THE CLASS OF 1969 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Going to a 50th High School Reunion can be an exciting prospect – if it’s yours. I recently went to my husband, Tom’s 50th Reunion in Schenectady, New York, and, to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I’m shy in big groups and pictured myself following Tom around and having nothing to say to a room full of strangers.

Tom’s ID badge with his senior photo

I was pleasantly surprised. We met three of Tom’s high school friends and their spouses at a local tavern before the official opening cocktail party. Everyone was delightful and friendly and we had a great time. Tom’s high school best friend, Stewie was there with his wife, Mar-C. In preparing for the reunion, Tom and Stewie discovered that they had been living an hour away from each other in Connecticut for over thirty years! We got together a few weeks before the reunion so I already knew two other people. And Mar-C and I had compared notes on what to wear to each of the reunion events so my comfort level was pretty good by the time we arrived in Schenectady.

Tom and me with Stewie and Mar-c

After our private dinner, we headed over to the party and mingled with the 130 members of the Linton High Class of 1969 who showed up. Everyone was easy going and so nice. I realized from attending 20th and 40th reunions of my own, that as we all get older, the whole high school dynamic changes. You don’t have the cliques anymore or the high school rivalries. People are no longer trying to impress everyone with their job or professional accomplishments, or, as time went on, the jobs and professional accomplishments of their children.

The main topic of conversation was – are you retired yet? If so, good for you and what are you doing to have fun? Most of us had reached the stage of life when we can wake up whenever we feel like it and spend the day doing whatever we feel like doing. Everyone I talked to seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled. No competition any more. Just stories of hobbies and grandchildren. Some people still did projects for work but on their own terms and schedules. Some people were traveling and having a ball exploring the world.

Class of 1969 yearbook and 50th reunion yearbook update

At the dinner the second night, there were fun games with prizes for the winners. Who’s been married the longest? 50 years! Who has the most kids? Six. Who’s kids are the oldest? 50! And the youngest? 23. I was thrilled that Tom tied for the coolest job – he was a CBS network news director and audio engineer and the other guy was a documentary filmmaker.

Tom was well known at his high school. He ran for student council every year against the guy who always won. So Tom’s campaign speeches were more of a stand-up comedy act, the comic relief. They were apparently greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the other students, so lots of people came up to Tom with big hugs and cheerful greetings. I was very proud of Tom, especially when he got up to introduce the three videos he created for the reunion. These were the centerpieces of the dinner presentations.

By the time we left, I knew lots of people by name and we had promised to get together again with the ones who live a reasonable car ride away. I really felt like I made new friends and Tom got to renew friendships from long ago.

Tom and Stewie

We left the reunion happy and wired – until our car died before we even got out of Schenectady. Luckily we broke down right at a service station on the NY State Thruway so it only took AAA a half hour to get a tow truck to us. We rode the 2 ½ hours home in the back of a truck with zero suspension. It felt like we were driving over cobblestones for the entire ride. We got home at 3 AM but even this unpleasant finale didn’t dampen our positive feelings about the weekend we spent in a time capsule. We captured time in a bottle and loved every minute of it!

Tom and me at the dinner

POLITICS AND RELATIONSHIPS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I recently read an autobiography by the Saturday Night Live actress, Rachel Dratch, called “Girl Walks Into A Bar…” I enjoyed the book, particularly the adjustment of a single 44-year-old woman to motherhood, a committed relationship, and co-parenting.

Rachel Dratch

Rachel started a long distance (California to New York) relationship with a lovely guy and after six months, discovered she was pregnant. This was a minor miracle at her age. There was no question that she wanted the baby. The open question was what kind of relationship she would have going forward with the baby’s daddy, John.

This guy sounded like a real gem and was wonderful to Rachel. He even stepped up and moved to New York City to be near Rachel and their unborn son. He wanted an active role in the child’s life once he was born.

My problem with this story is that Rachel is a New York City liberal and Democrat and John was an ‘independent’ who supported George W. Bush and the Republican agenda.

Would he also support Donald Trump today?

I started wondering if I could overlook someone’s political views and have a serious relationship with a Republican in today’s political climate. The answer, for me, is no. During the George W. Bush era, the comedian Janine Garofalo said that being a Republican was no longer just an opinion, but was ‘a character flaw’ which is many times truer today.

The problem I have with Republicans/Trump supporters today is not their ‘political’ positions. I have no issue with someone who has a different view from mine on deficits, trade policy, or interest rates. I’m beginning to question the judgment and relationship to reality of people who still believe in trickle-down economics after so many years of contrary, hard evidence that it does not work. That’s a side issue.

The problem I have with Republicans today is their morals or lack thereof. Anyone who is willing to accept and/or support Trump’s level of lying, corruption, bigotry, venality, narcissism, misogyny, mean-spiritedness, arrogance, ignorance, anti-intellectualism and overall lack of caring about anything or anyone outside of himself is not my kind of person.

Anyone who is willing to look the other way when Trump says there are ‘good’ Nazis, or when he separates immigrant children from their parents because they are seeking asylum in the U.S. has a major ‘character flaw’ in my book.

I can’t accept rationalizations or excuses for Trump’s words or deeds. I have no common values or perspectives with people who share these views– even though I understand that many of them are working with a different set of ‘facts’ than what I get from the mainstream media. If we can’t agree about the facts, there is no basis for discussion or agreement about anything else.

In 2019, who you identify with politically says a lot about who you are as a human being. I have to respect my partner’s mind and character. I don’t respect Republican/Trump supporters. I also need to feel that my partner is a caring, tolerant, compassionate person. There seems to be a compassion gene missing in most Trump supporters.

They have a strong bias in favor of corporate ‘rights’ — greed — at the expense of individuals. They appear to have a need to look down on all sorts of people. Equal treatment and opportunity, fairness, and helping the underprivileged, the sick or the disabled does not seem to even be on their radar. How can I believe in the dignity and rights of every human being if I give aid and comfort to those who want to take that dignity and those rights away?

I admit that Rachel Dratch’s partner, now her husband (I believe) seems to be an involved parent and a decent, supportive partner to her. But what values will he teach their child? What kind of world does he want that child to grow up and live in? I’m suspicious of his emotional makeup if he could ‘exonerate’ Trump’s outrageous behavior and cruel policies.

There is no moral middle ground anymore.

Either you want Americans to have affordable healthcare or you don’t. I have no tolerance for selfish people who don’t care about the quality of life of their fellow humans. I do believe these uncaring SOBs should get healthcare, a living wage, civil rights, equality and the right to make decisions about their own bodies even though they don’t believe that I should have any of these things.

Does that make me a ‘better’ person in my moral universe? Yes, it does.

GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY – Marilyn Armstrong

There are a lot of marriages that stay together and I have no idea why. It’s obvious that the two people don’t love one another. Sometimes, they appear to actually hate each other.

If you get one of them alone, they will give you the usual reason why they are staying together:

      • Children
      • We can’t afford to get a divorce (too poor or too rich)
      • He/she is wacko (and sometimes, he/she really is)
      • We run a business together
      • Religion
      • Drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism or any addiction
      • Fear by one party of the other; abuse is a lot more common than most people realize.

No matter how many ways you point out that there are solutions, they aren’t listening. Sometimes, something happens and one day, the relationship snaps.

The kids grow up. They decide money is less important than they thought and they can run the business, even unmarried. They do some minor religious switching and suddenly divorce is fine.

I always worry most about abused spouses because sometimes, when they snap, a partner dies. They may deserve it, but the killer doesn’t deserve what’s in store for him or her.

It’s not an easy choice, especially when there’s a good chance that if they try to leave, someone else is going to die — the kids or a wife, husband or any combination of the above.

Despite feeling strongly that people living in really bad marriages should do something about it, I grew up as a child in such a marriage. I understand.

I know how ugly the outcome of these divorces can be, especially for children. No how bad your parents are, the alternative can be worse. With all of the studies and statistics on how dreadful foster care is, we have yet to come up with a better solution. When you are a kid, you often feel you have a choice: live with the devil you know or get thrown into life with devils you don’t know who could be worse.

What baffles me more are people who basically have good marriages, but the first time something goes wrong, they are filing papers. I agree, for example, sex outside (monogamous) marriage is uncool.  I’ve heard conversations where everyone agrees that if such a terrible thing should happen in their relationship, all bets are off. It’s the divorce court. No conversation, no forgiveness, no discussion.

Why not?

Given the looseness of pre-marital relationships in this century, is there some reason to assume that this is going to entirely change because you stood up in a church or a registry office and vowed: “Till death do you part”?

Marriage isn’t a vow. It’s a process. It’s not dating. You don’t just hook-up until it stops being fun, then go to your next hook-up.  It’s when things get a little rough that the real marriage begins.

Half the time, the partner would never even know anything happened if the spouse didn’t have some sort of bizarre need to “confess.” I’ve always wondered what the point of that confession is supposed to be. Is it going to improve the marriage? Of course not. I’m sure it’s intended to do exactly what it does: break the relationship up.

You need to be honest? If you needed to be that honest, why did you do it in the first place? Since you’ve already strayed, live with it. Find a priest and confess. Find a shrink and confess. Find a complete stranger on a bus and confess. But leave your mate out of it and move on.

Also, a genuinely committed couple who have built a life should be able to cope with reality and maybe with a degree of dishonesty, too. Life in the real world is not life on television or Hollywood.

I’ve seen couples divorce because one of them was sure he/she could do better. A few do. Most don’t.

It’s not about the wedding or even the honeymoon. It’s working through issues, changing your behavior. Helping your partner change his behavior. It’s helping a partner get sober or quit gambling. It’s sticking with them if they fail. And them sticking with you when life isn’t going well.

Loving them when their hair falls out and they aren’t nearly as cool and dashing as they were 30 years ago … but you still think they are.

You don’t know what kind of relationship you have without the lumps, bumps, twisted ankles, and heart attacks. Without consoling them for lost jobs, broken backs, and twisted feet.

That’s when you know you have something that means more than pretty cakes and chapel bells.

NOT QUITE THIRTY – Marilyn Armstrong

We are about to celebrate our 29th  wedding anniversary. As I ponder the upcoming 29th — a year short of the big 3-0 — I hear distant bells.

I remember the wedding. The thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of getting there. How, by the time I got to the altar, I was a nervous wreck, but Garry was cool as the proverbial cucumber and looked dashing in his tuxedo.

After it was clearly established that we were definitely, unquestionably, without any doubt, getting married, it came down to details. Dates. Rings. Caterers. Bakers. Flowers. Music. Photography. Videography. And (trumpets) a ceremony.

I had been married twice before — okay, three times because I’d been married in a registry office in London, then the whole Jewish medieval ceremony in Jerusalem. Having been there and done that. I wanted to elope or maximum, go to city hall, have the mayor marry us. He would have. We knew the guy and still do.

We could have been married at City Hall, I’d toss a bouquet, someone would throw some confetti, and voilà. Married. After that, we and our actual friends could all go out for Chinese.

Garry wanted a Real Wedding.

He was 48 years old. Never married. This would be his one and only wedding and by golly, he was going to Do It Right.

“I want a real wedding. In the church in which I grew up. In New York,” says Garry. “And I want my old pastor to officiate.”

“Pastor G. is retired … like fifteen years ago.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.” When he said we, I thought he meant he and I would do this thing together. Because where I come from, that’s what “we” means. I was delusional.

“Why can’t we just do something in Boston? New York is 250 miles away. You haven’t lived there in 30 years. Everyone you know except your parents live in Boston or some other part of the country.”

Garry’s face was set and stony. He wanted a hometown wedding in the church he attended as a child. With the Pastor who ran the church when he was a kid. Who was very retired.

Did I mention my husband is stubborn? He is very stubborn.

“This is going to be a lot of work. It’s hard to plan a wedding long distance,” I point out. “And I have a full-time job. in case you’ve forgotten.” Garry is unfazed.

“We can,” he repeats, “Work it out.” There was that we again.

“Fine,” I eventually agree. “We’ll have a wedding. In New York. At your church.”

There were caterers to hire. Music to be arranged. A bagpiper (don’t ask). Battles over the guest list. A cake to be designed. The cake was my favorite part. It went like this. Having settled on a vanilla cake with lemon filling, we needed to decide on decorations.

“Do you want the bride and groom in white or black?”

“Can we have one of each?” No, we could not. In 1990, they do not have a mixed couple cake topper. I offered to take a marker and paint the groom black, but inexplicably, Garry found this objectionable. I suggested they take two sets and cut them in half, but it was deemed too complicated. In the end, I opted for wedding bells, the DMZ of wedding cake toppers.

So, Garry got his wedding. It was (for him) as simple as simple could be. Marilyn arranged the wedding. Garry showed up in a tux.

You see? We worked it out.

P.S. I eventually learned that “we’ll work it out” always meant “you’ll take care of it for me.” That included moving, packing, unpacking, cooking, arranging vacations, airline tickets, mortgages, and car loans. For Garry, it meant “show up nicely dressed and smile.”

RETHINKING WEDDINGS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My son is getting married for the second time. He had a big wedding the first time, complete with a beautiful service in a synagogue, bridesmaids and groomsmen and a formal reception in a local restaurant’s banquet hall with 100 people in attendance.

I helped his first wife find a gorgeous but not outrageously expensive wedding dress. We also found inexpensive ways to decorate the reception room and dinner tables and she cut costs wherever possible. But it was still an expensive undertaking.

With young people drowning in debt these days and with housing costs so high in many parts of the country, I wonder why people are still having big weddings. In addition to the cost, the logistics of organizing every detail of a ceremony and reception can be overwhelming for people who are already overworked and short on free time.

Maybe part of the problem is that it’s hard to find a middle ground between a large, complex, over priced affair and eloping. That’s what my son discovered this time around and he opted, in effect, to elope. He and his fiancé tried to be as frugal as possible in planning an actual wedding ‘event’. They were going to have both the ceremony and the reception at my home, saving lots of money for the venue and decorations.

But they would have to keep the guest list at 60-65 people and that proved to be a problem. Once you start down the slippery slope of inviting one relative, you have to invite them all. The same applies to circles of friends, once one is invited, you’ll hurt everyone else’s feelings if you don’t invite them too.

Then my son found out that it’s not that easy to plan a full meal for 65 people, even lunch. Some caterers are cheaper, but they just bring food, not dishes, glasses or silverware. Others will bring dessert but not coffee. Then there’s the problem of who’s going to set up and man the bar and keep the food platters full. And who clears the meal and sets up the dessert?

No matter how small and simple my son tried to be, the logistics and the costs still got out of hand. That’s why my son and his fiancé decided on a quasi elopement.

They are getting married by a Justice of the Peace (an old family friend), in their living room, with just immediate family and two close friends. There will be thirteen people in all, including the bride and groom. Then we’re all going to a restaurant for lunch. If they take a honeymoon, it will only be for a weekend since they both have to work.

They got beautiful and thoughtful wedding bands and the bride bought a lovely new dress for the occasion. My daughter is flying cross country, from LA, to be at the truncated ceremony. So it will be a special and meaningful day without months of headaches and piles of bills.

Unless a bride and groom have high paying jobs or a wealthy family, it doesn’t make sense to spend hard earned savings on a big wedding extravaganza. Especially if you have to go further into debt for it. And even if you have the money, why waste months and months of your life stressing over wedding details and dealing with the family strife that is usually created?

Weddings used to mark the point when two individuals moved in together to create a joint home and a new family unit. And wedding gifts used to be a way to help young couples stock their new home. Today, many, if not most, couples live together before marriage.

Their households have already been merged and their kitchens fully stocked with all the necessary equipment and tools. When my son moved in with his fiancé, they had to hire an organizer to help them make room for all of my son’s stuff in their small house. They had to get rid of tons of ‘duplicate items’, particularly kitchen items. They have no room for any more ‘stuff.’

Getting married is a big deal, even today. Maybe our traditions celebrating the event should change along with the times. Maybe a small, informal party for close friends and family should be the norm. Something more like a bridal shower but for men too. And instead of gifts, guests should give checks to pay down student loans or to go toward the down payment on a new house. The concept of tangible items as gifts should maybe go the way of the dowry.

I’m not sure what will evolve in the future, but at least for those not in the top 1%, I think wedding celebrations will begin to change in the next few generations.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.

MY GRANDMOTHER’S EARLY YEARS – By Ellin Curley

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!