Saturday, October 2, 2021

October’s Arrived, So I’m on My Soapbox


I didn’t know how I was going to write about Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, and then I saw this message on Facebook, posted by a guy I knew in high school:

Lost my mother, grandmother (and both her sisters) and great grandmother to breast cancer. I get checked every year by my doctor.

I immediately sent him a private message: “Have you had genetic testing for BRCA and other mutations?”

Guy: “My brother has since he had daughters. Was negative. But he and I are vastly diff makeups. He’s def from my father’s DNA. And I’m sure I’m more my mother’s. Never got tested since I only had boys.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better set-up!

Me: “You should consider consulting with a genetic counselor because men, not only women, can pass mutations on to their children. So, if you carry a hereditary cancer mutation, each of your sons has a 50% chance of carrying it—and a 50% chance of passing it on to their own kids, both sons and daughters. Happy to discuss further if that would be helpful. I’ve learned all of this the hard way, and I work hard to make sure other families don’t have the experiences that mine did. Also, some of these mutations are much more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews than they are in the general population. I’ll also butt out if you think this is none of my business.” 

Guy: “I appreciate it! I will pursue it further.”

Me: “Excellent! Please keep me posted.”  

If, in fact, Guy or either of his sons turns out to be a BRCA mutation carrier (pfth, pfth, pfth), they’re at increased risk of male breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma. So, I hope he follows through, gets genetic counseling, and does whatever might be necessary to protect his own health and that of his sons.

To learn more about hereditary cancer, visit FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, a national non-profit organization solely devoted to providing resources and support to the hereditary cancer community. To find a genetic counselor in your area, visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Visit to learn how you can test for hereditary cancer mutations from home and consult with a genetic counselor about the results.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

King Reilly: A Treasured Gift From Our Hometown

“Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, calibre, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.”

-- Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, 11th president of India, 2002 to 2007

Amy and I drove around Colonial Park a few times before we found the right gazebo. When we couldn’t find it immediately, my sister wanted to head back to Del Boca Vista, but I insisted we persist. In the end, we were glad we did.

In the gazebo, we met Eileen and Kathy, Mr. Reilly’s daughters, and one of his granddaughters, Kristen, as well as Chuck McCook, a fellow Franklin High School alum from the Class of 1980. Lovingly placed on the seats around the gazebo were the King’s FHS yearbooks from the 70s, 80s, and beyond, together with snapshots of students his daughters told us they’d found on the bookshelves in his basement “man cave.”

Immediately, Amy spotted me in the array of photos—wearing the same pink velour turtleneck I’d worn at my Sweet 16. We quickly identified others, rattling off their names as though we’d walked the high school’s halls with them just yesterday—Tommy Kimball, Carolyn Holmes, Carrie Hamilton, Andrew Schofer, Julie Goldman, Jimbo Allegro, Amy McGovern, Cory Nass, and Adam Weintraub. There were others, too, familiar as the backs of our own hands, but four decades have elapsed since the photos were taken, preventing us from whipping their names from the recesses of our middle-aged minds.

To the pictures and the yearbooks, we added our own reminiscences: the antics of “Reilly’s Raiders” and the classmates who participated;” hanging with King Reilly in his classroom until the “late bus” took us home; the outline sketch of the 13 original colonies on the chalkboard that began many an early American history lesson; hosting the King himself for dinner at 12 Webster Road on back-to-school night; and knowing, without anyone saying so, that Reilly’s classroom was a safe haven, long before that even was a thing. The kids who smoked in the courtyard, the hallway cacophony between classes, and our love for a school that, at the time, had a less than stellar reputation all made cameo appearances in our conversation.

From his daughters, we got a bit of the King’s prequel and sequel to our own high school years. He began his college career as a business major. However, after he was drafted during the Vietnam War and spent time as a file clerk in Korea, he changed his major to education upon returning home. Even though the switch meant lost credits and more time in school, his wartime experience had taught him that business and office work weren’t for him—and to our benefit, he acted on that knowledge. Kathy told us how, eager to get out of school for the day, she accompanied her dad to an early iteration of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” only to find herself in his classroom all day, listening to him tell the story of Hugh Glass’ mauling by a bear—not once or twice, but eight times during the course of the school day. He was good at storytelling, she said, and no one was embarrassed or thought the tale was dorky or dumb.

Following his retirement in the mid-1990s, he spent precious time with his family; the Palmyra High School Band Parents, who, thanks to him, added “and Grandparents” to the organization’s name; and the people of Ireland, whom he met when he backpacked and hitchhiked across the country from Galway to Dublin. All of them, like Amy, Chuck, and I, along with countless other Franklin students, are better for having crossed paths with King Reilly—and now members of his family—and will carry his life lessons and his indomitable spirit in our hearts always. They are among a trove of treasured gifts from our hometown whose value—and our appreciation of them—only increases with time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Reilly.

P.S. One the the High Holiday sermons I read this season connected me to this NPR story from 2005. Although this wasn't a funeral, Amy and I were honored to share this special time and fond memories with King Reilly's loved ones.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

How Framily Made Our Visit to Ojai So Magical

Once upon a time, in 1968, two little girls (one still in diapers) moved with their parents from New Jersey to Wheaton, Maryland. They didn’t know anyone who lived in Maryland, but their scientist dad had a new job at NIH, and the four of them lived in a garden apartment not far from Bethesda, where his office and lab were located.

Before long, their mom started to play bridge with other moms who lived with their families in the garden apartments. She met one mom from California who had three little girls, and the youngest was just a few months older than one of her little girls. Their dad was an engineer and a college professor.

The two families and the five little girls got to be friends. They befriended another family with a little girl, but her mom didn’t play bridge. They were from Baltimore, but had recently returned from Montana, where they’d lived near a Native American reservation where the dad had been a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service.

The families did lots of things together, often riding into “The District” in the California family’s 1960 dark blue Chevy Nova station wagon. On the Fourth of July, they went to watch the fireworks on the National Mall; in the winter, they drove to see the National Christmas Tree, and in the spring, the beautiful pink cherry blossoms. The little girls from New Jersey loved to ride in the “way back” of the station wagon, look out the back window, and wave to the drivers behind them. It was much more fun than riding in their own black Chevy sedan with the “D.C. Last Colony” bumper sticker on the back.

The girls were in Brownies and Girl Scouts together, and when they weren’t in school or extra-curricular activities, they hung out together—playing Monopoly, Yahtzee, and hopscotch, riding bikes with banana seats, and sledding down snow-covered hills. The biggest girl, who could be very bossy (and hated raisins), sometimes bossed the littlest one around. The California family had a black cat named Troubles, and the New Jersey girls were afraid of him, especially after he scratched one of them on the nose. The Baltimore family had a parakeet whose cage sat on an old TV cart, and the little girl with the scratched nose liked to push the cart around the parakeet’s living room.

The New Jersey mom was a pre-school teacher at the JCC in Rockville, where the littlest girl went to school. Since the rest of the girls’ school day ended at lunchtime on Wednesdays (for teacher in-service training and development), the Baltimore mom watched the New Jersey mom’s older girl each Wednesday afternoon. The families pitched in to help out in other ways, too, like when one little girl had eye surgery and another had her tonsils out. (The little girl with the tonsils brought them home in a jar, and they sat on her dresser for a very long time.)

When the families celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas together, there often was homemade ice cream—from a hand-crank ice cream maker—for dessert. The girls also ate a lot of Spaghetti-O’s and Butoni toaster pizzas, even though the middles were always cold. 

One year, when the Baltimore family was away—probably in Baltimore—the New Jersey mom and dad planned a Hawaiian-themed New Year’s eve party. For days beforehand, they cooked a lot of chicken and pineapple to serve over rice to their guests and decorated their front door with travel posters for Hawaii, full of people wearing leis and hula skirts. Unfortunately, it snowed so hard that night, only the California mom and dad, who could walk from their building to the next, actually made it to the party. After the New Jersey girls were fast asleep and all the leftover Hawaiian chicken and rice had been packed away, the two moms and dads smoked marijuana—probably for the first time, and maybe the only time—that the California dad had gotten from someone at the school where he taught.

In 1972, the New Jersey family moved back to New Jersey, so the dad could teach at Rutgers. Shortly afterward, the California family and the Baltimore family each moved to a townhouse in the same complex as the garden apartments. When the California family moved back to California, they visited the New Jersey family on their way to the west coast. When the young lady (she wasn’t a little girl anymore) in the Baltimore family became bat mitzvah, the New Jersey family drove to Maryland for the simcha. They returned each summer to visit the Baltimore family, who by this time had moved into a house in Silver Spring, and so the little girl who had the eye surgery could continue to see the same eye doctor in Washington, D.C. In between visits, the Baltimore and New Jersey moms talked on the phone every Monday night—beginning at 11 p.m., when the rates went down.

In the summer of 1979, the New Jersey girls flew for the first time, when the family traveled to Los Angeles to visit the California family in Manhattan Beach. Together the two families visited Disneyland and Universal Studios, before the New Jersey family took off in their rented Datsun to visit San Diego, Ojai, and the Mohave Desert for a few days. Later that same year, the Baltimore family adopted a little girl, and the older New Jersey girl got to meet the baby only a few months later when she was in Washington, D.C. to attend a model United Nations conference for high school students. When the younger New Jersey girl attended law school in Washington, D.C., she visited the Baltimore family often. Her sister visited a few times when she was in Washington, D.C. for work.

Weddings, cross-country business trips, and Ma Bell kept the families connected throughout the 1980s and 90s, but never did all three gather in the same place at the same time. In 2002, the elder New Jersey girl, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, spent a lot of time with the California family in San Luis Obispo, while she got untangled from her marriage and prepared to return to the east coast. 

In 2010, the New Jersey mom died, followed in 2013 by the Baltimore mom. We like to think that wherever they are, they’re together in a place that includes plenty of outlet malls and deep discount warehouses and that they’re riding around in a big ol’, gas-guzzling Chevy Impala with lots of room in the back seat and the trunk for whatever glassware, placemats, or other treasures they pick up.

When the pandemic hit, three generations of the California family’s girls—sometimes joined by a fourth-generation toddler—and the New Jersey and Baltimore girls began meeting weekly on Zoom for Bi-Coastal Happy Hour (BCHH). When the littlest girl, living in New York City, announced a business trip to Ojai, California, plans for an in-person reunion kicked in.

For a few days in mid-August, the California mom, the six little girls, and a daughter of one of the California girls had a magical time together in Ojai—catching up, celebrating, remembering, reminiscing, and planning for the next reunion.

The end… but not really.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

#BlogElul 5781: Understand

Dear The Mums and Mrs. Steinberg,

I don’t completely understand where olam haba (the world to come) is located or exactly what you’re doing there, but I hope it includes plenty of outlet malls and deep discount warehouses and that you’re riding around together in a big ol’, gas-guzzling Chevy Impala checking them all out. I’m sure there’s lots of room in the back seat and the trunk for whatever glassware, placemats, or other treasures you pick up. Maybe there’s even a cafĂ© or two that serves Lipton (or was it Nestea?) flavored iced tea—orange for you, Mrs. S., and lime for you, TM,—so you can take a break from the bargain hunting when you get parched. Of course, I’m guessing, too, that the weather and the temperature are perfect, and there’s no need to run the A/C at all, let alone on “frenzy.”

Amy and I, though, may be running the A/C just that way this week, and I want to let you know where we’ll be and with whom we’ll be hanging out. She has a business presentation in Ojai, California, and I’m going along for the ride. Best of all, though, Barbara and three generations of the Harrises—a total of nine of us—are going to meet there for a few days of girls’ fun, including celebrating Amy’s birthday on Tuesday. I know—and you know, too—that you’ll be right there with us in spirit, marking the first time we will all have been together in person since, oh, maybe, 1972.

Like I said, I’m not so sure about the details of olam haba, and even though that’s where you are, a piece of each of you is forever in my heart.


Inspired by Ima on (and off) the Bima , this #BlogElul post is one in a series marking the days of the Hebrew month of Elul, which precede the Jewish High Holidays and traditionally serve as a time of reflection and spiritual preparation for the new year.

Friday, August 13, 2021

#BlogElul 5781: Want


I intended to #BlogElul, I anticipated I would, and, most of all, I want to do it.

Somehow, though, it took me six days into the month to get the ball rolling.

And that’s okay.

Recently, to help me with my apartment move, I worked with a personal organizer, from whom I learned this adage: Done is better than perfect.

I’ve heard a similar sentiment many times before as this maxim, most commonly attributed to Voltaire: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

No matter who said it or the exact wording, it’s an idea I want to carry with me into the new year.

Sure, perfect is great—especially for this fusspot who’s hardest on herself—but in 5782, I want to try to ease up, even just a little, and keep in mind that sometimes, done is good enough.

Inspired by Ima on (and off) the Bima , this #BlogElul post is one in a series marking the days of the Hebrew month of Elul, which precede the Jewish High Holidays and traditionally serve as a time of reflection and spiritual preparation for the new year.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Here's Where I Was "Strabunsing Harum"

July 8, 2021

Dear Aunt Claire,

If you tried to call me yesterday and wondered where I was “strabunsing harum” (gallivanting about) as you always wanted to know, I was with all the other people who gathered to celebrate you and your life—and, at your request, not grieve your death. Although we’re terribly sad, I hope your ears were ringing. So many people had lovely things to say about you and your long, well-lived life. You would have loved to chat with them all!

Marc and Ted each spoke lovingly of you and how you always managed to balance your career as an occupational therapist—first working with stroke patients and later starting the OT program at Kean College of New Jersey—with being their mother, long before work-life balance was even a thing.

I recall visiting you in your office at Kean on several occasions, and I remember this story that happened during your tenure there: You woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t remember if you’d turned off the coffee pot in the office. Ever practical, you called the campus safety and security office to see if someone could go check on the coffee pot. After you made this request, the person on the other end of the phone said, “Lady, we can’t do that right now, there’s a fire on campus.” Luckily, the blaze wasn’t in your building and, as you discovered the next morning, you had, in fact, turned off the coffee machine!

Marc and Ted also talked about your optimism, your knack for connecting with strangers, and how your service as a trustee on the board of Beth Sholom Reform Temple in Clifton (now a part of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield) exemplified your commitment to Judaism.

I have a few distinct memories from your time in that congregation: I remember how you nurtured the temple’s “Laura Fischer Memorial Library” into existence after Tante Laura died and honored her memory by serving as the librarian for many years. I wonder what became of all those Laura Fischer Library books with the blue and white bookplates. Maybe some of them made it to Ner Tamid…

At Ted’s bar mitzvah luncheon in the social hall, when the DJ told him it was time to dance with his favorite girl, instead of picking you, he picked Jodi Cook… and in the four-plus decades since, I’ve reminded him of that faux pas every so often.

Lastly, although it happened long before I entered the Jewish professional world, I knew that having a woman cantor, as that congregation did, was a big deal. I’m not sure I realized back then that Barbara Ostfeld was the first ordained female cantor, but I always knew you were quite fond of her—and it was mutual. I connected with her during my time at the URJ, and she wrote this to me earlier this week, “I'm sorry and think that this particular loss is shared to one degree or another by so many. I count myself among them. She was unforgettable.”

Unforgettable is an apt description. So many of my friends (and Ma’s and Amy’s, too) remember you—and told me so on Facebook: “I remember your aunt as a sweet, quiet, gentle soul,” said Rabbi Debbie Bravo; Ma’s friend, Kathy Kahn, said, “I remember Claire so well. What a sweetheart she was...” Amy’s lifelong friend, Maria, wrote: “Aunt Claire was a lovely person…” (I love how she called you “Aunt Claire,” just like everyone called Uncle Irv “Uncle Irv.”) Judy Tushman said, “Claire’s collection of Quimper was the first thing she showed me in her apartment. It was amazing, and so was Claire. A truly lovely person, and a pleasure to know.”

Speaking of Quimper, I used to love to scour the tables at flea markets and antique shows for the familiar yellow and blue pottery and was so excited when, on rare occasions, I spotted it. One year that happened a few months before one of your milestone birthdays, and I was thrilled to purchase the two small saucers for you, adding a small card that said that as aunts go, no one could Quimper!

Even though it was a funeral, it was nice to see Marilyn and Phyllis (they hadn’t seen each other since before the pandemic), Norma, Eddie, and Ellen (and her husband), all of whom where there for you, as was Colleen’s sister and her family, along with a few of their cousins. Phyllis told me that she was so sad about you because, “Not only were she and your mom my cousins, but they were my friends. As a matter of fact, Claire and Jash were chaperones at my Sweet 16 party which was held at the China Doll in Manhattan.”

Orit Simhoni came up from Maryland to be with us yesterday, and although I spoke with her only briefly, she told me what a mentor you always were to her in her own career as an OT. In some ways, you were an OT rock star. Our family friend and also an OT, Jeanne Weisblatt, told me she “remembered meeting your aunt a long time ago and being so excited that she was a professor of occupational therapy at Kean College.”

I remember other things about your career—like how if you have to walk steps with a bad foot or ankle, you’re supposed to start “up with good and down with the bad.” I also recall how you often had a tape measure in your purse specifically to measure the width of various public restroom stalls to see if a wheelchair could fit within them—long before the ADA was enacted into law. Mostly, I remember the story you told about sending pairs of students from Kean to the mall to take turns being pushed by the other in a wheelchair, gaining a new perspective about the real-life, daily challenges people using wheelchairs face. When one pair of students switched places in public, they reported back to you and the class that they’d inadvertently caught the attention of other shoppers, who no doubt thought they were witnessing a miraculous cure unfold.

Debbie Stone was there, too, and told me how you and Uncle Jash were in the congregation the night she was installed as president of Temple Beth Tikvah, the community you joined after BSRT got folded into Ner Tamid, and how nice it was to look out and see your smiling face. Seeing a few pictures of you on Facebook, one of my friends wrote to me: “I can see your face in her smile.”

Mrs. Marks and Cheryl Ronan from Brookshire Drive were there, too. Mrs. Marks looks exactly as I remember her, and she told me that Phyllis’ daughter is pregnant, and she and Mr. Marks are very excited about becoming great-grandparents in a few months. I wouldn’t have known Cheryl, but I did remember that we’re nearly the exact same age (two days apart, it turns out), and it was nice to chat with her. All the “kids” talked about your backyard, the scene of so many cookouts and family celebrations of all kinds. I can see it all in my mind’s eye as though it was yesterday—the patio, Uncle Irv’s garden, home plate, the pitcher’s mound near the oak tree, and all your turquoise and white napkins, serving pieces, and paper goods that were specifically for outdoor entertaining. Someone mentioned there were no fences between most of the backyards on the street, so we probably could have walked straight through them all the way to Route 23.

I also spent time chatting with Beth, who drove to New Jersey from near State College, Pennsylvania. She told me about your trip together to Fallingwater (I remember when you went with her) and also about the place (whose name I cannot remember) you visited with her when she went to see you in Detroit a few years ago. She’s coming to NYC in October, and Amy and I plan to do some museum-hopping with her while she’s here. We’ve never spent time with her, and I’m looking forward to it. In an email I wrote to her last night, I said, “No doubt, we'll bring Aunt Claire along with us in spirit” and that is definitely true. I can’t quite believe you’re gone, but I will carry you in my heart always.



P.S. Of course, I'll always be so grateful for your help after my surgery in 2011 and remember how you wanted to be the first one to stay with me because, as you said, you knew how to manage the drains. I could not have asked for better or more loving care during that week.