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THE FIRST TIME I SAW CHRISTMAS

By Linda Lichtman

Mom and I are off to a big girl day, even though I’m only five years old.  Excited I hold onto her hand with all my might because we’re walking across Brighton Beach Avenue to the “EL”.   It’s my first big train trip and I’m surprised by the huge number of people walking in every direction, bumping into each other and pretending they didn’t notice.  I can’t imagine where all these people could possibly live. Mom told me I’d been a worrier since birth.

We walk up the long stairs of the subway and mom tells me we’re standing in front of the biggest store in the world, Macy’s.  As we cross 34th Street, Mom puts her arms around me and directs me toward a booth behind which a man wearing a red and white striped hat and jacket is standing.  Mom softly directs him:

“Two hotdogs please.”

“Would you like mustard and relish on your dog, cutie?”

Mom quickly answers, “Mustard on mine and both for my daughter and a coca cola.”

Although it’s very cold, we remain outside of the frankfurter stand, chomping and drinking away.  I offer mom some of my drink but she shakes her head and makes a funny face, then continues sipping on her waxy cup of water.  She always says no to foods she thinks might make her fat.

After swallowing the last delicious bite, we wave to the hotdog man and walk inside the Macy’s store.   “Wow!  Look at all the beautiful lights – red, blue, pink, orange hanging all over the store.  Mom, I bet this is the happiest place in the world.  Is someone getting married?”

“No sweetheart, these decorations are for a holiday called Christmas – celebrated by non-Jews in honor of their Lord Jesus.”

I don’t understand the word “Lord” and am now confused, but then I remember dad telling mom something about our landlord who owns our building.   Now we’re walking past a display of a tiny family around a baby.  Mom pointed to it explaining “that” is Baby Jesus lying in his mother’s arms.  I think that’s very sweet, but I don’t understand why people are celebrating a little baby.

Once the elevator door opens to the second floor, I stop breathing.  I only have a few toys at home – games, dolls, but here – on the second floor of Macy’s – there must be a million toys.  If these are all for baby Jesus, I want to be his friend.  I want to go to his house, small as it was, and play with him every single day.  I will even change his diaper the way I’ve done for my little brother Mitchell.  Well, I don’t actually do the “change” but I help Mom so I know how.

“Mom, do all these toys belong to the Lord baby?”

“No.  Not really.  He gets them to children when they celebrate his birthday. “

“What people?”

“Christian people.  Non-Jews”

“I wanna celebrate baby Jesus! I wanna be a non-Jew.  I love baby Jesus!  Mom, who’s that big fat man?”

“That’s Santa Claus.  He lives in the North Pole and stops by every Christmas, bringing toys for certain children who had been very good.”

I stop and start thinking back over the week and ask:  “I was good Mom.  Wasn’t I good?”

“Yes, you were terrific.  Why don’t we get on that long Santa line so you can tell him what you’d like for Christmas. “

“And he’ll give me that present to take home?”

“Not today, but on Christmas morning.”

“Are we going to stop being Jewish?  Say yes mom, please!”

“Just for one day.  Santa makes an exception for Jewish children who were extremely helpful to their moms.”

Mom held my hand while we waited in line.  I watch Santa carefully as he holds babies, talks to kids, makes comments to parents, and then puts his arm out for the next in line.  Now I’m worried.  What if Santa doesn’t like me?  Should I tell him I’ve never been non- Jewish for Christmas before?  What should I ask for?  Am I allowed to ask for more than one thing, mom?”

“Did you ever meet Santa before?” She shakes her head no.

“What about daddy?  Does he know Santa? “

“Next in line.”

Mom pushes me toward Santa and he puts his arm around me, “Would you like to sit on my lap little girl?”

“No.  Mommy always tells me not to let strangers touch me.  And I have a question.  If I get non-Jewish for one day – will you bring me a present?”

“Of course”

“Even though I’ve never met baby Jesus?”

“Maybe you can meet him on Christmas morning.”

“Will you take me to his little teeny house?”

“No, you’ll have to ask your mommy to take you to visit him.  Now, what would you like me to bring you?”

“I would like my own room.  I sleep in the same room as my little brother and he’s always crying.   And also, could you get daddy a job during the day so mommy isn’t so lonely at night?”

“How about a nice new doll?” Santa spits through his beard.

“I already have a doll, thank you.”

“That’s very nice.”

Now Santa is waving for the next girl in line so I quickly grab his right thigh and slip in a request.

“How about some trains?  My brother and I would love to play with some choo choos.  Maybe one train could have a whistle.  And maybe some doll clothes and some money so my dad doesn’t have to drive a taxi all night to pay the rent.”

After finishing, I pause wondering if I’d asked for too much.

“Oh, I forgot something Santa.  Mom said to say thank you.”

Christmas Eve finally arrived.  Although I want to stay up all night to see if Santa had heard me, I’m just too sleepy.  But the next morning I wake up, run into the living room and I see a huge wooden crate filled with trains and tracks.  I think it’s strange that the trains didn’t come in a box and that there was nothing to unwrap.  But I’m so happy to have a train set, I hardly notice that the trains don’t look brand new.  Mitch and I are spending every day playing with are trains.  But I do feel a little disappointed that I didn’t actually get to meet baby Jesus.  Maybe next year.

 I couldn’t drive, so the next morning Rob re-arranged his schedule so he could help his “gimpy” to the doctor.  Upon entering the examining room, doc giggled at my description of the incident, examined me and my butt – thenchuckled sweetly and supportively when it took me at least 30 – 45 seconds to pull the Spanx-like panties over my belly and butt.

The x-rays (3) were painless – but my fear mounted that somehow I had joined the ranks of the tripping, falling, bone-breaking elderly and would wind up in assisted living.  After doc examined the x-rays – she told me there were no breaks – and that I had badly bruised  my sciatic nerve which was why there was pain down my right leg.  “Keep taking the Ibuprofen –  keep laughing and making others laugh Linda – and you’ll heal beautifully.”  Check back in two weeks to make sure no hairline fractures emerge and smack a watermelon for me!”

I’m feeling much better 3 days later – still a bit gimpy – but the smile is back.   And hey, if you remember, would you smack a watermelon for me?  I’m just sayin…

I love summer fruits – cold, sweet, deliciousness squishing in my mouth, before  sliding down my throat.  Unfortunately, this summer I’ve had issues with the  watermelon.  I’ve had to return two – and there’s a third split in two halves just languishing in the refrigerator.  Should I return and replace?  They’re heavy…hmmm…

Off to Trader Joe’s last night, I’m still weighing the watermelon issue – when I notice a bin of watermelons screaming – “Eat me!  I’m sweet!”  right outside of TJ’s entrance.  So, I stop and reach into the bin, lift up a green-striped 3 or 4 pound egg-shaped melon, turn right to place it into my cart – whoops – my right foot gets caught on the platform jutting out from under the bin and clips my right foot – then thrusts me – still holding the watermelon – forward like an action hero.  I release the fruit, grab on to a pot of roses to fend off the fall – but THUD!  I crash hard – slamming my right butt cheek onto the cement.    

 Ohhh!  The pain, the embarrassment – as people gather around to watch – more pain – as the security guard tries lifting me up.  I hear onlookers sighing “Yikes” as they watch the guard pulling on my arms.  I eventually succumb to the lifting – immediately after he asks if I want the scattered watermelon. 

 I limp into the store, then reject their kind offer to put me in a hovaround  for accessing my shopping needs, fill out the accident report, then continue limping to my car, assisted by one of their customer service guys. 

Finally home, I call my husband who is busy at work – and who is also seriously fond of my butt cheeks, swallow two Naproxens, slide under the covers scratching my head – how did I lose a fight with a watermelon?  Well – hopefully the pain will be gone in the morning. 

Part  II – A visit to my doctor!

The door slammed behind me.  I just screwed up yet another audition.  Cold readings in front of strangers is difficult enough – but shaky, nervous fingers will drop script pages  –  bending down to retrieve said pages eyeglasses will fall to the floor  – and be not so quickly recovered  – they’re back on my nose.  I shift my head briskly left for character reaction – then watch those specs fly across  the room and zap the Casting Director in her right breast – a surefire audition for the crapper.

On more than one occasion my acting teacher had suggested I get fitted for contact lenses.

“No.  Feh!  I can’t stand the thought of anything touching my eyeballs.  Only the lids, and maybe a floating lash or two are allowed to fondle my peepers.  Never will my pupils be exposed to chlorine or any other substance under water.  I promise you’ll hear me bark louder than a pit bull when forced to have that puff in the eye glaucoma test.  I feel faint already.   These are the rules.

My WoodyAllen-esque teacher – insert brown hair and a lower pitched voice – jumped on me in class one night:

“Afraid?  You wanna talk afraid?  I’m the biggest chicken in the world.  I won’t put a thermometer in my mouth for fear of mercury poisoning.  When anyone mentions Auschwitz – I can smell enough gas to overcook a Thanksgiving turkey for 200.  Don’t talk to me about fear.  Yet I wear contacts.”

Another year passed by – as did more auditions where I couldn’t read the pages without a small catastrophe.  Finally – one morning, I made an appointment with an optometrist about fifteen minutes from my house in Mar Vista, Ca. – not wanting to be too far from my toilet.

I arrived early so that I could deep breathe into a paper bag which would minimize  hyperventilation and keep my thoughts occupied so I wouldn’t be tempted to run.  Moving at a speed of .04 miles an hour, I approached the optometrist for Phase I, eye measurement.  My mouth was moving exceedingly fast – as I asked questions about possible catastrophes – like how many people went blind as a result of wearing contacts, etc.  The tall, slightly built, bald-headed, stooped over guy suggested the results would be more accurate if I’d close my mouth for five minutes.   The anxiety pushed masses of air out of my lungs – I was afraid to stop talking for fear of suffocation. 

Process completed, a lovely, dark, tall and slender woman, about 22, wearing a big smile approached me.

“I may be young but I’ve got lots of experience teaching people exactly how to do this; and I’ve been wearing lenses for years.  Now, take a deep breath and slowly let it out so we can stop your hands from tremoring.  Good.”

After just 42 attempts to adhere this clear, round, soft piece of plastic to my left eye – I was wearing a contact lens.  Within another twenty minutes – my right eye was also lensed.  Me!  The Queen of Anxiety! I grabbed my cell phone and speed dialed my mom.  Within seconds you could hear my voice screeching throughout the store:

“Ma – guess what I’ve got in my eyes?  No!  Yuch!  Stop!” I paused while she screeched that I rush to the ER.  “No, it’s good.  Ma, no hands – no glasses – I’m wearing contact lenses.”

Two days later my agent called:

“You’ve got an audition for an AT&T commercial.  Book it!” 

Beyond excited – I practically flew to West Hollywood – hurriedly parked – okay a little zig-zagged – jumped out of the car – ran up the stairs and searched the Commercial Board which directs actors to the correct auditioning rooms.  Campbell’s Soup #1, Time Warner, #2, Toyota, #3, AT&T, #4.  I signed in – submitted my picture/resume combo, then sat and waited to hear my name called.  I knew this baby was all mine.

Confidently I entered the audition room – smiled at the casting folks, watched as they smiled right back – displaying their lunch-stuffed corporate mouths. 
“Give her the glasses.”  They asked me to don a pair of non-prescriptive glasses indicating I was a middle-aged woman.  Being slightly over 50 at the time, I believe the Casting Directors needed the glasses. 

I didn’t get that job – but ultimately I didn’t care.  Now I get to choose every single day what I’ll use to see the world a little more clearly.

Facing our own truth is usually a daunting and uncomfortable experience.  People prefer watching what they perceive as “truth” in others – i.e.  reality TV – even though there’s barely any reality in these shows.  Rather the “players” are manipulated by producers and directors for the purpose of entertainment.  Who wants to look in the mirror?  Really.  Okay, unless you’ve just lost 20 lbs.

I’m not interested in or compelled by any of the “housewives” silliness, most talk shows, make-over or celebrity’s lives behind the scenes – although I guiltily have given some time to the Kardashians.  Uninvolved, empty, lonely evenings can do that.  Watching the sisters interact often triggered  jealously within me – yes – and I became drenched with envy over their innate “sisterness”  – the self-contained sorority of blood that stays with them through eternity.  I’ve always wanted a sister – begged mom as dad hauled her big belly off to the hospital – “Please mom, please bring home a little sister for me to play with…please.”   Now a good look in that mirror.

Disappointment with the boy child ended soon after he arrived and for about 20 years.   Unfortunately sibling rivalry was accidentally encouraged by parents who knew nothing about child-rearing – so there were always “issues” between he and I.  We were taught “he” was the pretty/ or good-looking one and “I” was the smart one.  He never realized he was smart and I never felt pretty until later on in life.

The rivalry eventually re-ignited when bro married “the loving but clueless woman.”  Both she and her “ilk” would have been an enormous snooze fest of a reality show.  Father works hard to support his four-piece family, mother shops, father works harder, mother shops with more verve, father increases drug and alcohol usage, mother is lost in space between Nordstrom racks – eventually the brother body is totally ravaged by cancer dies, he passes away… and she continues shopping. 

I’ll never know why but from the beginning she disliked me – and you can see how I respectfully I viewed her.  Perhaps fortunately I was left out of their lives.  Resentment?  Yes.  Truth?  Was I the perfect sister-in-law?  No.  I did some crappy things.  The mirror is telling me I’m imperfect.

 This blog is about truth!

The truth is there are many events in my past which are eclipsing my Inner Giggler – my mission here is to unleash them with some dignity and humor and to encourage you to do the same.

Time to work on The Inner Giggler Radio Show which airs Sundays @7p pst/ 10p est.  The call in number to listen or talk is 661- 449-1449.  The computer link for listening is

http://BlogTalkRadio.com/InnerGiggler

 

 

After reading Kristine Van Raden’s “Side by Side” blog post this afternoon – I started thinking about yesterday – not like in February 11th, but yesterday as in the early 1900s when my grandparents were strongly encouraged to leave Egypt and practice their errant Jewish ways  elsewhere.  Historical papers claim religious freedom for Jews back then, yet when my cousins went on a family fact-finding mission to Cairo more than thirty years ago – the synagogues were gone and all family-related historical documents had been destroyed.

Before arriving in Cairo, my grandma Frieda’s family lived and thrived in Aleppo, Syria where for many years Jews were accepted and even extolled.  But those days ended as economic conditions in the city became dire thanks to the Industrial Revolution. 

Around that time, my grandfather, Moses (I swear) Mizrahi, his family and most other Jews were  expelled from Constantinople.  The family fled to Cairo where young Moses (please don’t think Charlton Heston here) was eventually in a “planned betrothal” to one named Frieda Mizrahi, a petite red-haired firecracker with a limp.  No one ever quite got the limp story straight, but it was always attached to her tomboy and “in your face” ways.  One rumor offered up that she had skipped school one day, and in an attempt to climb a windmill, slipped and fell. 

I was so used to her right-sided limp I never thought to ask about it.  She was always busy making vats of yogurt with cucumber, humus, stuffed eggplant and her famous baklava, so she never mentioned it.  She also never spoke about her arranged marriage – maybe because it was a given part of their tradition and besides they produced eight offspring.  Something fit right somewhere.

My grandparents had already birthed three of their eight kids when financial and religious discrimination prompted their departure to their next home in Panama around the time the Suez Canal was completed.  Grandma popped out two more offspring here before being summoned by their older brothers and sisters who were flourishing in New York.  The Mizrahi clan – five kids, two adults arrived at Ellis Island speaking Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French – and fully prepared to learn English which they did beautifully.

Within the next year, 1920, my mom Adele, the sixth of the brood arrived.  Mom was so proud to be the first American-born Mizrahi but felt embarrassed  both by being a child of immigrants and being from the “poor” side of the family.  Her parents didn’t flourish as did grandma’s “Grazi” brothers.  Unfortunately Mom never embraced her Syrian heritage.  TMI?  See Memoir:  “How I Buried My Mom…With The Umbilical Cord Still Attached.”  I used to blame my mother’s` shame for my ignorance, but the truth is I never asked questions until it was too late.  Yesterday was too late. 

Oddly enough, even with all the discrimination and horrific stories of the holocaust, Grandma Frieda would sit by her living room window in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn every Sunday morning and watch  the people walking to church.  Smiling, she would always remark:  “See the church-going people?  It’s good they believe. ”

Kristine’s blog was filled with HOPE for the dreams of the young women of Egypt who have been kept in the background – Hope that they’d have access to education resulting in a positive impact on the policies of Egypt’s future.  I couldn’t help but wonder – had these young women been in power while my grandparents lived there – might they never have left?  Of course then Mom wouldn’t have met Dad – and there’d certainly be no me – or else me in another body.   That too is another blog

For today, I wish ALL the Egyptian youth – male and female – freedom from tyranny and restrictions.

Long live the liberty of spirit and expression.

Camp Mayfair – Summer, 1955

I’m eleven years old and my stupid counselors expect me to close my eyes and fall asleep at ten o’clock!  Shit!  I don’t even go to sleep at ten when I’m home.  Screw them!  When the two of them go to sleep – I’m taking over, again.

My watch says 12:00a – Kim is snoring soundly and Mindy’s face is tucked under her pillow where it belongs.  “Roberta – wake up!”

Roberta is up and tip toeing over to Sandy – Sandy wakes up Marsha – on and on – now everyone is dressed and ready –  except Carol Bender.  I march over to Carol.

“Wake up!  Get up!  Now!”

 “I just wanna sleep.   I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Go ahead – stay here, you piss ass scardy cat.  We don’t want you anyhow!  Fine.  I’ll get her at breakfast.”

The seven of us are off on another adventure  –  a midnight stroll into Monticello where we’re gonna uhm…uh…find something exciting for eleven year olds to do.  Mostly just getting away from camp is thrilling.  No raid tonight – we’re on the move!  Whoppee!

Walking down the road of excitement in high spirits from being bad, we’re giggling and poking each other with delight.  “This is really fun!  We should do this every night.”

Let’s sing!  “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free…Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild fron…uh oh!  Shit!  I see headlights – it could be the Camp Mayfair station wagon.  Quick, head for the bushes – ssshh!  We can’t get caught!  Nobody move! 

But everyone is moving and rustling the leaves.  I’m stepping in something soft and scary.  “Sandy, you’re making too much noise.  Stop whining.  Marsha, get back here or I’ll beat the shit out of you.”   I try wrapping my hands around her mouth but she’s squealing so I let go. “No, Marsha, get back here.  Crap!  She’s jumping out in front of the car, raising her hands in surrender.  

Driving back in the Camp Wagon, the silence is ear-splitting, no one dadres utter a word.  I know I’ll be forced to sleep in Mrs. Berman’s room once again for two nights of punishment.  Just the thought of the camp owner’s snores shaking the bedroom walls makes me sick.   And I’m stuck next to her in the bed – all night long.

The next morning I let Sandy and Marsha have it.  “You need to be stronger!  I don’t want to be disappointed again!  And Carol – make sure she doesn’t get her breakfast muffin.  Someone drop it on the floor.” 

CUT TO:  January 26, 2011

I wasn’t allowed back to Camp Mayfair the next summer.  I blamed it on my brother who was always fighting with older boys.  I blamed it on Mrs. Berman – and Carol – and Sandy – and,  and, and…

Years later when I really looked in the mirror, I saw a sad, frightened little eleven year old who took charge at camp because she was powerless at home.  A little girl who mimicked her dad.  When we look at bullies – let’s look at mom and dad too!

Apologies to Carol, Sandy, Marsha, the rest of my bunkmates, the counselors Kim and Mindy and Mrs. Berman who was about 90 in 1955.  Most of all, apologies to myself for being less than I could be.