinary or she was reading Us Weekly–but first impressions provide a basic frame of reference. (Which is why I sometimes change my dirty jeans before I leave the house.) There’s got to be some sort of initial attraction.
Then there’s the stress of arranging the first meeting. Should you email or call? When? How do you convey interest without appearing over-eager? And friendship “dates” pose the same conundrums as romantic ones: coffee or wine? Meet there or drive together? Which boots to wear? But they also hold the same sort of promise–that little shiver of excitement you feel when you realize you both hate Tiger Moms, love Counting Crows, or consider Six Feet Under the pinnacle of good TV. As I’ve written before, sometimes you just know. For me, the measure of a good “friendship date”–like a good date date–is not just how easily the conversation flows, but also how quickly you delve into the nitty-gritty: family dynamics, romantic history, mental health. At least with prospective friends, that’s all the putting out you have to worry about.
Still, friendship dating summons the same kind of insecurities that romantic dating always has. There’s the constant checking of the phone–why hasn’t she texted me back?–and the fretting over radio silence. Maybe she doesn’t like me! I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned I once considered voting for a Republican, even if it was Christine Todd Whitman.
The whole experience makes me slightly envious of my 11-year-old daughter, who had about 50 new friends within a month of moving to Vermont. All she had to do was score a couple of soccer goals at recess and post a few hundred pictures of herself on Instagram. Maybe I should give it a try.
In the event that a New England blizzard blows you off course and you can’t get your bearings, these signs will help. While you might spot any one of them in any number of states, if you happen to see them all within a 50-mile radius, you are definitely in Vermont. Taken together, they reinforce my sense that Vermont is a charming, if bewildering, mass of contradictions: rural and sophisticated, socialist and private, animal-loving and trigger-happy, infinitely tolerant as long as you recycle. The top 10 signs you’re in Vermont:
1. Those gentle, peaceful creatures grazing in the fields? Don’t let them fool you. Apparently cows can be trouble. I saw this sign while running down a dirt road, when the only problem I noticed with the heifers was that their damn mooing was drowning out my playlist. But according to a former colleague who recently retired to Vermont, a “problem heifer” is one who breaks through the electric fence and wanders off. He recalls once being awakened by a neighbor’s Guernsey leaning in his bedroom window. I guess he had to call Joel.
2. If my oldest daughter and I hadn’t spotted this sign in a local yoga studio, I might have thought it was mocking my new home state. In something of a non-sequitur, it encapsulates two of Vermonters’ favorite activities: denouncing armed conflict and promoting small farms. If only the Pentagon had planted a vegetable garden, maybe we could have kept U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
3 & 4. Of course, Vermonters don’t mind armed conflict when it’s with a wild animal. These two signs neatly sum up the state’s divergent views on guns. On the one hand, don’t even think about trying to pry that firearm out of a Vermonter’s hands. On the other, let’s at least make it a fair fight.
5. If, during that fair fight, you succeed in killing a deer, bear, moose, or turkey, you are required to tell the state. Just head to one of the more than 200 “Big Game Reporting Stations,” located in such places as the Sunoco in Putney, the Hinesburg General Store and–perhaps most conveniently–Joe’s Taxidermy in Reading.
7 & 8. One of the best things about Vermonters is that they are crazy about their dogs. In Montpelier, the city council’s “Dog Waste Working Group” recently recommended that the state capital institute dog waste stations to encourage–without forcing–people to pick up after their pets; they haven’t yet gone as far as levying fines on offenders. Stores routinely leave bowls of water outside their doors for shoppers’ canine companions, and many–including the high-end outdoor clothing store where I spotted this sign–invite them in:
9. Just as I mastered the art of throwing trash in one bin and recyclables in another, many Vermont dining establishments have added a third container: food scraps. You know, for compost. So now I often find myself staring, paralyzed, into an unappetizing tangle of coffee grounds, banana peels, sandwich crusts, and soggy lettuce, and wondering: does a tea bag count as compost or trash? What about dirty napkins? Pretzels? Eating out shouldn’t be this stressful.
10. The cold here is so constant and pervasive that it’s just a fact of daily life, like mountains and goat cheese. Still, I find it heartening to know that if we lose power or heat, there is at least one place we can go, courtesy of a local church. I was especially grateful when I woke up the other day and found this forecast on my iPhone:
I have spent the past five months trying to figure out Vermont, without much success. It’s not as easy as you might think, given its reputation for simple, wholesome, back-to-the-land living. Which isn’t to say, exactly, that I don’t like my new home state.
In fact, in many ways Vermont suits me. It is undeniably beautiful; mountains loom in every direction, and I haven’t yet seen them meet the clouds or the light in the same way twice. The food–local, seasonal, sustainable, organic, farm-to-table, small-batch, or whatever–can be fantastic. Vermont also claims to be home to more writers per capita than any other state, giving it a lively literary scene. And there is a vibrant outdoor life, even though for us “polar vortex” is just another way of saying “today’s weather.” I have embraced my inner Eskimo and rediscovered the thrill of downhill skiing, as well as Nordic, snowshoeing, and pond skating.
Best of all, Vermonters exude a laid-back unpretentiousness that, as a survivor of the suburban room-parent wars, I find immensely appealing. Playing soccer in the greater Boston area, my 11-year-old once wore the wrong socks to a game and had to sit out until another player could swap with her; in small-town Vermont–oops, that’s redundant–she and her teammates didn’t even all wear the same color shirts last season. (Note to rabid sports parents: if you want your child to become a star athlete, don’t waste your money on goalie clinics, top-of-the-line equipment, or private trainers; just move to Vermont!) Everything is low key; the fancy, field-to-fork, locally-sourced, etc etc dinner Mr. 70 Percent and I recently enjoyed for his birthday barely broke $100–with wine–and we wore jeans. It’s hard not to appreciate a place that revels in informality, and celebrates quirkiness. (My 6th grader sometimes wears Cookie Monster pajama pants to her new school, without incident.)
However. As with most places, I have detected a few shortcomings–inconsistencies, really–in Vermont life. For one thing, Vermonters are as obsessed with hunting as they are with inner peace. Even our rabbi hunts. He warned us to sheathe ourselves–and our dogs–in bright orange when exploring the woods during deer season. Walking past a neighbor’s house one day, my eye caught what looked like a tawny rug hanging in front of his garage. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a dead buck, antlers still attached. His 50th conquest. I understand, intellectually, that venison and Vinyasa yoga can go hand in hand, that killing your own food might actually enhance your peace of mind (in the same way slowing your breathing might steady your shooting arm). But emotionally, I just can’t fathom how a population can equally value both practicing child’s pose and pulling the trigger on an unsuspecting animal.
Also, Vermont has done a masterful job of marketing itself as the land of the home-grown, hand-crafted, artisanal cheese/bread/beer/wool/ice cream/honey/candles/pottery/other product of choice. To be sure, there are plenty of top-notch producers in the state, big and small. But let’s be honest: they’re not all on a par with Simon Pearce or Cabot Creamery; there’s a lot of coattail-riding going on. As I told Mr. 70 Percent when he came home from the Farmer’s Market bearing three $8 jars of local salsa, “Just because it’s made in Vermont doesn’t meant it’s better!”
But I think my most disappointing revelation so far is that while Vermonters are very friendly, they seem reluctant to become friends. It’s a state full of socialists who relish privacy, activists who drop everything to help a neighbor in need but steer respectfully clear of one who appears to be doing just fine. Shy, busy, disinterested, or simply loathe to intrude, Vermonters tend to keep to themselves–a bewildering tradition to an over-sharer like me. At least I know it’s nothing personal; every Vermont transplant I’ve discussed this with nods in agreement. “It took me three years to break in,” said one. “I still cry sometimes,” said another, who’s lived here for eight. As I keep reminding myself, it’s only been five months; it’s bound to get better! But until then, I intend to keep luring my old pals up to snowshoe through the frigid woods (in orange vests) and sample the multitude of local micro-brews. And if all else fails? I’ll just escape to New York as often as possible.