Quiet Down; It’s New Year’s Eve

new-years-party-hatEvery New Year’s Eve at my house was basically a repeat of the year before. My parents were creatures of habit and had no expectation that January 1 would be any different than December 31 or March 12 for that matter. Nevertheless, they did try to create their version of a party scene which generally commenced around 9pm and ended at 12:01am until they realized we could start celebrating at 10 pm and wrap it up by 11:15 pm or earlier if we ran out of food.

I might have created high expectations for New Year’s Eve because this was the seasonal holiday that Cha-Cha’s family celebrated and every year in the 70’s they partied on New Year’s Eve like it was 1999. After most of the other kids had already broken or lost half the playing pieces from their recent Hanukkah and Christmas gifts, Cha-Cha was still waiting around for her loot which was kept under the tree until December 31. Between December 25 and December 31, I was frequently invited over to inspect her gifts by holding, measuring, and shaking them and taking educated guesses as to what might be inside the packages. For a kid who faked getting gifts, I was pretty good at guessing other people’s gifts or at least I could figure out the difference between a new shirt, a record album, and that bottle of Love’s Baby Soft that every 11-year-old girl hoped to receive as a gift and reeked from for years to come. I was allowed to stay at Cha-Cha’s house until the early evening, at which point I needed to leave so her family could prepare for the evening’s festivities. By 9 pm, their house basically resembled a nightclub; the bar was stocked and everyone changed into their fancy clothing while her mom blasted music that she was already dancing to.

Meanwhile, back at my house, dad had changed into his wife beater undershirt and mom was wearing a slightly more festive version of one of her housecoats with slippers. While the vibe at Cha-Cha’s house was 70’s style Studio 54, the vibe at my house was 70’s style Bowery.

The evening’s festivities included certain snack foods that never made an appearance at my house any other time than New Year’s Eve. Cocktails were served, but not the alcoholic kind. As a matter of fact, the only time of year I ever even saw my parents drink was New Year’s Eve, and even then it was usually a glass of champagne and never a cocktail. Yet the word cocktail seemed to be present in every food mom selected for the occasion. We often had Planter’s dry roasted peanuts during the year, but we had to wait until New Year’s Eve to get the cocktail peanuts. We ate hot dogs regularly but could only have cocktail franks on New Year’s Eve. Mom often made meatballs in tomato sauce, but only on New Year’s Eve could we have cocktail meatballs. I think my parents thought that if we were eating foods with the word cocktail in them, we were partying hard. One year, mom expanded the hor d’oeuvre list to include fondue, which she tried to pass off as dinner until January 5 when the cheese and bread supply were exhausted. By the next year we had switched to using the fondue maker to melt chocolate and dip fruit in it. It probably goes without saying that in my house, fruit and chocolate were never mixed on any other day.

For several years, while we had the piano that no one played, mom cleared all the junk off of it and for that one night only created a makeshift buffet table out of the piano top. If we put any food or even a tchotchke with a coaster under it on the piano any of the other 364 days of the year, mom would kill us. But on December 31, she let her hair down for a few short hours to ring in the New Year.

In between eating the fancier mini-sized versions of the same food I ate all year round, I would run into my room to check on Casey Kasem’s top 100 countdown that aired on the radio every New Year’s Eve documenting the top 100 songs of the year. I made a list of all 100 as they were counted down and tried to predict which songs would make the top 10. In 1975, I  started praying every day from November 1 on that the Captain & Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together would be the #1 song of the year. This consumed my thoughts from December 20 until New Year’s Eve and made it hard to eat or sleep until the big day. I jumped for joy when the song took first place and this was by far the most exciting thing I ever remember happening on New Year’s Eve. While most viewed the song as a silly little ditty about love, last time I checked,  the Captain & Tennille were still together, which is more than most people who were married in 1975 can say.

In the early years, before I discovered Casey Kasem and before anyone could pronounce the word fondue, my brother Jeffrey and I would try to figure out ways to create the party atmosphere that seemed so deficient in our home. One year we got the idea to take one of dad’s yellow legal pads and tear the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces. At midnight we threw it all in the air and screamed Happy New Year while watching our homemade confetti rain down on us. Dad was amused until about five seconds after midnight when he said, “Happy New Year and be sure to clean up all this pepairluch before you go to bed.” The New Year was off to a rocking start with us down on our hands and knees cleaning up our mess and counting down the 364 days we now had to wait for our next cocktail.

Pidgin Yiddish

Both of my parents grew up in extended family settings that included a Yiddish grandmother with limited command of the English language. While they both claimed to have forgotten Yiddish, various words crept into their vocabulary from time to time while we were growing up. Some were authentic, some were altered to suit their mood, and others were just nonsense words that generally had some root in Yiddish. A large percentage of the words seemed to end in “luch,” which can only be pronounced properly if you make a motion with your tongue and teeth as if you are trying to gather large quantities of flem. Here are the words that stand out for me.

  1. pe-pair-luch: tiny pieces of paper. Once a week, the living room was divided into three pepairluch sections and each child was required to pick up all the pepairluch in their designated area. Obviously our vacuum cleaner didn’t have a pepairluch setting, so we got stuck taking care of this.
  2. feets-e-luchins: of or having to do with the feet as in “are your feetseluchins cold?” or “your feetseluchins smell.”
  3. sweets-e-luchins: term of endearment, usually used by my father when referencing me.
  4. jay-gee-luchins: term of endearment used by my father reserved specifically for my mother whose first name begins with a J.
  5. schluffy: sleep; also go schluffy or make schluffy.
  6. eggies: eyes; only used when dad wanted us to go to sleep as in “close your eggies and go schluffy.”
  7. halucious: ugly; usually used by mom, as in, “Your hair looks halucious; when was the last time you combed it?” or “Those earth shoes are halucious”
  8. oy: statement of displeasure; usually voiced by my father when mom bought something that was over $50.
  9. oy vey; see explanation above; the vey was reserved for purchases he disapproved of over $100.
  10. oy gevalt; same thing but pertaining to purchases above $200 that were non-refundable.
  11. futz: to mess around with something as in “Stop futzing with the color brightness on the TV.”
  12. patch-kuh: see above
  13. pochy: spanking; a sweeter, gentler way to describe a good beating.
  14. tchotchke: useless decorative crap; dad was always teasing mom about making patchkuh with the tchotchkes.
  15. feh; distasteful; usually used by my father when referencing foods he disliked such as liver, chicken, and raisins. Used by me occasionally to describe black licorice.
  16. keppie: head; only referenced by dad when we were sick. He would kiss our keppie and predict if we had a fever and then guess our exact temperature; he was always right.
  17. kevetch-a-la; kvetch is generally used as a verb meaning to complain; dad changed it from a verb to a noun, usually to describe whoever was the most annoying family member that day.
  18. shmegegge: annoying person; used interchangeably with kevetchala.
  19. shmatta; rag; usually referenced by mom when she was trying to convince dad to donate some piece of clothing to the Salvation Army.

In addition, my dad had several non-Yiddish nicknames for his children that he continued to use well into our 30’s and 40’s including:

  1. The Toogie Man: nickname for my brother Stuart; no known derivative.
  2. Beanie; nickname for my brother Jeffrey, derived from a cartoon called Beanie and Cecil.
  3. Boober: my nickname; thankfully my father stopped using this one once I hit puberty and was sporting a generous D cup. Unfortunately the fun with this nickname was just beginning for my brothers and I suffered because of it for years.
  4. Sweetie-petite-ee: my father’s other nickname for me that luckily replaced Boober.

Many of these words are now a big part of the vocabulary in my family and I’m lucky enough to have a sweetseluchin and a sweetie petiteee in my life who tolerate me when I kevetch about all the random pepairluch lying around the house and all the dirty socks that always seem to be on the couch, but never on their feetseluchins.


Hanukkah and the Festival of Fright

Sorry gameWhen I was four years old, I believed in Santa Claus. My Jewish parents weren’t quite sure how to handle this, and during our very early years, they begrudgingly indulged us in the myth of Santa Claus to the best of their abilities. On Christmas morning, my brothers and I would awaken to a modest circle of gifts in the living room. We tore off the wrapping paper with glee, only to find some strange practical gifts inside the pretty paper and bow. I received a slip to wear under my dresses and I remember my mother exclaiming, “Wow, how did Santa know you needed a new slip?” Even at four years old, I realized a slip was a strange Christmas present for an old man with a beard to bring you. My brothers both received plaid lunchboxes, because Santa obviously knew this is what they needed as well. We also got a paint set with the kind of paint that is as hard as a rock, needs water to make it at all functional, and cracks into tiny pieces after one use. After receiving our questionable gifts, we figured out Santa was a sham, decided Christmas was overrated, and slowly accepted our fate as Jews.

From that year on, Christmas was out and Hanukkah was the only holiday we celebrated in December (well, until 2013 when we got a new holiday, Thanksgivingukkah). At the same time, my parents stopped buying us gifts and instead started giving us money. Each year we would get a check for five or ten dollars which we were told we could “keep” in mom’s bank account. By age ten, my oldest brother realized that my mother was earning interest on all our Hanukkah money and wanted to stage a coup to regain what might have been as much as a few dollars in interest.

My mother insisted on having an authentic candle menorah, rather than an electric one, but she had a tremendous fear of fire. I was at least twelve years old before my mother let me light the candles without her shaking hand holding mine. Each night of Hanukkah, she would sit white knuckled by the candles until they burned out, clutching the glass of water that was always kept by the menorah in case of fire. By the eighth night of Hanukkah she was an emotional wreck, and it took her until the new year to recover.

We tried to embrace the festivities of Hanukkah, but after three spins of the dreidel and the 5th piece of gelt (Yiddish for kosher chocolate that doesn’t even come close to Ghirardelli), we lost the Hanukkah spirit and went to check out the menorah to see if any major pieces of furniture or family members had caught fire yet.

By the time I was in grade school, I realized that my Catholic friends were having all the fun with their tree trimming parties. My friends with non-religious families seemed to always have a tree as well, and even all the Jews on the block had Christmas trees.  These Jews ended up with the best deal of all, as they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. If Kwanzaa had been a popular holiday in Queens back then, I’m sure they would have celebrated that as well. In addition to celebrating both holidays, the Jewish kids I knew had roped their parents into Hanukkah’s “one gift for each night of Hanukkah rule”; a ploy I was sure was made up by Jews in the 1970’s in an effort to compete with Christmas and make Hanukkah seem like a more important holiday than it really was. I tried to “keep up with the Joneses” (or in my case the Levy’s) by cashing my $5 or $10 check at Bank of Mom and purchasing gifts for myself which I would then tell my friends had been purchased by my parents who seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing what I wanted. I gave up on the idea of trying to purchase eight gifts, because even in 1973 there was little you could buy once you divided $5 by eight.

I’m making up for all the Hanukkah gelt and guilt big time now with my own children. We now celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas (with a tree), as well as both of their birthdays during the month of December. Following the festivities and the obscene assortment of gifts (I have never given my kids money as a gift), I remind my kids not to ask me for so much as a stick of gum until at least August. Some years we light the menorah; others we don’t. But I’ve never had an electric menorah, and yes, now it’s my turn to sit white knuckled by the fire.

Plastic Slipcovers and Other Dysfunctional Household Items

plastic-slipcovers-150x150My mother had a penchant for plastic slipcovers and she put them on everything in the living room, including the lampshades. Plastic slipccovers made their debut in the mid 50’s and managed to haunt my family well into the next two decades. The concept of furniture being comfortable was obviously lost on mom. For her, preservation was the key and screw the family. In addition to being uncomfortable, the plastic made strange sounds when you sat on it and was sticky in the summer time. Once June rolled around and we broke out our shorts and lost our tights, getting up off the couch felt like ripping off a Band-Aid. During the summer months, we needed an on-call medic just to treat the burn marks and wounds generated from the plastic. We moved on from the plastic slipcovers some time in the mid 70’s when they began to lose their “avant garde” appeal, but the backs of our legs never forgot.

Another dysfunctional piece of furniture in our house was the piano…a baby grand piano. It’s not like we had a music room, a great room, a family room, or even a mud room. We lived in an apartment; there was one central room, the living room. It wouldn’t have been so bad if someone in the family actually played piano, but none of us did. When I asked my father years later why we had a baby grand piano, yet none of us ever took piano lessons, his response was, “no one ever asked to.” In lieu of any musical talent in the family, we created our own use for the piano; mainly as a repository for the mail, loose change, and an occasional apple core. Years later, mom sold that piano “for a song” and it took us over six months to figure out a new place to dump all our stuff.

Aside from the furniture issues, my mom just had a lot of things in general that were never allowed to be used for their intended purpose. These tchotchkes, (Yiddish word for crap) included a Wedgewood ashtray that never had a cigarette butt in it and an accompanying Wedgewood cigarette lighter that never had lighter fluid in it. She had candlesticks without candles, a soup tourinne that never held an ounce of soup, vases that never held flowers, and a candy dish that never had any candy it it. All of these “treasures” were stored in a breakfront in the living room and treated as if they were of museum quality; occasionally the things in the breakfront were dusted, but that was the extent of their contact with the real world.

In addition, she had a bowl with fake fruit in it (because as you already know, real fruit was rationed in my house). The bowl included plastic grapes. One day on a dare, Cha-Cha picked one of the fake grapes to see if my mom would notice when she came home. We rearranged the fake fruit bowl to cover up the deed, but when mom walked in, she took one look at that bowl (which was halfway across the room) and said, “Who picked a grape?” Lesson learned; don’t underestimate the power of mom and her tchotchkes.

In addition to the dysfunctional household items, mom had a slew of overly functional crap that she purchased for a single specific task, not realizing that we probably had some other item lying around the house that would be equally effective. She had a rubber ring that looked like a frisbee with the center cut out that we wore around our heads when we washed our hair to avoid getting soap in our eyes (perhaps she should have told us to just close our eyes), a plastic thing that looked like a coaster that made sure no water escaped from the sink when you washed things in it (couldn’t we just close the drain?), a contraption for removing the tops of strawberries (wouldn’t a knife have worked as well?), an egg slicer (see previous comment), a special knife that was only to be used for cutting a half a grapefruit into sections (what?), and a special jar opener thingy (wasn’t her hand good enough?) Our kitchen drawers were so filled with these useless gadgets that you’d often be hard-pressed to find a fork, but you could always find the watermelon pit-picker-outer.

Years later, when mom decided to downsize a bit and sell some of her tchotchkes, I had visions of putting all this stuff on e-Bay and creating listings like “in mint condition” or ” “30-year old serving plate; never been used.” I thought mom might end up with a few Benjamins from someone who saw this as vintage; a collector’s item. Nope. It was crap then and it’s crap now. The only tchotchke that fetched any decent money was mom’s Rainy Day Hummel. I never quite figured out the appeal of those things. They didn’t even have a functional purpose that we could choose to ignore. They truly were “just for show.” And what’s the point of that? 


Foods Mom Wouldn’t Let Us Eat

At first glance, one might guess this is a story about growing up eating a lot of wholesome, unprocessed food. “Perhaps they had their own vegetable garden,” you might be thinking or “Maybe Barb’s mom was some sort of animal activist who forbade red meat or pelted eggs at woman wearing furs coats. No, not at all. We were the family that only cared about dessert, and nutrition didn’t seem high on anyone’s list of priorities. Yet, my mom had a lot of rules about foods she wouldn’t buy. There was no rhyme or reason to the list; it was the equivalent of telling someone, “It’s fine by me if you down a can of lighter fluid, but for heaven’s sake, please don’t swallow paint thinner.”  Here were some of the rules we lived by.

  1. Boxed cakes were fine, but cake mixes were not.
  2. TV dinners were regular fare, but Kraft Macaroni & Cheese never once sat on our shelf.
  3. Deviled ham was ok, but the line was drawn at Spam.
  4. Hershey’s syrup could be used for chocolate milk, but Nestle’s Quik was banned.

See a pattern here? Of course you don’t. This list makes no sense. In addition, instant hot chocolate was never, ever an option (this is one of the few things mom insisted on making from scratch), Cheese Whiz was considered the same thing as cheese, and grape gum was never under any circumstances, allowed in the house (my mother couldn’t stand the smell of it and each and every time I sneaked it in, she sniffed it out like a police dog and forced me to confiscate it immediately). Both my parents considered yogurt vile and neither of them was willing to “spend good money” on it. I never even tasted yogurt until I went to college. They felt the same way about cottage cheese, but I think I was allowed to eat this once or twice sometime after I reached puberty.

In addition to the bizarre packaged foods rules, mom had some strange rules when it came to fruit. When she went to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping, she would buy five apples or five oranges, etc. Each person in the family of five got one piece of whatever fruit she bought…for the week. There was no limit on cookies, but fruit was rationed. Perhaps fruit was expensive, so she didn’t buy much, but in addition to there being very little fruit, trying to barter for or exchange fruit with your siblings was highly frowned upon. If mom caught you in a corner trying to bribe your brother for an extra apple, you were told to break it up and move along. Strangely, there was no such rule for bananas. Mom would buy a bunch and you could eat whatever you could get your hands on. Go figure.

Mom’s fruit distribution system became much more complex in the summer time when she was more likely to buy cherries or grapes. Each week she would take the fruit and divide it into equal amounts and place it in bowls with little slips of paper with our names on it. This actually worked to my advantage, as I would create my version of the fruit shell game, eating cherries from my brothers’ bowls and then switching around the name tags.

Perhaps I have my mother to thank for my love of fruit. But I may have swung a bit to another extreme. Whenever I buy fruit, it’s hard for me not to eat it all in one sitting. A pound of cherries can be gone in a heartbeat and I will frequently eat several apples, peaches, or whatever else is in season in one day. I still feel liberated and just a wee bit naughty eating that second piece. But there is one fruit I never want seconds of. You guessed it…bananas.