Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There Was This Priest and This Rabbi


The fact that Sharon was Catholic and I was Jewish was never really an issue  ... until Nikki attended a Jewish preschool.

Don't get me wrong ... The school was great. We were both excited to find a preschool that had such a stellar reputation ... and Nikki was very happy there.  She didn't even mind the fact that there was a limited lunch selection. The preschool  had a Kosher kitchen so we could only give her peanut butter sandwiches every day. That was the only food that was allowed from the "outside".

Note: For those not familiar with Kosher kitchens, the simplified explanation is that meat and milk can never touch each other (apparently they had a nasty divorce a long time ago ... meat must have wandered outside the marriage). No other food from outside can come close to either one. Why peanut butter is allowed is a mystery. I guess it's not interested in a relationship with either meat or milk.
Anyway ... where was I? Oh yes ... The real dilemma was really not lunch ... it was religion.


We assumed Nikki enjoyed being Jewish and Catholic. She loved the holidays ... why not? She made out like a bandit. She left milk and cookies for Santa ... right before she tore into gifts under the tree. Some of them were actually hers.

She lit the candles and memorized the Hannukah blessings ... led the Seder at Passover ... then ran outside for the Easter egg hunt.

But ... Nikki became confused and unhappy ... as time went on she wanted to be one or the other ... NOT both. She was trying to figure out "what she was". "Both" didn't work any more. This prompted LOTS of CONVERSATION  ... there were Alissa and Josh ... both just babies ... what to do? We made the BIG decision as a family: We would be Jewish.

We decided to make it official ... we loaded the kids into the car and drove to New Orleans ... met with an Orthodox rabbi who was the only one I found that would actually convert the three kids "officially" into the Jewish religion. They swam a few laps in the "mikvah" conversion pool. The rabbi gave them three new Jewish names and three new certificates. Then we loaded up the three new Jews and came back to St. Pete.



At 12, Nikki studied for her Bat Mitzvah, worked hard and did an incredible job. She opened all her gifts, deposited her Bat Mitzvah money and proudly said ...

"Okay ... enough of that ... I'd like to be Catholic now!"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Do YOU feed Your Babies?


When he was born, my father-in-law took one look and said to me,"Put a visor on this kid and give him a cigar and you've got a helluva blackjack dealer."

That was Josh.

His voice turned raspy at a young age ... so he always told stories just like he was an old man. Speaking of stories ... his would go on forever because he competed for "stage time" with his sisters. Alissa would tell her favorite story "The Wide Mouth Frog" (about a frog who met other animals and asked "What do you feed your babies?")

When his turn came around, he would combine details from every story he'd ever heard ... "Once upon a time there were three bears ... who asked Mrs Alligator, What do you feed your baby ... and then Goldilocks told the wolf that .... um ... there were  ... um ..."
Alissa ... "Josh ... that is not a real story ...."
Josh ... " DAD .... LISSA IS DISTURRRVING ME!"

Josh's room was a typical boy's room ... disaster area. There was a time when he was about two that his room was exceptionally nasty ... the smell would carry through the whole house. His mom cleaned his carpet every week but it still smelled awful. Our old dog Sammy had died that year ... so we couldn't blame him for the smell. We just couldn't figure it out.


One day I was walking by the room and happened to notice Josh standing on his top bunk bed with his pants down around his knees. There was a steady pee stream arching from Josh to the corner of his room.

His mother was not impressed ... but I have to say ... I was.

Mystery solved!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dress Up


Lissy loved to dress up in costumes.

It didn't have to be a special holiday for her to break out the Genie outfit or ballerina get-up or some funky combination of moccassins, socks, sweaters and wild looking pants. The Genie pants were the family favorite because Lissy wore the cartoon character underwear underneath. We eventually had to pry those pink plastic shoes off her feet.

I think Halloween started this tradition. Not so much for her sister Nikki. Nikki was glad when Halloween was over since her mother insisted on creating the costumes herself. They always consisted of three rolls of aluminum foil, black leotards, black and gold face paint, black socks and eye makeup.



We used to name Nikki's outfits.

The "Medusa" look was interesting ... leotard, makeup, scarves and the ever present aluminum foil crimped strategically around clumps of hair sticking straight out in different angles. I remember getting nasty phone calls from the neighbors that night as Alissa and Nikki went trick or treating. They claimed that their television reception was interrupted for hours.




Lissy's outfits ... on the other hand ... defied descriptions.

They were unique creations. I think her mother started her down this path but Alissa was perfectly capable of continuing the tradition for years to come.


One summer, Alissa insisted on wearing sweaters, wool pants and hats ... everywhere she went. I couldn't tear them off her body without her screaming and crying. Summers in St. Pete are FAIRLY uncomfortable. I remember bringing Alissa to work with me one day ... she insisted on waiting in the car ... when I came out, she had her sweaters back on and was sweating profusely.

My entire office lectured me on child abuse.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Perfect Child


Alissa arrived on September 19th and was immediately dubbed "the perfect child" by the relatives. This ... of course ... was NOT music to her sister's ears. Alissa had a calm disposition, slept through the night from the first day and had the kind of face that everyone had to kiss whenever they met her.

Nikki was really a great sister to her. She was her protector ... and she always spoke up for her. She spoke up for her SO MUCH that Alissa didn't speak for herself until she was about 4 (except for some cute sounds that might have been words).

A typical conversation between an adult and Alissa via Nikki (her translator) would be:

Adult: "So your name is Alissa?"
Alissa starts to nod her head ... Nikki pipes in: "Yes ... actually it's Alissa Michelle Momberg."
Adult: "What a pretty name ... I love your dress."
Nikki: "Our mom got matching dresses for us. I have one just like it."
Adult: "That's nice. How old are you Alissa?"
Nikki: "She's 2 years old."
Adult: "Well Nikki ... you sure take good care of your sister."
Nikki: "Thank you. It's hard work sometimes."


One of my favorite memories of the two sisters came early in my career at All Children's Hospital.

I was the PR Director when we got a call that the rapper Vanilla Ice was coming to visit the kids at the hospital. I mentioned that to the girls and they begged me to take them to meet him. I agreed on the condition that they needed to stay in the background ... after all ... he was there to see the patients. When he visited all the patients they could talk to him if he had time.

They both accepted the terms.

That night, they stood in the hallway, excitedly waiting for him to arrive. Nikki had her arm around Alissa. I heard her instruct her on behavior:

"Now remember Alissa ... don't move ... Daddy told us that he was coming to see the patients. So we're going to stand here okay?"
Alissa: "Uh huh."
Nikki: "Stand right by me, okay?"
Alissa: "Uh huh."
Nikki: "You remember his name? He's a rap star."
Alissa: "Ice Ice Baby."


He finally arrived with a huge entourage. Ice stopped right in front of Alissa and looked down. Alissa ... shocked ... turned to her sister: "NIKKI ... I THOUGHT YOU SAID HE WAS BLA ....."

Nikki slipped her hand right over Alissa's mouth before she could finish. She smiled.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sibling Training


There's a six year age difference between Nikki and her sister Alissa.

When Alissa's birth was imminent, we thought it was a good idea to get "professional sibling training".
We figured Nikki would instinctively know what to do with her sister .. like pull her hair, "borrow" her clothes, throw her under the bus (she was very literal) ... but it probably wouldn't hurt for her to hear the happier side of sibling rivalry as well.

So we enrolled her in the Bayfront Medical sibling program.

The classroom setup was a family affair. The future brothers and sisters were assembled on the floor of a small circular auditorium and the parents were seated above. It was kind of like watching a mini version of Spartacus ... there were even a few tiny gladiator fights that broke out spontaneously. Nikki ... to her credit ... sat attentively and even counselled some of the smaller children on the proper etiquette of sibling classroom behavior. She was about 3 years older than most of them.

Then the moment arrived when the "babies" were handed out to the restless crowd for hands-on training in diaper changing, burping, etc. The "babies" were, of course, life sized dolls that came in different sizes and colors. The dolls were handed out one at a time. Nikki was toward the back of the pack and was handed the last doll of the batch.

It was a black doll.

Nikki stood for a while with the doll in one hand ... the other hand on her hip (I knew what that stance meant and held my breath). She arched her eyebrows, looked at the nurse and at the doll a few times and then looked up at us. I motioned to her emphatically to sit down and listen to instructions.

There was a black family sitting next to me. The husband whispered ... "She must be yours."
I said ... "I'm not sure ... I'll tell you in a few minutes."

Nikki walked up to the nurse and pulled slightly on her sleeve. The doll was dangling in her hand. The nurse stopped in midsentence and my heart dropped to the floor.



Nurse ... "Yes dear is there something I can do for you?"
"Well you see ..." Nikki said, "this is a black baby."
"Yes it is."
"Well .... I am white and we are having a white baby. Can I trade?"

The family next to me roared ... so did the entire audience.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Is Love?


I must have taken thousands of pictures of Nikki. First borns are always the ones with the fat photo albums ... and the ones who are talked about ad nauseum when they take their first poops or finish their first sentences.

Everything they do is unique ... no child in history has ever done it that way before and you expect your friends to share in your excitement.

Nikki had an incredible memory. She repeated jokes she heard verbatim. Unfortunately, some of those jokes my dad told her  ... and probably didn't understand himself. There was one about Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy that I'm still embarrassed to repeat today. Nikki retold it for weeks.


She was a natural performer. Usually it was a complex dance routine with costumes and ballet slippers ... in the middle of a party. Years later she "trained" her sister to perform with her ... well ... I should say she tried to train her. Alissa was content to do her "bobbing head" routine. No other part of her body moved. Will Ferrell and Chris Katan stole the routine (a few years after Alissa patented the move) when they did "What Is Love?" in Night at the Roxbury. 

Alissa could have probably sued them both.

Meals at restaurants were always interesting. Once we had a waitress that Nikki stared at the whole time she took our order. After a few minutes Nikki tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in a whisper that could be heard at the next table .... "Dad ... why does that waitress have a moustache?"

She was also "slightly" competitive. Playing any game like Go Fish usually required other participants to wear helmets and pads. Whenever she lost at a game ... her mother and I would leave town for a week. I remember even at Easter when the kids hunted for eggs ... Nikki did a full survey of the property to make sure she would maximize the number of eggs she could get. She was 21 at the time, I think.




But the day I will always remember was the day she decided to cut her eyelashes off. That's right ... chopped them right off. I remember her mother and I spent weeks researching whether eyelashes actually grew back. They do by the way .... but the hair on a father's head never does.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Saw a great movie yesterday ... Everybody's Fine with Robert DeNiro. It's very well written and very well acted. For those of you who have adult children, bring big boxes of kleenex. For those who have little children, bring big boxes of kleenex. Actually ... even if you have no kids or HATE the ones you have, bring big boxes of kleenex.

In the movie, DeNiro still dreams of his kids as youngsters ... even in adult situations.

I do the same thing. My oldest is in medical school and, at 31, is still only 4 years old in my dreams ... frozen forever. It's exactly the same with my middle daughter who is 26 and who lives and works in DC and my son, 23, who lives and works here in St. Pete.

Nikki, the oldest, was born while I was still teaching at Canterbury.


She started talking right away. I think she might have even told the doctor how she wanted to be delivered. First borns seem to be the most independent (until they need money later in life).

As a baby, Nikki was restless and didn't sleep much. I remember holding her constantly and walking her around the house until she fell asleep ... usually a half hour before I had to be at work. We had one of those swings in the house ... remember those? The one you wind up and it clicks back and forth for 12 hours. Nikki lived in it.

She loved to shake things up.

My favorite story about Nikki was when we visited the Smisthonian in DC. She was about 2 years old. Her mother and I were trying to maneuver through the crowds of museum visitors when Nikki let go of Sharon's hand ...

Sharon .... "Nikki. Take my hand. It's crowded in here ..."
Nikki .... "Excuse me? Are you talking to me?"
Sharon ... "Quit fooling around Nikki ... just take my hand."
Nikki crossed her arms and loudly proclaimed ... "My name is Nicole. I am French."
Sharon turned purple. I stifled a laugh. "This is not funny Nikki. TAKE MY HAND."
Nikki turned up her nose ... "Are you French? My mother is French and so am I."
Sharon scooped her up as she and I both started laughing hysterically.



Nikki was deposited on the steps outside as Sharon read her the riot act. "What do you have to say for yourself young lady?"
"My name is Nic ...."
I quickly covered her mouth so that she would live to see another day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Esther Returns ... Once More


Esther stories apparently have reader appeal. Thank you for all the requests ... and thanks for the wonderful messages many of you have sent me over the last couple of weeks. Here's my personal favorite:

I mentioned that Esther and Sam had adjoining rooms at Menorah Manor ... separated by only a curtain. You also might remember that Sam is very hard of hearing ( deaf, by human standards) ... and over the last few months, Esther's voice was barely a whisper. It was a match made in heaven ... she couldn't speak and he couldn't hear.

About 6 months ago, I got a call from Sam.

"Your mother wants to talk to you about something, Joel."
"What is it?"
"I don't know ... she won't talk to me."
"Okay ... I'll come ...."
"Hold on ... here she is."
"Wait ... Dad ... "
Too late. He gave the phone to Esther.
"Mom?"
There was barely a whisper on the phone.
"Mom. I can't hear you. Is Dad right there?"
More whispers.
"Mom ... I'll be over in an hour. I'll TALK TO YOU THEN."
For some stupid reason I was screaming as if that would help her talk better.

It was 6AM on Saturday. I got dressed, headed over to the nursing home and arrived in the room about 7:30. Sam was watching TV with the big headphones I bought him. I leaned over and pantomimed that I was going in to see mom. He nodded and screamed, "GO SEE HER."

Mom was lying in her bed and had the phone STILL resting on her shoulder next to her ear. Keep in mind that Esther had not been able to move her arms and legs for about a year ... much less hold an object like a phone. Dad had apparently missed that fact and decided to watch TV and just let it sit there.

I put the phone down and bent down as close as I could.
"Mom? I'm here. What did you want to ask me?"
She whispered ever so faintly but loud enough for me to hear.
"I want a divorce."
"You .... what?"
"I want to leave your father."
I stood up straight.
"Where would you go? Down the hall?"
She scowled.
"Mom ... why do you want a divorce?"
"I hate him."
"No you don't."
"Yes I do."
"Why do you hate him?"
"Because ... he's sleeping with the nurses."
"He's ... what?" Okay ... at this point I really almost lost it. I could hardly keep a straight face."He's sleeping with the nurses?"
"Yes ... that's right."

I leaned back and looked through the curtain at Sam. He was still on the chair with the headphones on, pants unzipped, no teeth, snoring and a line of drool was making it's way down his stubbled chin.
I looked back at Esther. "I really don't think so."
"Ask him."
"I will Mom ... "
"I want you to ask him ... now."
"Now?"

I stepped back into Sam's room, removed his headphones and woke him up.
He looked at me. "So? Did you find out what she wanted?"
"Yes." I tried to whisper."She thinks you are sleeping with the nurses."
"What? She wants her purses?"
"No." I was nose to nose with him whispering." She thinks you are sleeping with the nurses."
"She curses? Don't I know ... she is always ..."
"NO." I lost it. "SHE THINKS YOU ARE SLEEPING WITH THE NURSES."






Outside the door ... laughter broke out all the way down to the nursing station.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Salad Story


Okay ... one more Esther story. It's my wife's favorite.

When Debbie visited my parents in New Orleans early in our relationship, we met them at a great little place in Metairie called Foodies. Foodies carried all the best New Orleans restaurant dishes "to go" and had a wide selection of salads and meats and breads that you could eat right there. Food selection will be important later in the story.

We ordered our meals and took them out to the patio to eat. As we started our lunch, I noticed that Sam had a pretty big piece of lettuce sitting on the bridge of his nose UNDER his glasses. Of course, the logical question going through my mind was ... how the hell did he get a piece of lettuce under his glasses and on his nose ... AND how did he not see or feel it. But then I remembered that this was Sam ... and not an ordinary human. 

So I decided to mention the obvious ... "Dad, you've got a piece of lettuce on your nose."
Sam looked at me blankly and asked ... "What?"
"I said ... you have a piece of LETTUCE on YOUR  NOSE".
Sam was hard of hearing so I repeated it slowly and pointed to my own nose to help him understand.
He looked at Esther ... "What did he say, Esther?"
Esther replied, not bothering to look at Sam  ... "Don't answer him Sam."
I looked at Esther and looked at Debbie who was starting to spit up her food because she was trying not to break up laughing.
"Mom ... look at Dad's nose. There is a piece of lettuce UNDER his glasses."
Dad shook his head disgustedly and never missed a bite.
Esther looked at me and said ... "Joel don't make fun of your Father."
Debbie ... being the nice supportive person she is (so unlike my family) ... said, "Esther ... there really is a piece of lettuce under Sam's glasses."
Sam finally stopped eating, raised up his glasses and a piece of lettuce dropped on his plate ... "Hmmm, how did that get there?"  




Esther looked at everybody's food, crossed her arms and said ... "Well ... DEBBIE is apparently the only one having salad."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Couple of Esther Tales


Indulge me. I've been thinking this week about my two favorite Esther stories:

1. THE CLOSET. (Note: Those of you who have heard this ... about 357 of you ... feel free to skip to number two) Esther's closet was literally half the size of Esther's house on Melody Drive and was legendary in New Orleans.What made this even more interesting was that Esther was not wealthy (not even close) ... just a little crazy. The house was small ... but the closet .... was MASSIVE.  One year, I made a sizable income selling tickets to view THE CLOSET. It was every little girl's ... and big girl's dream. For starters, there were eight 30 foot racks of clothing all individually wrapped and hung by color, season and type. Many were duplicates and triplicates of the same item. (Remember Esther was "obsessive" and didn't want to ever run the risk of something going out of style). I think we once also counted more than 300 pairs of panty hose ... some never out of the package. There were two full sized closets top to bottom and four deep of boxes of shoes. That's right ... shoes. Imelda Marcos was a lighweight. And her acres of makeup were enshrined in a six drawer bureau with a Hollywood mirror surrounded by lights. Macy's wanted to use THE CLOSET as an outlet store. Sam ... On the other hand ... had one rack and a clothes hanger.

2. THE BUS RIDE. In later years ... Esther's fear of flying was bad enough that she and Sam once decided to take a Greyhound bus to visit my brother and me. If that's not a funny enough visual ... here's the conversation that Esther and I had on the phone when the bus hit Clearwater ...
"Joel ... I couldn't take it anymore."
"Mom? Where are you?"
"I'm in Clearwater ... they dropped me off."
" In Clearwater?"
"Yes ... I will take a taxi to the bus station and you can pick me up when your father arrives on the bus in St. Petersburg."
"Dad's still on the bus?"
"Yes. "
" What????"
" The people on the bus are horrible ... and I told them so. They don't bathe you know ..."
" Oh no ... you didn't ..."
" I've got to go .... my cab's here ..."
She hung up.
I picked her up about an hour later as the bus pulled into the station right behind her cab. As she walked to my car the whole busload of people pointed to her ... and booed. I have no idea what she could have done to make an entire busload of people boo her.

Just then Sam got off the bus and looked at mom. He said, "Esther ... Where have you been?"