We are all pieces of other people, things, experiences. Less like a puzzle, but more like a delicious recipe -- a dish that gets more and more rich as you drop additional ingredients in. In cooking, it's very hard to separate out the ingredients once you put them in, and I have found the same to be true in thinking about how I got to be the person I am today. It's hard to think about where I got my love of storytelling, my appreciation of brutal honesty and achievement, my commitment to family. But when I sit down to consider all of my influences, it is very clear to me that there are pieces of me that look very much like people who have been so meaningful to me and my life. I am going to write about these people -- not only to recognize the great things that they have given to me, but also because I think it's an important exercise. Very rarely do we feel that we have the power to impact others. Well, we definitely do, and sometimes, even unknowingly, we do. I want those who have impacted me to know it. Also, we don't emphasize the true beauty of people nearly enough (too often we hone in on the ugliness -- just turn on the 10 o'clock news).
Fuzzy has always been and will always be one of my favorite people in the world. Fuzzy is the nickname we use for my maternal grandfather, Abraham Isador Sherer (if he sounds familiar, it is because I first mentioned him as the better half to Burby). I was lucky enough to have grandparents who were committed and loving and always around to nurture me and my brothers as we were growing up. Fuzzy has been one of my closest and best friends.
Flashes of Fuzzy:
- If you gave me a hot cycle with streamers right this minute, I would still remember the route. The ride around the block with Davey and Fuzzy. Blazing out of the driveway, a right turn, and another right turn down the block. My brother Davey is sometimes trailing behind, sometimes ahead. We seemed to have a system of alternating so that it was fair. It was always better to go first. The first person would fill up their gas tank in the middle of the block and get to drive away before the second person got to go. At the end of the block, a shabby red garage doubled as our local counter. We ordered hamburgers and milkshakes, with extra for Fuzzy, and then all pretend-ate quickly. Fuzzy would always take joy in the concoctions we would come up with. We would have fun acting and laughing at ourselves. When we finished pretend-eating and pretend-wiped our mouths, we would zoom off to the corner with the mailboxes. There, we picked up dozens of rubberbands. Thick red ones, skinny yellow ones. The broken ones were always disappointing and would be thrown back down to the ground with force. Whomever could pick up the most would have the pride of winning the most of Fuzzy's appreciation. Fuzzy put everything to use and once we discovered the wealth of rubberbands adorning the concrete around the mailboxes, we made sure to gather them on our daily rides. We shoved our little dimpled hands full of rubberbands, into Fuzzy's bigger hands and got back on our hot cycles and quickly rode on for the most fun leg of the trip. Most fun because this block was downhill and allowed us to go inappropriately fast. I say inappropriately because I am not sure that a hot cycle was meant to go that fast. The plastic wheels grumbled down the rocky concrete and the steering became tough. My little brother's little black bowlcut feathered in the wind and I worked to keep my bangs out of my eyes. At the final turn, the loudness of the plastic against concrete subsided and the excitement seemed to settle as well. The final block was calming in comparison. Slightly uphill, we quietly and purposely pedaled back to the house. Sometimes, during the final stretch around the block, we would drive through Fuzzy's legs. Fuzzy was a giant at 6'0". He was the best tunnel either of us could ask for. I remember never wanting the ride to end, but always being happy in the realization that we would go again and again. Fuzzy would make sure of it.
- During my junior high school and high school years, on the days that Fuzzy and Burby would visit from their home in Clifton, NJ and stay over at our place in Queens, the best part of the day happened after 10pm (at least I remember it being that late). My parents had gone to bed, my bratty brothers somewhere not here. I got alone time with Burby and Fuzzy. I am not sure how I got away with it -- staying up late and spending time with Burby and Fuzzy alone, but I somehow did. I don't remember how it started, but I am pretty sure I weaseled my way into it until it became the accepted norm. I probably finished brushing my teeth, got ready for bed and told my parents that I wanted to go down to say goodnight to my grandparents. Instead of saying goodnight, though, I sat down at the dining room table and made myself comfortable. Burby and Fuzzy liked to end the night with some sweets, a good cup of coffee, and some good crossword puzzling. Once I started to become a regular, Fuzzy would warm up some whole milk for a cup of my very own hot chocolate. It was the best hot chocolate I ever had. He always put a little extra cocoa in for me. As I sat down to drink with them, the storytelling began. Fuzzy and Burby shared their histories with me and I learned about where my family came from -- my mother's side. Fuzzy would start out, "Now, you've got to remember..." and Burby would excitedly add details, and sometimes they would go back and forth, stuck on a piece of information, each very sure that their version was right. I loved the energy between Burby and Fuzzy. They argued with the most love I have ever witnessed in argument. Adament, but always loving. Burby would sometimes give me a wink and a knowing look once she let Fuzzy have his version. The stories seemed endless and I always dreaded the point where even Burby and Fuzzy thought it was too late for me to be up. We hugged and kissed and said zeit gezunt (Yiddish for "Be Well!") and I trudged up the stairs, still curious to hear more. The zest Burby and Fuzzy had for storytelling was contagious and I wanted to collect more and more stories, memories.
- During my pre-hot cycle days, Fuzzy would take me on walks around the block, my baby arm completely outstretched to connect with Fuzzy's. One day, as we made the final turn onto the block where my house was, I stepped up onto the bricks surrounding the lawn on the corner house. I did this every day, but on this particular day, the old woman who lived there happened to be out on her balcony. She yelled down, "Get off those bricks now!" I must have been 4 or 5... I was startled, but Fuzzy's firm, unmoving grip on my left hand told me that I shouldn't go anywhere. He and I kept walking -- me, still on the bricks, him next to me. She yelled again, "I said, get off the bricks!" This time, he wasn't going to remain quiet..he said, "She's a little girl! She's having fun and she isn't hurting your bricks. Give it a rest, lady!" Now, some may see this as a little nuts. After all, I was walking on her property. But Fuzzy was the type who really put children first (he listened to us and was there for us in ways most other adults weren't. Fuzzy always made us feel safe). My little 30 pound body wasn't hurting anything and he would never have allowed me to do it if it was destructive. I remember this exchange because Fuzzy's response was surprising and admirable all at once. I knew that the old lady was being extra mean and Fuzzy wasn't willing to be scared by it or allow me to be scared by it.
- One of the things Fuzzy has always been known for is his brutal honesty. He'll tell you if your cookies are dry. He'll tell you if your essay is boring. He'll tell you if you are being a crabby old lady (as in the above story). He will not hesitate to say, "Eh, it wasn't that great, I could have lived without it," when you ask him how your class play was. This was hard to deal with at times as a child, but it really made me work for his compliments. He gave them out very rarely, and when he did, you knew that you really deserved it and you felt truly proud. My brothers and I have laughed about this, but it has helped to keep us humble, I think. Fuzzy is real and will say what he really thinks. In fact, I am already preparing myself for his feedback on this post (when I showed him my post on Burby he said it was nice, but that he would have made a couple of corrections). Thanks for keeping me honest, Fuzz!
- Fuzzy is a font of knowledge. As a kid, you could have convinced me that he swallowed an encyclopedia whole -- that's how much Fuzzy knew. He was also a walking dictionary and knew any vocabulary word you threw in his direction. He was the smartest man and remains one of the smartest men I know. He read books voraciously (I remember him reading one a night, I think it was - he was always a night owl). And he was a scientist (with numerous inventions under his belt). I have fond memories of the basement of his house - stocked with emergency canned food and tons of mysterious white plastic jugs hiding under the billiards table. When I got older, I learned that in the jugs were Fuzzy's concoctions - home-made soap and shampoo among them. His huge body of knowledge was always an inspiration to me, and it kept me on my toes. I knew that if I wanted to ask Fuzzy a question, that it better be a hard one. Otherwise, why didn't I figure it out myself? I also inherited my love of books from Fuzzy. He brought each one of us -- it was a rite of passage -- to the library to get our first library card ever. It was an event and something that we were ready to do as soon as we were able to hold a pen upright in our warm, sticky toddler hands. A scribble was fine. Not being able to sign your name on the card wasn't going to stop Fuzzy from getting us to start being avid readers. I still remember our weekly trips to the library. We picked our favorites and Fuzzy stocked up on his favorite - mystery books with the ominous red skull on the spine.
- There was always this interesting mix of seriousness and fun to Fuzzy. As a child, I remember that I was mystified by it. I didn't always know whether something would elicit a scowl or a laugh from Fuzzy, and that not knowing kept me watching him. There were times (like when an impromptu potato toss turned into a mini food fight between my mom and aunt at Passover) where he would say the obligitory, "now come on," but I knew that under his prominent grey moustache, there was a smirk. Fuzzy always seemed to be the happiest when watching his children and grandchildren laugh and have fun.
Fuzzy is going to turn 90 in November and not much has changed (Ok, I don't ride my hot wheels with Fuzzy in tow anymore, but I probably would if I fit - I had an Incredible Hulk one! What what!). And don't be mistaken - Fuzzy's strength has not been softened by his years. He still has strong opinions and speaks his mind AND he is still very much the same advocate for his children that he has always been. Regardless of everything going on in this busy life, Fuzzy remembers painstaking details about what is happening at my job. Or an event that I had for Swirl. Or a trip that I took, and the names of the people I went with. There is no doubt that Fuzzy cares for his family and that he makes us his priority. We talk at least once a week and we see each other for dinner almost every Sunday.
And yes, still, when I bring a cheesecake, it's Fuzzy's word that I am waiting on. And he takes his time. I am watching, and he'll be bent over his plate, quietly taking heaping spoon to mouth. Others will tell me that it's great, but I don't look at them and almost don't hear their words. I am waiting for the critic's final verdict. Finally, I can't wait anymore and I say, "Fuzz, what do you think?" And without pausing or lifting his eyes from his plate, Fuzzy says, "Very tasty." I settle back into my seat, pleased.