In the past ten months my son Elroy Jetson* has grown four inches. I’m an average height woman, though in some Pacific Rim countries I’d be considered modelesque, but now Elroy is taller than me. He is twelve. Elroy has always been tall for his age. By ten, he had reached the height of a full-grown North Korean soldier.
Last summer Elroy and I took a bike ride together and he struggled to keep up with me. As we rode around our neighborhood, the hills proved too steep at certain points and Elroy had to get off his bike and walk his way to the top. Earlier this week we took the same path.
“No getting off your bike this time,” I shouted over my shoulder at him. “Push yourself.”
I dug in, straining from my gut as I climbed the hill when Elroy came whizzing by, smiling. He yelled over his shoulder, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll wait for you at the top.”
The irritating part was how he said it—as if riding faster than me was something he had always done instead of this unforeseen reversal of fortune. He wasn’t even winded.
If Elroy was an extremely active boy who played travel soccer three times a week, I could have anticipated this newfound strength and endurance. But that’s not the case. He may shoot basketballs or ride his bike around the cul-de-sac, but there are no training schedules. He doesn’t play sports so much as dabble in them. He’ll play flag football and basketball in non-competitive leagues for an hour or so a week during their designated seasons before moving on to the next activity. His preferred recreation is Xbox and annoying his sister.
Elroy was born tiny weighing three-and-a-half pounds. While in premature labor, I sneezed once and he appeared. Small and weak, he spent three weeks in the hospital. Now he’s growing like one of those time-lapse nature films.
That afternoon my husband called in from the road and told me that Elroy had texted him earlier: I beat Mom biking today. Badly.
“Ah, youth,” said my husband. “And testosterone.”
It was just Elroy and me alone in the house. His father was traveling and his sister was away at camp. After dinner, I asked Elroy if he’d like to arm wrestle. He laughed at me, then shrugged. “Okay.” A brief thought that I might be turning into The Great Santini crossed my mind, but I couldn’t help myself. I had a sudden urgent desire to find out how strong Elroy had become. Leg power and endurance is one thing but arm strength is a totally different ball of wax. Elroy was an inch taller than me, but I still outweighed him by twenty pounds. And I do yoga, which I was certain would give me the edge. We grasped hands at the kitchen table.
“Are you trying?” I asked
“Yes,” Elroy said.
“Sort of, but I don’t think you’re trying.”
“No, I am,” I said.
“Okay, then I am too.”
Then I really did try, as hard as I could to get his arm down. But our hands remained clasped tight, straight up like an arrow from the table, a perfect 90-degree angle. I couldn’t budge him at all.
“Okay, let’s call it a tie,” I said and dropped his hand.
“You didn’t have to stop. I wasn’t getting tired.”
“Let’s just call it a tie.”
That night he lay in bed reading a comic book. I thanked Elroy for going biking with me. “No problem,” he said. “It was fun. And I’m especially glad no one saw us together.”
Two days ago my husband and I drove Elroy to camp in the woods of New Hampshire. I’ll miss my son, of course, but now I have plenty of time to work out before he comes home.
*Not his real name but one he reluctantly agreed I could use for this post.
My father was 44 years old when I was born. In the 1960s this was considered ancient to have a baby. It wasn’t until I was in third grade when I realized how much older my father was than my friends’ fathers and I cried, fearing that he wouldn’t be alive by the time I grew up. But he has proven to be cat-like in his ability to survive. In the last 25 years, he has endured a triple by-pass, assorted heart episodes, diabetes, kidney stones, and high cholesterol, among other ailments. He never exercises. He eats whatever. And he’s inhaled enough second-hand smoke in the past 50 years to fill the Hindenburg. On a positive note, he avoids alcohol and plays chess three times a week, so there’s that.
He’s had a very long and successful career as a general surgeon. My mother would often remark, “Do you know how many people in Brooklyn would be walking around with colostomy bags today if it weren’t for your father?“ But my mother, also a physician, and competitive by nature, might, if she was feeling prickly, add “not that being a surgeon takes much brain power, it's is all about ‘when in doubt, cut it out.’ ” Sometimes I think my mother’s lucky my father never sewed her mouth shut. Instead, whenever she’d say her little joke, he’d just beam at her as if she had made him a pot roast dinner with matzo ball soup. My mother’s specialty was emergency room medicine. She liked to practice medicine with all the machismo of soldiers on the front line.
A year ago, my father, at 89 years old, lost his balance while walking up two steps from the garage into the house. He fell and suffered a compression fracture in his back. My mother, 80, saw no need to bother any of their children with this news. She felt she could take care of him herself. But moving him around proved difficult and he was in a lot of pain. My mother had some Oxycontin lying around the house and gave it to him. Expiration dates have never had the same meaning to her as they do to ordinary folks. Finding expired medication doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it. If anything, maybe you should take more because it's lost some of its potency. Just to be clear, my mother would never give expired medication in the hospital. There are laws against such things. But at home, why let good medicine go to waste?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused my father’s sharp decline, whether it was the Oxycontin, dehydration, or what have you, but shortly after taking the drug my father became seriously ill and delusional. My mother called for an ambulance. Then she called me in a panic, telling me the end was near, and I was to alert all four of my siblings, I, being the unofficial family crier. After 24 hours in the hospital, and the Oxycontin out of his system, my father significantly improved and the crisis had passed. Once again, he had beaten the odds.
But he was still in pain from the original injury and unable to walk well. My older brother Steven, who happens to be a veterinary surgeon, said, “This is like Downer Cow Syndrome.” He went on to explain further, “A cow will fall in the pasture for many reasons, but if you don’t get the cow up, she’ll become depressed and lose the will to live. We need to get Dad up and walking as soon as possible. ”
We took Steven’s advice and after a short stay, my father was released from the hospital, back into the care of his attentive wife. “She doesn’t have to take care of me. I can do everything myself,” he said. But I feel more comfortable checking in with them often anyway. In the back of my mind, I want to make certain my parents don’t disintegrate into a Dead Ringers type of situation.*
The end may still be near, but my eight-year-old self had nothing to fear.
*Dead Ringers was a 1980s horror film directed by David Cronenberg, staring Jeremy Irons in a dual role playing twin gynecologists who treat each other for drug addiction, to disastrous results.
The summer I graduated from high school, I turned 18 and got my first job. I wasn’t all that motivated to begin my career, but my older brother insisted I’d be a complete failure in life if I didn’t start acquiring work experience on my resume immediately. I wasn’t necessarily lazy; rather my mother had always provided me with spending money and told me my job was to get good grades in school. “Depravation doesn’t build character. If that were true, there’d be plenty of character in the ghetto,” was how she explained her fiscal parenting philosophy.
But I was highly influenced by my brother and so I got a job at The Seawane Country Club in Hewlett Harbor, New York. While my parents had close friends who belonged to The Seawane, they were not the sort of people to belong themselves. They didn’t engage in leisure activities. My father was a non-golf playing doctor. “I tried it once but didn’t care for it,” he said. He preferred to unwind watching episodes of Benny Hill. My mother, also a physician, scoffed at the women who spent their time at the country club, claiming, “I’m too busy earning a six-figure income.”
Every day at 6:30 a.m. I started in The Seawane kitchen doing the bagels. Giant brown paper bags filled with 100 hot bagels would be delivered each morning. I’d slice the bagels in half and then using my fingers, I’d scoop out the soft dough from the inside leaving only the shell. After which, I’d place the bagel husks in breadbaskets and distribute them in the clubhouse restaurant. Rosemary, one of the kitchen veterans who looked 60 but was probably closer to 40, explained that scooped-out bagels were a staple at The Seawane. “They’re always on diets!” said Renee, another waitress who had worked at The Seawane for years. Renee wore her hair Pat Benatar style and applied her lipstick using the reflection off the sharpest kitchen knives. “You know what’s less fattening than a scooped-out bagel? Try not eating a bagel at all!” she said. I laughed hard at that one, but even still, Renee didn’t like me much. She could tell from the moment I stepped foot into that kitchen that I was something of a dilettante.
When the clubhouse restaurant wasn’t busy, and the manager wasn’t around, the waitresses would send me out onto the floor to wait on tables. Technically I wasn’t allowed to do that because I was hired as a busgirl and had no experience, but I welcomed the chance to show the veterans what I was made of. My first week, I met Mrs. Fink, one of the regulars. “I want fresh squeezed orange juice,” she said. “Please honey. Fresh. Squeezed. Okay?” She put her hand on my arm for added emphasis. I nodded and went back into the kitchen. “This is how we take care of Mrs. Fink,” Rosemary said. She filled a glass with Minute Maid then threw in a handful of slimy pulp from a bowl in the refrigerator. I brought the juice to Mrs. Fink, and stood at attention like a wine steward. “Very good,” she said licking her lips.
Later that night I told my mother, who thought the whole episode was hilarious. “Albert, you’re never going to believe this!” she yelled to my father watching TV. “Fifty-thousand dollars to join and they get Minute Maid!”
Working the breakfast rush was easy enough. Though we offered things like pancakes and muffins, all the women ever ordered was cottage cheese on half a cantaloupe or cottage cheese on a scooped-out bagel before heading out for Ladies Tee Time. The men at the club rarely stopped in for breakfast before teeing off. Occasionally I got to work the halfway house at the ninth hole. The halfway house had sandwiches, salads, ice cream, and frozen yogurt but I never saw members ask for anything other than iced tea. Mostly I spent my time reading People magazine and eating frozen yogurt, which worked like gangbusters helping me gain an extra ten pounds I didn’t need.
Once while working the halfway house, a boy I knew from high school walked in with his father. We had hooked up a few times when I was in 10th grade but the relationship never progressed. He was two years ahead of me in school and was already in college. We both were shocked to see each other again under these circumstances. I was wearing my gold polyester waitressing dress. I could fully appreciate why he didn’t want to introduce me to his father. He barely acknowledged me before downing his iced tea and heading out into the stifling heat to finish up the back nine.
There was another boy working at the club that summer who, like me, was from the neighborhood. Russell was a few years older and had worked at The Seawane every summer since high school. He was planning to apply to medical school in the fall. The waitresses liked the idea of Russell and me getting together since we were the only Jewish kitchen staff.
“He’s going to be someone some day and he likes you,” said Rosemary.
“I’m going to be someone some day too,” I replied, though I was decidedly less certain about the someone I was going to be than Rosemary was about Russell.
“Don’t be foolish, Terry.”
Keeping Rosemary’s warning in mind, Russell and I went out a few times. He was the kind of boy my parents would have been thrilled to welcome into their home, which meant the relationship would never have worked, not in a million years. Plus, I couldn’t get past his habit of lip-synching every song on the radio.
One afternoon Russell and I were assigned to the card room at the club. It was an easy gig that kept us busy in the lull after lunch and before dinner. The card room was one of the smaller banquet rooms used by members to play poker or mahjong. The staff was required to keep the buffet stocked with hot coffee, cold drinks, and bowls of pretzels and nut mix. We weren’t supposed to offer wait service.
Russell walked into the card room with fresh pitchers of ice water as I was wiping down some tables when a club member looked up from his card game and said “Good. You’re here. I’d like a glass of water.” He was a big man, sporting a deep tan and the latest in golf apparel.
“It’s right here,” Russell said making a gesture well suited to a Price is Right showcase.
“No. No. No. I want you to get it for me,” the member said. He said it not in a snotty way but as if explaining an American custom to a newly arrived immigrant.
“You know, we’re not so different, you and I,” Russell shot back. “I live in the neighborhood. I’m going to medical school next year.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” another member from the card table jumped up. He was thinner than the first, but equally tan and in golf clothes. “Hey, my friend didn’t mean anything by that. He just lost a lot of money. A lot of money. You know? He’s thirsty.”
“It’s just that we’re not so different,” Russell said again.
“No, of course not. He just wanted some water. Is that so terrible?” He spoke in a tone he might have used a hundred times before with his grandchildren. “You know what? I’ll get it.”
Russell looked sulky for an instant but then straightened up. “No, I’ll bring it to him,” he said. “It’s my job.”
Though he never came right out and said it, I had the distinct impression Russell both resented the members and aspired to be them. But he couldn’t afford to lose his job this early in the summer. Not that the members would have gotten him fired. He wasn’t worth the effort. They barely noticed us at all, the help.