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October 5, 2000

Getting a Grip

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/getting_a_grip_20001006

I've been going nuts this week preparing for Yom Kippur. Really crackers. Some years, when life seems to be proceeding at a more or less orderly pace, it's enough for me to take this one holy day, to fast and remonstrate and engage in the kind of self-reflection that works best if you're not eating.

But events of this year have provoked a more intense kind of inventory-taking. My 18-year-old daughter has left home. Yes, I am finally at the empty nest stage of life.

I don't know where the years have gone.

I don't know where they're going.

I am in dire need of perspec-tive on almost two decades of obsessive interest in one girl's comings and goings. Like many parents with a suddenly empty nest, I'm in shock. Because I'm a single parent, the shift seems particularly swift.

And so, in the spirit of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer that intentionally inspires personal reassessment, I've been putting my house in order. What else is a downsized mother to do with the extra vigor? Clean.

I rented a dumpster, and began hauling and heaving. Talk about an awesome task. Taking out the 409 and the WD-40, I walked from room to room, loosely quoting the holiday prayer: What shall live, and what shall die, here in my cluttered abode? Who shall perish by fire? Possibly the woman who awakens to find she's been living all these years with kitchen appliances in avocado?

Who shall be humbled? The mother of an indulged teenager when she compares their music collections. My daughter has an exalted CD collection of hundreds, including Eminem, No Doubt, Celine Dion and three copies of everything by Dave Matthews Band. While my own acquisitions are in vinyl.

What shall reach a ripe old age? Get a look at my LP's, not hidden in a closet but proudly out there on fine wood shelves for all the world to see. They are waiting, I suppose, for the Messiah, who will recognize the value of my original "Meet the Beatles," every album by Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, not to mention my jazz collection featuring pianist Mary Lou Williams, and singers Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith.

Who shall be humbled by the sword of shame, and who by the beast of self-deprivation? She whose turntable has no needle. I find that phonograph needles must be special ordered. And realize, to my dismay, that musically speaking for me time stood still, while for my daughter the beat goes on. I donated my proud children's record collection to Beit T'Shuvah, including the "Little White Duck" album by Burl Ives and the seven Sesame Street albums featuring Cookie Monster. Maybe there's a market for them on eBay.

Who shall be strangled on the past? And who shall be stoned by terror of the future? From the kitchen, I found eight lids waiting for the return of their pots, and three knife sharpeners pitted with rust. Out, I say. I shall be secure once you, old worn out relics of the Pleistocene age, shall be driven from my home.

But then came the moment, when the clean-out was nearly done, that I wondered: Who shall be poor in memory, and who shall be rich? And that's when I found the nutcrackers.

They were in the ugliest drawer in my kitchen, hidden under a knife collection bought when we still ate steak, supermarket coupons which expired a decade ago and rubber bands from years' worth of Wall Street Journals. I discovered my husband's sets of nutcrackers, in various tasteless sculptural styles and shapes.There was a nutcracker in the shape of a woman's legs and buttocks. A wise old rooster nutcracker with a golden beak. And several sets of plain 5-inch metal nutcrackers, that even today sell for maybe $1.39.

These I could not let go. For all the relics I had eliminated so easily, it was on these humble mediocre pliers that I got stopped. I was caught in the jaws of history.

There was a time, long before my daughter was born, long before the CD player and the Dave Matthews Band were invented, that we had a different life. It was a time when every Jewish end table had a crystal bowl filled with sucking candies, right under the lamp. And every Jewish dining room table had a bowl filled with walnuts and almonds in carapace.

I don't know how and why these traditions began, but they speak to me strongly. The nutcrackers evoke a sweet, unpretentious time when leisure meant sitting around a table with friends, and life's hardest frustrations were released by the grip of brass legs cracking through walnut shell. Like regular games of cards on Thursday night and mah jongg on Tuesday, the nutcrackers remind me of how adult friendships were made and sustained in the days before chat rooms and instant messaging. Before children's needs defined life itself.

I've never had a Thursday night card game. Tuesday night mah jongg, until recently, was deemed passé.But I'm an adult now. You never can tell.The nutcrackers stay.

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