While they weren’t my grandmother’s last words, “Please keep the house as you know I like it,” came in at a close second. Days before she passed, she said this to Yvonne, my grandparents’ home health aide, whose responsibilities include light housekeeping. With all that was running through her mind, my grandmother wanted to make certain that after she was gone her home remained clean.
But she’s not the only one who likes their home spotless. For some, a clean home is a reflection of who they are, for others it’s just their preference. For my grandmother it was both. Plus, I’m sure she wanted it to stay nice for my grandfather.
While I can live with a dust ball or two (I’ve been known to name them), I do like everything in its place. Before I sit down to write, the dishes need to be cleaned, the bed made and any clothes or paper put away. It also motivates me. By first completing those little tasks, it encourages me to complete the bigger ones. But I’m not just like this at home. I don’t litter, I recycle correctly in my building, and my desk at work (which I share) is left neat when I’m done. It’s consideration for my neighbors.
Which can’t be said for everyone.
I live on the Upper West Side, which I’ve renamed the Upper Back Side, as folks walking their dogs can’t seem to clean up after them. At my gym, certain individuals are incapable of wiping down the machines after sweating all over them, and in some of the public restrooms I’ve been in lately, there are women who now think it’s acceptable to go on the seat. I’m not asking people to start lugging Lysol, but it would be nice if folks started picking up after themselves, if not their dogs. I’m sure my grandmother would agree.
Food, especially to a survivor, is very important. But even more important for them is making sure their grandchildren eat. Nana is no exception. I’ve been happily eating her thick soups you can eat with a fork, mundelbred (what I call “Jewish biscotti”), and cholent, a potato and meat dish that takes half a day to cook.
Before my visit this past January, Nana warned me, “Mamelah, I’m not the same person I was six months ago. I can’t cook.”
“That’s okay Nana,” I said. “I can cook.” She laughed. While yes, I can cook, the kitchen is Nana’s domain.
From the moment I arrived, Nana was in tremendous pain, but that didn’t stop her. Walking deliberately, a hand on her back, she started heating up soup for me.
“So Mameleh, how are you doing? You lost weight, yes?” Standard greeting.
“Forget me,” I said. “How are you?”
“Eh.” Her pale eyebrows scrunched up. “How should I be? I’m 88. I’m tired.”
Days in Florida go slowly; time marked by pills, meals and television shows. On that visit Nana slept most of the day, her pain knocking her out, but she still insisted on hosting a dinner party for seven, with Papa and I helping to cook her famous cholent.
The party was a success, but the best part was the leftover cholent.
“For breakfast Mameleh?” Nana said, laughing when she walked into the kitchen. But I know it made her feel good to know she still had it in her.
Every evening we watched Jeopardy and Nana slapped me every time I knew an answer. (I would like to say it made a bruise, but there weren’t that many slaps…)
One afternoon before going for a bike ride, I checked on Nana. She was awake staring into space. I sat at the foot of the bed and rubbed her feet through the blanket.
“I lived a good life,” Nana said looking at me, but seeing something far beyond. “But I’m ready to go.”
“Go where?” I asked; humor my auto-response to sadness.
Nana gave a resigned smile. “The last time I saw my mother I was a thirteen and was being taken away by the Nazis. My mother ran after me to give me a sweater and this one Nazi started beating her. I can still see this so clearly.”
“What did you do?”
Nana shrugged. “What could I do? I looked back and saw my mother lying on the ground, blood coming out of her head. This is the last image I have of her.”
“Do you think you will see your mother again when you die?”
Nana smiled. “That would be nice.”
This past Friday my grandmother passed away. As I sat crying with the news, a little part of me was happy for my grandmother, because I pictured her, a little girl again, running towards her mother’s open arms.
Following up on last’s week’s blog about scrutinizing your finances, I received a little more proof that if you aren’t looking out for your money, no one else is.
Recently I opened a new checking account. Sitting at a fancy desk in an enormous modern bank on Broadway, I asked the banker, a woman in her thirties, tips for balancing my current account. “I usually balance it every month, but lately it’s been off. What do you suggest I do to reconcile it?”
She looked at me strangely. “What do you mean reconcile?”
Now it was I with the strange look. “You know, balance it against my check register so it matches the ending balance on the statement.”
“You do what?”
I understand the reason for not balancing your checkbook. It can be time consuming, you’re afraid of the reality of the balance, or maybe you didn’t do well in grade school math, but this “banker” had absolutely no clue what I was talking about. Her advice? “Just look at the balance on your phone and go by that amount.” Is it me or is this cause for alarm?
After opening my first checking account in college, the banker advised me to balance my account every month. “Banks make mistakes,” he said. “Don’t trust them.” And while I’ve been heeding his warning ever since, I may be one of the few.
This morning I went into a different branch to deposit a check that had been endorsed over to me. It’s been years since I deposited an endorsed check so I Googled how to do it. My colleague then signed the back of the check and wrote, “Pay to the Order of Felice Cohen.” Wanting to confirm before I approached the ATM, I double-checked with a banker.
“You can’t endorse checks to other people,” said the banker, a woman in her 20s, with eyebrows entirely made of pencil.
“Really?” I said. “Checks can’t be endorsed over anymore?”
“Of course not,” she said. “Then anyone could sign someone’s name. No, the person has to deposit the check, then write another check to you.”
I stood there, slightly dazed. “Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “this can’t be right.” I found a bank manager who assured me I could deposit the check as I’d prepared. I left feeling slightly better, but still not confident the advice I’m getting from bankers is advice that should be counted on.
Many of us today pay our bills automatically with a credit card because it saves time. No longer do we have to rip open envelopes, write out checks, lick stamps and drop them in a mailbox. Now we just get an email reading, “Invoice Paid.” And whether you open these emails, file them in corresponding folders or delete them is up to you. But be careful. While this process saves oodles of time, it could be costing you money.
Case in point: my monthly cable bill is always the same. So when the payment email appeared in my Inbox last month and I saw that it was a lot more than usual, a red flag went up. Turns out the $5.99 monthly rental charge for my modem was still there despite the fact I returned said modem months ago when I bought one to avoid this fee. So why was it still there? According to customer service, “Oh, someone must have just missed that.” Missed it, eh? Easy for him, he’s not the one paying my bills.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident.
Last week I received an office phone bill for $8.61. Not a lot, sure, except for the fact that I closed this account two months ago. Since the bill was paid automatically with a credit card, this could have easily gone unnoticed and the phone company would have continued to bill me month after month. As any credit card scam artist will tell you, $8.61 adds up quickly, which is how a lot of them make their money. They add these harmless amounts to your bills hoping you won’t notice them. Which most folks don’t notice, because they don’t look. So look.
Now when it comes to my credit card, I check it like a dermatologist doing a mole check on George Hamilton. Thoroughly. Which is how I found four false charges on my last bill for snowboarding gear totaling a whopping $1,400. In this day and age of credit card fraud and identity theft, we not only need to keep our finances safe from the petty scam artist, but the big guys too. But don’t take my word for it. Ask a Target customer.
“I’m sorry,” the pharmacist said, handing me back my prescription card. “The system is rejecting your card.”
“What?” I was already overheating in my winter layers, having waited in line fifteen minutes to drop off my prescription. “Are you sure?”
He sighed, no doubt used to this useless question. “I’d be happy to try again,” he said, though I’m sure he was anything but. When it was rejected a second time, I took out my credit card.
“Okay, I’ll just pay. How much is it?”
“One hundred-fifty-nine dollars,” he said.
“Have you changed jobs?” Voice One asked.
Was she serious?
“Let me transfer you to someone who can help.”
Isn’t that you? After repeating my story to Voice Two, there was some keyboard tapping before she said, “According to our records your prescription plan was terminated on November 7, 2013.”
Almost three months ago! “Why didn’t anyone contact me?”
“Let me transfer you to someone who can help.”
Seriously? It was Friday afternoon. If this wasn’t resolved soon I wouldn’t get my prescription until Monday.
Voice Three and Four weren’t much help. For all I knew it was the same two women passing me back and forth like a hot potato.
Finally Voice Five offered good news, “We should be able to fix this within 20 minutes.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I will call you back.” Famous last words.
Back home – over 20 minutes later without my prescription – I made some calls. Turns out someone in payroll made a mistake. In all honestly, dealing with hundreds, maybe thousands, of pieces of paper, it’s a wonder they don’t mess up more. As an organizer I understand how easy it can be to misplace something. That’s not the upsetting part. It’s the disorganized system. While the procedure was quick to notify my union to remove me from the benefits package, why weren’t they as quick to alert me so I could have rectified the issue then and not three months later when I’m burning up in a CVS?
At 5:15 p.m., over four hours later, my phone rang. “You can pick up your prescription,” said Voice Five.
“Thanks,” I said, my faith restored.
“Oh, but you have only have a little window. The problem’s not resolved.”
Of course it isn’t. Faith now terminated.
Celebrating my second anniversary in my more spacious digs, there are still a few items left to purchase: like a sleeper sofa. When I originally moved in, the previous owner left his, and considering I’d been living in 90 square feet with no furniture, this was ideal until I figured out my style. (Note: I did run out and buy a couch cover that first week!) But after two years I couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to get off the couch and buy one.
But it’s not like I haven’t tried.
I’ve spent hours debating, fabric or leather? Camelback or Chesterfield? I came close once, but got woozy when handed dozens of color patterns. Too many choices, like too much stuff, disrupts my equilibrium.
But last Sunday I woke up determined, color choices be damned. Entering a furniture store on Broadway, a saleswoman approached with a smile. I explained my needs as she led me up the escalator into the football field-sized showroom and escorted me on what I assume was the “Sleeper Sofa Shuffle,” going from least expensive to most. By the last couch I was punchy and ready to buy, even though the price was steep.
“Great,” the saleswoman said, handing me a large metal ring with over 50 swatches. “Just let me know the color.” My eyes blurred. None had the look or feel that would entice me to cozy up on it with a good book. Sighing, I got up and walked back over to an earlier sleeper sofa. I liked the style and it was very comfortable. I subconsciously curled my feet up.
“Here you are,” the saleswoman said.
“I like this one,” I told her. She nodded deliberately, probably calculating how much less her commission would now be. Cautiously I asked, “What colors does it come in?”
“Oh, there are only three,” she said, as if expecting me to say, “forget it” and go back to the more expensive couch.
“Seriously? Only three?” I perked up, the glaze over my eyes clearing.
“It’s also on sale,” she added. Done. And done.
As she rang up my new sleeper sofa, I thought about my other “major” purchases – mattress, refrigerator, cabinets, countertop, headboard – and the speed with which I decided. That’s when it dawned on me. The less time I spent deciding on an item, the more time I had to actually enjoy it. Then I laughed. After two years of not deciding on a couch, when I finally did, it took me all off 2 minutes.
Walking around my grandparents’ complex in sunny Boca Raton, Florida last week, I struck up a conversation with Michael, a recently retired gentleman from Boston, who spoke about his twin daughters.
“They’re in their late twenties,” he said. “One married last fall which cost me $40,000.” He described the venue, the band, even the food. I said it sounded very nice. “It was,” he said. “But do you think my daughter appreciated it?” He shook his head.
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“Then a few weeks after the wedding she called to say she needed $600 to fix her car.”
“Did you remind her she now had a husband?”
“Yes!” he said, laughing. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to spend our money on that.’” Michael shook his head, still stunned by her response.
“She sounds kind of spoiled,” I told him.
He nodded. “I bought my other daughter a huge apartment and then she called needing money for grad school. Neither of them calls unless they need something. I wish I knew what to do.”
I thought for a moment, gazing over at a Great Blue Heron standing alone and still at the water’s edge. I didn’t major in child psychology, but I have lived in 90 square feet and know what it means to appreciate the little things, especially when it comes to family.
“Maybe you should tell them the bank is closed.”
Michael looked shocked, as though he could never do that, then nodded, realizing he’d known that all along.
Back inside my grandparents’ condo, I sat with my grandfather in the den. “How was your walk, sveetheart?” he asked, his eyes glued to the stock ticker scrolling along the bottom of the TV screen. I told him about Michael and his daughters.
He rested his hand on my knee. “Ven I came to dis country I vorked hard so my kids could have. But if you give too much den kids don’t appreciate.”
I thought of all the times my grandfather handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Get yourself something nice.”
“Papa, thanks for all you’ve given me,” I said. “And I’m not talking about money.”
Ever look back through the chapters of your life? Not in a regretful way, but just to observe where you’ve been and what you’ve gone through in the hopes of seeing where you might be headed.
The same way we sort through our “stuff” and reminisce on items before pitching what we’ve outgrown, every now and then I do this with my past. As the decades continue to collect on my watch, I remember old addresses and the person I was when I lived in them and remark on how those experiences shaped who I am today. Like the fire in our house when I was five, the 200-year-old Amherst home I lived in after college that was freezing all winter, or the mouse traps in a Bronx apartment that forced me to push pass fear and empty them on my own. And it is within those memories – at those addresses – where growth happened.
Last week I moved a client from New York City to St. Louis. In her early 80s, she’s called home to many places over the years, but this move she said will most likely be her last. Over lunch one day she shared a memory about her first home, a one-room apartment in Manhattan where she lived with her mother. Though her new apartment in St. Louis boasts 16 closets and magnificent views, it is that tiny first place she will no doubt always look back on most fondly.
For many, change is hard. But it can be truly rewarding. My client knows this and has embraced her next chapter. Every time we move we leave a little of ourselves behind, whether it’s material or emotional, but like a crab, it’s only the shell that gets left. The important stuff, the good stuff, that we take with us.
Not a fan of at least one gift you received this past holiday? Are you waiting in line to return something this very minute? If you’re a woman, chances are you might be.
According to a recent study by FedEx, about one-third of Americans, mostly women, will return a gift they received during the holidays. One-third! As an admitted “Return-Aholic” I get it. Maybe the gift didn’t fit, wasn’t your style or you’re never going to use it, so why clutter up your home. Regardless, what all these returns add up to is more than wasted money; it’s wasted time.
Everyone wants to give the perfect gift, claiming, “I know you and what you like!” Sometimes we’re spot on. Like tickets to Wicked on Broadway or orange mittens. But often – apparently a third of the time – we miss the mark. That’s why I’m a fan of occasionally giving gift cards. They may not be “personal” or “special,” but they always fit and they’re never returned.
The news said that yesterday, the first Monday of 2014, was officially the worst day of the year. Aside from it being a Monday and the fact that the holidays are over and you probably already broke your new year’s resolution, it was the day most folks realized how much they spent on holiday gifts and how much debt they’re now facing. A friend said it took her until April of last year to pay off her 2012 holiday gifts and she predicts this year to be worse. Considering a third of those gifts she just bought might be returned, I’d say she’s right.
In appreciation of all the gifts most likely to be returned, below is a song to sing while you’re overheating in a long return line. It can be sung to the tune of “12 Days of Christmas.” To save time, I only included the final verse.
12 Days of Returning Stuff My Good Friends Gave To Me
On the twelfth day of Returning Stuff My Good Friends Gave To Me:
Twelve cute kitten calendars
Eleven gross cheese logs
Ten tins of flavored popcorn
Nine heavy fruitcakes
Eight Chia Pet heads
Seven self-help books
Six fuzzy slippers
Five ugly sweaters
Four re-gifted bathrobes
Three French manicures
And a battery-operated cellulite massager
Returned anything this year? Do tell.
I’m for anything that motivates people to do healthy constructive things for themselves. As for “New Year’s Resolutions,” Webster’s defines resolution as… “A firm decision to do or not to do something.” Goals are important; achieving them is a whole other story.
When the odds of accomplishment are realistically hope-less and you know it (i.e. buy a million dollar co-op, lose 40 pounds by July 4th), where then does motivation to even take on the job come from?
Luckily we have a never-ending supply of hope, that internal encouragement that comes from some inner place to make us believe we can reach our goals. But it’s not always easy to tap into.
My own proof of that is my grandfather Murray, who spent five years in labor and concentration camps in the Holocaust having literally near-death experiences every day. He was vastly outnumbered and vastly outgunned as he watched his world and his hopes crumble daily. Yet he survived, he says, because every day he had hope. Hope that one day he would have a wife and children and more family to replace all those who were killed. With all that the Nazis had taken from him, hope was the one thing they couldn’t exterminate, because it was where they couldn’t reach, that spark of spirit that created and nurtured hope like a tiny ember needed to start a fire.
So, hope comes from spirit. As to the source of that spirit? Beats me. But I know it, I’ve seen it and I hope I always will.
Happy New Year!